Prem Shankar Jha

Imposing embargoes on trade with Russia and punishing those who ignore them by cutting off their international banking facilities will only force uninvolved nations into rival militarised camps.

Ukraine Crisis: The West’s Response Risks Pushing the World Towards a War It Cannot Afford
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, February 22, 2022. Photo: Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via Reuters


The Indian government’s stance on the Ukraine war is the first time that a genuine consensus of opinion has emerged between the Narendra Modi government and the opposition in our increasingly divided country. Indian opinion is united that Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine without first bringing its anxiety about what was happening to ethnic Russians in the Donbas region to international attention, and without raising its concerns on any of the platforms provided by the United Nations, was a serious mistake. But it is also united in believing that the road back to peace does not lie in the blanket condemnation of Russia, in the blanket denial of every single explanation that Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has given for its resort to force, and in ascribing it to a power-crazed Russian president who has lost touch with reality.

Nor does it lie in sanctions that will cripple not only the Russian economy but also hurt the economies of Western Europe and the rest of the world. Finally, and most importantly, India is rightly angered by the US’s barely veiled threat that these sanctions will be extended to other nations that do not fall in line with US sanctions despite the fact that these have no UN mandate behind them.  

The US has been ‘punishing’ errant nations that have dared to buy oil from Iran in this way through financial sanctions for some time. But Russia is not Iran. Nor is natural gas its sole export. On the contrary, Russia exports a large quantity of coal, oil, semi-finished iron and raw materials ranging from timber to aluminium, nickel, cobalt and gold to the rest of the world. Imposing embargoes on trade with it and punishing those who ignore them by cutting off their international banking facilities or freezing their reserves will only force uninvolved nations into rival militarised camps. That will push the world towards a war that it can no longer afford. 

This is not an alarmist statement, but a reminder of what has happened once already within living memory. On July 2, 1940, US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the US Export Control Act, which authorised an American president to license or prohibit the export of “essential defence materials” to potentially hostile countries. At the top of that list was Japan.

Between then and July 26, these sanctions were applied to an ever-widening range of metals used in the manufacture of weapons and, significantly, to aviation fuel. Nor did the embargo stop there. On July 26, 1941, Roosevelt froze all Japanese assets and bank accounts in the US. Since Japan imported nearly all of its oil from the US, this amounted to strangulation by degrees, especially of its military. A diary belonging to one of Emperor Hirohito’s aides, discovered in the early 2000s, revealed how the Japanese viewed this devastating blow: It quoted the late emperor as saying that Japan went to war with the US because of oil – and lost the war because of oil.

In short, the freezing of Japanese assets left the Emperor with no option but to sanction the invasion of Indonesia and Indo-China in pursuit of oil. The embargo also led to Japan joining Germany’s Tripartite alliance in 1941, and thence to the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941. 

A similar gravitation of countries into two potentially hostile groups has begun now. One is forming around the US and NATO; the other is beginning to take shape around Russia, China and Iran. An alarming feature of this development, were it to continue, would be that it will end by disrupting not just the unified global trade and manufacturing systems of the world, but the global payments system as well. This will set off a race to create a second, alternative payments system. And with China’s foreign exchange reserves being close to $4 trillion, the base for creating an alternative payments system already exists. 

Were a Yuan-centred alternative payments system to emerge, the shift of a portion of global financial reserves from the dollar, Pound, Euro and Yen could lead to a steep fall in their value. The consequences of such a shift are not easy to estimate but the possibility that it could trigger a ruinous war should not be discounted. 

Drift towards armageddon

This drift towards armageddon can only be arrested if the West ends its no holds barred effort to pin all the blame for the present situation in Ukraine upon Russia, and upon Vladimir Putin in particular. But how can it even begin to do this after blocking every media channel emanating from Russia except its own? 

The West’s justification for strangling Russia’s voice is that, having already started the war, it has no option but to lie about it now. This may well be true, but does that give the Western countries the right to deny their own people the freedom to hear their opponents and come to their own conclusions? And has it not occurred to the decision-makers in NATO that their denial of this right exposes the hollowness of their own commitment to democracy?

 There can be no meaningful dialogue between nations without a minimum of mutual respect and a willingness to listen. That is precisely what the US and every European government have decided to deny to Russia and to their own people from day one of the invasion of Ukraine. 

A soldier takes a photograph of his comrade as he poses beside a destroyed Russian tank and armoured vehicles, amid Russia’s invasion on Ukraine in Bucha, in Kyiv region, Ukraine April 2, 2022. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

What can civil society do?

So what can civil society do to limit its loss of perspective on the Ukraine war? The answer is that we must try to piece together the information we already have to arrive at our own conclusions about  Russia’s motives. 

The starting point of this exercise is to remember how the Cold War came to an end. The crucial breakthrough was made by US president Ronald Reagan and Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik, Iceland in 1986. It was given concrete shape in a series of follow-up meetings that ended in the signing of the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. 

The understanding between Reagan and Gorbachev that ended the Cold War was based on the decision to remove intermediate range missiles, dismantle strategic missiles and nuclear warheads, and retain only enough highly enriched uranium for a limited number of nuclear warheads. Both knew that once this was done, the Cold War would, in effect, be over. The creation of a buffer zone of neutral states between the USSR and NATO did not come up at Reykjavik because no one there anticipated the suddenness of the economic and political collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of Warsaw Pact. Consequently, no government in the West anticipated the suddenness with which NATO would find itself without an enemy and therefore without a job. All the problems in the maintenance of a stable peace that have plagued intra-European relations since then have their roots in the suddenness of that collapse.

The speed with which it happened created a succession of challenges that no one at Reykjavik had foreseen. The first arose with the fall of the Berlin wall and the reunification of Germany in 1989. To allay the Soviet Union’s fear that this would allow NATO troops and armaments to be stationed at the very edge of the Warsaw Pact countries, on February 9, 1990, US Secretary of State James Baker assured the Kremlin that NATO would not expand ‘one inch eastward’.

While this remark by Baker has been widely reported, and frequently dismissed as a mere oral reassurance with no legal sanction, what has only recently come to light is that just three months later, in an extensive set of talks with Gorbachev designed to prepare the ground for the summit meeting between him and US president George H.W. Bush in Washington, Baker gave Gorbachev nine assurances that there would be a change in the character of NATO from a military to a political alliance that would not be threatening to Moscow.

Baker’s aim was to allay Soviet fears arising out of Germany’s reunification, by offering the assurance that neither NATO command structures nor NATO troops would be transferred to the territory of the former East Germany. Realising that this assurance would make it difficult to apply NATO security guarantees (especially Article 5 which states that an attack on one member will amount to an attack on all the members of the organisation) to the whole of Germany, Bush also suggested to Chancellor Helmut Kohl that he should, in the future, speak of a ‘special military status’ for East Germany. 

The next, larger challenge came with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the plunge of Russia into abject poverty. The mere fact that Baker and H.W Bush had gone as far as they had to reassure the Soviet Union meant that they had tacitly, if not explicitly,  accepted the Soviet pre-condition that the countries around its periphery should not become a part of NATO. But now, with the Soviet Union itself having disintegrated, it became fatally tempting for hawks in the US to argue that commitments made to the USSR did not necessarily apply to Russia. 

US President Ronald Reagan (R) and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty in the White House, December 8, 1987. Photo: Reuters/File

But Russia had one more bargaining chip – the West’s need to disarm the colossal stock of nuclear warheads that had developed during the Cold War. Dismantling these in Ukraine was especially important because it contained the launch sites of 1,900 missiles with mammoth warheads. This was achieved in 1994 with the signing of the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. In that conference, the US Secretary of State gave another oral assurance that NATO would not expand eastwards towards Russia’s borders. This paved the way for Russia to dismantle its formidable nuclear arsenal in Ukraine, in exchange for aid in rebuilding its economy.

Had successor governments in the US honoured their oral commitments, Europe would have had lasting peace now for more than 30 years. But for NATO, the temptation to fill the vacuum created by the collapse of the Russian economy proved too strong to resist. So NATO continued to expand. At the end of the Cold War, it had 16 members, four more than when it was created. The new entrants were Greece, Turkey, Germany and Spain, all of which were inducted in the 1950s and 60s, at the height of the Cold War.

But in the 1990s, even after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the immiseration of Russia had eliminated any conceivable threat from it to Europe, NATO continued to add new members. By 1999, it had added Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, all border states of the former Soviet Union. What is more significant – these countries joined NATO at its invitation.  

After 1999, NATO cast all restraint to the winds and declared an “Open Door” policy for other countries to join it, provided they met its preconditions for entry. Russia protested against this relentless expansion four times, in 1993, 1997, 2007 and finally when NATO was wooing Ukraine, in 2012. Then in 2014, when it appeared that Ukraine would be the next to join NATO, and would demand the vacation of its Black Sea naval base at Sevastopol, it invaded and annexed Crimea

The US reacted with predictable fury, emphasising Russia’s violation of international law, and imposing a whole string of sanctions upon it that were designed to bring its economy to its knees. But it carefully chose to forget that Crimea had been an integral part of Russia, not Ukraine, for centuries; that Russia had beaten off a British invasion of the peninsula in 1853-56, and that Moscow had attached Crimea to Ukraine for reasons of administrative convenience as recently as in 1954, when Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union. It also chose to ignore the fact that 65% of Crimeans were ethnic Russians and only 15% were Ukrainians.

Finally and most dangerously, the Barack Obama administration ignored warnings by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and university of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer to leave Ukraine alone. 

In the Washington Post on March 5, 2014, Henry Kissinger wrote: “The test of policy is how it ends, not how it begins. Far too often the Ukrainian issue is posed as a showdown: whether Ukraine joins the East or the West. But if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other — it should function as a bridge between them.” [Emphasis supplied]

Mearsheimer, who gave a 60-minute talk at the University of Chicago in June 2015, also stated without equivocation that the responsibility for creating a confrontation with Russia rested entirely upon the West. Behind its sanctimonious talk about defending ‘orange’, (i.e democratic) revolutions lay a single-minded desire to peel Ukraine away from Russia, and to expand NATO relentlessly till it completely encircled Russia in the west.  

Thirty years of disrespect and broken promises by NATO and its member states help to explain why Putin finally lost patience with the West and decided to use force to bring Ukraine to its senses. But it does not explain either the timing of the attack or the justification he has given – that it was to stop a surreptitious ethnic cleansing of Russians from the Donbas region, towards which the Ukrainian government had been turning a blind eye ever since the annexation of Crimea.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy addresses the Australian parliament via videolink, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv, Ukraine March 31, 2022. Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS

Ukraine and Neo-Nazis

The Western media, prepped no doubt by their foreign office spokespersons, have simply ignored, or trashed, these allegations. But could there be any truth in them? An examination of Ukraine’s politics suggests that while Moscow may be exaggerating the extent of ethnic cleansing that has occurred, the possibility that there has been an attempt by irregular forces to ‘cleanse’ the Donbas of ethnic Russians cannot be ruled out. For, nearly 80 years after the death of Hitler, xenophobic Fascism is alive and flourishing in western Ukraine. 

