Prem Shankar Jha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what was it that triggered the holocaust that followed? 

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

Calcutta, after the 1946 riots. Photo: Public domain

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

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

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

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

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

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The resignation of top academics from Ashoka University is reflective of the current atmosphere where centres of education that encourage us to question beliefs and prejudices pose a direct threat to the Hindutva state.

Hindutva's Dead Hand in Destroying India's Future: A Personal LamentIllustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

The news of Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation from Ashoka University has filled me with an immeasurable sense of loss. I have known Pratap since he was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard in the mid-1990s. His field was moral and political philosophy and, even before he had completed the book whose peer-reviewed acceptance for publication is virtually a pre-condition for even applying for, let alone securing tenure (i.e lifetime professorship) at Harvard, his colleagues had taken it for granted that he would be among the very few post-docs who would be granted it when his fellowship came up for review.

But Pratap did not wait for the tenure review and returned to India because his heart had been set upon it from the very beginning. What pulled him back was, simply put,  a burning desire to serve his country. Soon after he returned, he submitted his first article to the Indian Express. I remember that one very well because on reading it I realised straight away that he had brought an element into political commentary that had been lacking before. This was an ethical yardstick, based upon his understanding of the moral and political foundations upon which great nations have rested, and whose betrayal has led to their downfall. Needless to say readers of the Indian Express, and its editors, also saw this, and Pratap’s column in the Indian Express, which he has sustained till this day, was instantly born.

When the founders and trustees of Ashok university chose him to succeed its first vice-chancellor, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, they could not have made a better choice. For not only had they chosen a renowned scholar, but one who had already shown, as the director of the Centre for Policy Research, that he has the self-confidence to allow an already well-governed institution to continue governing itself and grow through collective endeavour, and confine his role to protecting that growth.

Ashoka University’s haloed place at risk 

Among the several private universities that were set up in the glory days of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, the distinctive feature of Ashoka University was its decision not to open the gates of admission wide to ensure its financial viability but to enrol only students who meet admission standards comparable to those of the best universities in the world. As a result, the quality of its student body, its faculty, the seminars they hold, and the research the PhD students do has been attracting growing respect in centres of higher education across the world.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta. Photo: Youtube screengrab.

This had not come as a surprise to me because, having taught as visiting faculty at Harvard, the University of Virginia, Sciences-Po in Paris and The New School University in New York, I had realised from my very first interactions with the faculty and students at Ashoka, that the quality of education it was giving, and of the research being done there, was second to none.

I was convinced that it was only a matter of time – and not much time at that – before Ashoka came to be recognised as one of a couple of dozen best liberal arts universities, something no Indian university has managed to do so far. I had also all but persuaded my daughter that to ensure a world class university education for my grandchildren, it was no longer necessary to look outside the country. That hope too is now fading as I look at the uncertain future that lies ahead.

Tragically, in a country with an unparalleled record of missed economic opportunities, and failed moral and political development, it is this single-minded pursuit of excellence that has endangered Ashoka’s future, for it threatens the very base of the edifice of power that the RSS has created for the Sangh Parivar. For that base is fabricated from ignorance, dogma, prejudice, an utter misreading of Hinduism,  and a twisted, sometimes fictitious rendering of Indian history from the Mauryan ‘Golden Age’ to the present day, and the perpetuation of the communal hatred that was Britain’s parting present to India.

Hindutva brigade aversion to knowledge

It has been apparent from the Modi government’s first days in power that it considers knowledge, and sincere, dispassionate debate to be its enemy, because it knows that the promotion of “Hindutva” and his government’s very survival, depends upon the relentless fostering of the myth, passion, and prejudice. Freedom to debate, and the right to disagree, are its enemies because they allow us to question existing beliefs and discredit myth and prejudice. Centres of excellence in education that encourage both are therefore direct threats to the Hindutva state.

Modi’s advisers have made no secret of their belief that knowledge is an enemy of the state. So it is hardly surprising that they have targeted liberal arts universities like Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University and now Ashoka, in particular. They destroyed Delhi’s academic integrity first over the Ramayana issue;  they have all but succeeded in taming JNU by appointing an unknown professor from a different institution who is a known member of the RSS as its vice-chancellor and permitting him to hound dissident students, bring the police onto the campus, and systematically emasculate its academic council.

But the government’s bete noire has been a section of the print media and the proliferating online journals to which many of the best and brightest in civil society have migrated. So it is hardly surprising that its baleful gaze has now fallen on the digital media.

Chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian. Credit: Reuters
Following Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s exit from Ashoka University, Arvind Subramanian too followed suit. Photo: Reuters

Its favourite mode of attack has been the choking off of funds, through layer after layer of draconian and intrusive laws whose cumulative effect has been to ban foreign funding, open domestic donors to ever heavier and more intrusive investigation, and declare any criticism of the government or its policies an ‘unlawful act’ that opens the alleged perpetrator to a minimum of six months in jail without a judicial hearing, at the will and command of the police and its masters.

Ashoka University has so far escaped this fate, but the pressure upon it to bow to the government’s will has been mounting for at least the past four years. Pratap Bhanu Mehta has been the focus of this pressure because he is among the very few persons in the country who has the stature and credibility to defend the right of dissent in both academia and through his columns in the Indian Express. This has been far too much power for the government to stomach. Pratap Mehta has been at the head of this select list.

Pratap Mehta alleviated the pressure on the University for the first time in 2019 by resigning from the vice-chancellorship but staying on as a Professor. But the Modi government did not relent, so the government’s pressure on the university’s founders and donors continued.

Mehta has tried to save the university a second time by resigning from his professorship also. But this too will not suffice, because the government’s main purpose has not been to push him out of the university but stop his column in the newspapers. That is the request that the board and some of the trustees of Ashoka are believed to have made of him. Pratap has chosen the alternative of cutting all his remaining links with the university.

But instead of dousing the fire, this has added fuel to it. The resignation from its faculty of Arvind Subramaniam, Arun Jaitly’s former economic adviser, and the rebellion of the student body has seriously jeopardised Ashoka’s future. Other faculty members are presently awaiting the outcome of the struggle, but it is a safe bet that should the Trustees not rediscover the courage to stand up to the government, there will be more resignations and a fairly rapid departure of the best professors to  universities abroad.

Ashoka university may survive, but it will do so not as a liberal arts university comparable to Harvard, Yale, Oxford or Cambridge but as a successful skill imparting university comparable to Jindal University next door.  Should this happen far more will have failed than just another foray into higher education.

For one has only to look at the place that is occupied by the above-mentioned universities in the US and UK, and of Sciences-Po and the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) in France, to understand the role that liberal arts universities that have played in creating  the thinkers and policymakers  – Plato’s Men of Gold – who have guided the destinies of their nations.

Oxford and Cambridge were training colleges for the clergy before Britain became the archetypal nation-state

“Dissent is the safety valve of democracy,” our courts have intoned, most eloquently in Romila Thapar versus the Union of India. But it is Pratap Mehta again, who has described the constructive power of dissent in the making of a nation.

In the annual lecture he delivered for Project 39A on December 10, last year, he said,  “Dissent is not a freestanding value because it is grounded in moral judgment. It has, as George Elliot said, to speak in the name of a higher rule; it has to speak in the name of a common good; it has to be reaching for something better. Otherwise, it simply is a disposition to subvert, where the means become the ends (emphasis added).”

Today the BJP is on its back feet. In the past year, it has succeeded in alienating just about every important group in the country – the entire working class, especially its migrant component, the farmers, and the small and medium enterprise owners and their employees.

These are vast economic strata that cut across every ideological and religious grouping in the country, so its standard appeals to religion and hate are failing. It has fallen into this trap, not because of the COVID pandemic, but because it has choked off public debate and dissent. Ashoka university was primarily, and could still be, its best vehicle for bringing the global debate into India. But all that this government seems intent upon is to destroy its future.

