On 14 June, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a report on the human-rights conditions in Jammu and Kashmir as well as Pakistan-Administered Kashmir, and Gilgit-Baltistan. The report examines the conditions that have prevailed in the region following the killing of the militant leader Burhan Wani in July 2016 by Indian security forces, which triggered the fiercest protests the valley has seen since 2010. “Indian security forces responded to protests with force, which led to casualties and a wide range of alleged related human rights violations throughout the summer of 2016 and into 2018,” the OHCHR report noted. The report noted that the Indian security forces used “excessive force” that led to “unlawful killings and a very high number of injuries.” It added that laws such as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1990, or AFSPA, and the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, 1978—or PSA—have “created structures that obstruct the normal course of law, impede accountability and jeopardize the right to remedy for victims of human rights violations.” Despite accusations of abuse including sexual violence, in the nearly 20 years that the AFSPA has been in force, the report noted, “there has not been a single prosecution of armed forces personnel granted by the central government.”
The OHCHR further called on the Indian authorities to, among other recommendations, “establish independent, impartial and credible investigations to probe all civilian killings which have occurred since July 2016,” as well as human-rights abuses committed by Indian security forces including the killing of minority Kashmiri Hindus; “to immediately order the end of the use of pellet-firing shotguns”; to “urgently repeal” the AFSPA; and to “fully respect the right of self-determination of the people of Kashmir as protected under international law.” The OHCHR recommended that the United Nations Human Rights Council consider establishing a commission of inquiry to examine the human-rights violations in Kashmir.
This is the first-ever United Nations report on the conditions in Jammu and Kashmir. The report is based on “remote monitoring”—the OHCHR noted that despite requests to both India and Pakistan, it was not allowed access to the region in order to conduct an investigation. It based its findings on credible and verified information present in the public domain, including news reports, RTI responses, and statements by the government of India.
The Indian government has rejected the OHCHR’s findings. The ministry of external affairs termed the report “fallacious, tendentious and motivated,” and described it as a “selective compilation of largely unverified statements.” The MEA said that the report “violates India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Below are some extracts from the report’s observations on human-rights violations in the region, including the excessive use of force, illegal detention and torture.
The killing of civilians between 2016 and 2018 raises the question of whether security forces resorted to excessive use of force to respond to protesters, some of whom were throwing rocks. International human rights groups have accused Indian security forces of using excessive force and failing to adhere to applicable national and international standards on the use of force.
In responding to demonstrations that started in July 2016, Indian security forces used excessive force that led to unlawful killings and a very high number of injuries. The peak of the unrest occurred between July and December 2016. Civil society estimates are that 130 to 145 civilians were killed by security forces between mid-July 2016 and end of March 2018, and 16 to 20 civilians killed by armed groups in the same period. There have been conflicting estimates by authorities on the number of people killed during that period. In January 2017, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti told the state assembly that 78 people including 2 police officers were killed in the 2016 unrest. However, on 12 January 2018, the state government of Jammu and Kashmir informed the state assembly that 51 people had been killed during the unrest in the Kashmir region between 8 July 2016 and 27 February 2017. The state government also said that 9,042 people had been injured during protests in the same period including through injuries sustained from the use of bullets, metal pellets and chemical shells.
Civil society groups estimate that between 90 and 105 people were killed during the unrest between July and December 2016. According to Srinagar-based Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), 105 people were killed in the period following protests that spread across the Kashmir Valley after 8 July 2016. It claims deaths were caused by injuries from pellet shotguns, bullets, tear gas shells, as well as by drowning, inhaling chemical shell fumes and shooting by unidentified gunmen. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists all claim there were over 90 fatalities in 2016.
Although not as intense and widespread as in 2016, protests across the Kashmir Valley continued throughout 2017 and into 2018, with several instances of violent clashes between protesters and security forces. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti told the state assembly on 23 January 2018 that 172 people had been killed since 2016: 105 in “law and order problems” (85 in 2016 and 20 in 2017); and 67 people in “militancy related incidents” (19 in 2016 and 48 in 2017).
