2018, Column, State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

A Splitting Headache

Kashmir is the campaign that New Delhi has lost in key places

 

Just a few hours before Sameer Bhat, better known as Sameer Tiger, a most wanted Hizbul Mujahideen commander, was killed in a gun battle in Drabgam in South Kashmir this week, he had pushed online a short video of a local youngster being interrogated by him on suspicion of being an informer. Towards the end of the clip, Sameer Tiger pronounces a warning on an army officer that he surely meant for a much larger audience: “(Major) Shukla ko kehna sher ne shikar karna kya chhora, tujhe laga jungle hamara hai? (Tell Major Shukla just because the tiger had stopped hunting, you thought the jungle was yours?)” Major Shukla would take a hit in pursuit of Sameer Tiger soon after, his assault party would hunt Sameer Tiger down, but Tiger’s dire dare rings on: it’s a vicious survivor’s skirmish, Kashmir, and it’s often tough to tell hunter from hunted, one day’s trophy chasers can become another day’s trophies.

Over the last couple of years, there has been a resumed spike in the locate-chase-neutralize campaign of security forces against militants – 218 in 2017 and 62 so far this year. Many of those killed were marked men – men with foregrounded profiles in the insurgency lane who had become rallying figures for others. It is evident that policy is now driven by what Ram Madhav of the Bharatiya Janata Party revealed to this newspaper in an interview last year: “We will go after them (militants) with the utmost harshness.” But there are two other aspects to the hot pursuit in daily play. Jawans have taken the recoil – 83 were killed last year and 28 so far in 2018 – and militant ranks have swelled on the rebound. Nobody can quite put a number to the ranks of those who disappear from homes every other day, but everybody who has a sense of the ground would tell you that the number is not merely high but also alarming. Just recently, I spent some time visiting homes and crossroads in the villages of Pulwama and Shopian, tormented spurs to Kashmiri insurgency, and the line that dropped like a hammer into my notebook came from a boy barely into his teens: “Bring a truckful of guns to these parts and I assure you they will all be claimed within half an hour,” he told me, “Everyone is prepared to pick one up and put it to use, just ask around.” Shadowy protagonists of armed Kashmiri secession, this side or that of the cantankerous fence with Pakistan, need not invest in motivation or recruitment; New Delhi and its striking arms are doing a splendid job of it.

Continue reading “A Splitting Headache”

2018, Column, State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

A Scorpion Curled

The threat to a free media in India is never far away

 

One of the appointed margdarshaks of the Narendra Modi dispensation, L.K. Advani, was, at one time, minister for information and broadcasting. He ascended the job writing copiously on the derangements of the Indira-Sanjay Emergency regime (1975-1977) and issuing a rap on the media that still resounds as reminder of what must not be repeated: “When the Press was asked to bend, it crawled.”

A lead act of the same dispensation, the finance minister, Arun Jaitley, himself a victim of Emergency-era excesses, seldom misses an opportunity to recall the menace and darkness of those 19 months, or to champion enshrined constitutional freedoms. In his Foreword to The Emergency, an essential memoir of the era by the journalist, Coomi Kapoor, Jaitley wrote: “Political developments during this period were all aimed in the direction of suppressing democracy and turning India into a totalitarian state. Fundamental rights under Articles 14, 19, 21 and 22 were suspended… The newspapers quickly began to toe the government line… The most alarming aspect of the Emergency, as this book so vividly narrates, was that Indira Gandhi managed to demonstrate how easy it was to misuse the Constitution and convert democracy into a constitutional dictatorship. In this journey, she seemed to have picked up some clues from Adolf Hitler…”

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2018, Column, State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

The master of spin

Ripples of the Modi marketing tide have already begun to roll

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Those who noticed will already know that Graeme Smith, the former South Africa cricket captain, has flagged off the Narendra Modi campaign for 2019. For those that did not, here is how it happened. May 27, the first day of the last year of Modi’s term. A pulsating corner of the Wankhede arena, where the final game of the Indian Premier League was about to get under way. Smith stood kitted out in traditional regalia – rust kurta (Sunil Gavaskar would follow sporting saffron and oblige with his own pitch, but not yet), linen mantilla streaming down his neck to the knees, churidars and kolhapuris to boot. The pre-match show had warmed up just right when the big question was popped to Smith. It wasn’t who’d take the IPL trophy but what he thought of the “prime minister’s great fitness initiative” which had by then already been promoted to viral-grade. Off went Smith and his interlocutor from the screens, and all of the Wankhede green along with them, and in floated Modi in padmasana, hands folded – ” Mere pyare bhaiyon, behnon, deshwasiyon” and so on. By the time the clip ended and Smith came back on camera, he was shedding petals of adulation like a tree shaken in fall – great, stupendous, fantastic, so inspiring, I mean what can one say… The prime minister and his fitness footage would recur many times over that evening, many great cricketing trees would line up to be shaken, then fawn and foam with all manner of blandishment as contribution to a cunning work of propaganda. The closing fixture of IPL 2018 had become Modi’s opening gambit for the Indian premier league of 2019.

