Politics 2020, Telegraph Calcutta

A ‘prayog’ against polarisation

Twice in successive Lok Sabha and Assembly rounds, Delhi has voted with instructive schizophrenia, endorsing Narendra Modi unreservedly at the Centre, effusively rejecting him in favour of Arvind Kejriwal for the state.

The number of those who vote bigamously depending on the election must remain astoundingly high.

Tuesday’s resounding verdict for the AAP suggests that while Modi remains unchallenged by party or person nationally, a credible regional dare to him can hold ground. And handsomely, as Kejriwal’s second sweep of Delhi demonstrates.

It probably also suggests, not for the first time, that an established governance record, tempered with the right political strategy, can defeat the most blatant and belligerent attempts to polarise the electorate and extract majoritarian victories.

This is how the first electoral shock was delivered to Modi post his 2014 steamroll — working to strategies worked out by strategist Prashant Kishor, Nitish Kumar deftly joined hands with arch rival Lalu Prasad and punched Modi down in the 2015 Assembly elections.

Just as in Bihar in 2015, the BJP appeared desperate enough to grab Delhi to resort to the ugliest tricks in the book; its campaign was littered with personal slander against opponents, unembarrassed attempts to communalise the campaign, bellicose intimidation of the minorities who were, through the canvassing, also the lead act of the anti-CAA protests in various parts of this city.

Okhla’s Shaheen Bagh, where ladies have led a defiant picket for close to two months now, became the central metaphor of the BJP’s campaign, an omnibus code-word for pinioning the minorities as troublemakers, anti-nationals and card-carriers of Pakistan.

Amit Shah exhorted Delhi to vote with a vehemence that would send electric currents to Shaheen Bagh. Modi warned ominously that Shaheen Bagh was an “experiment, not a coincidence” — “sanyog nahin, prayog hai”.

The shrill “goli maaro saalon ko” cry resounded from many a BJP stage. Kejriwal was labelled a terrorist and the battle for Delhi itself was projected by some BJP leaders as a battle between India and Pakistan.

Delhi spurned that. The biggest victory the AAP recorded was on the Shaheen Bagh seat. But that only tells part of the story of how the BJP’s bid to polarise the vote has failed. Handier proof is probably this: the Muslim population of Delhi is shy of 13 per cent; the AAP’s total vote share was nearly 54 per cent, the BJP scored 38 and a few decimal per cent.

But there is another way of looking at this. The Congress has lost more than half of its 2015 vote share; the BJP has gained, most likely at the Congress’s expense.

The exhilaration in the AAP camp, and the fervid felicitation of Kejriwal from the likes of Mamata Banerjee, Chandrababu Naidu, Jagan Mohan Reddy, Hemant Soren, M.K. Stalin, Akhilesh Yadav and Tejashwi Yadav might suggest that the non-BJP, non-Congress parties are probably drawing a fresh breath of hope from how Delhi has voted. But there is very little to suggest that the AAP’s victory can be interpreted as a sign of a larger political shift.

The Congress, drastically reduced but yet the only Opposition party with a national footprint, is leaderless and directionless. It lacks a narrative, it makes no pretence of working on one. Today, it was left trying to derive solace from the defeat of the BJP’s divisive campaign, but it is not the party that was even able to play a minimal role in that. Strong regional groups are unable to agree on an umbrella under which they can gather with common purposes; each is busy trying to survive in its bastion.

Bihar, which is the next big stage for electoral duelling, itself offers reasons why the opposition to Modi and his BJP should remain wary of over-reading the meaning of its victories.

The Nitish-led Mahagathbandhan’s victory in Bihar had held out hope for a wider formation that could credibly take on Modi. But it was short-lived; the BJP was able to lure Nitish away from Lalu Prasad and now dominates the course of the coalition in the state.

Modi has suffered reverses in many states since he came to the helm in 2014, most famously at the hands of the Congress in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan just months ahead of the 2019 election. But when Modi himself came onto the poll ticket as prime ministerial candidate, he faced no competition.

As one Congress leader said privately as he watched his party washed out a second time and the AAP cadres exhort Kejriwal to higher ambitions with cries of “PM! PM!” at his victory appearance: “Kejriwal himself would do well to remember what happened when he tried to expand his footprint the last time. He quickly became wise to the idea that he better stick to Delhi.”

But who’s to prevent a renewal of wider ambitions on the anvil of such a spectacular victory? Especially with the likes of Prashant Kishor juggling away with the poll Rubik in the backrooms.

His recent ouster from Nitish’s JDU notwithstanding, Kishor remains a strategist at play with envious cross-connections and influences. He began to work for Kejriwal a few months ahead of the elections. He has been micro-managing strategy for Mamata Banerjee. He plotted Jagan Reddy’s march to power in Andhra and remains in close touch. He has active links with the ruling family of Maharashtra, the Thackerays. He remains fired by the imagination of fashioning a political alternative to the Modi-Shah project.

