Prem Shankar Jha

The answer almost certainly lies buried in the ongoing rapid privatisation of port and LNG terminal development that has taken place during Modi’s prime ministership.

Mahua Moitra. Photo: X/@MahuaMoitra

In the ten years since Narendra Modi came to power in Delhi, his political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has dragged India down from a pinnacle of moral esteem in the world, into the gutter of hate, murder and state planned assassination. The US Department of State’s country report on human rights violations in India summarises India’s descent into the lower circles of Hell as follows:

“Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful and arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by the government or its agents; torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by police and prison officials; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners or detainees; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on freedom of expression and media, including violence or threats of violence, unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, and enforcement of or threat to enforce criminal libel laws to limit expression; restrictions on internet freedom; interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on freedom of movement and on the right to leave the country; refoulement of refugees; serious government corruption; harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations”;  (and) “crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of national/racial/ethnic and minority groups based on religious affiliation, social status or sexual orientation…A lack of accountability for official misconduct persisted at all levels of government, contributing to widespread impunity. …Lax enforcement, a shortage of trained police officers, and an overburdened and under resourced court system contributed to a low number of convictions.”

This was where the BJP had already taken India in the esteem of the world, before the government’s alleged plans to assassinate prominent Khalistanis in the US and Canada were exposed by the West’s ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence consortium. But the expulsion of Mahua Moitra from Parliament, on the basis of a report by an Ethics Committee from which the entire opposition had walked out in protest against the demeaning, sexual innuendo-loaded questions that its chairman, Vinod Kumar Sonkar ,was asking, reeks of a sexual misogyny that has brought shame upon our parliament and country across the entire world.

The BJP has accused Moitra of almost everything it could  think of. Chief among the grounds given for her expulsion is her alleged “highly objectionable, unethical, heinous and criminal conduct” before the committee. But  even a cursory examination of the record of its meetings shows that Moitra treated the committee with respect,  and answered every question relating to the allegations made by her detractors fully. In her replies, which occupy 16 long paragraphs spread over pages 32 till 40, she remained deferential and gave detailed explanations of her actions throughout.

The kernel of the charge Moitra faced was that she had given her login and password to an unauthorised person, Darshan Hiranandani, and allowed him to send in questions in her name that were designed to damage the reputation of Narendra Modi and his government. By doing this she had breached confidentiality and endangered national security. What the committee did not explain was how anyone could have uploaded a question in her name without sending an OTP, as is required in India by all online business transactions, and is mandatory for MPs filing questions in Parliament.

That OTP had to come from Moitra’s phone, and so any verification would necessitate Moitra’s involement. So no matter who had given Moitra the information upon which she based a question in parliament, and who typed and mailed it for her, once she had sent the OTP, it became her question. If she sent the question to Hiranandani, which the records show she undoubtedly did, it would not only have been to get it typed, which is admittedly a not very credible reason, but for verification of the facts that she was citing. That is something every responsible journalist  does, so why should a member of parliament not do so in  matters of infinitely greater importance?

In fact even her explanation that she had sent her parliamentary questions to Hiranandani’s office only for typing and uploading on the net because these can no longer be submitted in handwritten form, was not a subterfuge. For the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology had confirmed to the committee that all of her 61 questions, of which 90% had little or nothing to do with the Hiranandani enterprises, had also been posted from his Dubai IP address.

It was only when the committee chairman, Sonkar asked her five questions that, taken together, insinuated that she was loose woman having an affair with Hiranandani, and was giving him sexual favours for information with which to attack the Modi government, that she stormed out. The questions were: i) What is your relationship with Darshan Hiranandani? ii) How many times did you visit Dubai? (iii) Where did you stay iv) in which hotel; v) Did you meet Darshan Hiranandani there? It was the fifth question that made her lose her temper and storm out. Every self-respecting woman, whether an MP or not, would have done the same.

When Sonkar asked these questions, the committee had already been  informed that Moitra had visited Dubai only four times in nearly five years – hardly often enough to sustain a clandestine affair – and that the timing of her visits was not even remotely connected with the timing of the questions she had posed to the petroleum and natural gas ministry. Moitra did not know this, so she had responded to the accusation, indirectly supported by Hiranandani’s affidavit, that the idea of her being able to force a dollar trillionaire with a vast international construction company – a Unicorn – to do anything illegal was ludicrous.

But Sonkar ignored all this and deliberately asked her questions that invaded her privacy, and would have been resented by any self-respecting woman, and drove her into losing her temper and storming out. Sonkar succeeded, knowing that this would make any further inquiry into her actions before recommending her expulsion superfluous. He will no doubt be rewarded in due course as Anurag Thakur and Kapil Mishra were rewarded after the police firing upon Shaheen Bagh protestors and the North-East Delhi communal violence in 2020.

The question no one has asked

The  question no one has asked is, what was the Modi government’s tearing need for hurry that made the government target and destroy Mahua Moitra now? So great was the BJP’s hurry that it could not give the members of the Ethics Committee even a day to read its 495 page report, took less than 30 minutes after Moitra stormed out of the final hearing to recommend her expulsion from the Lok Sabha, and carried this out the very next day?

The answer almost certainly lies buried in the ongoing rapid privatisation of port and LNG terminal development that has taken place during Modi’s prime ministership. This began in 2018, and has gathered momentum rapidly since then. The principal, but not only,  beneficiary of this shift from reliance on the public sector has been the Adani group of enterprises. A second major player has been H-Energy, an increasingly important part of the Hiranandani group. In Bengal, the competition between these groups was won by the Hiranandani group. In Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere, it is being won mostly by the Adani group.

On January 9, 2019, H-Energy, the energy arm of the Hiranandani group, entered into negotiations with  the Calcutta Port Trust to set up an initially three, and eventually five, million tonnes a year Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) terminal at Kukrahati, near Haldia port. These negotiations were completed in February 2021, when the Kolkata Port Trust signed an agreement with it for a project involving an investment of Rs 3,900 core, which would yield gross revenues of around Rs 6,000 crore. The construction of the terminal has been delayed because the group proposes to use Kukrahati for supplying LNG to Bangladesh as well, and is building a 150 km pipeline for this. It is now expected to be completed by the middle of this year.

This is only one of several port and gas terminal projects being planned and executed along the east and west coasts. H-Energy, for example, is partnering with Jindal Steel Works to build an LNG terminal at Jaygarh, in Maharashtra. Essar has won a contract to build a one million tonnes per year LNG facility at Haldia port. But the biggest player in this is the Adani Group, which is building a giant facility at Dhamra port in Odisha, and actively bidding for more contracts in Andhra Pradesh, Bengal and on the west coast.

Absent from this hectic activity is Petronet, the public sector consortium consisting of the Gas Authority of India Ltd (GAIL), Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), Indian Oil Corporation (IOCL) and Bharat Petroleum (BPCL), that set up the country’s giant LNG receiving and regasification terminal at Dahej, Gujarat, with  a nominal capacity of 17.5 MMTPA (million metric tonnes per annum), and another terminal at Kochi, Kerala with a capacity of five MMTPA. Petronet’s terminals account for around 40% gas supplies in the country and handle around two-thirds of its LNG imports. But today it is nowhere in the scene, and is at most a minor shareholder in a few of the projects that are coming up.

This shift of emphasis has taken pace entirely during the Modi era. So it is not surprising that five out of Moitra’s 91 questions have asked for details concerning the way it has been made. In these she has questioned, among other things, how the Dhamra port LNG terminal project, which began as a proposal by GAIL and ONGC, became a wholly owned Adani enterprise. These questions were posed on July 8, 2019, November 18, 2019 and December 9, 2019. Then, after a 3.5 year gap on March 16, 2023, and then only a week later on March 23, 2023. All of them centred around the way in which the public sector oil and gas companies were being pushed, or shut, out of existing and proposed projects for the construction of LNG terminals and other facilities at the ports being developed on the east and west coasts.

Most of these contracts were ending up with the Adani group. Moitra wanted to know why. To get an answer from the government, she focused on the route by which the group gained full ownership of the LNG terminal planned for Dhamra port in Odisha. Her interest had been sparked by the fact that in 2013, i.e. during the UPA’s rule, GAIL had entered into a contract with the government of Odisha to build a floating LNG terminal at the port of Paradip at a cost of Rs 2,485 crore. But in 2015, a year after the BJP came to power, it withdrew from the Paradip project and took an 11% share in a similar project at Dhamra port, also in Odisha. IOCL, another member of Petronet,  took 38%. The other 51% was to be taken by ‘an unspecified partner’. That partner turned out to be the Adani group.

That was only the beginning of the shift. Another two years later, GAIL and IOCL both withdrew from the project, leaving the Adani group the sole owner. This company then signed a 20-year contract to supply three million tonnes a year of LNG to GAIL and IOCL at Rs 60.18 per MMBtu, with an escalation clause of 5% a year. This was a ‘use or pay’ contract, in which the buyers had to pay for all of the contracted amount even if they did not lift it. Moitra claimed that with this assured return, Adani had no difficulty in roping in the French oil and gas giant, Total, as a partner. From the country’s point of view, it was a good deal. But the way in which it was engineered was all wrong.

This was admitted, perhaps unwittingly, by advocate Jai Dehadrai (Moitra’s former lover) himself in the  ‘Remarks’ column that he had added to the list that he submitted to the Ethics Committee of the questions that  Moitra had posed in Parliament. In these he accused Moitra of targeting the prime minister by asking questions that were designed to show how his government was helping the Adani group to evade the tendering process and  violate the guidelines set by the Central Vigilance Commission to acquire the Dhamra LNG project. This was being done by first getting state-owned oil and gas companies to tender for a project, and then making them withdraw in favour of Adani. This, she claimed, was a more sophisticated way of doing what his government had done earlier, to eject  GVK from the Mumbai Airport modernisation project and hand it over to the Adani group.

In his determination to punish his ex, Dehedrai went a step further and accused Moitra of repeating these allegations in her March 16 unstarred question this year in the Lok Sabha, solely in order to add to the discomfiture caused to the government by the Adani-Hindenburg exposures. In doing this he unwittingly gave the game away.

On March 16 this year, Moitra had posed the following seven-part question:

“Will the Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas be pleased to state (a) the details  of  Indian  Oil Corporation Ltd. (IOCL) Memorandum of Undcrstanding (MoU) signed with Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Limited at Gangavaram Port , duration  of contract, take or pay commitments along with price and volume per annum and escalations in the contract;

(b) whether this MoU bas been approved by the Board of IOCL and if so. the details there of  (c) whether there is any Government nominee on the Board of IOCL and if so, the details thereof,

(d)whether there is any transaction and if so, the Government’s approval has been taken for such transaction;

(e)whether it is true that IOCL would move its business from Vizag Port to Gangavaram Port and if so, the reasons thereof along with the charges paid to Vizag Port;

(f) whether there are any payment-related commitments at Vizag Port and if so, the details thereof; and

(g) the details of the annual payments and quantities imported by IOCL to Vizag.”

This mammoth query sealed her fate. For if the government answered it, the entire country would see that it was a repeat of what had happened at Dhamra. This would give the still-to-be-born INDIA alliance a golden opportunity to show the country how the Modi government was quietly breaking every rule and convention in order to find ways of handing over their future to a single, highly favoured industrial group, and to start asking what was the quid pro quo.

Moitra had therefore to be to be stopped from demanding an answer in parliament, which is now a televised forum that the whole country watches. The one way to do this was to find a way to expel her from the Lok Sabha. It did this by exploiting a path that she herself had opened, by her behaviour as a single, highly educated and self-confident woman who could choose her friends and lovers – everything that “traditional” Indian women have been trained, or forced, to suppress.

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By offering to reunite central and state elections, Modi has unwittingly offered INDIA a way out of its seat-sharing dilemma.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Screengrab via YouTube/BJP

Opposing any decision that has been sprung on a country by its government without prior discussion is a reflex action among opposition parties in all democracies. So it comes as no surprise that Adhir Ranjan Choudhury, the only member of the INDIA coalition whom the Modi government has invited to join the eight member panel that it is setting up, ostensibly to study but in reality to whitewash, the re-unification of central and state elections, has refused to do so. 

