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Caught in a bind

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By Manini Chatterjee

The Bharatiya Janata Party has relentlessly accused its opponents of indulging in “vote-bank” politics. Any party which upholds the rights of minorities to be equal citizens of the country is charged with “appeasement” in order to win their votes.
It was ironic, therefore, to hear a chorus of voices from India’s heartland last week hurling the charge of “vote-bank” politics at the BJP. What made it doubly so was that the voices did not belong to members of the Congress or the Bahujan Samaj Party or the Samajwadi Party? Nor did they belong to “anti-nationals” or “urban Naxals”. It was the BJP’s very own who were in open revolt.
On September 6, an assortment of groups belonging to the upper castes – or savarna as they proudly call themselves – came out on the streets of many a town in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in response to a call for a “Bharat bandh” to protest the restoration of provisions in the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act that had been diluted by an order of the Supreme Court.
According to reports from the ground, rail and road traffic was disrupted in Bihar by members of the Savarna Sena and allied organizations such as the Brahman Mahasabha, Khatriya Mahasabha, Rajput Samaj Samiti and Savarna Sanghatan. The towns of Ara, Darbhanga, Muzaffarpur and Nawada were affected and there were protests outside the offices of the BJP and the Janata Dal (United) in Patna.
In Rajasthan, the bandh had an impact in Jaipur, Udaipur, Alwar, Karauli, Jodhpur and Dausa. There were clashes in Agra, among other places, in Uttar Pradesh. And some of the most vociferous voices against the amended SC/ST Atrocities Act were heard in Madhya Pradesh where there had been a gherao of legislators in the districts of Morena, Bhind, Gwalior, Mandsaur and Neemuch by upper caste activists, demanding a rollback of the amendments for several days leading up to the September 6 bandh.
Anyone who watched Hindi news channels, which covered the protests and held studio discussions on the issue through the day, could see that the protesters were not just angry with the BJP – they also felt intensely betrayed.
Their sense of betrayal is all too understandable. The BJP and its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, may seek to create a unified “Hindu” identity by marking out the minorities as the enemy, but their core constituency has always been the savarnas. Over the last few decades, the BJP has used a combination of religious mobilization and patronage politics to expand its electoral base to include the backward castes, the Dalits and the adivasis.
But these accretions have not brought about any fundamental change in the RSS-BJP’s primary allegiance to upper caste Hindus. And their avowed goal of transforming the secular Indian republic into a Hindu rashtra seeks to restore India’s “ancient glory” – which privileges “social harmony” over social justice; hierarchical order over equality and fraternity.
These are no abstract formulations. A central reason behind the success of Narendra Modi was that the dominant classes and castes of India saw in him the strongman -backed by a strong parivar – who could fight back the forces unleashed by democracy to impose “discipline” and “order” on society.
The Modi regime sought to do just that. The sustained attacks on minorities over the past four years and the latest offensive against “urban Naxals” are key aspects of the mission to be a “disciplining force”, to make entrenched elites feel safe from threats posed by the demands of justice and equality. With the BJP winning election after election, the party leadership was convinced that its strategy was working – the “national mainstream” was not backing Modi in spite of his assaults on democracy but because of it.
But while Muslims, Christians and Left-Liberals are easy to paint as enemies of the nation, a much more potent threat to the dominant social order comes from the assertion of lower castes including, and especially, the Dalits. The Modi government has sought to deal with this dilemma in two ways. At one level, it has sought to co-opt the Dalits into the “Hindu” fold and also brazenly appropriate Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar by building monuments in his honour – while seeking to obliterate Ambedkar’s searing critique of Hinduism and the caste system from public memory.
