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Cracks in cabinet

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By Manini Chatterjee

For a long time now, many have suspected Narendra Modi of being the patron saint of the army of trolls that stalks the social media, spewing vitriol against all those deemed to be secular and liberal – or “sickular” and “libtard” – and, of course, “anti-national” in their preferred venomous vocabulary.
The prime minister was given the perfect opportunity to refute that suspicion. He chose instead to confirm it. On June 30, which was Social Media Day, the prime minister tweeted: “I would particularly like to congratulate my young friends for their innovative usage of social media. Their frank method of conveying opinions is extremely endearing. I urge youngsters to continue expressing and discussing freely.”
The timing of the tweet could not have been more significant. For the preceding few days, the external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, had been subjected to vicious abuse on social media by Hindutva, right-wing trolls after her ministry had come to the aid of an inter-faith couple who had been denied a passport by the Lucknow passport office.
Narendra Modi, as we all know, has seldom spoken out against hate crimes or hate speech by those who proudly claim to be his bhakts. He has, in fact, tacitly endorsed their actions. Ten months ago, after Gauri Lankesh was shot dead outside her Bangalore home, the social media was awash with vicious tweets celebrating her murder – and some were posted by people followed by the prime minister. In spite of an outcry at that time, Modi not only maintained a toxic silence on the murder but refused to “unfollow” the trolls.
But Sushma Swaraj is no left-wing activist. She is among the senior-most members of Modi’s cabinet, a top leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party. An elementary job of a leader is to stand by his team members. Yet, neither the prime minister nor the BJP chief came out in defence of Sushma. Taking a cue from their silence, no party leader dared speak out on the subject for more than a week in spite of the thousands of abusive tweets that flooded Sushma’s Twitter account. They even targeted her husband, Swaraj Kaushal, with one troll telling him, “When she comes home tonight why don’t you beat her up & teach her not to do Muslim appeasement.”
On Social Media Day, the prime minister could have taken these trolls to task, or at the very least, asked people to be more careful with their language, more sensitive in their remarks. But his tweet sought to humiliate Sushma more than his silence did. It was a ringing endorsement of the “innovative usage” and “frank method” adopted by the the troll army; an explicit encouragement to their hate-mongering.
But what followed is far more curious. Two days after the prime minister’s tweet, the Union home minister, Rajnath Singh, broke the official silence and said the attacks on Sushma were “unfortunate”. On July 3, another heavyweight cabinet minister, Nitin Gadkari, echoed him.
And on July 4, Rajnath Singh directed the home ministry to ask the Mumbai police to register a case and identify the person behind the rape threat directed at the 10-year-old daughter of the Congress spokesperson, Priyanka Chaturvedi. A day later, the ministry of external affairs came out with a detailed statement defending the decision of issuing passports to the Lucknow couple that had caused so much ire in the Hindutva camp.
On the face of it, these are disparate developments concerning separate ministries. But for any discerning political observer, the real significance of the last few days lies not in the “strategic” silence of the prime minister and his cohorts but in the “strategic” actions taken by Sushma Swaraj and Rajnath Singh through their respective ministries. If calculated silence is part of Modi’s pro-troll doctrine aimed at keeping the hard-line Hindutva base happy, the two top ministers of the cabinet have taken deliberate steps to irk that very base.
Take the case of the passport. Tanvi Seth and her husband, Mohammad Anas Siddiqui, accused the Lucknow passport granting officer, Vikas Mishra, of harassment. They said he slammed Seth because she was married to a Muslim but had not changed her name in the official documents, and also asked Siddiqui to convert to Hinduism.
