Prem Shankar Jha

The answer almost certainly lies buried in the ongoing rapid privatisation of port and LNG terminal development that has taken place during Modi’s prime ministership.

Mahua Moitra. Photo: X/@MahuaMoitra

In the ten years since Narendra Modi came to power in Delhi, his political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has dragged India down from a pinnacle of moral esteem in the world, into the gutter of hate, murder and state planned assassination. The US Department of State’s country report on human rights violations in India summarises India’s descent into the lower circles of Hell as follows:

“Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful and arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by the government or its agents; torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by police and prison officials; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners or detainees; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on freedom of expression and media, including violence or threats of violence, unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, and enforcement of or threat to enforce criminal libel laws to limit expression; restrictions on internet freedom; interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on freedom of movement and on the right to leave the country; refoulement of refugees; serious government corruption; harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations”;  (and) “crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of national/racial/ethnic and minority groups based on religious affiliation, social status or sexual orientation…A lack of accountability for official misconduct persisted at all levels of government, contributing to widespread impunity. …Lax enforcement, a shortage of trained police officers, and an overburdened and under resourced court system contributed to a low number of convictions.”

This was where the BJP had already taken India in the esteem of the world, before the government’s alleged plans to assassinate prominent Khalistanis in the US and Canada were exposed by the West’s ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence consortium. But the expulsion of Mahua Moitra from Parliament, on the basis of a report by an Ethics Committee from which the entire opposition had walked out in protest against the demeaning, sexual innuendo-loaded questions that its chairman, Vinod Kumar Sonkar ,was asking, reeks of a sexual misogyny that has brought shame upon our parliament and country across the entire world.

The BJP has accused Moitra of almost everything it could  think of. Chief among the grounds given for her expulsion is her alleged “highly objectionable, unethical, heinous and criminal conduct” before the committee. But  even a cursory examination of the record of its meetings shows that Moitra treated the committee with respect,  and answered every question relating to the allegations made by her detractors fully. In her replies, which occupy 16 long paragraphs spread over pages 32 till 40, she remained deferential and gave detailed explanations of her actions throughout.

The kernel of the charge Moitra faced was that she had given her login and password to an unauthorised person, Darshan Hiranandani, and allowed him to send in questions in her name that were designed to damage the reputation of Narendra Modi and his government. By doing this she had breached confidentiality and endangered national security. What the committee did not explain was how anyone could have uploaded a question in her name without sending an OTP, as is required in India by all online business transactions, and is mandatory for MPs filing questions in Parliament.

That OTP had to come from Moitra’s phone, and so any verification would necessitate Moitra’s involement. So no matter who had given Moitra the information upon which she based a question in parliament, and who typed and mailed it for her, once she had sent the OTP, it became her question. If she sent the question to Hiranandani, which the records show she undoubtedly did, it would not only have been to get it typed, which is admittedly a not very credible reason, but for verification of the facts that she was citing. That is something every responsible journalist  does, so why should a member of parliament not do so in  matters of infinitely greater importance?

In fact even her explanation that she had sent her parliamentary questions to Hiranandani’s office only for typing and uploading on the net because these can no longer be submitted in handwritten form, was not a subterfuge. For the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology had confirmed to the committee that all of her 61 questions, of which 90% had little or nothing to do with the Hiranandani enterprises, had also been posted from his Dubai IP address.

It was only when the committee chairman, Sonkar asked her five questions that, taken together, insinuated that she was loose woman having an affair with Hiranandani, and was giving him sexual favours for information with which to attack the Modi government, that she stormed out. The questions were: i) What is your relationship with Darshan Hiranandani? ii) How many times did you visit Dubai? (iii) Where did you stay iv) in which hotel; v) Did you meet Darshan Hiranandani there? It was the fifth question that made her lose her temper and storm out. Every self-respecting woman, whether an MP or not, would have done the same.