At another level, it has also systematically attacked an emerging radical Dalit leadership which is no longer willing to be a mere recipient of RSS’s “benevolence” or the government’s largesse, but is demanding a dismantling of the oppressive structures that continue to cage its people. The government’s response to Rohith Vemula’s suicide; to the flogging of Dalits in Una in Gujarat and attacks on the young Gujarat activist, Jignesh Mevani; the crackdown on the Bhim Army and continued incarceration of its leader, Chandrashekhar Azad; and the sinister move to paint Dalit assertion at Bhima-Koregaon as a “Maoist” plot reflect its fear of the assertive Dalit.
This two pronged approach – seeking to appease the Dalit masses through symbolic gestures while trying to crush the voices of more radical Dalit scholars and activists – was working fine till the Supreme Court order on March 20. A two-judge bench, comprising the judges A.K. Goel and U.U. Lalit, diluted the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 by allowing anticipatory bail to a person accused of insulting or hurting a Dalit, and allowing a “preliminary enquiry” by a deputy superintendent of police or the head of the department in a government office before registering a case.
The order led to massive protests by Dalits across the board. While upper castes have consistently accused Dalits of “misusing” the law, Dalit leaders have argued that oppression at the hands of upper castes is still rampant in rural India and discrimination pervasive in the government and in other institutions. Given this persistence of upper caste violence and harassment of Dalits – which led to the law in the first place – its dilution would set the clock back on the still painfully slow journey to emancipation and equality.
The demand to undo the Supreme Court verdict was made not just by activists but also by ministers in the Modi government such as Ram Vilas Paswan and Ramdas Athawale and by the BJP’s own Dalit members of parliament.
Yet, the Modi government made no move for several days, and finally filed a review petition in the Supreme Court on April 2 – the day Dalit groups across the country observed a Bharat bandh which saw violent clashes in which several Dalits were killed.
Since the Supreme Court kept the review petition pending, the government could have brought in the bill to amend the Act and restore its provisions in April itself. But it refused to make any move. It was clearly afraid of a backlash from its upper caste base. It also hoped that the movement by Dalits would run out of steam.
The opposite happened. The movement spread, and another nationwide protest was announced for August 9. With impending elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, and the general elections not too far off, the BJP leadership realized that it simply could not afford to be labelled “anti-Dalit” at this stage. And so, in the first week of August, it brought in the bill to restore the provisions in the Act which was passed unanimously in Parliament.
The BJP’s upper caste base which came out on the streets last week made it clear that their demand was not just against the SC/ST atrocities bill but they wanted an end to reservations altogether. Many were holding aloft placards that said, “Aarakashan Hatao, Desh Bachao”. Although they did not carry BJP flags, the protesters made it clear that they had been ardent Modi supporters but now saw his capitulation as a cynical move for electoral gains, a classic case of “vote-bank” politics.
The Dalits too see it that way. They know that given their numerical strength, the BJP cannot afford to alienate them on the eve of elections. The sops, however, cannot hide the Modi regime’s numerous attacks on Dalit rights and activists.
Caught in a bind between aggrieved upper castes and assertive Dalits, the BJP chief, Amit Shah, has asked party cadres to focus on “Bharat Mata” to win the 2019 elections. In other words, communal polarization and hyper nationalist rhetoric will once again be attempted to cover up the inherent caste contradictions in Indian society – and the Hindutva project’s intrinsic inability to deliver either social justice or social harmony.