On June 20, the lady reached out to Sushma Swaraj on Twitter. The very next day, a senior official of the MEA stepped in. The passport was issued. Mishra was transferred out of Lucknow to Gorakhpur.
When the Twitter storm broke out, Sushma Swaraj claimed she was not responsible for the decision. “I was out of India from 17th to 23rd June 2018. I do not know what happened in my absence,” she tweeted on June 24, after sharing some of the abusive tweets she had received.
It is unlikely that ministry officials would have acted unilaterally without the minister’s go ahead. Sushma has made a name for herself by helping out hapless Indians abroad once they reach out to her on Twitter. But this case was different. To take up cudgels on behalf of an inter-faith couple – the target of vitriolic ‘love jihad’ campaigns in Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh – was a politically risky step.
Perhaps Sushma had not realized the repercussions of the move. But after the massive trolling she faced, and the humiliating lack of support from her party and her prime minister, the external affairs minister seems to have become more determined to defend the case. On June 26, reports emerged that the Lucknow police had found discrepancies in the passport application: the name given by the applicant in the passport form differed from the one in her marriage certificate; and the applicant lived at an address different from the one given in the form. Sections of the media had a field day speculating that the passport would be withdrawn and criticized the decision to transfer Vikas Mishra for “doing his duty”.
But in an uncharacteristic move, the MEA spokesman issued a detailed statement on July 5 to counter the “misinformation”. It clarified that under new rules effective from June 1, 2018, police verification of a passport application had to ascertain only two things: whether the applicant was a citizen of India and whether the applicant had any criminal case against him or her. A marriage certificate was not necessary; and the address given by Tanvi was the same as on her Aadhaar card and bank account.
If the MEA statement was a stinging rebuttal to the trolls and inspired media reports, the home ministry’s decision to take action against the troll who threatened Priyanka Chaturvedi’s daughter was even more remarkable. Trolls routinely abuse and threaten “liberal” women with rape and worse, but seldom has any action been taken against them. But within a day of the home ministry directive, the Mumbai police arrested a 36-year-old man from Gujarat named Girish Maheshwari for the rape threat. Maheshwari describes himself as an “accounting associate at Bharatiya Janata Party” in his Facebook account. The BJP has not made any comment on his claim or his arrest.
Let us be clear. Rajnath Singh and Sushma Swaraj are no great liberals. They are no rebels either. Both have quietly acquiesced to the assault on constitutional values, the physical attacks on minorities and Dalits, the abuse and intimidation of activists and liberals that India has witnessed over the last four years.
But they have not actively pushed an aggressive Hindutva agenda either, preferring to sit quietly on the sidelines while the Modi-Shah duopoly went about their “Opposition-mukt” mission with the help of their trolls-and-vigilante cadres. That Rajnath and Sushma – far senior to Modi in national politics and belonging to the bygone Vajpayee-Advani era – have chosen to take actions that go against the core Moditva base are signs, perhaps, of a new churn.
They signal that towards the end of his term, Modi is no longer as invincible as he once seemed. There is a chance that he may not lead the BJP to a sweeping victory in 2019. In such a scenario, Rajnath and Sushma and even Gadkari espy a chance to be the Vajpayeesque leader of an expanded coalition. If Modi returns to power, they will anyway be consigned to a Margdarshak Mandal 2.0. By distancing themselves from Modi at this stage, they have much to gain and little to lose. That is why taking on trolls can be a useful political gambit too…
(The Telegraph, Kolkata)