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

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Despite the caution expressed by Indian defence analysts, the de-escalation is likely to hold. But, the agreement to withdraw needs political endorsement from the prime minister.

India and China Are on the Verge of Lasting Peace, if Modi Wants It
File photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Reuters

A policy blunder of the greatest magnitude, a humiliating defeat, and six decades of hiding the truth about what really caused the war between China and India in 1962, has so completely embedded a visceral distrust of China in the Indian mind that whenever there is a turn for the better in our relationship, our media, and the majority of our China-watchers, look for the hidden catch in it first before allowing themselves to believe that our relations might actually start improving.

The reaction of some of our best-known commentators to Beijing’s announcement that China and India would begin a synchronised disengagement on the north and south shores of Pangong lake in Ladakh with the intention of eventually returning to our April 2020 positions, is a case in point. While General H.S. Panag welcomed the development in a recent video interview, his scepticism about China’s intentions was writ large in his words and his body language.

Colonel Ajai Shukla was more forthright in voicing his distrust of the Chinese: “a 10-km stretch between Finger 3 and Finger 8. Indian Army has patrolled this area since the 1962 Sino-Indian war but now cannot enter the zone. ….  China has been granted right to patrol to finger 4. that means LAC effectively shifted from finger 8 to finger 4,” he tweeted (emphasis added.) Others, including some in the political opposition, echoed his scepticism.

Criticising Shukla for creating a ‘false perception’, another Twitter user, ‘Sunny Shikhar’, claimed that “China (whose version of the LAC runs through Finger 4, the fourth of eight ridges coming down to the north shore of Pangong lake) has had a road till F4 since 1999 and a naval Radar base on F6 since 2006. “We patrolled till F8,” he points out, “on the road made by China because they let us, not because we controlled it. Now (under the terms of the disengagement)” China cannot even patrol on its own road between F8-F4”.

I have no idea who ‘Sunny  Shikhar’ is, but if the facts he cites are correct, it means that China has forfeited as much of its claimed right to patrol as India has.

If that is indeed so, then Shikhar’s clarification substantiates Rajnath Singh’s statement in parliament, that both sides have agreed that neither will patrol the intervening area after the mutual withdrawals, till ‘an agreement is reached through future talks’.


China’s 1960 claim line in Ladakh is marked in yellow, the LAC at Pangong Tso is in pink. As can be seen, Thakung, the site of the latest standoff, is inside the LAC but within the 1960 Chinese claim line. Map: The Wire

A breakthrough has been achieved

To say that this has been a crucial breakthrough in the longstanding border dispute would be an understatement. For the agreement is not only an explicit acknowledgement that a ‘Grey Area’ or ‘No Man’s Land’ has existed between the two countries’ conflicting definitions of the LAC, but also marks a formal elevation of this area to the status of a ‘buffer zone’.

The difference between the two concepts is that whereas both Chinese and Indian patrols were entering “No Man’s Land” frequently, and waving placards stating that ‘This is Chinese/Indian Territory, please withdraw’ at each other when they met, now neither side will enter it till the misunderstandings and apprehensions that have arisen between the two countries are cleared through talks.

To a generation that has grown up in the era of the nation-state, this will look like an unsatisfactory resolution of the issue, for don’t all countries need hard, clearly defined, constantly patrolled borders? What our generation can only learn from the study of history is that hard boundaries replaced porous border regions, or belts, only in the era of the nation-state which first took shape after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, and attained its full, malignant form with the widespread introduction of passports as recently as in the 1880s.

For reasons best known to itself, China has been studiously avoiding giving India its maps of the Ladakh-Aksai Chin area ever since the 1993 Agreement was signed. But it has been equally reticent about this in 15 out of the 24 border agreements it has signed. This has created unease in other countries as well, and has vindicated the belief among China watchers here and in the West, that Beijing is following a salami-slicing strategy to acquire more and more territory in Ladakh.

But we need to be as wary of preconceptions and prejudices imported from the West as we are of the inexplicable reticence of the Chinese. For the unalterable fact is that if the disengagement that has now begun at Pangong is completed without any hitches, a similar process is likely to take place all along the LAC, at least in the Western Sector. If that takes place, a de facto border belt, as distinct from a de jure border line, will come into being between the two countries in the Himalayas, in an area that China considers vital to its security, but for reasons totally unconnected with India. That has the potential to finally bring to our countries the lasting peace that both have been seeking ever since they signed the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility in 1993.

Such historic breakthroughs are usually made at the highest political levels. What makes the present disengagement very different, perhaps unique, is that it has emerged almost entirely out of an intense, and continuous discussion between the two military commands, with no overt intervention by the political leadership.

Since June last year, there have been nine well-publicised conferences between the corps commander of the 14th corps stationed in Leh, and his Chinese counterpart from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Western Theatre Command. But, behind these, there have been between 25 to 30 meetings, many of them online or telephonic, at every level from battalion to brigade to division commander, to answer questions, allay suspicions, and clear misunderstandings that could have led to flare-ups of the kind that so nearly happened on the South Bank of the Pangong Tso when our forces’ foiled the PLA’s attempt to establish its presence opposite Finger 4 in late August by pre-emptively occupying several commanding heights over the area.

That confrontation was the closest China and India came to war, but it showed to the Chinese that India was building up its forces around the lake in earnest, and that any more covert attempts to establish advantageous positions to use as bargaining chips in future negotiations would be met with military force. It, therefore, acquired for the Indian Army a respect that had previously been lacking in the PLA.

Two other factors reinforced this: the first was the Indian Army’s resolute reinforcement of its troop strength, including artillery and armour, throughout the killing winter months. The Chinese were, of course doing the same, albeit outside the Indian definition of the LAC, so they fully understood India’s determination not to give any more ground.

The second was the army’s preparation of launchpads at places where it had the advantage of terrain, from where it could capture ground inside China’s definition of the LAC if the PLA crossed a Lakshmana Rekha into our territory. These preparations sent a clear signal that, should the PLA be tempted to try any more salami slicing of territory in Ladakh, it would become an extremely expensive operation.

But as the tragic Galwan incident (triggered by a Chinese soldier from a newly inducted unit manhandling Colonel Babu) showed, muscle-flexing can be a dangerous strategy if it is not backed up by confidence-building measures that reassure both sides that the promises being made will indeed be kept.
Indian Army vehicles moving towards the Line of Actual Control (LAC) amid border tension with China, in Leh, Sunday, September 27, 2020. Photo: PTI

The crucial ingredient

This is the crucial ingredient in the negotiations that has brought China and India from the brink of war to the brink of peace. For, as of February 2020, the army commander of Northern Command has been Lieutenant General Y.K. Joshi, who has served four tenures at various levels in Ladakh, from brigade commander to army commander in Leh, to the chief of staff of the Northern Command, based in Jammu, and finally Army Commander in February 2020.

What may have been far more important from the point of view of confidence-building is that from 2005 till 2008, General Joshi served as India’s defence attaché in Beijing, and developed a good working knowledge of Mandarin when he was there.

Since the formal talks held so far have been at the corps commanders’ level, General Joshi had to work with the Leh Corps Commander Lt General Harinder Singh, who did a creditable job in the first six rounds of talks despite not having served previously in the Himalayan Theatre, his specialty having been in counter-intelligence.

But on October 15, when General Singh was replaced by General P.G.K. Menon, who had served as a  brigadier in the Leh-based XIV corps some years earlier, India finally had a negotiating team that had the necessary knowledge of the terrain and a far better understanding of its Chinese counterparts and was, in turn, understood better by them.

On the Chinese side, although one can at most hazard a guess, it would seem that President Xi Jinping also made a crucial change at the top of the Western Theatre Command that has helped to bring about the present agreement. On December 18, he replaced General Zhao Zongqi with General Zhang Xudong. Relatively little is known here about General Zhang, but General Zhao had headed the Western Theatre Command during the 2017 Doklam standoff. He could hardly not have been miffed at the way that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had claimed a victory of sorts – what the hyper-nationalist section of our media hailed as ‘a draw’ when the PLA withdrew itChinese and Indian Army troops. Photo: PTI/Filess bulldozers from the ridge where the confrontation took place. President Xi may therefore have been advised that after that searing experience, General Zhao would be the least suited person to take the risk that a negotiated withdrawal entailed.