 

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Opinion

Indian elections, South Asian concerns

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By Kanak Mani Dixit

The staggering scale of the election that is under way in India with just under a billion voters is hard for the mind to grapple with, even in this densely populated neighbourhood that includes Bangladesh and Pakistan. The level of worry is also at a pitch, for India should be the bulwark against weakening democracy in a world of Bolsonaro (Brazil), Duterte (the Philippines), Erdogan (Turkey), Putin (Russia) and Trump (the U.S.) not to mention the People’s Republic of China.

Modern India, created by M.K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru and their cohort, should be raising the standard for social justice and grass-roots democracy, and against destructive right-wing populism. This has not quite been Prime Minister NarendraModi’s record, and hence the concern that another five years would redefine the very idea of India.

 

Already, the term ‘world’s largest democracy’ is achieving banality as India gains majoritarian momentum. Centralised control of society would never be possible in such a vast and variegated society of sub-nationalities, we were told, but look at what is happening.

The high principle and probity of India’s political class, bureaucracy, academia and civil society are now exceptions rather than the rule. India’s Ambassadors are no longer the self-confident professionals we knew for decades, they act today like timid note-takers. Higher education is directed by those who insist that the achievements of Vedic era science included flying machines and organ transplants. Meanwhile, the adventurism that marked economic management, including immiseration through demonetisation, has been ‘managed’ through loyal social and corporate media.

Intellectual toadyism and crony capitalism have overtaken New Delhi on a subcontinental scale, but sooner than later this drift towards regimented society and whispered dissent must be reversed. Too much is at stake for too many citizens — India must revert to the true, messy and contested democracy we have known and appreciated.

Parliamentary democracy is the governance procedure adopted by each and every country of South Asia, and the Indian practice has always been held up as the example.

The precedents set by India’s courts are studied elsewhere, the professionalism of the civil service is regarded as the benchmark, and everyone else seeks the aspirational welfare state set in motion in India in the middle of the 20th century. This is why we watch worried as Indian democracy weakens in step with its economy, as inter-community relationships within India descend to one-sided animus, and as New Delhi’s global clout decreases in inverse proportion to Beijing’s.

To cover weaknesses in governance and promises undelivered, Mr.Modi as the solo electoral face of the BharatiyaJanata Party (BJP) has whipped up a tornado of militarised nationalism that projects Pakistan as the exclusive enemy. No one dares remind the Indian voters that Pakistan is the far weaker power; its people are battling fanatical demons more than are Indian citizens; Pakistan is a large potential market for India’s goods and services; and the future of Kashmir must be based on Article 370 of the Indian Constitution.

Meanwhile, Lahore intellectuals watch with apprehension as India copies the excesses of Pakistan’s theocratic state. Dhaka observers are numbed into silence with New Delhi’s vigorous backing of Prime Minister Sheikh HasinaWajed as she constructs an intolerant one-party regime. Colombo rides a geopolitical see-saw as New Delhi shadow-boxes Beijing. And Kathmandu wonders whether New Delhi has it in itself to concede that the amplified Chinese involvement in Nepal is the result of the Great Blockade of 2015-16.

India has been reduced to a giant nervously finger-counting friends made or lost to China. The media triumphalism that greets even modest shifts in India’s favour — be it in Male or Thimphu — marks unnecessarily low self-esteem. New Delhi seems preoccupied with ‘managing’ South Asian countries when it should be commanding the global platforms on climate alteration, protection of pluralism and correcting imbalances in global wealth.

Few note the incongruity of a New Delhi loudly daring Islamabad while acting coy on Beijing, which one would have thought was the real adversary or competitor. Meanwhile India’s celebrated soft power wilts even as the Chinese work to wipe out their English deficit, and Beijing places Confucius Institutes in far corners. Chinese goods flood the Indian market, Chinese research and development gallops ahead of India’s, and Beijing convincingly moves to tackle environmental degradation.

India seems drowsy and lethargic in contrast. South Asia as a whole — much of it the historical ‘India’ — roots for Indian democracy even while welcoming Chinese investment, infrastructure loans and tourists. Also because it has the largest population in the Subcontinent, India is expected to lead South Asia on myriad issues including the death-dealing Indo-Gangetic smog, fertilizer and pesticide use, cross-border vectors, arsenic poisoning, regional commerce and economic rationalisation, social inclusion and the Human Development Index and so on. But leadership requires humility, to study, for example, how adjacent societies have successfully tackled great challenges — look at Bangladesh surging towards middle income country status.

Nepal has long been regarded by exasperated New Delhi policy-makers as the South Asian basket case sending out migrant labour to India. This much is true, but it also emerges that the Nepal economy is the seventh largest sender of remittance to India after the UAE, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, the U.K., Bangladesh and Canada. Unlike these others, Nepal’s remittances go to India’s poorest parts, in Bihar, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.

