Prem Shankar Jha

f political pusillanimity dressed up as jingoism wins out again at the All-Party meeting on Friday evening, it could turn into tragedy.

India and China Need to Dial Back the Tension
Map of the Galwan Valley region. Credit: Google Maps

It is 1962 all over again. India and China are heading for war, and this time it is not an insecure defence minister (Krishna Menon) and a gung-ho army chief who had never seen a shot fired in action (B.M. Kaul) who are driving India towards it. This time, it is a bunch of retired army officers, many of whom have not even served in the Ladakh region, egged on by television channels that see in the tragedy in Galwan valley an opportunity to increase their TRP ratings and increase their revenues in the future.

The dominant narrative has it that the hand-to-hand fight in the Galwan valley on June 15 took place because the Chinese never intended to honour the disengagement agreement reached on June 6 and were pursuing their seven-decades old policy of slicing off whatever territory they wanted in the Himalayan region. So when a small Indian contingent set off up the Galwan river to confront them and demand that they withdraw, the Chinese responded by ambushing it and killing 20 of our jawans, including their colonel.

What this narrative ignores is that both sides have differing perceptions of where the line of actual control (LAC) runs. In some areas, the lines overlap, creating a grey zone to which both sides lay claim and where the two armies have developed rules of engagement that occasionally come unstuck.

That is why the army’s official statement on the incident was matter of fact:

“During the de-escalation process underway in the Galwan Valley, a violent face-off took place yesterday night with casualties on both sides. The loss of lives on the Indian side includes an officer and two soldiers. Senior military officials of the two sides are currently meeting at the venue to defuse the situation.”

The MEA’s first statement on June 16 blamed the incident on Chinese attempts to alter the status quo: “On the late-evening and night of 15th June, 2020 a violent face-off happened as a result of an attempt by the Chinese side to unilaterally change the status quo there.”

On June 17, the MEA’s readout of external affairs minister S. Jaishankar’s conversation with his Chinese counterpart went one step further,

“The Chinese side sought to erect a structure in Galwan valley on our side of the LAC,”, the MEA spokesperson said. “While this became a source of dispute, the Chinese side took pre-meditated and planned action that was directly responsible for the resulting violence and casualties. It reflected an intent to change the facts on ground in violation of all our agreements to not change the status quo.”

While the increase in the temperature of India’s official statements is noticeable, so is the careful calibration. Regrettably, the electronic media is showing no such restraint. Virtually every channel except NDTV has been ending its programmes by forcing political dignitaries from both the Congress and BJP to choose between advising caution and thereby condoning the death of the Indian soldiers, and demanding a reckoning from China.

Needless to say, nearly all party representatives on TV agree that China has to be taught a lesson, and that the best way to do this is to break every international trade agreement and convention India has signed, drive every Chinese product and every Chinese company out of the Indian market and be prepared for war.

The storm of jingoism that the media has created has already forced Prime Minister Modi to abandon some of his initial caution and say that India will give “a befitting reply to provocation”. It has also given him an opportunity to merge his atma-nirbharta (self-reliance) campaign, conceived to divert public attention away from the failure of his COVID lockdown, with the clarion call to nationalism which has served him so well before. Should he now decide to ‘stand up to  the Chinese dragon’ it is difficult to see any political party that will have the courage and strength to oppose him and advise caution.

War is therefore only one fatal misstep away.  Should that step be taken, India will once again be embroiled in a conflict that, given the nature of the terrain, it cannot possibly win.

What happened at Galwan

The only way the government can avert this is by telling the public everything that had been decided on June 6 and June 13, set the record straight about what happened at Galwan on June 14-15, and hope that better sense will prevail. This, to the best of my knowledge, is what happened:

At the corps commander-level meeting on Saturday, June 13, the two sides had agreed to withdraw their forces to a distance of two kilometres from where they were then. Where the Chinese were then, both in the Galwan river area and above Pangong lake was not indisputably on the Indian side of the LAC but on the Chinese side as defined by them, and thus in the grey zone. At Pangong it was the ridge above Finger 4 of the lake. In the Galwan valley it was at a point the Indian army called PP (Patrol Point) 14. The Indian definition of the LAC was some distance east of the Chinese  at Pangong, and pretty much contiguous with it at Galwan except at a few places.

