Prem Shankar Jha

The Supreme Court of India has taken several questionable decisions in recent years. But its June 24
judgement dismissing Zakia Jafri’s appeal against the Court-appointed Special Investigation Team’s
exoneration of chief Minister Narendra Modi yet again from his share of the responsibility for the
Gujarat riots of 2002, and therefore of responsibility for her husband and their relatives’ death in the
Gulberg society massacre, is the most questionable of them all.

Questionable may well be an understatement: a better word could be ‘destructive’. For with this
judgement the Supreme Court has destroyed whatever faith civil society had retained in the fairness of
Indian jurisprudence. For not only did Justice Khanwilkar and fellow judges dismiss Mrs. Jafri’s
petition with two contemptuous words, “without merit”, and a taunting question: “ why did she take 16
years to file this appeal”, but they devoted a significant amount of its judgement, close to a third of its
416 pages, to vilifying Teesta Setalvad, the founder of Citizens for Justice and Peace and Mrs Jafri’s
adviser since 2006, and Sanjiv Bhatt and R.B. Sreekumar, two officials of the State Intelligence Bureau
whose testimony Mrs Jafri had been relying upon in her quest for justice.

Nor did the learned judges stop there, for in paragraph after paragraph, they virtually invited the
government to prosecute these three on the grounds that it was they , not Modi’s Gujarat government,
who had concocted ‘a larger conspiracy to keep the pot (of Modi’s culpability in the Gujarat riots)
boiling”. And they did this when none of the three were petitioners in the case! This attack on members of civil society who were not even appearing before the court, could well be a precedent not only in Indian but global jurisprudence.

The doubts about the learned judges’ motives aroused by their intemperate recorded judgement do not
end there. For the judgement is 416 pages long, but the Gujarat police arrived in Mumbai to arrest
Setalvad within a day of its being given. The arrest of Sreekumar and re-arrest of Sanjiv Bhatt , to
discrediting whom the Judges had also devoted more than fifty pages of their judgement followed within
hours.

Did the Gujarat police have speed readers in its service, or was it, perchance, given a copy of the
judgement before it was pronounced? However improbable this is, the mere fact that the suspicion exists
, and is being voiced, highlights the depths of the distrust that has now developed between the highest
court and ‘l’etat civile’—civil society – that, has been protecting individual rights and constitutional
freedoms in other democracies since their inception, and has been doing so with increasing vigour in
India as the danger toit from Modi-ism has developed over the past eight years.
On June 28 , three days after Teesta’s arrest, former Supreme Court Judge Madan Lokur asked , in these
columns, “ Did the Supreme Court intend or suggest that Teesta Setalvad should be arrested?” If it did
not then it was incumbent upon it to say so. But the Court has remained silent till this day, thereby re-in
forcing the suspicion this was indeed what the three judges on this bench had had in mind. Through its
silence, therefore, the Court has made itself a party to the wholesale destruction of habeas corpus– the
right of citizens to freedom until proven guilty of a crime punishable by imprisonment that is the cornerstone of democracy, and has been under especially heavy attack since the Sangh Parivar came to
power in 2014.

Why has the Supreme Court stooped so low? Ever since judges began accepting lucrative post retirement posts after giving judgements that were to this government’s liking, Civil Society has begun to suspect the worst of motives. Former chief justice K Sathasivan, a highly respected chief Justice with several benchmark judgements to his credit, had set the ball rolling when he accepted the Governorship of Kerala only weeks after he stepped down from the Court in 2014. Sathasivan had been a member of the three-judge bench headed by justice D.K Jain that had accepted the Gujarat government’s plea to stop monitoring the Zakia Jafri case and hand it back to the Gujarat judiciary, after the SIT presented its
preliminary report exonerating Modi of any ‘prosecutable’ offences . This had enabled the Modi
government in Gujarat to fill vacancies in the SIT with its nominees and turned the SIT’s 2012 closure
report into a farce. Did he not realise that when he accepted the governorship of Kerala, he would be
reinforcing civil society’s fear that Modi was intent upon corrupting the highest court of the land?
Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi strengthened this fear when he followed in Sathasivan’s footsteps and
accepted nomination by the Modi government to the Rajya Sabha with equal celerity. Civil society’s
suspicions hardened still further when former CBI director R.K Raghavan, who had been kept on as the
head of a redundant SIT for another five years, was appointed India’s ambassador to Cyprus within five
months of resigning from it. Raghavan had accepted these sinecures despite the fact that his own SIT had commented adversely on Modi’s keeping the three senior-most civil servants who had attended the late night meeting at his home on february27, 2002 in post-retirement posts through the entire period of the investigation, to shut their mouths.