Divorced from its present political context, it is difficult to not welcome the proposal to reunite central and state elections. The move will halve the presently crippling electioneering expenses for political parties. And by extension, the need to raise money, much of which has been coming from clandestine and criminal sources ever since the ban former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi put on company donations to political parties in 1970.

Reunification of the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections will also make it far easier for a future government to set up a state financed and publicly audited system of election financing. This would not only weaken and, over time, eliminate the nexus between crime and politics in the country, but also open the way for reforms in the police and lower administration that will cleanse the government of corruption and make it serve the people. It would also lengthen the time horizon over which government policies will need to bear fruit; restore the Centre-State co-ordination in policy making that was severely weakened by the separation of central from state elections, and facilitate structural reforms. 

If enacted with necessary safeguards, it will also put a brake on opportunistic defections from political parties. The most necessary of these safeguards will be an automatic declaration of President’s rule till the next general election in any state where the government has been brought down by defections. 

Prime Minister Modi’s reasons for taking this sudden decision, however, have little to do with better governance. He has taken it because he is aware that the BJP runs the risk of suffering the same fate in the Vidhan Sabha elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and possibly in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, that it suffered in Karnataka. 

He is therefore understandably wary of going into the next Lok Sabha elections with a string of electoral defeats in major states behind him. So he has decided to kill two birds with one stone – avoid four important state elections that his party could lose, and hold a combined national and state election with the prestige of the G-20 presidency and its grand conference in Delhi to buoy him, delivering both the centre and the state to his party. 

The INDIA coalition’s lack of enthusiasm for the one-election proposal is therefore understandable. But it is also short-sighted because unifying central and state elections will resolve the most knotty problem that the alliance is facing in the run-up to the next general election and greatly improve its chances of victory. This problem is the allocation of seats to its constituent parties in each state. 

As the Mumbai meeting showed, the coalition is determined to field only one candidate against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in each constituency. But it has yet to decide from which party, and on what basis the candidate should be chosen. At the Patna meeting, West Bengal chief minister Mamta Bannerjee had told the press that the alliance would set up coordination committees that would first decide the principles they would follow in the selection of candidates and then use these to choose the party and candidate for each constituency. Today, two more alliance meetings later, that process is only about to begin. 

This foot-dragging is taking place because the party leaders have not found a way to cross the main hurdle they face: how to retain the loyalty and support of their cadres in the constituencies that they have ceded to an ally in the Lok Sabha election. 

This problem would not have arisen if there had been a system of state financing of elections like the one Western Europe. In its absence, parties have come to rely on local financiers whom they offer government contracts and other favours if their party comes to power. This clientelist system starts breaking down if the financiers lose faith in the party, or in its candidate’s capacity to win. It ceases to exist when the party has no horse in the race. 

By offering to reunite central and state elections Modi has unwittingly offered INDIA a way out of its dilemma. This would confine the seat sharing between political parties only to the Lok Sabha elections, and allow full competition to continue between them sin the various state assemblies and also require them to make a clear demarcation between national and local issues. 

Party cadres can then be instructed to emphasise national issues in parliamentary constituencies where their party is fielding candidates for both the Lok Sabha and the Vidhan Sabha, and to place greater stress on state and local issues in those where the Lok Sabha seat has been allotted to another member of the alliance. 

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The violence in Nuh, Palwal and Gurgaon makes it clear Narendra Modi has fallen back on the one antidote with which he is familiar, which worked unfailingly in Gujarat and in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. This is the stirring up hatred of Muslims and other minorities in the Hindu majority.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo:

Nine years into Narendra Modi’s reign as prime minister, one cannot but admire the consummate skill with which he has turned silence and enigma into his most effective political weapon. INDIA, the newly formed opposition coalition, has roundly condemned the BJP’s failure to prevent the civil war that is now raging in Manipur. It has also condemned the sudden and unexpected outbreak of communal rioting in Nuh, Palwal and Gurugram – a bare 40-60 km from Delhi. But Prime Minister Modi’s only response to them has been his now familiar, enigmatic, silence. His response to the no confidence motion didn’t even scratch the surface of the problems there.

Why is Modi silent? What can he possibly gain from silence? Only in the past week has the opposition become aware of the link that binds the two. This is his utter inability to empathise with victims of tragedy, and his dazzling capacity to turn that psychological failing to his political advantage.

Civil war has been raging in Manipur for more than three months. The entire state is split into warring camps. By the first week of July, nine weeks after the civil war started, 142 persons had been killed, dozens raped and several thousand injured or had their homes burned or razed to the ground – in a total of almost 6,000 atrocities reported to the police. Today, the death toll is closing on 200, but Modi not only continues to maintain his silence but, more significantly, has not levelled a word of criticism against Manipur chief minister Biren Singh in all of the three months that Singh has taken to destroy his state and endanger the unity of India.

This is the stubborn silence that drove the opposition into demanding a vote of confidence against his government. Its goal was not to oust him, which it knows is impossible, but just to force him to account for his government’s misrule to the people of India.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Lok Sabha on August 10, 2023.

What can possibly have made the prime minister court this indignity? Surely, he knows that showing empathy with the poor is the best way to win their hearts? He has only to remember how Mrs Indira Gandhi’s instant concern for the plight of the poor made her spectacular political comeback in 1980 possible. The pivotal event then was the massacre of Dalits that took place in 1977 in Belchi, a village in Bihar, at the hands of upper caste landowners. Despite being on trial before the Shah Commission for the excesses committed during the Emergency, she flew to Bihar and rode on an elephant to reach the village.

That was the quality of spontaneous sympathy that gave her a near-divine status among the poor. Modi is too good a politician not to know the value of such gestures, so his profound silence has to be traced to other, more pressing concerns. The only one that springs to mind is his growing fear that, with opposition unity solidifying from month to month, the BJP is in danger of losing the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. So he has gone back to the one antidote with which he is familiar, and which worked unfailingly in Gujarat, and in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. This is stirring up hatred of Muslims and other minorities in the Hindu majority. He did not plan the Manipur violence, but these played into his hands just as the Pulwama attack had done four years ago. It is against this background that one needs to examine the riots that broke out in Nuh.

How dangerously irresponsible Prime Minister Modi’s behaviour is can be judged by comparing it with that of his predecessor Atal Behari Vajpayee. When, within months of the NDA coming to power in 1998, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal raised a hue and cry against conversions to Islam and Christianity, began to attack Christian priests and nuns and vandalise churches, Vajpayee sharply criticised their lawlessness and undertook a fast to force BJP-ruled state governments to take stern action. When cadres of the Bajrang Dal set fire to the car in which Graham Staines, an Australian Christian missionary, and his two sons were sleeping outside a church in Odisha, and burned them alive, he took immediate action. Mass arrests followed, and in less than four years, Dara Singh, the main culprit was in prison, sentenced to death, while his accomplices received lesser sentences.

When the VHP began another campaign against the conversion of tribals to Christianity in the Dang district of Gujarat, Vajpayee pushed the state government to end it forthwith. He also called a conclave of the BJP’s coalition partners and set up a National Coordination Committee headed by George Fernandes as a counterweight to the RSS within his government. That balancing act gave India one of the best governments it has had since Independence.

When the Gujarat riots began on February 28, 2002, after repeatedly failing to contact Modi on the phone, Vajpayee sent defence minister Fernandes to Ahmedabad to call in the army to end the violence. When he visited Ahmedabad a month later, he openly criticised Modi at the Shahpur refugee camp stating, “Main yahan lashe ginane nahi aaya hoonAman kayam rakhna rajneetik neta aur adhikariyon ka zimmedari hai. (I have not come here to count the corpses. It is the responsibility of the political leaders and officials to maintain peace.)”

Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Photo: KUNALJ73/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Compare this with Modi’s steadfast refusal to condemn, and his tacit legitimisation through silence, of the lynching of more than 50 Muslims and Dalits by self-appointed gau rakshaks (cow vigilantes), his three-month long silence as Manipur has burned, and now his calculated silence over the outbreak of communal violence in Nuh, Gurgaon and Palwal. This makes the difference between a Hindu who understood, and wanted to foster, the essential tolerance of Hinduism, and a fake devotee who is abusing it to perpetuate his personal power at the expense of his country becomes starkly apparent.

As I write, Prime Minister Modi has maintained his now-familiar enigmatic silence on the eruption of communal violence in Nuh, Gurgaon and Palwal for nine days. Through his silence, he has endorsed the Haryana home minister’s placing of the blame squarely upon Muslim youth in Nuh who allegedly attacked devotees who came to offer prayers at the Nalhar temple. This allegation has been so readily accepted that even The Hindu reported that “soon after they (the yatris) started the second leg of their journey from the Nalhar temple to a Radhakrishna temple 60 kms away, they were attacked by a mob . As stones were thrown at them and vehicles and shops set ablaze the devotees ran back to the temple in terror. They sat huddled inside for five hours as the mob surrounded the temple”.

This description left out several key facts. The most important of these is that it was preceded by a full year of carefully planned provocation of an entirely peaceful Muslim population by the VHP and the Bajrang Dal, to which the Haryana government consistently turned a blind eye. The first was that while the Nalhar temple was ancient, the pilgrimage to it, titled a Jalabhishekh Yatra (offering of holy water from the Ganges to Lord Shiva) was only three years old, and had been launched by the VHP, with the express purpose of reclaiming Mahabharat-age temples from the Muslims. The article also did not mention that most of the pilgrims in the Jalabhishekh Yatra were not ordinary men and women of all ages but almost exclusively young men.

The second was that the fracas in Nuh town was caused by a string of provocations that had begun a year or more before the violence occurred. The first provocation took place in 2022 when a mazaar (a sufi shrine) was vandalised, but the elders of both communities contained the reaction. This year, however, saw a rapid fire string of further provocations.

First, a self styled gau rakshak named Monu Manesar, who is a Bajrang Dal activist on the run from the Rajasthan police for killing two Muslims, Nasir and Junaid, earlier this year, posted a succession of inflammatory videos and promised that he would attend the Shobha Yatra at the Nalhar temple on Monday personally, to bathe the Shivling in Ganges water.

Monu Manesar. Photo: Twitter/@MonuManesar. January 21, 2023.

Second, another notorious Muslim baiter and self-advertised member of the Bajrang Dal, Bittu Bajrangi, uploaded a series of venomous anti-Muslim videos on various channels, in one of which he claimed derisively that ‘Nuh was the Hindu community’s sasural (in-laws’ house)’. No one failed to understand the insult.

A third agent provocateur who had also announced his intention to join the Yatra this year was yet another Bajrang Dal member who is known by his nom de guerre, ‘Rambhakt Gopal’. He gained notoriety in 2020 by firing a revolver at protestors demonstrating against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in Shaheen Bagh, shouting “Yeh lo azaadi (Here’s your freedom)” as he retreated, still holding his revolver up, into the protective ranks of a hundred Delhi policemen who did nothing to deter him.

In the run up to the Nuh march, Gopal had uploaded two videos, the first of armed persons in a jeep terrorising women and children in a Muslim village, and the second, captioned “Taking away the cow smuggler” was of young men dragging a Muslim into an SUV.

Neither Monu Manesar nor Gopal turned up at Nuh, but the damage had been done and the town was seething with young men who were determined to take revenge. It was in these conditions that, after visiting the Nalhar temple, the Jalabhishekh Yatris decided to go through the centre of Nuh town to their second shrine, the Radhakrishna temple at Singar village, 60 km away. This made the resulting violence unavoidable.

