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For China, Islam is a ‘mental illness’

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By Khaled A Beydoun

Abdulla* goes to bed every night dreading that knock on the door, a knock he has heard in recurrent nightmares and in stories from neighbours. He expects it can come at any moment.

He is an ethnic Uighur and has always called Xinjiang his home. His forefathers lived and toiled atop this land for centuries, which the nascent communist Chinese government annexed in 1949. He is a father of two, a son and a daughter, and a devout Muslim – cautiously performing his five prayers every day behind the veil of secrecy his home temporarily offers him.

In the past months, several of his friends and colleagues have heard that dreaded knock on their doors and in the quiet of the night, disappeared with no trace or warning. Everybody, including Abdulla, knows where they have been taken and kept. But nobody knows for how long they will be held, nor do they know if they’ll ever come back home. Most are yet to return, and those who have returned are shells of their former selves, neighbourhood ghosts, warning others of what looms around the corner for Uighurs refusing to disavow Islam.

In August, a United Nations human rights panel reported that nearly 1.1 million Uighur Muslims were being held in concentration camps in Xinjiang – the autonomous region in western China, home to approximately 11 million Uighurs. Gay McDougall, who sits on the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, claimed that the imprisoned population could be as high as 2 million. Notwithstanding the estimates, the number of Uighur Muslims being arrested, uprooted from their families and lives, and imprisoned in concentration camps – for no other reason than being Uighur and Muslim – is rising with each passing day.

Shortly after the UN broke the news of the concentration camps, Sigal Samuel of The Atlantic reported that inmates were “forced to renounce Islam, criticize their own Islamic beliefs and those of fellow inmates, and recite Communist Party propaganda songs for hours each day.” Male inmates were compelled to shave their beards and were force-fed pork and alcohol – which Muslims are forbidden from consuming.

These concentration camps, which hold more than 10 times the number of Japanese citizens and residents the US government locked away during World War II, are where Uighur Muslims are remade into atheist Chinese subjects.These are horrific sites where fear and physical violence, psychological trauma and emotional abuse are all available tools, wielded to push Uighur inmates to renounce Islam, which the state has called a “mental illness”, and reject the distinct Uighur customs that are deeply intertwined with their faith.

This programme of brainwashing and indoctrination is not exclusive to adults. The state also operates orphanages for Uighur Muslim children taken from their parents, where the process of disconnecting them from their Islamic faith and ethnic heritage is deeply inculcated into their education. At these orphanages, disguised as schools, China is converting future generations of Uighur Muslim children into loyal subjects who embrace atheism and Han customs, pushing them to turn their backs on their families and towards Beijing’s vision of destroying the Uighur Muslim people.

Three months have passed since the UN broke the news of China’s network of concentration camps and the ancillary programmes designed to purge Islam and destroy the Uighur people who cling so tightly to it. Yet, global outrage and political pressure are slow to match the velocity and ferocity of China’s designs to cleanse itself of a population it deems inimical to and inassimilable with its national identity.

Why? Answers can be traced to prevailing economic and geopolitical pressures, namely, nations fearing the economic hit they would foreseeably take if they challenged or sanctioned China for its ethnic cleansing of the Uighur people. China is an economic superpower, and nations across the world rely on it heavily for imports, trade, and more. The economic factors deterring humanitarian intervention are accompanied by a global so-called “war on terror” landscape that opened the door for Beijing, after 9/11, to violently rev up its persecution of Uighur Muslims behind the veneer of countering terrorism. A campaign spearheaded by the Bush administration and the United States, encouraging other nations – including China – to join in and crack down on their Muslim populations.

Today, in a world where nations as close as Myanmar and as distant as France are weaponising Islamophobia to drive racist, populist visions, China is not only joining in, but violently upping the ante, capitalising on this global moment to use Islamophobia to push forward its own populist vision: Wiping out an indigenous people seeking self-determination and standing against the state-sponsored mandate of Han supremacy.

With Islam serving as the spiritual lifeline connecting the Uighur people to their land, their history and to one another, the state has zeroed in on it. If it can destroy Islam, Beijing believes, it can destroy the Uighurs. And this is precisely what it has been doing behind a curtain of global ignorance for years and, even after the UN lifted that curtain for the whole world to see in August, it has carried forward without pause.