We switch on India’s news channels and find an abysmal common denominator in terms of civility and rationality. The national intelligentsia seems intimidated, unable to challenge the rigid, dangerously populist narrative of the BJP/RashtriyaSwayamsevakSangh (RSS). We watch as the National Register of Citizens propels statelessness, as the refoulement of Rohingyarefugees points to a reckless disregard for fundamental humanitarian principles, and as majoritarianism weakens the pillar of representative democracy that is the protection of minorities.

India is indeed large and important, but the chest size of a country does not translate into equity, social justice or international standing. Because nearly 20% of humanity lives within its boundaries, when India falters, the pit of despair and the potential for violence open up wide and deep.

The South Asia that New Delhi’s policy and opinion-makers should consider is not the centralised Jambudvipa mega-state of the RSS imagination. Instead, the ideal South Asian regionalism is all about limiting the power of the national capitals, devolving power to federal units and strengthening local democracy.

Modi’s own idea of regionalism is one where he calls the shots. The start of his current term was marked by an attempt to dictate to the neighbours, after which the pendulum swung to the other extreme. The freeze put by India on the inter-governmental South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is only a cynical means to keep Pakistan out of the club.

The sabotaging of SAARC can hardly be considered a victory, for that feather-light geopolitical stratagem fails to consider that regionalism is a potent means to bring economic growth and social justice to India’s own poverty-stricken ‘peripheral regions’ from Assam to Purvanchal to Rajasthan. For its own security and prosperity as well as that of the rest of us, India must re-connect with South Asia.

Sub continental regionalism is also important to achieve New Delhi’s ambitions on the world stage, including that coveted seat at the UN Security Council. India’s global comeback will start the day New Delhi think tanks begin questioning South and North Block rather than serving as purveyors of spin. On South Asian matters, they should pull out a copy of the Gujral Doctrine from the archives, to be dusted and re-examined.

We seek an India that is prosperous and advancing at double digit growth, not only because what this would mean for its 1.35 billion citizens, but to the other 500 million South Asians. For its own selfish interests, the rest of South Asia wants India to succeed in the world.

(Kanak Mani Dixit, a writer and journalist based in Kathmandu, is the founding editor of the Colombo-based magazine, ‘HimalSouthasian’. Source: The Hindu)

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Witnessing the political tamasha in Kashmir

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By Meer Abass

At the onset of election fever, political parties belonging to exploiting ruling class use all kinds of tricks to lure voters on their side and grab power. Politicians resort to anything under the sky to woo voters and counter their rival parties. It’s obvious that in this cut-throat scheme of promises, hardly any political party has a programme or policy that genuinely aims well-being of the people of the state.

Every party claims that their leader is the ‘lion’ of the political jungle as tamashaof the hectic assembly poll campaign in Jammu and Kashmir reaches its culmination.
Getting elected should be very easy. If for five years you work for your voters without fear or favour then getting elected should not cost a dime. So why getting elected costs so much and takes so much effort?

 

The answer lies in the party system and the political illiteracy that our state suffers from.

Our political illiteracy levels are near 95% or more. Even the educated among us are politically illiterate. They stopped getting any education after they clear the class 10 during which they had Civics as a subject (of course this does not include people who did their BA and MA in Political Science).

Our political party system ensures that no representative of the people is able to do anything for the people that elect him/her. He has to follow the diktat of the party. And the party is driven by lobbies that want to get laws and rules made that benefit them. Thus even if there is a lawmaker who wants to work for his constituents, he can’t. Thus at the end of the tenure, if his party has something to show (which they usually don’t have), he can expect to get elected again otherwise he has to depend on the bluff of the party and its ability to convince the people that it has done well for them. Or fake them with the bluster of a fake leader.

And if the representative has been doing good work then his constituents will not even want to see him or hear him during election time. They would have been in touch with him all through the five years and would know what he/she has done and delivered. Thus the cost of getting elected would be very negligible.

Now that is the kind of politics that we should all aspire and work for.

And for a politician that is connected to the people, his/her formal education would not matter as much as his/her understanding of the pain points of his voters and his/her ability to solve their problems.

