Prem Shankar Jha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sheikh Abdullah. Photo: File

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


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

How were you first attracted to politics?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was the situation in Kashmir in 1947?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did the presence of the army create tensions?  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sheikh Abdullah and Jawaharlal Nehru.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The immediate threat lies in Kashmir.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modi may sense an opportunity in Kashmir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Averting this design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jawaharlal Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah. Photo: Oxford University Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drift towards armageddon

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

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

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

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

What can civil society do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ukraine and Neo-Nazis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dynasty is the past

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

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

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

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

Assault on the federal state

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Article 370 to The Kashmir Files

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what the CCT concluded after its own visit:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Starting 1980s, a considerable number of Americans in relatively poor rural and suburban America have slid into poverty as globalisation and costly wars wreaked havoc on American society.

Joe Biden's Victory: It Is High Time the Concerns of 'Middle America' Are Addressed
U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) is joined on stage by her running-mate, U.S Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, after she accepted the Democratic vice presidential nomination during an acceptance speech delivered for the largely virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention from the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., August 19, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque


Joseph Biden’s victory has been greeted with the expected exhilaration and apprehension, which every newcomer to the White House experienced before. This time the exhilaration is more striking because it marks the end of a presidency that had trivialised American democracy, and held it up to global ridicule. But the apprehension will surface soon when the hoorahs are over and the changeover in Washington has been completed. The new administration will face the same challenges that its predecessors have faced since the end of the Cold War, and failed to address them.

Three decades after winning the Cold War the American state is facing a crisis that no one could have foreseen when the Soviet Union disintegrated. Instead of bringing peace, these decades have brought incessant war; instead of creating a new global order these wars have created global anarchy and fostered terrorism.

Abandonment of Middle America

In place of prosperity that followed the Allied victories in World War I and World War II, these decades have seen the withering away of blue- and white-collar employment, the end of working class job security, status and affluence. It has also brought to fore an obscene widening of the income gap between rich and poor, and a steady shrinkage of the state’s capacity, or even intention, to safeguard the health, lives and peace of mind of its poor.

black lives matter
A demonstrator holds up a “Black Lives Matter” sign during a protest over the death of a Black man, Daniel Prude, after police put a spit hood over his head during an arrest on March 23, in Rochester, New York, US September 6, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Brendan McDermid

Cruelest of all, it has created a world in which young people no longer control their future. Today more and more young Americans cannot plan to marry, cannot take out a mortgage on an apartment, cannot even think of having children, and can only buy a second-hand car, because they do not know when they will find a job, and how long it will last.

Calculated neglect over decades has caused the nation’s infrastructure to run down to a level below that of China, let alone Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. China, for instance, has constructed a high-speed rail network spanning 19,000 km of track in the past 15 years, on which it is running 2,300 bullet trains every day. America has built none.

But none of this compares with the abandonment of middle America to chronic stagnation, hopelessness and despair. This began as far back as the 1980s, and neither the Democrats nor Republicans have considered it necessary to check the region’s slide into poverty. A great deal has been written on economic, social and political consequences of this neglect, but much less on its cause, and how it can be ameliorated.

The roots of today’s Blue-Red schism lie buried in the de-industrialisation of America and northern Europe, which began with the onset of globalisation half a century ago. As manufacturing began to move from the high wage economies of Europe and North America to low-wage, skill-intensive industrialising countries in Asia and Latin America, the share of manufacturing in the US GDP fell, from 26% in 1968 to 12% in 2009. Its place, as the prime mover of economic growth, was taken by business and financial services whose share in the GDP rose from 19% to 35% during the same period.

But while the bulk of the de-industrialisation has occurred in middle America, where job losses have ranged from 8% to 75% of the workforce during the last 40 years, nearly all the increase of employment in business and financial services has been concentrated in the two coastal ‘blue’ fringes, and in the Florida-Texas sunbelt. Middle America has been left to fend for itself.

Tea Party movement

In 2009, after four decades of sustained neglect, middle America found a political sponsor in the Tea Party movement. Liberal America considered the Tea Party an embarrassment – an extremist movement that backed every reactionary cause and wanted to turn the clock back to a vanished past, because it could not connect with the future.  What it lost sight of was that the Tea Party was also a protest movement, born of desperation, among people who had been robbed of their future. The Tea Party needed understanding, not condemnation. It got none.

Donald TrumpU.S. President Donald Trump addresses supporters during a Make America Great Again rally in Johnson City, Tennessee, U.S. October 1, 2018. Credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.


Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 was its first major political success. Since then liberal America has done everything in its power to pretend that this was an accident and to trivialise its significance. It has taken this to the point of portraying it as the product of Russian intervention in the election campaign. But Biden’s relatively narrow win last week has shown that the new, hard-Right is here to stay, and that its rancour will continue to fester and grow so long as the neglect and injustice that gave rise to it remains unaddressed.

Enormous task lies ahead of Biden-Harris

This is the responsibility that American voters have asked Biden and Kamala Harris to shoulder. Judging from his speeches, Biden is fully aware of its weight: in his victory speech he repeated his commitment to be “a president who seeks not to divide but unify…who doesn’t see red states and blue states, only sees the United States”.

But similar promises were made by his predecessors in their moments of triumph. So, what prevented them from fulfilling such promises when the hoorahs ended and the work began? One, amidst the plethora of explanations put forward over the years, stands out: it is ‘legislative gridlock’.