Then followed the now familiar BJP routine of blaming the victims for the atrocities they had suffered. By Friday, just four days after the riot in Nuh, the Haryana police force that had done absolutely nothing to prevent a well publicised riot, had arrested as many as 141 persons and registered 55 FIRs in connection with the violence. It has not given any data as to who, precisely, they have arrested. But it is safe to assume that just as happened after the East Delhi riots three years ago – where despite 40 out of 53 persons killed being Muslims and most of the property destroyed being Muslim-owned, all but a handful of those arrested were also Muslims – most of those who have been arrested in Nuh will also turn out to be Muslims.

What there is data for already is the revenge that the police has taken upon the Muslims of Nuh. Almost all of the more than 750 homes, huts, shops, restaurants and cinema halls demolished by the Haryana government in the immediate aftermath of the riot, allegedly for suddenly discovered illegal construction, belong to Muslims.

Throughout this tragedy, Modi has maintained his sphinx-like silence while his advisers worked out how to convert the resulting increase in Hindu-Muslim animosity into votes for the BJP in 2024. The first fruit of their cogitations has not taken long to ripen. On Wednesday August 9, a bare 48 hours after the Muslim property destruction drive began, the Haryana BJP chief, Om Prakash Dhankar, had the brazen-faced gall to accuse the Congress and the Aam Admi Party of having instigated the riots. He and his five-member delegation did this without even having visited Nuh, but after the police had prevented a Congress delegation from going to the town on Tuesday and an AAP delegation from doing so on Wednesday.

The causes of the communal conflagration in Manipur may have been local, and the violence unplanned, but the same cannot be said of the tragedy that has befallen the Meos of Nuh. Judging from Modi’s past actions, Nuh is likely to be followed by more communal violence triggered by the VHP and the Bajrang Dal, but blamed upon local Muslims. As the BJP feels more threatened by the INDIA alliance, such provocations are set to multiply. India is therefore likely to go through the fires of hell before the next election. And if the BJP somehow comes out as the victor, it will almost certainly be the last proper general election this country will see.

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“Kashmir came to India because we felt our ambitions and hopes would be fulfilled by allying ourselves with the great country which was India, which believed in democracy, in the rule of law… Now look at the treatment Kashmir has received… Let every Indian search his own heart.”

Sheikh Abdullah. Photo: File

This interview with Sheikh Abdullah was first published in the February 1968 edition of The Weekend Review, a supplement published by the Hindustan Times. The Wire is republishing it now because of the bearing it has on the ongoing debates in the Supreme Court and elsewhere over Kashmir’s constitutional status.


It is February, 1968. In a bungalow in New Delhi, the Lion of Kashmir Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah waits for the weather to moderate and the road to open so that he may return to his homeland. He waits also, with dwindling hope and increasing despondency, for some sign from the Union government that it is willing to give up its ostrich attitude on Kashmir. Today history is threatening to repeat itself. A carefully planned campaign seems to have been launched to rouse communal violence and then point to him as its cause. He has been falsely accused of having met the Chinese Charge d’ Affaires in the Pakistan High Commission. The ground is thus being prepared to force the government to put him away again as it did in 1963, in 1958, and in 1965. The Sheikh’s “sin” is that he is an uncompromising idealist in an era of political disillusionment. In this interview with Prem Shankar  Jha of the Weekend Review, he sets out the political convictions that have sustained him in his long travail.

How were you first attracted to politics?

It was what I saw around me in Kashmir, I think, that first attracted me to politics – the distress, and the poverty which I saw as I grew up. As I have been telling my friends here (in Delhi), Kashmir, because of its natural beauty, has always attracted conquerors who have treated it as a prize a luxury item made simply for their enjoyment. They never thought of the Kashmiri people. This has been true of all conquerors including the Moghuls and most recently the Dogras. During all this time, the needs of the people were seldom looked after, and as I grew I found that poverty and illiteracy prevailed everywhere.

What led you to convert the Kashmir Muslim Conference into the National Conference in 1938?

You see, I was brought up in a place where I had the people of one community all around me, that is Muslims. Generally the Muslims are very much downtrodden in Kashmir. They are a huge majority – 95%. So naturally my first contact was with them and I was influenced by their distress and the injustices they suffered at the hands of officialdom. So I had the idea that they were suffering on account of their religion.

But later when I had had an opportunity to travel around and tour the whole state, I came across other people belonging to other religious communities – Hindus and Sikhs – receiving the same, and in places even worse, treatment than Muslims. So I came to the conclusion that the real fight was not between two religions, or two religious groups, but between “haves” and “have nots”, oppressed and oppressor. I found there were Muslims, there were Sikhs – people of all communities. So I began to feel that if one’s real purpose was to relieve oppression or distress, the best course was to serve not one group but all the people irrespective of caste, creed or colour. That was my reason for broad-basing the old Muslim Conference.

Was it when you found that the condition of oppression was not merely confined to Kashmir that you decided to join the States’ People’s Conference?

Yes, initially of course my views were formed by touring Kashmir state, but later when I went to Hyderabad, for example, I found the overwhelmingly Hindu population of that state in the same condition as the population of Kashmir.

When did you meet Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru, and what impression or impact did they create on you?

I met Panditji first when he visited Lahore and he was staying with Mian Iftikhar-ud-din Khan. I met him not at his house but at the railway station when he was proceeding to the (North West) frontier. It was 1938 or 1939. We had a talk at the railway station… I sat in his compartment…and accompanied him on his tour. Just like that. Just like that we had a long exchange of ideas. That was my first contact with him. At that time we discussed how to open the gates of the Muslim Conference to the other minorities in the state in Kashmir. We did not have to do (much) because the basic principles of the Muslim Conference were already universal and non-communal. So we had only to discuss the technical part of how to do it. We exchanged our ideas. I told him of my difficulties and he discussed the advantages of broad-basing the movement. So that was my first contact.

Gandhi’s impact on me was that he was a man of high principles and of noble, political ideals. He had a religious bent of mind. This attracted me to him ideologically. Another thing which impressed me was that he was a lover of truth. He would always stand by the truth. Once he was convinced that a certain thing was wrong it would not take him a minute to admit it. In his whole life he would not ask others to do anything which he himself would not practice first.

In 1945-46 Mr Jinnah came to Kashmir. What he was seeking at that time was to reconvert the National Conference into the Muslim Conference. Therein we naturally did not agree. But in Delhi when I met him I told him it was not my view only which matters, and that I would ask the advice of my colleagues. [I explained to him that] in 1931-32, we had gone through this debate and come to the conclusion that it was not merely a question of communities, and that it was the duty of every Muslim to fight to relieve the distress of everyone. We believed that this was the true Islam, so the Muslim Conference was opened to minorities. Unless I was convinced that this was wrong, I could not go back on this decision. I said that if my other colleagues decided unanimously to back to the original position, then I would not stand in the way. But in that case I would not be able to lead the Conference because personally I would still not be convinced. But I would accept the decision of my party because as a democratic principal if the majority decides, naturally I would then have to either follow or quit.

But finally no decision was needed. Mr Jinnah had come to Kashmir. He had accepted my decision. But there probably, he was advised not to accept my proposal to put his suggestion to the Conference because it was felt that I had so much influence with the working of the National Conference that they would always go by my advice. So he avoided referring the matter to the Conference. Naturally there was a conflict apparently after that his position was changed and he supported the Maharaja. His position as far as the princes were concerned was that the right to ‘decide the future’ affiliation was given to the princes and not the people. Therefore he stuck to that position, whilst the Indian Congress and the State Peoples Conference opposed his view point. They said that it was the right of the people to decide, and not of one man.

Sheikh Abdullah addressing a gathering at Lal Chowk in Srinagar in 1975. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

What was the situation in Kashmir in 1947?

Just before the emergency in 1947, I found anxiety all round, because of what was happening on both sides of Punjab. Thousands of refugees, both Hindus and Muslims, had poured into the state.  They had suffered a lot and there was tension between the Hindus and Muslim of Kashmir. There was anxiety about what was going to happen. Then the Maharaja had not taken any decision about the accession. This was the main question that faced me on my release from jail on the 28th of September, 1947.

At my first public meeting which I addressed in Srinagar, I made my position on the accession clear. I felt that the people of Jammu and Kashmir were not in a position to take a decision at that moment because they did not know what shape, ultimately, the two dominions would take. There was so much trouble and nobody even knew whether the two dominions would exist. I suppose nobody knew whether the secular principle would survive at that time. Nobody knew what was going to happen. So we thought that this was not the time to take a decision which would influence not only us but also future generations. So we needed time.

That was one consideration. The second consideration was that we had been fighting since 1931 for a responsible government in Kashmir. We had not achieved that objective and the Maharaja was still an autocrat. We had to first gain our freedom before deciding about accession and we requested the heads of both the dominions, both Congress and the Muslim League, not to force us to take a decision at that moment, but to leave us alone.

I sent one of my colleagues Mr G.M. Sadiq, who is the present chief minister, to Lahore to meet the prime minister of Pakistan, Mr Liaquat Ali Khan and to put this question before him, but unfortunately they took the position that as the subcontinent was divided on the basis of Muslims and Hindus, and as Kashmir was a Muslim-majority area, it must ipso facto come to Pakistan. That position was not acceptable to us. Mr Sadiq told Pakistan that the decision must not be imposed on the people of Jammu and Kashmir but they should be given a chance to decide their own fate. Both India and Pakistan must accept (their) decision, whatever it may be. There was no agreement on that, so Sadiq returned and, soon after, the raids began and the picture changed.

When the raids began the Maharaja could not stop them because his forces were spread out throughout the state in small, batches. The raiders therefore nearly reached Srinagar, so he was advised (I don’t know by whom) and left in the dead of the night with his personal staff and belongings for Jammu; meanwhile he requested India for military support. India could not give this military support unless some legal basis was established. Lord Mountbatten advised his colleagues, Pandit Nehru and others that it would be wrong for India to send troops into a technically independent state. If India did so, Pakistan would do the same and there would be a clash between the two dominions, and since the army was still controlled by British personnel on both sides, it would be difficult for them to fight. So he suggested that some legal formula should be established.

The Maharaja was told that military help would come (legally) only if he signed the Instrument of Accession. Thus the Maharaja signed under duress, and in his letter whilst forwarding the document to Lord Mountbatten he stated clearly the circumstances under which he had signed the accession. Realising this position and the desire of the people of Kashmir for self-determination and their refusal to give up that position vis-à-vis Pakistan, the leaders of India accepted the accession provisionally subject to ratification by the people of Jammu and Kashmir at a later stage on the basis of a plebiscite. The condition of a plebiscite was laid [down] at that very hour.

Was it specifically plebiscite, or a ‘reference to the people’?

For that I would like you to see V.P. Menon’s book The Integration of the Indian States. He has devoted a chapter to each state and there is one on Kashmir too. He clearly says that because of these considerations the accession was ‘accepted subject to a plebiscite’. He has clearly used the word plebiscite in his book. Actually it was Lord Mountbatten in his letter to the Maharaja in which he accepted the deed of accession, who said this would become final after a “reference to the people” .

What were the problems you faced during the emergency government when you became prime minster?

My problems were multifold. Firstly there was a fear complex: Muslims were afraid of Hindus and Hindus were afraid of Muslims. In the Jammu and Kashmir state, Hindus would not think of going to Pakistan because of what had happened on that side. They thought they would be completely finished if the state acceded to Pakistan. The Muslims were afraid that if the state joined India then their fate would be the same as of Muslims in Kapurthala and other Punjab states. In India too, at that time, there were definitely two trends. One was the secular concept and the other trend was towards a theocratic concept. The Hindu Mahasabha and parts of the Congress and the general mass of the people also thought that if “they” have a Muslim state we must have a Hindu state. So (in Kashmir) we had to fight these trends. It was a tough fight and an uphill task for those who believed in humanity and not in Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs.

This was the problem facing us: how to create confidence in the two sectors in Kashmir. I thought that remaining in India on the basis of the Instrument of Accession was enough guarantee for the non-Muslims that their lives would be safeguarded and that their rights would be safeguarded. But how to create confidence amongst the Muslims. I thought that by guaranteeing an autonomous position (for) the state, they would have an assurance that there would be no interference with their internal affairs. As a majority, it would be up to them to provide safeguards for the minority and not vice versa.

