The Kathua Rape Case: The Moral Collapse of a Civilization

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Tabrez Ansari:  the 24-year old man was beaten over hours and compelled to chant “Jai Shri Ram”:  he died two days later.

India has been awash with news of what are called “mob lynchings” over the last few years and another case has come to light of a Muslim man in Jharkhand who was tied up, beaten, and forced to chant Jai Shri Ram over a period of 12 hours.  The man, Tabrez Ansari, died several days ago.  Horrific as this atrocity is, it is also, we might say, part of an orchestrated chaos. One atrocity follows another; attention shifts from one ‘event’ to another, and we do not pause long enough to consider the moral implications of any one atrocity.  It is in the light of this that it behooves us to return briefly to what transpired at Kathua, which has receded into the background just days after the court adjudicated on the matter, and consider whether India has not already entered into a phase of moral collapse from which it may never fully recover.

Early in January 2018, an eight-year old girl belonging to the Bakharwal community was abducted near Kathua, which lies a little short of 90 kilometres south of Jammu. The girl was sedated, taken to a Hindu family temple (devasthan), and repeatedly gang raped by several men for five days before being bludgeoned to death.  Her assailants included the temple’s caretaker and pujari, Sanji Ram, who at 60 could have easily passed for the girl’s grandfather, even, considering the tender age at which girls are sometimes married off in India, her great-grandfather; his nephew, whose name cannot be taken as he is allegedly a juvenile; a young man, Parvesh, a friend of the juvenile whose help was enlisted in abducting and drugging the girl; and at least three policemen, including one sub-inspector, who like the others not only took turns raping the girl but extracted bribes from Sanji Ram to scuttle the probe. Morbid stories have been recounted of some of the assailants being summoned by text messages to have one last crack at the girl:  the Crime Branch, Jammu, has on record over 10,000 pages of WhatsApp messages and Facebook Chats which point to the complicity of the assailants and Sanji Ram’s son, Vishal, who was later acquitted for lack of evidence.

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The Bakharwals are nomads, overwhelmingly Muslim, who are goatherds and shepherds. It is said that Sanji Ram was seeking revenge for an apparent insult to his nephew, and that both and he and police officer Deepak Khajuria were keen on seeing the Bakharwals forced out of the area.  The Gujjars (cattle herders) and Bakharwals are the third largest ethnic group in Jammu & Kashmir, after Kashmiris and Dogras, and they have been struggling to secure implementation of the Forest Act.  Grave as is the question of their economic likelihood, which has always been precarious and has been rendered more difficult by the armed conflict in Kashmir which has placed many of the pastures out of bounds to the Bakharwals, the communal entanglements of the plot are still thicker.

For more than a week after the rape and murder of the minor girl, nothing transpired; when at last the police acted and took Sanji Ram and others into custody, India was witness to the most extraordinary, indeed diabolic, turn of events. Huge demonstrations were taken out in support of the alleged rapists and killers:  I say “alleged” only because their guilt had not yet been established in a court of law, though a special court in Pathankot earlier this month pronounced a verdict against six of them, sentencing Sanji Ram and two others to a term of life imprisonment and three others to shorter prison terms.  Those marching in support of the killers claimed that that they had been framed; among those present in the marches were two ministers from the ruling BJP.  Even ‘perversity’ does not begin to describe the spectacle of lawyers, who one imagines have some fidelity to the ideas of justice and the rule of law, shouting “Jai Shri Ram”—recall the assailants of 24-year old Tabrez Ansari, who compelled their victim to chant “Jai Shri Ram”—and attempting to prevent the police from filing a charge sheet.

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A demonstration IN SUPPORT of the racists and killers of the 8-year old minor, led by the Hindu Ekta Manch [Organization for Hindu Unity]. Source of photo: Indian Express.