It is important to make this clear because at no point, except for the location of one little tent, did the Chinese try to “slice off” any fresh territory, as TV anchors are claiming. Everything they did was within their understanding of the de facto LAC established after the 1962 war and accepted in principle by both countries in the Agreement On Peace And Tranquility In The Border Regions, of 1993.

This is also true of the Chinese military build-up at various points in Aksai Chin since May. In fact, the support base of the troops in the Galwan valley is 40 kms to the east, beyond even the Indian definition of the LAC in the area. This is equally true of the support bases for the build up at Pangong lake and the three other points in Ladakh.

When the 14th corps headquarters realised on June 15 that the Chinese had not only not begun their withdrawal as stipulated in the agreement, but had set up a tent on the Indian side of PP14 and a fresh observation post on the Chinese side, it sent a detachment to remove the tent, and request the Chinese to withdraw from the observation post in line with the agreement of June 13.

Indian soldiers removed the tent on the 15th. The same day, Col Babu and his men proceeded to the observation post at the China-defined LAC, reaching there at 4 pm. When he asked the Chinese why they had set up the observation post after the June 13 agreement, he was given the possibly disingenuous answer that it was to make sure that  the Indian troops were withdrawing to the stipulated distance first, before doing so themselves. As of now, one can only speculate on how this discussion turned into an altercation and then into the lethal battle that followed. Suffice it to say that the Chinese were prepared to fight with improvised weapons, and a tragedy ensued  that can end by changing the course of Indian, and possibly world history in the months and years to come.

China tamps down rhetoric, somewhat

The Chinese government has made it clear that it does not want the incident to derail China-India relations any more than they have already been derailed in the past six years. To do this, it has, in addition to its official statement on Wednesday, resorted to its unofficial mouthpiece on foreign policy, Global Times, to cool tempers in China and send a message to India that it does not want a war.

In an article titled “Chinese netizens call for restraint and reason in wake of China-India border clash”, the author, Chen Xi warned his readers against the wave of xenophobia that was sweeping China and highlighted message after message that did the opposite:  “Some Chinese netizens took to social media Twitter to state that the incident should not undermine the common development of the two countries” .

He particularly  singled out one from a Chinese netizen who calls himself  Hubei_Peasant: “I really hope friends and comrades don’t provoke Indian people on Twitter or engage with any bad-faith provocations. It tarnishes what soft power we have left, and any inflammation of Indian public opinion is contrary to our interests. Silence is golden”.

China has sent a second signal by agreeing on June 17th to release 10 soldiers whom they had captured at the observation post.

While the soldiers were indeed freed within 24 hours of the agreement, some hardening of the Chinese stand was evident too by June 18 with the Global Times editor putting out a video and tweet warning India not to underestimate China’s resolve.

China’s aims

In all this, there is a question that needs answering: If Beijing is not following a policy of cloaking incremental expansionism in subterfuge, and genuinely does not want the conflict to escalate, why did its soldiers do what they did in Galwan, bringing the two countries to the brink of war?

There is one other possible explanation: It has been apparent for some time that China’s sudden hardening of stance over the boundary issue is designed to warn Delhi against reneging on  the implicit and explicit understandings that have  sustained peace in the border region since 1993. Foremost among these is the maintenance of equidistance from all power blocs in the post Cold War world.

India has gone back on this in  the past six years. It has signed an agreement with the  US to force freedom of navigation in the south China sea, sent warships to join a US-Japanese task force to do so; joined Operation Malabar with the US and Australia – one of whose “ war games”  is the closing of the straits of Malacca through which 90 percent of China’s imported oil passes; and signed three military logistics agreements with the US that have made India a de facto military ally of the US in a future war.