As the AAP celebrates, Kishor would most likely have moved to mulling what next.

Politics 2020, Telegraph Calcutta

Prashant Kishor and his improbable power map

Politics is the art of the possible”, said

— Otto von Bismarck

And then there are those who make it their business to attempt the art, or risk it.

What’s the bet Prashant Kishor will pop up in Bihar next, having posed his happy hug with Arvind Kejriwal and left the celebrations of Delhi? But whatever for? He’s just been rudely cut cold by Nitish Kumar. He doesn’t have a backroom in Patna. Nor a client. He doesn’t have a party in Patna. Nor a post. What might he be headed to Bihar for?

We shall come to that presently. Ponder a little, meantime. A tip, if that helps: never underestimate the impulses of personal temperament and what they can make people do. You’d never have seen him with pen and paper but Prashant Kishor keeps notes, copious notes, and squirrels them like a moneylender squirrels IOUs.

The other thing he may have been squirrelling all this while is criticism, of which he has a richness. Could it be that he has divined in all the reproach his rewards? Could it be that he has come to inspire himself by how he is routinely damned?

Of the many reasons Kishor has been ridiculed for during his irrepressible zigzag as power strategist, three stand out, if only because they have proved the most popularly used of darts thrown at him.

Prashant Kishor is a gun for hire.

Prashant Kishor is politically polygamous.

Prashant Kishor is ideology-averse and, therefore, a freelance carpetbagger.

He has walked a trail wantonly littered with ammunition for critics to pick up and pinion him. Few have dared — often taunted — with nonchalant promiscuity to the public glare as Kishor. The first polevault from Narendra Modi to the battlements of his then sharpest critic, Nitish Kumar. From Nitish Kumar to the Congress. From the Congress back to Nitish Kumar. And from a firm perch in Nitish Kumar’s precincts, the opening of multiple dalliances — with Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, with Uddhav Thackeray in Maharashtra, with M.K. Stalin in Tamil Nadu, with Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi and, most wholesomely, with Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal.

His career and course have given incontrovertible truth to the rattle of his critics — gun for hire, political polygamy, ideological permissiveness.

But try reading that as Kishor himself might on occasion read his critics.

So I am an acknowledged gun; and I keep getting hired.

I am polygamous. But nobody’s complaining among those that court me.

I am permissive. Ideology? It’s what I tear to ribbons and make splendoured frills of. And look at the political cast that has allowed me to seduce around myself. Four chief ministers and an aspiring one. A geographic expanse that comprises in excess of 160 Lok Sabha seats.

Part of the attention, and often envy, Kishor generates must come from the uniqueness of where he has arrived doing his jagged journeys these past years. He is probably the most cross-linked political polymer in play at the moment, bewilderingly so. Forget not the investments and linkages he would have made during his years with Modi. Discount not the connect he made, and most likely retains, with the Gandhi scions. Believe not that all is done and dusted between him and Nitish Kumar. Never say never in politics, and Kishor is a politician to the core, if ever there was one. The IOUs are to be squirrelled and only tacitly employed; they are not for display.

There are, in fact, clues to suggest that Kishor is uneasy merely playing backroom strategist and seeks to move front of the table as political entity of his own. Such a shift requires, first of all, overt political positioning on extant issues, and Kishor has just assumed one — outright and outspoken opposition to the CAA-NPR-NRC project, which has the whole nation in a roil. He hectored Nitish Kumar publicly on the issue as vice-president of the Janata Dal (United), and probably even forced his early ouster from his ranks. That had two immediate and very public consequences, both of Kishor’s wanting: he was seen as clearly opposed to the pet Modi-Shah scheme, and, he was politically free. To do what perhaps he himself may not be clear on yet. But here’s the other patently political thing Kishor is doing: defining a line from those that he has chosen to work with. He has tied himself to a line and is taking sides as a politician, no longer a strategist able to pass this way and that through the ideological swing door. He has allied himself to varying degrees of opposition to the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah ambition.

That said, where Kishor is at the moment is a nebulous, unformed space rather distant even from the suggestion of turning into a prospect. But the man’s record suggests he isn’t daunted by the absence of prospects, or playing with several at the same time.

When he arrived in Bihar in late 2014, frustrated and squeezed out of the Modi scheme, Nitish Kumar looked like a political basket case. He had been pounded by Modi at home. He had given up chief ministership, handed the job to Jitan Ram Manjhi, and turned a recluse. Kishor it was who pushed him to reclaiming the chief minister’s chair. Kishor it was who, after deep initial reluctance, brokered a deal with Lalu Prasad. Kishor it was who crafted the winner Mahagathbandhan.

