Prem Shankar Jha

Like the Pulwama suicide bombing in 2019, the hijab controversy has come as an unsolicited gift to a BJP government that has been on its back feet since its mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis last year.

Debate: Thanks to the Hijab Issue, India is Falling Once More Into the Communal Trap
Students stand outside a college as they boycott classes after being denied entry with hijab in the college premises, in Chikmagalur, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. Photo: PT

History is on the verge of repeating itself. Thirty-seven years ago, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court had given a unanimous judgment in favour of Shah Bano – a 62-year-old divorced Muslim woman – that she had the same right to alimony under Section 125 of the Code of Criminal Procedure as women of other faiths enjoyed.

This judgment upheld the opinion given earlier by two three-judge benches of the court, and pointed out that its verdict did not infringe upon the right of minorities to abide by their own personal laws because the Quran imposed an obligation on Muslim husbands “to make provision for or to provide maintenance to the divorced wife”, and Shah Bano was a Muslim. All it had done was to ensure that she got the same protection that women of other faiths were entitled to.

The judgment aroused a storm of protest from Muslim organisations. The Rajiv Gandhi government took fright and hurriedly enacted the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, which limited the wife’s right to alimony to the capital sum agreed upon by both parties at the time of marriage and three months’ worth of sustenance. Although a succession of subsequent court judgments evened the balance somewhat, they could not repair the damage this did to the secular credentials of the Congress, and of Indian democracy. Humpty Dumpty had fallen off the wall and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not put him back together again.

The Shah Bano case gave the ‘Hindutva’ renaissance that had begun around the Babri Masjid issue the intellectual respectability that it had lacked till then. Today, the hijab controversy that has erupted in Karnataka is on the verge of doing the same thing for the Modi government – just when its unending succession of blunders and callous disregard for human rights and the constitution has brought public confidence in its capacity to govern India to an all-time low.

The controversy erupted nationally on January 1, 2022, when six girl students of the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial college in Udupi gave a press conference to protest the college authorities’ denial of permission to them to keep wearing their hijabs after they entered their classrooms. This had happened four days earlier. The students portrayed the ban as an attack on their religious rights as a minority and, given the Modi government’s record of fomenting communal animosity to consolidate the ‘Hindu’ vote, this interpretation has been readily accepted  by civil society in India and abroad.

An article in The Wire by Arunima G. exemplifies this readiness. She writes: “…the present hijab vs uniform controversy … is a row engineered by the right-wing in the BJP-ruled state of Karnataka. With this, a non-issue becomes one that threatens the education of hijab Muslim students in the affected educational institutions in Udupi (and in time, elsewhere). Any number of logical rebuttals are of no value here as this has cleverly been turned into a question of upholding dress codes in schools, which with the legal turn is tied to a court judgment.” (emphasis added)

A report in the New York Times on February 11, also strikes the same tone: “In January, parents of five students petitioned the court to overturn the ban, arguing that it violated the girls’ right to an education and the free practice of their religion. Last week, the government of Karnataka issued an order in support of the school’s hijab ban. The Karnataka government is controlled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist whose eight years in power have been marked by a rise in hate speech and religiously motivated violence.”

However, the genesis of the controversy suggests the hijab was turned into a major issue not by the BJP and its state government in Karnataka but by the students themselves, presumably at the instance of the organisers of the January 1 press conference where the story first broke.

Let us look at the story step by step. Rudre Gowda, the principal of the college, has said that wearing the hijab on the college campus was not banned, but the girls were required  to take it off when they entered the classroom.  “The institution,” he was quoted by PTI as saying,“did not have any rule on hijab-wearing as such, since no one used to wear it to the classroom in the last 35 years.”

The college has 60 female Muslim students, six of whom made the hijab an issue, and no one seems to have sought out any of the remaining 54 to ascertain the veracity of the principal’s assertion. At any rate, his claim has not been controverted by anyone so far.

Leefa Mahek, one of the six protestors at the press conference, whom the New York Times interviewed, confirmed that wearing a headscarf had not been mentioned as a problem by the administrators when she was admitted to the school a year ago. So, not only had wearing headscarfs on the campus not been banned, but she had not felt sufficiently uncomfortable with having to remove it in class to make an issue of it, for an entire year.

So what made her change her mind? The answer almost certainly lies in the answer to yet another question: who arranged the press conference on January 1? Press conferences have a purpose, so the nature and objectives of the organisers need to be examined too. The January 1 press conference was organised by an organisation called the Campus Front of India, which had decided to make the hijab an issue as part of its own assertion in Karnataka’s colleges. According to the News Minute, the CFI was particularly riled by the fact that some Muslim students had participated in a protest organised by the RSS’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad.

The CFI is an offshoot of a parent organisation called the Popular Front of India. The PFI, which has its headquarters in Delhi, has a long list of allegations of violence against it, levelled not by the National Investigation Agency or the CBI but by the Kerala police, and these allegations go back to 2010, when Modi raj was not even a cloud on the horizon. However, the organisation remains legal and has not been banned even though the Centre has the ability to proscribe it under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, if it has the evidence to back it up.

In September 2018, the Kerala police arrested 16 members of the CFI on the charge of having stabbed to death Abhimanyu, a popular student of the Maharaja’s College at Ernakulam. Abhimanyu was district president of the  CPI(M)-affiliated Students’ Federation of India. The killing, which was almost certainly unintended, resulted from a fight between cadres of the CFI and the SFI, over which organisation would get to paint its slogans on a particular wall in the college campus.

Such politically inspired fracas are tragically common on college campuses in India, so it would be wrong to deduce, without further proof, that the CFI’s sponsorship of the six girls’ press conference is part of a ‘conspiracy’ to create communal tension. But, as the confrontation between immaculately saffron-clad boys and girls and hijab-clad girls at various locations in Karnataka showed, that is exactly what has resulted.

Like the Pulwama suicide bombing in 2019, the hijab controversy has come as an unsolicited gift to a BJP government that has been on its back feet since its mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis last year. With civil society leaders, Muslim organisations across India and a section of the media quickly concluding that the hijab ban is yet another exercise in Muslim baiting designed to advance the cause of Hindutva, this was just the excuse the Sangh parivar needed to shore up its support base.

All those who wish to preserve India’s pluralism and democracy therefore need to curb such knee-jerk reactions in the coming days, for they have, within them, the potential to unleash a vastly larger conflict than the one that was triggered by the Babri Masjid – one from which secularism and democracy will be the ultimate losers.

Fortunately, Karnataka is not Uttar Pradesh and Basavaraj Bommai is not Yogi Adityanath. The Karnataka government’s decision to leave it to the courts to decide the issue is both legally and morally the right thing to have done. The path to resolving this issue on the basis of law and the constitution is now open.

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

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With every passing hour since the hold up on the flyover in Punjab, it is becoming more and more apparent that Modi intends to use it as an excuse for avoiding an election in Punjab that the BJP is bound to lose.

Modi Is Most Dangerous When He Senses He Is Losing Ground
Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo:

Had Prime Minister Narendra Modi not attained the height of power in politics, he would have reached the heights of fame in theatre. For that is all that his nearly uncontrollable rage at having been thwarted from reaching Hussainiwala for his scheduled public meeting on January 5 was – pure theatre. All that had happened to provoke his rage on January 5 was a 15-minute hold up on a flyover 30 km short of where he was scheduled to unveil a National Martyrs Memorial that day.

Such holdups have happened to virtually every prime minister in the past 75 years, including at least twice to Modi himself. But neither his predecessors nor he had thought of turning these minor setbacks into a pretext for declaring president’s rule and dismissing an elected state government.  

But with every passing hour since the hold up on the flyover, it is becoming more and more apparent that even if it was not engineered by the BJP from the start, Modi now intends to use that minor mishap as an excuse for avoiding an election in Punjab that he and his party are bound to lose. 

Modi’s accusation that the Punjab government was behind the farmers’ blockade is ridiculous. Neither the government nor the farmers could have known that the prime minister would be travelling by road, as the decision not to travel by helicopter because of inclement weather was taken only after he reached Bathinda airport by plane from Delhi. 