Whatever the economic and communal dimensions of the underlying animosities, nothing can explain the sheer scale of the precipitous moral decline into which the country has fallen. Hinduism has long been distinct for reasons too numerous to enter into at the moment, but the pervasive element of the feminine, all the more salient when one juxtaposes it with the stern countenance of Protestant Christianity, Judaism, and the rigorous anti-idolatry of most of Islam, is one of Hinduism’s most pronounced features.  Shakta traditions have a stronger presence in some parts of the country than others, such as Bengal, but the worship of the goddess can be found nearly everywhere in India.  Where but in Hinduism among the world’s major faiths would one encounter the rites of Kanjak or Kanya Puja, which involve washing the feet of little girls towards the end of the Navratri Festival and recognizing them as emblems of the divine?  Can it be that the 8-year old girl who was raped and killed received no such recognition merely because she was a Muslim and the Hindu men who brutalized her were only deploying her body as a vehicle in their war against Muslims?

Three decades ago, Amartya Sen wrote that more than 100 million women were “missing” in India.  He was referring to the severe neglect of females, which begins with the female fetus and extends through infancy and adolescence to young womanhood.  Women may be known as devis (goddesses) and the mythic lore about the ‘feminine eternal’ is prodigious, but in modern India the emotional, physical, and sexual violation of girls and women is rampant.  It would be dishonest to pretend that the problem originated with the rapid ascendancy of Hindu nationalism.  There is comparatively little discussion of ‘dowry deaths’ these days, but in the 1980s and 1990s over 5000 such deaths were recorded every year—and this does not account for bride-burnings that were never registered.  Hindu nationalism is no part of this narrative:  shockingly, but perhaps not so, an affluent South Delhi neighborhood such as Vasant Vihar, chock full of wealthy Hindu businessmen, was one of the epicentres of this gruesome burning of women.  One cannot attribute such murders, for that is what they were, to illiterates, the unlettered and the unwashed, or country people.

What does it take to brutally gang-rape an 8-year old girl and then smash her brains with a stone? And how much more ‘fallen’ can be the state of those feverishly seeking to defend, with aplomb and in brazen view of the public, the perpetrators of a heinous crime and receiving the unstinting support of the local bar association?  The country was “outraged” when a 23-year old woman, who came to be known as Nirbhaya, was sexually brutalized on a moving bus in Delhi by several men in ways that are all but incomprehensible within some commonly accepted moral framework.  She succumbed to her injuries two weeks later. There were to be no more Nirbhayas, so the sentiment ran after 2012, but all that has happened is that now even little girls have no immunity from the depravity of grown-up men.

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Four of the six men involved in the “Nirbhaya Gangrape Case”.

On the 19th century colonial narrative, India was prone to severely mistreat its girls and women, judging from such phenomena as female infanticide, sati, cruel prohibitions on widow remarriage, and the widespread marriage of girls long before they had achieved puberty.  This narrative has its own intensely troubling politics, and we need not endorse all of it; but what is germane is this:  it is doubtful that the levels of bestiality now commonly encountered in India were to be witnessed in the 19th century or before.  The communal cast of what is transpiring in India presently is all too evident, and there can be no question that Hindu nationalism has greatly aggravated tendencies that have been brewing for some time. India is a country that has lost its moorings:  the moral certainties of yesteryears have disappeared and a rapacious and unforgiving Social Darwinism has become enthroned as the new order of our times.  The Kathua rape case is one of the many unmistakable signs in India of the moral collapse of a civilization.  One can only hope that many citizens of India will work to avert this collapse and that there will be no need for an Indian Gibbon.

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*Climate Change:  A Catastrophic Future for India?

In India’s recently concluded elections, there was much that divided the BJP from an array of political parties constituted as the opposition, among them the Congress, the CPM, and the parties that forged the so-called mahagathbandhan.  But there was also much that was common to all the parties, nothing more so than the fact that climate change was almost entirely obscured as an issue deserving of the voter’s attention.  What does it mean for the country that not one political party has shown any real sensitivity to the question of climate change and any awareness of the catastrophic certainty that it will seriously erode any possibility of “normal life” for hundreds of millions of Indians unless the country changes course?

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New Delhi: Capital of India, and world capital of air pollution. Is this the royal city that the architects dreamt of?