 

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Opinion

The Indian elite and the erosion of democracy

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By Pragya Tiwari

On May 23, the weeks-long elections of the world’s largest democracy delivered a stupendous victory for the incumbent BharatiyaJanata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A second term for a party which is pursuing a Hindu majoritarian agenda defying India’s secular constitutional order is bound to have repercussions on India’s sociocultural fabric and institutional framework.

It is early to say what these elections might portend but they are already fuelling anxieties among the social and economic elites about an impending transformation of the country. Much of the public discourse is blaming the opposition parties for failing to stem Modi’s meteoric rise, public institutions and mainstream media for allegedly being partial towards the ruling dispensation, and voters for not knowing better than to vote in a government that will upend the Indian democracy and constitution.

 

The blind spot in the torrential outrage is the liberal elite’s own contribution towards this moment in history. Indian democracy is not under threat merely because majoritarian forces are gaining ground. Majoritarian forces have gained ground because democracy has been under threat. And the Indian elite, whose members have had disproportionate access to education, resources, and opportunities in India, have let that happen.

The BJP and its supporters are undoubtedly propagating an aggressive and grotesque brand of nationalism designed to consolidate a fragmented Hindu identity by othering and demonising minorities. But it is a stretch to claim that India had been robustly secular until Modi became prime minister in 2014. The BJP has deepened not created fault lines which the Indian elites had done very little to mend.

India has the world’s second-largest population of Muslims who have remained grossly underrepresented in political life and in private and public institutions. They have lagged behind nearly all other disenfranchised communities on economic and educational indicators and remained vulnerable to patriarchal and sectarian prejudices. For decades, the majority of political parties have exploited the Muslim minority as a vote bank without addressing the wider, more urgent needs of ordinary Muslims.

The liberal elite, including the relatively small part of it that is Muslim, has largely remained apathetic to the predicament of minorities for decades. They have failed not only to follow in the footsteps of India’s founding fathers and articulate an idea of Indian secularism that would take root, but also to counter the rampant bigotry in their own circles.

This inaction on part of the liberal elite has paved the way for hate speech to dominate the political discourse today and fuel attacks against minorities. Upper-class liberals have responded to the proliferation of hate crime by adopting slogans like “Not In My Name” and directing their disapproval solely towards the ruling dispensation. The rot, however, runs deeper.

Modi and the BJP are accused of undermining various state institutions but the truth is this process had started long before they took power.

Today, human life in India is cheap because the criminal justice system is broken and the rule of law is far from firm. For decades on end the liberal elite, who has had privileged access to justice, has thought little to push for necessary reforms that might have mended a broken system preying on its own people and inoculated the country against social division and upheaval.

They have turned a blind eye to endemic delays in the delivery of justice and judicial manipulation. As a result, perpetrators of crimes of various scale have not only enjoyed impunity but have also been able to infiltrate the political system.

Some 43 percent of the newly-elected members to the lower house of Parliament face criminal charges, up from 34 percent in 2014. They hail from all major political parties and have among their ranks prominent names like terror suspect Pragya Singh Thakur from BJP and Dean Kuriakose from the Congress party who stands accused in some 200 different criminal cases.

The criminal justice system is by no means the only institution to fail the masses. There has long been a deep disconnect between public institutions and the ordinary Indian; structural vulnerabilities have made the former susceptible to political pressure over time.

The liberal elite has of late been raising the alarm on infringements on the central bank, the Central Bureau of Investigation, the constitutional court of the country and the election commission. The latter came under the spotlight when it was accused of favouring the BJP in the recently concluded elections. Yet those who have followed Indian electoral politics closely would know that much-needed reforms that could have safeguarded its independence were ignored for years even before 2014.

But the commission’s lapses are not the only issue with the electoral process. There are a number of ways in which the level playing field can and was distorted by the ruling dispensation – disproportionate access to money tops the list. Campaign finance is the ageing elephant in the room and no political party has been inclined to bring about reforms that encourage transparency and regulation in this context. The elites have largely ignored the problem, as they themselves have benefitted from the status quo.

The role of the media as a watchdog of democracy in India has also been eroded. BJP’s victory was a victory of consent manufactured through propaganda by pliable mainstream media and fake news. It was aided by journalistic complacency and failure to push for self-regulation and come up with technological and regulatory solutions to defeat lies.

This complacency is the direct result of the elites’ dominance over the media sector which has reflected almost exclusively their world view, keeping the voices of the subaltern out. Dalits and tribals have been particularly underrepresented in this media dominated by upper castes.

Ignoring all these red flags, the liberal elite has used its privilege to ensconce itself in an ivory tower that resembles feebly the aspirational first world in terms of material comforts, leaving the vast majority of Indians behind. In its imagination, the poor deserve food and shelter but not aspiration.

The liberal elite’s misdirected rage towards the electorate is symptomatic of its shallow commitment towards democracy and its total disconnect from the general population. It has failed to understand that voters who cast their ballots for the BJP did so for a variety of reasons, one of them likely being their admiration for Modi, who as a member of the lower classes managed to rise to prominence and snatch power from the self-serving elitist establishment.