The flyover was 92 kilometres from Bathinda airport, so it would have taken ninety or so minutes for his cavalcade to reach the flyover. That is an extremely short period of time even for the farmers’ union, let alone the state government, to organise a jatha and get it to the flyover. It is far more plausible, therefore, that the blockade had been organised, as farmer leaders have insisted, to stop buses ferrying BJP supporters from reaching the meeting ground. 

Farmers stage a demonstration to block Prime Minister Narendra Modis cavalcade, in Ferozepur, January 5, 2022. Photo: PTI

Had Modi been determined to reach Hussainiwala, his cavalcade could easily have diverted to one of the many metalled rural roads with which rural Punjab is crisscrossed. A vast network of such roads has been created by mandi committees over the past several decades to facilitate the rapid transport of the harvest.

But Modi did not even contemplate doing so. It is far more likely, therefore, that he decided to turn back because he was informed by his security staff, who had been at the site for the previous five days, that the crowd turnout at the meeting ground, when the BJP had hired chairs to seat 70,000, was not very encouraging. 

Modi’s barely veiled accusation that the Punjab Congress had conspired with Khalistanis and Pakistan to put his life in danger is as ridiculous as his party’s earlier accusation that the farmers’ struggle against the new farm laws was also the work of anti-national ‘Khalistanis’. But the way in which he made it – by thanking the Punjab chief minister for “allowing him to return to Bathinda alive” – smacks of more than merely an oversized ego that does not take any setback easily.  

For Modi had an hour or more to think of what he would say to the media when he returned to Bathinda. And since then, his party has spared no effort to paint the hold up on the flyover as a premeditated attack upon the prime minister by an opposition party, and create a justification for declaring President’s rule in the state through relentless repetition of this lie till, to untutored ears, it begins to sound like the truth.  

Since then everything that the prime minister, his home minister and party men have said and done, has looked like a well rehearsed script in a theatre of evil. On January 6, Modi visited Rashtrapati Bhavan to brief President Kovind about the lapse, with the latter calling the hold up a ‘serious lapse’. 

President Ram Nath Kovind met Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on January 6 to receive “a first-hand account of the security breach” in his convoy in Punjab on January 5. Photo: Twitter/ @rashtrapatibhvn

That nothing at all actually happened on the flyover; that newspaper photographs published the next day and video clips of the alleged ‘deliberate’ security lapse show Modi’s (presumably armoured) black Toyota SUV, surrounded by no fewer than six SPG troopers carrying machine guns, none of them showing any alarm or anxiety; a vacant space for several metres all around the SUV, and on the other side of the four-lane flyover a large number of BJP demonstrators sporting saffron insignia and carrying tricolours chanting Modi’s praises, with not a single protesting farmer in sight, has not seemed to matter to a prime minister who has grown so used to manufacturing truth that he has felt no need to reign in the chorus even in order to maintain his credibility.

A dangerous game

The grounds on which Modi plans to impose President’s rule on Punjab are not hard to discern. Article 356 of the constitution, which empowered the President of India to dissolve any state legislature virtually at will, had been abused 82 times before the Bommai judgement of the Supreme Court in 1994. It has not been invoked by any government since then. That judgment allowed future Union governments to pull down an elected state government on only three non-procedural grounds but expressly disallowed it on even other grounds. 

The former are:

  1. Where a constitutional direction of the Union government is disregarded by the state government;
  2. Internal subversion where, for example, a government is deliberately acting against the constitution and the law or is fomenting a violent revolt, and 
  3. Physical breakdown where the state government wilfully refuses to discharge its constitutional obligations and thereby endangers the security of the state.

The latter are: 

  1. Where a ministry resigns or is dismissed on losing majority support in the assembly and the governor recommends imposition of President’s Rule without probing the possibility of forming an alternative ministry; 
  2. Where the governor makes his own assessment of the support of a ministry in the assembly and recommends imposition of President’s Rule without allowing the ministry to prove its majority on the floor of the assembly;
  3. Where the ruling party enjoying majority support in the assembly has suffered a massive defeat in the general elections to the Lok Sabha such as in 1977 and 1980; 
  4. On the grounds of Internal disturbances not amounting to internal subversion or physical breakdown;
  5. Allegations of maladministration in the state or allegations of corruption against the ministry or stringent financial exigencies of the state; 
  6. Where the state government is dismissed without  giving it prior warning to mend its ways.
  7. The judgement ends with a portmanteau dismissal of any purpose that is ‘extraneous or irrelevant’ to the one for which the power has been conferred on the President by the Constitution.

From home minister Amit Shah and BJP spokespersons’ endless harping on a security breach deliberately created to endanger the life of the prime minister, it is apparent that the government intends to justify using the second and third grounds for invoking Article

356 in Punjab. To make this credible, Modi and Shah are playing an incredibly dangerous game, for they are allowing their party members to harp endlessly upon the possibility that in this Sikh majority state, an insecure Congress chief minister is seeking the support of Khalistanis linked to, and backed by Pakistan, and has not hesitated to put the prime minister’s life in danger. 

As recorded by innumerable video recordings of what transpired on the flyover, this is utter nonsense for there was not even a hint of violence in the air. But Modi, and if not him then the leaders of the RSS, need to reflect on what bringing down a government headed by a Sikh on grounds that amount to treason will unleash in Punjab. For it could easily trigger a chain of events that ends in a revival of insurgency in Punjab, as the scrapping of Article 370 and imposition of what is in effect police rule is threatening to do even now in Kashmir. 

Security forces in Kashmir. Photo: PTI/Files

Even that may not be the end of the damage the BJP will do to India. Other political parties in India will see in the dismissal of the Channi government a threat to their democratic rights and take to the streets. If the BJP reacts to their demonstrations as it has done in Punjab, we could find ourselves at a crisis point for the Indian Union. 

I wish to end by showing readers where my gloomy forebodings spring from. Thirty-two years ago, Barbara Crossette, the India correspondent of the New York Times, wrote the following despatch on December 8, 1989: 

“In his first official trip out of the capital since becoming Prime Minister of India, V. P. Singh went to Amritsar today to pray at the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, promising to heal ‘the heavy, bleeding heart’ of Punjab state. Thousands have died in confrontations there in the last five years. 

In a gesture of reconciliation to a state so alienated it elected separatists to Parliament in the November elections, Mr. Singh told a largely Sikh audience at the shrine, the Golden Temple, that the heart of Punjab needs ‘a healing touch’. ‘The healing touch cannot be brought about at the point of bayonets, but with love, faith and the people’s cooperation,’ he said after riding through the town, in militant Sikh territory, in an open jeep. Indian reporters accompanying the Prime Minister said crowds surged forward along the route to greet him.” [Emphasis supplied]

Compare this to Modi sitting, brooding and nursing his anger for 15-20 minutes in an armoured SUV, and you can see the kind of prime minister India needs and the kind it does not.

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In the face of a surplus of cereals and ever-dwindling prices as a consequence, farmers with small and medium sized land holdings have tried to shift to the cultivation of perishable fruits and vegetables. Their incomes, however, are still hamstrung by a lack of rural cold storage facilities in the country.

The Farmers Have Won an Epic Battle, But the Real War Lies Ahead
Farmers return to their homes after their year-long agitation against the contentious farm reform laws, at Dhareri Jatta Toll Plaza in Patiala, Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021. Farmers have called off their agitation after receiving a formal letter from the Centre on Thursday agreeing to their pending demands. Photo: PTI

The farmers of India have won an epic victory. For 15 months, they braved the biting cold, cruel heat, misrepresentation, calumny, assault by the police and the ever-present threat of COVID-19 to wage the most disciplined and peaceful protest against government policy that this country – or for that matter any other democracy – has ever seen. More than 500 of them have lost their lives over this period to natural and man-made causes, but they have prevailed. 

This is not their victory alone; it is a victory for Indian democracy as well, for the most difficult decision that any democratic government faces is to admit that it has made a serious mistake. This is something that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has never, done. The repeal of the farm laws is therefore a first step back for him. His courage – and that of the advisers who persuaded him to take the decision – needs to be acknowledged. 

But winning a battle is not the same as winning a war. The war the farmers of India still have to fight is against the deepening crisis that grips agriculture and continues to endanger their future. This is born not out of shortages, be it of food or inputs, but of mounting surpluses of produce. It is, therefore, a crisis of overproduction, not of under-distribution.

