Prem Shankar Jha

Modi did not want only to prevent a second wave; he wanted all the credit for stopping COVID-19 in its tracks to go to him and him alone.

Modi's Gamble, and How Many Lives It Will Cost
Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

In her heart-rending description of her desperate search for oxygen to save her father’s life, the celebrated TV news anchor Barkha Dutt ascribed his death to three features of governance that have defined Modi’s India: complacency, callousness and incompetence. She could have added a fourth – an insatiable, almost suicidal appetite for risk born of a compulsion to keep reinforcing an already swollen image of himself.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has displayed this penchant half a dozen times in the last seven years: his personal announcement of  demonetisation before the new currency notes had even been printed; his imposition of the Goods and Services Tax with immediate effect, denying India’s 71 million small manufacturers time to set up the required accounting systems; his sudden  confrontation of the Chinese at Doklam in Bhutan without consulting Thimpu, and his equally sudden removal of price and marketing protection from farmers without even a rudimentary examination of how it would affect them.

His appetite for risk surfaced yet again, within days of being told that the first wave of India’s COVID-19 epidemic had peaked in September last year. Of the 50 lakh Indians who had been infected until then, 81% had recovered. Some 10 lakh patients remained under medical care, most of them at home. A little over 84,000 people had died. The mortality rate of 1.68 % was about the lowest in the world and the envy of other nations (notwithstanding fatality undercounting and underreporting).

But everyone involved in the actual fight until then knew that it was too good to last. Scientists always knew of the danger that the ‘original’ virus could mutate into more dangerous forms. Second ‘waves’ of COVID-19 had already developed in the summer and autumn of 2020, spreading through parts of Belgium, Iran, South Korea, Germany, the Czech Republic, Spain and the US.

When researchers in the UK reported the B.1.1.7 variant in December 2020, the country’s government immediately extended its existing lockdown. The variant was found to be more infectious but no more dangerous than the original. Within weeks, scientists reported two more ‘variants of concern’, from Brazil (P.1) and South Africa (B.1.351), in addition to numerous other strains and mutations. P.1 and B.1.351 have been found to be able to partially evade the human immune system, endangering prospects of vaccines being developed at the time.

Therefore, every government took the risk of a second outbreak seriously from the start. By early January 2021, the B.1.1.7 strain had been detected in samples in Denmark, the Netherlands, Australia, Italy, Sweden, France, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Canada, Japan, Lebanon and Singapore. All of these countries took quick precautions, imposed lockdowns and/or stepped up their vaccination schedules.

There were only three exceptions – all in large democracies with insecure but ruthless leaders in power: Brazil, the US and India.

India’s scientific and medical establishment, and its health minister Harsh Vardhan in particular, were fully aware of the threat that later strains of the virus could pose. Vardhan had overseen the last phase of the polio eradication campaign during Prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s tenure, so he had an experience of disease control that no one else in the government did.

But from the very first days of the pandemic, the Modi government developed two conflicting aims. While the administration wanted to chart a course of action that would minimise the risk of a second wave, the political establishment – headed by Modi himself – was concerned only with extracting every ounce of political advantage from the crisis.

The conflict emerged in the very first week of the March 2020 lockdown. In speech after televised speech, Modi reminded his audiences that just as the Pandava had won the battle of Kurukshetra in 18 days, he would win the battle against COVID-19 in 21 days. He thus turned the lockdown into a personal battle between him and the virus.

As the days passed, and the number of new cases increased instead of declining, Modi began to look for something, or someone, to blame. Conveniently for him, the Tablighi Jamaat conference in New Delhi gave him just the scapegoats he needed – foreign religious clerics belonging to a religion he detested and had targeted to attain power. The strictest possible lockdown was therefore imposed on the entire Nizamuddin area of New Delhi and criminal cases filed against the organisers – despite the fact that the conference had ended two days before the government imposed the first travel restrictions on foreigners, on March 14.

But new cases continued to mount long after the event’s conclusion, so Modi sought help from the occult. To invoke the gods to come to his aid, he asked  people to turn off their lights and beat thalis at preordained times and used the Air Force to shower flowers over Delhi.

While he was monopolising TV time, his administration was setting up 11 empowered groups under the National Disaster Management Act, to deal with the material aspects of the forthcoming challenge. One of them, within days of being set up, warned the government in unambiguous terms that a second wave was likely and provided detailed recommendations on how to prepare for it, should it happen.

Among its most important recommendations was that India immediately import 60,000 tonnes of oxygen and upgrade 150 district hospitals – mainly by supplying them with 162 pressure swing adsorption plants to isolate oxygen.

The 162 plants were expected to cost Rs 200 crore. At the time the empowered group made these recommendations, the PM Cares fund, which Modi had set up to fight the pandemic, had already received Rs 3,076 crore, mostly from public sector companies. So Modi had the money he needed, in abundance.