Chinese and Indian Army troops. Credit: PTI/FilesChinese and Indian Army troops. Photo: PTI/Files

The full story of how the disengagement was achieved will only be available decades later, when official documents get de-classified, if at all they ever are, but what cannot be denied is the magnitude of the achievement. By agreeing to create a buffer zone around Pangong, the two commands have opened the way to the settlement of the seven decade-long border based upon a new, ‘post-national’, concept of an international border. They have therefore taken the first essential step towards a lasting peace between China and India.

But the peace is tenuous, and will not last if Modi and his policymakers do not give it an explicit and public endorsement. For, the Chinese have developed an almost neurotic, and well-founded, distrust of Modi’s sudden, radical and secretive changes of policy towards China and the US, since his government came to power.

This is because in all of the 25-30 less formal interactions that have taken place in the lead up to the agreement, the single, almost neurotic, refrain from the Chinese side has been “will your government live up to the commitments we have chalked out”. The anxiety arises from their lack of understanding of the adversarial way in which democracies function. They are therefore extremely sensitive to the statements of sundry government and opposition political leaders, and to the overt hostility to China they see displayed almost daily by TV anchors and the defence analysts they hear and read in the Indian media.

The nervousness of the Chinese has increased as the two sides have inched closer to an understanding. The Indian interlocutors have therefore had to spend as much as half of the time at each meeting convincing their Chinese counterparts to disregard this ‘democratic noise’ and concentrate on what the government is doing and not saying.

Generals Joshi and Menon have succeeded in conveying the needed reassurance, but if the current agreement is even to last, let alone become the foundation of a final resolution of the border issue, it absolutely needs political endorsement from Prime Minister Modi himself.

This is because it was Modi who, without any prior discussion with his foreign office, and possibly even his national security adviser Ajit Doval, made an unannounced, volte facefrom the long term strategic cooperation with China that had been the policy of all previous governments since 1993, and joined the US-led bid to ‘contain’ China in the Indian Ccean, but also the South China sea.

He did this only 11 days after hosting President Xi in a state visit to India that could have restored China-India relations to where they might have been, had the 1962 war not taken place.

Today, Modi has an opportunity not only to do this, but do it without loss of face. All he has to do is restore all the economic and digital ties with China that he broke so abruptly in May after the Chinese occupation of the grey zone at Pangong lake. The rest will follow.

https://thewire.in/security/india-china-standoff-peace-withdrawal-modi-lac

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A quarter of a century ago, at the formal  White House press conference that followed Indian prime minister Narasimha Rao’s one-on-one meeting with President Bill Clinton during his state visit to the United States in April 1994, President Clinton had heaped lavish praise upon  India for doing what no other modern country  had succeeded in doing before. This was to create  a stable nation  state  using the tool of democracy, instead of War. Clinton  said this because it was the very opposite of the way in which nation states had been created  in Europe in the tumultuous century that had preceded the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia, in 1648.

Till the advent of globalization, the archetypal European Nation State  had hard frontiers, a unitary political structure and a culturally homogeneous population  with a single national language. This uniformity had been imposed upon its citizens through a mixture of education, cultural assimilation and ethnic cleansing.

The process had been violent. It had begun with the Hundred years War , the most bloody and ruinous that Europe  had experienced till then. It reached its Valhalla in the 31-year period of the 20th century that embraced  two world wars, the Russian revolution, the Turkish pogrom of Armenians, and the  Holocaust. Altogether, this ”Age of Catastrophe”  claimed more than a hundred million lives.

But human perceptions have been slow to catch up with reality. So, even after  the second world War the European Nation State remained the only accepted model for a viable  modern state.  In the Age of Decolonisation that followed, 131 new nations became members of the United Nations. All but a few started out as democracies but only two, Costa Rica and India,   succeeded in sustaining and stabilising it.

The similarity, however, ended there: Costa Rica is a very small, unitary State with a population of just over 4 million. India by contrast is the second largest nation in the world, with a population of 1.3 billion, with 12 major and scores of smaller ethno-national groups, most of which have their own language, long histories as independent nations,  and  strongly defined cultural identities.

Under the sagacious leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, the Congress party was able to fuse them into a single nation because, unlike the majority of the other newly emergent nations, it  made no attempt to create a replica of the European Nation State.  Instead it celebrated India’s diversity and used democracy and federalism to create unity  within it.  What emerged after three decades of fine tuning was  a “federation of ethnicities” – that the Indian Constitution explicitly describes as a ‘Union of States’ in which each ethno-national group enjoyed an equal place within a framework defined by the Indian Constitution.

The Mortal Threat India Faces

This is the  unique achievement that is now under mortal threat. For in the elections to the national Parliament held in  2014, power passed decisively from the Congress party, into the hands of its main rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which considers India’s religious and  ethnic diversity to be not its strength but its weakness,  and is committed to replacing it with a muscular , hyper-nationalist Hindu Rashtra ( Hindu nation), bound together by  Hindutwa ( Hindu-ness) a Hindu cultural identity,  in which non-Hindus can  be accepted,  but  never on equal terms with the Hindus.

In contrast to Hinduism, which is less a religion than a way of life and is at least three  millennia old, both Hindutva and Hindu Rashtra are synthetic concepts, created only 96 years ago, in 1923. Their progenitor was a Maharashtrian intellectual,  Vinayak Damodar Savarkar who  passionately believed that the ethnic and religious diversity of India was the main stumbling block to the creation of a revolutionary movement strong enough to force the British out of India.

Savarkar argued in his now famous book,  Hindutva, that Hinduism had to develop the cohesion that Muslims all over the world had shown to resist Britain’s abolition of the Caliphate, whose titular head had , for centuries been the ruler of the Ottoman empire.  It was the rapid spread of this  Khilafat ( opposition) movement among Indian Muslims that gave concrete shape to his concept of Hindutva. The Muslims, he argued,  were capable of uniting rapidly to defend an institution located a quarter of a world away that they barely understood, because of the unity their religion gave them.  Hindus who had no church, and no clergy comparable to those of Islam and Christianity had no such capability. If they wished to free their motherland from slavery. they needed to develop it

The three essentials of Hindutvahe concluded, were a common nation (rashtra), a common race (jati) and a common culture or civilisation (sanskriti). The impress of European Fascism  on his thinking  was reflected by the similarity of this slogan with the German Nazi party’s ein volk (one people), ein reich (one nation), ein Fuhrer (one leader). And just as the Nazis decided that Jews could not be a part of this ‘volk’, Muslims and Christians could not belong to the Hindu jati (genus), because their sanskriti (culture)  and their prophets originated outside of the Hindu civilisation.

The threat to India arises from the fact that economic globalization has made  the European model of the  Nation State obsolete. The BJP and RSS’ effort to duplicate it in India has therefore come a hundred years too late. The most they can hope to achieve now is to turn India into an extreme Right wing citadel  State. But, as the  European experience with German fascism and the  disintegration of the Soviet Union  has shown,  this  is foredoomed because it  can lead only to war or rebellion, followed by disintegration.  Either of these will bring about the end of the great democratic experiment of building a modern nation state through democracy that Gandhi, Nehru and their colleagues in the Freedom movement embarked upon in 1947.

Averting this looming disaster is going to be a Promethean task. It cannot be done  by appealing to traditional caste loyalties and deal-based politics to overthrow the BJP any longer. Since the BJP’s challenge is an ideological one, it can  be fought only by exposing its  hollowness and inherent destructiveness and remind all Indians of true religious and ideological mooring, which is in religious syncretism – the constant effort to create harmony between religions and cultures, in place of conflict.