When the Congress was drubbed in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls in 2017, Kishor was back to where he was in mid-2014 — suddenly without visible prospect. He slid under a deep and extended cloud of introspection and reassessment. He briefly flirted with the idea of shutting shop. Then, slowly, he began to open windows anew. He joined the JDU. But clearly, he wasn’t to be contained and kept as creature of the party. The impulses of temperament wouldn’t let him be.

He’s out of the JDU now. Where does Kishor go from here? What does he do with the contrary cast he daily juggles around? Can something be done with it at all? Is there a plan? Is there a string to be found that can be run through all and make something of significance out of what are only disparate pieces at the moment?

Well, for a start, in the Kishor scheme of things, there are pieces. They can be moved. They can be manipulated. Square pegs and round holes, they can be chiselled to fit. Like Nitish and Lalu were made to fit in 2015. Who’d ever have thought that could be done? Least of all the two men central to the Mahagathbandhan plot. But they were nudged into a consequential clasp, if only for a trice, if only to demonstrate that the unlikeliest things are possible.

Just like in Bihar in 2015, a common spectre haunts the disparate pieces that Kishor has accumulated on his board. The spectre of an expanding Modi-Shah hegemony. There might now also be the additional CAA-NPR-NRC glue to work with. You need a glue when you work with scattered geographies and disconnected, if not also contrary, political egos and ambitions. Besides, and more pertinently, what pieces there are to move do not add up to anything sizeable enough. This is where what’s theoretically possible begins to get stared at by what’s improbable. This is the corridor that’s Kishor’s office.

It’s probably about to re-open in Bihar. Why, though? For a start, birds home; and ousted birds home with a vengeance. Bihar is the stage Kishor has long wanted to play on with an enactment all his own, a prodigal’s payback, if you will. Bihar is also a good place to attempt a conjuring from almost nothing. There is very little to build on. But there lies the challenge of possibilities, and its perils and charms; those are key impulses of the Kishor temperament.

Bihar is good place to begin experimenting with the impossible and get a measure of what that would take.

POSTSCRIPT: Bismarck did not stop at defining politics as the art of the possible; he went on. Here is the fullness of what he said : “Politics is the art of the possible; the attainable, the art of the next best.”

Kishor would likely agree.

LazyEye, Telegraph Calcutta

A few rather dangerous folks

There is no cause for worry now. There was. It was such a near thing. But we have it all under control now. Worry you not. You are in good hands. Sturdy hands. Hands that can turn unsparing when need arises, when you and your well-being is put to risk. Raise your hands, you who feel at risk, there must be millions, we know. Such are the times we live in. Raise your hands, let us have a look. Feeling threatened? Good thing. The better thing is we are here. We shall take care of you. The more you feel threatened, the more we shall rise to protect. Now look around you, see for yourself. The threat looms everywhere. Can’t see it? In that case let us help you. With a little assistance you will begin to see the threat and feel scared. And that is when we shall come to protect you.

So raise your hands again, those that are afraid, and those that would like to be, so that they may begin to feel more protected and safe. When it is the coldest is when it is possible to feel the most warmly cosy and snuggled. Think of snuggling in the heat. Bah! And likewise, when the peril is at its peak is when you can really sense the worth and value of being protected.

So here. Here is what you should be afraid of. And here is how we are protecting you.

Consider this most alarming specimen. He has charm. He has popularity. He has a following. People listen to him. Can you tell what a deep danger that constitutes? People listen to him. They actually do. They even take risks, personal risks, to turn out to vote for him. And most often their votes make him win. In an election!! Tauba! He can lure people, this man has macabre powers, he is actually, watchamacallit? A Democrat. Drat! My, my. Maiyya re maiyyya! Can’t have such people floating about.

What if he is able to make friends and influence people again? What if he has read Dale Carnegie and absorbed it? What if he… No no, let’s not even get there. Let’s not contemplate what dangers he might bring to bear upon us. Let’s just put an end to it, naa rahega baans, naa bajega besuraa! We mean to say, you know, we cannot afford to have a pied piper kind of bloke floating about free, playing his charming tunes of democracy. Off to the gaol! And to make things doubly sure, we have put his father in too. This man is a chancy charmer himself, imagine his pop. Woh to isska baap hoga! We bundled him in too. Just so. You know. We should be sure. No more of this.

We take prisoners. We are good and fair people. We do not believe in taking no prisoners. We take them. We take as many as we feel the need to. You have to be, and feel, protected, you see.