Therefore, there are two things you can do, one is to get a political education and second is to choose a representative that does work for you and not blindly toe the party line. Best would be to have a representative that represents you and not a political party.

“Walayvasie, aslisherhayy, aaaway (come, my friend. The original lion has come),” sing Kashmiri women folk in traditional ‘rauf’ dance at political rallies.

“Naklishera vatu daira, aslisheraaagaya (it’s time for fake lions to pack bags as the original lion has arrived at the scene,” is a common slogan witnessed in the campaigns right now in the Kashmir valley.

While every party has its own share of slogans but it is the “Sher” which is the common thread in their campaigns in the politically charged atmosphere in the Valley. Kashmir wildlife does not include lions.

The name of ‘Sher-e-Kashmir’ has been prefixed with a prestigious medical institute in the Valley, an agriculture university, gallantry medals for police, employment scheme and the only cricket ground in the Valley.

PDP also invoked ‘sher’ besides its slogans like “SabzukAlam chum aathskyath, aasiydeetaarParvardighar (The green flag is in my hand and God will help me crossing all hurdles)” besides the ‘Sher’ slogan. The flag of PDP party is green.

National Conference has some more to offer their voters like “aapkimushkilkabaaetbarhul, sirfhalhalhal (the only way for a honourable solution to your problems is plough). Plough is the symbol of National Conference.

There are multiple dimensions to how Kashmiris interpret elections. Some call it political maturity and see it as a befitting strategy to avoid having a party in power that has no sensibilities about Kashmir. Those who vote believe that if Kashmiris don’t vote, then the elected representatives will go down the same way as the previous ones have. Many see it as political leverage in negotiating for issues such as an immediate and urgent repeal of draconian laws in force in Kashmir and the release of youth who have been booked under these laws. Some consider it important for a long-term political solution to the conflict, which they think is only possible through consistent dialogue and negotiation with New Delhi, Islamabad and Kashmir.

BJP, besides its “abkibaarModisarkar” slogans, has banners hanging at various traffic cross sections “aaobadle Jammu Kashmir kehaalat, aaochaleModikesaath (let’s change Jammu and Kashmir’s destiny, let’s walk with Modi).”

It is said that in Kashmir nothing is straight except poplar trees, and it reflects the general persona of the biotic of Kashmir. Do we actually qualify to be humans, well what’s happening on the ground and has happened in the past, are contesting this prerogative. So the question arises, who is a common Kashmiri? And what are the aspirations, responsibilities and expectations out of common Kashmiri?

(Author is an Assistant Professor, Department of English, Govt Degree College Handwara. Feedback at meerabas32@gmail.com)

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Opinion

Running on fear in 2019

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By Barkha Dutt

NarendraModi, India’s powerful prime minister, is seeking a second term. But in 2019, he is sounding less like the man who campaigned in 2014 and much more like his previous avatar — the abrasive, vitriolic and inflammatory chief minister of Gujarat.

His first national election five years ago was built on aspiration. Then he used to proclaim that the country’s constitution was his only holy book; he promised “achhe din” (good days) and “vikas” (development).

 

This campaign, by contrast, has been built on fear and on the othering of his political opposition as anti-national, anti-Hindu and, in antithesis to Modi’s own projected machismo, wimpish.

There is little or no conversation about the performance of his government, the economy or jobs. A leaked report from the National Statistical Commission (which the government contested) placed unemployment numbers at a four-decade high; a certain amount of deflection and changing the subject is political compulsion.

But the Modi-led BharatiyaJanata Party campaign has descended from spin to brazen coarseness, fear-mongering and Islamophobia.

In the 2019 production, Modi has cast himself as the “chowkidar,” or watchman — the guardian at the gate who will defend the country against predators and terrorists. The decision to order an airstrike inside Pakistan as retaliation for the terrorist attack in Pulwama, Kashmir, that killed 40 paramilitary police officers has become a major element in his narrative.