JKCCS reported that 108 people were killed in 2017, including 19 near sites of armed encounters between security forces and armed groups. It claims that nine people were killed by security forces during clashes around the parliamentary elections in April 2017, and four died from pellet shotgun injuries.
In January 2018, the state government of Jammu and Kashmir informed the state assembly that five inquiries had been established to review the killing of civilians in 2016, but it did not specify whether the investigations were completed. The state government added that no inquiries were conducted into civilian killings that took place in 2017. JKCCS reported that until the end of 2017, none of the inquiries had been completed. No case of excessive use of force in Jammu and Kashmir has led to prosecution in civilian courts.
According to human rights groups, a large proportion of those killed during the 2016 unrest died from bullet wounds. According to JKCCS, 71 of the 105 people killed during the 2016 protests died of such wounds. Several cases of civilian deaths caused by live ammunition were also reported in 2017 and 2018. While Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti testified that 20 people were killed in 2017 in “law and order incidents”, 107 the state government has not disclosed the details of how they were killed. According to JKCCS, 28 people were killed by security forces and 22 by unknown gunmen in 2017.
The “Standard Operating Procedures to deal with Public Agitations with Non-Lethal Measures” prepared by India’s Bureau for Police Research and Development recommend that security forces warn protesters before using non-lethal or lethal force. International standards on the use of force also note that law enforcement officials need to give clear warning of their intent to use firearms and give people sufficient time to react.According to Physicians for Human Rights, protesters and witnesses interviewed during the 2016 unrest said security forces did not give any warning before firing bullets or pellets at demonstrators.
There appear to be two distinct patterns concerning the casualties reported from “encounter sites”:
1) what authorities have called “accidental killings” involve people not taking part in protests who are “caught or hit in crossfire” or hit by a “stray bullet”, but Kashmiri civil society organizations and journalists have questioned the narrative of these supposedly accidental killings; and
2) authorities claiming that some of those killed were helping members of armed groups, including protesters throwing stones at security forces.
Security forces reportedly used pellet-firing shotguns and live ammunition in these situations. On 15 February 2017, the Chief of Staff of the Indian Army General Bipin Rawat warned protesters that security forces would use “tough action” against anyone intervening in security operations.
JKCCS reported 19 people were killed near armed encounter sites in 2017 including 4 women and 1 girl. However, no civilian investigations have been set up to look into these incidents. It is also unclear whether security forces launched any internal inquiries.
In July 2017, the Supreme Court of India made filing of First Information Reports (FIR) by police officials and a magisterial inquiry mandatory in every “encounter killing.”
On 9 January 2017, the Chief Minister told the state assembly that her government had directed the police to set up district level investigation teams under the Deputy Superintendent of Police for carrying out time-bound investigations into all cases of civilian deaths in the context of protests. However, the Government has reported no progress in terms of investigation or prosecution in any of these cases.
One of most dangerous weapons used against protesters during the unrest in 2016 was the pellet-firing shotgun, which is a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun that fires metal pellets. It was deployed by the Central Reserve Police Force and the Jammu and Kashmir Police against protesters, some of whom were throwing stones. According to human rights organizations, the shotgun cartridges contain 500 to 600 pellets that resemble ball bearings. The ammunition is made of lead alloy that is fired at a high velocity thereby dispersing the metal pellets over a large area. Experts claim that there is no way of adequately controlling the trajectory of these shotguns beyond a limited range, which makes them inherently inaccurate and indiscriminate. The pellet-firing shotgun was first used in Kashmir during mass protests in 2010; it is not known to have been used against protesters anywhere else in India.