There is that other one, for instance. Her father’s daughter. How do they say it in this language? Daiddi’sGurrl or some such thing, pardon my English. She is her father’s daughter, her real father’s real daughter. And she fancies herself. She prefers radical colours, colours like you know how greenery looks like, what’s that colour called, I forget. But that colour, the colour that greenery is. Greenery! It would remind you of jungles and all that lurks about in jungles. She was such. A jungle creature in radical jungle colours. We tried and tested her out, we tried reforming her, remember we must be gentle and patient with ladies. We gave her time and opportunity. But eventually, we had to command her to the dungeons. We got her too. It has been said that they have their constituency. Well. But we have our own constituency.

The wolf cried sheep
And promptly turned to weep
But then it bared its teeth
And revealed what lay beneath.

State of Play

The government has become a spur to disruption and chaos

A fair lot has happened in the six months since India’s crown was sundered, downgraded and hammered into a prison-house sans parallel. Today is six months since the hobnailed silencing of Jammu and Kashmir. That silence has since flown the imposed suffocations of the Valley and become an uproar ringing across the nation: Aazaadi! It’s not a cry seeking secession, it is a cry seeking riddance of what is palpably cold and hard-hearted. Like tiny tots in a school being hectored in and out of police interrogation rooms by a State that has skewered them on the needle of sedition. Or grandmothers out shivering on a justice picket jabbed with daily insult and invective. Like a young scholar bashed to bleeding by a mob, then handed a ticket for violence. Like a pacifist shot at close range by a fanatic, then told his oozing blood was pretence: tomato juice. That cry echoing all around is a denunciation of such prejudice and excess and an assertion of what’s rightful. It’s a cry provoked by the agonies of calculated intimidation under the triple-antigen of CAA-NPR-NRC. It’s a cry bemoaning the fundamentals of this nation being thrown to the bonfires. It’s a cry leaping off the Preamble to the Constitution, it is being fanned by the Tricolour. It refuses to die because it is sought to be killed. The nation has these past six months been subjected to recurrent ugly whiffs of the Kashmiri condition.

Never has a government, the custodian entity of the nation, turned so menacing and merciless on its people. It has turned into a bully State that will gleefully torment and torture. Its chief actors are dog-whistlers and gas-lighters, they are inspiring marauders – a lone-wolf here, a choleric mob there – to medieval ways of settling medieval scores. Let there be little doubt about this: a government recently and resoundingly entrusted with the safekeeping of the national contract is actively tearing it to shreds. It has become a spur to disruption and chaos. It has tossed away sanity as a thing of repugnance. Notice the number of pleas and petitions written out these past weeks piled up discarded in the bin. Read through the list of signatories – teachers, writers, poets, artists, jurists, diplomats, bureaucrats, scientists, historians, economists, some of the finest observers and interpreters of society, the learned and the educated.

But education is ‘elite’ and therefore effete. Education isn’t what we need, what we need is eradication. “When you decide to paint your house anew, the first thing you do is scratch out the walls and cast the old away.” That was the prime minister, Narendra Modi, at an election rally in Delhi this week. It’s the kind of diabolical metaphor that Modi excels in. It is also, on the evidence of what has transpired since 2013, spectacularly effective; it has caught the populace in a reckless hypnosis. It is a hypnosis that will readily prompt a delirious scratching of the house walls in the quest of the new one Modiji has promised. That hypnosis is the womb of the “goli maaro saalon ko…” clamour. That hypnosis is what twists young men like Rambhakt Gopal and Kapil Gujjar to fits of violent lunacy.

In Modi’s house of hypnosis, it no longer sounds odd or objectionable that the prime minister demonizes a whole section of people, India’s largest minority, by calling them out for what they wear and how they look. It appears only normal for Amit Shah, the home minister of the country, to refer to opponents of his divisive project as termites, or rodents and reptiles. It has also become a thing of applause that he prescribes electrocution of the adversarial electorate. It is just fine that Anurag Thakur whips up frenzies of “goli maaro saalon ko…” from the election stage, then preens up with slicked hair and crisp jacket and assumes the chair as junior finance minister for an explanation of the Union budget – schizophrenia personified, you couldn’t connect one Anurag Thakur with the other. Nor do these acts of hypnosis seem ever complete without the appearance on stage of Adityanath, the man who has turned India’s largest state into a blistered showcase of chauvinism.

When he was handed reins of Uttar Pradesh, it was clear Modi had brought the D word to Uttar Pradesh’s centre stage – not development, as he had promised, but divisiveness, as he had always threatened. Few can match the unwavering sectarian virulence Adityanath drags into the public discourse.