When Sonkar asked these questions, the committee had already been  informed that Moitra had visited Dubai only four times in nearly five years – hardly often enough to sustain a clandestine affair – and that the timing of her visits was not even remotely connected with the timing of the questions she had posed to the petroleum and natural gas ministry. Moitra did not know this, so she had responded to the accusation, indirectly supported by Hiranandani’s affidavit, that the idea of her being able to force a dollar trillionaire with a vast international construction company – a Unicorn – to do anything illegal was ludicrous.

But Sonkar ignored all this and deliberately asked her questions that invaded her privacy, and would have been resented by any self-respecting woman, and drove her into losing her temper and storming out. Sonkar succeeded, knowing that this would make any further inquiry into her actions before recommending her expulsion superfluous. He will no doubt be rewarded in due course as Anurag Thakur and Kapil Mishra were rewarded after the police firing upon Shaheen Bagh protestors and the North-East Delhi communal violence in 2020.

The question no one has asked

The  question no one has asked is, what was the Modi government’s tearing need for hurry that made the government target and destroy Mahua Moitra now? So great was the BJP’s hurry that it could not give the members of the Ethics Committee even a day to read its 495 page report, took less than 30 minutes after Moitra stormed out of the final hearing to recommend her expulsion from the Lok Sabha, and carried this out the very next day?

The answer almost certainly lies buried in the ongoing rapid privatisation of port and LNG terminal development that has taken place during Modi’s prime ministership. This began in 2018, and has gathered momentum rapidly since then. The principal, but not only,  beneficiary of this shift from reliance on the public sector has been the Adani group of enterprises. A second major player has been H-Energy, an increasingly important part of the Hiranandani group. In Bengal, the competition between these groups was won by the Hiranandani group. In Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere, it is being won mostly by the Adani group.

On January 9, 2019, H-Energy, the energy arm of the Hiranandani group, entered into negotiations with  the Calcutta Port Trust to set up an initially three, and eventually five, million tonnes a year Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) terminal at Kukrahati, near Haldia port. These negotiations were completed in February 2021, when the Kolkata Port Trust signed an agreement with it for a project involving an investment of Rs 3,900 core, which would yield gross revenues of around Rs 6,000 crore. The construction of the terminal has been delayed because the group proposes to use Kukrahati for supplying LNG to Bangladesh as well, and is building a 150 km pipeline for this. It is now expected to be completed by the middle of this year.

This is only one of several port and gas terminal projects being planned and executed along the east and west coasts. H-Energy, for example, is partnering with Jindal Steel Works to build an LNG terminal at Jaygarh, in Maharashtra. Essar has won a contract to build a one million tonnes per year LNG facility at Haldia port. But the biggest player in this is the Adani Group, which is building a giant facility at Dhamra port in Odisha, and actively bidding for more contracts in Andhra Pradesh, Bengal and on the west coast.

Absent from this hectic activity is Petronet, the public sector consortium consisting of the Gas Authority of India Ltd (GAIL), Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), Indian Oil Corporation (IOCL) and Bharat Petroleum (BPCL), that set up the country’s giant LNG receiving and regasification terminal at Dahej, Gujarat, with  a nominal capacity of 17.5 MMTPA (million metric tonnes per annum), and another terminal at Kochi, Kerala with a capacity of five MMTPA. Petronet’s terminals account for around 40% gas supplies in the country and handle around two-thirds of its LNG imports. But today it is nowhere in the scene, and is at most a minor shareholder in a few of the projects that are coming up.

This shift of emphasis has taken pace entirely during the Modi era. So it is not surprising that five out of Moitra’s 91 questions have asked for details concerning the way it has been made. In these she has questioned, among other things, how the Dhamra port LNG terminal project, which began as a proposal by GAIL and ONGC, became a wholly owned Adani enterprise. These questions were posed on July 8, 2019, November 18, 2019 and December 9, 2019. Then, after a 3.5 year gap on March 16, 2023, and then only a week later on March 23, 2023. All of them centred around the way in which the public sector oil and gas companies were being pushed, or shut, out of existing and proposed projects for the construction of LNG terminals and other facilities at the ports being developed on the east and west coasts.