The Central Reserve Police Force claims the pellet-firing shotgun is the “least lethal” option they have at their disposal for crowd-control. However, pellet shotgun use by law enforcement agencies resulted in multiple deaths and serious injuries of hundreds civilians between 2016 and 2018. According to official figures presented in the Parliament, 17 people were killed by pellet injuries between July 2016 and August 2017. According to information received by the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) from 10 districts of the Kashmir Valley, 1,726 people were injured by metal pellets in 2016. In January 2018, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti stated before the state assembly that 6,221 people had been injured by pellet guns in Kashmir between 8 July 2016 and 27 February 2017; among the victims, 728 had eye injuries. The Chief Minister reported that 54 people suffered some form of visual impairment due to pellet injuries. Civil society organizations claim that the number of people partially or completely blinded due to pellet injuries is higher. A right to information query found that 16 personnel from the Jammu and Kashmir Armed Police were also injured by pellet-firing shotguns.
According to human rights groups and medical professionals in Kashmir, apart from physical injuries, many victims of pellet shotguns face serious mental health issues, including symptoms of psychological trauma.
Despite the public outrage over the deaths and mass blindings caused by the use of pellet-firing shotguns, the state government has only set up one special investigation into a death caused by pellet-gun injuries. On 9 January 2017, it ordered the Deputy General of Police-Central Kashmir Range to set up a Special Investigation Team to probe the killing of 21-year-old Riyaz Ahmad Shah, on 2 August 2016. A pellet cartridge shot at close range had penetrated and burst in his abdomen, leaving over 300 metal pellets in his body. The police had previously filed a FIR against “security forces” in relation to his death. However, there have been no investigations into determining whether the other deaths and serious injuries caused by pellet-firing shotguns are cases of excessive use of force by police and central paramilitary forces.
Indian security forces continue to use pellet shotguns in Kashmir today. On 1 April 2018, around 40 people were reportedly injured, including 35 hit in the eyes, by pellet shotguns used against people protesting against the killing of civilians in Shopian and Anantnag districts.
A right to information application found that over 1,000 people were detained under the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act between March 2016 and August 2017. It also found that the state Government had not created any rules or standard operating procedures under PSA to guide the authorities while issuing a detention order. Issuing authorities – usually district magistrates or divisional commissioners – thus solely rely on dossiers prepared by the Jammu and Kashmir Police and reportedly do not verify facts. Additional work may be needed to verify this allegation.
For example, on 15 September 2016, prominent civil society advocate Khurram Parvez was arrested and detained under PSA, a day after being prevented from travelling to Geneva to attend the thirty-third session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Several United Nations human rights experts publicly called for his immediate release, noting that the travel ban and his detention were “a deliberate attempt to obstruct his legitimate human rights activism”. He was released on 30 November 2016 after spending 76 days in detention.
Human rights groups had warned Jammu and Kashmir authorities that minors were being arrested under PSA in 2016 and 2017. Opposition parties raised the issue in the Parliament and state assembly, but authorities have regularly denied that minors were being picked up under PSA.
While JKCCS and the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons claim over 8,000 people have been disappeared since 1989, the state and central governments say around 4,000 are missing, most of whom they allege crossed over to Pakistan-Administered Kashmir. In January 2017, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti told the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly that 4,008 “missing persons” from the state were in Pakistan-Administered Kashmir for arms training.
According to JKCCS, there were at least seven cases of enforced or involuntary disappearances reported in 2017. Of these, the bodies or remains of five people were found a few months later. Three cases were blamed on security forces, while perpetrators have not been identified in the other four.
Impunity for enforced or involuntary disappearances in Kashmir continues as there has been little movement towards credibly investigating complaints, including into alleged sites of mass graves in the Kashmir Valley and Jammu region.
During the 2016 unrest, there were numerous reports of attacks on, and obstruction of, basic medical services that had a severe impact on the injured and general civilian population in Kashmir. According to human rights groups, the fear of being arrested inside the hospital led to a large number of injured patients fleeing before receiving medical attention. Human rights groups claimed that days-long curfews and communications blockades also had a major impact on people and their access to medical care in Kashmir. The Doctors Association Kashmir cautioned in 2016 that the communication blockade escalated conditions of anxiety and depression among patients.
