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.

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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.

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Telegraph Calcutta

The Hug That Hurt

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This one had all the elements of a surgical strike and more. It had surprise. It had stealth. It had precision. It had transparency too – a strike carried out in full view of whoever cared to watch, a strike mentally pre-meditated, a strike dealt with easy deliberation. A smiling assassin’s strike.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has got himself marked the world over as the man who hugs; whether it is a welcome hug or warmly received or not, Modi hugs. And it is he who springs the hug. On Friday, he got sprung upon.

When Congress president Rahul Gandhi closed what must rank as his finest hour in Parliament on Friday afternoon, it had struck few he wasn’t done yet, that he planned to put a seal on his performance with an act that would become the indelible emboss and image of the day.

He had just closed his blistering attack on Narendra Modi raj with a disarming hail on the Treasury.

“No matter how much you hate me, no matter how much anger you spew at me, no matter that you call me Pappu, you and your followers… you can call me all kinds of names. But no matter that you call me Pappu. I am Congress, and all these people are Congress, the sensibility of the Congress has made this country, do not forget. That sensibility is inside of all of you and I will extract it from inside each of you. I will draw the love out of you, I will convert all of you to the Congress….”

The House was still abuzz, when Rahul left his second row on the Opposition benches and began to manoeuvre his way round the arched note-takers’ row in the well towards the Prime Minister. In no time, he stood across Modi, hand extended. Modi took it. Some in the benches behind him stood up to applaud. From the Speaker’s chair, Sumitra Mahajan smiled indulgently.

Just then, the strike.

Rahul fell upon Modi, chest full on upon chest, cheeks, one clean, the other famously stubbly, in historic proximity. They could have whispered sweet nothings and nobody would have known, the Lok Sabha’s sensitive microphonics notwithstanding.

“This is not done, this is no way…” Mahajan began to protectively protest on behalf of the Prime Minister, but the deed was done by then.

Modi had been taken by the Rahul strike. Smothered. Defenceless. Aghast too a bit on who had come to drop on him. Stills from the moment would reveal to you a man rendered helpless and stricken, for once not a man who commanded the cameras but had been shown up by them.

He recovered only to gesture an offended surprise with his palm. Then he recovered a little more and took Rahul’s hand. Then, as if suddenly conscious of the cameras and keen that they remain kind on him, he recovered even more. He motioned Rahul back, took his hand again and said something and guffawed. It’s moot whether he was indeed amused.

TT Link

 

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, Essay, Telegraph Calcutta

Narendra Modi and Our Derelictions as Media

The Press seems happy to be co-opted by the government

Just a thought, if only as hors d’oeuvre: Sanjaya was arguably the first television reporter known to us, relaying the great battle live from a far distance. Imagine the consequences of Sanjaya telling Dhritarashtra what would please his ears rather than what transpired as the Kauravas and Pandavas had it off. All it would have taken for an epic subversion of the truth was one obsequious reporter willing to compromise with his craft to curry favour with his master.

After a prime minister lavishly lambasted for never speaking – “Maun Mohan Singh” – we elected a prime minister who never seems to tire of speaking. Some of that, we have been told by his own, amounts to no more than jumlas. But there is a more disturbing aspect to Narendra Modi’s mode of speaking. It’s one-sided.

Modi is into the final lap of his term and he is yet to open himself to questioning in a way that has been the assumed norm for all his predecessors. Our prime minister has his say and he would have no more. On Twitter. On diverse social-media platforms and dedicated web portals. On Mann ki Baat. To commissioned cameras from government-aided or government-allied operations that can be trusted to obey command, pack off and promote the puff. He does not grant interviews, not in the way we should understand them. The complicit silence over how interviews with the prime minister are conducted must be broken. Because people need to know. Here is how it’s done – you may mail a set of questions to one of the prime minister’s aides; they, or the prime minister himself, will examine them and pick which ones are convenient. Of those that the Prime Minister’s Office rejects or refuses to answer, there shall be no mention, or even a record. Subsequently, answers will be formulated and mailed back.

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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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