About the only institution Adityanath, aka Ajay Singh Bisht, originally from Garhwal, had ever presided over before becoming chief minister was Gorakhpur’s Gorakhnath Math. As mahant of the Math, he had become used to wielding unquestioned authority and expecting blind obeisance. Such, that he often brooked no restraint from the law and flagrantly violated it. Jailed once in 2007 for encouraging Hindutva rioters and flouting prohibitory orders, Adityanath has often not been ashamed to play outlaw. He hasn’t baulked at bringing peril to social peace. He has shared a stage with hate preachers and those that have made open exhorts to violence against minorities. Much of what Adityanath has to say from the public stage probably deserves no repetition because it is patently violative of constitutional values, the law and good sense. But for those that might seek a sense, social media sites store an abundance.

Adityanath has, in the past, compared Shah Rukh Khan to the JuD chief and terror patron, Hafiz Saeed. He had pejoratively labelled Kairana, a Muslim-dominated pocket in western Uttar Pradesh, as Kashmir, a “hub of anti-nationals”. He is the one who inspired the “love jihad” campaign a few years ago, blaming upon the minority community a civilizational conspiracy to gain ascendancy of numbers. Later, using “love jihad” as leitmotif, he played militant proselytiser, peppering the heartland with aggressive calls for a counterblast – “We must do the same with their girls, I will celebrate each one of their girls that comes into our homes, each one that becomes a Hindu and enhances our national pride!” Asked during the run for Uttar Pradesh if he believed India was for Hindus alone, he batted not an eyelid and said: “India and Hindus are two sides of the same coin. India belongs to Hindus, the time has now come for everyone to accept and follow this.”

When Adityanath is commissioned to come campaign for the Modi-Shah bid to grab Delhi from the Aam Aadmi Party, his opening gambit is: “Boli se nahin maanega to goli se to maan hi jaayega… (If they will not be persuaded by words, they will be persuaded by bullets…)”

But if it can be unembarrassed about its bigotry, the Modi cast is capable of an unashamed vulgarity as well. When photographs emerged recently of a robustly bearded Omar Abdullah serving incarceration in Kashmir, Giriraj Singh, another eminence in the Modi government, tweeted: “We have abolished Article 370, not razor blades.” The Tamil Nadu chapter of Modi’s party, perhaps on cue, couriered to Abdullah’s address a whole set. It’s those razors whose edge they’ve put this nation on.

The shadows that dropped on Kashmir six months ago have only just begun to darken.

State of Play

India is complicit in the dismemberment of the Idea of India

“Ye daagh-daagh ujala, ye shab-ghazeeda seher/ Wo intezaar thha jiska, ye wo seher to nahin (This stained pitted light, this night-bitten dawn/ That we were waiting for, this is not that morning).”

Traitorous felony as it might have become to a fair many to quote Faiz Ahmed Faiz – Communist, Pakistani, Mussalmaan, in other words, as vile an alchemy as it can get – there it is, as apt a description of our station as it can get this New Year’s morning.

The year just gone by was The Year of the Taking Down of India. Or, at any rate, the unabashed inaugural rites of it. That requires a single testament to assert, no more: Indian rejoicing the plunder of another Indian with whetted wickedness. It has been the year, let not the crossroads eruption of current vigils delude us, that Indians wholesomely mandated a regime to go after Indians. The reasons that powered Narendra Modi’s 2019 romp to power were radically different from those that secured him helmsmanship in 2014. These reasons were not about vikas, these reasons had nothing to do with rage or ennui at a dispensation that had descended into corruption and paralysis, these had nothing to do with hope or aspiration for a surging modern India. Modi had not delivered credibly on any of those to have secured a more robust endorsement. What he had begun to deliver on was his core, and often deceitfully unspoken, promise: Hindu rashtra.

The rushes of what was to come had been screened ahead of the vote of 2019; it should be none of Modi’s fault that folks did not see or absorb the meaning of it. The sectarian lynchings and the recurrent commendation of crime. The spur to ‘Go to Pakistan!’ The oft-repeated rhetoric of paanch-pachees and shamshaan-kabristaan, as naked a trope for minority-flogging as it gets. The showcased dishonouring of sacred customs and symbols. The deification of Nathuram Godse and the flagrant belittling of Nehru. Sniper attacks on the Constitution from the ruling ramparts. The promotion of Adityanath, hate monger and avowed chauvinist, as potentate of our most populous province. Any surprise that the paragon of uncouth prejudices, Pragya Thakur, followed suit into Parliament on a record vote?

The outcome of May 23, 2019 brought just reward to the potential the Modi regime had demonstrated in the preceding five years, the potential of what it could wreak upon India given another opportunity and a more robust mandate. To me, the single reason Modi was voted back resoundingly still resonates in the words of a young man in Varanasi.”Ek kaam 70 saal mein nahin hua thha, woh ek kaam Modiji ne kar diya.” (There was one job left undone in 70 years, that job Modiji has done.)