Had Modi stopped there, China might not have reacted. But he has also reneged on past understandings with China over Indian non-intervention in its construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through Gilgit, and on the understanding reached with Pakistan by two Indian prime ministers,  Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, that the LOC in Kashmir will be turned into a ‘soft border’ between the two countries, thereby leaving the CPEC alone.

Under Modi, India reneged on this understanding  not only in words but deeds, for in 2018 he made China’s acceptance of India’s claim to Gilgit a precondition for signing the Belt Road Initiative (BRI). By doing this, he literally cut off India’s nose to spite China’s face, because the Chinese  were depending upon India’s insatiable need to modernise its  infrastructure to fill the order books of the  huge ‘mother machine’ heavy industries that  were lying idle after its 2009-14 domestic fiscal stimulus ended.

The end of Article 370

Mod did not stop there. Not only did he and defence minister Rajnath Singh state more than once  that India will take back every inch of its territory including PoK and Aksai Chin.

Following on from the abolition of Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status and its division into two union territories, India released a new political map in November 2019.

Like all official Indian maps, it shows neither the line of control with Pakistan nor the LAC with China and did not alter the external boundaries of India in Ladakh in any way. Its purpose may have only been to remind the faithful of the BJP’s great achievement in eliminating Article 370 and breaking up Jammu and Kashmir into two but its release may have also been misunderstood by the Chinese. This was not the first time New Delhi was reasserting its stand that Aksai Chin is a part of India. But when the airstrip at Daulat Beg Oldi – barely 20 kms as the crow flies from the Karakoram Pass –  has just been been repaired and a fairly good modern road linking it to Pangong,  Durbuk and Leh has been completed, Beijing may well have convinced itself that Modi could no longer be relied upon not to try to put a spoke in the CPEC project.

China’s sudden decision to unilaterally define the LAC, by militarising its side of it, is therefore a political message. A return to the status quo ante required political discussions, and these had begun at both the diplomatic and military headquarters level. But military commands do not explain the political rationale of the orders they give to soldiers on the ground. The Chinese troops at Galwan were no doubt told to hold their territory without using firearms until they received further orders. That they made elaborate preparations to do so, including damming rivulets to provide water for the use of water cannons, is now apparent.

Col. Babu and his men were similarly not kept in any political loop. They too had been given simple orders: clear the tent, find out what the Chinese are up to and persuade them to withdraw as per the June 13 agreement.  The rest is now history. If political pusillanimity dressed up as jingoism wins out again at the All-Party meeting on Friday evening, it could turn into tragedy.

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

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


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

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

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

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the nation. Photo: PTI

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

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

Malaysia’s lockdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crash in demand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From China’s point of view, India has reneged upon a fundamental, albeit tacit, premise of the 1993 Agreement: going back to the strategic cooperation on international issues that had existed at the height of the Cold War.

Are China and India Going Back to 1962?
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shake hands as they visit the Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan, Hubei province, Photo: China Daily via Reuters.

China’s near-simultaneous incursion into two areas of Ladakh, one of which it has recognised in the past as being on India’s side of the Line of Actual Control, has caught the government by surprise. The media, especially television, has reacted with its usual mixture of incomprehension and bravado, but fortunately, both the Army command and South Block have exercised a mature restraint. Apart from rushing reinforcements to the two areas of Chinese incursion – the Galwan river valley and Pangong lake – the Northern Army command has continued to try and resolve differences through flag meetings between progressively higher levels of command in both armies.

Unlike similar confrontations in the past, these are unlikely to bear fruit. The reason is that, from China’s point of view, India has reneged upon a fundamental, albeit tacit, premise upon with the 1993 Agreement on Peace and Tranquility in the Border Regions, was based. This is that, with the end of the deep freeze in relations that had existed since 1962, China and India would go back to the strategic cooperation on international issues that had existed between them at the height of the Cold War.

A man walks inside a conference room with Indian and Chinese flags in the background. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi/File

That premise remained valid so long as India, under both Congress and BJP-led governments, maintained a policy of equidistance from power blocs and deepening economic engagement with all. It became explicit during a meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Premier Wen Jiabao, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference at Hua Hin, Thailand in 2009. The meeting was triggered by a period of rising tension between the two countries over Delhi’s permission to the Dalai Lama to visit Tawang, in what Beijing then frequently referred to as South China.