The Congress’ constant  description of itself  as a ‘secular’ party  has made it an easy target for the votaries of Hindutwa,  because of the aura of irreligiosity that surrounds the word. The guiding philosophy that has underpinned not only the modern Indian state but all major empires in India’s history, and from which India’s comfort with ethnic and religious diversity springs,  is not secularism or even pluralism, but religious syncretism. This springs from the philosophy and practice of  ‘Dharma’.

 Dharma -the antidote to Hindutwa

Dharma is the original faith of Vedic India. There is no reference in the Vedas, the oldest texts of the Indo-Aryan civilization,  to a Hindu Dharma, because the word ‘Hindu’ was coined by the Persians 3,000 years ago to describe the land of the Sindhu ( I.e Indus) river. It was brought to India from Persia more than two  millennia later by the first Muslim invaders who came through Afghanistan and Persia.

Dharma was not a religion in the modern,  exclusivist, sense of the word, because the Messianic religions that are now the subject of  most discourses on religion had not even been born when the word was coined. Dharma prescribed the right way of living: it dwelt at length on how people needed to relate to each other and to the wider world and the cosmos that surrounded them.

The Rig veda differentiates between different forms of dharma, such as prathama Dharma ( the first duty), Raj Dharma (the duties of the King to his subjects) and Swadharma ( our duty to ourselves). But every one of these centers around the concept of human duty, which is “to uphold, to support, to nourish”.

“Dharma” was the word  Gautama Buddha used to describe his sermons on the four noble truths and the eight-fold path. Western students of comparative religion, have done Buddhism a disservice by presenting it as a new religion, because this has made it one among several religions, including the three Messianic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Buddha’s use of the Vedic term suggests that he considered himself to be a social reformer and not a prophet. What he had rebelled against was the corruption of Dharma, and the growth of Adharma. These were  caused by self-absorption, avarice, expensive and impoverishing ritual, and Brahminical control. Buddhism was, in fact, the first great recorded rebellion against organised religion in human history. Buddha’s use of the Vedic term suggests that he considered himself to be a social reformer of Dharma ( the Buddhist Dhamma) and not a prophet founding a new religion.

A critical difference

Describing Buddhism as one of several prophetic religions, as most students of comparative religion in the west habitually do,  has obscured a critical difference between Hinduism, Buddhism and other mystical religions on the one hand,  and the Messianic ones—Judaism, Christianity and Islam, on the other. Messianic religions have to be professed. Belonging to the latter requires a profession of faith in it and a repudiation of other faiths. It is a surrender of oneself to the ‘true’ God, and its reward  is the possibility of gaining absolution for one’s sins through repentance, in this life.

Mystical faiths, of which Dharma is the oldest,   have to be lived. Only virtue in this life can gain the soul freedom from the chain of rebirth. Dharma  requires no profession of faith, no submission to a single prophet. And it offers no easy absolution from sin. It is the Hindu way of referring to Buddhism, as Bauddha Dharma, and the remark that Hindus frequently make even today – “yeh mera Dharma hai” ( This is my duty) that capture its essence.

The idea of Religion as a set of beliefs that have to be practiced and not merely professed is not limited to Hinduism and Buddhism, but has managed to carve out a niche in Islam and Christianity as well. In the 11th and 12th centuries, it found a home in a Christian sect called the Cathars (or Albigenses) in southern France and Spain, and in some branches of Shia Islam such as the Alawis of Syria, Iraq and Turkey.

Not surprisingly, both sects have been treated as heretical apostates by the clergy of orthodox Christianity and Islam. In AD 1200, Pope Innocent III launched a little known Fourth Crusade against the Cathars, and instructed the knights and Barons who joined it to kill all they met without mercy, and leave it to God to sort out the heretics from the true believers. As for the Alawis, the most recent of innumerable attacks upon them in Syria has still not ended.

But in the sharpest possible contrast, the encounter  between Dharma and Islam in India has been peaceful. Dharma’sfirst encounter with Islam occurred when Arab traders came to Gujarat and built mosques there in the 8th and 9th centuries. Not only did this not spark religious conflict but, as contemporary Jain texts recorded two centuries later, when an Afghan invader, Mahmud of Ghazni,  attacked the famed Somnath Temple ( Temple of the Moon God) in Gujarat, the Arabs who had by then been living there for generations, joined in the defence of the temple and died to protect it. The fact that Somnath was a Hindu temple did not matter to them. It had to be defended because it was important to the Hindus among whom they lived.

The second, more prolonged, interaction between Dharma and Islam occurred after the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate by another Afghan invader Muhammad Ghori, in 1193 AD.  The period that followed  is the one  that the RSS would like to erase from Indian memory, if not from history.

But it was a period in which there was an unprecedented flowering of art, music and literature. It was the time of Amir Khusro, the first Indian pet who wrote in Persian. It was the time when Indian and Persian music and dance fused to create a distinct new Genre, the khayal gayaki and the Kathak dance.  It was the period during which the delicate penmanship of Persian miniature painting fused with the vivid colours of Hindu art to create a profusion of Moghul, Rajput, Kangra, Basohli and other schools of miniature painting in India. It was the time when the Indo-Islamic architecture that has given the world wonders like the Taj mahal, and Humayun’s Tomb, was born.

Hindutva’s selective memory 

The ideologues of Hindutva ignore all this and prefer to dwell on the defeat of the Rajputs, the destruction of temples and the conversion of large numbers of Hindus to Islam during this period. This is a manufactured litany of defeat, that  they use to fan hyper-nationalism, Hindu religiosity and hatred of the Muslims.

But here too,  their  ‘memory’ is selective and distorted. The Rajputs, who then ruled most of north India were ,admittedly, driven into the wilds of Rajasthan. But their defeat arose from the superior military technology of the invaders — such as the superiority of cavalry over elephants, and of archers over infantry – and not from any innate superiority of the (Muslim) fighters. On the contrary, the conquerors recognised the valour of the Rajputs and quickly inducted them into their armies.

The votaries of Hindutva harp endlessly about the damage the Muslim invaders did to the Hindu polity and society, but they again choose to ignore the fact that the same Muslim dynasties saved India from the greatest scourge of the Middle Ages – the Mongol invasions that ravaged Europe. Like other impoverished groups from the Asian steppes, the Mongols first tried to invade India. Their first foray, in 1243, took the Delhi Sultanate by surprise and the Mongols  were able to come all the way till Lahore, now Pakistan’s most beautiful city,  and sack it to their leisure.

But that was the last time they were able to enter the plains of India. Ghiyasuddin Balban, the ruler in Delhi at the time, created a standing army – India’s first – built a string of forts along the border and prevented all subsequent invaders from getting far into the plains of Hindustan. After his death, another warrior king of the Delhi Sultanate, Alauddin Khilji, inflicted two successive defeats on them in 1304 and 1305, with such great slaughter that they turned towards Europe and never returned.

Temples were admittedly destroyed, and precious art, sculpture and architecture irretrievably lost, but the motive of the invaders, like that of invaders everywhere else in history,  was pillage not forced conversion to Islam. All but a fraction of the conversions that took place in the next 400 years were voluntary.

The converts came from the lower Hindu castes. They converted because Islam offered an escape from the iniquities of caste – in much the same way as Buddhism had done two thousand years earlier, and as the Bhakti ( devotion) anti-Brahmin movement in south India had been doing since the seventh century, well before the arrival of the Muslims. Far from being a blot on the conquerors, these conversions were an impeachment of the Brahmanical, temple-centred Hinduism from which they had been systematically excluded.

Reconciliation between Hinduism and Islam

In northern India, the encounter between Islam and Hinduism proved beneficial to both in important ways that the Sangh parivar prefers not to remember. In Hinduism, it weakened the link between religion and the state by cutting off the single most important source of patronage to the temples. As state patronage dwindled, Brahmins, who had previously flocked to the peeths and mutts were forced to remain in their villages and tend to the spiritual needs of the villagers. The emphasis in their functions, therefore, shifted from presiding over elaborate temple rites to providing guidance on the issues the villagers  faced in their everyday lives. The importance of ritual in Hinduism therefore declined and that of Dharma increased.