How has this paradox occurred in a country otherwise besieged by shortages of everything else?  The short answer is: it is the unintended product of incorrect policy choices and policy failures in virtually every other sector of the economy. These have resulted in slow GDP growth, averaging just over 5% since 1951 and a highly capital-intensive industrialisation that has created very few permanent jobs and woefully few casual ones. 

Slow job creation has prevented the rural population from moving off the land, as happened during the industrialisation of Europe and the USA and, more recently, that of East and South-East Asia. Farm families have therefore been forced to live off ever-shrinking land holdings by cultivating them more intensively. It is their Herculean efforts, aided by the Green Revolution in cereals, that has created the agricultural economy of surpluses that Modi tried to ‘reform’. The measure of their success is that India today is the world’s largest exporter of rice and sugar and the second largest exporter of onions, potatoes and dairy products. 

A vendor sorts potatoes, at wholesale fruit and vegetable market in Prayagraj, October 27, 2020. Photo: PTI.

The Modi government’s motives for hurriedly passing the three farm bills last year have been condemned by farmers’ leaders  and civil society members as being a pretext for handing over this huge export bonanza to some of his favourite businessmen, who have made no secret of their interest in entering the field of agro-marketing.  Had the Bills gone through, the capture of the Indian agro-market by a handful of large companies would have been the inevitable consequence of the so-called reforms, not their purpose. 

The official purpose of the Bills was to find a way of halting the ever-rising surpluses of cereals which the government can neither dispose of, nor find a use for any longer. It was based upon recommendations, possibly drawn up in haste, by two standing committees of Parliament in 2017 and 2018; and the recommendations of neoliberal economic advisers for whom The Market is a panacea for all economic diseases, second only to God. 

Few of the policy makers who crafted the three Bills realised that the farmers not only understood their predicament but had begun trying to get out of the ‘cereals trap’ almost four decades ago. As a result, the area under cultivation for wheat and rice had first stalled as long back as the early eighties and had then begun to shrink. The first cash crops they turned to were non-perishables, notably sugarcane and cotton. But by the early nineties, farmers with small and marginal holdings but also large families and, therefore, an abundant supply of free family labour, had begun to shift to the cultivation of perishables, notably of vegetables. They were doing so because horticulture, especially vegetable farming, payed more generously. 

Manmohan Singh’s UPA government recognised this and set up a National Horticulture Mission in 2006, tasked with creating infrastructure for storing and marketing fruits and vegetables. Under its aegis, thousands of cold storages were built and a vibrant national and international market was developed for India’s fruit and vegetables. 

By March 2019, there were an estimated 7,645 large cold stores with a total refrigerated space of 150 million cubic metres in the country, capable of storing  37-39 million tonnes of perishable produce. But all of these were in towns and cities. Punjab, for instance, had 379 cold storages in 2018, but not a single one in a village. Other states are no different. 

As a result, all the benefits from the development of this infrastructure have been going to the traders and cold storage owners who bought and stored the fruit and vegetables. The horticulturalists, nearly all of whom were small and marginal farmers, found themselves in exactly the same plight as before: they had to sell all of their produce within days of its ripening, at whatever price the traders were prepared to pay. 

Lack of cold storage facilities has also made it difficult for farmers to sell their apple and pear harvests. Photo: Athar Parvaiz

Data on the wholesale prices of onions, potatoes and tomatoes, published annually by the Indian Ministry of Agriculture, shows that these prices are lowest from January to April every year – when the vegetables ripen – and rise progressively through the summer until they peak, in October and November. Without cold stores, farmers have to sell their crop as soon as it ripens, between  January and April. A study of revenues and costs for potatoes and tomatoes based on a sample survey conducted in 66 clusters of villages in Punjab found that the average price farmers obtained for their potatoes in 2015-16 was Rs. 4.77 per kg. 

This gap gets wider as the produce becomes more perishable. The agriculture ministry’s surveys of horticulture in 2019 showed that over the six years from 2014 to 2019, farmers had seldom received  more than  Rs.4-5 per kg of potatoes and onions and Rs 6-8 per kg of tomatoes. But by the end of the summer, tomatoes were selling in urban markets for more than Rs 60 per kilo. 

In the average Punjabi village, cereal farmers grow 9 tonnes of wheat and rice per hectare and sell it to the Food Corporation of India (FCI) for Rs 1,62,000. In the same village, vegetable farmers, who usually own about a quarter of the land that cereal farmers own, grow 19.93 tonnes of vegetables per hectare of land but seldom receive even Rs 1,00,000 (gross) for their produce. 

That is why, not just in Punjab but all over India, vegetable growing remains the preserve of small and marginal farmers. Cereal farmers who would like to shift out of rice and wheat look at the plight of their poorer neighbours, shudder and buy more fertilisers to sustain their rice and wheat output, clinging even more desperately to the MSP system. 

Stubble burning is a popular practice for getting rid of residues of the rice crop to prepare the land for the sowing of wheat, exacerbated by the emphasis placed on cereal production. Photo: Flickr/2011CIAT/NeilPalmer CC BY-SA 2.0.

The true solution to the crisis of agriculture is the establishment of a cold stores in every village. But cold stores need uninterrupted, stable voltage power and in the last 75 years of supposed economic development, 17 successive Union and state governments have failed to provide this to any, let alone every, village in the country. 

More than six decades of rural electrification have provided villages with an average of 14-16 hours of power supply in a day. But even this is with fluctuating voltages as well as frequent interruptions and break downs. One virtually unnoticed consequence of this has been that there is not a single grid-linked cold storage in any village in India. 

This is despite the fact that the solution has been staring us in the face for the past two decades, if not longer. It is to set up a small, 5-10 tonnes-a-day biomass gasifiers in every village (or cluster of two to three villages),  gasify the rice and wheat straw that farmers are now burning to clear their fields  in simple, air-blown gasifiers and use the lean fuel gas this yields to run a back-up generator for the power supply to the cold store. 

Cold stores in the villages are the key to a second Green Revolution that could be far more powerful than the first. By endowing farmers with the power to determine the supply of fruits and vegetables to Mandis, they will double the earnings of potato and onion growers and treble (or more) those of the more perishable produce, such as tomatoes, peas, mushrooms, spinach, salads, and okra (bhindi) and fruits such as mangoes, lychees, guavas and melons .  

What’s more, horticulturalists will not be the only beneficiaries. Biochar (the other product of crop residue gasification) is 80-90% pure, sulphur-free, carbon. It can, therefore, not only replace imported coking coal with a non-fossil fuel in the steel industry, but also replace imported oil as the primary energy source for the production of transport fuels, as Germany did during World War II and South Africa did when trade sanctions were imposed upon it in 1986 to force it to end Apartheid. 

In the 1990s, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) – then known as the Tata Energy Research Institute – had developed a simple gasifier, complete with its straw-feeding and gas cleaning systems, for less than Rs 12 lakh. But the Union and state governments never even came to know of it. With no demand from agriculture, a few thousand of these got made and were sold to small and medium scale manufacturers of dried fruit and puffed cereals in the food processing industry. 

Last year, TERI unveiled a more sophisticated – and only slightly more expensive – two-stage gasifier in a village in Odisha, which can gasify not only straw and other crop residues, but also the carbon-rich sludge that is left behind by biogas plants. But once again, no one has thought of linking this to a cold storage to transform the future of rural India. 

Last year, the Modi government drew worldwide criticism when it announced that it would set up four large coals gasification plants by 2030 to produce coal gas from 100 million tonnes of coal as a replacement for the natural gas and Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) being imported today. These plants will work far better on cleaned biochar. Moreover, the government has sanctioned the  establishment of nine such plants to produce transport fuels from coal. Not only will these work much more efficiently with biochar briquettes, they will eliminate CO2 emissions and generate vast amounts of regular, salaried employment in rural areas, where it is needed most. 

The Bharatiya Kisan Union has achieved its immediate purpose and staved off disaster but it should now use the bonds it has forged within India’s vast community of farmers to promote policies  and technologies that will enable farmers to break out of the cereals trap on their own and in their own time. Biomass gasification is the most promising of these policies. But as described above, there is a wealth of others to choose from.

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

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Based on the current trend line of active cases, the growth may be slowing but India will hit its peak only when daily recoveries outpace new cases. There are signs this may be happening in Delhi, which is why other metros need to pay attention to its strategy.