To the Indian media’s uncomprehending surprise, it was China that took the initiative to hold the meeting. India did not withdraw its permission to the Dalai Lama but so managed his visit that it did not become the international spectacle that China had feared. Delhi’s unqualified success in allaying China’s long term anxieties both over immediate border issues and India’s continued adherence to its policies of equidistance laid the base for the strategic cooperation that China was seeking. This became apparent in the content and tenor of the annual meetings of BRICS, at Sanya, in China, in 2011, and more  unambiguously at Delhi  in 2012

At Delhi, in a joint statement that was twice the length of its predecessor, the member countries voiced the most comprehensive criticism of the failures of the West that had been articulated by any group of countries since the end of the Cold War. It demanded that the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states, be respected. It condemned the attacks on Libya and Syria, and warned that the threats to Iran “must not be allowed to escalate into conflict”. And it explicitly called for the establishment of a multi-polar world order.

At the Durban meeting of BRICS the next year, Xi Jinping, who had replaced Hu Jintao as president of China, accelerated the development of Sino-Indian cooperation by stating explicitly that it was his intention to settle the border dispute ‘as early as possible’, instead of the previous formulation of ‘gradually over time’.

Modi’s China policy 

Unfortunately, when Xi came the following year to discuss long term strategic cooperation and possibly suggest some form of closure to the border dispute, Narendra Modi had replaced Manmohan Singh. Instead of taking up the reigns where Manmohan Singh had dropped them, Modi turned the visit into a Gujarati tamasha designed to enlarge his own image, and discussed nothing of consequence. This was because, less than a fortnight earlier, he had met President Brack Obama in Washington, sacked his foreign secretary, committed India to signing three comprehensive defence agreements with the US,   aligned India with the US on the key issue of the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea on which the US and China had come close to conflict, and invited Obama to be the state guest at the next Republic Day.

In spite of all these disquieting developments, China pulled out all the stops to welcome Modi during his return visit to China in June 2015. Xi took an entire day out of his calendar to spend it with him in Xian. Prime minister Li Keqiang spent in all 13 hours with him. The joint statement issued after the visit began by acknowledging “the simultaneous re-emergence of India and China as two major powers in the region (emphasis added)”. But aside from that, it was barren of content.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) guides Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to a meeting room in Xian, Shaanxi province, China, May 14, 2015. Photo: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

A year later, in May 2016, Modi ended China’s seven-year bid to enlarge its strategic cooperation with India by sending four Indian warships to join a US-Japan task force for nearly three months in the South China sea. The sole purpose of this exercise was to foil China’s bid for hegemony over this maritime region by enforcing the maritime border limit of 12 nautical miles enacted by the UN Conference on the  Law of the Sea.

The subsequent rapid deterioration of relations has been described by me in earlier columns and will take too long to describe. Suffice it to say that China avoided blaming India directly, preferred to accuse the US of playing a ‘divide and rule’ game to create a schism between the two countries, and waited to see if time, or the next general election, would bring about a change of policy.

When, to the delight of the US, Modi also brusquely rebuffed every enticement by China to send at least a representative to the inaugural Belt Road Initiative (BRI) conference in Beijing, China put its relations with India on hold till the next elections. One suspects that the BJP’s second victory ended that and made Beijing start looking for an alternative policy towards India.

The sites for confrontation are not a random choice

Only against this background does the current Chinese military action make any sense. Its choice of Pangong lake and the Galwan river region as the sites for confrontation is not random. For Pangong lake is the starting point of a road India completed two years ago that runs along the west side of the Shyok river past its confluence with the Galwan river to Daulat Beg Oldi.

From a cartographic point of view, this gives the road considerable strategic importance. The Galwan river starts in the south of Xinjiang, and runs a long way through a narrow valley before joining the Shyok river in the Nubra valley. It could therefore become an access route between Xinjiang and  Ladakh.