This became starkly clear when, in Ukraine’s parliamentary elections of 2012, Svoboda, a right-wing, fascist party, which is a throwback to the 1930s and is based entirely in western Ukraine, garnered 10% of the vote, and sent 37 members to the parliament. Svoboda’s leader is Oleh Tyahnybok, whose battle cry has been the “liberation” of his country from the “Muscovite-Jewish mafia”.

Tyhahnybok is not all hot air, for he practices what he preaches. In 2010, two years before entering parliament, he rushed to Germany after the conviction of the Ukrainian Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk for his role in the extermination of nearly 30,000 people at the Sobibor camp during World War II to declare him a hero who was “fighting for truth”.

His deputy, Yuriy Mykhalchyshyn, is an even more unrepentant Nazi: Not only is he fond of quoting Joseph Goebbels, but he founded a think tank originally called “the Joseph Goebbels Political Research Center.” According to Per Anders Rudling, a leading academic expert on European neo-fascism, the self-described “socialist nationalist” Mykhalchyshyn is the main link between Svoboda’s official wing and neo-Nazi militias like Right Sector.

Had Svoboda continued its run of success in the 2014 and 2019 parliamentary elections it is possible that it would have become more moderate over time. But it went in the opposite direction so its success did not last. In the 2014 elections, its share of the vote plummeted 4.71% and it lost 31 of the 37 seats it had won two years earlier. In 2019, its vote fell further to a mere 2.15% and it won just one seat. But its leadership did not change. So it is entirely possible that its more ultra-nationalist members have drifted right and further strengthened their links with the Neo-Nazi militias. 

This may be the genesis of the attacks on ethnic Russians in the Donbas region that have seemingly pushed Putin over the brink and into war. For what is certain is that neither President Volodomyr Zelenskyy, nor his Servants Of The People party, which is made up largely of workers and ex-communists, and had won an unprecedented absolute majority in parliament in 2019, had any need to resort to such tactics to shore up their popularity. 

Putin’s advisers must know that in Zelenskyy, whose grandfather was a general in the Soviet Army during World War II, they have a Ukrainian president who is not only likely to be more receptive to his complaints but also more wary of NATO’s blandishments. That is why his invasion of Ukraine without first exploring the possibility of direct talks with Zelensky needs to be seen, above all, as a strategic blunder. For it has weakened the one man in the one Ukrainian government with whom he could have found common ground onto which to guide their relations in the future.

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The party’s future lies in defending federalism from Modi’s assaults and building regional coalitions around a programme of development and reform.

‘Out With the Gandhis’ a Cry of Despair; With No Obvious Replacement, Cure May Be Worse than Disease
Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. Photo: PTI/Atul Yadav

Ramachandra Guha’s description of the Gandhi family’s leadership of the Congress as a ‘gift to Hindutva authoritarianism’ is a cry born out of despair. Tragically, the description is accurate. The last eight years have seen a planned, creeping destruction of the multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy that the founders of our republic created. The road the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is taking the country down can easily end in civil war and even disintegration of the Indian Union. But to warn the people of this danger and seek their vote to avert it, a political party needs to identify the early signs of danger, and flag them convincingly for the voters to see. But the Congress’s leadership has not raised its voice to warn the people about the peril they are facing.

As a result, today, the Congress is a party without a programme. Its appeal to voters is based solely on the dynastic connection of Rahul and Sonia Gandhi to Jawaharlal Nehru, his closeness to Mahatma Gandhi and his seminal contribution to the making of modern India. Implicit in this is a sense of entitlement and a demand for trust based on lineage alone. As the Congress’s rebound after the Emergency showed, this was a powerful appeal till 40 years ago.

Dynasty is the past

But the generation that responded to it has passed away and for today’s youth, both Nehru and Gandhi are just a part of history. With innumerable existential problems to face, the current generation has neither the time nor the desire to dwell on the past, let alone pay homage to it. So the appeal of dynastic rule has faded, and will keep fading.

In 2014, the youth of northern India voted overwhelmingly for the BJP because they believed Narendra Modi offered them hope of a better, more secure future. He failed to deliver it, but in 2019 they still voted for him because the opposition had offered no alternative vision of the future either. Three years have passed since then and there is still no consolidation within the opposition, still no clear perception of the threat that a continuation of BJP rule poses to India’s future – and still no offer of an alternative, better future. So, it is looking more and more as if the BJP will win the 2024 general elections too.

If that happens, there is an even chance that by 2029 the Indian Union will cease to exist. This is not an alarmist prediction. It arises out of the pattern that the BJP’s actions have been weaving since it came to power, and especially since its second electoral victory in 2019. For virtually from day one, Modi, Amit Shah and their advisers have spared no effort to dismantle the multi-ethnic, federal India that  Mahatma Gandhi gave his life to create, and replace it with an intolerant, lawless, Hindu-dominated unitary nation-state.

Home minister Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: PTI

Assault on the federal state

Had Modi and Shah been students of Indian history, they would have known that any such effort is doomed to fail. Even the Mauryan empire, which is the model that advocates of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ wish to emulate, was more an empire than a nation-state – a collection of socially and culturally independent principalities held together by the promise of peace and help in hard times, backed by the threat of retribution if they rebelled against central authority. When the central authority became intolerable, the empire came to an end.

The first explicit warning that this could happen again was given by DMK  member of parliament S. Kanimozhi on March 16 when, during the Lok Sabha debate on the railway budget, she asked why the Union government had allotted Rs 59 crore for development to Southern Railways, and Rs 13, 200 crore to Northern Railways. “You keep talking about India being one nation,” she said. “The railways also has to understand that it is one nation”.

The depth of anxiety this has aroused in the South can be judged from the way her statement has gone viral. The railways may have a legitimate explanation for this enormous gap but, in a manner that has become this government’s trademark, no one thought it necessary to prepare southern governments for the shock they were about to receive.

This high-handedness is only the latest of a succession of decisions that reflect the Modi government’s contempt for federalism. One of his first decisions in 2014 was to dissolve the Planning Commission and replace it with the NITI Aayog. The change looked cosmetic but was anything but that. Outwardly, Yojana Bhawan remained entirely unchanged. Not a soul working there lost his or her job. The only change was that the NITI Aayog no longer had the responsibility exercised for 65 years by the Planning Commission – of disbursing the annual plan grants to the states upon a consensually agreed basis.

Till 2014, the devolutions had been based upon the famous Gadgil Formula which was a function of a state’s population, GDP, per capita income and level of industrialisation.

The Planning Commission’s abolition opened the way to making plan grants discretionary. The government sought to give it a veneer of justification through a report published under the auspices of NITI Aayog, ‘Central Transfers To States In India Rewarding Performance While Ensuring Equity’. But this year’s railways budget has shown how easily, and even unintentionally, the discretionary power arrogated to the centre can be abused.

Modi’s second essay in centralising power at the expense of the states was his virtual abolition of the National Development Council – the forum of chief ministers that every prime minister since V.P. Singh had used to coordinate social and economic policies after the era of Congress party dominance came to an end in 1989. In January 2015, Modi observed that with the formation of the NITI Aayog, there was no need for the NDC and that it should be dissolved. Since the state governments demurred, he did the next best thing: in eight years he has not called a single NDC meeting.

The BJP’s electoral success in 2019 seems to have increased the Sangh parivar’s appetite for undermining the federal state. The cavalier disregard with which Modi passed the three farm laws in 2020 by ordinance – and bulldozed their ratification through the Lok Sabha – when agriculture is the single most important subject on the state list of the constitution, reflects his growing impatience with the constraints imposed by Indian federalism.

From Article 370 to The Kashmir Files

By far Modi’s most blatant act of contempt has been the reading down of Article 370 of the constitution, the abolition of Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood, and his push for fresh delimitation of constituencies so that more seats can be added to Jammu’s share.

In doing so, Modi has ignored the fact that Article 371 of the constitution gives protections of autonomy similar to those enshrined in Article 370 to seven other small states, six of which are in the northeast.

The decision to tinker with the boundaries of J&K’s Lok Sabha seats shows that the BJP has no intention of respecting the Centre-state consensus not to change the number (or composition) of seats allotted to each state in the Lok Sabha. It also demonstrates how easily this can be done without the consent of the affected state governments.

The threat that a politicised delimitation exercise poses to India’s unity must not be underestimated. The present composition of the Lok Sabha is an essential pillar of Indian democracy and federalism because, in the past 60 years, the population of the northern states has grown far more rapidly than that of the south. If a report by Congress MP Manish Tiwari is correct – that the new Lok Sabha hall in Delhi is being designed to seat 1,000 MPs – then the possibility that Modi intends to swamp the South with additional seats allocated to the North can no longer be ignored.

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AAP’s approach to governance is the secular, democratic opposite to answer to the Sangh parivar’s narrowly focused Messianic approach.

Only AAP Understands the Challenge Posed by BJP and Knows How to Fight It
Delhi Chief Minister and AAP convener Arvind Kejriwal hugs AAPs Chief Ministerial candidate Bhagwant Mann after his victory in the Punjab Assembly polls, in New Delhi. Deputy CM Manish Sisodia was also present during their meeting. Photo: PTI

The March 10 assembly election results have confirmed what eight opinion polls had predicted more than a month ago. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has come roaring back in Uttar Pradesh, gained hugely and won in Goa and Manipur, and also retained its hold in Uttarakhand. Their prediction, that the Aam Aadmi Party would lead, and possibly win, in Punjab has also been vindicated. The Congress party has not only been the principal loser but has, in a word, been slaughtered. With these elections, whatever little claim it could make to being the leading alternative to the BJP has vanished.

Before we get inundated with the flood of explanations that is bound to  follow, there is still time to reflect on the single greatest anomaly that the results have captured. This is the complete absence of any anti-incumbency sentiment against the BJP despite eight years of not only lawless, but also inept, government that this country has suffered.

The Narendra Modi government should have had its first encounter with anti-incumbency in 2019. By then GDP growth had been falling for six consecutive quarters and the number of new jobs being created in the non-farm sector had declined from 7.6 million a year between 2004-5 and 2011-12 to 2.9 million a year in the next 8 years, forcing 37 million recently urbanised workers back into agriculture. Six of these eight years were presided over by Modi.

The resulting pressure on rural wages and the need to feed a larger number of mouths in each family had increased the number of people below the poverty line by a staggering 76 million by March 2019, of whom 66 million live in the villages. This had reversed the trend of declining poverty rates the country had experienced for the previous six decades.