Modi even delivered a speech with photographs of the men who were killed in the Kashmir strike forming the stage backdrop; he also asked young voters to dedicate their ballot to the military personnel who led the assault inside Pakistan. Yogi Adityanath, the saffron-robed monk chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous and politically important state, added insult to injury by describing the military as Modi’s “sena” — or Modi’s army, comments for which he has been censured by the Election Commission.

The BJP has defended this by arguing that because the prime minister took a great risk by sanctioning the Pakistan strike — in contrast to the Congress, which took no military action even after the Mumbai terrorist attack in 2008 — the party has every right to politically own the decision. But given the flamboyant nationalism the party claims as its defining characteristic, this debasement of India’s armed forces is, frankly, impossible to justify.

The young daughter of a soldier killed in the Pulwama terrorist attack called out the bluff. “My father did not die for NarendraModi or Rahul Gandhi. He died for India,” ApoorvaRawat, 20, told me. “Can’t you run a campaign without using our families to win votes?”

Using soldiers as political fodder is bad enough. But even worse is the Modi campaign’s message to India’s 172 million Muslims. In the past few years, Muslim cattle traders have been repeatedly targeted by right-wing mobs on fabricated charges of trading in beef. During this campaign, the men charged with the 2015 lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq, a Muslim ironsmith in Dadri, were given front-row seats at a BJP election rally.

A prominent government minister has warned Muslims to vote for her or face the consequences. And in one of the worst election speeches of the season, the prime minister taunted Rahul Gandhi, leader of the opposition Congress party, for running away from Hindu voters to a constituency in the south where “the majority is a minority.” His comments were about Gandhi’s decision to fight from two seats, Wayanad in the southern state of Kerala in addition to his long-standing parliamentary seat in the north. Attacking the Congress is fair but implicit in this particular attack was the suggestion that a parliamentary seat dominated by Muslims is something to be embarrassed of.

Every single day, the marginalization and humiliation of India’s Muslim citizens are being reinforced.

The final blow came from the BJP president, Amit Shah, Modi’s second in command and said to be the only person the prime minister trusts. Shah has vowed to create a national citizens’ registry that will “remove every single infiltrator from the country” unless they happen to be Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist. The official sanction of crude religious majoritarianism did not even bother to disguise its anti-Muslim bigotry. It was tweeted out by the party handle with the hashtag #NaMoForNewIndia — a model of “New India” eroding the very basis of old India: constitutionally protected pluralism.

So far, despite the virulence of the campaign he is steering, Modi seems to be comfortably ahead. There is no visible backlash to even his most divisive words. His persona as a spartan, non-corrupt bachelor, who is “not in politics for himself” — this I’ve heard repeatedly from voters — and his reputation as a decisive leader seem to offset the flaws voters now concede he has.

Admittedly, there is no euphoria of the kind that India witnessed in 2014. But nor is there any widespread anger. And when it comes down to it, voters often add “who else is there” to their criticism of Modi’s first term. It’s like the post-romance phase of a personal relationship — you’re no longer smitten, the sheen has worn off, but until a better option comes along, in your mind he or she is as good as it gets, with all of the flaws. You tell yourself that the relationship is better than being single.

For this, India’s opposition must take the blame. Crude and sexist language by leaders from within their own ranks — such as Azam Khan, the regional leader who commented on the underpants of his female adversary — have somewhat blunted the moral force of their attack on the BJP.

The opposition also remains fragmented and divided. It has been too slow to produce a counter-narrative, and this has only bolstered Modi’s chances. It suits Modi to make himself the central issue of this election and ask, Modi vs. who?

The answer to that would be Modi vs. math.

In the absence of any other national persona to take on the tough-as-nails, ruthless and charismatic Modi, the opposition’s best bet is to bury its differences and work on a series of local alliances. Modi wants a presidential-style election. The opposition can only counter that with regional coalitions of varied caste groups and communities.

For the moment, in one of India’s ugliest election campaigns, the advantage is with Modi.

Chances are that he will be prime minister again. But there has been absolutely nothing prime ministerial about his campaign.

(washingtonpost.com)

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