Besides this, they would have the tremendous advantage of being a part of a country which claimed to be democratic and progressive, and in which the rule of law prevailed. By remaining a part of such a state, the condition and aspiration for which they had been fighting since 1931 would be fulfilled. So I thought that this would be a good compromise and I could retain the confidence of the people. Unfortunately communal forces and the trend in India which believed in a theocratic Hindu state proved to be too strong. And there was a break.

Sheikh Abdullah with other leaders of the 1931 agitation. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

You are referring to 1953? But you were very successful in doing so during the emergency (raiders’ invasion).

At that time there was imminent danger. In Kashmir, in spite of everything, people do not believe in violence and communal hatred. They belong to the same ethnic group. There are people, both Hindus and Muslims, who belong to the same caste and have the same surname – for example Bakshis are both Hindus and Muslim. Wattals are both Hindus and Muslims, and so on. So there was nothing that could separate them, and this helped us a lot.

What was the result you would have wanted to see emerge from a plebiscite?   

At that time we thought that they could fulfil their ambitions by remaining a part of a democratic country in India because of Pandit Nehru and Gandhi and other Congressmen with whom we had close associations. We thought we too could remain a part of that country The sympathy of the Congress leaders for the people of Kashmir was fresh in the minds of the Kashmiris – how Nehru had suffered for them and Gandhi had sympathised with them. Though the ruler was a Hindu and a majority of the population was Muslim, this had not prevented the Congress leadership from identifying itself with the political movement in Kashmir led mainly by the Muslims. This had a tremendous impact on (Kashmiri) Muslims at that time. If a plebiscite had been conducted at that time, I am sure that it would have gone in favour of India. Later, of course, the situation changed, unfortunately.

Did the presence of the army create tensions?  

From the very beginning we had to go through a lot of stress and strain even in 1947. When the first Indian Army troops came there, some of the battalions had completely lost their perspective. They thought that the fight was between Hindus and Muslims, no matter where the Muslim belonged to. We had to face this trouble [from the start]. A Sikh regiment from Patiala was stationed near the airport and wanted some volunteers. But the next morning when the camp moved out, we found the four volunteers dead in their bunkers. We had to face a terrible row in the city at that time. Then I called a conference and said that [the soldiers had perhaps] seen their nearest and dearest being killed in the riots. They were not in their normal mood as they thought that every Muslim was an enemy. They did not know that we were fighting for a certain cause. So we decided that the army heads and leaders must be told to inform the soldiers that they were fighting for an ideal. We did this and it had a very good effect.

During the period after the [Kashmir] war, how did reactionary forces, which you said earlier proved to be too strong, manifest themselves?

When we took over the administration, we had naturally to fulfil the promises we had made to the people for a long time about land reforms, the reduction and cancellation of debts, and other such reforms.

Landholdings were distributed among the tillers of the soil. Among the landlords there were Hindus, Muslims and others. But the Hindu landlords had a say in Delhi. They came here [to Delhi] and spread poison against us, trying to give the land reforms a communal colour. There were people here who readily believed these people. This vitiated the atmosphere of relations between Kashmir and the Centre, giving them a communal cast when the object of our reforms was purely economic.

Similarly with regard to debt cancellation. We passed a law according to which any debt in which the sum of interest payments had equalled or exceeded one and half times the value of the principal was considered automatically cancelled. Now, among the sahukars (moneylenders) also, there were both Hindus and Muslims. The Hindu sahukars were able, and did, complain to people here in Delhi, thus further vitiating the atmosphere. And then the Maharaja…we could not keep on the dynasty… When the dynasty was abolished, all those people who used to surround the Maharaja took advantage of this position, did not like the changes my government was making and combined to wage a campaign on communal lines in Delhi, in spite of the fact that none of the measures we had passed were communally motivated.

Was there any kind of discrimination in the allocation of jobs in Kashmir?

During my time there was none, but one thing was clear: with the spread of education, groups which were not previously represented began to claim jobs. So we had to satisfy their urges. Muslims, who were as you know a majority, had suffered for a long time and were nowhere represented in the administration. So naturally when they came up, they expected that they would also get their due. This is what happened in Hyderabad, where the Hindus came up in a similar manner. The position in Kashmir was exactly the reverse of Hyderabad.

My difficulty, however, was that I could not clean up the administration all at once. I could not remove people who had been working for years without providing them alternative employment. So, I was trying, little by little, to redress the balance of the various communities in government. The process was slow, but I can say with certainty that there was no discrimination.

One often hears in Delhi that you were arrested on the 8th of August, 1953 because you were on the verge of giving a unilateral call for independence. It is also said that you would have done so in your in speech on 1 August. I have read the text of the speech which you were to give and have not found anything to support this thesis. Was there anything else which could have led to this conclusion? Did you at any point even consider such a unilateral declaration could not happen? What was the dialogue you were engaged in with Panditji at the time of your arrest?

Panditji wanted the ratification of the accession by the Kashmir Constituent Assembly. I advised him that the world would not accept this situation, nor the people whom we had been assuring that theirs would be the final say. Actually I had suggested this course [ratification by the Assembly at an early stage] in 1950. At that time it was Panditji who had firmly refused to follow this course, saying that India was committed not only to the people but to the entire world to hold the plebiscite. This ratification was one of the purposes for which the Constituent Assembly had been called in 1950. But Pakistan and protested strongly to the Security Council, and India had assured the council twice through Sir Benegal Rao, who was the permanent representative to the UN, that India would abide by her commitments.

May I now come to the present day [1968], and ask you a few questions on which there has been some controversy recently: Firstly, quite a lot has been made in the press of your hesitation to declare your nationality as Indian. You subsequently clarified your position by saying that you were “provisionally” an Indian citizen, which did not really help very much. Would you care to tell me what made you hesitate to commit yourself?

The difficulty with me is that circumstances have drawn me into politics. Otherwise, I don’t feel myself good enough for this job. Because nowadays I feel a politician must know how to stab his friends. A politician must know all these dirty tricks. I find myself incapable of conspiracy, incapable of speaking untruths, and incapable of what we call diplomacy. I have suffered because of this.

With regard to this nationality question, in my press conference my main objection was to the attitude of the questioner. I felt that he was not asking this question with a good intention, Otherwise I would have explained the whole position then and there. And what I thought turned out to be true; this question was loaded, and was meant to spoil the atmosphere of the conference.

With regard to my nationality, I feel that this is the whole question under dispute since 1947. If the nationality of the people of Jammu and Kashmir is considered fixed once and for all, then there is no dispute left, and nothing to be settled.

But no one today seriously believes that there is no dispute. Even in 1965 when the war was going on, Vinobaji [Vinoba Bhave] is on record as having said that the Jammu and Kashmir dispute can only be considered truly settled when the people of India, the people of Kashmir, the people of Pakistan and the whole world agree that it is settled. So at the most, as far as I am concerned…you see, I have been a party to the provisional accession, so if you take it from a purely legalistic point of view then I consider myself as having accepted a provisional citizenship of Indian.

Sheikh Abdullah and Jawaharlal Nehru.

The second point is that we the people of Kashmir, of all shades, believe that so long as the uncertainty of the external situation continues, we can never have internal peace and stability. That has been our experience – not only mine but also of all my colleagues, including those who succeeded me. I have not been on the scene for the last 14 years, but all the material and moral help which the Government of India has given to Kashmir has not succeeded in bringing peace or stability. So we feel that peace and stability will only come when India and Pakistan come together, become friends. So the people of Kashmir have a self interest in seeing that India and Pakistan come together. I am working therefore for this purpose. So if you “fix” me, then where is the basis on which I can work for better relations? I must have a little freedom to negotiate.

‘The third point which I keep trying to explain to my friends in India is that in 1947, Kashmir did not come to India because of any pressure or persuasion, but of its own free will. It was because we felt that our ambitions and our hopes, for which we had made huge sacrifices since 1931, would be fulfilled by allying ourselves with the great country which was India, which believed in democracy, in the rule of law, which believed in equality of man. We believe in the high ideals which Mahatma Gandhi preached. Now look at the treatment Kashmir has received. That is an open book, and I don’t want to go into it. Let every Indian search his own heart.

But most people in Indian seem to think that the Kashmiris enjoy the same degree of democracy which Indians elsewhere do.

I wish Kashmir had that democratic constitution and that democratic way of life, but the fact remains that Indian democracy stops short at Pathankot. Between Pathankot and Banihal you may have some measure of democracy, but after Banihal there is none. What we have in Kashmir bears some of the worst characteristics of colonial rule. We are at the mercy of an ordinary police officer. Nobody can express his opinion freely. Let any Indian go there and honestly assess the entire situation. Can you blame Kashmiris for saying that when the Indian government has kept their leader, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, in jail for 14 years without a charge, what can they expect from it in the future in the way of fair play?

We did not come [accede] to Indian because of its vastness, or because it is a moneyed country. We were enamoured of the high principles for which you stood. But today, let alone what is happening in Kashmir, even here I have been released but I am discouraged from speaking of my cause. What happened in Meerut? The chief minister of UP directed all his district magistrates to prevent me from speaking if he felt this would lead to disturbances. The chief minister did not bother to find out who were the troublemakers in Meerut. What did I say at that public meeting? I delivered an address of nearly two and a half hours. The speech is there. I could be taken to task on the basis of that speech, but even there in Meerut when the atmosphere was so tense, I preached communal harmony. Does it become a minister in a democratic country to take such an attitude? Now I am warned not to go here, not to go there, not to go there…this how Indian democracy functions. How do you expect the people of Kashmir today to come rushing to you?

Of course India can keep Kashmir by force. But this way it will have the bodies of the Kashmiris but not their souls. That would not be a true accession. Accession should be of minds and hearts, and love and justice are the only two weapons which come with you for that accession.

In your public meetings and your talks, have you found the people more responsive to your suggestions than before?

As far as the common people are concerned, I have found them very responsive. They understand things, they are themselves tired of these people who exploit them, who try to exploit their emotions. There is a good response from the people. It is only gangs of assassins, who have learnt the art of murder, who have been taught how to stab people. These people hide in a bush and when a person is walking unawares, come up behind him, stab him, and run away. But not a single man has been caught, although in Meerut nearly 30 people have been stabbed.

There have been disturbances in many places – Rourkela, Ranchi, even Srinagar. Hundreds of people have been involved, but no one has been hanged for murder committed during communal disturbances. I know very well that this is not representative of what is happening in the whole of India, and that India is a vast country, but these things are happening, and they have a terrible effect on the people of Kashmir.

We had some Kashmiri students studying in Ranchi in the medical college there. They returned home almost naked. When they reached their home, they narrated their tale of misery and woe to the people. How could these things not effect the listeners, and how could you expect them to look to India for protection? These things have got to stop, but they will never stop until the tension between India and Pakistan is resolved. There is only one answer to this problem and that is to end the strife on the subcontinent. How long can this be avoided?

This interview was originally published on February 17, 1968 in the Weekend Review and is republished here courtesy the Hindustan Times.

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The immediate threat lies in Kashmir.

Congress party workers and supporters hold national flags during a Freedom March to celebrate the 75 years of India’s Independence in Bengaluru, Monday, Aug. 15, 2022. Photo: PTI

The fact that ten more ‘like-minded’ parties have joined the meeting of the opposition at Bengaluru, that the Congress has graciously met the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)’s demand that it commits itself to voting against the Bill that seeks to deprive the Delhi government of control over its own civil servants,  in the Rajya Sabha, and that the opposition has now given itself a single name – INDIA – reflects the near-complete consensus within the opposition on the need to set differences aside in order to save democracy. This has greatly increased the likelihood of a defeat for the BJP in the 2024 Lok sabha election, by shifting the ‘multiplier effect’ of the simple majority voting system, which invariably magnifies the seat-to-vote ratio of the largest party or coalition at the expense of the smaller ones, in the opposition’s favour.