For Abdulla, that feared knock on the door is yet to come. It may never come, or it may come tomorrow, or the day after. Yet, the fear of the unknown and the stark reality that every moment with his children, his wife, and his elderly parents, could be his last, follows his every step like a shadow. Beyond the walls of the concentration camps, Xinjiang has become an open-air prison for Uighur Muslims like Abdulla, whose every word is monitored and religious expression closely policed.

He only finds solace in prayer. Prostrating himself before Allah, beginning in the early morning and one final time after sitting with his children at dinner, he prays that the state does not take him away and destroy his family.

Yet, the paradox of prayer symbolises the imminent perils of being Muslim in Xinjiang today, whereby the more people are unwilling to relinquish their spiritual identity and disavow Islam, the more likely they are to be taken way and kept far from everybody they love and everything they know, locked away in a living hell devised to purge them of their faith, disintegrate their families, and wash away their nation.


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Opinion

The Michel gambit

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By Manini Chatterjee

Narendra Modi is the biggest vote catcher for the Bharatiya Janata Party and its most indefatigable election campaigner. But in his zeal to perform these roles, he sometimes forgets that he is also the prime minister of India.

A particularly egregious instance of this memory lapse was on display last week. Addressing an election rally at Sumerpur in Rajasthan on December 5, Modi made headlines with his reference to the extradition from Dubai of Christian Michel — the alleged middleman in the AgustaWestland VVIP helicopter deal.

In his trademark theatrical style, the prime minister said, “Brothers and sisters, you must have heard of the VVIP helicopter scam of thousands of crores… you must know about the letter, Madame Soniaji’s letter… After we came to power, we kept searching for it in the files and finally found a raazdar [keeper of secrets] who served powerful people. He was a dalal [middleman]… He was a citizen of England and lived in Dubai where he served the friends of the naamdar [dynast — Modi’s latest epithet for Rahul Gandhi]…”

The government of India had brought him from Dubai, Modi said, and added with a snigger: “Abhiraazdarraazkholega, patanahinbaatkahantakpahunchegi, kitni door takpahunchegi(Now the keeper of secrets will spill the beans and who knows how far it will reach).”

Political mud-slinging is par for the course during elections. But rarely, if ever, has the head of a government resorted to such a pastiche of lies, half-truths, innuendoes and insinuations on a complex matter with international ramifications which is still under investigation. His speech prompted many to suspect that the extradition — just before the final day of campaigning in Rajasthan and Telangana — was timed to suit the ruling party’s political agenda. Worse, it cast a shadow on the entire process of investigation and delivered a further blow to the already tattered credibility of agencies such as the Enforcement Directorate and the CBI.

Modi may think that he managed to fool the villagers of Rajasthan (and the millions who saw the speech on their TVs or mobiles) into believing that he was the sole crusader against corruption who had unearthed a massive scam. But anyone who has even cursorily followed the chopper scam knows that it broke and was dealt with before Modi came to power.

It was in 1999, during the Vajpayee regime, that the Indian Air Force first made a proposal to buy 12 high-end helicopters for the use of the president, prime minister and other VVIPs. AgustaWestland, the British arm of the Italian firm, Finmeccanica, secured the deal for Rs 3,600 crores in 2010. Soon after, investigations in Italy led to the arrest of the chairman of the Finmeccanica group, Giuseppe Orsi, and the CEO of AgustaWestland, Bruno Spagnolini, on charges that they bribed middlemen to secure the deal.

The Manmohan Singh government put the deal on hold in February 2013 and cancelled it in 2014 on the grounds that it had violated the integrity pact. It also recovered most of the money that had been paid for the choppers. The CBI investigation into the deal also began in February 2013 — leading to the naming and eventual arrest of former IAF chief, S.P. Tyagi, his businessman cousin, Julie Tyagi, and Delhi based lawyer, GautamKhaitan, on charges of receiving bribes.