Oxfam’s latest study of poverty in India has shown that the poorest 20% have suffered a 53% fall in their incomes in 2020-21, even as the number of dollar billionaires increased from 102 to 142.

The main victims of the economic decline have been the youth of the country – precisely those who had backed Modi, personally, for prime ministership in 2014. Government data shows that while the proportion of young people with a secondary ( i.e. till class 10) education who could not find jobs jumped from 4% to 16% between 2011-12 and 2018-19 and of those with a higher secondary (till class 12) education, from 7% to 22%, it was those who had invested the most in education who were most comprehensively betrayed: unemployment among Bachelors’ degree holders jumped from 20% to 38%, among postgraduates from 19% to 43%, and among those with technical degrees (mainly in engineering) from 19% to 38%.

By 2019, the non-farm job famine had already lasted for eight years. Five of these had been presided over by Modi. So the BJP should, at the very least, have lost its absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, if not been pushed out of government. But for the first time in India’s 72 years of elections, the results  defied the logic of anti-incumbency and, instead of falling even if only by a few percent, the BJP’s share of the vote rose by more than 6%.

Modi’s second term has so far been even more disappointing than the first. Not only did India’s GDP growth  continue to slide, and unemployment to soar, but when COVID-19 struck the world, Modi all but left 60 million or more migrant workers, and lakhs of micro, small and medium sized enterprises, to fend for themselves.

When the first COVID-19 wave ended, Modi ignored frantic warnings that a far more dangerous delta wave was coming, did nothing even to equip hospitals with oxygen, and went on an election rampage instead. For weeks the smoke from burning ghats darkened the sky and corpses floated down the rivers, but a bare nine months later the election results show that all this might as well not have happened.

Why is there no anti-incumbency sentiment against the BJP? The standard explanation – that Modi has been able to weaponise what the French political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot has labelled the Hindu ‘majoritarian inferiority complex’ towards Muslims – takes us only a small part of the way towards understanding it. For the Sangh parivar has been weaponising this complex not since 2014, but ever since the Godhra train fire in February 2002.

The virtual disappearance of the anti-incumbency vote therefore requires another explanation. But we do not need to look very far for it, for that too lies hidden inside these election results. The clue to it is the dramatic success of the Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab.

From its inception in 2015, the AAP has been an anomaly in Indian politics because it has not sought the people’s vote on the basis of caste, creed, loyalty to community leaders or in memory of the nation’s founding fathers. All these forms of appeal to the electorate are an extension of feudalism, for they treat the vote as a gift conferred by the ‘Lord of the Manor’, on his or her subjects,  to be exercised as directed by him or her . The reward has usually been the grant of a favour ­– a government job, a petrol pump site, a gas agency, or a plot of land beside a highway.

An Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) supporter flashes the victory sign, to celebrate the partys lead during the counting day of Punjab Assembly elections, in Amritsar, Thursday, March 10, 2022. Photo: PTI

On its part, the Sangh parivar, in philosophy, if not practice, has been against caste (as it weakens the ‘Hindu’ identity it favours), and its mode of recruitment has been through social service. Its conversion into a fascist political movement has been gradual, and not even wholly intended. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad was not created till 1964, and did not become militantly anti-Muslim till 1983. The Bajrang Dal, its ‘sword arm’, was not created till 1984.

However much one may disagree with its goal of creating a Hindu rashtra – a quasi- totalitarian nation state founded around religion and ethnicity – its preferred method of gaining mass political support is the offer of a chance to serve ‘Hindu India’.

So when Modi came to power in 2014, he did so with not a two but a three-pronged strategy. The first was economic revival, in which he failed miserably. The second was promoting Hindutva by dismantling the pluralism and multi-ethnicity sanctified by the Constitution. The third was launching programmes that aimed at reaching the poor directly and empowering them, rather than the bureaucrats who had been administering development and welfare programmes till then.

Among these last are the Jan Dhan Yojana ­– which has universalised bank accounts into which the direct benefits that the poor are entitled to are now being transferred electronically, thus empowering them rather than the bureaucrats who had been administering these till then. Then there is  the Swachha Bharat Abhiyan, which promised toilets in every rural home, and the Gram Jyoti Yojana and Saubhagya schemes for rural electrification. To these, Yogi Adityanath added the extermination of lawless elements through police ‘encounters’ in UP.

AAP’s approach to governance is the secular, democratic opposite to answer to the Sangh parivar’s narrowly focused Messianic approach. There is no hint of caste or religion in its politics. There never has been. Kejriwal founded the party around a single burning issue – the fight against all-pervasive corruption and bureaucratic extortion in  government. Its 2015 election campaign was crowd-funded and its message was spread by thousands of young volunteers, from among whom a core emerged as the party’s permanent cadre.

Its success in Delhi in 2015 was utterly unexpected, but its return to power in 2017 was not. As it grappled with Delhi’s innumerable problems, it widened its focus till it embraced most other areas of governance. In all of them, but especially in the provision of health, education, power and water supply, slum regularisation and urban transport, AAP has taken initiatives that have given the poor the security and legal standing that they had lacked before.

In 2017, Modi recognised the threat that AAP’s ideology  posed not only to his government but to the Hindu rashtra project,  and tried his level best to destroy it, but failed. Since then, an accommodation of sorts has been reached, which was partially reflected in AAP’s silence over the organised pogrom in north-east Delhi  in January 2020. But, all in all, it is the BJP that has been forced  to coexist with AAP in Delhi rather than the other way around. The BJP’s nervousness can be seen in its desire to postpone civic polls in Delhi.

In 2019, after the decline in its share of the vote in Punjab, and its failure to get anywhere in Goa,  most people wrote  AAP off as a party that could not extend its reach beyond Delhi. Delhi was a special case, they concluded, because it was made up almost entirely of migrants who were mostly educated, and had already left caste and creed behind when they migrated to the Capital. But its spectacular success in Punjab in these elections has shown that there a more fundamental change taking place within the electorate.

As Kejriwal emphasised in his victory speech after the results were announced,  the key word in his party’s campaign, and the word that was on everyone’s lips during the campaign was ‘badlav’ (change, or transformation). The badlav that people were referring to, and which his party has promised them, is in the relationship of the state to its people. “Under the British and for 75 years after they left,” he pointed out, “the people had served the state. Now it it the turn of the state to serve the people.”

Therefore, the lesson that the opposition parties need to learn from the total absence of an anti-incumbency vote against the BJP is that the days of a caste-based entitlement to votes are rapidly drawing to a close. The lesson they need to learn from AAP’s victory in Punjab is that in the future, their victory will depend upon their ability to build alliances around programmes, and the measures they will take to implement them.

AAP’s victory shows what kind of programmes they need to espouse and the kind of alliances they need to make. They have barely two years left to learn these lessons and create the alternative to the BJP that the nation needs.

https://thewire.in/politics/only-aap-understands-the-challenge-posed-by-bjp-and-knows-how-to-fight-it

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Understanding The challenge of the BJP

The Vidhan Sabha elections have confirmed what eight opinion, had predicted more than a month ago. The BJP has come roaring back in UP, gained hugely and won in Goa and Manipur, and also retained its hold, albeit tenuously, in Uttarakhand. Their prediction, that the Aam Admi party would lead, and possibly win in Punjab has also been vindicated. The Congress party has not only been the principal loser but has, in a word, been slaughtered.  With these elections whatever little claim it could make to being the leading party in the alternative to the BJP has vanished.

Before we get inundated with the  flood of explanations  that is bound to  follow, there is still time to reflect on the single greatest anomaly that both opinion and the exit  polls had  captured. This is  the  complete   absence of  any anti-incumbency sentiment against the BJP despite eight years of not only lawless, but also inept, government that this country has suffered. 

The Modi government should have had its first encounter with anti-incumbency in 2019.  By then GDP growth  had been falling for six  consecutive quarters and the number of new jobs being created in the non-farm sector had declined from 7.6 million a year between 2004-5 and 2011-12 to  2.9 million a year in the next 8 years, forcing 37 million recently urbanised workers back into agriculture. Six of these 8 years  were presided over by Mr Modi. 

The resulting pressure on rural wages and the need to feed a larger number of mouths in each family, had increased the number of people below the poverty line by a staggering 76 million by March 2019, of whom 66 million lived in the villages. This had reversed the trend of declining poverty rates the country had experienced for the previous six decades.  

The worst sufferers have been the poorest of the poor. Oxfam’s latest study of poverty in India has shown that the poorest 20 percent have suffered a 53 percent fall in their incomes in 2020-21,  even as the number of its dollar billionaires had increased from 102 to 142[1].

The main victims of the economic decline have been  the youth of the country, precisely those who had backed Modi, personally, for prime ministerin 2014 . Government data show that while the proportion of young people with a secondary ( i.e. till the 10th class) education who could not find jobs jumped from 4 to 16 percent between 2011-12 and 2018-19 and of those with a higher secondary (till 12th class) education,  from 7 to 22 percent,   it was those who had invested the most in education who were most comprehensively betrayed. For unemployment among Bachelors’ degree holders jumped from 20 percent to 38 percent, among post graduates from 19 to 43 percent,  and among those with technical degrees (mainly in engineering) from 19 to 38 percent. 

 By 2019 the non-farm  job famine had already lasted for 8 years. Five of these had been presided over by Mr .Modi.  So the BJP should, at the very least, have lost its absolute majority in the Lok Sabha , if not been pushed out of government. But for the first time in India’s 72 years of elections  the results  defied the logic of anti-incumbency and, instead of falling even if only by a few percent, the BJP’s share of the vote rose by more than six percent.  

Modi’s second term has so far been even more disappointing than the first. Not only did India’s GDP growth  continue to slide, and unemployment to soar, but  when  COVID struck the world Modi all but left e 60 million or more  migrant workers from other states, and the 71 million  micro, small and medium sized enterprises, to fend for themselves. 

When the first Covid wave ended , Modi ignored frantic warnings that a far more dangerous ‘Delta ‘ wave was coming, did nothing even  to equip hospitals with oxygen,  and went on an election rampage instead. For weeks the smoke from burning ghats darkened the sky and corpses floated down the rivers, but  a bare nine months later the election results show that all his might as well not have happened. 

Why is there no anti-incumbency sentiment against the BJP ? The standard explanation, — that Modi has been able to weaponize what the French Political scientist  Christophe Jaffrelot has labelled the Hindu ‘majoritarian inferiority complex’ towards Muslims and Europeanised  ‘sicularists’ – takes us only a small part of the way towards understanding it. For the  Sangh Parivar has weaponizing  this complex not since 2014, but ever since  the Godhra train fire in February 2002. 