In the past two Lok Sabha elections, this effect worked strongly in favour of the BJP. In 2014, its 31% vote share made it the largest single party in the elections. That, and the fact that all but a fraction of this vote was concentrated in seven states of northern and western India enabled it to win 282 seats, comprising 52% of the total membership of the Lok Sabha. In 2019, its vote share increased to 37%, close to double that of the next largest party, the Congress. That enabled it to win 303 seats. Opposition unity next year will take the multiplier effect away from the BJP and confer it upon itself.

Joint opposition parties meeting in Bengaluru. Photo: Twitter/@AAP

How dramatic this shift can be was vividly demonstrated by the Karnataka Vidhan Sabha elections in May. Although the BJP’s share of the vote remained unchanged at 36%, a 5.4% shift of the vote from the JDS to the Congress – which increased its share to 43% – increased the number of seats it won from 80 to 135, and brought down the BJP’s tally from 104 to 66. Opposition unity, even if not complete,  will almost certainly do the same thing at the national level next year.

This possibility has already driven Modi into a frenetic election mode, in which he has left governance to his lieutenants, and has been tailoring his every statement and action to creating a God-like image of himself for the ordinary Indian, and pandering to the hyper-nationalism that is latent in most Hindus in the country. He is not doing this solely out of a desire to remain in power. He is also aware that should the BJP lose, the ghosts of those who were killed in the Gujarat riots, and the faked encounters and the unexplained deaths that followed, will rise to torment him, possibly till the end of his life.

This fusion of political with personal motives will make the 2024 elections the most fateful that India has ever faced. For, democracies can only survive if their leaders are willing to accept defeat and fight for power through the ballot, instead of the bullet. Modi has shown a reluctance to do this throughout the 22 years he has enjoyed power at Gandhinagar and Delhi. He is, therefore, certain to seize any opportunity that arises in the next nine months to pose again as the guardian of India’s security and honour, as he was able to do after the Pulwama suicide bombing in February 2019.

Modi may sense an opportunity in Kashmir

One such opportunity is certain to arise in Kashmir – if the Supreme Court rules against the government’s 2019 abolition of the state’s special status under Article 370, and rules that it must be re-instated. The court’s brusque dismissal earlier this month, of the government’s attempt to justify that action by claiming, ex-post, that it has brought peace and economic development to the state, has aroused this hope in Kashmir’s political parties, and public, throughout the Valley. Should it do so, they believe that Delhi will have no option but to restore the status quo ante and thereby restore their right to preserve their ethnic identity within the Indian union.

But they could be catastrophically wrong. In his 22 years of leadership, Modi has never, ever, admitted that he has made a mistake that needs correction. Nor has he ever reversed any decision he has taken. So, how is he likely to react to such a direct challenge to his authority by the Supreme Court?

Had the petitions against the dilution of Article 370 been filed in a lower court – such as the Jammu and Kashmir high court, Modi would have been able to buy time till after the Lok Sabha elections by appealing against an adverse order to the Supreme Court. But all of them were lodged in the Supreme Court, which is the court of final appeal, so the only alternative that will be available to Modi is to assert parliament’s supremacy over every other democratic institution in the country, as his government has done more than once in recent months, ignore the court’s ruling and continue to rule Jammu and Kashmir directly from Delhi. This will almost certainly make the simmering discontent in the Valley explode into violence, and in doing so, give Modi the excuse for stoking Hindu hyper-nationalism again, to win yet another general election.

Will the Union government be able to control the reaction in Kashmir? Modi would like us to believe that it will, because the majority of the people of the Valley will oppose the return of violence, and the loss of business and livelihoods that it will entail. That was what his government’s affidavit to the Supreme Court had been intended to impress upon it. But even a cursory look at the reality behind the virtual blackout of political news from the Valley shows that the government’s affidavit is a tissue of falsehoods.

In it, the government has claimed that ‘the entire region of Jammu and Kashmir has witnessed an “unprecedented” era of peace, progress, and prosperity, with street violence orchestrated by terrorists and secessionist networks becoming a thing of the past’. Modi may even have persuaded himself that this is actually true but data collected painstakingly by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) show that it is the opposite of the truth.

According to the SATP, in the four years from 2019 to 2022, there were 729 incidents involving the killing of civilians, militants and security forces – an average of one incident every two days! In these, the security forces killed 781 militants and suffered 209 deaths. Kashmir had therefore seen 990 deaths in 1,460 days, i.e. one death caused by militancy-related violence, every 36 hours! Unless it is SATP that has been lying, these figures show that the Government of India has told a blatant lie in a sworn affidavit to the highest court of the land.

Having done so, it will have no option but to live out that lie. Since it can only do this by crushing the popular discontent in Kashmir as rapidly and completely as possible, this could lead to a level of repression that Kashmir has never experienced before. Furthermore, given the way in which Modi turned the Gujarat riots of 2002 and the Pulwama suicide bombing of 2019 to the BJP’s political advantage, it is a safe bet that he will try to do the same with the pogrom that will follow in Kashmir. And, given the BJP’s spectacular rise after both those tragic events,  there is every likelihood that he will succeed yet again.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi paying tribute to the CRPF soldiers killed in the Pulwama attack. Photo: PTI

Averting this design

So one of the first questions the opposition will need to discuss, when formulating a common programme of action to present to the people before the next election, is how to forestall an attempt by Modi to repeat his earlier successes by unleashing another reign of terror in Kashmir, and using the reaction that will evoke from the youth to inflame the dormant distrust of Muslims in Hindu hearts in the rest of India.

The starting point for frustrating this design is to understand, and accept, that Partition, and the slaughter of innocents that followed, severely damaged the syncretic Ganga-Yamuni culture built over the previous 600 years all over north India. In Pakistan, it led to a ‘purification’ of Sunni Islam, exemplified by the teachings of Maulana Maududi, that led to the official excommunication of various Shia factions, most notably the Ahmadiyyas, and fostered the rise of violent extremist organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Taliban – who offered to further ‘purify’ Islam in Pakistan, in exchange for being allowed to ‘liberate’ Kashmir.

In India, Partition, and the subsequent conflict with Pakistan, hardened  Hindu distrust of Muslims and discredited the syncretic Islam that had emerged out of centuries of peaceful co-existence and been codified by Akbar in the Din-e-Elahi. That is the syncretism that Mahatma Gandhi gave his life in an attempt to preserve. How deeply embedded it remains in the Indian Muslim psyche, even 75 years and three Indo-Pak wars after Partition, can be judged from the fact that there has not been a single Sunni-Shia communal riot of significance in India after independence, when this was an annual event in the 19th and early 20th centuries. By contrast, in Pakistan, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi was given a relatively free reign to kill Shias in some parts of Pakistan such as Sindh and Baltistan.

Thanks to Mahatma Gandhi’s sacrifice, and the relentless efforts of Nehru, Maulana Azad and others, syncretism has remained strong in India. Out of more than 200 million Indian Muslims, only 18 joined al Qaeda, and less than 100 joined ISIS. Nearly all of these, moreover, were migrants working in the Gulf, who were lured into joining ISIS in part at least by the prospect of escaping from their miserable conditions of work in there. By contrast, more than 5,000 Europeans joined it, among whom only a minority were children of immigrants from the middle east.

What the post-partition conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir has erased from the Hindu mind is that this syncretism is not only strongest in Kashmir but has survived despite the outbreak of insurgency in 1989 only because Article 370 prevented a large number of people from other parts of India from settling in Kashmir. Since the outbreak, first army and then police repression has driven more and more of the youth into the arms of the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Ahl-e-Hadis. But syncretic Reshi (a corruption of Rishi) Islam has survived in spite of this and remains the dominant form of Islam in Kashmir even today.

Reshi Islam is full of practices incorporated into it from Hinduism. Among these is Auradh-e-Fidrat, a morning prayer to the rising sun that has no equivalent in any branch of Islam outside Kashmir, because it is an incorporation of Surya Namaskar. Another is the practice of invoking one’s ancestors at the beginning of every major prayer or religious function – again normal in Hinduism but haraam in Sunni Islam.

But perhaps most telling is the nature of Kashmiri cuisine. Till today, there is not only no beef in it but also no chicken and no eggs. There is also, in my experience, no garlic. In short, Kashmiri cuisine is, till today, indistinguishable from the cuisine of Shaivite Brahmins – which, of course, was what Kashmiris were till the arrival of Sufi Islam from Iran.

These are only some of the more superficial differences between Reshi and Sunni Islam. Other, more profound, differences are the worship of relics of saints, and of the shrines where they are buried, that one finds in Reshi, and some other variants of Shia Islam, but is forbidden in Sunni Islam. These differences were noted by no less eminent a person than Mohammed Ali Jinnah in 1946, and led him to reject a request by the Jammu-based J&K Muslim Conference to allow it to join the Muslim League.

These differences also explain why, despite almost a quarter of a million traumatised refugees from both sides of the Radcliffe line passing through Jammu in 1947, the entire princely state of Kashmir, and the Valley in particular, remained free from communal violence till almost the end of October 1947,  while the rest of India burned.

That is the communal harmony that both Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah cherished and were determined to protect. Even the rigging of elections, that began in a small way as early as 1952, was not designed to prevent Kashmiri Muslims from expressing a desire to join Pakistan but to prevent Hindu zealots, concentrated in Jammu, from being able to drag Kashmir into the mire of Indian communal politics. This threat had arisen in November 1947, when the J&K Praja Parishad was created in Jammu by  Balraj Madhok, a key member of the RSS, with the express purpose of opposing the special status granted to the state under Article 370 of the constitution. This brought the communal politics of the rest of India into the state and threatened to undo precisely what Nehru, Sheikh Abdullah and Maharaja Hari Singh had been trying their level best, in their own ways, to prevent.

Jawaharlal Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah. Photo: Oxford University Press

The rigging that began then was designed to insulate Kashmiriyat not from the pull of Pakistan’s Sunni Islam in Kashmir, but against the push of Hindu intolerance, later dignified as Hindutva, in Jammu. This made it necessary for the National Conference to ensure that it always won a sufficient number of seats to obtain a majority in the state legislature. Rigging up to half of the constituencies in Kashmir became the surest way to ensure that the National Conference stayed in power at least until India won its case in the UN Security Council and Pakistan withdrew from PoK. That, of course, never happened. So, particularly after the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah,  what had begun as a temporary expedient became a routine feature of all elections in Kashmir.

The casualty in this power game was democracy. For the continuous rigging of the elections in Kashmir to checkmate the rise of Hindutva in Jammu frustrated every attempt to create a democratic opposition in the Valley. That is what finally triggered the insurgency that began after the rigged elections of 1987 and burst into flames in December 1989.

So the first challenge that a combined opposition will have to face is to find a way to prevent Modi from turning a defeat in the Supreme Court into a victory in the 2024 elections. The way to do this is not by condemning the military crackdown that Modi is sure to impose on the state the moment he receives an adverse verdict from the Supreme Court, but to demand an immediate election in the whole of the pre-2019 state to elect the members of a Constituent Assembly, that will be empowered to ratify the original or a modified Article 370. This will be necessary because it was a Kashmiri Constituent Assembly that ratified Article 370 in November 1956. Since this assembly then dissolved itself, a new one will have to be created through an election, to ratify its reinstatement.

A formal commitment by the opposition to leave the choice of Jammu and Kashmir’s future to the Kashmiris, made immediately after the Supreme Court’s decision if it rules against the withdrawal of special status, will prevent the resurgence of armed insurrection because the youth who favour this will receive no support from their elders. That was what had made the insurgency of the 90s peter out. The prospect of being able to decide their own future democratically will have the same effect once more.

Prem Shankar Jha is a veteran journalist and author of Kashmir 1947: Rival Versions of History published by OUP in 1996. 

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What is important is for the opposition to convey to the public that in the battle to defeat Modi’s BJP in 2024, the differences between Congress and AAP signify nothing.