Most of these contracts were ending up with the Adani group. Moitra wanted to know why. To get an answer from the government, she focused on the route by which the group gained full ownership of the LNG terminal planned for Dhamra port in Odisha. Her interest had been sparked by the fact that in 2013, i.e. during the UPA’s rule, GAIL had entered into a contract with the government of Odisha to build a floating LNG terminal at the port of Paradip at a cost of Rs 2,485 crore. But in 2015, a year after the BJP came to power, it withdrew from the Paradip project and took an 11% share in a similar project at Dhamra port, also in Odisha. IOCL, another member of Petronet,  took 38%. The other 51% was to be taken by ‘an unspecified partner’. That partner turned out to be the Adani group.

That was only the beginning of the shift. Another two years later, GAIL and IOCL both withdrew from the project, leaving the Adani group the sole owner. This company then signed a 20-year contract to supply three million tonnes a year of LNG to GAIL and IOCL at Rs 60.18 per MMBtu, with an escalation clause of 5% a year. This was a ‘use or pay’ contract, in which the buyers had to pay for all of the contracted amount even if they did not lift it. Moitra claimed that with this assured return, Adani had no difficulty in roping in the French oil and gas giant, Total, as a partner. From the country’s point of view, it was a good deal. But the way in which it was engineered was all wrong.

This was admitted, perhaps unwittingly, by advocate Jai Dehadrai (Moitra’s former lover) himself in the  ‘Remarks’ column that he had added to the list that he submitted to the Ethics Committee of the questions that  Moitra had posed in Parliament. In these he accused Moitra of targeting the prime minister by asking questions that were designed to show how his government was helping the Adani group to evade the tendering process and  violate the guidelines set by the Central Vigilance Commission to acquire the Dhamra LNG project. This was being done by first getting state-owned oil and gas companies to tender for a project, and then making them withdraw in favour of Adani. This, she claimed, was a more sophisticated way of doing what his government had done earlier, to eject  GVK from the Mumbai Airport modernisation project and hand it over to the Adani group.

In his determination to punish his ex, Dehedrai went a step further and accused Moitra of repeating these allegations in her March 16 unstarred question this year in the Lok Sabha, solely in order to add to the discomfiture caused to the government by the Adani-Hindenburg exposures. In doing this he unwittingly gave the game away.

On March 16 this year, Moitra had posed the following seven-part question:

“Will the Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas be pleased to state (a) the details  of  Indian  Oil Corporation Ltd. (IOCL) Memorandum of Undcrstanding (MoU) signed with Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Limited at Gangavaram Port , duration  of contract, take or pay commitments along with price and volume per annum and escalations in the contract;

(b) whether this MoU bas been approved by the Board of IOCL and if so. the details there of  (c) whether there is any Government nominee on the Board of IOCL and if so, the details thereof,

(d)whether there is any transaction and if so, the Government’s approval has been taken for such transaction;

(e)whether it is true that IOCL would move its business from Vizag Port to Gangavaram Port and if so, the reasons thereof along with the charges paid to Vizag Port;

(f) whether there are any payment-related commitments at Vizag Port and if so, the details thereof; and

(g) the details of the annual payments and quantities imported by IOCL to Vizag.”

This mammoth query sealed her fate. For if the government answered it, the entire country would see that it was a repeat of what had happened at Dhamra. This would give the still-to-be-born INDIA alliance a golden opportunity to show the country how the Modi government was quietly breaking every rule and convention in order to find ways of handing over their future to a single, highly favoured industrial group, and to start asking what was the quid pro quo.

Moitra had therefore to be to be stopped from demanding an answer in parliament, which is now a televised forum that the whole country watches. The one way to do this was to find a way to expel her from the Lok Sabha. It did this by exploiting a path that she herself had opened, by her behaviour as a single, highly educated and self-confident woman who could choose her friends and lovers – everything that “traditional” Indian women have been trained, or forced, to suppress.

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

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

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

Dynasty is the past

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

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

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

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

Assault on the federal state

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Article 370 to The Kashmir Files

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Understanding The challenge of the BJP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



[3] NCRB: Crime in India 2020.   chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/viewer.html?  