A COVID-19 patient on oxygen support waits to be admitted at Patna Medical College and Hospital, during the second wave of coronavirus in Patna, Friday, May 14, 2021. Photo: PTI

But Modi did not want only to prevent a second wave; he wanted all the credit for stopping COVID-19 in its tracks to go to him and him alone. So when the  first wave peaked in September 2020, his propagandists immediately  proclaimed that Modi’s harsh lockdown had defeated the outbreak and saved India. From then on, it was business as usual for Modi, and business as usual had  only one goal: to wrest West Bengal from Mamata Bannerjee and the Trinamool Congress, no matter the cost.

In Modi’s highly centralised, PMO-centred decision-making process, this shift of attention sowed the seeds of today’s disaster. The government’s first act was to wind up five of the 11 empowered groups and discontinued the meetings of the group tracking the virus’s spread. The programme to upgrade district hospitals went into limbo – as did the plan to create an oxygen reserve by  importing 50,000 tonnes of oxygen.

Genome sequencing, which is essential to determine which mutations are spreading in which population, took the back seat. It was not till December 25, 2020, after B.1.1.7 had already arrived in India, that the health ministry created the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG) – a chain of 10 laboratories to sequence and analyse virus samples.

By March 24 INSACOG had tested 10,787 samples and found 771 instances involving three of the eight ‘variants of concern’ the US Centres of Disease Control had identified. Of them, 94% were of B.1.1.7.

This should have set the alarm bells ringing in every office in the PMO – but four state elections were imminent and Modi could think of nothing else but the stentorian speeches he was preparing to give in the 23 election rallies he intended to address in West Bengal and Assam.

In fact, the absence of any sense of urgency in the government after September was so complete that it took eight months, until November 2020, just to invite tenders for the oxygen plants. As a result, on April 18, 2021, only 11 of the 162 oxygen plants had been installed.

Also, none of these had been funded by the PM Cares fund. In fact, it was not till April 15 that the PMO coughed up a measly Rs 100 crores from its corpus to complete the construction of 59 more plants and bring the number up to 80 by the end of May.

There was a similar departure from responsibility  in the vaccination programme. From January 16, the government concentrated on vaccinating frontline and healthcare workers. Vaccination for those above 50 years began on March 1, but with that private interests and preferences came roaring back into play.

Pfizer was refused permission to sell their vaccines in India. The Centre also failed to strike advance purchase agreements with vaccine-makers and grossly underestimated Indian manufacturers to satisfy the domestic demand for doses.

The government also forced Covaxin, an ‘indigenously developed’ vaccine, on government hospitals before the latter had completed its crucial phase 3 trials. As a result, vast numbers of eligible persons refused to take the vaccine, slowing immunisation still further.

Despite this rampant irresponsibility,  Modi’s luck held for five months after September. Through these winter months, the number of active cases continued to ebb. When it reached a minimum in the week of February 11, 2021, there were fewer than 138,000 patients under treatment and a hundred or so deaths a day. The country heaved a sigh of relief. Markets, restaurants and malls began to function again and life was returning to a semblance of normal. But by then, the seeds of the second wave that is now ravaging the country had been sown.

The second wave

The first warning came, almost unnoticed, in late-February when the number of new cases daily began once again to exceed  recoveries, causing the number of active cases to start rising.  This was slow at the beginning: the first doubling of active cases, from 137,000 on February 14 to 273,000 cases on March 18, took   32 days. But after that, and within six days of INSACOG’s warning, the speed tripled and each doubling took only 11 days or so.

The number of active cases breached the 1 million mark on April 10 and the 2 million mark on April 21. Not until then did it register on Modi that there was something more important happening in the country than the West Bengal and Assam elections. But by then he had already addressed 10 million persons in  23 rallies, where neither he nor anyone in his audiences wore a mask.

Modi’s utter disregard for the consequences of his actions emboldened lesser leaders in his party to follow his lead. The chief minister of Uttarakhand not only refused to cancel the Kumbh Mela but put out advertisements to draw more devotees from around India.

When a special leave petition to the Supreme Court pointed out on April 16 that “there is no protocol in place to ensure that devotees who get infected do not go on to spread the virus when they return”, he retorted that “nobody will be stopped (from attending the mela). We are sure that faith in God will overcome fear of the virus”. As a result, an estimated 28 lakh persons attended the mela, took holy dips in the Ganga, jostled with each other in the crowded, polluted waters of the river, and then dispersed to all parts of India to spread the virus.


Devotees gather to offer prayers during the third Shahi Snan of the Kumbh Mela 2021, at Har ki Pauri Ghat in Haridwar, Wednesday, April 14, 2021. Photo: PTI

Therefore, to Modi’s surprise – and perhaps only his – there were three and a half million active cases on May 4. Hospitals were full to bursting, doctors couldn’t even reply to anxious calls from infected patients, helplines were overloaded and distress calls received no answer. An acute shortage of oxygen killed patients by the scores every hour.

Although the data has not been released, and may never be, I speculate from personal experience that more people have probably died because of the lack of oxygen than from any other single cause. In fact, the shortage of oxygen is therefore the one issue on which the world needs to hold the Modi government, and Modi in particular, criminally responsible. For there is not a shadow of an excuse for the shortage that has developed.