The valley is an old flashpoint. In May 1962, overriding the objections of the Western Command, Army HQ in Delhi ordered it to set up a post on the Galwan river. The Western Command advised against supplying the post through a land route and urged that this be done only from the air, but New Delhi overruled it once more and ordered it to use the land route.

When it was set up in July, it was immediately surrounded by 70 or more Chinese soldiers. The Chinese forced the supply columns back, day after day, for four days and withdrew only after 12 days. In October, when the Sino-Indian war began, the Chinese overran Galwan in hours. 33 of its 68 defenders were killed, and the rest taken prisoner. As the Henderson Brooks report pointed out, this was part of the Forward Policy adopted in November under defence minister Krishna Menon in November 1961, which became the trigger for the 1962 war.

After the Chinese withdrew again, the Indian army could have left the valley alone as part of a no man’s land between the two countries. The 1993 agreement gave it an added reason for doing so. But the Chinese had, over the years steadily expanded their claim to the Galwan valley, and the surrounding region, so to pre-empt further changes the army had set up a post once more. In the last year, it had been building a road to connect it to the Pangong-DBO road.

Daulat Beg Oldi sits at the foot of the Karakoram range on its eastern side, but only a short distance away from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor through the Karakoram pass. This seems to have become a  source of unease for the Chinese military, so much so that in 2013, three weeks before Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to India, a Chinese platoon had penetrated 10 km into Indian territory to create an incident there. At that time, there were only a few buildings there, but recent satellite photos show that it too has been expanded into a substantial forward base with a large number of sheds and buildings.

Pakistan and China flags. Photo: Reuters

None of these three recent developments poses any military threat to China. The Pangong-DBO road is a supply road for light vehicles similar to the ones that now link every Chinese outpost on the other side of the LOAC.  The connection across the Shyok to the Galwan post is a footbridge. The post itself has no more military capability now than it had in 1962.

Similarly, Daulat Beg Oldi is a jumping off point to nowhere because, although only a short distance from the Karakoram pass, any military action there would involve a war with both Pakistan and China.

No sane government in India, or for that matter any country, would take on two powerful adversaries at the same time. But Modi has been harping upon Pakistan’s illegal occupation of two-fifths of Kashmir, and opposing the creation of CPEC ever since he has come to power. So DBG too has acquired a strategic significance to China because it is now convinced that it faces a government that not only does not respect the commitments made by its predecessors, but is driven by the impulses of a prime minister who has made a habit of leaping before he looks.

The purpose of China’s choice of this particular area for its intrusions is therefore clear. Although it has not formally abrogated the 1993 agreement, it believes that the Modi government has thoroughly undermined the underlying premise upon which it was based. It has therefore gone back to the age-old strategy of minimising potential risks when faced by a potential enemy.

But, as China’s ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, has made clear, the door back to 2014 is not closed.    It lies in rediscovering “our strategic mutual trust”. These are not idly chosen words. They require a rediscovery of our common strategic aims, as were enunciated in BRICS’ Delhi declaration, and a rebuilding of mutual trust. If that does not happen, then China will treat the 1993 agreement as no longer binding and do what it feels is necessary to safeguard its long term best interest.

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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To save the economy, a phased relaxation of the lockdown is needed. If a COVID-19 calamity is not to be replaced by an economic one, this must start well before the new lockdown period ends.

With the Lockdown Extension Coming, It’s Time to Turn Our Attention to the Economy

Sacks of unsold vegetables in the mandi, that are slowly starting to rot in the harsh sun. Credit: The Wire.


The happy consensus between the prime minister and all chief ministers that the national lockdown needs to be extended for another two weeks cannot hide the fact that when Narendra Modi ordered the shutting down of all ‘non-essential’ activity on March 24, neither he nor his  advisers had thought through what the consequences would be – and when and how it could be lifted.

In the past couple of days, it has become obvious that the state governments, with one or two notable exceptions, have no idea either.