The suspicions aroused all over the world by the Supreme Courts latest dismissal of Zakia Jafri’s petition
are therefore understandable. But assuming the worst about the Khanwilkar bench’s judgement will serve
no purpose because it will only hasten the catastrophe that civil society fears the most. This is the
collapse of the last pillar upon which the battered remnants of our democracy still rests.

To understand this fear it is necessary to look at the case from the judges point of view. Zakia Jafri’s plea
was not about the Gulberg massacre. The Supreme Court had monitored this , and eight other specific
cases. The Gulberg trial had resulted in 24 convictions and 32 acquittals. Zakia Jafri’s FIR ,which she
had submitted first to the Gujarat police after the riots, and when it took no action, to the Gujarat High
Court, had accused the decision makers in the government of Gujarat of actively conspiring to let the
riots happen. The wording of the FIR was explicit:
“I beg to bring to your kind notice the deliberate and intentional failure of the State
Government to protect the life and property of innocent denizens of this country
through a well-executed and sinister criminal conspiracy amongst the accused above
named, that resulted in the breakdown of Constitutional Governance in the State… since
2002, when a mass carnage was orchestrated by the most powerful in the State
Executive using pressure and connivance of the State Administration and Law and
Order Machinery there …..”

Heading the list of 62 conspirators was Narendra Modi, in 2006 the chief minister of Gujarat, and since
2014 the prime minister of India. This petition created a serious problem for the Supreme Court – how to avoid a truly serious “judicial overreach” that would destroy the position the Court had built as the final
guardian of citizens’ rights when these were threatened by actions of the executive or enactments by the
legislature.

This role was not spelt out anywhere in the Constitution, but had been created by the Court itself as
India’s democracy had matured and in some respects soured, in the decades that followed. . The
constitution had spelt out the original, appellate and advisory jurisdiction of the Supreme Court in in
articles 132-134 and 143-144. Its appellate jurisdiction allowed it to entertain appeals in Civil matters in
cases that ‘involved a substantial question of law of general importance’, and in Criminal matters if a
High court had, on appeal, reversed the order of acquittal of an accused and sentenced him to death, or
had withdrawn for trial before itself any case from a subordinate court’.

These were highly restrictive clauses, but their severity was mitigated by a clause that allowed the
Supreme Court to give ‘special leave to appeal’ if it was satisfied that a case did not involve any question
of law. It was under this last, omnibus permission that it had assumed the role of protecting the rights of
citizens as the shortcomings of Indian democracy began to surface. It’s adjudication under this last
transformed the Court from being the court of final appeal on points of law, usually affordable only to the
rich and powerful, into the final guardian of the rights and freedoms that have been guaranteed to the
people in the Constitution.

In two memorable lectures given under the auspices of the Palkhivala foundation in 2007 and 2017,Harish Salve, a former solicitor-general of India, traced the origins of judicial activism to what he labelled “the Krishna Iyerisation “of Jurisprudence in India in 1970s. In Salve’s words, “before him the Supreme Court was the Supreme Court of India. Justice Krishna Iyer made it the Supreme Court for Indians”.

In his 2007 lecture Salve highlighted four pivotal issues on which the Supreme Court did this. A decade
later he identified three more. But in 2007, and again much more forcefully in 2017, Salve also warned
that judicial activism could create its own perils. Chief of these was that the more citizens came to rely
upon it to enforce the rule of law and ensure justice and equity in governance, the greater would become
the risk of popular disillusionment if it failed. But Salve also did not hide his concern that ‘where the
Court steps in too often, it builds up hopes that it will not be able to deliver’. ‘The court has neither the
sword nor the purse’ he warned. ‘If popular will turns against it, the institution (will be) destroyed’. He
placed the blame for this squarely upon the legislatures and the central and state administrations, accusing ‘those in power (who) cannot arrive at a consensus on (abiding by the spirit of the constitution and) keeping the judiciary above suspicion.’

With the BJP’s ascension to power at the Centre, the abuse of citizens’ rights became normal so the chasm between the executive and the judiciary widened rapidly. Zakia Jafri’s appeal to the Supreme Court in 2017 made it unbridgeable because its principal accused was now the Prime Minister of India. This put the Supreme Court in an impossible position: Not entertaining her petition would have further eroded the confidence of the public in the Judiciary’s guardianship of its rights. But reopening the case would create a constitutional crisis.