Arvind Kejriwal (L) and Rahul Gandhi. Photos: Official Twitter handles

In the 12 years he was chief minister of Gujarat and the nine in which he has been the prime minister, Narendra Modi has shown, time and again, that he is built somewhat like a powerful automobile in which the manufacturers forgot to put in a reverse gear. Because throughout these years, his only response to every threat he has faced has been to launch a counter-attack, no matter what it might cost the nation or even his own future.

I had therefore been waiting for his counterattack to take shape ever since the opposition’s success in forming a combined front to fight the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2024, at Patna. I got my answer on July 5. Sharad Pawar had been the convenor who had made the Patna meet possible. So Pawar’s party had to be destroyed first.

The weapon that Modi has used is the one he has been using with increasing frequency against his political opponents and critics in civil society. This is the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, in which he made eight draconian amendments in 2019 that have given his government virtually unrestricted powers of arrest, detention and attachment of property, and all but abolished the habeas corpus, the right of the accused to remain free until convicted of a crime.

Since then, Modi has been relying more and more heavily upon the PMLA to ‘persuade’ his political opponents to betray their parties and join the BJP. His destruction of the Nationalist Congress Party has run true to form: four of the nine defectors – Ajit Pawar, Praful Patel, Chhagan Bhujbal and Hasan Mushrif – have been under investigation on a variety of money laundering and bank loan scam charges, and have had hundreds of crores worth of their properties sequestered. Now that they have become honourable ministers of the government and ruling party of the great state of Maharashtra, one can presume that these charges will disappear like the mists of the night at the rising of the sun.

That this has been Modi’s revenge on Pawar has been endorsed by no less eminent a journal than India Today, which has also warned that Bihar is next on the prime minister’s list. India Today has also surmised that this is only the beginning of a campaign that will be launched in other opposition-ruled states as well. Its purpose, the weekly has surmised, is to show to the people how unworthy of trust their representatives are and to remind them that only a party with a clearly stated ideology can be relied upon to fulfil its promises.

This is the challenge that the opposition now needs to meet. With the Lok Sabha elections less than nine months away, its first task must be to reassure the electorate that the unity achieved at Patna remains undented by the developments in Maharashtra. To do this, it needs first to highlight the progress it has made in removing the obstacles that have hindered the move from competition to cooperation. To say that this has been impressive would be an understatement, for the conclave reached an agreement not only on the yardsticks it would use to decide which party would contest which constituency, but agreed to leave the even more thorny issue of leadership to be decided after the elections. It also recognised the need to present an alternative vision of India’s future to the BJP’s Hindutva.

Despite these impressive achievements, doubts about the stability and longevity of the coalition have continued to persist. These have been fuelled to some degree by the absence of the chief ministers of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Odisha, and of Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati, but their main cause is the explicit refusal of the Aam Admi Party to endorse the Common Declaration because it did not include a commitment to vote against the Delhi ordinance. Kejriwal need not have insisted upon this, because the ordinance is outrageous anyway, and would hamstring the Congress and BJP too, were they ever to come to power in Delhi. What is more, it was openly mischievous for Narendra Modi had lost this battle in the Supreme Court once already and was bound to do so again. Its sole purpose, therefore, was to give the simmering hatred of the AAP within the Delhi branch of the Congress an occasion to surface and thereby throw a spanner in the works of creating a unified opposition.

Mallikarjun Kharge and Rahul Gandhi’s failure to recognise this, and readily concede to AAP’s demand, was therefore a chink in opposition unity that virtually invited exploitation by the BJP. That is the chink that it is now trying to widen.

What is hard to understand is why this simple request has proved an obstacle to unity when much more serious obstacles have already been overcome. The only explanation is the impact that a concession by either party would have had upon its own party cadres. Despite the cementing and revitalising impact that Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra has had upon the Congress, its unity remains fragile.

In large parts of the country including, notably, Uttar Pradesh and Bengal, its repeated defeats at the hustings have made it virtually cease to exist. It cannot therefore be blamed for fearing that after suffering three successive Vidhan Sabha poll defeats, its cadres in Delhi are also headed out of the door. Ajay Maken’s relentless attacks upon AAP are therefore attempts to stem the rot, and the leaders of the Congress cannot be blamed for not reigning him in, because of the effect this could have upon the party’s cadres in other states where its dominance is endangered or has disappeared.

But Maken’s  attacks upon the AAP have created a mirror image of the problem he faces within the Congress for Kejriwal within his own party. For through its silent endorsement of every attack that Modi has launched upon Kejriwal since 2015, Maken had made it virtually impossible for Kejriwal to join the opposition without some overt act of support for AAP in its constant battle with Modi.

What is important is for the opposition to convey to the public that in the battle to defeat Modi’s BJP in 2024, the differences between Congress and AAP signify nothing. AAP does not need the support of the coalition to rout BJP in either of the two states that it now governs. In Delhi it won 67 and 62 out of the 70 vidhan Sabha seats with a colossal 54% of the vote in 2015 and 53.6% in 2020. These are figures that the Congress did not even come close to matching either at the Centre or in any of the states from 1947 till 1989. In Punjab, AAP won 92 out of 117 seats last year with 42% of the vote. Against this, the Congress, BJP and Akali Dal together won only 23 seats with 23.9%, 6.6% and 18% of the vote, respectively.

The message these results send is unambiguous: whether the AAP joins or does not join the coalition formally in 2024 will make no difference to the number of seats it will win in the Lok Sabha.

Nor is there the faintest chance that AAP will enter into any post-poll alliance with the BJP, for not only has it suffered more at Modi’s hands than any other party, but it would destroy every tenet upon which its meteoric rise has been based. These are its complete disregard for caste, creed, colour and gender in its policies and governance, and its commitment to serving the poor instead of being served by the poor.

Finally, AAP will contribute more to the saving of Indian democracy by refusing to compromise on its demand for support in the Rajya Sabha and being willing to fight alone if necessary, than by making any of the compromises that will be necessary to become part  of an alliance of political parties. For it will demonstrate to the entire nation that the era of entitlement politics, in which candidates demanded votes from the electorate on the basis of their caste or creed, has ended and that of service politics, in which votes have to be won by serving the people, has finally dawned.

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The fact that the planned joint opposition in Patna was postponed has created rumours that such unity may not be achieved before 2024. This fear, however, is almost certain to prove groundless.

Rahul Gandhi at Roosevelt House, New York. Photo: Twitter/@RahulGandhi

The postponement of the the grand opposition meeting that had been scheduled for June 12 in Patna to June 23 has revived anxiety in India’s civil society that this could signal second thoughts in the Congress on the terms on which the unity need to be forged. This is in spite of Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge having stressed the importance of uniting to fight the BJP in 2024, in his inaugural address to the AICC in Raipur three months ago, where he had advocated the formation of an alliance based on the ‘UPA model’ of 2004–2014, and had cautioned the rest of the opposition against forming a ‘Third Front’.

Since then, however, talk of a UPA-type alliance has almost disappeared from the Congress’s political  lexicon, but no alternative proposal for government formation in the event of an opposition victory has taken its place. It is not surprising therefore that the postponement of the grand opposition meeting scheduled to take place in Patna on June 12 to June 23, has once again aroused dormant fears that a formula for unity might still elude the opposition when decision time arrives.

This fear, however, is almost certain to prove groundless. The evidence for this, if any were needed, is to be found in the speeches of Rahul Gandhi during his six-day interaction with the Indian diaspora in the US, and question-answer sessions that followed. Thanks to Youtube, all of these can be seen in their entirety by those who were not physically present. So we are in a position, unique in human history, of being able to judge a speaker’s sincerity and character in a way that was unthinkable even half a century ago. And ever since he began his Bharat Jodo Yatra, Gandhi has been passing this eyeball test with flying colours.

In his speeches in the US, Gandhi displayed a palpable sincerity that is the polar opposite of the dissembling and compromise that characterises Indian politics, and for that matter most democratic politics in the world. In all of them his theme was the same – India’s innate strength, its durability and its pride has rested, throughout its history, upon its unquestioning acceptance of, and comfort with, its ethnic diversity and religious pluralism. This comfort, he told his audiences in California, Washington DC and New York, is the secret of the phenomenal success of the Indian diaspora in integrating themselves with their adopted countries. Gandhi reinforced this message through his unaffected display of pride in their achievements in the US .

But the message he hammered home most consistently is the one that is most relevant to India’s future. This was that while the BJP and RSS were constantly harping on a largely imagined  past, the need of the hour was to chart India’s path into an uncertain future. In a graphic phrase that bids to rival his ‘nafrat ki bazaar’ aphorism, he likened Modi  to  someone driving with his eyes glued to the rear-view mirror of his vehicle.

He illustrated this by referring to the train accident in Odisha. Within hours of the disaster, the BJP’s spokespersons were busy pointing out that there had been similar, serious accidents during the Congress’s rule too, and in highlighting a train collision at Ariyalur in November 1956 that had claimed 140 lives. What they chose to ignore was the response of the Nehru government whose railways minister resigned, taking constitutional responsibility for the tragedy. Even though the technology for avoiding such tragedies that the world has today had not even been dreamed of then. By contrast, no minister in Modi’s government has done so today, even though that technology has been in general use for decades.

What makes this omission inexcusable is that at the tail end of the UPA government’s rule, a committee headed by Sam Pitroda had recommended installing an anti-collision system on all of the 65,000 kilometres of railway lines in India. But till the time of the Odisha accident an entire  decade later, the Modi government had installed anti-collision digital equipment on only 1,000 km of railway lines.

In 1956, the Congress minister who took responsibility and resigned was Lal Bahadur Shastri. The party remembered this and made him India’s prime minister after Nehru’s death.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Gandhi’s speeches in the US was their tone. Narendra Modi’s speeches, both at home and abroad, are designed to create awe and fear. Gandhi’s speeches have reflected a desire to start a dialogue. In all of them he has emphasised the need for joint action by political parties in India – not to win an election or throw out a rival political party, but to save India’s ethnically diverse and religiously plural democracy from crashing in ruins.

If there had ever been any doubt left in people’s minds about his motives, this tour of the US should have erased them. For Rahul Gandhi, saving India’s democracy comes first. His personal status within it comes a long, long way second.

This is the understanding of the Congress’s motives today, with which the major opposition parties need to assemble at  Patna on June 23.

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If there is a lesson the opposition needs to learn from Modi’s endorsement of a film that he has almost certainly not even seen the trailer of, it is that he will stop at absolutely nothing to come back to power in 2024.

PM Modi. In the background are posters of ‘The Kerala Story’. Photos: Twitter/@BJP4Karnataka and IMDb.

Barely a year after the release of The Kashmir Files, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is again using another grossly incendiary film, The Kerala Story, to fan hatred of Indian Muslims in order to consolidate the “Hindu” vote and stay in power next year. 

The Kashmir Files was a hugely distorted and highly inflammatory depiction of the planned murders of prominent Kashmiri Pandits in the early months of 1990, which was designed to ethnically cleanse the valley of its Pandit community. The Kerala Story accuses Muslim organisations in Kerala of supplying 32,000 recruits to ISIS, the self-styled Islamic State terror group which briefly established control of territory in Syria and Iraq. Many of these, it claims, were women recruited to serve as the wives of IS fighters. 

The brazen disregard for the truth displayed by both films reflects how completely the Bharatiya Janata Party, under Modi, has become a conduit for lies. For, one brief look at the actual Kashmir files – not the screen version but the Union home ministry’s papers – would reveal that the killing of selected Pandits in 1990 was planned and paid for, in weapons and cash, by the Pakistan army’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and carried out by a handful of self-styled mujahideen recruited by it from among the many thousand young Kashmiris who had joined the rebellion against India after the Gaukadal police firing upon civilians in Srinagar in January 1990 that took between 24 and 55 lives. 