Intra-party discipline has never been the US Congress’ strong point, for the American system contains no penalties for cross-voting. This has allowed legislators in both houses to become representatives of special interests in their states, instead of representatives of the people of their states. To make matters worse, in only 10 of the 28 years after the Cold war, there has been a president whose party has enjoyed a majority in both houses of Congress. Thus, the American democratic system did not have the capacity for united action in domestic affairs that was needed to cushion the wrenching impact of globalisation and de-industrialisation upon those who stood to lose from it.

Costly wars and the detrimental effects on the American economy

The only area in which the gridlock has not paralysed policymaking is foreign policy. Achieving a consensus in this area has been made easier by the heady sense of entitlement imparted by victory in the Cold War. This has created a brand of liberal imperialism which is shared by both Democrats and Republicans, whose goal has been the creation of unipolar world order under the leadership of the US.

American soldiers. Representative image. Credit: Reuters

This was a democratic party goal long before President George W. Bush adopted it formally in the wake of 9/11. In February 1999, after bombing Iraq daily for 11 months till there was not even a milk plant left to destroy, and on the eve of doing the same in Kosovo, Clinton justified unilateral intervention in the following words:

“It’s easy … to say that we really have no interests in who lives in this or that valley in Bosnia, or who owns a strip of brushland in the Horn of Africa, or some piece of parched earth by the Jordan River. But the true measure of our interests lies not in how small or distant these places are, or in whether we have trouble pronouncing their names. The question we must ask is, what are the consequences to our security of letting conflicts fester and spread. We cannot, indeed, we should not, do everything or be everywhere. But where our values and our interests are at stake, and where we can make a difference, we must be prepared to do so.”  

The significance of his declaration lay hidden in what he did not say. The right to intervene was already a part of the UN Charter.  But it had to be exercised collectively through the Security Council. Clinton’s declaration did away with the need for creating an international consensus, and therefore ruled out the creation of a multipolar, democratic, world order.

The wars that followed have bankrupted America. In December 2014, the Congressional Research Service of the US estimated that the wars the US had waged in the 13 years since 9/11 had cost the treasury 1.6 trillion dollars. ‘Continued funding’ to maintain military preparedness in the occupied added  $95.5 billion in 2014, and no doubt continue to add similar sums till today. Add Operation Desert Shield in Iraq (1998), and the war on Serbia (1999), and the figure probably exceeds $2.2 trillion.

But that is only the military part of the expenditure that the US has incurred. A 2016 study by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz estimated that the total military and economic cost of America’s wars was well over 3 trillion dollars. Had this money been used to modernise the country’s dilapidated infrastructure and encourage the shift of service sector businesses to the middle of the country, the blow dealt by globalisation to middle America could have been softened, and the ‘Red-Blue rift’ might not have reached the crisis level that it is at today.

‘Leveraging’ climate change

Biden is fully aware that healing this rift is the obligation, beyond all others, that his victory has thrust upon him. And he has made it clear that he intends to meet it. Fortunately, he has a new ally in this venture, the threat of climate change.

A crowd of thousands march in a climate strike featuring climate change teen activist Greta Thunberg in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada October 25, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Jennifer Gauthier/files.

Technologies that can harness the energy of sun, wind, and biomass have now matured to a point where they can supplant fossil-based energy at a competitive price. Unlike fossil fuels, these technologies need vast amounts of land, sunshine and wind. These are precisely what the states of the Midwest and the Great Plains have in abundance.  Harnessing these have already begun: In 2016, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Kansas were meeting 20% to 35% of their electricity demand from wind. Other states like Texas and Minnesota were joining them.

The change that renewable energy is making to the lives of the people affected by it cannot be captured in aseptic data on energy generation, costs and returns. A recent, heart-warming article by Elizabeth Wiese in USA Today that describes the impact of wind farms on the farmers of Cloud County, Kansas, is worth quoting:

“In an increasingly precarious time for farmers and ranchers, some who live in the nation’s wind belt have a new commodity to sell – access to their wind. Wind turbine leases, generally 30 to 40 years long, provide the landowners with yearly income that, although small, helps make up for economic dips brought by drought, floods, tariffs and the ever-fluctuating price of the crops and livestock they produce. 

Each of the landowners whose fields either host turbines or who are near enough to receive a “good neighbor” payment, can earn $3,000 to $7,000 yearly for the small area – about the size of a two-car garage – each turbine takes up.  

The median income in Cloud County is about $44,000, according to the 2018 U.S. Census. For Tom Cunningham, who has been farming between Glasco and Concordia, Kansas for 40 years, the Meridian Way Wind Farm income has made an enormous difference. Cunningham’s lease payments allowed him to pay off his farm equipment and other loans. 

Before the wind turbines, things were rough, he recalled. Depending on the national and international economy, some years he broke even, some years he made money and, for more years than he cares to think about, he was on the edge. He had to take a job in town to make ends meet and for a time was what he calls “functionally bankrupt.”

“This isn’t money that other people would think is very much,” he said. “But it made an enormous difference to us.”

What wind is doing in the Great Plains states is what solar energy can do in arid and semi-arid states like Arizona, Nevada, Nebraska, and parts of Texas and California. Straw and other crop residues in the wheat-growing states can be converted into the transport fuel of choice through the exciting, relatively new, technology of plasma-assisted gasification in far larger quantities than it can be converted into cellulosic ethanol through fermentation.

America’s way out of the increasingly poisonous partisan politics in which it has been trapped, therefore, lies in precisely the same technologies that it needs to harness, in order to fight climate change.

To many, it might come as an unsettling thought that the way out of the relentless militarism in which America is trapped may also lie in rejuvenating middle America by enlisting it in the battle against climate change. But it is a thought that is worth pursuing.

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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