In a report a report submitted to the Lok Sabha in 2020, a committee headed by MP Ram Gopal Yadav pointed out that the country’s oxygen production capacity was 6,900 tonnes a day; that at the peak of the first wave the demand for medical oxygen had reached 3,000 tonnes a day, but as the wave subsided it had fallen to 1,000 tonnes a day. This allowed the remainder to be diverted for industrial use.

So in March, when INSACOG identified the B.1.1.7 strain as the main threat to the country’s population at the time, the government could have diverted at least 2,000 tonnes a day of oxygen back from industrial centres with a single stroke of the pen. But at the end of March, Modi’s fixation on winning the West Bengal and Assam elections was so complete that he ‘forgot’ to make that stroke of the pen. And by the time he ‘remembered’, it was April 19, and  people were dying in their cars and as their relatives took them desperately to one hospital after the next in search of oxygen.

So in March, when INSACOG identified the B.1.1.7 strain as the main threat to the country’s population at the time, the government could have diverted at least 2,000 tonnes a day of oxygen back from industrial centres with a single stroke of the pen. But at the end of March, Modi’s fixation on winning the West Bengal and Assam elections was so complete that he ‘forgot’ to make that stroke of the pen. And by the time he ‘remembered’, it was April 19, and  people were dying in their cars and as their relatives took them desperately to one hospital after the next in search of oxygen.

 

 

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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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If Modi wants to pull India out of the ‘Cereals Trap’, the path lies through the creation of infrastructure for agriculture.

The Remedy to the Agricultural Crisis That No One Is Talking AboutFarmers during a protest against the new farm laws, at Ghazipur Border in New Delhi, Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. Photo: PTI/Ravi Choudhary

Five weeks after the Farmers agitation began, and a day after the Supreme Court urged the government to put the three farm bills passed in September on hold, Prime Minister Modi has finally agreed to hold talks with their leaders.

But what will he hold talks about when neither he, nor anyone else in his government, has shown any understanding of what has driven the entire community of farmers from North India to the edge of despair?

Their ignorance is writ large on his party propagandists’ attempts to ascribe political, even traitorous, motives to the farm leaders. That is the reaction of schoolyard bullies who, when they find themselves losing an argument, start hitting their opponents.

Now that Modi has decided to talk to the farmers himself, he would do well to understand the predicament that has driven them to desperation. In a nutshell, it is this: India is now a chronically food surplus economy. So while opening up the foodgrains trade to traders from all over the country will benefit rich farmers – who have the maximum bargaining power and can contact, or be contacted by, buyers in other states and countries most easily – the entire price shock of the foodgrains surplus will be felt by the small landholders who make up four-fifths of the farming community.

The government’s recent decision not to abolish the Minimum Sale Price system will cushion this shock, but no one knows to what extent it will do so if the thriving mandis of Punjab, Haryana, Western UP and northern Rajasthan lose the bulk of their business to private buyers and start closing down.

Even if the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees that manage these mandis survive no one can foretell how far their straitened finances will permit them to provide the small farmers with the host of ancillary services, such as advances to buy seed and fertiliser in time to sow the next crop, that they are doing today. In sum, these ‘reforms’ will plunge the largest, most vulnerable, segment of the country’s population into a sea of uncertainty, in which they presently have no idea, of how they will stay afloat.

Liberal economists are treating this as the unavoidable price of economic development. The solution, they say, lies in product diversification. The cereals market will automatically come back into balance if farmers divert some of their land to horticulture, dairy and poultry farming. What they seem to be unaware of is that farmers have been doing this since the early 1990s. Those with small and marginal holdings were the first to attempt it.

But the world they entered was frighteningly different from the world they were leaving, for it was one in which near-complete market security was replaced by equally complete market insecurity. While cereals are not perishable and can easily be stored for six months or more (wheat) to several years ( lentils), fruit, vegetables (other than onions and potatoes),  milk and eggs perish in days. Horticulturalists have therefore found that, from the moment they harvest their crop, they are at the utter mercy of the trader.

Despite this more and more farmers have taken to growing vegetables, fruit and flowers because of the rapid and unexpected growth of exports. Since exporters offer contracted prices to ensure, and often pre-empt, supply, a degree of income stability has been given to horticulturists. As a result, the area under horticulture has more than doubled in the past twenty years to 25 million hectares, and exports have grown eightfold from Rs 8,000 crores in 2000-01 to Rs 63,700 crores in 2018-19.


Farmers protest against the farm bills at Singhu border near Delhi, India, December 4, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Anushree Fadnavis

But only traders, exporters and well-to-do farmers have benefited from this windfall.  To manage the growing volume of horticultural produce giant cold storages that can store up to 40,000 tonnes of produce, have sprung up all over India in the last two decades. In March 2019, there were an estimated 7,645 large cold storages with a refrigerated space of 150 million cubic metres, capable of storing  37 to 39 million tonnes of perishable produce.

But the small farmers, who have grown most of the fruits and vegetables, have been left out in the cold because, even today, almost three-quarters of a century after independence, there are no cold storages in the villages.