How opposed the average Kashmiri Muslim was to becoming a part of Pakistan, even after the 14 years insurgency of insurgency and draconian repression that followed, was revealed by two international opinion polls carried out in 2004 and 2009 . The first was conducted by MORI, Europe’s premier sampling survey organisation, and the second jointly by MORI with GALLUP. The 2004 poll showed that 61% of the population of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh wanted to remain a part of India and only 6% preferred Pakistan. 

Similarly, the 2009 poll, which was initiated by Chatham House, Britain’s premier foreign policy think tank, and confined to the Kashmir valley, showed that even in the four worst-affected districts of the valley, only 2.5 to 7.5% of those surveyed preferred Pakistan to India. 

That was the strength of the bond between Kashmiri Muslims and secular India that Modi fatally weakened within weeks of coming to power by breaking off all talks with the Hurriyat Conference, unleashing a reign of terror in the valley, gutting Article 370 of the constitution, and turning Jammu and Kashmir into a Union territory, thereby disempowering Kashmiris within their own state. That is the bond that The Kashmir Files has weakened further by creating alienation not in Kashmir but in the Hindu population of the rest of India.

The Kerala Story is intended to do the same to the 1200 year-old bond between the Hindus, Christians and Muslims of Kerala. It is a measure of Prime Minister Modi’s insecurity about his party’s – and his own – future that he is now openly endorsing the grotesque lie cooked up by his bhakts and his propaganda machine that there was an exodus of Muslims from Kerala to join Daesh, the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. 

Here is what Modi said in a pre-poll speech at Ballari in Karnataka, on May 5: 

“ In these changing times, the nature of terrorism is also changing …Bombs, rifles and pistols… (have been replaced by) a new type which undermines society from within, makes no sound. The Kerala Story is a film based on one such conspiracy in Kerala”. 

What is the theme of The Kerala Story that Modi is asking the people of Karnataka and the rest of India to treat as gospelIt is that Muslim organisations in Kerala supplied 32,000 recruits to ISIS when it established its brief, blood -soaked control of territory around Raqqa, Deir-ez-Zor and Mosul in Syria and Iraq. Many of these, it claims, were sent to serve as wives for the IS fighters. 

What is far more incendiary, the film depicts in graphic detail how many of them were Hindu girls who had been converted to Islam before being inveigled into going. 

Several reviewers, who did not bother to do the 30 minutes of research on the internet that has gone into the writing of this article, have stated that this is “a serious issue lost to bad direction, and worse writing” (India Today). The Organiser, the de facto mouthpiece of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, has described the film as “a dangerous truth told with a calculated balance”.

But the entire film is such a bald-faced lie that to find the prime minister of India mouthing its praise and endorsing its contents in a public speech brings shame upon the entire country. Study after study, both in India and abroad, has noted the almost complete absence of Indian Muslims in the ranks of the IS. On December 20, 2017, Hansraj Gangaram Ahir, Modi’s minister of state for home affairs in his first stint as PM, reported to the Rajya Sabha that only 103 people who “sympathised” with ISIS had been arrested across 14 states by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), according to the data available with the government. The minister added: “Very few individuals [from India] have come to the notice of the central and state security agencies who (sic) have joined ISIS.”

Uttar Pradesh – India’s most populous state – reported a paltry 17 sympathisers, followed by Maharashtra (16), and Telangana (16). Kerala had reported only 14 and Karnataka a mere 8. What is more, these were individuals accused of being ’sympathisers’ – and who had not left India to join ISIS in the desert.

Two years later, at the start of Modi’s second term in June 2019, minister of state for home Affairs G. Kishan Reddy stated in a written reply to Lok Sabha that the NIA and state police forces had registered cases against ISIS operatives as sympathisers, and have arrested 155 accused from across the country. 

Three years later, in a detailed study published by the Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis at New Delhi, Adil Rasheed reported that until 2019 less than 100 migrants working in the Gulf were thought to have been lured into ISIS while 155 had been  arrested in India for having ISIS links. 

“The mystery behind the very few Indian names appearing in the long list of foreign fighters in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS),” he wrote, “has puzzled strategic thinkers for some time now. This pleasant yet inexplicable surprise finds a historical precedent in the conspicuous absence of Indians from the legions of foreign ‘mujahideen’ fighting the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan in the 1980s and from the Taliban and al Qaeda’s ‘Islamic Emirate’ of the 1990s”. 

The figure of 32,000 recruits from India, and the assertion that a large number of them were women, is therefore absurd – all the more so because estimates by the European Union and the Central Intelligence Agency in the US have put the maximum strength of the IS at its height at around 30,000. 

What is more, 5,000 of them had been recruited in Europe and most of the remainder had come from Arab countries devastated by civil war after the so-called Arab Spring. The largest number had come from Libya, whose economy had been totally destroyed by the concerted Euro-American attack upon it in 2011. The idea that 32,000 Indian Muslims had also joined IS, whether as fighters or sex slaves, is therefore ludicrous. 

That Modi, speaking in Hindi, should have gone to the length of endorsing such a dangerously incendiary film at Ballari in Karnataka before a large crowd whose grasp of the language is poor to non-existent, reveals that his intended audience was not Kannadigas, but the vastly larger masses of unemployed and desperate youth in the Hindi-speaking belt. These are the young Indians to whom he has so far been unable to provide jobs and a secure future, and who are now being primed to attack Muslims in order to retain their support for the BJP in the 2024 general election. 

If there is a lesson the opposition needs to learn from Modi’s endorsement of a film that he has almost certainly not even seen the trailer of, it is that he will stop at absolutely nothing to come back to power in 2024 and is willing to plunge the country into communal violence, not to mention war with a nuclear armed neighbour, if that is what it will take. This is what has transformed the role of the opposition in the next general election from one of winning the maximum number of seats to saving India from disintegrating in a sea of blood. 

It is, therefore, imperative that they put aside their political rivalries with each other and unite to meet the threat to India’s very existence that the BJP under Modi and Shah now poses to India’s very existence. The leaders of all the major opposition parties, including the Congress, are now fully aware of this. But, as the no-holds-barred struggle between Sachin Pilot and Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan, and AICC general secretary and former Delhi Congress party chief Ajay Maken’s incessant diatribes against the Aam Admi Party have shown, this realisation has yet to trickle down into the second rung of the Congress party’s leadership.  

The resistance at this level is understandable, for these are the leaders who manage party cadres at the ground level, and the surrender of some seats to other parties inevitably leads to demoralisation and defections of cadres in those constituencies. All opposition parties, and particularly the Congress, face this problem, but there is a solution to it.

This is for the opposition to agree to confine coalition building to the Lok Sabha elections and continue to fight each other in the Vidhan Sabha elections. This would not have been possible earlier, when Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections were held more or less simultaneously – as used to happen till the 1960s – but today presents no major problem.

By concentrating entirely upon national and international issues in his relentless campaigning during the past nine years, Modi has made it possible for the opposition to do the same. If it comes to an agreement over this, its victory in 2024 will be assured.  

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The prime minister is spending almost 11 times as much on meeting the same need as the Delhi chief minister. Is that because his job is 11 times as onerous as a chief minister’s? Or is it because Modi’s ego is considerably larger than Kejriwal’s?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal. Photos: PTI

Narendra Modi must be in seventh heaven. His bete noire, potentially his nemesis, Arvind Kejriwal has been found to have feet of clay. For years now, Kejriwal has tirelessly contrasted his own simple lifestyle, and his party’s serving of people, with Modi’s endless preoccupation with himself, and  exclusive concern for the industrial health of the super rich, such as the Ambanis, the Adanis and the Tatas.

Ten days ago, Kejriwal had used the one weapon against Modi that a dictator has no defence against: satire and ridicule. Charlie Chaplin, the greatest comedian of the 20th century, had used this against  Adolf Hitler in his immortal 1939 film, The Great Dictator. Kejriwal had done this ten days ago with a 20 minute story he narrated in the Vidhan Sabha, titled “Chauthi Pass Raja”. This was having the same effect in India as The Great Dictator had had in the US: videos of the story have garnered millions of viewsThe release of data to show that the CM’s house his government is building costs Rs 45 crore was Modi’s counterattack! 

But will it succeed in denting Kejriwal’s hold on the people of Delhi? The commercial media’s gleeful  acceptance of the estimate as gross extravagance by a man whose ego has finally outstripped his unremarkable physical stature, was only to be expected in a country where investigative journalism has been strangled to death. But surely, some newspaper needed to contrast that story with the cost of Modi’s own pet project, the Central Vista Redevelopment project, which is Rs 13,450 crore, i.e $1.7 billion. 

This redevelopment is to spread over 20,866 square metres and have a total built up area of 64,500 square metres. Within it the prime minister’s house complex will cover 36,268 sq ft (more than 4,000 square metres) and cost Rs 467 crore.  This is more than ten times the amount estimated for the Delhi  chief minister’s proposed housing complex.

The prime minister’s new office and residence will be on a site covering 15 acres. It will contain ten four-storey buildings that will accommodate not only his residence, but the living quarters of his Special Protection Group and his private office complex. 

This is no different from the present arrangement in (the former) Race Course road where these functions are spread over 4 buildings set in lawns that cover approximately 16 acres. This arrangement  has comfortably served five previous prime ministers from Rajiv Gandhi to Manmohan Singh. 

Despite that, Modi’s reasons for the complex closer to Parliament House and the prime minister’s official secretariat are understandable, because of the rapidly increasing traffic on New Delhi roads, the worsening traffic jams being caused by it, and therefore the increasing vulnerability of any cavalcade to a terrorist attack. 

Construction for the Central Vista project. Photo: Oishika Neogi

What necessitated reconstruction of CM residence?

But these same considerations, multiplied many times, were what necessitated the reconstruction of the chief minister’s residence. For Kejriwal had categorically refused to move into Raj Nivas, the residence of the British chief administrators of Delhi, and later of chief ministers after Delhi became a state, pronouncing it too grand and too large for him and had, instead, chosen to stay at what used to be the Delhi Vidhan Sabha speaker’s residence at 6, Flagstaff road in old Delhi. 

All those who met Kejriwal at home in those days will remember that 6, Flagstaff Road is a single floor house with a small front lobby that Kejriwal had turned into an informal meeting room, a central living and dining room, and three bedrooms  spread around it, one of which was occupied by his father and a computer. That was all!

The entire house reeked of dilapidation. Considering that it had been built in 1942, barely a decade after the British shifted their capital from Calcutta to Delhi, this was hardly surprising. So, having lived in a similar house in New Delhi, in the 1950s and 1960s, I was not surprised to learn that the ceilings of all the three bedrooms had begun to leak. 

Those who are accusing Kejriwal of having been corrupted by power today, need to ask themselves why this surfaced only in 2020, seven years after AAP first came to power in Delhi? The short answer is that when he chose 6, Flagstaff Road over Raj Nivas, Kejriwal did not realise that the chief minister’s house needed to serve also as his main office.

This had been understood by the British as far back as in 1906, when they built the first office-cum-residence Raj Nivas on what was then the Ludlow Castle Road, and is now the Raj Nivas Marg.

After Independence, with an ever-expanding city and increasing state regulation of civic life, this complex became too small by 1988. Both wings of Raj Nivas where therefore completely redesigned and expanded into a residence-cum-secretariat at great expense in 1995. 

This background is necessary to understand why the conversion of 6, Flagstaff road from being simply one chief minister’s choice of a home, into the official residence of all future chief ministers of the state is costing Rs 45 crore. Kejriwal had chosen it as an unpretentious home to live in. But a chief minister’s home can never be private. On the contrary it has, necessarily to be a mini-secretariat that can receive information and transmit decisions instantly, as and when the chief minister needs it to do so.  

In 2015, when Kejriwal chose to live there, it was a home without an office. In the next five years this lacuna was filled by the ad hoc addition of temporary rooms constructed between the gate and the entrance to the house. These sufficed till 2020, when the COVID-19 lockdown was imposed. The shut down of the entire Delhi secretariat did not lead to shut down of work. On the contrary, with the need to open COVID wards, arrange medication, oxygen and ambulances, and  look after tens of thousands of migrant workers suddenly rendered destitute, 6, Flagstaff road suddenly became the pulsing nerve centre of government.  