How Long Will the Pandemic Last? Rate of Growth of Active Cases Holds Key.

A woman watches as healthcare workers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) check the temperature of residents of a slum during a check-up camp for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Mumbai, India June 17, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas

Just over a  week ago, Prime Minister Modi asked his ministers to prepare “emergency plans” to deal with the spike in COVID cases in the five most severely affected states of the country. If one is looking for an admission from the government that its lockdown had failed, then this is it: instead of taking 21 days, Modi’s Mahabharata has lasted over 100 days. And the battle is only growing more intense by the day.

So how long will it last? How long before the case count reaches its peak and starts to decline? After how many deaths? If anyone in the government has an idea, she or he has kept it a deep secret. Mercifully, we have enough data now to make a reasonable estimate by ourselves. The news is not all that good, but the data on the rate of growth of active cases (i.e. total cases minus those who have recovered)  is sufficiently reassuring to make panic unnecessary. While across India, daily new cases are outpacing daily recoveries, the picture in Delhi is somewhat reassuring and could serve as a guide for what needs to be done if the duration of the pandemic is to be shortened.

The following table gives data, from  May 15 till July 6, for the total number of cases, the number of patients who have recovered, and the number of patients under active care.

May 15 has been chosen as the starting date because phase 3 of the lockdown had ended and normal life was just being resumed. It therefore gave the data a fairly uniform base, free of policy change-induced shocks. A comparison of the rates of change in these parameters makes it possible to discern the slowing down of the diseases and, barring, a surge in news cases, broadly map the trajectory of cases.

Of course, a caveat is needed. Two big confounding factors remain testing rates and the government’s denial of community transmission. Recovery rates do increase because that’s the natural course during a pandemic and we won’t discover more new cases unless we test more, which is why leading epidemiologists like Dr Jayaprakash Muliyil think most cases are going under the radar. For this exercise, however, we will take the government’s data at face value.

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The constitution describes India as a “Union of States”, meaning the “states” pre-existed the Union and are the federating parties that created it. By abolishing one state, J&K, Modi has threatened the very basis of the Union.

Modi 2.0's Big 'Achievement' in Its First 100 Days is to Undermine the Indian Union

So great was the Kashmiris’ trust in India’s secularism that their faith in it was not shaken even by 20 years of Indian mistrust, and military rule. Photo: Reuters/Danish Ismail

Had Chandrayaan 2’s moon lander not failed, it would have been our media-hungry prime minister and not Prakash Javadekar who would have addressed the press conference in Delhi on Sunday on the first 100 days of his second term in office. Javadekar tried to make the best of a miserable deal: he steered clear of the economy’s collapse and near three-fold increase in youth unemployment in the past seven years, and took credit for amending the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act that has turned India into a police state.

But his primary selling point for Modi’s government was its “full integration of Kashmir into India” by simply abolishing Article 370, and turning Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh into union territories under the direct rule by the Centre – something that no other government had had the “courage” to do so far.

Neither Prime Minister Modi or Union home minister Amit Shah have bothered to ask themselves whether their predecessors’ restraint was cowardice or sagacity. This is because neither seem to be aware of the chasm that separates courage from foolhardiness. Courage presupposes foresight: a careful weighing of risks and benefits before adopting a course of action. Foolhardiness requires only the ‘courage’ to make a blind leap into the dark, hoping one will land on one’s feet.

On August 5, Modi and Shah made that leap. Today, it is apparent to those who have not been swept away by the prime minister’s self-congratulatory oratory, that he and Amit Shah have landed on the first step that leads to the disintegration of the Indian Union.

Home minister Amit Shah in the Lok Sabha during the debate on Article 370 and the reorganisation of J&K. Photo: PTI

For by dissolving a federating state of the Indian Union and bringing it under direct central rule for howsoever brief a period of time, Modi has set a precedent that, if not overruled, can be used by a future government to convert any part, or even all of the Union, into a unitary state. This will not only destroy the most basic feature of the constitution – the federal structure of the Indian Union – but also negate the political rationale that underlies it.

The reality that not only Modi but many constitutional theorists are only dimly aware of is that Indian federalism is not based upon administrative convenience or date of acquisition of a particular territory, as is the federalism of the USA, Canada and Australia. We already had that form of federalism under the Government of India Act of 1935 and lost no time in changing it drastically.

Today’s India is a federation of far older ethno-nations, several of which have had a distinct identity for more than two millennia. These have had distinct cultural and political identities long before the Indian Union was born. This fact is explicitly acknowledged by the constitution which describes India as a “Union of States”, a clear admission that the “states” in some manner, pre-existed the union and are the federating parties that created it.

The primacy of ethnicity was asserted at the cost of his life by Potti Sriramulu, the creator of Andhra Pradesh, in 1953 and conceded by Jawaharlal Nehru in the same year by creating the States Reorganisation Commission, with a mandate to redraw the boundaries of the existing provinces and create new states on the basis of language. So vigorously has ethnicity been defended that this process took another three decades to complete, with the separation of Gujarat from Maharashtra, the re-creation of Punjabi Suba as the homeland the Sikhs lost with Partition and the states of the northeast and Goa, before a stable federation finally emerged.

Indian federalism is therefore a living, breathing, entity. Its central purpose is to protect the ethnic identities of its peoples while expanding the field of their opportunities. This has been the glue that has successfully bound the most diverse region in the world into a single, modern nation-state.

Article 370 was one of the most important safeguards to India’s ethnic diversity because it safeguarded the distinct, syncretic culture of a Muslim majority state that opted for India – both its maharaja and its people – in order to protect that identity, Kashmiriyat. It is not surprising, therefore, that Article 371, which gives similar protection to ten other Indian states, is modelled on Article 370.

Thus, as elements in Nagaland and Mizoram have already pointed out, if the Supreme Court allows the president to dissolve Kashmir’s statehood, it can open the gates for some future government to dissolve theirs as well. What is more, this unease is bound to infect other, larger states as well, especially Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Bengal and Assam.

The great betrayal

So great was the Kashmiris’ trust in India’s secularism that their faith in it was not shaken even by 20 years of Indian mistrust, and military rule. As a result, in 2009 a survey of public opinion in the Kashmir Valley, conducted by the London-based Royal Institute for International Affairs, found that even in the four worst-affected districts of the Valley, only 2.5-7.5% of Kashmiris said they would like to belong to Pakistan. By definition, this meant that the vast majority who wanted “azadi” did not want it at the cost of cutting their economic, educational and medical ties with India.

That was the near-peace that Modi inherited in 2014. But within three months of his swearing-in, he had destroyed that half-built edifice by publicly humiliating the Hurriyat, terminating the tacit tripartite dialogue of which it had been a part since 2004, and raining “10-for-1” fire across the Line of Control in reply to sporadic ceasefire violations by Pakistani soldiers.

The most damaging of all has been the change in the television media from sympathetic neutrality to a perfervid hyper-nationalism. Suddenly there were no more azadi advocates in Kashmir, no more militants, no more stone-throwers, no more disaffected youth needing to be persuaded back into the mainstream. All were simply terrorists. These views and comments, aired relentlessly along with news of cow vigilantism, the incidents of Muslims being lynched in different parts of India, and acquittal after acquittal in the cases of bomb blasts in mosques, madrassas and trains designed expressly to kill Muslims, had completed the alienation of all but a handful. The scrapping of Article 370 is, for them, the last straw.

Like other would-be conquerors, Modi does not know the meaning of the word ‘retreat’. So his response to the return of militancy has been to use more and more force. When this too failed, he decided to eliminate the problem altogether by eliminating Kashmir. But that too is not happening. One month has passed since the government dissolved the state into two Union territories, but the Kashmir Valley is still under a siege that the world has not seen since medieval times. Worse, Amit Shah announced that it will continue for another 20-25 days.

The future of Kashmir, and therefore of India-Pakistan relations, is so dark that it does not bear thinking about. But the main threat that Modi’s actions pose to India does not lie outside its borders. They lie inside it, because if not stopped by the Supreme Court, what he has started could very easily presage the disintegration of the Indian Union.

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India is split over Prime Minister Narendra Modis decision to abolish article 370 by a presidential order last week. The saffron fold is rejoicing: This government – their government—has had the guts to do what the Congress and its secularists could not. The Kashmir problem is  over. There will be a period of unrest, but when it is over, this canker, this anomaly from the past, will have been removed. The building of the modern Indian nation will be complete.