There can be no doubt that in the past two decades it has  succeeded in inflaming Hindu sentiment against the Muslim population of India. But how great a part has this played in shoring up, let alone increasing, the BJP vote? Data for communal riots collected   by the National Crime Records Bureau since 2014, suggest not a great deal. For they show a steady decline in the number of communal incidents,  from 1227 in 2014 to 789 in  in 2015, 723 in 2017, 438 in 2019 and, if one excludes the Delhi riots which were clearly instigated politically,  337 in 2021[2].  How little communal animosity has infected  peoples’ everyday lives inspite of this relentless demonisation of Muslims can be judged from the fact that in 2020, the police registered 4. 25 million cases under other clauses of the Indian Penal Code.[3]

The virtual disappearance of the anti-incumbency vote therefore requires another explanation. But we do not need to look very far for it, for that too  lies hidden  inside these election results. The clue to it is the dramatic success of AAP in Punjab. 

From its inception in 2015 AAP has been an anomaly in Indian politics because it has not sought the people’s vote on the basis of caste , creed, loyalty to community leaders or in memory of the nation’s founding fathers. All these forms of appeal to the electorate are an extension of feudalism, for they treat  the vote as a gift conferred by the ‘Lord of the Manor’, on his or her  subjects,  to be exercised as directed by him or her . The reward has usually been the grant of a favour —  a government job, a petrol pump site, a gas agency, or a plot of land beside a highway. 

From its inception the Sangh Parivar  has offered Indians a different kind of state. In philosophy, if not practice, it has been against caste, and its mode of recruitment has through social service. Its conversion into a Fascist political movement has been gradual, and not even wholly intended. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad was not created till 1964, and did not become militantly anti-Muslim till 1983. The Bajrang Dal,   its ‘sword arm’, was not created till 1984.

 However much one may disagree with its goal of creating a Hindu Rashtra, a quasi- totalitarian nation state founded around religion and ethnicity, its method of gaining political support has throughout remained  the offer of a chance to serve ‘Hindu India’. 

So when Modi came to power in 2014 he did so with not a two but a three-pronged strategy. The first was economic revival, in which he failed miserably. The second was promoting Hindutwa by dismantling the pluralism and multi-ethnicity sanctified by the Constitution. The third was launching programmes that aimed at reaching the poor directly and empowering them, rather than the bureaucrats who had been administering  development and welfare programmes till then. 

Among these last are the Jana -Dhana Yojana which has universalised   bank accounts into which Direct Benefits to which the poor are entitled are now being transferred electronically, thus empowering them rather than the bureaucrats who had been administering these till then;  the Swachha Bharat Abhiyan which promised toilets in every rural home,  and the Gram Jyoti Yojana and Saubhagya schemes for rural electrification. To these Yogi Adityanath added the extermination of lawless elements through police ‘encounters’ in UP.  

AAP’s approach to governance is the secular , democratic  opposite to answer to the Sangh Parivar’s narrowly focussed Messianic approach. There is no hint of caste or religion in its politics. There never has been. Kejriwal founded the party around a single burning issue – the fight against all-pervasive corruption and bureaucratic extortion, in  government. Its 2015 election campaign  was crowd-funded and its message was spread by thousands of young volunteers, from among whom a core emerged as the party’s permanent cadre. 

Its success in Delhi in 2015 was utterly unexpected, but its return to power in 2017 was not. As it grappled with Delhi’s innumerable problems, it widened its focus till it embraced most other areas of governance. In all of them, but especially in the provision of health, education, power and water supply, slum regularisation  and urban transport, AAP has taken initiatives that have given the poor the security and legal standing that they had lacked before. 

In 2017 Narendra Modi recognised the threat that AAP’s ideology  posed not only to his government but to the Hindu Rashtra project,  and tried his level best to destroy it, but failed. Since then an accommodation of sorts has been reached, which was partially reflected in AAP’s  silence over the organised pogrom in East Delhi  in January 2020. But, all in all, it is  the BJP that has been forced  to coexist with AAP in Delhi  rather than the other way about.  

In 2019, after the decline in its share of the vote in Punjab, and its failure to get anywhere in Goa,  most people wrote  AAP off as a party that could not extend its reach beyond Delhi. Delhi was a special case, they concluded, because it was made up almost entirely of migrants who were mostly educated, and had already left caste and creed behind when they migrated to the Capital. But its spectacular success in Punjab in these elections has shown that there a more fundamental change taking place within the electorate. 

As Kejriwal emphasised in his victory speech after the results were announced,  the key word in his party’s campaign, and the word that was on everyone’s lips during the campaign was ‘Badlao’(change, or transformation) .  The badlao that people were referring to, and which his party has promised them,  is in the relationship of the state to its people. “Under the British and for 75 years after they left”, he pointed out, “the people had served the State. Now it was the turn of the state to serve the people”.  

Therefore  lesson that the opposition parties need to learn from the total absence of an anti- incumbency vote against the BJP is that the days of caste-based entitlement to the peoples’ vote are rapidly drawing to a close. The lesson they need to learn from AAP’s victory in Punjab, is that in future their victory will depend not upon their ability to build alliances around programs, and the  measures they will take to implement them. 

The victory of AAP shows what  kind of programmes they need to espouse and the kind of alliances they  need to make. They have  a bare two years left to learn these lessons and create the alternative to the BJP that the nation needs. 


[1] https://www.oxfamindia.org/press-release/inequality-kills-india-supplement-2022

[2] https://factly.in/the-intriguing-case-of-data-on-communal-incidents-in-india/

[3] NCRB: Crime in India 2020.   chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/viewer.html?pdfurl=https%3A%2F%2Fncrb.gov.in%2Fsites%2Fdefault%2Ffiles%2FCII%25202020%2520Volume%25201.pdf&clen=7250741&chunk=true  

  

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The burning train on February 27, 2002 – and the lies and false narratives built around it – kept Narendra Modi in power in Gujarat, and started him on the road to becoming the prime minister of India.

Godhra, Where the Fall of India's Democracy Began
The Sabarmati Express on fire. Photo: Reuters

This week is the 20th anniversary of the single most fateful event in the history of Independent India. Had carriage S-6 of the Sabarmati Express not burnt down outside Godhra station in the early morning of February 27, 2002, killing 59 persons, the Gujarat riots would not have occurred, and Narendra Modi would not have been the prime minister of India today.

Had that tragic event not taken place, the Bharatiya Janata Party could easily have lost the assembly election that was originally scheduled for April 2003 but brought ahead to December 2002 at Modi’s urging to capitalise on the religious polarisation the violence had caused. The BJP had lost the gram panchayat elections in 2001 and three assembly by-elections the same year, and was badly rattled. This was what had led to the replacement of chief minister Keshubhai Patel, whose health had allegedly begun to fail, with Modi in October 2001. Modi faced the daunting task of shoring up the BJP’s support base in Gujarat. Politically, the fire on the Sabarmati Express came as an answer to the party’s prayers.

The train was carrying a large number of kar sevaks who had forcibly boarded the train at Ayodhya. When it arrived at Godhra, therefore, it was carrying 2,000 or more passengers against a capacity of 1,100. When coach S-6 caught fire, it was jam packed with some of these kar sevaks.

The presence of the kar sevaks, the fact that some of these had misbehaved with Muslim vendors on the platform at Godhra both while on their way to Ayodhya and on their way back, and that an ugly spat had broken out on the platform minutes before the train left Godhra on that fateful morning, made just about everyone in Gujarat jump to the conclusion that angry Muslims had chased the train and set fire to the carriage, as an act of revenge.

By the afternoon of February 27, local Gujarati newspapers had universally ascribed the act to Ghanchi Muslims of a nearby shanty colony, who had been waiting with stones and rags dipped in kerosene to seek revenge. According to those news reports, no sooner did the train stop did they smash the windows and throw flaming kerosene-soaked rags into the bogey and set them on fire.

These reports formed the basis of the first police chargesheet in the case, with manufactured eyewitnesses, all from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, who presented identical statements about kerosene being thrown into the coach from outside.

The pogrom that followed is now history. But, in another of history’s fateful ironies, this initial claim by the police about the train fire was completely unfounded and had to eventually be abandoned in favour of a supposedly more plausible but equally unbelievable theory. Having declared from day one that the fire had been a deeply planned (Muslim) conspiracy, all the facts had to be tailor made to sustain this claim.

The lengths to which the Modi-led state government went to reinforce and sustain a falsehood in the face of the anomalies that it could not explain, was not accidental. On the contrary, it was sanctioned and sustained by Modi himself, with the express purpose of creating a wave of Islamophobia that would  sweep the BJP back to power in Gujarat.

In 2005, the railway minister in the then UPA government, Lalu Prasad Yadav, appointed a retired Calcutta high court judge, U.C. Banerjee, to head an inquiry into its cause. The Bannerjee commission appointed a five-man team of experts to re-examine the evidence. After a three-year lapse, the expert committee was left with only one way to do this: look at other carriages that had caught fire and compare the burn and smoke patterns in them to the one in S-6.

There were five burnt carriages preserved in the railway yards after earlier forensic examinations. In one of these, the burn and smoke pattern was almost identical to that found in S-6. The cause of that fire was known and not in doubt: it had begun in the centre of the carriage, possibly when someone knocked over a lighted cooking stove on which food was being warmed or tea made.

The flames had remained restricted to that area but the smoke the fire created had spread to the rest of the carriage, through the gaps between the upper and lower berths, and along the underside of the ceiling. As in S-6, the majority of deaths had resulted from asphyxiation. This explanation gained credibility because the railways were not using flame-retardant materials in second-class compartments then. So even a lighted match could start a fire and create large volumes of toxic smoke. What is more, cooking or warming one’s own food on long train journeys was, and may still be, a common practice among orthodox Hindus.

The BJP vociferously rejected the Banerjee commission’s report. The party’s then spokesman, Arun Jaitley, raised procedural objections, saying that the railway ministry, even while belonging to the Union government, had no right to conduct such an inquiry. “If it was an accident, what prevented passengers from jumping out?” he asked, rhetorically.

Following a strategy with which we have now become familiar, the state government got one of the Hindus who had been injured in the fracas on the Godhra platform in 2002 to challenge Justice Banerjee’s report in the Gujarat high court. The presiding judge then declared the formation of the Banerjee Committee “unconstitutional, illegal and null and void”, and called it a “colourable exercise of power with mala fide intentions”. He went on to berate the railway ministry for daring to set up the committee when the state government had already appointed the Shah commission, later joined by retired Supreme Court justice G.T. Nanavati, on March 8, immediately after the riots. He also dismissed the right of the railways to set up a high-level committee to ascertain how a fire had started on its own property, in order to make sure that it did not happen again.

This judgment was extraordinary, to say the least, but one does not have to rely on the Banerjee commission’s report alone to question the official account of how the fire started.