China had done a lockdown in Hubei province, and succeeded in containing  the virus.  Five other countries – France, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, and the UK – had, or were about to declare a similar lockdown. Modi’s India had to be among the first.

It is clear that, so far as the economy is concerned, no decision-maker in India has the faintest idea of what to do next. In the first days of the lockdown this was excusable: the tacit assumption was that the number of new cases would start to come down after two weeks of its imposition, as had happened in Hubei. The government would therefore be able to lift its punishing restrictions when there were no more new cases

Instead, the opposite happened, and the number of active cases  ballooned from 519 on March 24 to 7,367  on April 12. The lack of a contingency plan – in fact of any plan whatever – became apparent when millions of migrant workers who had been thrown out of work and dwelling began a desperate march home to villages hundreds of kilometres away with the little money they had saved and what their employers had given them. Had it not been for the prompt action of the state governments, and the kindness of people on the roads, this could have turned into a major humanitarian disaster.

The happy consensus between the prime minister and all chief ministers that the national lockdown needs to be extended for another two weeks cannot hide the fact that when Narendra Modi ordered the shutting down of all ‘non-essential’ activity on March 24, neither he nor his  advisers had thought through what the consequences would be – and when and how it could be lifted.

In the past couple of days, it has become obvious that the state governments, with one or two notable exceptions, have no idea either.

China had done a lockdown in Hubei province, and succeeded in containing  the virus.  Five other countries – France, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, and the UK – had, or were about to declare a similar lockdown. Modi’s India had to be among the first.

It is clear that, so far as the economy is concerned, no decision-maker in India has the faintest idea of what to do next. In the first days of the lockdown this was excusable: the tacit assumption was that the number of new cases would start to come down after two weeks of its imposition, as had happened in Hubei. The government would therefore be able to lift its punishing restrictions when there were no more new cases

Instead, the opposite happened, and the number of active cases  ballooned from 519 on March 24 to 7,367  on April 12. The lack of a contingency plan – in fact of any plan whatever – became apparent when millions of migrant workers who had been thrown out of work and dwelling began a desperate march home to villages hundreds of kilometres away with the little money they had saved and what their employers had given them. Had it not been for the prompt action of the state governments, and the kindness of people on the roads, this could have turned into a major humanitarian disaster.

However, as some studies from Singapore have confirmed, central air-conditioning in buildings may pose risks,. Could the ubiquity of air-conditioning in Singapore and the Gulf countries like Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait, therefore account for their much higher infection rates than India? Or the fact that they have higher ‘expat’ populations that may have been exposed to the virus in their home countries?

Either way, with the summer upon us, it may be necessary to keep centrally air conditioned establishments and offices locked down and limit travel in air conditioned trains and buses – whose filters are not as efficient as those on modern aircraft – till no more new cases have been reported for some time. The travails of the well to do  are not therefore going to end soon. But that does not mean the poor have to suffer with them.

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To save the economy, a phased relaxation of the lockdown is needed. If a COVID-19 calamity is not to be replaced by an economic one, this must start well before the new lockdown period ends.

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By springing the lockdown on millions of migrant workers, the Modi government has once again shown a combination of unseemly haste and organisational ineptitude.

Seven Decisions That Can Prevent the Lockdown From Becoming Another Policy Disaster
Migrant workers wait to board a bus to their respective villages during the national lockdown, at Kaushambi, Ghaziabad, March 29, 2020. Photo: PTI/Ravi Choudhary

With every hour that passes, the fate of India’s poor is being sealed more and more firmly. That fate is to confront possible death at the hands of COVID-19. As I had feared, employers have responded to the sudden and country-wide lockdown and the consequent total cut-off of their cash flow by firing their workers. And the workers are heading “home”.

When they reach their homes in the villages and small towns, these will turn it into death traps.

An NDTV news report from two days ago showing migrants thrown out of work at Unnao in Uttar Oradesh walking 90 km ‘home’ to Barabanki was greeted by a storm of unimaginably obscene abuse by self-appointed Modi bhakts, who berated the channel for trying to use a national emergency to defame their hallowed leader.