Hinduism  met the challenge from Sufi Islam by disseminating the core ideas of Dharma, already espoused and rejuvenated by the Bhakti movement,  through the literature, poetry and song of Tulsidas, Surdas, Kabir, Rahim, Mira Bai, Tukaram, Chokhamela and a host of lesser-known poets, bards and singers. The interaction between the two made Hinduism accessible and mellowed Islam further, to the point where except for scripture, little remained of what had divided the one from the other. No couplet I know captures this more succinctly than one by Kabir that I learned as a child and have never forgotten:

Moko kahaan dhoondhate bande, Mai to tere paas me;
Na Mai Mandir, na Mai Masjid, naa Kaaba Kailash me.

(Where dost thou seek me oh devotee, for I am right beside thee; Not in a temple, nor in a mosque, not at the Qaaba, nor on Mount Kailash, shalt thou find me).

This profound reconciliation between Hinduism and Sufi Islam is perhaps best reflected in the writings of Guru Nanak and the other gurus of Sikhism. And it was not confined to the villages. It was codified by no less august a person than Emperor Akbar as the Din-e-Ilahi, the religion of God, at the height of the Moghul empire. Some British historians have hailed it  as an attempt at founding a new religion based on universal tolerance. Others have dismissed it as a religion that never had more than 19 followers.

In fact, Akbar had no such intention. The Din-e-Ilahi was no more than a distillation of what today’s corporate world would call “current best practices” of the heterodox population of India.  It propagated sulh-i-kul – universal peace – and urged ten virtues upon the realm. Among these were: liberality and beneficence; forbearance from bad actions,  repulsion of anger with mildness; abstinence from worldly desires; frequent meditation on the consequences of one’s actions and “good society with brothers so that their will may have precedence over one’s own”, in short, putting the well-being of one’s fellows ahead of one’s own.

Akbar’s goal was not proselytization. Unlike the great Mauryan emperor, Ashoka’s Buddhist edicts of  1800 years earlier,  Akbar issued no edicts. Nor did he create a religious police to oversee their observance.

The significance of the Din-e-Ilahi lies  in what it did not prescribe: It did not ascribe primacy to Islam, and it did not give a special place to Muslim clergy within the structure of the state. Instead, it declared emphatically that “he (the emperor, i.e. the state) would recognise no difference between [religions], his object being to unite all men in a common bond of peace”. The entire document was, therefore, a restatement of Dharma in a contemporary form. If any “ religion “ can claim to have emerged the victor in the grand ideological battle that ensued after thearrival of Islam in India, it is Dharma.

Among Hindus  the practice of Dharma has been – and remains – sullied by its endorsement of the notion of ritual purity and pollution that is associated with caste. But its core idea, that true religion is not what we preach but what we practice, has remained the driving force behind all movements for religious reform from the Buddha till the present day. It is what Swami Vivekananda electrified the ‘Parliament of Religions of the World’ in Chicago in 1893 with, by explaining that Hinduism does not merely tolerate, but accepts, all the great religions of the world because they are like different paths up the same mountain, or different rivers that flow into the same sea.

Even the blood-soaked partition of India and  Pakistan in 1947 did not kill off the syncretic impulse in Islam. It has led to a sustained study of the writings of Dara Shikoh, the grandson of Akbar, and his successor Shah Jahan’s eldest son and heir apparent in Pakistan.  Dara Shikoh was  a scholar of Sanskrit and translator of the Bhagavad Gita, one of Hinduism’s holiest texts. He had made no secret of his fascination with Din-e-Elahi, and of his intention to propagate it throughout his realm, before  his life was cut short by his youngest brother,  Aurangzeb.

In 2010, the noted Pakistani playwright, Shahid Nadeem, wrote a play, ‘Dara’, that highlighted his syncretism, as a protest against the rampant Islamic sectarianism that Partition had unleashed upon Pakistan and was, even then, tearing it apart.

Three years later, two Pakistani historians from GC University, Faisalabad, published a peer-reviewed paper in the International Journal of History and Research titled Dara Shikoh: Mystical And Philosophical Discourse‘, which highlighted his belief that “the mystical traditions of both Hinduism and Islam spoke of the same truth.”

This is the awe-inspiring syncretism of religion in the land of Dharma. It is what has made Indian Muslims virtually immune to the lure of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq:  Against the 27,000 to 31,000 Europeans who joined it, the number of Indian Muslims was only 106.  Of these, only three went directly from India. The rest were recruited while they were migrant workers in the Gulf.

This is the awe-inspiring syncretism of India that  the votaries of Hindutva and Hindu Rashtra are bent upon destroying . Hindutwa is therefore  the complete   antithesis of dharma.

From Where Has Hindutwa emerged?

In the 1920s, the desire to militarise Hinduism  could perhaps have been condoned, for  it was  a counsel of despair. The Congress was still only a middle-class debating society, Mahatma Gandhi’s doctrine of satyagraha (passive resistance in order to paralyse government)was still largely untried, and the British had taken to shooting down or  hanging freedom fighters after labelling them terrorists. But the last shred of this justification lost its raison d’etre when  India gained its freedom.  For the creation of Pakistan had fulfilled at least one of the goals of the RSS – it had rid India of all the Muslims who did not accept that they were part of Savarkar’s  ‘Hindu sanskriti’.

The one-third who stayed in India had therefore declared their alleigiance to India  with their feet. So what fuelled the frantic rage against Partition that the RSS vented in  immediate aftermath of Independence? Why did they rejoice openly when Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated and lionize his assassin, Nathuram Godse? And what has made them continue to demonise Indian Muslims after they had ceased to be a threat to “Hindu” India?

The explanation is that the RSS’s goal was not simply to oust the British from India, but to take their place in order to  create  a Hindu India moulded to fit their image of Hindu Rashtra.

Today, the Sangh parivar is trying to pass off Savarkar and Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, the founder of the RSS, as freedom fighters. But the biographer of Hedgewar, and some of the remarks of his successor Golwalkar show, from the Dandi Salt March in 1929 till Gandhi’s Quit India call in 1940, the RSS stoutly opposed every attempt to secure freedom through the Gandhian way of  satyagraha (passive non-cooperation),  and even offered its cohorts to the government to act as civil guards to quell the unrest that Gandhi’s call would generate.

To the RSS, freedom was less important than power. It needed more time to create the Hindutva legions with which it hoped to storm to power. And as with fascism in Europe, it required an enemy that it could persuade people to hate and fear, to facilitate their creation.

Caught by surprise by the  Partition, which Mountbatten announced only in March 1947, the RSS made an attempt, nonetheless, to seize power in the wake of the turmoil unleashed by it and the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. That got it banned for several years, but the seizure of power remained its unswerving goal through all its subsequent vicissitudes.

What happens now?

The BJP’s second victory in 2019,  has removed all the political and constitutional hurdles to achieving the goal that the RSS had set itself in 1923.  Narendra Modi has brought it to power on a wave that will almost certainly sweep through the state assembly elections as well,  and give it the  majority in the upper house of parliament that  it needs to change the constitution of India. But he, and the RSS are in a hurry and have little  appetite for the debates that wll rage in parliament and civil society when the government  presents bills for radically altering the structure of the constitution.   As a result it is resorting to legal sleight of hand to start ethnic cleansing, and to dissolve the constitutional safeguards that protect  India’s ‘federation of Ethnicities”.

 

Ethnic cleansing began in earnest within weeks of its coming back to power.  The government  finalised  a National Register of Citizens in Assam, that left out  1.9 million persons who had  lived in the state  with their families and children for five and more decades. To house them ‘temporarily’ till they are repatriated to Bangladesh or elsewhere, the government is   building “detention” camps for them all over Assam, and  has issued a directive to the administrative heads of all of India’s 724 districts to chalk out sites for building similar camps in their districts when the need for them arises.