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what was it that triggered the holocaust that followed? 

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

Calcutta, after the 1946 riots. Photo: Public domain

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

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

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

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

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

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The fact that the RSS has intervened to ensure the government does not implement the farm Acts is significant.

Centre’s Offer to Defer Farm Acts Is a Victory for Democracy. Don’t Throw it Away.
Farmers take out a tractor march as part of the preparations for their planned tractor parade in the national capital on Republic Day, during a protest against the new farm laws, in Amritsar, Friday, January 22, 2021. Photo: PTI

The decision by protesting farmers to not accept the government’s offer to defer the farm Acts could be the first misstep in what has so far been the most meticulously planned, responsible and peaceful mass demonstration that India has seen in recent times.

More than the number of people mobilised at the Singhu and Tikri borders, it was their discipline and organisation that demonstrated the strength of the movement and the support it commanded. It is these, rather than the implied threat of violence, that has made the government pull back.

All of this immense accretion of credibility and respect is under threat today because, for the first time, the farmers were split on whether to accept the government’s offer of an 18-month stay or not. The longer the split lasts, the more the farmers’ movement will lose its moral ascendancy in the eyes of a public that has been almost solidly behind it so far. The more that happens, the more will the accusations of the Modi bhakts in the BJP and the media, that this is a movement fuelled by an irresponsible political opposition, backed by Khalistanis, begin to sound credible to the common, apolitical public.

An even greater threat from the failure to arrive at an agreement is it will increase the possibility of a violent confrontation between the Delhi police and the farmers on January 26. This is something that the farmers cannot afford, now that the government has put the farm Acts on hold, because it will cost them much of the public support they now enjoy.

But there is an even greater price that the country will have to pay if the farmers do not accept the government’s offer. This will be a substantial weakening of the RSS in relation to Modi and his extremist base of support in the Sangh parivar. This is because the government’s decision to stay the implementation of its farm Acts by 18 months did not emerge from second thoughts that Modi may have had on it, but from an unambiguous directive issued by the RSS.

The government’s  decision came within 24 hours of a categorical statement by RSS general secretary Suresh (Bhaiyyaji) Joshi, the second-in command in the organisation, that “a middle ground must be found and both sides must work to find a solution”.

Bhaiyyaji’s statement needs to be read in full to appreciate its significance:

“Democracy provides an opportunity to both sides. I consider both sides right (in) their place. Agitators must consider that whatever they can get through dialogue, they must accept. The government must think about what more it can give. …So it is important to find that point where the two sides can agree and the agitation can end. Any agitation running for long is not beneficial. No one should have a problem with an agitation taking place. But a middle ground must be found. An agitation does not just affect people associated with it, but also impacts society, directly or indirectly. It is not good for the health of society for any agitation to run for too long. So a middle ground must be found and both sides must work to find a solution”.

As significant as the contents of the statement is how and to whom Bhaiyyaji gave it – in an interview to the Indian Express, a newspaper not known for its support to this government or the ideology that propels it.

Joshi went on to advise moderation to the farmers:

“Whenever a discussion is held, there can’t be an argument that my position is non-negotiable…The government is repeatedly saying we are ready to discuss, but (the protesters) are saying any discussion will take place only after the laws are repealed. How will a discussion take place like that. ..I believe farmers must have a discussion with the government over issues they have with the laws… There should be a positive initiative from both sides. If agitators also take a positive approach it will be good.”

It is against this remarkably candid reproach of its own government that the farmers need to determine their future course today. That this was not just another appeal being made from behind a veil of seeming impartiality, to put the farmers in the wrong, became clear when the government postponed the implementation of the farm laws by not a few weeks or even months but a year and a half. This is as close as any democratic government can come to admitting that it had made a mistake. To ask it to do more is to ask for the moon.