The following data from the agriculture ministry’s report, ‘Horticulture Statistics at a Glance 2018‘ shows how this single omission has chained the small farmers to poverty. In Punjab, one hectare under horticulture yields four tonnes of paddy and five tonnes of wheat, but close to 20 tonnes of vegetables.

But between 2013 and 2018, the wholesale price of onions, potatoes and tomatoes – the three principal horticulture crops – has averaged Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 per tonne in March and April at the end of the growing season, when the farmers have no option but to sell their produce.  Since farm-gate prices average at most half of the wholesale price, the vegetable growers earn at best Rs 6,000 per tonne for their produce,  and a gross income, therefore, of Rs 120,000 in the year.

But the procurement price fixed by the central government for both paddy and wheat is over Rs 18,000 per tonne. So four tonnes of paddy and five tonnes of wheat a year fetch the farmer a gross income of Rs 162,000, one-third more than vegetables fetch the marginal farmers. Vegetable farming is therefore not only less secure, but also pays less than cereal farming. That is the second reason why the farmers are not only insisting upon the retention of the MSP but the repeal of all the three farm bills. If the present marketing structure is weakened or destroyed, all of them, from the largest landholders to the smallest, have no place to go but down.

The bitter experience of vegetable growers has shown the farmers who are surrounding Delhi today that the ‘market’ upon whose mercy Modi wants to cast them is exploitative and merciless. That is why they are not only insisting upon the retention of the MSP but the repeal of all the three farm bills as a prelude to negotiation.

If Modi wants to pull India out of the ‘Cereals Trap’, the path lies through the creation of infrastructure for agriculture that India’s governments and intelligentsia had promised to farmers when the Congress party made land reform its first national policy initiative in 1948, but subsequently forgot.

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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These “reforms” bear exactly the same stamp of hubris, lack of consultation and foresight that has characterised all the major initiatives taken by the Narendra Modi government in the past six years.

The Protests Against the Farm Laws Present a Familiar Pattern
A farmer holds the tricolor at Ghazipur border during the protest against the Centre’s agri-laws, December 15, 2020. Photo: PTI/Ravi Choudhary

If there is anyone who should not be surprised by the sustained and widespread opposition by farmers to the laws passed in September, it is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. For these “reforms” bear exactly the same stamp of hubris, lack of consultation and foresight that has characterised all the major initiatives his government has taken in the past six or more years.

This is not the first time that Modi has announced draconian measures that have far-reaching consequences, without prior warning, let alone consultation. He did this with demonetisation in 2016; with the Goods and Services Tax in 2017; with the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Population Register in 2019, and with a hasty lockdown to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in March that proved a monumental failure but inflicted untold hardship on 40-50 million migrant workers this year.

The many failures that have followed his exaggerated promises, and the unrest that many of these have generated, have sown a growing scepticism in the people. So it is not surprising that the farmers distrust the government’s assurances that the Acts will help double their earnings and are demanding their repeal.


A farmer holding a flag stands on top of a truck during the ongoing protest against the Center’s new farm laws at Singhu
border in New Delhi, December 10, 2020. Photo: PTI/Arun Sharma

What is not so easy to understand is their refusal to discuss amendments to the three lawseven after the government reassured them that it will not abolish the minimum support price (MSP) system that has existed for the past five decades. This will allow the farmers to sell their rice, wheat and other MSP-covered crops in the open market while they enjoy the security of knowing that they can sell these to the government if the need arises.

So, predictably, Modi’s spokespersons have reverted to coercion and accused the farmers’ leaders of being ‘Leftists’, ‘Khalistanis’ and puppets of the ‘tukde tukde gang’ that wants to ‘dismember’ India on the pretext of protecting its ethnic, political and religious diversity.

These tactics will not intimidate the farmers for, unlike India’s English-speaking elite, and unlike even the thousands of Muslim women and their non-Muslim supporters in the Shaheen Bagh movement, they are, and will remain, the bedrock of India’s civilisation and politics for many more decades to come. So if the government really wishes to improve the lot of the farmers, it needs to understand the causes of their stubborn resistance first.

The benefits of the Green Revolution have been exhausted

These do not spring so much from doubt about the government’s intentions, as from their doubts about their own capacity to take advantage of these new ‘freedoms’. This capacity has declined sharply in the past three decades as the growth spurt given by the Green Revolution of the 60s and 70s has been exhausted and nothing has taken its place.

The Green Revolution was made possible by the development of hybrid varieties of wheat and rice, but India was able to take spectacular advantage of it only because of the immensely fertile soil of the Indo-Gangetic plain and the abundant supply of groundwater – often likened to an immense underground lake – beneath it.

By the end of the 1980s, both were being fully exploited. In 2015, 28.6 out of the 37.5 million hectares of cultivated land in these five states was irrigated, and all but a tiny part was growing both wheat and rice, or two crops of rice. The cropping intensity was greatest in Punjab and Haryana, where 7.2 out of their 7.6 million hectares of cultivated land was growing both rice and wheat every year. Uttar Pradesh was only slightly behind, with 14.5 million out of its 17.6 million hectares growing both wheat and rice.