I cannot even begin to imagine how his administration coped with the crisis from the ramshackle bunch of huts I had seen at Flagstaff road. But that experience, without a doubt, taught Kejriwal a hard lesson: he had to choose between looking and acting like a leader of the poor ever in search of votes, and a leader who wished to deliver service to the poor and save their lives. It is not therefore surprising that the first order for refurbishings worth Rs 7.09 crore, was issued on September 09, 2020. 

Once it was decided that 6, Flagstaff Road would be the permanent official residence of the chief minister of Delhi, another need arose that had been largely overlooked in Kejriwal’s first years. His was for quarters for his personal security staff. It was this need that had caused the present official prime minister’s residence to expand from 5, Race Course road as his home and 7, Race Course Road as his personal office, to include 3 and 9 Race Course Road as well. 

It is also the need explicitly stated for the PM’s residential complex Modi is setting up on the edge of the Central Vista lawns. Modi is therefore spending almost 11 times as much on meeting the same need as Kejriwal. Is that because the prime minster’s job is 11 times as onerous as a chief minister’s? Or is it because Modi’s ego is considerably larger than Kejriwal’s?

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The only way the country’s voters can have a viable opposition to vote for in 2024 is if the Congress, in true spirit, joins hands with other opposition parties and highlights Modi’s dangerous drift towards tyranny.

To the left, Rahul Gandhi. To the right, clockwise from the top left, M.K. Stalin, Arvind Kejriwal, Asaduddin Owaisi, Mamata Banerjee and KCR. In the background are Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.

Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the Union government, it has had a secret ally. That ally is the Congress party of India.

The partnership between the two parties is not explicit but implicit. When it comes to words, the Congress criticises everything that the BJP says or does. But when it comes to deeds, the Congress has tacitly backed the BJP every time. It has been doing  this by sabotaging every attempt that leaders of various opposition parties have made so far to forge an alliance with it to fight the BJP in central and state elections.

It has been doing this through two, perhaps unintentional, political errors.

The first is to hold a grudge against any party that has supplanted the Congress within a state that it used to control. Its chief target in the past eight years has been the Aam Aadmi Party which has replaced it in Delhi and most recently in Punjab.

The second is to accuse any strong regional leader who proposes a coalition of wanting to rob the Congress party of its birthright and become the prime minister of India. 

It made the first mistake in the 2017 state elections in Gujarat where it spurned AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal’s offer to not merely ally AAP with the Congress, but also allow it to choose the candidates AAP would put up in the constituencies allocated to it. In the elections the BJP won 99 seats, against the Congress’s 77. But it won 15 of these with vote margins of less than 5,000 and nine with margins of less than 2,000 votes. A Congress-AAP alliance in 2017 could have won a sufficient number of those seats to oust the BJP and severely weaken Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s power base in the country and within the BJP.  

 The Congress’s second mistake has been to allow sundry party members to insist that the Congress must not only lead any opposition coalition in the fight against the BJP but, should it win in 2024, automatically claim the prime ministership. Sonia and Rahul Gandhi could have disclaimed such ambitions, but chose to remain silent.

The BJP’s delighted spokespersons have therefore learned that all they have to do to make the Congress party’s envy machine start running in Modi’s favour is to accuse any regional leader who talks of opposition unity of wanting to become the prime minister. That is what Union home minister Amit Shah accused Nitish Kumar of doing recently, when he proclaimed  that the doors of the BJP in Bihar are closed to him forever.

The BJP’s victory in 2019 should have brought home the price of disunity to the Congress. But the party’s second rank did not allow the claim that leadership was its birthright to die. As a result, although meetings between opposition leaders became more frequent, with several being hosted by the Congress, the key question – who would lead the coalition government if one had to be formed, remained unanswered. 

Rahul Gandhi’s inspiring Bharat Jodo Yatra, in  which he steadfastly refused to discuss political tactics and focused unswervingly upon the three critical challenges the country is facing – rapidly growing poverty, rapidly growing youth unemployment, and rapidly growing communal polarisation – created the policy platform around which an opposition to the BJP could coalesce. But the key question: who would head a victorious coalition government, remained unanswered. 

Rahul Gandhi and Omar Abdullah during the Bharat Jodo Yatra in Kashmir on January 27, 2023. Photo: Twitter/@BharatJodo

The obvious answer is that this question will arise only after the elections, and only if the coalition succeeds in dislodging the BJP. Till then it is not only hypothetical, but raising it before the election is the surest way of making sure that it will remain so. 

The history of our democracy provides ample proof of this, for the only three victorious coalitions – the Janata party in 1977, the National Front in 1989, and the United Front in 1996, had not chosen a prime minister before the elections.

The UF had, in fact, to send for H.D. Deve Gowda, then chief minister of Karnataka and completely unknown in north India, to head its government. Deve Gowda, moreover, came with the utmost reluctance for only a year in order to give the UF time to find an acceptable permanent leader. 

After Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra had given the Congress a new lease on life, the All India Congress Committee session at Raipur would have been the perfect occasion for the Congress to eschew the demand for primacy in an opposition coalition and announce that it would await the verdict of the electorate. With 19.46% of the national vote in 2019, against 4.06% for the next largest opposition party, the Trinamool Congress, it had the best chance of heading the next government anyway. All it had to do at Raipur was to announce that it looked forward to working with all other parties (or like-minded parties) to defeat the BJP in 2024. 

But instead it raised its hoary demand to be primus inter pares – the first among equals – yet again.

In her speech as the outgoing doyenne of the party, Sonia Gandhi conceded that this was a challenging time not only for the Congress but for the entire country. She minced no words in accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP-RSS of relentlessly capturing and subverting every institution, ruthlessly suppressing any voice of opposition, favouring a few chosen businessmen over others, fuelling the fire of hatred against fellow Indians, viciously targeting minorities and ignoring crimes and discrimination against Muslims, against women, against Dalits and against Adivasis. She accused Modi of showing contempt for the values of our constitution.

She reminded the party that since it had led India to freedom it had a special responsibility to protect the constitution. But she did not utter a single word about how it should go about doing this after its vote share had fallen from 29% in 2009 to 19% in 2019 and the BJP had snatched dominant party status from the Congress by doubling its share of the vote from 18.8 to 37%. 

The answer, as pointed out above, was obvious. But Sonia Gandhi did not once mention the word ‘opposition’ let alone the need for the Congress to work with it to save Indian democracy. The omission was significant because it came immediately after the inaugural speech of the new Congress president, Mallikarjun Kharge, in which he stated that ‘in the prevailing difficult times the Congress is the only party that can provide capable and decisive leadership to the country.’ He also extolled ‘the UPA model’ of coalition governance, stated that the Congress looked forward to forging a viable alliance with like-minded parties and warned that “the emergence of any ‘third force’ will provide advantage to the BJP-NDA”. 

Despite being harassed by Modi’s Enforcement Directorate for 12 hours and having her son Rahul harassed for 60 hours as the ED struggled to find some shred of evidence that would enable Modi to send mother or son to jail, neither Gandhi nor Kharge showed an awareness that Modi has absolutely no intention of ever ceasing to be the prime minister of India, and will therefore stop at nothing to ensure victory for the BJP in 2024. 

Nor is there any hint of realisation that his determination to remain the prime minister of India for the rest of his life does not spring only from his ferocious drive to succeed, but his fear that if the BJP is ever voted out of power, all the allegations of his tacit or explicit complicity in the pogrom of Muslims that occurred in Gujarat in 2002 will surface once more to torment, and possibly punish, him for the rest of his life. 

With the able support of his home minister, Amit Shah, PM Modi has been able to foil every attempt by relatives of the victims and members of civil society, to hold him accountable for the police inaction that led to that pogrom. the string of faked ‘encounters’ that followed, and the so far unsolved murder of his former home minister, Haren Pandya. But that executive power will crumble to dust, and Modi’s immunity from future prosecution will vanish if the BJP fails to win the Lok Sabha elections next year. 

Modi and Shah cannot, therefore, afford to let that happen. But both of them know that the ground beneath their feet has begun to soften. Ten years of slowing GDP and industrial growth, and growing unemployment, have made close to 40 million more men and women between the ages of 16 and 60 face great difficulty in finding jobs – leading some to drop out of the labour force – during his stewardship of the country. 

The disenchantment may have been there even in 2019, but no voter was given a chance to feel it because the opposition was unable to unite and unable to present a plan for reversing the growth of unemployment, and rising distress of the poor that Modi’s first five years in office had seen. So inept had the party’s organisation become that even the release of its election manifesto took place only nine days before the start of the voting, on April 2. India’s youth were therefore left with no choice but to continue to hope that Modi would fulfil his promises if given another chance. 

During his first term in office Modi made calculated use of communal animosity to shore up the BJP’s, and his own support. But four years on, lynching Muslims and uploading the videos has not only lost its novelty for the Hindu masses but has created serious disquiet in the moderate ‘Vajpayee’ wing of the BJP. 

More pertinently, it has also done so in the RSS. Between March 2021 and October 2022, in speech after speech, delivered in places as far apart as Mumbai, Ghaziabad and Nagpur, on occasions ranging from a book launch to the Dussehra festival, Mohan Bhagwat the Sarsanghchalak of the RSS has made no secret of his anguish over the way in which Modi has been fanning communal animosity against Indian Muslims. 

Also read: Mis-Understanding Mohan Bhagwat

Modi cannot but be aware, therefore, that his continued leadership of the BJP now rests solely upon his ability to continue delivering the votes the Sangh Parivar needs to pursue its dream of a Hindu Rashtra. He is therefore fully aware that the 2024 elections will be a time of reckoning for him. So, he is leaving no stone unturned to dismember the opposition and discredit its leaders.

His preferred instruments during his first term in office were the CBI, the NIA and the Delhi police. During his second term, his government has been relying upon the Enforcement Directorate.

To prepare the ground for his onslaught on the opposition he pushed through no fewer than eight amendments to the Prevention of Money Laundering Act in 2019, which have given the ED untrammelled powers of arrest, seizure of property and denial of bail. 

Since 2021 his government has relied almost entirely upon arrests of the leaders of opposition parties under the PMLA, to paint them as corrupt and anti-poor in the eyes of the electorate. His aim now is not merely to destroy ordinary law-abiding peoples’ faith in their political leaders, but to completely discredit Indian democracy itself and thus pave the way for the authoritarian rule he intends to usher in after the 2024 elections, in the guise of Hindu Rashtra. 

The sheer savagery with which these are being used can be judged from two sets of data: Between 2004 when it was promulgated, and 2014, the governments of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Dr. Manmohan Singh filed 112 cases, carried out 112 searches and made-up prosecution dockets in 104. By contrast, between 2014 and May 7, 2022 the Modi government has launched 5,310 investigations, 2,974 searches, attached Rs 95,432.08 crores worth of property arbitrarily declared “proceeds of crime”, and 839 prosecutions but secured only 23 convictions, a conviction rate of below 3. 

The Modi government has paraded these figures to show how corrupt the political system of the country was till his government came to power. But when placed side by side with the 50-fold jump in prosecutions and the simultaneous passing of amendments to the PMLA that have virtually destroyed habeas corpus, they tell a different story. That is the story of a terror campaign designed to crush democracy and replace it with a Modi-cracy that will endure till the end of his natural life. 

Modi has not revealed how he intends to do this, but the attacks by governors upon the autonomy of elected chief minister in opposition-ruled states, his casual violation of the safeguards placed by Article 324 of the constitution upon the independence of the Election Commission and above all, his direct assault upon elected chief ministers and ministers through the ED and the PMLA show that he will stop at nothing to retain his hold on power.

The AICC’s meeting in Raipur was an opportunity to highlight this drift towards tyranny, but it has proved to be an opportunity missed. The Congress must now join the opposition parties to create another. And it must do this soon, because the time to carry the message to the people has almost run out. 

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