That the intended targets are Muslims immigrants from Bangladesh became apparent when the BJP government in Assam asked for an  amendment to the citizenship rules that would allow it to limit the externment only to Muslim immgrants from Bangladesh.

The  assault on India’s religious syncretism has been launched in the one  place  where it had continued to flourish till well after Partition, and where it still survives today. This is the state of Jammu and Kashmir. On August 5, the government used a constitutional sleight of hand to dissolve the statehood  of Kashmir, and turn it into a “union territory” and administer it directly from Delhi, without any reference to its legislature or people.

The closest parallel in history to BJP’s victory this year is Hitler’s return to power in March 1933. The Nazi campaign too was based upon hatred and paranoia. Its targets were principally the Jews, but also the Gypsies whom they considered another inferior, polluting, race and the Communists.

Like the BJP today, the Nazis took advantage of the collapse of the German economy after the Wall Street Crash of 1929 to seize power in 1930 with 33% of the vote. Three years later, their hate rhetoric had pushed up their vote to 43%. Within days of the January 1933 results, its storm troopers duped a Communist sympathiser into setting the German parliament building on fire and helped him do it. In the anti-Communist hysteria that followed, Hitler was able to win the March 1933 elections,  persuade President von Hindenburg and the German parliament to pass an enabling act giving him extraordinary powers,  declare him hancellor for life and thus destroy the Weimar Republic. His storm troopers then systematically attacked Jews, Gypsies and Communists, set up internment camps and when these became too expensive to maintain, sent them to the gas chambers.

The Nazi experiment ended in the defeat, destruction and vivisection of pre-war Germany. The Hindutwa experiment has just begun, and we cannot predict with certainty where it will end. But the future looks grim. The Modi government has another four years and eleven months to go. Only an opposition,in parliament, and civil society, that rediscover Dharma, and pits it against  Hindutwa, has any chance of stopping the rush to disaster.

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The prime minister continues to demonise those who dissent, and that message has been made clear to his supporters.

The Struggle for India's Democracy Is Only Just Beginning
Protest against the CAA, NRC and NPR in Bengaluru on Saturday. Photo: PTI/Shailendra Bhojak

On December 22, India reached a crossroad in its tortured journey towards nationhood. For the first time in more than five years – and 17 years, if we count his time as chief minister of Gujarat – Prime Minister  Narendra Modi took a step back from a policy that he had previously committed himself to.

On that day, in the middle of a one-hour-and-37-minute speech at Ramlila Maidan in Delhi, he declared that it had never been his government’s intention to create a pan-Indian National Register of Citizens (NRC) on the Assam model. In fact, he claimed that his government had never discussed a nationwide NRC at all.

The NRC, he claimed, was the brainchild not of the Bharatiya Janata Party but of the Congress, for it was born out of Rajiv Gandhi’s 1985 Assam Accord. It was the Congress’s subsequent failure to implement it that made the Supreme Court issue a directive in 2012 to create the NRC forthwith. The BJP had only obeyed the court’s directive. So the blame for the entire exercise lay with the Congress not having lived up to its 1985 promise. There would be no similar exercise, he promised, in any other state.

He also pointed out that the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA) was intended to give citizenship only to non-Muslim refugees who were already in India. He did not say what he would do for Hindus and others who were persecuted in the three countries mentioned – Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan – in the future.

He went on to reassure Muslims that no Muslim born on Indian soil needed to fear the CAA in the slightest, because it was intended to benefit victims of religious persecution in neighbouring countries. His government had never said that it would turn away anyone who sought refuge from persecution in any of these countries. The purpose of the CAA was simply to sniff out migrants who had entered India surreptitiously in search of work, or for any other nefarious purpose.

The hope…

Was Modi’s assurance on an all-India NRC a pullback from an over-extended position – a tacit admission that the forces of democratic pluralism were too strong for his party to resist if it wished to retain people’s trust? There was enough reason to hope that it was.

By December 22, Modi had realised that he was facing the beginnings of a nationwide rebellion against the CAA and NRC. The governments of 10 states in “heartland” India – Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Bihar, Bengal, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Kerala – had already announced that they would not implement the NRC and the CAA. The BJP was about to lose Jharkhand. A 12th state, Andhra Pradesh, had joined the other 11 and even in Karnataka’s Bengaluru, the crown jewel of the state has seen students coming out to oppose the government’s move.

In addition, the entire Northeast up in arms. So Modi had only Uttar Pradesh and six other states – Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Karnataka, Goa and Gujarat – behind him. His home minister, Amit Shah, had thundered in response that the states’ opposition was irrelevant because “citizenship is a central subject in the constitution”. But both of them knew that with Article 356 of the constitution virtually a dead letter after the Bommai judgment of 1994, and administration in the hands of the states, there was little they could do.

The BJP’s setback in Jharkhand – after those it had suffered in Maharashtra, and to a lesser extent in Haryana – had shown that the party’s post-election honeymoon period was almost over. So using the launch of his campaign for the Delhi state assembly elections as an occasion for beating a tactical retreat seemed like the logical thing to do.

… And the harsh reality

It is only when we examine the audience that had collected at the Ramlila grounds on December 22, and parse Modi’s 97-minute speech closely and relate it to what has been happening since then, that we realise what Modi had declared was not a tactical retreat but an open war upon Indian democracy.

The most noticeable feature of the crowd that had assembled was the absence of women. Among the 78-80 persons seated in the first seven rows of one of the enclosures captured by the camera, only five were women. Another view, of about 60 persons in the right one-third of the front enclosures, clearly showed only four women. A third, aimed at what was seemingly a VIP enclosure directly in front to the dais, showed 14 well-dressed women in a crowd of 83. There were small clusters of women visible in a few other pockets as well, but all in all, the men present outnumbered the women by ten to one, if not more.

The  men had a curious sameness about them. All but a very few were young and fit. Most sported moustaches, and wore orange caps, scarves, shirts or shawls. And against a lone tricolour planted directly in front of the dais, there was a forest of the BJP’s lotus flags waving in the field and obscuring the cameras’ views.

The relative absence of women, a total absence of children, the sameness of the men and the ubiquity of flags were a dead giveaway: This was not a spontaneous gathering to hear a popular national leader, let alone a popular prime minister. This was a hand-picked gathering brought to the Ramlila ground, as a BJP leader admitted to India Today, in 3,000 hired buses. The audience make up also strongly suggested that these were members of RSS shakhas from far-flung places in, and beyond, Delhi.

Ostensibly, they had been brought to kick off a Delhi election campaign, but Modi used the occasion for a very different, specific purpose. What this could be had been revealed in an expansive moment in February 2018, by the RSS sarsanghchlalak Mohan Bhagwat. Bhagwat had boasted that “his organisation could assemble its cadres to fight much faster than the Indian army could in a situation of war…The Sangh will prepare military personnel within three days, something the army would do in 6-7 months. This is our capability. Swayamsewaks will be ready to take on the front if the country faces such a situation and constitution permits us to do so.”

Bhagwat was talking about an external enemy, but Modi’s message to the assembled shakhas was that the threat was internal. All but the last part of his speech was designed to advise them that their time had come. The Sangh parivar needed them to come to the aid of the police in suppressing dissent, and restoring order in the nation. If they did not respond, then all that the BJP had done for the people of India, and for Hindutva, would be in vain.

Modi devoted the first 30 minutes of his speech to listing the many things he had done for the people of Delhi and the nation’s poor – housing for the poor, a health insurance scheme, the Ujjwala cooking gas scheme. Then he added:

“ We have never asked anyone their caste or creed before granting benefits, then why are the opposition and some persons allied with them, accusing me of doing so!”


Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking at Ramlila Maidan. Photo: PTI

With his characteristic disregard for the finer points of truth, he omitted to mention that Delhi has been ruled for the past five years by the Aam Aadmi Party, and that every one of these schemes has already been implemented without consideration of caste or creed – but by the AAP. He also failed to mention that the AAP had already created a cheaper and more efficient network of mobile clinics that had brought medicine to the doorsteps of the poor in Delhi four years before he announced his health scheme last year.