The political significance of the RSS’s intervention goes beyond the farmers’ struggle. It is a reminder to Prime Minister Narendra Modi that even if he does not consider himself to be accountable to the public, he remains accountable to the organisation to which he owes his present position. And that organisation did not appreciate his haste in announcing new decisions, and rushing new laws through parliament, without going through the process of consultation, with the party, the parliament and the public, which is the essence of democracy.

One swallow does not a summer make, but the possibility that Bhaiyyaji’s admonition is only the tip of a larger iceberg of dissatisfaction with this government’s performance cannot be ruled out. For the RSS’s credo, which is drilled into every pracharak during its orientation programmes in Nagpur, is to work quietly behind the scenes, and avoid the limelight at almost any cost. This is a credo that Modi began rebelling against in various small ways soon after the RSS made him its pracharak for the Gujarat unit of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad more than two decades ago.

It was only his organisational capacity, his irreproachable financial integrity and, regrettably, his handling of the riots in 2002, that kept him in its good books. But since he became the prime minister, the drawbacks of his personality – his haste, impetuosity and constant thirst for acclamation – have become more of a liability than an asset.

After Modi became prime minister, the RSS almost certainly did not expect to be consulted on every action of the government, for that would have gone against its entire credo of being a social organisation whose purpose was the revival and glorification of Bharat Mata. But Modi’s relentless presentation of every major decision of the government  as his and his alone with neither consultation before nor credit shared afterwards, could not have failed to disturb the parent organisation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation during Independence Day celebrations at the historic Red Fort in Delhi, India, August 15, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Despite the increasingly frequent blowback from Modi’s hasty decisions, the RSS stayed clear of intervening so long as these remained broadly within the parameters of Hindutva ideology, and of its stated political aims. Thus, Modi’s tacit support through silence of programmes like love jihad, gau raksha and ghar wapsi; his party and government’s determination to ensure that no one accused of a communal atrocity ever faced punishment; his determination to push “illegal” Muslim immigrants out of Assam and India no matter what the cost; his open invitation to RSS and BJP cadres to ‘help’ the police to break up the Shaheen Bagh satyagraha movement, which resulted in the North East Delhi massacres; and his abrogation of Article 370 after brutally crushing political and civil society activity in the state, drew no criticism from the parent organisation.

But RSS could scarcely have remained unaffected by his other blunders: his jump-the-gun demonetisation of 86% of the currency in November 2016 which forced most of 150 million migrant workers to stop work in the cities and go home when the facility for converting old currency notes for new ran out on December 31, and the new notes were not even ready for dispensation; his equally hasty and ill-planned introduction of the Goods and Services Tax and, finally his eagerness to be the first country to declare a lockdown against COVID-19 without his even realising that this would destroy hundreds of millions of livelihoods, and force ten million or more persons to start walking or cycling  home to villages from 60 to 2,000 km away in the heat of summer.

Finally, it would be surprising indeed if some, at least, in the RSS have not realised that Modi’s determination not to enter into discussions with the Chinese, and his systematic turning of economic screws on China’s trade and investment with India, are pushing the two countries ever closer to a war in the Himalayas that India can only lose.

If my analysis above is correct, then the RSS has broken its silence on the farmers’ struggle not only because this is the first mass movement that truly has no ideological, political or anti-nationalist moorings, that because it has been triggered by the first hasty action of Modi government that it cannot justify by invoking a policy espoused earlier by the Sangh parivar.

That is why it is imperative for the farmers’ movement to accept his government’s offer to stay the farm Acts and enter into a serious discussion of how they can be revised to get the best instead of the worst out of them. Needless to say, any meaningful discussion of this nature needs to be held within accepted parameters.

The first and most important of these is that the agreed reforms must be left to the state governments to implement. Agro-climatic conditions are simply too diverse in India to permit any-one-size-fits-all solutions. So every state will have to decide how to implement them within the constraints these impose.

Secondly, inter-state trade needs to be opened to the private sector, but once more, at a pace and in products that that is left to the states to decide.