In order to counter toxic majoritarianism, the liberal elite needs to truly comprehend the mandate Modi has won and go beyond lamentation to educate, organise, agitate, and participate in democratic life.

On the other hand, the emerging right-wing elite who has backed the BJP needs to tread carefully not to repeat the mistakes of the liberals and make excuses for a ruling party intent on deepening India’s social and institutional crises.

It is high time that those at the top of Indian society from across the ideological spectrum face the fact that, in the long run, a hollowed-out democracy is not in anyone’s interest – especially in a country as multifarious as India, where a million negotiations and accommodations between diverse communities underpin social stability.

(Courtesy: aljazeera.com)

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Opinion

The New Normal of New India

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By Ashraf Lone

BJP, a right-wing political party, came to power again in 2019, on the promises of “Sab kaSath, Sab kaVishwas”.But on the other side, it also raised the rhetoric of patriotism and hyper-nationalism over Pulwama blast in Kashmir and Balakot airstrike, which later proved to be mere eyewash to hide its failures in the first tenure. From calling immigrants in Bengal termites deemed as infiltrators who ought to be killed to save the honour of “Bharat Mata”, BJP played all tricks to topple opposition’s plans and regain power with a thumping majority.

BJP played its cards well and used every opportunity to demean Congress and the Left. From demonetization to Balakot strikes—it didn’t lose any opportunity to score political points. It even appeased some Muslim scholars and academicians to get Muslim votes. The catchy slogan “Sab kaSath, Sab kaVishwas” made everyone believe that this time “Acchce Din” will arrive for sure. But the sad part is that nor have the “Achche Din” arrived for ordinary people neither has BJP shown any signs that it wants to win “Sab KaVishwas” (trust of all). Indian Muslims have been at the receiving end: abused, thrashed and lynched on a daily basis.

 

The first lynching that happened after the landslide victory of BJP was of Tabrez Ansari in Jharkhand. The mob encircled him and forced him to chant “Jai Shri Ram” while beating him with sticks. Instead of arresting the attackers, police arrested Tabrez, and he was taken to the hospital four days later and was pronounced dead on arrival. Tabrez’s family has alleged that the police denied medical aid to Tabrez. In another incident, a Muslim man, namely Sanaullah Sheikh, was assaulted in West Bengal on theft charges. It is important to mention here that after the crime, the lynchers or the police have framed the victims in false cases to shield the criminals, and this has been continuing for the last five years.

Recently, over 25 people were forced to chant “Gau Mata Ki Jai” in Madhya Pradesh and beaten ruthlessly. And this cycle of intimidation and lynchings continues without any pause.

Hate crimes, particularly lynchings over some petty issues have increased over the last five years and gained pace with the re-election of the right-wing party BJP.

There is nobody to stop these crimes. Government has given a free hand to the bigots and the police to intimidate the minority community. By the communal utterings of some of the ministers, the bigots and ultra-nationalists in the majority community and the law establishing agencies have felt encouraged to go after the Muslims. Some Muslim men were beaten in Assam recently, and in Mumbai, a Muslim driver, FaizalUsman was abused and beaten and forced to chant “Jai Shri Ram”. In Kolkata, a Muslim teacher ShahrukhHaldar was heckled and pushed out of the train. And similar reports are coming from other Indian states.

India has lost its democratic and secular ethos to Hindutva groups and fringe elements, but this hatred and lynchings are not happening in isolation. These groups have complete government backing. Police stand by their side when they commit a crime and Indian judiciary has been reduced to a mockery—where it has failed to convict any criminal and goon in the last five years. The message from the ruling dispensation is clear. To instil fear among the minorities and push them to the point of no return.

India’s Muslims are being marginalized more with each passing day. With threats, intimidation and lynchings, there is an atmosphere of terror engulfing India and its minorities. Social media and WhatsApphas made Muslims more vulnerable to violence. World powers and the United Nations has criticized India over the crimes against its minorities, but India has denied the crimes and lynchings happening on its land.