Say what you will of him, but Narendra Modi has a killer’s sense of the moment and an opportunist’s unabashedness to grab it. He is a genius of the photo-opportunity, such that he has reduced the camera to a duteous devotee of his postures. Postures that often require key members of his Close Protection Team to be off-frame so he is left in solitary grandeur while the shutters work. Postures that often make his VVIP guests or hosts wonder why India’s prime minister has suddenly broken into a solo pantomime of gesturing. Postures that he often astutely plots ahead with megalomaniacal attention to detail, as at Santiniketan recently when an ardent supporter was said to have breached security to arrive prostrated at his feet. There was no breach, as the untroubled demeanour of the SPG guard in the near background amply suggested. What was there was the crafting of a photograph that would burn the wires.

Continue reading “The master of spin”

2018, Column, State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

Shadowy Victimhood — Each of the attributes of Emergency Indira finds reflection in Narendra Modi

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Just a footnote, if you will, to the annual rite of fuming and frothing over the Emergency, now that it is beginning to ebb and settle: there were many more that suffered and refused to submit than those that each year parade the stage, brandishing medallions of victimhood and rekindling rage. The drumbeaters and town criers of the sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party would have you somehow believe by their sheer orchestration of decibels that the Emergency was an atrocity intentioned at their creed and leadership; the truth is it was an offensive against the Indian nation, and it was the Indian collective that eventually shook it off. Some of the most stirring and resonant opposition to Indira Gandhi’s 19-month tyranny came in fact from those that are no longer around to claim ownership of those voices, much less trumpet them.

Rashtrakavi Ramdhari Singh Dinkar and his laconic challenge that was to become a popular cry: Singhaasan khaali karo, ki janata aati hai (Vacate the throne, for here come the people). Dushyant Kumar and his cutting turn of verse: “Woh kehti hain humse cooperate keejiyechaaku ki pasliyon se guzaarish toh dekhiye (She says cooperate with me, such is the entreaty of the knife to the ribs)”. Nagarjun and his easy sarcasm: ” Induji Induji kya hua aapkosatta ki masti mein bhool gayeen baap ko (What happened to you Indu ji, just what; in your lust for power, you forgot your father)”.

Perhaps only a war could do what the Emergency also did – put together a coalition of diverse and disparate sets – socialists and communists, republicans and conservatives, writers, painters, journalists, students, teachers, rights activists, minorities and majoritarians – a multitude of the ordinary Indian who rallied in unprecedented ways and, when the opportunity arrived, effected a popular and peaceful putsch against the spell of dictatorship; only a few of them were votaries of the sangh or the Jana Sangh as the predecessor entity of the BJP was known. Yes, there were among the select victims such names as Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani, Balasaheb Deoras, Subramanian Swamy, Narendra Modi and Arun Jaitley.

But there were others – many others -who were subjects of excesses and who fought back – Morarji Desai, George Fernandes, Charan Singh, Karpoori Thakur, Parkash Singh Badal, E.M.S. Namboodiripad and A.K. Gopalan, Devi Lal and Sharad Yadav, Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar, Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury. And, later, Jagjivan Ram and Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna. Among them was also a man called Chandra Shekhar, whose death anniversary falls this weekend. And they all rallied around the frail risen finger of an ageing warrior called Jayaprakash Narayan, or JP – Congressman, socialist, rebel.

But then, the sangh‘s appropriations committee is a hungry, though unthinking, beast; it will grab at anything within sight to feed its appetite for grandeur that it has never deserved with astounding far-fetchedness. It has tried, for instance, copy-pasting Bhagat Singh to its rather poorly gallery of icons – a professed left-wing atheist snatched away and planted as motif of the sectarian, majoritarian, exclusionist Right. Not very dissimilar is the sangh‘s effort to appropriate Emergency victimhood. Its Emergency record is, at best, chequered and, very often, dubious. Its leading lights wrote missives to the Indira regime pleading submission and often support; they begged out of jail pledging “good behaviour” and abstention from participation in any manner of politics. Some of that pusillanimity led Subramanian Swamy to remark once that the sangh‘s claims to Emergency valour were “ludicrous”.