Paddy farmers in Tamil Nadu. Credit: Feng Zhong/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Representative image of paddy farmers. Photo: Feng Zhong/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This relentlessly intense cultivation has exhausted the soil. The tell-tale indicator is the need to use more and more fertilisers for every tonne of output. While the production of foodgrains has increased by 134% – from 126 to 285 million tonnes – between 1977-78 and 2018-19, the consumption of fertilisers grew by more than 600%, from 4.2 million tonnes to 27.2 million tonnes.

This increase has turned India into a food surplus country, but caught farmers in a ‘scissors crisis’ of rising costs of production and falling market prices. To prevent a crash in the latter, successive governments have turned what used to be a compulsory procurement price in the 1950s and 60s, designed to ensure a supply of foodgrains at reasonable prices, into a support price that would sustain the real income of the farmers in the villages. This was the genesis of the MSP and Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC), that the government’s new farm laws will make redundant. What this will mean for the farmer can be gleaned from the statement of their purpose as spelt out by Wikipedia:

“An Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) is a marketing board established by state governments in India to ensure farmers are safeguarded from exploitation by large retailers, as well as ensuring the farm to retail price spread does not reach excessively high levels.”

The APMCs are the farmers’ shields against the stormy winds of the free market. It is no surprise therefore that state governments have tried, albeit with limited degrees of success, to extend the MSP system to 21 more agricultural crops.

But over time, this shield has turned into a trap: the more the farmers produce, the higher becomes the cliff from which they will fall if the MSP system is abolished and they are thrown into an open market. In such a market, the better off farmers, who have the means, the leisure and the contacts to make direct sales to traders in other states, and abroad, will prosper. But the small and marginal farmers will find themselves at the bottom end, forced to sell to middlemen who have none of the obligations that the state governments have imposed upon the APMCs.

And today, 125 million of the country’s 146 million farmers own or operate, an average of a little more than two hectares of land. For them, the abolition of the MSP and with it the disappearance or emasculation of the APMCs is virtually a kiss of death. Yes, given enough time many, perhaps most, of them will learn to survive and even prosper in a free market. But time is precisely what the farm laws will deprive them of. If they are forced through even with the retention of MSPs, the APMCs will survive: farmers will have the option to sell to them. But they will become progressively weaker. Many, probably most traders will migrate out of them. Those that remain will have a much smaller turnover and will therefore no longer have the resources to carry out the many functions, from warehousing to electrification to the construction of rural roads that they help perform now in Punjab and Haryana.

This is why the farmers are not satisfied with simply the retention of the MSP. They need much more support, but as of now cannot see how, and from where they will get it, if the laws are not repealed.

Unsold stocks of wheat and rice

In fairness to the government, it must, however, be admitted that the present system also is not sustainable. The warehouses of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) are bursting with unsold stocks of wheat and rice and this food mountain continues to grow. At the end of June, they held 27.7 million tonnes of rice and 55 million tonnes of wheat. Together these amounted to 42.1 million tonnes more than the stipulated buffer stock requirement on July 1. Wheat is hygroscopic, i.e sucks in moisture from the air. It cannot, therefore, be stored for more than a few months before it becomes inedible.

The only way out at present has been to export the surplus. As a result, India has been transformed from the chronically food importing country it was in the 1960s into the world’s largest exporter of rice. In 2019-20, it exported 12 million tonnes – one-third of global exports – and over 6 million tonnes of wheat, much of the latter as cattle feed after it had become ‘unfit for human consumption’ in the FCI’s granaries. There are no reports of what the wheat fetched the government, but the rice fetched 7.1 billion dollars, i.e $591, or Rs 44,325 per tonne. The MSP for rice in 2019 was Rs 1,815 per quintal, i.e. Rs, 18,150 per tonne. The net profit from paddy exports in 2019-20 was, therefore, $4.18 billion.

This is the golden apple that has prompted the government and its supporters in Big Business to pick. The immediate beneficiaries will be the large urban exporters to whom the FCI will sell its surplus stocks. No one knows how much the FCI will sell these surpluses to private traders at, but it has been selling some of its stocks at the MSP or a little above that already. So this is likely to continue. The annual bonanza may be somewhat reduced from the $4.18 billion of 2019-20 by the fall in world prices that increased supply will trigger, but it will still be huge and will come to the exporters and their political backers every ear.


Labourers carry sacks of rice after unloading them from a wagon train at an FCI godown in Jammu, April 16, 2020. Photo: PTI

I will be surprised indeed if this is not the main motivation behind this supposedly benevolent reform. But the reform itself is needed, so to be accepted, it needs to be made benevolent. The simplest way would be to levy a 10% state GST upon all sales made to private traders, and something like a 28% GST upon rice and wheat exports, and channel these back to the APMCs via the state governments to continue performing the functions they perform today.

There will be cracks, even in such a system, through which a few farmers may fall through. But the chasm that all but the richest among them are facing today will be closed.

 

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The Pulwama attack had faded from public discourse after the 2019 elections. So why are moves afoot to bring it back into the limelight again?