There’s no code to understanding what job; it’s an open-code thing, it’s the thing that chorused from the rostrums throughout the campaign just gone. But if it still needs explaining. No need to specify what’s that one thing; everybody knows. It’s the pointed exclusion and Othering of India’s largest minority, its formal notarizing as the unwanted and dispensable ones, even as the ones that constitute the useful construct of the enemy.

That ticket handsomely encashed, Modi has lost no time in bringing to bear the promise to his votaries. This has been the year of the bearing of bitter fruit; the year of one Indian privileged with the plucking of it, another Indian pulverized with the stuffing of it. This has been the year of the applauded throttling of India. This has been the year of the scalding of her soul. This has been the year of the gnarling of her body. This has been the year of the perversion of her mind. This has been the year of the poisoning of her voice. This has been the year of the mutilation of her crown.

India is no longer a composite geography whose longitudes ring with the romance of Kashmir to Kanyakumari; now, if at all we celebrate a diversity, it should be termed a Ladakh to Lakshadweep diversity. Get used to the ring of it, for Kashmir is no longer our prided crown, it is a castrated, humiliated Union territory which can, at best, aspire to the will of a municipality. A muffled, jackbooted municipality that does not even enjoy the right to transmit its voice to itself, much less to the world. Such is the thing we have made of what classical metaphors named paradise. Ayodhya was ceded, by the fiat of a judiciary that cannot bring to effect the fundamental writ of habeas corpus, with no apology, much less punishment, for the unembarrassed vandalism of December 6, 1992. And then comes the toxic triple-antigen called CAA-NPR-NRC, a separator vaccine administered to the body politic with no intent other than to render it rabidly torn. Everybody, proponent and opponent, is aware of the reasons and results of that triple-antigen: civil war is being injected into this nation’s bloodstream. It is the ‘Othering’ litmus, you are either us or you are them. Recognize them by their clothes, those clothes are not us. And the sight of those clothes will beg that infamous question asked in Nazi Germany of the Jews: “Your papers please?” Those clothes have already enacted before us the roll-out of our own Kristallnacht. Recall the wanton lynchings. Please pay heed to what has recently happened in minority precincts in Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh. Sectarian vilification. Organized violence by uniformed men in select localities. Targeted arrests and torture of Muslims and their sympathizers. Unlawful, and showcased, collection of protection money from the community. The replay of human power and prejudice in a transferred geography, in transferred times, is shudder-worthy. And yet we seem to be, largely, at peace with what transpires around us, quietly pleased, if not merely indifferent. This is what Daniel Goldhagen wrote of the state of mind of Germans during Nazi ascendancy in his critical work, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: “[T]he evidence indicates not Germans’ ‘indifference,’ but their pitilessness. It is oxymoronic to suggest that those who stood with curiosity gazing upon the annihilative infernos of Kristallnacht… looked upon the destruction with ‘indifference.’ People generally flee scenes and events that they consider to be horrific, criminal, or dangerous. Yet Germans flocked to watch the assaults on the Jews and their buildings, just as spectators once flocked to medieval executions and as children flock to a circus.”

All of this, the vocal excess of the people of India validated and voted for, let there be no mistake. This is of our making. But let us be warned for what we applaud; let us give ourselves no excuses for saying we did not know. We do know. And we are happy for it, for the dismembering of who we are. The 2019 Modi manifesto was a ‘keh ke lenge’ manifesto, it laid bare the ominous plans he had. This nation endorsed it; the consequence of that endorsement this nation must bear. Or denounce.

But is there a denouncing of the ‘keh ke lenge’ manifesto anywhere in evidence? Doubtless, the eruption of protests across datelines has revealed a rebellious bone in us. But not yet a spine. Are we to believe that a people who handed Modi formidable numbers just half a year ago have had a sudden change of heart? A change of heart has perhaps indeed happened, but that change is that we have revealed ourselves to be heartless.

The temptation is to resort to the dark audacity of rephrasing Faiz: “Ye daagh-daagh ujala, ye shab-ghazeeda seher/ Wo intezaar thha jiska, ye wohi to seher hai.”

Have a peaceful and prosperous year ahead, country people; and remember that governments come and go, nations, good nations, transcend them.

State of Play

Happy Birthday Bapu: The nation and its practitioners of unspeakable things

Several years ago, in a rural recess of Bihar where I come from, a girl, barely ten, woke up one morning and slipped out into the open to relieve herself. Returning, she came upon a crop of spinach and coriander leaves. She gathered a clump in her palm and pulled at it. She was caught in that act. They chopped her fingers off, as they would the spinach and the coriander.

We are the practitioners of unspeakable things.

In 1989, in a village called Logain near Bhagalpur, a mohalla was set aflame. When the rage had calmed, the dead, probably even the near-dead, were carted to a field and shoved under the earth. Presently, the field was seeded with mustard and cauliflower. It was kites and vultures hovering overhead that caught the stench and blew the cover on the crime.