The open rancour that its judgement displays towards civil society activists reflects it’s extreme
discomfort with the position in which it found itself . It could not ignore the fate that had befallen the
victims of the Gujarat riots. It could not therefore deny Mrs Jafri another hearing of her case. But it also knew that if it conceded her request for a fresh inquiry, Narendra Modi was even less likely to stepdown
for its duration than Mrs Indira Gandhi had been in 1975. The risk of another head on clash between the
executive and the judiciary that could, this time, bring India’s democracy to a permanent end, was
therefore immense.

This could be the reason why the Khanwilkar bench summarily dismissed Mrs. Jafri’s appeal. It did this
by concentrating upon the process , and not the content of the investigation, and finding no fault with it.
It concluded, unsurprisingly, that due process had been followed: The Supreme Court had created the
Raghavan SIT; the SIT had submitted a report ; the report had been criticised by the Court’s Amicus
Curiae; the court had sent the report back to the SIT for revision in the light of his comments; the SIT had
submitted a revised report indicting some more people but confirming Modi’s exoneration ‘for lack of
prosecutable evidence’. When the Sathasivan bench accepted this ‘closure’ report, ended its monitoring of the SIT and handed the case back for further action to the Gujarat government, ignoring the fact that it was headed by the person who was principal accused in the petition, it closed the door for any further
pursuit of justice in Gujarat. Judgements made in hindsight are seldom of any real value, but one needs to be made because crimes like the one committed in 2002, can occur again in our increasingly polarised communal society. The cause of justice would have been better served if Mrs. Jafri had accused the Modi government not of a criminal conspiracy, but a dereliction of “Chain of Command Responsibility”.
Command Responsibility is one of the oldest precepts of law in the world, for its origins can be traced
back to Sun Tzu’s 6th century BC masterpiece The Art of War. It entered into modern international law
when it was codified in The Hague convention of 1899 and updated in the convention of 1907.

While conspiracy requires proof of commission, establishing Chain of Command Responsibility requires
only proof of deliberate omission , i.e a conscious failure to act in accordance with the law . It was used in
1946 after the Second World War, to indict General Yamashita, who was the Japanese governor of the
Philippines, because his soldiers committed innumerable atrocities against civilians and prisoners of war.
The concept was refined to avoid misuse two years later in a celebrated American case labelled the High
Command Case, where the US Supreme court decided that for a commander to be held criminally liable
for the actions of his subordinates “there must be a personal dereliction” which “can only occur where the act is directly traceable to him or where his failure to properly supervise his subordinates constitutes
criminal negligence on his part based upon a wanton, immoral disregard of the action of his subordinates
amounting to acquiescence.”[1]

There is a tonne of evidence that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad intended to use the Godhra train burning to
launch a pogrom o Muslims the next day, but the entire case of criminal conspiracy against Modi and his
principal lieutenants rested upon the remark Modi was alleged to have made in his late night meeting with police chiefs on February 27, advising them not to prevent the inevitable Hindu backlash that would occur the next day. Whatever one may choose to believe about the motives of the participants in the meeting, legally this case became untenable when all the participants in it claimed that the principal whistle blowers, Sanjiv Bhat, R.B Sreekumar and Haren Pandya had not even been present at the meeting.

So when the SIT exonerated chief minister Modi for lack of prosecutable evidence Mrs Jafri would have
been on much stronger ground if she had launched a fresh case against the Gujarat government based
upon a precise enunciation of the Chain Of Command Responsibility doctrine. To prove this all she
would have needed to show was that, knowing fully well the backlash that was bound to follow after the
VHP had taken over the bodies of the deceased, and consciously allowing it to do so, the government had done nothing to prevent it.

Such a case would have been difficult to disprove because in 2010 Citizens for Justice and Peace, the
organisation founded by Teesta Setalvad and her husband Javed Anand, had unearthed cell-phone
records which showed that “Ahmedabad police commissioner P C Pande had spoken to joint
commissioner of police M K Tandon six times during the period when the latter was present at Gulberg
Society and the mob was growing restive. Though Tandon was accompanied by “striking force” equipped to disperse a riotous mob, he left Gulbarg Society without taking any corrective action and his departure led to the massacre …”[2]
.

That opportunity has been missed and will return only when Modi and the BJP are no longer in power.