The report prepared by teams of experts from the Gujarat government’s own Forensic Science Laboratory in Ahmedabad after a site visit on May 3, 2002, formally debunked the police’s earlier explanation and concluded that the fire was consistent with what might happened if  “60 litres of flammable liquid had been poured using an unusually wide-mouthed container like a bucket” on to the floor of the coach and set alight.

Why did the Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) so comprehensively debunk the claims made in the police’s chargesheet? The answer could be that  Modi had learned through the intelligence department that the Concerned Citizens’ Tribunal (CCT), headed by former Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, was planning to visit Godhra in the beginning of May. The Ghanchi Muslim revenge plot explanation was therefore about to come apart.

This is what the CCT concluded after its own visit:

“On 7-5-2002, we inspected the coach and the site where it was burnt. The site where the train stopped is an elevated bund. From the ground level, the height of the bund could be about 12-15 feet and it is a slope. At the top, there is hardly enough space for 2,000 persons to assemble on either side of the track. Assuming that so many had gathered at that spot, the crowd would be spread over a much larger area than the stretch of coach S-6. This is only to indicate that if the government version is true, the other coaches would have been as easy a target as Coach S-6.

Again, if one takes into account the height of the bund and the height of the train, and if fire-balls were to be thrown at the train, the outside of the coach should have shown signs of being charred. But we found that there were no such marks below the windows; the charred marks were to be seen only around the windows and above that height. This is a clear indication that the fire started inside the coach and the flames leaping out of the windows singed the outside of the compartment, above window level (emphasis added). Therefore, even to the naked eye, it was clear that the fire was from within and not from outside.

But if the fire started within, who could have possibly lit it? The Gujarat government needed an answer that would justify the collective punishment that the Hindu community had inflicted upon the Muslims in the days that followed. Building on the FSL’s ‘scientific’ analysis, the police came up with a new explanation. Investigating officers claimed that some Muslims had boarded the train when it stopped opposite Signal Falia, cut the vestibule connecting S-6 and S-7, forcibly entered S-6 and poured 60 litres of petrol down the corridor and set a match to it.

The absurdities in this theory have been pointed out many times in the last two decades. First, since buckets would have had to be carried by hand, and very few buckets have a capacity of more than 20 litres, a minimum of  three buckets would have had to be carried on to the train. Would a train jam-packed with hyped-up kar sewaks spoiling for a fight have allowed three persons carrying buckets of a fluid whose smell is easily recognisable to board the train at a place where a large crowd of hostile Muslims had already collected? Clearly not, which is why the police could not find a single passenger to corroborate this absurd claim.

Curiously, the FSL’s ‘experts’ based their 60 litres calculation upon how far the liquid would travel in an empty carriage, not one that was jampacked with people whose shoes, and luggage, would have come in the wayFor, as the tally of the dead and injured showed, there were at least 108 persons in the carriage when the fire broke out, not counting those who escaped before the rush of panic-stricken passengers to the doorways began. It is inconceivable that forensic experts could have made such an elementary mistake. So the only explanation is that they were commanded to find another explanation that would continue to point the finger of blame at the Muslim community. And they obliged.

In Ahmedabad, on February 27, 2002, VHP cadres roamed the streets announcing that a large number of kar sevaks returning from their holy mission in Ayodhya had been burnt alive by Muslims in Godhra. On February 28, they took processions through the city, holding the charred (and unrecognisable) corpses high to build up the mountainous wave of hate that broke upon the city the next morning. However reprehensible their actions were considered, no one doubted them, and almost no one doubts even today that these were indeed the corpses of kar sevaksBut a close analysis of the identities of the passengers in the ill-fated S-6 carriage shows that most of those who died were ordinary passengers who had boarded the train at Lucknow and intermediate stops, before it was swamped by kar sewaks in Ayodhya.

The railway booking chart for the carriage at Lucknow shows that 43 of the 72 berths in carriage S-6 had confirmed bookings. Of these 19 were for adult males, 19 were for adult females and five were for minors. More than half of the booked passengers were families travelling together. Another 23 passengers had boarded the train at intermediate stations. Since they all had berths, few if any would have been near the vestibules at the two ends of the carriage, and therefore in a position to escape when the fire started.

The first to die would have been the weakest among them, the women and the children. The forensic examination of the dead, carried out three days later, confirmed this for it showed that whereas 20 of the dead were men, 26 were women, and 12 were children. In all, 38 of the 58 dead were of the wrong sex and age to have been kar sevaksEven among the male casualties, a large number, probably the majority, would have died because they stayed with their families, trying to get out till the smoke overwhelmed them.

The number of kar sevaks killed may have been even smaller for, as the Concerned Citizens’ Tribunal headed by Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer pointed out, all but a fraction of these were physically fit young men who, having muscled their way on to the train, were more likely to be at the ends of the carriage than the middle, and would have been able to muscle their way out of the burning carriage with relative ease. That many did indeed do so is suggested by the fact that of the 43 persons who are known to have managed to escape from the carriage, only five needed to be hospitalised. Taking all this into account, it is unlikely that even a dozen of those killed were kar sevaks.

Looking back at the events of  February 27, 2002, it is difficult not to conclude that it was the day when India’s voyage to modern nationhood began to fail. For Godhra brought Narendra Modi to power in Gujarat, and started him on the road to becoming the prime minister of India. Modi consolidated his party’s power in Gujarat by sowing fear and suspicion between communities. He is now doing the same in India. And there is no one to stop him.

Prem Shankar Jha is a senior journalist and former editor. He is the author of Dawn of the Solar Age: an End to Global Warming and Fear (Sage 2017) and is currently a visiting fellow at the Centre for Environment Studies, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard University.  

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Like the Pulwama suicide bombing in 2019, the hijab controversy has come as an unsolicited gift to a BJP government that has been on its back feet since its mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis last year.

Debate: Thanks to the Hijab Issue, India is Falling Once More Into the Communal Trap
Students stand outside a college as they boycott classes after being denied entry with hijab in the college premises, in Chikmagalur, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. Photo: PT

History is on the verge of repeating itself. Thirty-seven years ago, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court had given a unanimous judgment in favour of Shah Bano – a 62-year-old divorced Muslim woman – that she had the same right to alimony under Section 125 of the Code of Criminal Procedure as women of other faiths enjoyed.

This judgment upheld the opinion given earlier by two three-judge benches of the court, and pointed out that its verdict did not infringe upon the right of minorities to abide by their own personal laws because the Quran imposed an obligation on Muslim husbands “to make provision for or to provide maintenance to the divorced wife”, and Shah Bano was a Muslim. All it had done was to ensure that she got the same protection that women of other faiths were entitled to.

The judgment aroused a storm of protest from Muslim organisations. The Rajiv Gandhi government took fright and hurriedly enacted the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, which limited the wife’s right to alimony to the capital sum agreed upon by both parties at the time of marriage and three months’ worth of sustenance. Although a succession of subsequent court judgments evened the balance somewhat, they could not repair the damage this did to the secular credentials of the Congress, and of Indian democracy. Humpty Dumpty had fallen off the wall and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not put him back together again.

The Shah Bano case gave the ‘Hindutva’ renaissance that had begun around the Babri Masjid issue the intellectual respectability that it had lacked till then. Today, the hijab controversy that has erupted in Karnataka is on the verge of doing the same thing for the Modi government – just when its unending succession of blunders and callous disregard for human rights and the constitution has brought public confidence in its capacity to govern India to an all-time low.

The controversy erupted nationally on January 1, 2022, when six girl students of the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial college in Udupi gave a press conference to protest the college authorities’ denial of permission to them to keep wearing their hijabs after they entered their classrooms. This had happened four days earlier. The students portrayed the ban as an attack on their religious rights as a minority and, given the Modi government’s record of fomenting communal animosity to consolidate the ‘Hindu’ vote, this interpretation has been readily accepted  by civil society in India and abroad.

An article in The Wire by Arunima G. exemplifies this readiness. She writes: “…the present hijab vs uniform controversy … is a row engineered by the right-wing in the BJP-ruled state of Karnataka. With this, a non-issue becomes one that threatens the education of hijab Muslim students in the affected educational institutions in Udupi (and in time, elsewhere). Any number of logical rebuttals are of no value here as this has cleverly been turned into a question of upholding dress codes in schools, which with the legal turn is tied to a court judgment.” (emphasis added)

A report in the New York Times on February 11, also strikes the same tone: “In January, parents of five students petitioned the court to overturn the ban, arguing that it violated the girls’ right to an education and the free practice of their religion. Last week, the government of Karnataka issued an order in support of the school’s hijab ban. The Karnataka government is controlled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist whose eight years in power have been marked by a rise in hate speech and religiously motivated violence.”

However, the genesis of the controversy suggests the hijab was turned into a major issue not by the BJP and its state government in Karnataka but by the students themselves, presumably at the instance of the organisers of the January 1 press conference where the story first broke.

Let us look at the story step by step. Rudre Gowda, the principal of the college, has said that wearing the hijab on the college campus was not banned, but the girls were required  to take it off when they entered the classroom.  “The institution,” he was quoted by PTI as saying,“did not have any rule on hijab-wearing as such, since no one used to wear it to the classroom in the last 35 years.”

The college has 60 female Muslim students, six of whom made the hijab an issue, and no one seems to have sought out any of the remaining 54 to ascertain the veracity of the principal’s assertion. At any rate, his claim has not been controverted by anyone so far.

Leefa Mahek, one of the six protestors at the press conference, whom the New York Times interviewed, confirmed that wearing a headscarf had not been mentioned as a problem by the administrators when she was admitted to the school a year ago. So, not only had wearing headscarfs on the campus not been banned, but she had not felt sufficiently uncomfortable with having to remove it in class to make an issue of it, for an entire year.

So what made her change her mind? The answer almost certainly lies in the answer to yet another question: who arranged the press conference on January 1? Press conferences have a purpose, so the nature and objectives of the organisers need to be examined too. The January 1 press conference was organised by an organisation called the Campus Front of India, which had decided to make the hijab an issue as part of its own assertion in Karnataka’s colleges. According to the News Minute, the CFI was particularly riled by the fact that some Muslim students had participated in a protest organised by the RSS’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad.

The CFI is an offshoot of a parent organisation called the Popular Front of India. The PFI, which has its headquarters in Delhi, has a long list of allegations of violence against it, levelled not by the National Investigation Agency or the CBI but by the Kerala police, and these allegations go back to 2010, when Modi raj was not even a cloud on the horizon. However, the organisation remains legal and has not been banned even though the Centre has the ability to proscribe it under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, if it has the evidence to back it up.

In September 2018, the Kerala police arrested 16 members of the CFI on the charge of having stabbed to death Abhimanyu, a popular student of the Maharaja’s College at Ernakulam. Abhimanyu was district president of the  CPI(M)-affiliated Students’ Federation of India. The killing, which was almost certainly unintended, resulted from a fight between cadres of the CFI and the SFI, over which organisation would get to paint its slogans on a particular wall in the college campus.