Pulwama, China and Atmanirbharta: Is Modi at the End of His Tether?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi along with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh arrives to take part in the 74th Independence Day celebrations, at Red Fort in New Delhi, Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020. Photo: PTI

A decade, or just seven years ago, I would have treated the recent Hindustan Times’ ‘exclusive’ that the “Pakistani government” had been “directly involved” in planning, training the perpetrators, and executing the February 2019 Pulwama attack as a scoop.

But with the PIB’s accreditation (that gave special correspondents unfettered access to officials) withdrawn from the four most important ministries; with CCTVs recording everyone who goes in and out of a government office, and with officers a reporter wants to see having to come to the reception to receive her or him, I am left with no option but to consider the report as a government plant.

This suspicion is reinforced by a propaganda video inserted as an advertisement on YouTube videos, which I personally saw several times on August 14 and 15. I don’t know who paid for or sponsored the advertisement but it refers repeatedly to the Pulwama suicide attack and carries parts of an interview with external affairs minister S. Jaishankar in which he describes Pakistan as a difficult neighbour that has used terrorism as a diplomatic tool, and refused to normalise relations with India despite several overtures by New Delhi.

The Pulwama attack had faded from public discourse after the 2019 elections. So why are moves afoot to bring it back into the limelight again?

The answer is obvious: it is because Bihar is going to the polls in October, and the single largest contingent of migrant workers, who suffered the most from the sudden lockdown and denial of facilities to travel home in March, belong to that state. With nothing to woo them with, Modi has found himself at the end of his tether and fallen back on the tried and tested weapon of hyper-nationalism.

This may be why the version of the Pulwama attack that the NIA has leaked has gone beyond the accusation that Modi and defence minister Arun Jaitley had made in February 2019, that “Pakistan had orchestrated the attack on the convoy in Pulwama”.

According to the newspaper’s informant, the chargesheet, which will be ready by the end of this month, will prove that “Pakistan’s spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and its proxy, Jaish-e-Mohammad, planned and executed the state-sponsored attack, for which highly-trained terrorists were sent to India”.


A damaged CRPF vehicle being taken away after the Pulwama attack. Photo: PTI

More disturbingly, “that Islamabad i.e the elected civilian government, was also in the know of the attack. It claims that ‘strong technical, documentary and material evidence have been collected, apart from experts’ reports and evidence shared by foreign agencies, which prove that the Pakistani government was directly involved in the attack, aimed to create unrest in India”.

The strength of these extremely serious accusations will be known only when the chargesheet becomes public. But the calculated leak has raised a host of questions that, one is sure, Modi would have preferred to remain buried.

The first is, why now, when we are in a standoff with China that is inevitably bringing it and Pakistan closer together? Why bring forward their marriage, instead of seeking ways to postpone, if not prevent it?

The second is, why give your opposition within the country a chance to rake up issues and ask questions whose answers can only hurt you? For the fact is that even if everything the NIA chargesheet reveals is well founded, it will still not explain why Modi, who knew that a serious attack in Kashmir was imminent, did nothing to prevent it, either by warning Pakistan against it in advance, or by putting troops in Kashmir on high alert, and taking steps to minimise their exposure.

Let us take these sins of omission one by one: One week before the suicide attack, which took place on February 14, the Pakistani army suddenly moved to battle stations in Kashmir. This is a huge movement that could not but have been reported to Delhi and Srinagar. There could have been only one reason for making this extremely expensive and, as the radio chatter in the Pakistan army showed, unpopular move, in the dead of winter. Pakistan had planned, or had got to know of, a major attack that was imminent in Kashmir, and felt it necessary to be ready for a reprisal attack by the Modi government.

Analysts in Indian military intelligence leaned towards the view that Islamabad did not get to know of this attack till February 7, because it had received no information about any such impending move from its sources till then. But it could also be because Islamabad had been kept out of the Jaish-ISI loop till the last moment.

Whatever the truth may have been, by the evening of February 7, there was absolutely no way in which Delhi would not have been aware of Pakistan’s sudden action.

It could have been a coincidence, but the very next day, February 8, an intelligence note, marked “extremely urgent” was circulated to all branches of the Central Reserve Police Force, Border Security Force, the Indian Army, the Central Industrial Security Force, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and the Jammu and Kashmir Police. It warned of a large scale attack using IEDs or improvised explosive devices.

Four days later, on February 12, i.e two days before the attack, the Jammu and Kashmir police shared another vital intelligence input. It was a 33-second video on Twitter of a similar car bomb attack on soldiers in Somalia uploaded by the Jaish-e- Mohammad. J&K police had also prepared a dummy video to explain how militants might carry out such an attack. These inputs too were shared during a meeting held on the same day and all the security and police formations were fully alerted.

On February 12, two convoys with 70 trucks carrying 2,500 soldiers were stuck in Jammu because of heavy snowfall on the Banihal pass. The home and defence ministries both knew from bitter experience that the security forces were at their most vulnerable when they were on the road. So they regularly took elaborate precautions.