They could not be more wrong. Modi made a huge blunder in November 2016 when he demonetised nine-tenths of the country’s currency in circulation at one stroke, paralysing the Indian economy for months. This did lasting damage to farmers and the rural poor, from which they have not recovered. But he got away with it.

It may be the sense of absolute invulnerability that the recent election has given him that has led him into an even greater blunder now. But this time, he may not get away with it because his action is almost certain to set off repercussions, some of them outside the country, that he will not be able to control.

The first is the reaction of the already deeply alienated Kashmiri youth. Modi  correctly anticipated that abolishing article 370 would make them erupt in even greater paroxysms of anger, than did the death of Burhan Wani in 2016. To pre-empt this, he moved 75,000 additional troops of the Central armed police into the valley, abruptly cut off the Amarnath Yatra, closed all schools and colleges, shut down the internet, blocked mobile telephony and landlines, stopped the distribution of newspapers, and placed not only separatist leaders  under house arrest  but also, for the first time in Kashmir’s history, leaders of the mainstream parties who have never questioned Kashmir’s accession to India.

But what he and home minister Amit Shah seem not to care about is the monstrous sense of betrayal that has swept the rest of the Kashmiri people that 80 to 90 per cent of the population who have never wanted a complete separation from India, and to whom Azadi has always meant full political autonomy but without the severance of Kashmir’s connection  with the rest of India.

This is the vast majority that the government has betrayed. It has done so because of blind adherence to an ideology that, like all others that the world has had to endure, shows no respect for history, and steamrolls facts that do not serve its purpose into the ground. This is the ideology of ‘Hindutva’.

The key fact that the Sangh parivar chooses to ignore is that Kashmiri Islam is entirely different from the Deobandi and Barelvi Islam practised by Sunnis in the rest of the subcontinent. Called Reshi Islam (after Rishi), it was brought to Kashmir by Sufis from Persia and Central Asia and spread in the valley by Brahmin disciples, the most famous of whom was Lalded, aka Laleshwari Devi, after whom schools, colleges and hospitals all over the valley are named today.

As a result, Kashmiri Islam is suffused with Hindu practices, so much so that in 1946, when the chief of the Kashmir Muslim conference,  Chaudhury Ghulam Abbas, wrote to Mohammed Ali Jinnah asking that  his party be inducted into the Muslim League, Jinnah declined because his secretary, Khursheed Ahmad  reported from Srinagar that “… these people follow a strange form of Islam…. that drives a coach and four through all the tenets that we consider most holy … I fear that it will take a long period of re-education for them to become true Muslims”.

History will confirm that Kashmir was the only princely state in which it was the people, through the National Conference, and not solely the Maharaja, who decided to accede to India.

It will confirm that when armed infiltrators from Pakistan entered Kashmir dressed as peasants in August 1965 at the start of the 1965 war and asked a peasant to point out the way to Srinagar, he sent them on the wrong road and bicycled to Srinagar to warn the government of the presence of the infiltrators. It was this man that the ISI made one of the first targets of the insurgency, in 1990.

Finally, history will also confirm that since the insurgency started in 1989, every Kashmiri nationalist (separatist) leader who has been willing to discuss peace with New Delhi, or even lay out the steps Delhi would have to take if it wanted the insurgency to end, has been assassinated at the behest of the ISI, The list is long: it starts with Mirwaiz Maulvi Farouq, and ends with Abdul Ghani Lone, the father of Sajjad Lone who joined the alliance with the BJP in 2015, was a minister  till the other day, and has now been put under house arrest by the very government he backed. Had these leaders really wanted to break away completely from India, would Pakistan’s ISI have taken such great pains to have them killed?

Tragically, despite the opening of the bus road across the Line of Control, the insurgency in Kashmir dragged on because neither of Modi’s two predecessors knew quite how to end it. But despite this, Kashmiris did not give up hope that Delhi would one day understand what they really wanted and bring them peace. So strong was this hope that as recently as 2009, despite 20 years of insurgency, a survey commissioned by Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs had shown that only 2.5 to 7.5 percent of Kashmiris in the worst militancy affected districts of the valley said they wanted Kashmir to belong to Pakistan.

Had Modi been made aware of Kashmir’s history, he would have realised that Kashmir had already achieved a version of what V.D. Savarkar had dreamed of in 1923 when he propounded Hindutva – a civilisation in which the (Muslim) population fully recognised, and indeed prized, its (Hindu) cultural roots. Only the name they gave it differed: they called it Kashmiriyat.

As Yasin Malik, the leader of the JKLF, wrote in a short book, The Real Truth, while in jail in the early ‘nineties, it was the Congress’s decision to lift the ban on the Jamaat-iIslami that had been imposed by Maharaja Hari Singh that began the erosion of Kashmiriyat in the valley.

Had Modi really wanted to integrate Kashmir, therefore, he would have spared no effort to undo the damage done to Kashmiriyat in the previous 42 years. But he did the exact opposite:Instead of easing the armed forces’ iron grip on the valley, he tightened it; instead of offering an amnesty to a budding generation of Kashmiri militants driven to desperation by the incessant harassment of their families by the police, he demanded unconditional surrender and deployed the IB’s newly acquired cyber-espionage capabilities to root them out and kill them.

Finally, instead of opening a dialogue with the Hurriyat and JKLF leaders – as he had himself agreed to do by signing on to the Agenda for Alliance document with the PDP in 2015 – he kept them under almost continuous house arrest, and destroyed the last vestiges of their hold on the youth of the valley. As if that were not enough, by also putting all the leaders of themainstream parties under house arrest, he has made the Kashmiris leaderless and put them at the mercy of every wave of passion or anger in the valley.

Having closed every root to a peaceful end to the insurgency in Kashmir, Modi has decided to employ legal sleight of hand to make the problem disappear. Unfortunately, it will not disappear. Kashmiris will hold their breath till the Supreme Court passes its verdict on the appeal filed against the presidential order filed on August 5. The court is unlikely to uphold the presidential order, because doing so would fly in the face of its own decisions of 2017 and 2018 that Article 370 is not a temporary article of the constitution.

All serious observers of Kashmir and the Constitution knew that the word temporary had been introduced only to convey the fact that the scope of Article 370 would have to be redefined after the return of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir to the state.

By the same token, the abolition of the Kashmir assembly’s right to declare itself a constituent assembly in 1956 was a tacit admission that the legal provisions governing Kashmir’s relations with India could not be kept hostage to Pakistan’s non-compliance with the UN Security Council’s 1948 resolution forever. The Modi government’s attempt to use a General Clauses (India) Act incorporated into the constitution as Article 367 – but passed by the British parliament in 1897 to resolve disputes in the interpretation of words used in thedifferent statutes by which it governed India, at a time when  Kashmir was not a part of Indiais  unlikely to pass muster with the Supreme Court.

But even if this surmise proves right, the relief in the valley will be short -lived. For the jingoism that Modi and the RSS will stir up against Kashmiri Muslims, against Indian democrats and against the Supreme court itselfwill see it coast to victory in the state elections at the end of this year .

After that, the BJP will acquire a majority in the Rajya Sabha and the road to changing the constitution via parliament will be open. It is only then that all hell will break loose in Kashmir.

As the death toll rises, thousands of young Kashmiris who have so far stayed out of the insurgency will join it. Judging from what ISIS has already announced, and what has happened elsewhere after the destruction of its original stronghold in Syria, jihadis from the Middle East, and perhaps even Europe, may find their way into the Valley despite everything that the security forces will do. Islamabad will also come under increasing pressure from its own public to unleash its jihadi tanzeems, and will claim that it cannot hold them back.

A long and bloody war will then ensue and terrorism will spread to the rest of India where there is no dearth of soft targets to attack. The hunt for terrorists that will follow will turn India into a police state. Carefully staged fake encounters, which became normal in Gujarat after the 2002 riots, will become the order of the day throughout the country. Muslims will be the main victims. Kashmiriyat will become a distant memory. That will be the beginning of the end of the India we have known till today.

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From its inception, the RSS’s goal has been to create a Hindu India moulded to fit their image of a Hindu Rashtra. This project cannot be completed without trampling on the rights of the people.