Apart from members of the Tyagi family, the FIR filed by the CBI in March 2013 also named three middlemen — Carlo Gerosa, Guido Haschke and Christian Michel. The Enforcement Directorate too started investigations to track the kickbacks that were allegedly paid through a network of companies floated by the middlemen. According to the Indian agencies, while Gerosa and Haschke dealt with the Tyagi family, Michel — an old India hand — dealt with bureaucrats and politicians.

During the trial in Italian courts, Haschke turned approver. It is Haschke’s dairies and notes — which he claimed to have written under the instructions of Michel — that form the basis of the allegations levelled at the Congress leadership by Narendra Modi. Haschke’s notes included a “Budget Sheet” in which abbreviations such as AP and FAM figure — referring, according to the BJP, to Ahmed Patel and the Gandhi “Family.”

In interviews to the Indian media from his Dubai residence, Michel has repeatedly dismissed the notes and papers as fake. Michel has said he never got along with Haschke and that is the reason why Haschke sought to falsely implicate him. Haschke, he has alleged, used the Tyagis as a front to siphon off most of the kickback money back to Italy. “The real problem lies in Italy,” Michel told an Indian TV channel in May 2016.

But it is not Italy but an Indian of Italian origin that has obsessed the Modi regime — and her name is Sonia Gandhi. In July this year, after Christian Michel was arrested in Dubai at India’s request, his lawyer, Rosemary Patrizi, and his sister, Sasha Ozeman, gave interviews to India Today alleging that Indian investigators wanted him to name the then Congress president in the chopper deal.

Michel, his lawyer said, was being coerced to make false claims that he knew Sonia Gandhi. “This year, they (investigators) went to Dubai to interview him. What they wanted really was a signature. They wanted that he corroborated telling things that were not true. He said no, I am not going to sign. After that the people went back to India and he was arrested.”

His sister said much the same thing. “They want him to admit that he knows Sonia Gandhi, but he doesn’t. They want him to admit that he is helping these people, these very big politicians, but he’s not. He is just trying to clear his own name,” she said.

Earlier, in 2016, Michel himself had alleged that the Modi government had offered to free the two Italian marines in Indian custody in exchange for evidence linking Sonia Gandhi to the chopper scam. Michel had made these allegations in letters to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg and the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague where India and Italy were arguing the marines issue. Michel’s claim that Modi had made this offer at a “brush by” meeting with his Italian counterpart on the sidelines of the UN general assembly meeting in September 2015 had been dismissed as ridiculous by the foreign ministry in India. But subsequent developments on the marines issue as well as the chopper scam case in Italy makes those claims seem less outlandish in retrospect.

In January this year, an Italian appeals court acquitted both Giuseppe Orsi and Bruno Spagnolini of all charges. The other two middlemen hold little interest for India. The focus has only been on Christian Michel. The Modi government has doggedly pursued his case — first with the Italian government and then with the UAE. In its eagerness to please the UAE leadership, India even helped “abduct” — according to a UN body — the princess, SheikhaLatifa, from a boat off the Goa coast and return her to Dubai. She was said to be fleeing from her repressive father who happens to be the ruler of Dubai and the prime minister of the UAE.

So important was the extradition of Michel that the National Security Adviser, AjitDoval, skipped the G 20 summit and went to Dubai instead — and triumphantly brought the fugitive to India just in time for Modi’s campaign-end flourish.

But Modi’s speech gave the game away. Everything Michel and his lawyer had alleged in the past, and which Indian authorities had vociferously denied, was vindicated by that speech. Modi, in fact, went much further than any CBI or ED charge sheet has by claiming the existence of “Madame Soniaji’s letter” and that Michel provided services to friends of the naamdar. Even before the CBI could begin its interrogation of Michel, Modi was already sure that many “secrets” would tumble out.