[1] Command Responsibility and Superior Orders in the Twentieth Century – A Century of Evolution:
http://www.murdoch.edu.au/elaw/issues/v10n1/hendin101_text.html
[2] Mitta, Manoj (25 April 2010). “Post-Godhra riots: Teesta digs up call records”. The Times of India.

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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.

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



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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Contrary to what the international media would have us believe, Russia’s decision makers are neither naïve nor rash.

A view shows graves of civilians killed during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine April 19, 2022. Photo: Reuters/Alexander Ermochenko/File Photo

Sten Widmalm’s broadside, not only on my understanding of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but also on what he considers my moral ambivalence, has confirmed a suspicion that has been lurking in my mind not just since February this year, but since the Euromaidan uprising of 2014.

I have already condemned Russia’s attack on Ukraine. As Talleyrand once put it, it was worse than a crime; it was a mistake. But not because it came from nowhere. It was a mistake because it triggered a chain of consequences that are becoming increasingly difficult to control.

Contrary to what the international media would have us believe, Russia’s decision makers are neither naïve nor rash. In the 31 years since the breakup of the Soviet Union, they have made only one foray outside their immediate security perimeter. This was its targeted attack on ISIS – the putative Islamic State – in Syria. ISIS, Widmalm might remember, was a product of the mess that the US and NATO had made in Iraq, Libya and Syria. It was not the Americans but the Russians that helped to clean things up.

Russia’s two forays within its security perimeter have both been defensive in nature. The first, in 2008 into Georgia, ended in the creation of the republics of Abkhazia, which occupies virtually the entire Georgian coast of the Black Sea, and South Ossetia. The second was the annexation of Crimea. Both were triggered by NATO’s naval expansion into the Black Sea.

Russia had good reason to mistrust NATO. In 2008, the military alliance said it would like Georgia to join. Was it merely a coincidence that NATO ramped up its annual naval exercise in the Black Sea called Sea Breeze in that very same year? This was no minor flag-showing exercise; by 2011 it involved 32 ships from as many countries.

The second, graver provocation, which led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, may also have originated in the Sea Breeze exercises. In 2011, a US missile cruiser joined the NATO naval exercise for the first time. Russia’s anxiety over this development was bound to have been heightened by the fact that, only weeks earlier, a similar American ship had fired 133 tomahawk missiles into the Tripoli region of Libya and destroyed virtually the whole of Gaddafi’s military infrastructure in a single night. The possibility that, given a strong enough pretext, it could do the same to the mammoth Russian naval base in Crimea, could hardly not have entered its leaders’ minds.

After Ukraine became independent, Russia had retained Sevastopol, only on the basis of a 25-year lease that expired in 2044. With extreme right wing sentiment on the rise in Ukraine, its planned admission into NATO and the blanket protection that Article 5 of NATO’s charter, which enjoins collective defence of any member that is under attack, would have heightened the temptation for a future government to blackmail Russia, or even cut the thread of the lease  altogether. That was a risk which Russia decided it could not take. So it invaded and annexed Crimea.

Both the Russian invasions can therefore be traced back to one cause – the continuing expansion of NATO even after the enemy it had been created to fight had ceased to exist.

In the decades since the Cold War ended, a legion of foreign policy analysts in the West have done their best to disprove this. Their constant refrain has been that the US made no commitment to Gorbachev that it would not allow NATO to expand one inch eastwards. The most they are prepared to concede is that James Baker, George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state, made this commitment to Gorbachev for only Germany, whose sudden reunification in 1989 had not been foreseen by either government.

But the official record of Baker’s meetings with Gorbachev in preparation for his summit meeting with Bush at Camp David on May 31, 1990, which was declassified in 2020, says otherwise. An exhaustive analysis of the declassified documents under a programme of the George Washington University, titled “National Security Archives: The Washington/Camp David Summit 30 years Ago”, has summed up the relevant part of those documents as follows:

“Last but not least, the issue of German unification and its potential membership in NATO drew extended discussion, with Baker offering nine assurances about changing the character of NATO from a military to a political alliance not threatening to Moscow. …The documents show ( the summary goes on)  that Gorbachev came to Washington determined to push for his idea of a European security structure, or the “common European home.”  He envisioned a gradual transformation of NATO and the Warsaw Pact into political organizations and their subsequent dissolution as the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) would become institutionalized and subsume NATO security functions.”