The site of the Pulwama attack. Photo: PTI/Files

These included sending road opening parties (ROPs) ahead to inspect the road for buried IEDs and to secure every road crossing before the convoys passed. Even had they not received the warnings of an imminent attack they would have known that such a large convoy (70 buses) would be a tempting target. So the CRPF asked the home ministry to allow it to fly the soldiers into Srinagar.

Inexplicably, the request was denied. It is inconceivable that the home ministry took this decision on its own, without referring it to the Prime Minister’s Office. If this reading is correct, then does it not make whoever took the decision not to let them go by air just as guilty of the deaths of 40-plus jawans as Adil Ahmad Dar, the suicide bomber?

This culpability is highlighted by the fact that five days after the Pulwama tragedy, the central government lifted the ban on airlifting its troops to Kashmir.

The only explanation for the timing of the latest leak to the HT is that it is designed to keep the fires of hyper-nationalism in which the BJP has thrived, warm in the run up to Independence Day and after. Modi had to speak to the people from the Lal Qila. By then he had made up his mind to counteract the immense setback to his popularity caused by his mishandling of the COVID-19 lockdown by painting an alternative, glowing view of India’s future – a future in which there would be jobs aplenty because of the emphasis on Atmanirbharta or self-reliant growth.


Indian army soldiers rest next to artillery guns at a makeshift transit camp before heading to Ladakh, near Baltal,
southeast of Srinagar, June 16, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

But China was on our border and refusing to go back to its pre-May 5 positions. And the China-Pakistan axis was growing stronger by the day. Thus the flames of hyper-nationalism needed to be stoked to keep the Modi myth alive till Atmanirbharta, hopefully, began to deliver results.

The Pulwama attack remained its best instrument for doing so. But a year and a half after it took place, tempers have cooled and questions have begun to be asked about why the attack had not been averted. So when the NIA chargesheet enters the public domain, there will be one acid test of its integrity. This will be whether it gives a full account not only of the warnings the government got and did not act upon, but who took the decision not to act and why.

If it does not do that it will only harden the suspicion that the government took no action because it wanted to let the attack take place in order to harvest the wave of anger that would follow.

https://thewire.in/government/pulwama-china-and-atmanirbharta-is-modi-at-the-end-of-his-tether

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Had India done what Malaysia did – kept everyone where they were by ensuring that their economic futures were not imperilled by the lockdown – we would have been in a much better place right now.

The Lockdown Backfired and Modi Has Only Himself to Blame
Low traffic in Ahmedabad, India, March 21, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Amit Dave

 

At the beginning of India’s national lockdown, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked the nation to endure the coming disruption of their lives with stoicism.

“The Mahabharata war was won in 18 days, this war the whole country is fighting against coronavirus will take 21 days,” he said on March 25 in an address to the people of Varanasi.

Not for the first time in the past six years, Modi made a promise he could not keep. On March 25, when the lockdown began, there had been 606 reported cases of COVID-19, of which 87 had been added in the previous 24 hours. As of the time of writing, the corresponding numbers are in excess of 2.97 lakh, rising by an average of 10,000 a day.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the nation. Photo: PTI

The only sliver of a silver lining today is that the ratio of daily recoveries to new cases has been rising steadily and is now almost 50%. The current spike, mostly attributed to migrant workers returning to their home states, has slowed this to a snail’s pace but not stopped it altogether. If the trend is maintained, the number of active cases will reach a peak and begin to decline in two-three months from now, i.e five-six months after the declaration of the lockdown. That will be a far slower start to recovery than any other country has witnessed from similar lockdowns so far.

What went wrong? The experience of most western European countries has shown that the tougher the lockdown, the sooner has a country reached a peak in the daily addition of cases, the more rapid has been the decline afterwards. When asked why this has not happened in India, BJP ministers and spokespersons, and government officials have brushed the question aside, in essence saying that those are rich nations and our problems are entirely different.

Malaysia’s lockdown

But if that is so, how do Modi and his government officials explain the extraordinary success of Malaysia, a middle-level industrialised nation that was far poorer than us only 40 years ago?

In many ways, the Malaysian government ’s lockdown experience has been similar to ours. It announced a national lockdown on March 18, six days before we did, designed to end on May 12 a week before our phase 3. But on May 4, under pressure from industry, when it lifted some controls on public transport, and congregation in workplaces, four out of its 13 states refused to implement these. On May 10, following a public petition signed by half a million Malaysians, it extended this partially relaxed lockdown for another month till June 9.

A worker sprays disinfectant at a mosque, which is closed during the movement control order due to the outbreak of (COVID-19)
in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photo: Reuters/Lim Huey Teng

It is the impact of the two lockdowns that has been starkly different. For unlike ours, Malaysia’s has been a total success. The infallible yardstick there, as here, is the new case to recovery rate ratio. Starting from 13% of new cases on March 18, the recovery rate rose rapidly till it exceeded the number of new cases for the first time on April 6 and then stayed above it for 53 out of the next 64 days till the lockdown was lifted on June 9. By June 8, the total number of COVID-19 cases the country had experienced was 8,319. The number who had recovered was 6,694 – 80%. The number of new cases on June 8 was only seven.