Yet regardless of the damage his speech has caused to the credibility of India’s investigators and diplomats, the prime minister is unlikely to retreat. Whatever be the “semi-final” results tomorrow, Modi is readying himself for an even more belligerent battle in 2019. The “confessions” of Christian Michel, he thinks, will provide him just the weapon he needs to tarnish the Congress again and make the people forget the debris of broken promises they are mired in today. There’s a hint of desperation in that hope…

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Opinion

The BJP has a real problem in the Hindi heartland

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By Rahul Kanwal

A deep dive into the comprehensive exit poll done by Axis My India for the India Today Group suggests that the BJP has lost significant support among key sections of voters who had played an important role in propelling the BJP to power in the 2014 general elections.

In these assembly elections, voters in rural areas, farmers, Dalits, tribals, first-time voters and the unemployed have voted for the Congress much more than they have for the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan as well as in Chhattisgarh.

Out of the 230 Assembly seats in Madhya Pradesh, 187 are classified as rural seats. Here, the Congress has a 3% lead over the BJP — 42% of voters on rural seats said they had voted for the Congress, while 39% said they had voted for the BJP. Whereas, on the 43 urban seats of MP, the BJP enjoys a 5% lead over the Congress. A lead in urban seats was enough to save the BJP in a highly industrial state like Gujarat — but it is not enough to bail out the BJP in primarily rural states like MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.

In the 90 Assembly seats of Chhattisgarh, the Congress’ lead over the BJP on the 82 rural seats is a whopping 10%. 46% of the respondents said they voted for the Congress versus 36% who voted for the BJP. In the 199 seats where elections were held in Rajasthan, the gap between the Congress and the BJP on the 169 rural seats is 4% (Cong: 41%, BJP: 37%).

First-time voters were among the main pillars of support for the BJP in the 2014 general elections and in the Assembly elections in the following years. However, across all three Hindi heartland states, more first-time voters have voted for the Congress than the BJP. In Chhattisgarh, the gap is 10% (Cong: 44%, BJP: 34%), in Rajasthan, the gap is 9% (Cong: 42%, BJP: 33%) while in MP as well, the gap between BJP and Congress is 3% (Cong: 41%, BJP: 39%).

The BJP will hope that the disillusionment among first-time voters is more a factor of state level anti-incumbency — and not a verdict on the performance of the Modi government at the centre.

A lot has been said in the build-up to these elections about agrarian distress. Farmers have staged major rallies in the national capital as well as in many states.

The BJP leadership has dismissed the notion of agrarian distress as an opposition-sponsored attempt to sully the government’s image. The India Today-Axis My India data suggests that agrarian distress could really be a serious problem for the BJP. Amongst farmers as well as farm labourers, the Congress enjoys at least a 4% gap over the BJP.

The gap amongst the farming community is highest in Chhattisgarh, where 47% of the farmers indicated that they supported the Congress while 36% said they supported the BJP. Among farm labourers, the gap was even wider — 44% farm labourers said they supported the Congress while 36% supported the BJP. That’s a massive 8% gap between the two parties. In Rajasthan there is a 5% gap among farmers between the Congress and the BJP — and a 13% gap among farm labourers. In MP, there is a 4% gap between the Congress and the BJP among farmers (Congress: 43%, BJP: 39%).

Similar trends can be seen among unemployed voters as well.The BJP trails the Congress by a whopping 15% margin among unemployed voters in Madhya Pradesh (Congress: 48%, BJP 33%). In Rajasthan, the gap is 13% (Congress: 45%, BJP: 32%) while in Chhattisgarh, the gap is 7% (Congress: 43% and BJP 36%).

Dalits and Tribals are the two other important vote banks where the BJP has been trying hard to make inroads. In states like Uttar Pradesh, some sections of these communities had cast their mandate for the BJP. However, in all three heartland states, the Congress has done much better than the BJP. In MP, 43% of the Dalit respondents indicated they voted for the Congress, while 35% said they supported the BJP. In Rajasthan, there is a huge 30% gap between the Congress and the BJP (Congress: 54%, BJP: 24%). In Chhattisgarh, there is a 17% gap between the two parties (Congress: 42%, BJP: 25%). There are 33 seats reserved for Scheduled Castes in Rajasthan, 10 in Chhattisgarh and 35 in MP.

Among tribals, the Congress enjoys a 9% lead over the BJP in MP, a 21% lead in Rajasthan and an 18% lead in Chhattisgarh. There are 25 Tribal seats in Rajasthan, 29 in Chhattisgarh and 47 in Madhya Pradesh.