Thirdly, farmers, particularly those who produce perishable crops, need to be empowered in various ways to increase their bargaining power against the traders. This requires the rapid creation of essential rural infrastructure – notably the provision of 24×7 power to facilitate the creation of village-level cold storages, and the creation of small bank branches in villages above a minimum size, for prompt dispersal of credit.

Lastly, the opening of export trade must be closely correlated with the establishment of buffer stocks of vegetables and dairy products in particular, that prevent the shocks caused by sudden natural disasters, such as drought or unseasonal rain, from falling  solely upon domestic supply and prices.

These are only the most essential first steps towards compensating farmers for the prolonged neglect they have suffered from our urban-centred planners and administrators. If the farmers’ struggle ends by bringing these to the forefront of policy and shifting the priorities of planned investment, it will have more than fulfilled its purpose.

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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The first set of relief measures will do nothing to avert the catastrophe that has befallen millions of migrant workers in Indian cities. And as they head home to their villages, some will carry the coronavirus with them.

Full Marks for Lockdown But Modi's Economic Fallout Plans Just Don't Make the Grade

Daily wage labourers, now out of work, are walking back to their villages which are at least 200 km away. Photo: Shome Basu/The Wire


COVID-19  has reminded the world of its essential interdependence and need for unity of purpose. It has done the same for India. For the first time since the Bangladesh war, the entire country has set aside its bitter and divided politics and reacted as one to the challenge it faces. The prime minister, who announced a three-week lockdown of the entire country on March 24, was not the eternally grandstanding politician we have become familiar with in the past six years, but a sober leader taking an incredibly difficult decision, announcing exemptions that would minimise the hardship being imposed on the people, and asking for their co-operation.

There is little doubt that he will receive it. But the economic cost of the lockdown will be high, and could become prohibitive if it has to be extended. Unfortunately, the first ‘relief measures’ announced by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman show that the government has little understanding of the enormity, or even the very nature, of the task it is facing.

The key feature of the lockdown is that it has broken the vertical and horizontal transport links that are the warp and weft of the market economy. With that, unless immediate measure are taken to prevent it, first consumption, and then production, will grind to a halt. As it gets prolonged, the market economy itself will wither away.

The list of exemptions announced by the government after Modi’s speech did not go beyond the need to minimise the immediate impact of the lockdown. Access to food and medical shops, and essential services, including the home delivery of food and medicine, have been exempted. But these make up only a  fraction of the total economy. And even here, the ingredients of production have to be assembled and the finished product transported to the consumer. Neither can be done, especially in India, without sustained human interaction. As for the rest of the economy – its agriculture, its industry and its vast services sector – not one of the ‘ten big announcements’ made by Sitharaman today even touch upon this challenge.

The finance minister’s package

I will not dwell on these in detail, because there are more urgent issues to raise and discuss. But suffice it to say that

  • four of the 10 provide relief to the rural population when COVID-19 and its impact is centred in the cities;
  • one, that is by far the most important, provides essential insurance protection to two million health workers but involves no immediate expenditure;
  • two offer direct cash and food transfers to the poor but again make no distinction between the urban poor, who are under lockdown and the rural poor who are not;
  • The remaining three are intended to benefit workers in the organised sector whose jobs are not threatened and who already have all the access they need to essential services through primary health centres and the kendriya bhandars and ration shops.

The common feature of all the 10 measures is a continuation of the top down handout system of distributing benefits that has been the bane of the poor since the very first years of India’s self government and is still prone to leaks and diversion.

In the urban areas, the lockdown has completed the disempowerment of the already desperately vulnerable poor. Small- and medium-sized owner-managed enterprises are not only dismissing their workers but throwing them out of the accommodation they have provided them on the pretext that their presence is a health hazard to the family. Grocery and medicine shops that do not need to close have opted not to open because the reduced sales no longer make it worth their while to keep them open. And far too many of them are laying off their staff, at least till the lockdown is over.

No modern economy can withstand such disruption for very long. When a factory, a hotel, an airline, a bus company, or a shop downs its shutters it does not cease to incur costs. Interest and amortisation payments on loans continue to accumulate; buildings and machinery have to be maintained; rents on shops have to be paid, costs incurred on electricity have to be met. And in the organised sector, few employers will be willing to lay off their key workers even temporarily, without offering them some compensation to tide them over the period of shut down.