It is essential to remember the Emergency – as something that should never be allowed to happen again, as something the citizenry should forever be vigilant against. It was an alarming decree by an insecure leader whose legitimacy to remain in office had been bluntly vacated. Indira Gandhi and her coterie of extra-constitutional factotums resorted to blatant abuse and subversion to not merely cling on to power but to chain, gag and torture the nation with them. Surely there would have been sneaking approval in sanghi quarters of some of Sanjay Gandhi’s roughneck tyrannies, especially his shotgun sterilization campaigns, his bulldozer run at Turkman Gate. And where, pray, are Sanjay Gandhi’s legatees today, Maneka and Varun Gandhi? In the BJP. A case can fairly be made that with all its reputed Hitler-love, the sangh would have been rather enamoured of the Emergency Indira – authoritarian, cultish, absolute, demanding deference to outlined purposes of the nation which were actually the purposes of her own hold over power – Indira is India, India is Indira. That, in fact, is a power profile that sits remarkably, and alarmingly, well on the Narendra Modi scheme. Each of the attributes of the Emergency Indira finds reflection in Modi whose essential manner is of a hectoring command creature that would brook nothing less than compliance, not merely from his party and government but at large. He seeks, just like Indira Gandhi during the Emergency, a “committed” bureaucracy and judiciary; his tableau of the faithful raucously and unabashedly conflates party, government and nation, and Modi’s own interest as the supreme national interest. If Indira was compared to Durga, Modi has famously and repeatedly been labelled avatar of god, not merely god’s gift to India but god incarnate.

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For all that sameness, though, we are not in an Emergency. No. At least not yet. If it helps perspective, here are a few things that did not happen during the Emergency.

Mobs didn’t tie up Dalits, they didn’t whip them and they didn’t film that whipping. A Hindu woman marrying a Muslim man was not called a victim of love jihad. She was not sought to be separated from her spouse. She was not asked why she has not changed her name, or why she should be granted a passport. Prime investigating agencies were not assigned to probe inter-faith marriages. Elected representatives did not issue sectarian calls to kill. They were not, then, celebrated for what they had done. Nobody was asked to go to Pakistan. Governors did not sit in Raj Bhavans and spend their time trying to excel at bigotry. Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin was not openly and defiantly propitiated. Maharana Pratap did not defeat Akbar in battle, and myth was not daily dished out as history. Journalists were jailed, yes, but later released; they were not shot at their doorstep. Nor were they routinely labelled presstitutes and anti-nationals. Mobs did not go chasing after cattle-traders and beat and lynch them. Mobs did not burst into someone’s home, sniffing at offence, following the scent of meat and killing the ‘offender’. Rumour was not a lynch mill. A young man was not tied to the front of a jeep and made a shoddy example of. Such atrocity was not thereafter officially commended. Senior ministers of government were not subjected to a hail of abusive trolling and threatening. They were not left to fend for themselves. They did not have to feel that the hounding was an insider job, that the hounds were at work under proactive encouragement from the master.

All of this, and worse, are happening now. Lest we forget.

TT Link

2018, Column, State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

A puppet in torment

Shakespearean tragedy has a canny kinship with Kashmir

When you’ve decided to dig in, it might be advisable to ensure you don’t burrow so deep that scrambling out is no longer an option. The Jammu and Kashmir chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti, is darting, helplessly but consciously, towards making a political grave of her power dugout. Her serial capitulations to the provincial shenanigans and the national worldview of her chosen partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party, are as astonishing as they are unsurprising.

Unsurprising because a dark, and yet unstated though frightfully abject, compromise was written into her decision to fall in step with the BJP after prolonged prevarication. Astonishing because no Kashmiri chief minister in living memory has been so sublime in submitting to routine rebuff and remonstration at the hands of an ally – the kind of heckling and humiliation that cannot be going down terribly well with the constituency she so painstakingly built over the years.

The latest of many snubs that Mehbooba has taken is her government’s declaration, doubtless extracted by some backroom arm-twisting, to the Supreme Court that Major Aditya Kumar of the 10th Garhwal Rifles was not named in an FIR by her police as one of those responsible for opening fire on a mob near Shopian that resulted in the deaths of two civilians in late January. If this isn’t a patent lie, it most certainly is a deferent volte-face few will fail to notice, not least her unquiet south Kashmiri citizenry. Mehbooba’s police and her party – the Peoples Democratic Party – had openly rowed with the army over the incident; Major Kumar’s father, himself a serving army officer, had gone to the Supreme Court protesting that his son was sought to be unfairly prosecuted. But Mehbooba sounded firm about addressing the killings, “Anguished over the tragic loss of lives in Shopian,” she had tweeted soon after the incident, “… have ordered a magisterial probe into the unfortunate incident and asked the enquiry to be completed within 20 days… We will take the probe to its logical conclusion. Justice and peace are two sides of the same coin.” Her counsel’s submission to the Supreme Court on Monday – my lords we have not named a Major Aditya Kumar – clarified to us yet again that Mehbooba is allowed neither magistracy over a probe she’s ordered nor her promised logical conclusions.