Such politically inspired fracas are tragically common on college campuses in India, so it would be wrong to deduce, without further proof, that the CFI’s sponsorship of the six girls’ press conference is part of a ‘conspiracy’ to create communal tension. But, as the confrontation between immaculately saffron-clad boys and girls and hijab-clad girls at various locations in Karnataka showed, that is exactly what has resulted.

Like the Pulwama suicide bombing in 2019, the hijab controversy has come as an unsolicited gift to a BJP government that has been on its back feet since its mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis last year. With civil society leaders, Muslim organisations across India and a section of the media quickly concluding that the hijab ban is yet another exercise in Muslim baiting designed to advance the cause of Hindutva, this was just the excuse the Sangh parivar needed to shore up its support base.

All those who wish to preserve India’s pluralism and democracy therefore need to curb such knee-jerk reactions in the coming days, for they have, within them, the potential to unleash a vastly larger conflict than the one that was triggered by the Babri Masjid – one from which secularism and democracy will be the ultimate losers.

Fortunately, Karnataka is not Uttar Pradesh and Basavaraj Bommai is not Yogi Adityanath. The Karnataka government’s decision to leave it to the courts to decide the issue is both legally and morally the right thing to have done. The path to resolving this issue on the basis of law and the constitution is now open.

Prem Shankar Jha is a senior journalist and former editor. He is the author of Dawn of the Solar Age: an End to Global Warming and Fear (Sage 2017) and is currently a visiting fellow at the Centre for Environment Studies, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard University

https://thewire.in/communalism/debate-hijab-karnataka-shah-bano

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With every passing hour since the hold up on the flyover in Punjab, it is becoming more and more apparent that Modi intends to use it as an excuse for avoiding an election in Punjab that the BJP is bound to lose.

Modi Is Most Dangerous When He Senses He Is Losing Ground
Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: pmindia.gov.in

Had Prime Minister Narendra Modi not attained the height of power in politics, he would have reached the heights of fame in theatre. For that is all that his nearly uncontrollable rage at having been thwarted from reaching Hussainiwala for his scheduled public meeting on January 5 was – pure theatre. All that had happened to provoke his rage on January 5 was a 15-minute hold up on a flyover 30 km short of where he was scheduled to unveil a National Martyrs Memorial that day.

Such holdups have happened to virtually every prime minister in the past 75 years, including at least twice to Modi himself. But neither his predecessors nor he had thought of turning these minor setbacks into a pretext for declaring president’s rule and dismissing an elected state government.  

But with every passing hour since the hold up on the flyover, it is becoming more and more apparent that even if it was not engineered by the BJP from the start, Modi now intends to use that minor mishap as an excuse for avoiding an election in Punjab that he and his party are bound to lose. 

Modi’s accusation that the Punjab government was behind the farmers’ blockade is ridiculous. Neither the government nor the farmers could have known that the prime minister would be travelling by road, as the decision not to travel by helicopter because of inclement weather was taken only after he reached Bathinda airport by plane from Delhi. 

The flyover was 92 kilometres from Bathinda airport, so it would have taken ninety or so minutes for his cavalcade to reach the flyover. That is an extremely short period of time even for the farmers’ union, let alone the state government, to organise a jatha and get it to the flyover. It is far more plausible, therefore, that the blockade had been organised, as farmer leaders have insisted, to stop buses ferrying BJP supporters from reaching the meeting ground. 

Farmers stage a demonstration to block Prime Minister Narendra Modis cavalcade, in Ferozepur, January 5, 2022. Photo: PTI

Had Modi been determined to reach Hussainiwala, his cavalcade could easily have diverted to one of the many metalled rural roads with which rural Punjab is crisscrossed. A vast network of such roads has been created by mandi committees over the past several decades to facilitate the rapid transport of the harvest.

But Modi did not even contemplate doing so. It is far more likely, therefore, that he decided to turn back because he was informed by his security staff, who had been at the site for the previous five days, that the crowd turnout at the meeting ground, when the BJP had hired chairs to seat 70,000, was not very encouraging. 

Modi’s barely veiled accusation that the Punjab Congress had conspired with Khalistanis and Pakistan to put his life in danger is as ridiculous as his party’s earlier accusation that the farmers’ struggle against the new farm laws was also the work of anti-national ‘Khalistanis’. But the way in which he made it – by thanking the Punjab chief minister for “allowing him to return to Bathinda alive” – smacks of more than merely an oversized ego that does not take any setback easily.  

For Modi had an hour or more to think of what he would say to the media when he returned to Bathinda. And since then, his party has spared no effort to paint the hold up on the flyover as a premeditated attack upon the prime minister by an opposition party, and create a justification for declaring President’s rule in the state through relentless repetition of this lie till, to untutored ears, it begins to sound like the truth.  

Since then everything that the prime minister, his home minister and party men have said and done, has looked like a well rehearsed script in a theatre of evil. On January 6, Modi visited Rashtrapati Bhavan to brief President Kovind about the lapse, with the latter calling the hold up a ‘serious lapse’. 

President Ram Nath Kovind met Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on January 6 to receive “a first-hand account of the security breach” in his convoy in Punjab on January 5. Photo: Twitter/ @rashtrapatibhvn

That nothing at all actually happened on the flyover; that newspaper photographs published the next day and video clips of the alleged ‘deliberate’ security lapse show Modi’s (presumably armoured) black Toyota SUV, surrounded by no fewer than six SPG troopers carrying machine guns, none of them showing any alarm or anxiety; a vacant space for several metres all around the SUV, and on the other side of the four-lane flyover a large number of BJP demonstrators sporting saffron insignia and carrying tricolours chanting Modi’s praises, with not a single protesting farmer in sight, has not seemed to matter to a prime minister who has grown so used to manufacturing truth that he has felt no need to reign in the chorus even in order to maintain his credibility.

A dangerous game

The grounds on which Modi plans to impose President’s rule on Punjab are not hard to discern. Article 356 of the constitution, which empowered the President of India to dissolve any state legislature virtually at will, had been abused 82 times before the Bommai judgement of the Supreme Court in 1994. It has not been invoked by any government since then. That judgment allowed future Union governments to pull down an elected state government on only three non-procedural grounds but expressly disallowed it on even other grounds. 

The former are:

  1. Where a constitutional direction of the Union government is disregarded by the state government;
  2. Internal subversion where, for example, a government is deliberately acting against the constitution and the law or is fomenting a violent revolt, and 
  3. Physical breakdown where the state government wilfully refuses to discharge its constitutional obligations and thereby endangers the security of the state.

The latter are: 

  1. Where a ministry resigns or is dismissed on losing majority support in the assembly and the governor recommends imposition of President’s Rule without probing the possibility of forming an alternative ministry; 
  2. Where the governor makes his own assessment of the support of a ministry in the assembly and recommends imposition of President’s Rule without allowing the ministry to prove its majority on the floor of the assembly;
  3. Where the ruling party enjoying majority support in the assembly has suffered a massive defeat in the general elections to the Lok Sabha such as in 1977 and 1980; 
  4. On the grounds of Internal disturbances not amounting to internal subversion or physical breakdown;
  5. Allegations of maladministration in the state or allegations of corruption against the ministry or stringent financial exigencies of the state; 
  6. Where the state government is dismissed without  giving it prior warning to mend its ways.
  7. The judgement ends with a portmanteau dismissal of any purpose that is ‘extraneous or irrelevant’ to the one for which the power has been conferred on the President by the Constitution.

From home minister Amit Shah and BJP spokespersons’ endless harping on a security breach deliberately created to endanger the life of the prime minister, it is apparent that the government intends to justify using the second and third grounds for invoking Article

356 in Punjab. To make this credible, Modi and Shah are playing an incredibly dangerous game, for they are allowing their party members to harp endlessly upon the possibility that in this Sikh majority state, an insecure Congress chief minister is seeking the support of Khalistanis linked to, and backed by Pakistan, and has not hesitated to put the prime minister’s life in danger. 

As recorded by innumerable video recordings of what transpired on the flyover, this is utter nonsense for there was not even a hint of violence in the air. But Modi, and if not him then the leaders of the RSS, need to reflect on what bringing down a government headed by a Sikh on grounds that amount to treason will unleash in Punjab. For it could easily trigger a chain of events that ends in a revival of insurgency in Punjab, as the scrapping of Article 370 and imposition of what is in effect police rule is threatening to do even now in Kashmir. 

Security forces in Kashmir. Photo: PTI/Files

Even that may not be the end of the damage the BJP will do to India. Other political parties in India will see in the dismissal of the Channi government a threat to their democratic rights and take to the streets. If the BJP reacts to their demonstrations as it has done in Punjab, we could find ourselves at a crisis point for the Indian Union. 

I wish to end by showing readers where my gloomy forebodings spring from. Thirty-two years ago, Barbara Crossette, the India correspondent of the New York Times, wrote the following despatch on December 8, 1989: 

“In his first official trip out of the capital since becoming Prime Minister of India, V. P. Singh went to Amritsar today to pray at the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, promising to heal ‘the heavy, bleeding heart’ of Punjab state. Thousands have died in confrontations there in the last five years. 

In a gesture of reconciliation to a state so alienated it elected separatists to Parliament in the November elections, Mr. Singh told a largely Sikh audience at the shrine, the Golden Temple, that the heart of Punjab needs ‘a healing touch’. ‘The healing touch cannot be brought about at the point of bayonets, but with love, faith and the people’s cooperation,’ he said after riding through the town, in militant Sikh territory, in an open jeep. Indian reporters accompanying the Prime Minister said crowds surged forward along the route to greet him.” [Emphasis supplied]

Compare this to Modi sitting, brooding and nursing his anger for 15-20 minutes in an armoured SUV, and you can see the kind of prime minister India needs and the kind it does not.

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In the face of a surplus of cereals and ever-dwindling prices as a consequence, farmers with small and medium sized land holdings have tried to shift to the cultivation of perishable fruits and vegetables. Their incomes, however, are still hamstrung by a lack of rural cold storage facilities in the country.

The Farmers Have Won an Epic Battle, But the Real War Lies Ahead
Farmers return to their homes after their year-long agitation against the contentious farm reform laws, at Dhareri Jatta Toll Plaza in Patiala, Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021. Farmers have called off their agitation after receiving a formal letter from the Centre on Thursday agreeing to their pending demands. Photo: PTI

The farmers of India have won an epic victory. For 15 months, they braved the biting cold, cruel heat, misrepresentation, calumny, assault by the police and the ever-present threat of COVID-19 to wage the most disciplined and peaceful protest against government policy that this country – or for that matter any other democracy – has ever seen. More than 500 of them have lost their lives over this period to natural and man-made causes, but they have prevailed. 