Hindutva Has Nowhere to Go Except Down the Road to Tyranny

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Two preceding articles in this series have argued that Hindutva is, in every way, the antithesis of dharma. Dharma is a way of life based upon a human being’s duty to her or his fellow human beings. It has shaped the practice of religion in India for 2,500 years. It prevented the growth of a Brahminical clergy in Hinduism, and severely limited the power of the clergy in Indian Islam. It has even indigenised Christianity. By doing all this, it has, despite the shock of partition, kept India very largely free from religious strife.

Hindutva and Hindu Rashtra are synthetic concepts, created only 96 years ago. Dharma, on the other hand, is entirely indigenous. The roots of Hindutva and Hindu Rashtra lie in an attempt to create a Hindu nation modelled on the European nation-state through the enforced cultural homogenisation of the entire population, especially religious minorities.

Savarkar’s role in the rise of Hindutva

This attempt sprang from Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s passionate belief that the freedom movement had to harness Hinduism to nationalism to force the British out of India. At one stage in the freedom struggle, this was a widely-shared view. Bengalis had resorted to what the British called ‘revolutionary terrorism‘ after the 1905 partition of Bengal. Revolutionary terrorism had spread to Punjab after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919. In Maharashtra, Bal Gangadhar Tilak had endorsed the use of violence and been imprisoned by the British for his pains.

Savarkar. Credit:

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. Photo:

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

Hindutva – the antithesis of dharma

Savarkar did not exclude non-Hindus from the Hindutva fold. But to belong, they had to first accept that they belonged to the Hindu sanskriti. This has remained the core requirement of Hindutva down to the present day. Its corollary is the need to exclude those who do not wish to belong. Those who wish to belong have to profess their ‘Hinduness’ and allegiance to the Hindu Rashtra. As in Catholicism and Islam, the reward for accepting the true faith was the promise of absolution for sins committed in the name of Hinduism.

Thus Babu Bajrangi, leader of the Gujarat-wing of the Bajrang Dal, who was at the centre of the massacre of Muslims in 2002, boasted to Ashish Khetan of Tehelka in a secretly-filmed video interview that he had felt immense satisfaction at doing God’s work while he killed innocent, unarmed Muslim men, women and children.

Similarly, in the course of four interviews lasting more than nine hours that he gave to Leena Reghunath at Ambala central jail in 2013 and 2014, ‘Swami’ Aseemanand – once the principal accused but now exonerated in the Samjhauta Express bomb blast case – did not once condemn the killing of more than 200 Muslims on board the train and in the Malegaon and Ajmer mosque bombings. Instead, he repeatedly insisted that jo hua, wo theek hi hua(what happened was correct).

Aseemanand. Photo: PTI

This is what makes Hindutva the antithesis of dharma. For what it preaches and what Aseemanand, Pragya Thakur, Babu Bajrangi and now millions of others who consider themselves Hindus, have been converted to is adharma: it is paap (sin).

RSS’s goal of a Hindu India

In the 1920s, Hindutva could perhaps be condoned because it was a counsel of despair. The Congress was still a middle-class debating society, Mahatma Gandhi’s doctrine of satyagraha was still largely untried and the British had taken to shooting down and summarily hanging freedom fighters after labelling them terrorists. But the last shred of justification for its adharma ended after India gained its freedom. For the creation of Pakistan had fulfilled at least one of the goals of the RSS – it had rid India of all the Muslims who did not accept that they were part of the ‘Hindu sanskriti’.

The 12% who stayed in India had chosen consciously to do so. They had, therefore, demonstrated their allegiance to India – which the Hindutva advocates equated to Hindu sanskriti – with their feet. So what fuelled the frantic rage against Partition that the RSS vented in its immediate aftermath? What made Hindutva fanatics condone and later glorify the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, and want to deify his assassin, Nathuram Godse? And what has made them demonise the Muslims who had chosen India in 1947 so consistently in the ensuing seven decades?

The explanation is that from its inception, the RSS’s goal was not simply the ‘negative freedom’ India would get from the departure of the British, but the ‘positive freedom’ of creating a Hindu India moulded to fit their image of Hindu Rashtra. Nothing less would satisfy them

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

RSS volunteers march past portraits of K.B. Hedgewar and M.S. Golwalkar. Photo: Shome Basu

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

Caught by surprise by Partition, which Mountbatten announced only in March 1947, the RSS made an attempt, nonetheless, to seize power in the wake of the turmoil unleashed by it and the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, which it certainly welcomed and might even have instigated. That got it banned for several years, but power remained its unswerving goal through all its vicissitudes then, and its violent rebirth after the Congress opened the locks on the Babri Masjid in 1985.

What happens now?

Today, the RSS has finally achieved its goal. Narendra Modi has brought it to power on a wave that will almost certainly sweep through the states and give it the two-thirds majority that it needs to change the constitution of India. The closest parallel in history to BJP’s victory this year is Hitler’s return to power in March 1933. The Nazi campaign too was based upon hatred and paranoia. Its targets were principally the Jews, but also the Gypsies whom they considered another inferior, polluting, race and the Communists.

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

While history seldom repeats itself, the new BJP government has already taken its first steps down the road to tyranny. The arrest by the UP Police of four journalists on defamation charges, for simply reporting the claims of one woman, has not only broken every guarantee of free speech and reporting in the constitution, but has also sent a warning to the media that anything they report that can be construed to be disrespectful to a BJP leader or government, will land them in jail.

During its previous avatar, the Modi government had already opened detention centres in Assam for those whom the courts declared to be illegal residents in the state. Today, such centres are proliferating in Assam. But for the Hindu Rashtra, that is not enough. It has followed this up within days of coming back to power, with an enactment that “allows” district magistrates to open similar camps in any or all of India’s 724 districts.

Is it too early to ask Modi what he will do with those whom the police in the BJP-ruled states will intern when Bangladesh refuses to take them back? Photo: PTI

Amit Shah has not hidden the ultimate intention: the search for ‘illegal immigrants’, i.e. the hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of Bangladeshis who have come to India in search of work and made it their home, is about to commence.

Is it too early to ask Modi what he will do with those whom the police in the BJP-ruled states will intern when Bangladesh refuses to take them back? What solution will he then propose?

Readers sceptical about this reading of recent would do well to study the findings of a recent US-based study of ‘Facebook In India – towards the Tipping Point of Violence, Caste and Religious Hate Speech’. This has meticulously charted how the Sangh parivar has used the same social media that it has warned its opponents against using to infect the youth of this country with fear and animosity towards Muslims and Christians across the country.

Such false news designed to make them credible make up 62% of posts on it. So numerous and violent are the postings that the study had to separate India from what was initially intended to be a global study of the impact of Facebook, and to create a separate classification for it.

The Modi government has another four years and eleven months to go.

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Historically, the encounters between Islam and Hinduism have been beneficial to both.

Hindutva Ignores the Impact Dharma and Islam Had on Each Other in India

Din-e-Ilahi was a restatement of Dharma in a contemporary form. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

In the sharpest possible contrast, the confrontation between Dharma and Islam in India has been peaceful. Dharma’s first contact with Islam occurred when Arab traders came to Gujarat and built mosques there in the 8th and 9th centuries. Not only did this not spark religious conflict, but as contemporary Jain texts recorded, two centuries later, when Mahmud of Ghazni attacked the Somnath Temple, Arabs, who had by then been living there for generations, joined in the defence of the temple and died to protect it.


Mahmud of Ghazni. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The fact that Somnath was a Hindu temple did not matter to them. It had to be defended because it was important to the Hindus among whom they lived.

The second, more prolonged, interaction between Dharma and Islam occurred after the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate. This is the period that the RSS would like to erase from memory, if not history. It is what has motivated the Modi government to change Aurangzeb road to A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Marg among scores of other such changes in the BJP-ruled states.

But it is a period in which there was an unprecedented flowering of art, music and literature. It is the time of Amir Khusro, it is the time when khayal gayaki and Kathak dance were born, when the delicate penmanship of Persian miniature painting fused with the vivid colours of Hindu art to create a profusion of Moghul, Rajput, Kangra, Basohli and other schools of miniature painting. It is the time when Indo-Islamic architecture was born, and reached the heights scaled byHumayun’s Tomb, the Taj Mahal and scores of other monuments spread across the length and breadth of northern India.