We are the practitioners of unspeakable things.

Returning home one evening last month – to a precinct of Gurgaon, the ‘millennium city’ – I heard the destitute wailing of a man. It came from the belly of a jagged circumference of folks, arranged as though riveted on a snake charmer’s tricks. There was, instead, an auto-rickshaw with a shattered windshield. There were two youngsters in shorts and Ts, their limbs gym-toned to envy, their forearms and biceps copiously tattooed. They stood over a man sprawled in the dirt, bleeding. The wails came from him. They were taking turns to pummel him, a burst of fists, then a knock of the knee. One would retreat to a gleaming motorbike parked to one side, wipe his arms and watch. The other would take over. The auto-driver was a bag, a yowling, bleeding bag. Nobody said a word. Nobody moved. This was a spectacle unfolding, cold, focused violence. The boys looked nowhere but at their victim; this is how it is best done, a blood ritual, with singular attention. There was nothing to suggest they would heed or halt. But one of them I was able to persuade to tell me the reason for their gory enactment. He took me to his bike and motioned to a splash of mud. It had rained. There was slush on the roadsides. The auto-driver had driven past with a spray of muck. It had landed on the boys’ bike; a few specks had also strayed onto the pillion’s shins. Therefore. “Don’t mess with these boys,” one from the crowd cautioned me, pulling me by the arm, “They are known goondas, they have backing, they will come back and touch you later.” Those words: they have backing. They will come back and touch you. The police, if it arrives or acts, will arrive and act later. By then, the boys will have “touched” you.

We are the practitioners of unspeakable things.

A girl complains of serial sexual abuse by a charlatan who is also a well-connected political thug masquerading as a sanyasi. The thug first takes ill and has himself wheeled into an air-conditioned hospital chamber. From there he manipulates power levers to have the girl arrested for extortion. Her father is warned of consequences if he speaks out. Another young victim of rape. Another thug from the same gang. The girl loses her father, then gets smashed by a truck on a highway, loses her aunt and ends up precariously injured in hospital.

Videographed ceremonies are carried out by monsters of their primitive headhunting – fellow humans cursed, humiliated, kicked about, slapped, knived, killed. Those monsters are then either draped in the national flag or garlanded in the name of a Mata whose provenance is at best ambiguous and whose blessings for such savagery have nowhere been explicitly or implicitly cited.

Photographs have floated up of a certain Ratan Biswas, his ribs pressed hard against the membranes of his flesh, his skeletal wrist chained to an iron bed, his expression drained of the last dregs of hope. He is in detention in Assam for the alleged crime of not belonging, a prisoner of our collective prejudice. We plan to put many more where we have dumped Ratan, in huge facilities we have designated camps but where our unwanted human beings will be penned like livestock, like cows that have ceased to bear milk or offspring.

But we’ve already created the blueprint for such a human pen, have we not? It is the heaven called Kashmir, where we have driven the clamps on eight million people we call our own. For close to two months now, they have not been allowed the common courtesy of free communication with each other or the outside world. Their movements have been restricted, for the better part frozen. They live razor-wired and bayoneted. They have been stripped of political stature and personal dignity. They have been forbidden expression. They have been forbidden protest. They have been turned into an agency of dictation. They have been told it is bad manners to complain; you’re alive, be thankful. They have been interned sans allegation, imprisoned at home or thrown into faraway cells. On occasion, their dare has been brutally pelleted. But nobody has been hit by a bullet above the chest, we have been assured on good authority; what would we do for the lack of such favour? We are told they are happy. The sense of siege is the figment of a “few minds”. What is being done is for their best; this persecution will teach them a lesson they long deserved to learn, they will emerge better citizens from it. We love Kashmiris, we should hug each Kashmiri. Conditions apply. Abominable conditions.

We are the practitioners of unspeakable things.

Last week, two Dalit children were beaten to death by villagers for defecating in the open. Their family had been denied toilet facilities by the panchayat, and so they went out. And paid. We have been told we are already an open-defecation-free nation. But we are routinely told lies. Those kids were done to death. There is another way of looking at how this works. You die defecating, you may also die clearing defecation. Fifty people died trying to clear the waste excreted by our bodies in the first half of this year, consumed by noxious sewer gases, hydrogen sulphide in the main. In ‘Swachh Bharat’, 740078 households still require manual removal of human filth each day; 182505 families in rural India earn their livelihoods yoked to daily manual scavenging. This nation stinks.

Someone just got awarded a high-voltage global honour for a slogan that our filthy reality daily mocks; it must by worn, if at all, as a badge in memory of those who are still dying trying to put away what we daily excrete. That same someone is also sought to be supplanted on this nation as paterfamilias, dislodging the noble one whose 150th anniversary it happens to be today.