Malaysia’s success cannot be ascribed to a higher level of development, better health service or more efficient administration. It arises from the government’s very different concept of its duty towards its people. From the incipient, planning stage of the lockdown, the government recognised that the severe dislocation of the economy it would cause could not be compared to an economic recession or a natural disaster. The first resulted from vagaries of the domestic and international market and could be mitigated by countervailing policy measures. The second could be as catastrophic as a lockdown but the government could not be blamed for it. But the lockdown was a conscious act of government. It therefore imposed a specifically moral obligation upon the government to make sure that the victims – employers and employees – suffered as little from it as possible. Malaysia’s Prime minister, Muhyiddeen Yassin accepted this from the outset. Modi did not and still has not.

The Malaysian government, therefore, recognised that the lockdown would cause a crash in sales and drying up of revenues. This would make it difficult for employers to meet their fixed costs and wage bills, and destroy income and demand. This had to be prevented at any cost. The government, therefore, decided to spend whatever was needed to meet the production and minimum wage and salary costs that would have to be paid to keep factories in working condition and workers in place to resume work when the lockdown was lifted. It estimated that this would require it to provide fiscal stimulus of up to 14% of its GDP. Indeed its preliminary estimate was 17%. This was the highest deficit financing limit set by any country in the world.

As a result, Malaysia has suffered little or no social or economic dislocation from the lockdown. Although a large part of its 15.8 million labour force consists of internal migrants, and several million more are foreign workers, the sudden loss of income, home and security that has driven more than 10 million despairing migrant workers in our country to set out for homes in distant villages by any means possible is signally absent. Instead, the government has put pressure on employers to register their undocumented foreign migrant workers and provide them with the dormitory accommodation that is required by law. Their number, fortunately, is relatively small because, again unlike us, the state has a law that requires employers to register all new employees with the social health authority within 30 days of hiring them.

India’s lockdown has failed because the sense of moral obligation that has driven Malaysia’s policies is completely absent. In its place Modi made prayashchita (atonement) the guiding principle of policy: a great evil had descended on the world. To fight it, one had to be willing to suffer.

Crash in demand

The crash of demand that has followed the lockdown is, therefore, one that no other economy has experienced. The demand for electricity fell by nearly 30% in April. The demand for transport fuels fell so sharply that oil refineries had to halve their production.

Maruti, the automobile industry leader, did not manufacture a single car or commercial vehicle in April and almost none in May. It met the few export orders in hand from stocks that had accumulated after the sudden imposition of the GST last year.


The Maruti plant in Manesar around which several ancillary activities have grown, giving employment to migrant workers.
The lockdown meant cessation of work, no wages, or partial payments. Photo: Rahul Roy

Bajaj Motors, the other Indian automotive giant, sold no vehicles in India in April. It continued to produce at a skeleton level, but entirely for export. Even there it experienced a fall of 80% in sales (32,009 two-wheelers and 5,869 three-wheelers in April, against 160,393 two-wheelers and 38,818 three-wheelers in the same month in 2019).

SIAM, the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers has predicted that if a demand boost does not come now production this year will decline by 35-40%. And ACMA, the Automobile Manufacturers’ Association says that it has lost $57 billion dollars worth of sales. This is 2-3% of India’s GDP.

The textiles industry is in equally bad shape. A survey of 2,000 firms by A.C. Nielsen showed that their production had dropped by 84% since the lockdown. Much of what was still being produced was personal protective equipment (PPE) clothing for health workers. The textiles industry employs 105 million workers, second only to agriculture. Thus most of the 114 million persons who lost their jobs by the beginning of May were probably from this industry.

The construction industry, which used to create 40% of India’s non-agricultural new jobs every year, is in a coma because, with the departure of migrant workers, it faces an acute shortage of labour, rising wage rates and lower EMI payments by financially stressed homeowners.

And finally, there are the travel, hospitality and entertainment industries that account for a quarter or more of the GDP and are, collectively, the largest employer after agriculture. These have been hit both by the need for social distancing and the sharp fall in income and demand in the economy.

Had India done what Malaysia did – kept everyone where they were by ensuring that their economic futures were not imperilled by the lockdown, the number of COVID-19 cases would have peaked very much earlier, even in the most crowded of our cites, and the virus would not have been carried to the villages. Best of all, the economy would have remained poised to jump back to normal the moment the lockdown was relaxed.

But Modi had other goals. He wanted to emerge from the battle against coronavirus as Arjuna had emerged from the battle of Kurukshetra, steely, determined and invincible. Now that he has exposed his own lack of capacity to deal with real as distinguished from self-manufactured emergencies, instead of changing course and pumping purchasing power into the economy, he is busy fashioning another image of himself as the lone champion of ‘self-reliance’ in an increasingly ‘sold out’ economy.

One can only hope that when this too fails, India’s voters, who placed their faith in him for a second time in May last year, will recognise him for what he is.

Note: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that Modi’s Mahabharata reference was made on March 24. It was, in fact, made on March 25.

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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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