Modi’s real message

All this, however, was only the overture. The true purpose of the rally emerged only halfway into the speech. All of a sudden, Modi became the people’s friend, having a cosy gossip with them: “When we came to power first,” he said with more than a touch of glee, “these people could not believe it. They tried to sabotage me even then, and they thought that I would be rejected in the next election. When the people brought me back with a larger vote the second time, they were struck dumb with amazement. Since that day, they have been looking for ways to create a storm in the country.”

Who are these people? Modi asked in a conspiratorial tone. Then, as if sharing a secret with them, he said: “It is these educated people, who live in cities, who speak  English, these urban Naxals. It is they who are instigating attacks upon policemen, and urging mobs to shoot and kill them as they do their duty.”

Then, over the roar of a frenzied audience shouting “Modiji ishaara do, Ham tumhare saath hain (Modiji give us a signal. We are with you),” Modi roared: “To protect the common people of Hindustan, 33,000 policemen have martyred themselves since we gained our freedom. This is the selfless force that these lawless elements, and those who hide behind curtains and direct them, are now stoning and killing.”

Killing? Yes, that is the precise word Modi used on that fateful evening. Nor did he leave any doubt in his listeners’ minds about who the hidden instigators are: “These are of two kinds: those who have never risen above vote bank politics, i.e the entire opposition, and those have profited from this vote bank politics, who think they own the state, who think that the history they write is the correct history, the future they aspire to is India’s future…who used to think that they owned the country. Now that they have been decisively rejected by the people, they have resorted to their old weapon: ‘divide and Rule’!”

Then, as the crowd’s roar grew to a frenzy, came the clincher: “Will you back the police?” The crowd roared, “Yes.”

“Will you honour them?” “Yes”.

“Will you show them respect?” Again the roar, “Yes!”

To swelling cries of “Aadesh, aadesh (Give us the order, give us the order)” from the frenzied young men in saffron caps and shawls before him, Modi said, “To honour their martyrdom we have built a monument to the police in the city. I ask all the people of the 1,700 colonies of Delhi, will you go to the police monument and offer flowers to the martyrs?…Will you respect the police? Will you treat them as your brothers? Will you honour them and give them the respect that is their due?”

To each rhetorical question, he received an enthusiastic assent.

Police as ally and accomplice of RSS

Modi has seldom said or done anything without a preconceived purpose. It is therefore difficult not to draw the conclusion that the main purpose of his speech, and probably the rally as well, was not to personally launch an electoral campaign in a state where the  BJP is likely to lose, but to forge an open compact between the police all over the country and 51,335 shakhas of the RSS.

For the police, crowd control is not only a risky but a thankless task. Not only can policemen be injured by a stone or, in extreme situations, a bullet, but they constantly face the risk of being prosecuted for an excessive or inappropriate use of force. Modi’s speech has absolved them in advance from blame for any criminal act they may commit “in pursuit of their duties”.

Policemen can now run after fleeing demonstrators firing their revolvers at them, as TV has captured them doing in Assam. They can smash students’ motorcycles and scooters at leisure, as they were caught doing on camera in Aligarh, in order to put the blame on ‘anti-social elements’. They can enter the homes of people and destroy everything in sight, claiming that they did so in hot pursuit of ‘miscreants’. They can pick up The Hindu’s UP correspondent and question him for hours, throwing vile communal slurs at him, because he is a Kashmiri.

Finally, they can kill demonstrators, as they have done in BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka. It is not accidental that, of the 25 demonstrators that the police have killed across the country since the protests started, 18 have been in UP, or that almost all of those killed have been Muslims.

Few in India will deny that the policing of public protests is a thankless task. Far too many are infiltrated by hoodlums intent upon creating chaos to facilitate theft. But the police are not saints either. A 2010 study of human rights violations by the police showed that 1,224 out of 2,560 ‘encounters’ between the police and alleged criminals that occurred between 1993 and 2010 were ‘fake encounters’, or extra-judicial executions by the police.

But in his speech Modi did not attempt to draw any fine distinctions, and turned student demonstrators into criminals, and the police into saints. The government’s camp followers have been quick to take the hint: within minutes, his pet TV channels, and their anchors, began to portray student demonstrators as destroyers of public property and the police as their victims.

Four days later, in an unprecedented departure from constitutional propriety, General Bipin Rawat – now Modi’s handpicked chief of defence staff – breached the wall that has separated the military from civilian matters and accused unspecified political leaders of encouraging acts of “arson and violence by university and college students”. And the Delhi police has added a new category of persons to those on whom it will use recently acquired automatic facial recognition software in tandem with drones, to identify in crowds: “rabble rousers and miscreants”.

Modi’s government still has more than four years to go. The fight to save religious pluralism, secularism and democracy is just beginning.

https://thewire.in/rights/narendra-modi-ramlila-maidan-rss-police-protests
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However, since Modi does not have a reverse gear in his psyche, a retreat by him is almost inconceivable.

Modi Must Change Course and Scrap the Citizenship Amendment Act
A police personnel walks past an anti-CAA wall writing in New Delhi. Photo: Reuters

History is being made in India today.

For only the second time since Independence, virtually the entire political opposition has joined in the defence of the two core values of the Indian state: secularism and equality before the law.

The trigger is the Modi government’s passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act, by brute majority, in just three days in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, without any prior consultation or discussion with other political parties or civil society organisations in the affected regions.

As Prashant Kishore, the general secretary of the ruling Janata Dal (United) in Bihar, has pointed out, it is the combination of the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act, that has struck at the roots of secularism and the rule of law in India. These have plunged the country into a witches’ brew of fresh anxieties just when it needs to focus all of its attention on combating the economic and unemployment crisis that has overwhelmed the country.

Seven state governments have already announced that they will not implement the Citizenship Amendment Act. These include not only the Congress ruled states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Punjab, but also Kerala, West Bengal and Bihar.

Tamil Nadu has not joined the boycott yet, but is likely to do so because the 3,04,000 Tamil refugees who have been living as stateless citizens in India for as long as 36 years have not been included in the Act.

Maharashtra is also teetering on the brink: the Shiv Sena had voted for the Bill in the Lok Sabha, but boycotted the voting in the Rajya Sabha.

Violence erupted in Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya. While many in Assam have joined the protest because exempting Hindu refugees will open the floodgates for swamping the Ahom culture, whose protection had been guaranteed by the Assam Accord sculpted by Rajiv Gandhi in 1985, the five hill states are afraid that it will push those declared stateless in Assam now, and future migrants from Bangladesh into their lands. This is threatening to re-awaken an atavistic nationalism in a vast section of the youth of these states that bodes ill for India’s future unity.

This was underlined by the Imphal Times on December 14 in an extended opinion piece that sent a chill down my spine as I read it.

The hidden agenda of the Government of India may be to replace the Mongoloid population with Aryan population. The strategy they have adopted is through population invasion-war without arms…The main focus of mainland Indians is how to keep the north-east people divided in the name of political parties, ethnicity and religion…The people of North-East view the Bill as a threat to their very existence. Many student organisations expressed that ‘We will not accept any law that will take away our Rights as indigenous people.”

To any government not blinded by an atavistic ideology and besotted by its recent success at the polls, the current unrest would have been a storm signal demanding an immediate change of course. There are many in the BJP who are fully aware of this. But the Modi-Shah duo is not among them.

Faced with student unrest in Delhi on Sunday the government has responded in a manner made familiar by Modi and Shah’s 12-year tenure in Gujarat. Modi has not only gone on the attack, but made the Muslim community the villains of the drama.

Police closed all roads leading to Okhla, broken down the gates of Jamia Millia Islamia, attacked students who, they claimed, had been pelting them with stones from inside the compound, broke into the library where students were studying for their examinations, manhandled them, and eventually arrested 50 of them.