Hindutva’s selective memory 

Hindutva ignores all this and prefers to dwell on the defeat of the Rajputs, the destruction of temples and the conversion of large numbers of Hindus to Islam during this period. But here too its memory is selective and distorted. The Rajputs, who then ruled most of north India, were driven into the wilds of Rajasthan. But these defeats arose from the superior military technology of the invaders, such as the superiority of cavalry over elephants, and of archers over infantry – and not from any innate superiority of the (Muslim) fighters. On the contrary, the conquerors recognised the valour of the Rajputs and quickly inducted them into their armies.

The votaries of Hindutva harp endlessly about the damage the Muslim invaders did to the Hindu polity and society, but they choose to ignore the fact that the same Muslim dynasties saved India from the greatest scourge of the Middle Ages – the Mongol invasions that ravaged Europe.

Mongol invasion. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Like other impoverished groups from the Asian steppes, the Mongols first tried to invade India. The first foray, in 1243, took the Delhi Sultanate by surprise and the invaders were able to come all the way till Lahore and sack it to their leisure. But that was the last time they were able to enter the plains of India. Balban, the ruler in Delhi, created a standing army – India’s first – built a string of forts along the border and prevented all subsequent invaders from getting far into the plains of Hindustan. After his death, Alauddin Khilji inflicted two successive defeats on them in 1304 and 1305, with such great slaughter that they turned towards Europe and never returned.

Temples were admittedly destroyed, and precious art, sculpture and architecture irretrievably lost, but the motive of the invaders was pillage, not conversion to Islam. All but a fraction of the conversions that took place in the next 400 years were voluntary. The converts came from the lower castes. They converted because Islam offered an escape from the iniquities of caste – in much the same way as Buddhism had done two thousand years earlier, and as the Bhakti movement in south India had been doing since well before the arrival of the Muslims. Far from being a blot on the conquerors, the conversions were a protest against the Brahmanical, temple-centred Hinduism from which they had been systematically excluded.

Reconciliation between Hinduism and Islam

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

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

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

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

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

Emperor Akbar. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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

Unlike Emperor Ashoka, Akbar issued no edicts. Nor did he create a religious police to oversee their observance. The significance of the Din-e-Ilahi lay in what it did not prescribe: It did not ascribe primacy to Islam, and it did not give a special place to Muslim clergy within the structure of the state. Instead, it declared emphatically that “he (the emperor, i.e. the state) would recognise no difference between [religions], his object being to unite all men in a common bond of peace”. The entire document was, therefore, a restatement of Dharma in a contemporary form.

Dharma in Hinduism

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

In Pakistan, the same impulse has led to a sustained study of the writings of Dara Shikoh, Shah Jahan’s eldest son and heir apparent, a scholar of Sanskrit and translator of the Bhagavad Gita, who had wanted to promulgate the Din-e-Ilahi before his life was cut short by Aurangzeb. In 2010, the noted playwright, Shahid Nadeem, wrote a play, ‘Dara’, that highlighted his syncretism, as a protest against the rampant Islamic sectarianism that Partition had unleashed upon Pakistan and was, even then, tearing it apart.

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

In 13th-century France, Roman Catholicism gave no quarter to the Cathars, and decimated them. In Syria, the attack on Bashar Assad’s secular Baathist regime was preceded by two years of relentless demonisation by Wahhabi and Salafi clerics. In Pakistan, Salafi extremism has come close to killing the syncretism that the country had known before Partition. But that syncretism is still very much alive in India.

It is what made Indian Muslims virtually immune to the lure of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Numbers tell the tale: against 27,000 to 31,000 Europeans, only 106 Indian Muslims joined it. Of these, only three went directly from India. The rest were recruited while they were migrant workers in the Gulf.

This is the awe-inspiring syncretism of religion in India that the votaries of Hindutva and Hindu Rashtra are bent on destroying.

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The Congress needs to rediscover the idealism of its early days to succeed in harnessing the idealism of youth.


Neither Soft Hindutva Nor Soft Secularism Will Help the Congress Revive Itself

A bike rally during the Ram Navami procession in Kolkata in 2018. Credit: Shome Basu

Almost four weeks have gone by since the Congress suffered its second crushing defeat at the hands of the BJP, but Rahul Gandhi, still the titular head of the party, has yet to break his silence. So far, only one of its senior leaders, Veerappa Moilly, has had the courage to tell him what every member of the party knows: that every day of silence is strengthening the impression that he has thrown in the towel and bowed out of politics altogether.

For a party that has severely discouraged the development of collective leadership and relied ever more heavily on the fading charisma of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to woo voters, this is the kiss of death. Rahul Gandhi may have been a reluctant Congress president. But he did accept the responsibility that goes with the position. So, however disappointed he may be, he has a duty not to destroy the party along with himself.

The challenge he faces is a Promethean one. It is to transform a once-dominant party that has been fighting only rearguard actions to prevent a further erosion of power for the past four decades, into one that admits that it has nothing more to lose and go back on the offensive again.

To do this, he has to infuse the Congress party with a renewed commitment to the nation that Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, Sardar Patel and Maulana Azad had set out to build. This was an India free from religious and caste prejudice, in which people belonging to more than a score of ethno-linguistic nationalities could live as equals and prosper. Only if the Congress succeeds in rediscovering the idealism of its early days will it succeed in harnessing the idealism of youth to the freedom fathers’ idea of India once again.

File picture of Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar vallbhbhai Patel. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Soft Hindutva

The first step on this road must be to formally repudiate its policy of “soft Hindutva”. Soft Hindutva is the descendant of ‘soft secularism’, a policy of continual appeasement that the party adopted in the 1980s when it began to lose its dominant party status within Indian democracy. The turning point was its opening of the locks on the Babri Masjid in 1985, followed by its overruling of the Supreme court on the triple talaq issue in 1985.

Since then, it has made one compromise after the other till it lost its moral standing with the people. Thus, it allowed Tasleema Nasreen to be chased out of India by Muslim bigots after she had fled to India in search of safety from the bigots of Bangladesh; banned Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses; allowed Gujarat to ban Joseph Lelyveld’s book on Mahatma Gandhi; allowed  the removal of A.K. Ramanujam’s study of the Ramayana from the Delhi university Syllabus, and banned Chicago scholar Wendy Doniger’s book on Hinduism altogether. Most shamefully, it did not lift a finger to enable M.F. Husain, the great artist who was chased out of India by the goons of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad for daring, as a Muslim, to paint images of scantily clad gods and goddesses, to return to his beloved India even to die here.

After its defeat in 2014, the Congress’s soft secularism has degenerated further into soft Hindutva. This  reached its nadir when the party began to highlight Rahul Gandhi entering temples, praying and emerging with a teeka on his forehead before the Gujarat elections. Automated calls began asking subscribers, “Don’t you know that Rahul Gandhi is a Janeu-dhari Hindu(i.e. a Brahmin)?”

Soft Hindutva has not only further marginalised the already besieged secular elements in the country, but also legitimised the Sangh’s ‘hard’ Hindutva. This is abundantly clear from Narendra Modi’s brazen claim to the legacy of Swami Vivekananda; his appropriation of Sardar Patel for the RSS without a murmur of protest from the Congress, and the outrageous claim to the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi he made on Gandhi Jayanti last year. Both Rahul and Sonia Gandhi attended the function, but instead of walking out in protest, they sat silently while Modi took away India’s proudest legacy. It was as if, for them, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination by Nathuram Godse was an accident of history: the act of a single deranged fanatic like Gavrilo Princip’s at Sarajevo in 1914, and that the carnage at Ahmedabad in 2002 never happened.

The Congress needs a long period of introspection on its own past errors, before it can even hope to make a comeback. If there is a single “good” outcome it can take away from its defeat, it is the realisation that there is no middle ground in the battle of ideas that lies ahead. To combat the poison of Hindutva, the Congress needs to stop parroting imported words like secularism and pluralism, both of which have  clichés, and rediscover the guiding philosophy that has underpinned the practice of all religions in India over the past two-and-a-half millennia. This is ‘Dharma’.