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2018, Bihar, Column, State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

Laloo Yadav, Burnished and Tarnished

The thing about Lalu Prasad is that he is a man of more parts than most others on display possess. One of those parts has been convicted and may well be ordered to prison, the part that got greedy and fell to fodder felony. Some of the other parts remain more happily located – as preponderant colour on the floor of the Bihar assembly; as irreplaceable boss of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the state’s largest single banker of votes; as essential exhibit in the gallery of the most compelling and durable of our public entities. Nobody is taking Lalu out of there in a long time; popular imagination is a sovereignty membered by the unlikeliest heroes.

Bihar has never been at a loss for those who set out to make something of it. In the narrow firmament of Bihar’s consciousness, they make a clotted constellation of visionaries and builders, reformists and revolutionaries, samaritans and messiahs. Sri Krishna Sinha, Anugrah Narain Singh, Krishna Ballabh Sahay. Jayaprakash Narayan and Karpoori Thakur. Ram Lakhan Singh Yadav and Jagannath Mishra. They have either been forgotten, some mercifully, or live on in dust-ridden memorial halls and annually enacted rent-a-crowd commemorations. Or survive as disregarded busts routinely s**t upon by birds in chaotic town squares. For all the retrospective repute they have come to acquire, the gifts of Bihar’s league of legends don’t add up to much.

Eighty per cent of Biharis still have no access to toilets, partly also because those meant to be making those toilets have been busier making money over them. What passes in the name of education is nothing short of scandalous; Bihar’s premier university cannot fill out basic criteria for an upgrade. Its most reputed medical facilities often lack for rudiments – a saline drip, a sterilized bandage, a functional X-ray device, an urgently required LSD. No more than 20 and few decimal per cent receive regular electricity at home. A mere seven per cent live in concrete homes. Sixty five per cent possess mobile phones. That is how lopsided Bihar’s lurch towards development has been. You could be talking about Haiti where, in 2012, only ten per cent had bank accounts and 80 per cent used hand-held telephones.

For the last quarter of a century, Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar have presided over those spoils, briefly in league but for the better part at loggerheads. Bihar is still out adorned in its badge of deficits, brandishing that begging bowl for special category status. Nobody has bothered looking in the direction of that bowl. Meantime, careers have flourished and reputations built, foundation stone by derelict foundation stone. Some years ago, the state government sponsored a listing of Bihar’s leading lights and luminaries, such as they are. Bihar Vibhuti, the compendium was christened, and last heard, it had run into two volumes, each thick as a brick. There is fair evidence to suggest that the collective achievement of Bihar’s countless vibhutis has been that they came to drop; Bihar is a bonfire of those vanities.

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2017, Column, State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

No longer ashamed – Ayodhya at 25

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

December 6th, 2017: Down one of several stone-flagged lanes that toddle off Marienplatz, Munich town hall plaza, there still operates a rather prosperous enterprise called the Hofbrauhaus. It’s one of several kindred addresses around the area pledged to the central Bavarian celebration – the ooze and oomph of beer. They are all, each one of them, establishments of gregarious hubbub – voluptuous symphonies bound about their high-arched halls, beermaids shuffle about the tables with their jugfuls, decanting foaming oceans of the house brew. The floors tinkle, with glass and unrestrained merriment.

Hofbrauhaus is one of them and a little apart. It is patronized for more than just its beer and knucklewurst. Hofbrauhaus is where Adolf Hitler made his first address to the Nazi party in 1920. Through the flaming decades that followed, Hofbrauhaus remained a celebration of Nazi ways and values, and that’s partly what gets Hofbrauhaus its bloated clientele today. It’s a slice of Hitler. But a forbidden slice. You’ll find no trace of him or his creed. Nobody so much as whispers Adolf on the precincts, god forbid Hitler, or actually German law. Germany has institutionalized provisions called Volksverhetzung, or incitement of hatred, which prohibit all Nazi symbols, totems, hate speech, incitement, anything that is a reminder of Hitler. It’s a custom strictly adhered to in Germany.

It comes from the fear and the determination of no repetitions.

It comes from regret that’s yet unrelieved.

Most of all, it comes from a deep and collective sense of shame at the unspeakable horrors Germany and Germans once feistily brought upon. Nie Wieder, never again.

Regret can relieve wrongdoing; it implies admission of turpitude and, more pertinently, an undertaking of corrections and probably also a pledge of no repetitions.

In the 25 years since Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid was razed, our discourse has been hauled in the opposite direction – from shuddering shame to the discarding of that shame and the adoption of audacities that undermine the fundamental underpinnings of India and its Constitution.

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