This is not their victory alone; it is a victory for Indian democracy as well, for the most difficult decision that any democratic government faces is to admit that it has made a serious mistake. This is something that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has never, done. The repeal of the farm laws is therefore a first step back for him. His courage – and that of the advisers who persuaded him to take the decision – needs to be acknowledged. 

But winning a battle is not the same as winning a war. The war the farmers of India still have to fight is against the deepening crisis that grips agriculture and continues to endanger their future. This is born not out of shortages, be it of food or inputs, but of mounting surpluses of produce. It is, therefore, a crisis of overproduction, not of under-distribution.

How has this paradox occurred in a country otherwise besieged by shortages of everything else?  The short answer is: it is the unintended product of incorrect policy choices and policy failures in virtually every other sector of the economy. These have resulted in slow GDP growth, averaging just over 5% since 1951 and a highly capital-intensive industrialisation that has created very few permanent jobs and woefully few casual ones. 

Slow job creation has prevented the rural population from moving off the land, as happened during the industrialisation of Europe and the USA and, more recently, that of East and South-East Asia. Farm families have therefore been forced to live off ever-shrinking land holdings by cultivating them more intensively. It is their Herculean efforts, aided by the Green Revolution in cereals, that has created the agricultural economy of surpluses that Modi tried to ‘reform’. The measure of their success is that India today is the world’s largest exporter of rice and sugar and the second largest exporter of onions, potatoes and dairy products. 

A vendor sorts potatoes, at wholesale fruit and vegetable market in Prayagraj, October 27, 2020. Photo: PTI.

The Modi government’s motives for hurriedly passing the three farm bills last year have been condemned by farmers’ leaders  and civil society members as being a pretext for handing over this huge export bonanza to some of his favourite businessmen, who have made no secret of their interest in entering the field of agro-marketing.  Had the Bills gone through, the capture of the Indian agro-market by a handful of large companies would have been the inevitable consequence of the so-called reforms, not their purpose. 

The official purpose of the Bills was to find a way of halting the ever-rising surpluses of cereals which the government can neither dispose of, nor find a use for any longer. It was based upon recommendations, possibly drawn up in haste, by two standing committees of Parliament in 2017 and 2018; and the recommendations of neoliberal economic advisers for whom The Market is a panacea for all economic diseases, second only to God. 

Few of the policy makers who crafted the three Bills realised that the farmers not only understood their predicament but had begun trying to get out of the ‘cereals trap’ almost four decades ago. As a result, the area under cultivation for wheat and rice had first stalled as long back as the early eighties and had then begun to shrink. The first cash crops they turned to were non-perishables, notably sugarcane and cotton. But by the early nineties, farmers with small and marginal holdings but also large families and, therefore, an abundant supply of free family labour, had begun to shift to the cultivation of perishables, notably of vegetables. They were doing so because horticulture, especially vegetable farming, payed more generously. 

Manmohan Singh’s UPA government recognised this and set up a National Horticulture Mission in 2006, tasked with creating infrastructure for storing and marketing fruits and vegetables. Under its aegis, thousands of cold storages were built and a vibrant national and international market was developed for India’s fruit and vegetables. 

By March 2019, there were an estimated 7,645 large cold stores with a total refrigerated space of 150 million cubic metres in the country, capable of storing  37-39 million tonnes of perishable produce. But all of these were in towns and cities. Punjab, for instance, had 379 cold storages in 2018, but not a single one in a village. Other states are no different. 

As a result, all the benefits from the development of this infrastructure have been going to the traders and cold storage owners who bought and stored the fruit and vegetables. The horticulturalists, nearly all of whom were small and marginal farmers, found themselves in exactly the same plight as before: they had to sell all of their produce within days of its ripening, at whatever price the traders were prepared to pay. 

Lack of cold storage facilities has also made it difficult for farmers to sell their apple and pear harvests. Photo: Athar Parvaiz

Data on the wholesale prices of onions, potatoes and tomatoes, published annually by the Indian Ministry of Agriculture, shows that these prices are lowest from January to April every year – when the vegetables ripen – and rise progressively through the summer until they peak, in October and November. Without cold stores, farmers have to sell their crop as soon as it ripens, between  January and April. A study of revenues and costs for potatoes and tomatoes based on a sample survey conducted in 66 clusters of villages in Punjab found that the average price farmers obtained for their potatoes in 2015-16 was Rs. 4.77 per kg. 

This gap gets wider as the produce becomes more perishable. The agriculture ministry’s surveys of horticulture in 2019 showed that over the six years from 2014 to 2019, farmers had seldom received  more than  Rs.4-5 per kg of potatoes and onions and Rs 6-8 per kg of tomatoes. But by the end of the summer, tomatoes were selling in urban markets for more than Rs 60 per kilo. 

In the average Punjabi village, cereal farmers grow 9 tonnes of wheat and rice per hectare and sell it to the Food Corporation of India (FCI) for Rs 1,62,000. In the same village, vegetable farmers, who usually own about a quarter of the land that cereal farmers own, grow 19.93 tonnes of vegetables per hectare of land but seldom receive even Rs 1,00,000 (gross) for their produce. 

That is why, not just in Punjab but all over India, vegetable growing remains the preserve of small and marginal farmers. Cereal farmers who would like to shift out of rice and wheat look at the plight of their poorer neighbours, shudder and buy more fertilisers to sustain their rice and wheat output, clinging even more desperately to the MSP system. 

Stubble burning is a popular practice for getting rid of residues of the rice crop to prepare the land for the sowing of wheat, exacerbated by the emphasis placed on cereal production. Photo: Flickr/2011CIAT/NeilPalmer CC BY-SA 2.0.

The true solution to the crisis of agriculture is the establishment of a cold stores in every village. But cold stores need uninterrupted, stable voltage power and in the last 75 years of supposed economic development, 17 successive Union and state governments have failed to provide this to any, let alone every, village in the country. 

More than six decades of rural electrification have provided villages with an average of 14-16 hours of power supply in a day. But even this is with fluctuating voltages as well as frequent interruptions and break downs. One virtually unnoticed consequence of this has been that there is not a single grid-linked cold storage in any village in India. 

This is despite the fact that the solution has been staring us in the face for the past two decades, if not longer. It is to set up a small, 5-10 tonnes-a-day biomass gasifiers in every village (or cluster of two to three villages),  gasify the rice and wheat straw that farmers are now burning to clear their fields  in simple, air-blown gasifiers and use the lean fuel gas this yields to run a back-up generator for the power supply to the cold store. 

Cold stores in the villages are the key to a second Green Revolution that could be far more powerful than the first. By endowing farmers with the power to determine the supply of fruits and vegetables to Mandis, they will double the earnings of potato and onion growers and treble (or more) those of the more perishable produce, such as tomatoes, peas, mushrooms, spinach, salads, and okra (bhindi) and fruits such as mangoes, lychees, guavas and melons .  

What’s more, horticulturalists will not be the only beneficiaries. Biochar (the other product of crop residue gasification) is 80-90% pure, sulphur-free, carbon. It can, therefore, not only replace imported coking coal with a non-fossil fuel in the steel industry, but also replace imported oil as the primary energy source for the production of transport fuels, as Germany did during World War II and South Africa did when trade sanctions were imposed upon it in 1986 to force it to end Apartheid. 

In the 1990s, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) – then known as the Tata Energy Research Institute – had developed a simple gasifier, complete with its straw-feeding and gas cleaning systems, for less than Rs 12 lakh. But the Union and state governments never even came to know of it. With no demand from agriculture, a few thousand of these got made and were sold to small and medium scale manufacturers of dried fruit and puffed cereals in the food processing industry. 

Last year, TERI unveiled a more sophisticated – and only slightly more expensive – two-stage gasifier in a village in Odisha, which can gasify not only straw and other crop residues, but also the carbon-rich sludge that is left behind by biogas plants. But once again, no one has thought of linking this to a cold storage to transform the future of rural India. 

Last year, the Modi government drew worldwide criticism when it announced that it would set up four large coals gasification plants by 2030 to produce coal gas from 100 million tonnes of coal as a replacement for the natural gas and Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) being imported today. These plants will work far better on cleaned biochar. Moreover, the government has sanctioned the  establishment of nine such plants to produce transport fuels from coal. Not only will these work much more efficiently with biochar briquettes, they will eliminate CO2 emissions and generate vast amounts of regular, salaried employment in rural areas, where it is needed most. 

The Bharatiya Kisan Union has achieved its immediate purpose and staved off disaster but it should now use the bonds it has forged within India’s vast community of farmers to promote policies  and technologies that will enable farmers to break out of the cereals trap on their own and in their own time. Biomass gasification is the most promising of these policies. But as described above, there is a wealth of others to choose from.

Prem Shankar Jha is a senior journalist and former editor. He is the author of Dawn of the Solar Age: an End to Global Warming and Fear (Sage 2017) and is currently a visiting fellow at the Centre for Environment Studies, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard University.   

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The deal the Trump administration struck with the Taliban on February 29, 2020 in Doha was little more than an abject surrender.

Instead of Pointing Fingers, Focus on Creating Spaces Where Afghan Liberal Spirit Can Survive
People carry Afghan flags as they take part in an anti-Taliban protest in Jalalabad, Afghanistan August 18, 2021 in this screen grab taken from a video. Photo: Pajhwok Afghan News/Handout via Reuters

With devastating suddenness, history has repeated itself: 46 years ago, Americans had to be evacuated from the rooftop of the US embassy in Saigon. This week, they were evacuated from the rooftop of the US embassy in Kabul. American public opinion has already begun to look for scapegoats, and President Joe Biden is in danger of being  selected, despite the fact that it was Donald Trump who took the pivotal decision that led to this second humiliation.  The coming days will see a deluge of recrimination and finger pointing, but none of it will serve an iota of purpose.

India’s strategic analysts will do their share of it. Many of those fingers will point at Pakistan. President Ashraf Ghani  started the ball rolling by accusing Pakistan of sending 10,000 Mujahideen into Afghanistan in the past few months to bolster the Taliban offensive. There is no reason not to believe him, for had a government in New Delhi been caught in Islamabad’s predicament, it would probably have done the same thing.

That predicament is the likelihood of history repeating itself. The deal the Trump administration struck with the Taliban on February 29, 2020 in Doha was little more than an abject surrender. All that the Taliban agreed to was that it would not allow al-Qaeda, or any other terrorist force, to operate in the areas it controlled. Since the Americans cannot tell one ‘raghead’ from another, this was an empty commitment.

Not only was the Ghani government not a party to it, but none of its concerns were taken on board. So it was no surprise that the agreement contained no explicit commitment by the Taliban to refrain from the use of force against the Ghani government, and no requirement, let alone a time-bound one, within which to work out the modalities of power sharing with the Ghani government. And no penalties if it did not.