If this is to be minimised the government must meet these costs during the period of the lockdown. But only one of the ten measures that Sitharaman announced has even touched upon this need. And what it has offered – the payment of three months of employer and employees’ provident fund payments to companies with up to 100 employees in which 90% of the staff is paid less than Rs 15,000 per month –  is simply pathetic.  In most enterprises, fixed costs make up 30 to 40% of the total cost. The wage bill, by contrast almost never goes beyond 30% and is usually lower. The combined EPF contributions come to a fifth, at most, of this 30%.  Thus all that the government has offered is to meet one fifth to one-seventh of the fixed costs of a small fraction of the modern economy.

Since they are no longer able to earn, most of these enterprises will start cutting costs wherever possible. The only area in which they can do so is labour. And here the axe has already begun to fall most dramatically in the unorganised sector. With enterprises forced to close, work stopped, and the government not even aware of the need to keep them going if the economy is to restart smoothly after the lockdown, labour has become redundant anyway. So why not throw your workers out and let them fend for themselves? And with 94% of India’s 500 million-plus non-agricultural labour force belonging to the unorganised sector, with no contracts and no union to protect them, layoffs are easy and have already begun.

Crisis for footloose labour

A steel fabrication plant in Unnao, UP, has simply thrown its workers out of the accommodation it had given them and told them to fend for themselves. With nowhere to stay and little money, they are walking home in the blazing sun to towns and villages as far as 80 kms away. On the very morning before the lockdown, The Hindu had carried a photograph of migrant workers in Chennai waiting at the central railway station for a train to take them home. One can only wonder where they are now and how completely abandoned they must be feeling.

According to the 2011 census, 139 million, or more than a third of India’s labour force, worked in places far away from home. Of these, the Economic Survey of 2017 reported, about 9 million were working in other states, from where they can only go home by train or bus. These nine million must be the government’s first responsibility.

Keeping them safe is not an act of charity. If even one in ten of the country’s 139 million migrant workers gets home, and only one in a thousand of them is a carrier of the virus, then India’s villages will be inundated with nearly 14,000 new focal points for its spread. If that happens we will learn the true meaning of that much overused word, pandemic.

India is not China

The government’s response to the threat has so far been pathetic, but this is not because it does not care. So far, all of it has been  predicated on the unspoken assumption that the pandemic can be brought under control in three weeks. But this is wishful thinking. China is the only country that has succeeded in stopping the spread of the virus through a lockdown so far. But India is not China.

India has more than 600,000 villages, and its central and state governments have little or no knowledge of what is happening in most of them. By contrast, the Chinese Communist Party is present, and has a committee, in every single village of the country. It is able to have these because it has 70 million members. This is four times the combined strength of the central and state government bureaucracies in India, and these 70 million function in a country where accountability to higher authority is close to complete.

Despite having such resources, China imposed a total lockdown only in Hubei province, where COVID-19 started. And it had to keep it going for three months – not three weeks – to bring the virus under control. In India, once the virus reaches the villages only the extreme heat of summer will be able to check its further spread and that effect, while likely, cannot be taken for granted.

The first thing that the Central and all state governments must, therefore, do is to make sure the virus remains confined as far as possible to the 80 cities which are under total lockdown today. This will require a marshalling of all the power and organisational capability of the state. The surest and fastest way will be to call out the army and put as large a part of the paramilitary forces as possible at the disposal of the state governments. Two brigades of the army are already deputed to come to the aid of civilian authority in  every state. While this provision was intended to help them maintain order in a crisis that had gone beyond civilian control, it can, and should, be used to harness their organisational skills and medical capabilities to cope with the present health emergency. Indeed, why Prime Minister Modi did not invoke its aid on March 24th itself is one of the puzzling features of his address to the nation that evening.