According to JKCCS, around 200 ambulances were damaged by security forces and, in some cases, by protesters during the 2016 unrest. There are also independent accounts alleging ambulances and ambulance drivers were attacked by security forces. The Doctors Association Kashmir documented several instances of doctors, paramedics and ambulance drivers being obstructed and physically assaulted by security forces as well as by protesters. In one incident, security forces allegedly targeted an ambulance driver with a pellet-firing shotgun that injured him seriously while he was ferrying patients to the hospital. Due to several cases of medical services personnel being targeted during the 2016 unrest, the Doctors Association Kashmir appealed to the security forces and protesters to ensure free and safe passage to ambulance drivers and medical staff so that everyone could get access to health services.
Doctors in Srinagar accused the security forces of firing tear gas near hospitals and, in some cases, inside the hospital, which affected their ability to work and further affected the health of the patients. Curfews in the Kashmir Valley also reportedly prevented medical staff of hospitals from reporting to work in prominent Srinagar hospitals as they were stopped by security forces.
None of the attacks or obstructions on medical staff which occurred in 2016 have been investigated despite medical groups and local civil society organizations having documented such instances.
The Sri Lanka attacks: New front, old wounds
By Mario Arulthas
The attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday for many brought back memories of the long ethnic war, which came to a bloody conclusion 10 years ago in May. Although the Sri Lankan authorities are yet to identify the perpetrators, it appears the attacks are of a different nature, one fuelled by global dynamics, rather than a response to local communal grievances. Despite this, the violence is bound to exacerbate already-deep ethnic and religious fault lines, increasing existing tensions and possibly fuelling further violence.
After 1948, newly independent Sri Lanka embedded a virulent form of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in the formation of the state. This ethos, in simple terms, holds that the entire island is home to Sinhala Theravada Buddhism and that minorities are invaders, who will be tolerated if they accept Sinhala hegemony. Any threats (perceived or real) to the Sinhala identity of the country are attacked resolutely.
This revealed itself in racially and linguistically discriminatory policies as constitutions were written, making non-Sinhala communities second-class citizens. To this day, Sri Lanka’s constitution places Buddhism above other religions, assigning the state the responsibility “to protect and foster” Buddhism.
The entrenched Sinhala Buddhist nature of the state manifests itself in its institutions, particularly those linked to security. For example, the military rank and file is almost entirely Sinhala Buddhist. Some of its units, like the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment, are named after ancient Sinhala kings, famed for defeating Tamil “invaders”.
Increasingly violent reprisals by the state against peaceful demands for autonomy and equal rights by Tamils from the 1950s to the 1970s eventually led the Tamil population to seek an independent homeland in the island’s northeast, home to the Tamil Hindu and Christian populations and the Tamil-speaking Muslim groups.
A low-level trench war escalated into a full-blown war in 1983, after the Black July pogroms, in which Sinhala mobs killed thousands of Tamils, looting and burning their properties in the Sinhala-majority south of the country.
During the war, the Sri Lankan military routinely targeted civilians, killing tens of thousands. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Tamil group that emerged most prominently and enjoyed widespread support, deployed suicide bombers in the south of the country with devastating effects.
Meanwhile, tensions between Tamils and the Muslim Tamil-speaking community, who, in many cases, do not identify as ethnic Tamils, increased, marked by violence and massacres by both the LTTE and Muslim paramilitaries. In 1990, the LTTE expelled some 100,000 Muslims from the Northern Province, furthering the divide between the communities.
Throughout the war the Sri Lankan military repeatedly bombed churches and Hindu temples sheltering Tamil civilians; in 1995 an air attack on a church in Jaffna killed around 147 people. While those attacks were not religiously motivated per se, they portrayed the state’s willingness to attack places of worship.
After three decades, during which the LTTE was able to establish a de facto state, the Sri Lankan military crushed the movement, in a brutal crescendo of violence. The United Nations says there could have been over 40,000 deaths during this last phase, while some activists say the figure is closer to 140,000.