The Exit Poll done by Axis My India for the India Today Group has a total sample size of 1,97,612 respondents. In Madhya Pradesh, the sample size was 71,125. In Rajasthan, the sample size was 63,041. And in Chhattisgarh, the sample size was 23,964.

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Opinion

In the swirl of change

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By Sohail Hashmi

One is increasingly coming across all kinds of claims of ownership; most are aimed at proving that the “other” has no claim and, therefore, no business to be where s/he is currently located. People are increasingly being told that if you do not speak a specific language or do not follow a given set of rituals or do not eat a particular type of food you have no business to be in a specific place and you should in fact be in some other part of the country or preferably in another country altogether. Those setting up these standards have little idea of how civilisations evolve, how things and ideas travel and how identities are created.

Let us take Delhi as an illustration to underscore this formulation. According to current estimates, Delhi is a city of approximately 1.9 crore people. In 1947 the figure was under 900,000. This almost 20-fold increase is certainly not a result of natural growth. Please keep in mind that a very large population of the city, the Muslims, constituted 30 per cent of the population of the city in 1947. Some of them had migrated to Pakistan. So Delhi, that had about 300,000 Muslims out of a population of about 900,000, had lost all but 6 per cent of its Muslim citizens. Into the newly created India, poured in more than 500,000 refugees from the newly created Pakistan and suddenly the city of Urdu became the city of Punjabi.

Hidden within this larger picture were the numerous other languages that we rarely think or speak about when we talk of the influx of Punjabis into Delhi. With the Punjabis came the Multanis, the Sindhis, the speakers of Saraiki, Pashto and those who spoke the many dialects of these and other languages.

In the East, there was a migration from what was then East Pakistan into what came to be known as West Bengal. Many of those who had worked with the government of British India in East Bengal, travelled all the way to Delhi and were eventually but much later allotted land to build their houses in the 1960s.

So the Delhi that came into being in the late 1940s and early 1950s was very different from the city that had existed prior to that.

The change was all pervasive —the ubiquitous chicken and paneer were unknown as common ingredients of food in Delhi before 1947, the practice of eating on the street is also a post-Partition import. Language, attire and music also underwent a change. New festivals were introduced, Lohri and Baisakhi for instance, and with these came the dhol to replace the dholak and it brought with it the bhangra and the Gidda, and so on and so forth.

In all respects, pre-1947 Delhi was very different from the Delhi of 1977 and the Delhi of today after its transformation in the last 25 years is very different from the Delhi before the early 1980s. This latest change has also been induced by migration, but this time it is neither sudden nor cataclysmic, though its overall impact is as fundamental as the change that Delhi had gone through in the immediate aftermath of Independence and the accompanying disorder and disarray.

Just as chicken and paneer had made a place for themselves in the menu 70 years ago, litti-chokha is quickly moving in from two directions, from the top through fine-dining experiences at places like Pot-Belly near Yashwant Place, and from push-cart stalls outside metro stations. Phrases of Bhojpuri have begun to creep into the conversations on the streets and very soon many of these will become part of the language of the city, just as Punjabi had started more than 70 decades ago.

The point that is being made is culture and its constituent elements — language, attire, food, music, dance, and rituals — that are markers of our identity are in a state of flux. We are constantly changing, adapting, absorbing, appropriating, accepting and discarding things and in that process we give birth to a way of life and a system of values and ethics. It is in this dynamic, in this constant renovation, innovation, even reinvention that identities are fashioned and refashioned and, therefore, to talk of categories such as culture or identities as frozen in time, as unchanging categories, spanning across centuries is flying in the face of facts of history.

We must remember that the city known as Delhi has been in the making for more than a thousand years. We must remember that the linguistic, cultural, gastronomic, sartorial, musical and creative identities of Delhi have drawn as much from the Jats and Gujjars who inhabited the plains in scattered villages as they have from the diverse range of migrants who came and continue to come and reshape the city in their image. And yet the city retains its Delhiness, even as it constantly renews itself.

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