The pressing concern now is how to stop this madness, bigotry and hatred, which has made the life of Indian Muslims and other minorities hell. What is needed at least at the political level is to come together against this frenzy. To put up a united political front against the forces of hatred and Hindutva is the need of the hour.

We need to raise the issue of these crimes at every level at every front, to save India’s


(The author is a research scholar at JNU)

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Opinion

Sports and nationalism are joined at the hip

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By Mukul Kesavan

Liberals tend to deplore perfervid nationalism in sport in a hand-wringing way, looking past the fact that many sports are mortgaged to nationalism for their needle and their audience. Latin American countries have famously gone to war over football matches. In the current cricket World Cup, Afghan and Pakistani fans came to blows when the two teams met in the round-robin stage of the tournament. International cricket is driven by nationalism; Indian fans who dominated World Cup grounds each time India played were there in their capacity as Indians first and cricketing spectators a long way afterwards. Like cricket, hockey in India was driven by nationalist feeling; when Indian teams stopped winning Olympic gold medals, hockey’s national audience abandoned it in favour of cricket because ‘India’ had just won the 1983 World Cup.

It isn’t just fans; states are very invested in using sport for the greater glory of the nation. Hitler used the Berlin Olympics of 1936 to showcase Nazi nationalism. German Jewish athletes were prevented from participating and the fact that the host country won more medals than any other country made the 1936 Games a triumph for the resurgent Nazi nation. Hitler’s twinning of national pride and Olympic achievement was imitated by many countries subsequently. During the Cold War, countries like the German Democratic Republic made the Olympics a proving ground for the virtues of Eastern Bloc socialism. Similarly, China’s remarkable Olympic success in recent times is the result of an organized bid to raise China’s profile as a great sporting nation. In Castro’s Cuba, the small island’s extraordinary success in boxing, athletics, wrestling and volleyball was an advertisement for the Cuban nation state.

 

For apartheid South Africa, success in international sport was both a way of raising white supremacist morale and strengthening its ties with the Western nations that it saw as its national peers. Even a game as cerebral and individual as chess became a stand-off between the US and the USSR when Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer sat across a board to play for the title in Reykjavik. Test cricket has been used as a touchstone for nationalism. In 1990, Norman Tebbit, then a cabinet minister, invented the Tebbit Test which demanded of immigrants to Britain that they prove their loyalties as citizens by clapping for England in cricket matches and not their countries of origin. Always ready to learn from their colonial masters, vigilante majoritarians apply the Tebbit test with malevolent enthusiasm to Muslims suspected of extraterritorial loyalty to Pakistan.

It isn’t just fans and states, players too are keen on gilding their nationalist credentials. Imran Khan parlayed a great cricketing career and a World Cup triumph into the prime ministership of Pakistan. Closer home, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, GautamGambhir, ChetanChauhan have found synergies between representing the nation at sport and nationalist politics. More recently, we have seen the Indian cricket team wear army fatigue caps in solidarity with the Indian army. At the start of this World Cup, the International Cricket Council forced M.S. Dhoni to remove military-style insignia from his gloves because its regulations forbade such embellishment.

Dhoni, an honorary lieutenant colonel with the Territorial Army, is taken with the idea that India’s cricketers fight for the honour of their nation much as soldiers do and sees no reason why men in sporting uniform oughtn’t pay homage to men in military uniform who give their lives for the nation.

The nation is so hegemonic in certain kinds of sport that even formally neutral commentators, meant to be impartial analysts of the game, are frequently cheerleaders. This is not new, nor is this confined to India. Bill Lawry, Iftikhar Ahmed, Don Mosey patriotically flew the flag for Australia, Pakistan and England, respectively. You can see this nationalism at work in the explicit partisanship of Indian commentators on television, where the ‘we’ is used without self-consciousness. You can see it mutate into a hectoring chauvinism when Dhoniretweets Amitabh Bachchan’s accusation that even-handed commentators (like HarshaBhogle) are insufficiently patriotic when they appreciate the performances of opposing players. It is hard, however, to be persuasively indignant about this because the idea of a representative cricket team is closely bound up with the very idea of India itself. Cricket Country, PrashantKidambi’s excellent book on the first ‘all-India’ team to tour England, goes a long way towards showing how the idea of representing British India, a colonial empire, in cricket helped consolidate the idea of the Indian nation. Cricket and nationalism are joined at the hip.