To this day, impunity reigns for the crimes committed during the war, despite international pressure for an accountability mechanism and demands by the Tamil community for an international war crimes tribunal. Hundreds of family members of Tamils forcibly disappeared during and after the war by state forces have been protesting and demanding answers. UN officials have warned that impunity may further increase violence in Sri Lanka.
Since 2009, the attention of the Sinhala Buddhist nationalists turned to the minority Muslim and Christian communities. While the security forces maintained an iron grip on the Tamil population, Sinhala Buddhist mobs started attacking Muslim and Christian populations repeatedly. In 2018, there were anti-Muslim riots in Kandy and dozens of attacks against Christians. A report by the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) said extremist elements were able to influence entire communities and lead violent attacks against places of worship and people. Only last week, a church was attacked during Palm Sunday mass.
Muslim and Christian communities in Sri Lanka have responded with remarkable restraint to Sinhala nationalist violence in the past – also because they saw the potential repercussions to them in the brutality unleashed on Tamils by the state in response to their own resistance.
However, the attacks on Easter Sunday do not appear to be a response to past Sinhala Buddhist violence. The perpetrators did not target Sinhala Buddhist, but Christian institutions and tourism infrastructure.
While many Tamil Christians were supportive and sympathetic to the Tamil armed movement, as a whole, Christians as a religious community were not antagonistic to other communities. As such, to see this in the vein of an escalation of existing violence against the Christian community in Sri Lanka would be a mistake. These attacks are likely a hitherto unseen dimension to tensions, a new front of violence in Sri Lanka.
After the Sunday attacks, the tensions that already exist are likely to deepen. Already hate speech is circulating on Sinhala-language social media. There are also reports of reprisals against Muslims, as a number of Sri Lankan officials have said that a little known Muslim fighter group might be responsible for the attacks.
Relations between Tamils and Muslims are also likely to suffer. The choice to conduct an attack in Batticaloa, a Tamil-majority town on the east coast, far from Colombo, may not be a coincidence. The town, and the district it is located in, saw some of the worst Tamil-Muslim violence during the war years. The St Anthony church in Colombo is also one that is frequented by a large Tamil congregation. Consequently, there are serious concerns among Tamil and Muslim civil society in Batticaloa of a flare-up of violence.
While tensions are high in the aftermath of the attack, the propensity of the state to respond with repression must be prevented. The existing draconian counterterrorism legislation has been used to violently repress communities, while journalists and activists continue to face harassment and surveillance. On April 22, President MaithripalaSirisena also declared national emergency, which gives the military sweeping powers.
While those responsible must face justice, a similar crackdown and harassment of minority populations in response to the attacks must be avoided. Otherwise, Sri Lanka risks furthering existing divides and paving the path to renewed violence.
In order for sustainable peace to be established on the island, the underlying reasons for the discrimination against minority communities must be confronted by the majority. In the absence of that, a whole 10 years after the end of the war, Sri Lanka’s future continues to look bleak and minority communities will continue to live on the edge.
Is Election Commission Toothless or Timid?
By Kalyani Shankar
It was left to the Supreme Court to prod the Election Commission to realise the extent of its powers recently.
After the court pulled up the commission for its inaction against political hate speeches, the commission told the court, “We found we have powers!”
After the court reprimand, the EC wielded its powers this week and enforced campaign bans as a punishment on four leaders in UP, including Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, union minister Maneka Gandhi, BSP chief Mayawati and Azam Khan of the Samajwadi Party for different periods, for the offensive remarks they made in the last few days.
For some time now, the role of the Election Commission has come under scanner. There is a debate on its perceived failure to check violations of the Model Code of Conduct and ensure a level playing field for the ruling and opposition parties.
It raises the question whether the EC has no teeth or is the EC being timid? It is significant to note that ahead of the ongoing LokSabha polls, 66 former bureaucrats, in a letter to the President on April 8, had expressed concern over the working of the Commission. They wrote that the EC’s independence, fairness, impartiality and efficiency are perceived to be compromised today.