The armed forces and Central paramilitary forces have the logistical and medical capability to set up and administer relief camps in open areas – such as parks, sports grounds, stadia, and the outskirts of the cities, provide them with food and skilled medical care, and enforce social segregation within them through the period of quarantine.  But can they handle even the 9 million out-of- state migrants who face total abandonment today, let alone the 130 million in-state ones?

Carrot and stick for unorganised sector employers

The solution to this longer term problem lies in the Indian state making the employers of unorganised  labour responsible for its safety and security during this time of crisis. It can –indeed, must – do this  by instituting an appropriate set of  incentives and imposing a corresponding set of penalties to make sure that they do so.

The incentive should be that, based upon their previous year’s tax returns, or in the case of household enterprises their verified accounts, the central and state governments will meet all of their fixed and the labour portion of their variable costs provided they continue to house and feed their migrant workers, and to pay at least half of the salaries of their local employees. This will not only save the lives of the migrants and prevent the spread of COVID-19 to the villages, but prevent the economic crash that is bound to follow the sudden cessation of economic activity in the country.

The penalty for not doing so, or evading the commitments they make when receiving government support must be prison.

Loosen fiscal and monetary policies

Given India’s dismal record in the management of its economy during the past eight years,  and its surging fiscal deficit today, this move is likely to be opposed by bean counters in the RBI and the Ministry of Finance. But the government must, for once, overrule them – because further bean counting will complete the ruin that was already staring the Indian economy in the face before the coronavirus arrived.

Nirmala Sitharaman has now to  listen to the real macro-economists in the system – like Pranab Sen, Rathin Roy, Rajiv Kumar, and her own chief economic adviser – who can explain the vast difference between increasing the money supply in a healthy economy in normal times and doing so when there has been a sudden collapse of demand caused by an external calamity. The first increases consumption and can trigger inflation. The second sustains present consumption in order to protect future production and growth. Strictly speaking therefore, it is not consumption but an investment whose returns will come in the near future.

Economists all over the world have warned their governments that the recession which lockdowns without pump priming will trigger could prove as costly as the pandemic, even in terms of human life. In the US, they have warned against a “Rolling Recession”:  first a collapse of demand as people cease to buy; then a sharp drop in production as retailers postpone new ordering; then layoffs of workers and a further shrinkage of demand.

In New Zealand, which imposed a 4-week total lockdown only a day ahead of India, they  have predicted a rise in the unemployment rate from its current 4% to between 15 and 30% .

Even in Italy, the worst affected European country, Edoardo Campanella, an economist at UniCredit Bank in Milan, warned against too drastic a response as recently as last Tuesday, saying “The global health crisis is rapidly morphing into a global recession, as there is a clear tension between preventing infections and ruining the economy.”

Learn from the world

To combat this impending recession, more and more countries are returning to Keynesian pump priming to sustain demand till the COVID-19 crisis is over.  Some idea of how much pump priming will be needed  may be had from the bill President Trump has introduced in the US Congress. It is for contra-cyclical spending of  $ 2 trillion in the next few months. This is ten percent of the GDP of the richest nation in the world. Trump has done this in a nation (and as the leader of a party) that is wedded to neo-liberal economics because both have gained the most from forcing neoliberal doctrines upon the rest of the world. He has done this not to win an election but because US unemployment benefit claimants have surged in the wake of its lockdown from 211,000 to 3.28 million. Other industrialised country governments  are following suit regardless of their differing political perspectives.

Critics of the Modi government are right when they point out that it should have thought through all this, before announcing the lockdown. But we do not live in an ideal world. Decisions have to be taken under pressure, and while Prime Minister Modi can be accused of excessive haste on other occasions, this is not one of them. However, now that the decision has been taken, the government must rely upon common sense and intuition and not go through the rigmarole of setting up “multi-layered task forces” and allowing them to come up with a “consensus-based policy”. For by the time they do so, desperate migrants who have not either starved or been felled by heat as they trek hopelessly homewards, will have begun to reach their villages. After that, only the extreme heat of the summer might be able to help India avoid the pandemic that will follow. And that is not yet a given.

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