The CSCE had been established in Helsinki in 1975 by the US, Canada and 33 European nations including the Soviet Union. Gorbachev wanted to breathe new life into it and make it a truly European organisation. Had the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact survived, he might well have succeeded. But both broke up barely a year after the Camp David meeting and NATO was left as the sole politico-military organisation in Europe. In the next 20 years, it absorbed all the Warsaw Pact countries and, in doing so, brought a military organisation in search of enemies to the former Soviet Union’s doorstep. Then, after the “Orange” revolution of 2005,  it began to woo Ukraine.

Before I close my response to Widmalm, I would like to touch briefly upon three other points he has made in his attempt to discredit me. First, yes, I stand corrected: Japan did join the tripartite alliance in 1940, not 1941. But it did so three months after President Roosevelt cut off  the export of strategic materials, including oil, to Japan. So my assertion that Japan was pushed into the tripartite alliance, at least in part by an act of economic warfare, remains unaffected.

Second: as I explained in my article, the conclusion that the US’s decision to freeze Japanese assets and cut off  the supply of oil to it forced Japan into a war that it might otherwise have avoided, is not mine but Emperor Hirohito’s. The diary of his aide suggests that he was against going to war but changed his mind because of the dire need for oil.

Widmalm does not seem to understand why Japan considered the embargo on oil supplies a threat to its very existence. The reason, which half a century’s hindsight allows us to understand, is that there was a radical difference between European and American industrialisation in the 19th century and Japan’s in the 20th. The former was based upon the exploitation of raw materials and cheap labour, including slave labour, of their colonies to build ever more powerful industrial bases in the home country. That exploitation required conquest, and the conquerors differed from each other only in the degree of their cruelty.

By contrast, Japan’s industrialisation, while not devoid of colonial exploitation and its attendant cruelty to native populations, was based mainly upon its exports. It was, in fact, the world’s first exemplar of export-led growth. That is why it became the model that Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand adopted in the 1960s and ‘70s, and China in the ‘80s and ’90s.

Japan had very little coal, and no oil whatsoever. That is why the embargo on oil exports to it left it with little option but to fight the US and to invade Indonesia, where oil had been discovered in 1890.

Finally, there is a slur upon my morality that I cannot allow to pass. Towards the end of his essay, Widmalm  equates understanding a particular action with condoning it, and advocating restraint with appeasement:

“Jha seems to imply that a better path forward for the Americans – and for anyone else threatened by the expansion of fascist and Nazi regimes – would have been to try to persuade their adversaries to pursue other political goals. …. Claiming the Japanese emperor had ‘no option’ but to take the decisions which led to the bombing of Pearl Harbour builds on a false view of history. Indeed, it amounts to apologetics for the actions of Germany, Italy, and Japan during the Second World War.”

Judging from the dates of his degrees, Widmalm is at least 30 years younger than I am. He knows about  the horrors of the concentration camps only from films and descriptions in books. But I saw the first photographs of the piles of dead bodies found at Belsen, Auschwitz, and heaven knows where else, that appeared in Delhi’s newspapers in 1946. I was seven years old at the time, and for months afterwards the nightmares they gave me made it necessary for someone to hold my hand till I went to sleep.

It has not been easy for me to either forget or forgive. And, lest Widmalm have any illusions on this score, try and try as I have, I have failed.

https://thewire.in/world/debate-to-understand-why-russia-invaded-ukraine-is-not-to-condone-it

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The new recruitment scheme will slowly change the character of the army and also provide well-trained ‘non-state actors’ to further the political agenda of the ruling Parivar.

PM Narendra Modi. In the background is a train anti-Agnipath protesters set on fire. Photos: PTI and Reuters

In eight years as prime minister, Narendra Modi has made surprise his favoured tool for reinforcing his hold on power. He did this in September 2020 with the farm law amendments. With Agnipath, he has done it again. Its government claims that it is a “transformative military reform”. Supporters say it had become necessary to limit skyrocketing pension liabilities that were preventing the acquisition of modern weaponry. BJP leaders also claim that the 75% of Agniveers who are discharged will return to civilian life imbued with discipline and a sense of national purpose. The country will gain from this. 

If that is so, then why has it been met with a storm of protest? Why are the youth of the country, whom it is supposed to benefit, its main opponents? Why is the protest most fierce, and sustained in, Bihar, UP, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, and Rajasthan? Are these not precisely the states in which the BJP is in power, or has established a firm presence in the past seven years? 

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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.

https://thewire.in/politics/gandhis-congress-bjp-cure-disease

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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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