The evolution of the poll panel has been quite fascinating. While until 1989, it was a single-member commission, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi made it into a multi -member one on October 16, 1989, as he was not quite happy with the then Chief Election Commissioner and wanted to clip his powers.
This had given the government enough space to put its own nominees but they had a very short tenure only till January 1, 1990.
Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao again made it into a three-member commission on October 1, 1993 and since then the multi-member panel has been in operation.
Looking back, it is clear that if the EC decides, it has adequate powers to curb the money power, muscle power and other irregularities as demonstrated by its tenth Chief Election Commissioner TN Seshan. Pleading for electoral reforms, some of his successors like SY Quereshi and Linghdo have also demonstrated their determination to act.
Seshan proved to be the greatest ringmaster of the great Indian electoral circus in a country where nearly 90 crore voters will exercise their franchise this year. He made the EC powerful within the existing laws.
Appointed by Prime Minister Chandrashekhar, he served as a dreaded CEC from 1990 to 1996. Even today, Seshan is cited as a shining example of what a CEC should be.
Even the Supreme Court once told the Commission to aspire for the kind of credibility it enjoyed during Seshan’s days.
Why do people remember a CEC who was being described as a maverick? Seshan’s story is indeed fascinating.
An IAS topper of the 1955 batch, he had once told an interviewer. “I had never conducted an election. I went with two principles: zero delay and zero deficiency.”
He followed both throughout his tenure. He wielded the big stick and implemented the election manual in letter and spirit. Due to his strict policies he was even called “Al Seshan.”
Some of his major achievements include implementation of the election process and the Model Code of Conduct, introduction of voter ID cards, enforcing limits on poll expenses, and elimination of several malpractices like distribution of liquor, bribing voters, ban on wall writing, use of loud speakers, use of religion in election speeches etc.
He introduced election observers and also forced the candidates to keep accurate accounts of campaign expenses.
Seshan took many bold measures. For instance, under his strict watch, a serving Governor who campaigned for his son had to resign. The Chief Secretary of UP was taken to task for issuing an advertisement in a newspaper at the cost of public exchequer.
He recommended to Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao to sack two of his ministers – SitaramKesri and KalpanathRai – for allegedly influencing the voters, but Rao did not act. In 1992, the Left parties even called for his impeachment.
The question then that arises is – has the EC performed well in the past seven decades?
While the successes have not been consistent or uniform, the EC has conducted 16 general elections in a free and fair manner. However, it is clear that there is need for more electoral reforms and more transparency.
Even during this elections, political parties all across the country have been brazenly violating the poll code, whether it is using religion to seek votes, or Rajasthan Governor Kalyan Singh’s campaign to support the Prime Minister or UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s describing the army as ‘Modijikesena.’ These seem to indicate the ineffectiveness of the EC to contain the political class.
While we have to wait for a full assessment of the EC’s role in 2019, as of now Supreme Court’s prodding might help the EC to wield its powers more frequently. Undoubtedly, the EC has an unenviable job of not only organising the massive exercise but also ensure that it is held in a free and fair manner.
Heritage of hex and curse
By Jawed Naqvi
Puting a curse on people and on ancient gods is a human heritage that straddled civilisations and underpinned their mythologies. This unreason has somehow survived in 21st-century India to be propagated by tantrics often with official patronage on TV — not very different from voodoo-practising witch doctors holding sway in swathes of Africa.
Saffron-robed Pragya Thakur says she killed HemantKarkare with her curse because the late policeman tortured her for alleged terrorism. There are two ways this could have come about. First, the official version of how the head of Mumbai’s anti-terrorist squad was laid low on the fateful night of the terror attack on the city in 2008. AjmalKasab shot the heroic officer from close range for which he was hanged.
In other words, Thakur’s angry hex on Karkare induced the young terrorist to travel by sea and, like a heat-seeking missile colliding with its target, he was guided by a force beyond his knowledge to fulfil the mandate of a distant curse.