Happy Birthday Bapu,

We remain,

Yours ruefully,

The Practitioners of Unspeakable Things

Politics 2020, Telegraph Calcutta

Modi an Indian colonising India: Aishe

A university student has articulated probably the most stinging critique of Prime Minister Narendra Modi yet, saying a “new internal colonialism” is being unleashed on India under him.

“We are being colonised by our own and are being hurled back to the era when we enjoyed no independence,” Aishe Ghosh, president of the JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU), told The Telegraph. “We are at a critical juncture, India is being colonised by its own leadership.”

Asked how she could be calling Modi, who fashions himself as an ultra-nationalist, a “colonialist”, Aishe argued that the similarities between the strategies and intents of British imperialists and the Modi government are strikingly similar.

“You could perhaps call it a modern sort of colonialism, or an internal colonialism, but Modi is doing exactly what colonial powers did. Divide the people to entrench yourself in power. Discriminate against sets of people to shore up support. Unleash harsh laws and the brute power of the state to demoralise and control people. Impoverish large sections for the benefit of a few. Revise and rewrite history. Encourage loot of public resources. It is all the same thing, except Modi is an Indian doing it to Indians, which is much more alarming.”

Aishe, who became the worst victim of mob violence on the JNU campus on the night of January 5 — she suffered a forehead gash from repeated rod blows and a broken arm — spoke to us shortly after doctors at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) had clipped open the sutures on her temple. She arrived at our rendezvous with a couple of mates looking just how the nation has come to recognise her this past fortnight — a chit of a girl, her crown marked out by a strip of gauze, her left arm in a cast and a sling, hair in dishevelled rebellion against her pony-tail, a shawl she couldn’t be less careless about draping, a wounded waif, you’d think. Until she begins to speak.

Aishe speaks in the same breath of the agitation against the fee hike she has led on the JNU campus and the turmoil spreading across datelines; to her, they are part of the same malaise, triggered by the same overarching motive — “Drastically alter and reduce India and what it means.” She is deeply invested in the JNU agitation, but she sees it as seamlessly linked to larger issues; she can join the dots.

“You might think our fight is only for a few rupees students are having to pay as fees. Yes, it very much is. But it is about much more. It is about the arbitrariness and violence with which decisions are being taken and imposed, it is about an undemocratic unilateralism that is being thrust upon us everywhere, in JNU and across the country, it is all linked. They are openly raising ‘goli maaro’ slogans. Today they have come on the campus with rods and sticks, tomorrow they could come with guns and kill us too. But the fight is not only on the JNU campus, the threat is everywhere, terrible things can happen, we are seeing them happen.”

It seems of little relevance to Aishe to be asked if she’s in pain. “I’m fine, it’s healing. This is not about me, this has to be about why this happened. Everyone should know why this happened. Why this happened in JNU, and why this is happening across the country. That is where the challenge is and the battle is.”

So, why?

“Because our most fundamental values, our most fundamental rights have been brought under grave threat, we are today in danger of

losing our citizenship, our Constitution, actually everything we gained after becoming an independent country. The design of the CAA-NPR-NRC is a design to pit Indian against Indian and imperil India itself.

“Yes, our current battlefield is JNU, but clearly our current battlefield is also this whole nation. The JNU struggle is very important to us, but so is the wider threat. People should be able to see what is being done to them, how they are throttled and undermined. And they are seeing it, that is why there are protests all around. The challenge is to save the nature of JNU and equally to save the nature of India. Their effort is to make JNU a thing of the past, some sort of fairytale, their effort is to make India as we know it a thing of the past too. That battle will have to be fought in every campus, on every street.”

The frail bundle next to me has morphed into Ms Spitfire; her plastered arm is itching to mimic the animation of the arm that survived the assault.

“We have been taking slow blows a long time, but the blows have come harder. Please understand that January 5 (the night of the masked mob mayhem) was not the first blow on us, it was the final hammer, and it was encouraged and ordered by the power at JNU, it happened with the collusion of the vice-chancellor (VC). He is part of the same mindset that is now the Establishment, that is why we are demanding his removal.”

But clearly, what Aishe calls the Establishment is having none of her arguments or demands; VC Jagadesh Kumar has been endorsed by the powers and appears well entrenched.

“Well, of course, he is, but that does not mean we will drop our demand. They all belong to the same project that is ruining JNU and ruining this country. Somebody has to speak up and protest, and we are not alone in this. Why do you think we have received support from campuses across the country, including IITs and such institutions? We have become part of the discourse, and the wider struggle, everywhere. We are not alone, and our battle is valid, it is a battle with good reason.”