What is Dharma

Dharma is the original faith of Vedic India. There is no reference in the Vedas to Hindu Dharma, because the word Hindu was brought to India from Persia more than a millennium later, ironically, by the Muslims. Dharma was not a religion in the modern, contentious, sense of the word because the Messianic religions that now dominate discourses on religion had yet to be born. Dharma defined the right way of living: it prescribed how people needed to relate to each other and to the wider world around them.

The Rig veda differentiates between different forms of dharma, such as prathama Dharma, Raj Dharma and Swadharma. But every one of these centers around the concept of human Duty, which was “to Uphold, to Support, to Nourish”. Dharma is what became Karma Yoga in Hinduism during the classical period.

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

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

Buddhists monks clean a statue of Lord Buddha ahead of Buddha Purnima festival in Howrah on Wednesday. Credit: PTI

Buddha’s use of the Vedic term suggests that he considered himself to be a social reformer and not a prophet. Photo: PTI

A critical difference

Describing Buddhism as one of several prophetic religions has obscured a critical difference between Hinduism, Buddhism and other mystical religions, and the Messianic ones. This is that Messianic religions have to be professed. Belonging to one of them requires a profession of faith in it and a repudiation of other faiths. It is a surrender of oneself to the ‘true’ God, whose reward is the possibility of gaining absolution for one’s sins through repentance, in this life.

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

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By Going Solo in UP, Congress Demonstrates Its Penchant for Suicide

Rahul Gandhi. Credit: Twitter/@INCIndia

Apart from the two Nehru family bastions of Amethi and Rae Bareli, the Congress is unlikely to win any seats in the Lok Sabha polls.


Until a month ago, I had firmly believed that the BJP’s days in power were numbered. The threat it posed to the future of not only the nation but to rival political parties whose leaders it has been hounding since the day it came to power, had been recognised.

I believed therefore that gradually but unmistakably, the outlines of a ‘grand coalition’ to save democracy had begun to emerge from the mists of the future. Other than pushing the BJP out, the coalition had no clear programme of action. It also had no leader whom it could pit against Modi on the billboards as the election approached. Most importantly, the distribution of constituencies between them still lay in the future. But one thing was beyond doubt: if it survived, the sheer weight of its numbers would push the BJP to an epic defeat.

That defeat has begun to look distinctly less likely today. The reason is not second thoughts among the smaller parties, but the revival of overweening ambition within the Congress. The obvious sign is its January 13 decision to fight both the BJP and the SP-BSP coalition in UP.

The Congress has presented this as a reaction to being shut out of UP altogether by the BSP-SP combine, which did not offer it a single seat. In reality, the BSP and SP’s action the previous day emerged from a failure to bridge the wide gap between the ten seats in UP that the Congress had initially demanded and the seven it was willing to settle for, and the two that the SP-BSP were prepared to give it – the traditional Nehru dynasty seats of Rae Bareilly and Amethi.

Bringing new dynamism

To breathe new life into the state party unit, Rahul Gandhi promised to bring new dynamism – what he described as a “440-volt jolt” – to the party’s organisation in UP. His secret weapon has turned out to be his sister, Priyanka Gandhi, whom he has appointed the general secretary for eastern UP. She will have the final say in the choice of candidates for eastern UP and will campaign vigorously for the party in that part of the state at the very least.

Rahul will be relying upon her palpable honesty and commitment to the nation, her physical resemblance to her grandmother Indira-amma and her appeal to women voters, to turn the tide in the Congress’ favour.

All these factors will undoubtedly play some role in the choices of the voters. But will they suffice to restore the grand old party’s pre-eminence in UP? To have a chance of taking a majority of the seats away from the BJP and SP-BSP combine, the Congress needs not only to raise its share of the vote from 7.53% in 2014 to at least 35%, but to take it equally from the BJP and the SP-BSP combine. One look at the voting pattern in eight statewide elections over the last twenty years, four for the Lok Sabha and four for the vidhan sabha, shows that the task is not well-nigh, but absolutely impossible.

Let us take the BJP first. Its vote jumped from 17.5% in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections to 42.6% in 2014, and from 15% in the 2012 vidhan Sabha elections to 39.7% in the 2017 elections. These colossal increases were a product of the ‘Modi wave’, which was made up in equal parts of disappointment with the Congress during the last three years of UPA rule and belief in the grandiose promises that Modi was making. This wave has now visibly declined.

Since almost 11 points of the 25% increase in its share of the vote in 2014 came from the Congress, Rahul and his advisors obviously believe that this can be brought back to the party. But one look at the BJP’s share of the vote in the 2017 vidhan sabha elections shows that this would be wishful thinking. For despite losing every single bye-election to the vidhan Sabha to the Samajwadi party between 2014 and 2017, and despite the shock of demonetisation, the BJP still held on to 39.7% of the vote in 2017, less than 3% fewer than in 2014, capturing 312 out of UP’s 404 vidhan sabha seats.

The reason for the anomalous result was that since Mayawati did not contest any of the bye-elections to the vidhan sabha in this period, nearly all the BSP vote went to the SP. But Mayawati came back into the fray in 2017 determined to defeat not only the BJP but also the SP, all on her own, and fought the SP for every seat.

To make matters worse she specifically tried to woo away the Muslim vote, by putting up 100 Muslim candidates. Akhilesh Yadav was forced to follow suit with a somewhat fewer number. This played into Amit Shah’s hands: all he had to repeat tirelessly throughout the campaign was that if the caste Hindus did not stand solidly behind the BJP, the Muslims (backed by Dalits or OBCs), would come to power.

The coming together of the SP and BSP will harden this sentiment in UP. So it would be folly to expect any further decline in the BJP’s vote. But if the BJP’s vote is unshakeable, what about the SP and the BSP? The answer is that shaking this bastion of caste sentiment is even more difficult than shaking that of the BJP. The combined share of the two parties has ranged from 44-56% in the vidhan sabha and 42-51.5% in the Lok Sabha over the past 20 years.

It is also worth noting that even during the Modi hurricane of 2014, the combined vote of the two parties was less than half a percent short of that of the BJP. In the 2017 state elections, despite being routed in the number of seats they gained, their share was 5.5% higher than the BJP’s. With Dalit votes having gone consistently to the Samajwadi party or the Rashtriya Lok Dal in bye-elections between 2014 and 2018, it is a safe bet that these votes simply aren’t transferable to any other party.

BSP supremo Mayawati and Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav. Credit: PTI


Two questions

Two other questions remain: Whom can Congress reach out to in UP with any hope of gaining their support and how strong is the Priyanka factor likely to be?

As to the first, one group that may still not have made up its mind is the twenty-odd million young voters who will be voting for the first time this year. After eight years of jobless growth, demonetisation and the bungled GST, and after Modi has failed to fulfill any of the promises he made to the electorate in 2014, it would be surprising indeed if these were not looking for a new party with a different and credible programme for reviving the economy, restoring the rule of law, cleansing politics and making the state accountable to the people, to which they can anchor themselves.

But even if Rahul Gandhi has such plans , he has not taken the people into his confidence so far and with the elections only months away, the time for doing so is all but lost.

As for the second, bringing in Priyanka only months before the next elections is an admission of despair. Is the collective memory of the Congress so short that it does not remember what happened when it tried to do exactly the same thing with Rahul Gandhi in the 2007 vidhan sabha elections?

On that occasion, Rahul had at least worked in UP as the secretary of the youth wing of the party and tried specifically to induct youth into the Congress. The Congress had convinced itself then too, that Rahul would work the miracle of reviving the Congress in Uttar Pradesh. Instead, the party’s vote share went down from 8.96% in 2002 to 8.61% in 2007.

So what will fighting all the seats alone actually achieve for the Congress? The answer is brief and depressing – nothing. The most that it will get is the two seats it already holds and the SP-BSP combine was willing to offer it – Amethi and Rae Bareli. What then is it risking by going it alone? Again the answer is depressing – the very future of the congress party.

In 2014, the size of the victory in both constituencies, but in Amethi in particular, was assured for the Congress by the Samajwadi party not putting up a candidate for either seat. If it and BSP jointly field a candidate now, there is a possibility that the BJP, which made a strong showing in Amethi in 2014, could walk away with the seat. Rahul Gandhi is therefore risking his own seat and the political future of his family, which means also of the Congress party, in the one state where he has the least chance of winning.

Would even the most addicted and reckless gambler in a casino risk his money against such odds?

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