The US took this agreement to Kabul for its ‘talks’ with the Ghani government only after it had signed its agreement with the Taliban. One does not need any great acumen to understand the significance of this action: it meant that the US and the Taliban had decided the future of Afghanistan. This became apparent when the US agreed in Doha to a Taliban demand that Kabul release 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 Afghan soldiers, as a pre-condition to its holding follow-up talks with Kabul from March 10, 2020.

The prisoner exchange did not take place, so neither did the talks. But that did not deter the Trump administration from proceeding with the pullout. It would therefore have been surprising indeed if the Ghani government – the democratic government that the West had itself helped to create – did not consider this agreement and its aftermath to be a betrayal. This was compounded by the US’s refusal to supply the 300,000 plus Afghan national army with any of the modern attack helicopters, fixed wing military  aircraft and logistical systems that enabled US and ISAF forces in Afghanistan to call up an air strike within three minutes of coming under attack by the Taliban.

A handout photo obtained from Twitter via @Bw_Einsatz on August 17, 2021 shows evacuees from Afghanistan as they arrive in an Airbus A400 transport aircraft of the German Air Force Luftwaffe in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Photo: Marc Tessensohn/Twitter @Bw_Einsatz/Handout via Reuters

The US did not even consider the alternative, of leaving squadrons of its own air force at Bagram and a few other strategic air bases to provide air support for the Afghan army, although it has kept and continues to keep it there to facilitate the pullout of the remaining American troops.

In the face of this rampant, racist colonialism, can anyone blame Ghani for deciding that he would not be a party to Afghans shedding still more of other Afghans’ blood, only to ensure a slightly less humiliating exit for the Americans from Afghanistan? Whether this was his intention all along or not, far from betraying his people, Ghani has saved thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of lives, and prevented a third destruction of Kabul in 30 years.

In fact, seeing the speed with which Ghani surrendered Kabul, it cannot be ruled out that the Taliban’s lightning advance was also facilitated by the government having decided, secretly, to avoid a war over other cities as well. Ghani may also have been motivated by the hope, probably well-founded, that an army which enters a city peacefully will  behave far more responsibly towards its civilians and not indulge in the pillage, murder and rape that usually follows, because it will be relatively free of the bloodlust that the stress of conflict, fear of death and the injury and death of comrades brings out in soldiers.

The real losers in Afghanistan – the sacrificial victims of Ghani’s surrender – will be members of Afghanistan’s still renascent but rapidly growing civil society, who had trusted the ISAF’s promise to create a peaceful and free society. These are the people TV has shown clambering onto the few civilian aircraft still leaving Kabul on Monday. In numerical terms they may be few. But the blow to human freedom that their exit or, worse still, incarceration and death will inflict upon Afghan liberals’ struggle for freedom will be humanity’s real loss.

It is one that this poor, benighted, country will not recover from during our lifetimes. The duty of the rest of the world today is therefore to provide the sanctuary in which the Afghan liberal spirit can survive. India has been the favoured destination of Afghan refugees since the overthrow of King Zahir Shah. The Narendra Modi government can still redeem itself if it opens India’s doors to the new wave of refugees that is now developing, once more.

Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi-based former journalist and editor. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger—Can China and India Dominate the West.

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We do need to remember the horrors of Partition, to remind ourselves not to allow, let alone participate in, a destruction of the uniquely tolerant fusion of religions that India created over three millennia.

PM Modi, at the End of His Tether, Is Intent on Wilful Destruction of Syncretism

Had Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered the long Independence Day panegyric to himself two years later, even his bitterest critics would have regarded it as nothing more than the starting gun of the BJP’s 2024 election campaign. But the fact that he chose to give it when he is not even half way through his current term in office shows that he is not only at the end of his tether but knows it. 

From failed economic promises to misbegotten economic reforms; from relentless communal polarisation, to the crushing of civil dissent and the destruction of citizens’ fundamental right to liberty, he has tried everything to shore up the superman image of himself that he has tirelessly built over the past seven years.

But, as India Today’s ‘Mood of the Nation 2021′ poll has shown, his approval rating as prime minister has plummeted from 66 to 24% in a single year. 

But Modi is a fighter and is not prepared to give up. That is the message he has sent out with his decision to commemorate  August 14 as the ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’. The announcement is mystifying, to say the least. The slaughter and displacement of millions that it triggered have turned the memory of what should have been the most memorable event of my life into one that I have unthinkingly avoided for the whole of my life. Why is Modi reminding me of it now?

The government’s notification says that the country needs ‘to remember the Pain and Violence of Partition”. But BJP president, J.P. Nadda has been more forthright. “Partition,” Nadda intoned, “created the circumstances (opportunity) for the politics of appeasement and negativity to dominate our politics (Vibhajan se utpann paristhitiyon ne tushtikaran ki rajneeti aur nakaratmak shaktiyon ko haavi hone ka mauka diya).”  

Nadda’s remark does more than explain Modi’s purpose: it gives us a glimpse of a dark mind that confuses negotiation with cowardice, and compromise with surrender. And it gives us a terrifying glimpse of where this government could take us in the next three years in Modi’s determination to avoid both at no matter what cost to his country and people.

Partition did turn Indian Independence into an event that evokes only painful memories – a “horror”. But not because it involved any weakness or appeasement on Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru’s part. On the contrary, because they had no previous experience of statecraft, both the Congress and Muslim League leaders dallied over decision-making and fought small battles with each other till the opportunity for fruitful compromise was taken away by others less scrupulous and more hungry for power than themselves. 

India’s last two prime ministers, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Dr Manmohan Singh, had understood this and come within a hairsbreadth of repairing the damage that Partition had done to the entire sub-continent. But in the last seven years, Modi has succeeded in undoing everything they had achieved. Today, with the Taliban back in power in Afghanistan, and relations with both China and Pakistan at an all-time low, even the truncated India that Partition left us with is in greater danger than it has ever been. 

A file image of former Prime Minister, late Atal Bihari Vajpayee, with his Pakistani counterpart Parvez Musharraf. Photo: PTI/File

So, much as I would not like to, I too find it necessary to revisit the “horrors of Partition,” to learn how we allowed ourselves to be plunged into them, so as not to plunge into them once more. 

The first misconception is that the Muslims of India were bent upon carving out a separate state for themselves. Partition was not the original objective of the Muslim League. Jinnah’s goal, from the day he agreed to become the president of the newly formed Muslim League in 1916, was to obtain a guarantee of the rights of minorities, with one-third representation of Muslims in all legislatures, based upon reserved constituencies. This was why he remained a member of the Congress even after being elected the head of the Muslim League.   

Twenty four years later, the March 1940 Lahore resolution of the party, which is now universally regarded as its “Partition Resolution,” resolved only to create “an autonomous or semi-independent Muslim majority region within the larger Indian confederation.”

This was not only Jinnah’s preference but that of the two large Muslim majority provinces of the country, Punjab (which then stretched from Delhi till the Khyber pass) and Bengal. 

Punjab was ruled by the Unionist Party, in coalition with the Akalis and the Congress. This had been led, till his death, by Sir  Sikandar Hayat Khan, who was adamantly opposed to Partition because this would require “disrupting the Punjab and the Unionist Party, and he was not prepared to accept that”. Although the Muslim League had made impressive advances in the Muslim reserved constituencies, the Unionists had remained the dominant party in the province. 

Opposition to Partition was even more vehement in Bengal. Its Prime Minister, H.S Suhrawardy, was a stalwart of the Muslim League who shared Jinnah’s vision of a confederal India in which Punjab and Bengal would form the major part of the Muslim-governed areas of the county. When Lord Mountbatten unveiled an interim Partition plan in April 1947 that involved the partition of both Punjab and Bengal, Suhrawardy opposed it vehemently and proposed the creation of an independent, united Bengal. In a stirring speech on April 27 in Delhi, he said:

“Let us pause for a moment to consider what Bengal can be if it remains united. It will be a great country, indeed the richest and the most prosperous in India capable of giving to its people a high standard of living, where a great people will be able to rise to the fullest height of their stature…”

The significant phrase in his advocacy was ‘the most prosperous in India’

Unless this was a slip of the tongue, Suhrawardy did not propose the creation of a separate state of Bengal. He wanted a United Bengal that remained part of an as yet undefined Indian confederation. What is equally significant is that his proposal did not raise hackles in the Congress, for several of the party’s leaders in Bengal, like Sarat Chandra Bose and Kiran Shankar Roy, felt that there was a good deal of merit in it. The Congress opposed it only after it began to be interpreted, notably by Sir Fredric Burroughs, the Governor of Bengal, as a proposal to create a separate dominion of Bengal as one of three successor regimes in India.

So what was it that triggered the holocaust that followed? 

The short answer is the campaign of ‘Direct Action’, i.e ethnic cleansing – begun by an increasingly radicalised Muslim League to force the creation of “Pakistan”. Its chosen instrument was the Muslim League National Guard, which had been started in 1931 as a youth wing of the League, but been revived at a meeting of the League’s ‘Committee of Action’ at a Lahore in 1946 to serve a different, murderous end.  

Calcutta, after the 1946 riots. Photo: Public domain

By August 16, 1946, when it initiated the planned killing of Hindus in Calcutta, the Muslim Guard, as it came to be called, had 22,000 members. In Calcutta, ‘Direct Action’ served the radicals’ purpose by causing the angered Hindus to retaliate. More than 4,000 lives were lost and, in a preview of what was to happen a year  later, both Hindus and Muslims began to move to safer parts of the city.

In the ensuing months, ‘Direct Action’ spread to the NWFP and Punjab and culminated in an organised massacre of Sikhs in Rawalpindi. By December, it had forced virtually all the Hindu and Sikh traders and land-owners of the NWFP and Northern Punjab to flee to eastern Punjab, Delhi and Muzaffarabad in Kashmir. ‘Direct Action’ spread to Noakhali in Bengal in October 1946, and to the rest of Punjab in December.

The resulting breakdown of law and order that followed, in particular the communalisation of the police and lower bureaucracy, forced the Unionist-Akali-Congress coalition government, then headed by Sir Sikandar Hayat’s son Khizr Hayat Khan, to resign in March 1947. Only weeks later, ‘Direct Action’ achieved its purpose when the Congress reluctantly accepted the Partition of India, stating that  it was doing so only to prevent the ‘communal poison from spreading to the rest of the country and tearing its social fabric apart’.

There is thus ample justification for holding the Muslim League responsible for initiating the communal violence that tore India apart in the next 12 months, but none for laying the blame at the doorstep of ordinary Muslims. For the express purpose of ‘Direct Action’ was to break Indian Muslims’ traditional support of the Congress

To do this, the radicals in the League deliberately aroused two of the basest motives in human nature: greed and lust.

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