The other view, albeit discussed mostly in whispers, is the claim by the former inspector general of Maharashtra police S.M. Mushrif. He has questioned the official narrative in his book, Who Killed Karkare? Mushrif suggested instead that powerful enemies, led by fans of NathuramGodse, lured Karkare into an ambush since he was investigating their communally inspired acts of terror. They used the cover of the carnage and contrived a parallel plot to get rid of Karkare in the chaos.
In either case, Thakur’s curse would seem to have homed in on its target, promptly and accurately. It is another matter that the veracity of Thakur’s belief would not hold before India’s constitutional mandate, which nudges citizens to “develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”.
Hindu mythology like other mythologies is replete with examples of curses by myriad gods and sages that transform humans into stones, and so on. Such stories appeared in all major civilisations, but their people now treat mythologies as mythologies, nothing less nothing more.
Celebrated documentary-maker AnandPatwardhan has created a riveting TV serial (available on YouTube) on the subject. It’s called Vivek or Reason, which focuses on the grim battle between obscurantism and rational reasoning in India. Pragya Thakur like Godse-hugging Hindutva colleagues in the documentary subscribes to one set of people while an amazing group of men and women have dedicated their lives to the eradication of superstition and blind faith from the Indian milieu.
It’s an old struggle though, one in which B.G. Tilak and M.G. Ranade, two feisty Brahmins, took opposite sides in the fight for reason. Tilak was the regressive icon, while Ranade was greatly respected by leading social reformer Ambedkar. Patwardhan has pegged his narrative to the cold-blooded murders of popular rationalists NarendraDabholkar, GovindPansare, M.M. Kalburgi, and journalist GauriLankesh by revivalist groups not dissimilar to the ones Pragya Thakur may be identified with.
A most useful tool is this documentary to grasp the fraught consequences for Indian democracy should people like Thakur and far too many others of her flock win the elections for parliament currently under way.
NajmanBua told us with certainty decades ago that Diwali was an occasion when people practised black magic to get even with their rivals. (‘Wokalajadujagaawathain’.) A method was to float a paper lantern with chilly powder, to fly to the targeted person, who would suffer great harm when the lantern landed. Of course, this sounds improbable, which it surely is, but thumb through the works of John Campbell Oman, the British Indologist from early 20th century. Oman has been usefully cited in a collection of essays in historian David Hardiman’s Histories of the Subordinated.
Another book by Hardiman, Feeding the Baniya, has disappeared from bookstores as books critical of wily business practices tend to. The moneylender was one of the most ardent practitioners of black magic and the widely prevalent institution of the hex. That was how he believed he could keep the peasants in constant need of his favours and thus of his greedy attention.
A reason that Indira Gandhi had banned the sharing of met forecasts for monsoons was to discourage this exploitation. Among the many tricks quoted by Hardiman of ways the baniyas, the usurers, would strive to stop rain to keep the fields parched is the one from Rajasthan. “In an interview in southern Rajasthan, I was told that the baniyas could stop rain by pouring hot water onto a small image which they kept for the purpose in the Jain temple.”
Oman recounts other ploys used to drive away rain clouds, in Punjab, for example. “They sometimes made chapattis which they then mistreated in such a way as to offend the gods, the logic being that grain from which the chapattis [were] made came from the bounty of the gods who provided the rain; the angry gods would consequently withhold the rain.”
A hex that would probably make even Pragya Thakur sit up is the one from Punjab. Says Oman: “At another time I learned that a baniya had recourse to a still more effectual method of keeping off rain. He had a charkha, or spinning wheel made out of bones of dead men. Such an article could only be made very secretly and for a large sum of money, but its action was most potent. Whenever the clouds were gathering the baniya set his virgin daughter to work the charkha the reverse way, and by that means unwound or unwove the clouds, as it were, thus driving away the rain….”
It is not whether hexes and curses work, it is what a growing number of Indians expect them to do that should worry a country struggling with subs-Saharan human development indicators, including 37 per cent of the world’s illiteracy.