From Jharkhand, Prime Minister Modi left none of the millions who heard him on TV in any doubt about the identity of “the mob” which was supposedly resorting to violence: “Bhaiyo aur beheno”, he said, “ you can tell who the rioters are by the clothes they are wearing”.

This is probably the first time the head of government in a democratic country has painted a target on a single community’s back in the way that Modi did in Jharkhand on Sunday.

And yet, the Modi-Shah duo is learning that it cannot rule India through terror as it ruled Gujarat till 2014. Student unrest has been spreading rapidly and has now engulfed Sikkim at one end of the country and Bengaluru at the other. In its desperation, the Modi government has  begun to treat more and more parts of the country in the way that it has been treating Kashmir: the internet has been, and remains, shut down for varying periods in Assam, the north-eastern states, four districts of Bengal, and Aligarh.

In Delhi, the Central government closed metro stations all the way till the north campus of Delhi university and the subway stations around JNU, to prevent as many students as possible from joining the protest in front of police headquarters on Sunday night.

But even a child could tell Modi and Shah that escalating repression has not worked in any country in the world, because it breeds the very opposition to the government that it is using force to crush.

The government still has time to make a face-saving withdrawal from the NRC and CAA in their present form.

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The home minister may be able to fool others on the Congress’s actions around Partition, but he cannot fool me.

Partition Lies and Amit Shah's Theatre of the AbsurdUnion home minister Amit Shah speaks in the Lok Sabha during the ongoing Winter Session of Parliament, in New Delhi, Monday, Dec. 9, 2019. Photo: PTI

During the Lok Sabha debate on the Bill amending the Citizenship Act, Union home minister Amit Shah suddenly lost his temper and blurted: “Is desh ka vibhajan agar dharma ke aadhar par Congress na kari hoti to is Bill ka kaam nahin hota (Had the Congress not partitioned this country on the basis of religion, there would have been no need for this Bill).”

His remark sent a shock wave through the Lok Sabha, provoking responses which were echoed within hours by civil society. But Shah, the master tactician, had got what he wanted – he had once again put India’s secular intelligentsia and the increasingly befuddled Congress party on the defensive. And that might have been just the extra edge the BJP needed to get this monstrous Bill through the Rajya Sabha.

Shah’s obvious purpose always was to hustle it through, as he did with the Unlawful Activities Act Amendment Bill before the opposition had time to muster its full strength. And he did it with great aplomb.

What is depressing is the fact that even 48 hours after he made this outrageous claim, no one in the Congress, or for that matter the rest of the opposition and civil society, has pinned down the outrageous lie that Shah spoke in the august halls of parliament on a Bill that, by changing the very basis of the Union of Indian, has begun the process of tearing it apart.

All have defended the Congress by saying that while it accepted the creation of two nations, it did not do so on the basis of the two-nation theory. To the vast majority of Indians, born well after Partition, this must sound like sheer sophistry. That is what Shah (who is only 55 years old) was almost certainly banking upon. It was up to the present leaders of the Congress party to checkmate Shah’s strategy. But that required an immediate command of history that Sonia Gandhi, who was sitting in the front opposition benches, did not have. So, in a manner with which we have grown wearyingly familiar, she stayed seated and remained silent.

It has therefore fallen to this 81-year-old former journalist to set the record straight. For what I know about the tumultuous last days of the British Raj and the first months of independence is not second-hand but living, first-hand knowledge. So Shah, whose knowledge is also necessarily second hand, may be able to fool others but he cannot fool me.

The Congress party’s resolution of 1947 accepting Partition gave a full explanation of why the party had felt itself left with no option. It restated in pain-filled detail why it had accepted Partition as the lesser of the two evils the country faced at the time (early 1947) despite its staunch and continuing opposition to the two-nation theory. Its reason was the urgent and imperative need to prevent the “poison of communalism” from spreading further and “tearing apart the social fabric of the country”.

The resolution reflects its leaders’ awareness that they were surrendering their own most cherished principle, but felt compelled to accept the lesser evil in order to avert a much greater one.

To understand why it felt this, it is necessary to go back in time to June 1947, when Mountbatten announced the partition plan. The ‘communal poison’ to which the Congress was referring was the Muslim League’s ‘direct action’ plan to deliberately inflame Hindu-Muslim animosity in order to garner support for its demand for partition. This had begun with the planned killing of Hindus in Calcutta of August 1946 that went on for two days, before the Hindu reaction engulfed Bihar in a bloodbath.

This was followed by a planned pogrom of Hindus and Sikhs in what was then the North West Frontier Province (now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) in December 1946. This was a Muslim League conspiracy in the most evil sense of the term, because it occurred in a province ruled by the Khudai Khidmatgars (also dubbed the Frontier Congress) which had been stoutly opposing partition ever since it was mooted in 1940. The two minorities made up only 6% of the province’s population, but they were the richest 6%, consisting of traders, moneylenders and rich landowners. The pogrom was therefore aimed both at seizing the assets of the Hindus and Sikhs and simultaneously de-legitmising the Khudai Khidmatgars. (This was a pogrom that the British government had tacitly supported and enabled. The evidence is in the Transfer of Power Documents, Volume 12.)

Those who escaped fled to Rawalpindi, where they received little sympathy or support, and to Muzaffarabad where the Muslim inhabitants, despite the communal hysteria of those times, received them with open arms. But by then the Muslim League National Guard (modelled, like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, on Germany’s SA) had the bit between its teeth.

In January 1947, the League turned its attention to Punjab, where as in the NWFP, the Sikhs numbered 18% of its population but owned 30% of all the farmland and paid 50% of the land revenue to the British. Lahore, Amritsar and other cities were dominated by Hindu traders and moneylenders. So here too, the League used the lure of stolen wealth to start a series of communal riots and pogroms.

Like the NWFP, Punjab was also against the partition of India. It was ruled by the Unionist party, a party composed in more or less equal parts by Muslim, Sikh and Hindu feudals, under the prime ministership of Sikander Hayat Khan and after his death in 1942, by Sir Khizar Hayat Khan. Khizar Hayat Khan also opposed Partition but lacked the strength of his predecessor. As a result, the Unionist alliance had begun to fray at the edges when the Muslim League launched its communal riots in January 1947, following his resignation.

This brought the danger to the freedom movement posed by the poison of communal polarisation to the Congress’s doorstep. For Punjab stretched then from the Kabul river at the foothills of the Hindu Kush range till Delhi. If the capital went up in flames, then not only would freedom get indefinitely postponed, but the dream of a single independent country would be destroyed in the scramble by the rest of the country to prevent the poison from spreading into it.

It was to avoid this dire fate that the Congress accepted Partition. It reasoned that three quarters of a secular, multi-ethnic and multi-religious country was better than none. It was to save an inheritance of secularism that stretched from Gautama Buddha till Akbar and the Din-e-Ilahi, and embraced Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Parsis and Jews, in addition to Muslims, that it decided to cut that glorious India’s losses and accept Partition.

And while the Congress was fighting this epic battle for an ideal, what was the RSS doing? From the Dandi Salt March in 1929 till Gandhi’s Quit India call in 1940, the RSS stoutly opposed every attempt to secure freedom through satyagraha and even offered its cohorts to the government to act as civil guards to quell the unrest that Gandhi’s call would generate. It maintained a monumental silence on the Muslim League’s direct action programme and while it may not have instructed Nathuram Godse to assassinate Mahatma Gandhi, according to Pyarelal, Gandhi’s secretary, “Members of the RSS at some places had been instructed beforehand to tune in to their radio sets on the fateful Friday for the ‘good news’.”

For the RSS to claim that it is amending the Citizenship Act to complete the work that was left undone by the Congress is beyond calumny; it is sick comedy. Unfortunately, as Nagaland’s extension of the requirement to obtain an Inner Line Permit to the whole of Dimapur district has just shown, it is comedy that could turn in a flash into tragedy.

https://thewire.in/history/amit-shah-citizenship-amendment-bill-partition-congress

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