The idea that there is a way of being nationalist that is both civil and patriotic is attractive, but it seems little more than a good intention in a world where social media has made knockabout patriotism a spectator sport. In a media environment where everything — from the movies to television news to politics — is driven by competitive nationalism, it’s unlikely that India’s cricket fans or Chinese apparatchiks are going to stop seeing sport as a vehicle for national glory and self-esteem.

But luckily for the beleaguered progressive, the relationship among sports persons, the associations that organize sport, the spectators who give sport its audiences and the corporations who profit by it, is neither constituted by nationalism not exhausted by it.

First, it’s useful to remember that not all sports have the same relationship with nationalism though no sport is immune to it. Watching Roger Federer play Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon is a sporting experience that is sublime, where neither partisanship nor appreciation depends on nationalist affiliation. This is not to argue that individual sports (as opposed to team sports) are immune to hectoring chauvinism. I’m sure there are Swiss patriots who die a thousand nationalist deaths each time Federer loses, but in the larger scheme of things, they don’t matter. Federer is adored because he represents some fantasy of classical perfection. He could play Andy Murray in the final at Wimbledon and have most of Centre Court on his side. I know when Federer has won a point even if I’m in the next room because the sound of the courtside roar is different.

Watching Federer is like watching Tiger Woods light up a tournament. The throngs that follow him around the course, the millions more who look up the leader board on television only to find his name, are proof positive of how sporting genius can make national identity irrelevant.

Moreover, while the sports-industrial complex — sports associations, broadcasters, corporate sponsors and media houses — is perfectly happy to piggyback on nationalism to sell products, deals and grab eyeballs, the commercialization of sport cuts both ways. In the lead up to the 2007 World Cup, for example, PepsiCo came up with the ingenious slogan, ‘Blue Billion’, which joined the blue of the Indian team’s uniform with India’s billion-strong population and Pepsi’s corporate colours to create a nimble example of multi-national nationalism.

But on the other hand, it was corporate sponsorship that created the Indian Premier League, the most explicitly cosmopolitan professional league in the history of cricket. This is a form of cricket that threatens to supplant international cricket because the money that it offers cricketers is so much more than what they make while playing for their countries. Some of them, Chris Gayle being the most famous example, have decided to commit themselves to Twenty20 over Test cricket.

Aficionados of Test cricket have to reckon with the uncomfortable fact that it is their preferred form of cricket that is fuelled by nationalism, whereas the shortest form of the game, often derided as showbiz rather than sport, is the form that is transforming cricket into a professional sport where skilled cricketers freed from national structures become travelling mercenaries, selling their services to the highest bidder. One of the nicer things about the current World Cup has been the familiarity among players from different countries because so many of them have been team mates in the IPL.

This is, of course, what league sport has done for more than a century via the sporting franchises created in North America or via Europe’s football leagues where global capital transformed clubs from local working men’s clubs into international brands. This is not to argue that worshipping at the altar of Manchester City, the plaything for a Gulf despot, is better than honking for Team India. It is only to point out that there is no single historical arc that will necessarily end in nationalist trolls taking over sport at every level. There is a countervailing tendency, namely the trans-national fluidity of capital in a time of liberalization, that actively subverts national solidarities. In football, for example, it is clear that the default form of the game as far as fans and players are concerned is club football with national competition getting an occasional look in when a World Cup rolls round. Whether this is a good thing is a separate matter, but when liberals denounce chauvinism in sport, it’s worth remembering that there’s a force larger than the nation state remaking competitive sport in its image.

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