But within 24 hours of that venomous outburst, district magistrates in every metropolis of the country were scrambling to find buses to take migrant workers ‘home’.

That ‘home’, the village, could become a death trap. Even as I write, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in India has jumped from 834 to 980. At least four times as many people have had the disease but are likely to recover by themselves. There are thus at least 4,000 others out there spreading the disease without knowing it even as I write.

The lockout is only in its fifth day, so each of them will have been in contact with a large number of persons even before it began. What is more, among the poor, it has only reduced, and cannot eliminate, close social contact. So there are ten more days in which anyone who is infected, whether he or she knows it or not, can infect other people.

In the 14 days between getting infected and overcoming the virus, each of them will have been in close proximity with scores of persons. So we are virtually certain to see a rapid spread of the disease in the coming days.

How fast can it be? We now have one concrete measure of the speed with which the virus can spread when the migrants get home: A Sikh priest who returned to India after two weeks in Italy and Germany on March 6 broke quarantine and visited Anandpur Sahib and 15 villages before he died on March 18. He is believed to have infected 23 persons, including 14 from his own family, before he died.

Health workers spray disinfectant in Chikmaglur, March 28, 2020. Photo: PTI

But this has to be a gross underestimate because 80% of those who get infected recover on their own. However while they are doing so, they too are carriers of the virus. Thus, that one Sikh priest must have infected more than a hundred persons.

This gives us an idea of what the approaching pandemic will look like if the outflow of migrant workers is not stopped within the next day or two. At this hundred to one ratio, if only ten out of India’s 139 million migrant workers travel home in the coming days and even one in a thousand of them is carrying the virus when he boards the bus, ten thousand carriers of the virus will have fanned out into the villages within the next fortnight. There the multiplier is likely to be far smaller, but even so, we are already staring a pandemic that can infect millions in the face.

All this could easily have been anticipated and forestalled, for the Sikh priest died six full days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his total lockdown of India. The size of India’s unorganised sector and its component of migrant workers is well known, and the ruthlessness of their employers is also well known. And any good undergraduate student of growth economics could have told it that a total lockdown of the country would mean instant unemployment for hundreds of millions of workers.

It is therefore difficult not to conclude that the Modi government has once again shown a combination of unseemly haste and organisational ineptitude, which made such a mess of demonetisation and the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax during its first term in office.

This is not, however, the time for finger pointing. Seven actions can still minimise the spread of the disease to the rural areas. These are:

1. Immediately ban the laying-off of workers in all sectors of the economy and make it a punishable offence.

2. Meet the fixed costs of all working establishments – airlines, bus companies, manufacturing companies and wholesale and retail stores of all sizes, on condition that they do not lay off, and especially, not send away migrant workers.

3. Meet 50% of the wage bill of all non-migrant workers. If they are provided accommodation quarantine them there.

4. Base compensation on documentary proof of the finances of the enterprises and make it strictly conditional upon their following these rules. Breaking them will not only mean cessation of aid and recovery proceedings being taken, but also imprisonment for the employer.

5. Make it a criminal offence to throw anyone out of a rented accommodation during and immediately and for at least a month after the lockout period.

6. Then seal off all the major cities from the countryside. This is the most effective way surest way to virus must not be allowed to get to the villages.

7. Finally call out the army and paramilitary in aid of civilian authority, to set up camps for the homeless and the indigent, where they can be fed, medically tested and housed in tents.

After that, pray.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mortal Threat India Faces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Dharma -the antidote to Hindutwa

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

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

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

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

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

A critical difference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hindutva’s selective memory 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reconciliation between Hinduism and Islam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Where Has Hindutwa emerged?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happens now?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Read More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hope…

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

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

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

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

… And the harsh reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modi’s real message

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

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

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

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

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

“Will you honour them?” “Yes”.

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

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

To each rhetorical question, he received an enthusiastic assent.

Police as ally and accomplice of RSS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, since Modi does not have a reverse gear in his psyche, a retreat by him is almost inconceivable.

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

History is being made in India today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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