To the extent that there is any discussion of climate change in India, it is most commonly viewed, rather erroneously, as being synonymous with “global warming” and that, in turn, has been reduced to the question of pollution.  It is unquestionably true, of course, that air pollution has altogether altered the landscapes—physical, social, economic, emotional—of everyday life in India.  The highly respected British medical journal, the Lancet, in a study published in December 2018 noted that 1.24 million deaths, accounting for 12.5% of all deaths in India, could be attributed to air pollution in 2017.  Delhi did not have a single day in 2018 when the air quality was recorded as “good”; alarmingly, it has the distinction of being the most polluted megalopolis and capital in the world, even if there are smaller cities, such as neighboring Gurgaon, that are still more polluted.

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Air pollution level monitor in Lodhi Colony, New Delhi.

Seven of the world’s 10 most polluted cities are in India.  Schools over most of north India have to be shut down every winter for at least a few days since the air poses a peril to children.  While the poor are disproportionately affected, and constitute the bulk of those who become “climate refugees”, elite South Delhi neighborhoods cannot escape altogether the dire consequences of hazardous levels of air pollution.  In a country where little these days is democratic, air pollution at least promises to be unsparing of the rich and the poor alike.

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Gurugram, formerly Gurgaon: not much is visible of this satellite city ringed by skyscrapers and fancy restaurants, as well as massive potholes and the usual ramshackle structures that constitute the Indian ‘city’. It has been named the most polluted city in the world alongside neighboring Delhi.

However, climate change signifies something even more ominous than global warming, which is a reference to the earth’s rising surface temperature on account of the greenhouse effect caused by increased levels of carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons, and other gases and pollutants.  In consequence of this warming, glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, and the habitats of most wildlife are being decimated.  Though the process whereby nature has been altered by the impress of human activity has been going on for thousands of years, the Industrial Revolution precipitated a massive increase, by several orders of magnitude, in global warming; over the course of the last five decades, especially, the hand of man has “achieved”, if that is the word, in the span of one human lifetime what would have normally have been done over hundreds of thousands of years in geologic time.

Smoke billows as a truck drives past the waste of leather tanneries at a dumpyard in Kanpur

Kanpur in 2019: in British times, it was known as Cawnpore, and it is today another contender for the world’s most polluted city. The assault on the senses is of a magnitude scarcely comprehensible to those in the affluent West or Japan.

To live in the anthropocene age, then, means that we have to for the first time contend with the fact that human history intersects with geological history in unprecedented ways.  The complex planetary weather and climate systems have been altered by the hand of man.  Some parts of the earth are cooling, if in the short run, even as most others are warming; extreme weather events are becoming more common worldwide.  Himalayan glaciers have been melting at record pace, and the Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment, jointly authored by scientists from Nepal, India, China, Tibet, and Bangladesh, suggests that most of these glaciers will have disappeared by 2100, and in the Central and Eastern Himalayas by as early as 2035.  The loss of forest cover in India over the last 17 years is about four times the size of Goa:  the carbon locked up in the tissues of trees that are felled is released into the air and further contributes to the greenhouse effect. The entire phenomenon of climate refugees, often displaced when their farms and livelihood have been destroyed by an environmental disaster, and climate migrants to India, fleeing rising sea levels in Bangladesh and increasing salt-water intrusions in the Sundarbans, has barely registered in public discourse.  “By 2020,” the World Bank notes, “the pressure on India’s water, air, soil and forests is expected to become the highest in the world.”

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This picture taken on November 22, 2018 shows a general view of the Imja glacial lake controlled exit channel in the Everest region of the Solukhumbu district, some 140km northeast of Kathmandu. Photo Credit: PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images.

The metropolitan centers in India have had something of a public discourse around pollution—caused largely by industrial emissions, household emissions, and vehicular traffic—since environmental activists such as Anil Aggarwal brought this matter to the fore in the 1980s.  Every winter there is something of a hue and cry over the unbearable levels of pollution, especially if schools are closed for a few days, but the country as a whole appears to be both singularly ill-informed about, and indifferent to, the entire question of climate change.  Academic work in India, barring a voice here and there, has continued apace as though speaking of climate change was a luxury in a country where issues of grinding poverty, resurgent nationalism, xenophobia, conflicts over caste, staggering unemployment, and violence against women stare one in the face.  The poor, of course, are more likely to be pushed into the ranks of climate migrants and refugees; they will be disproportionately affected by rising sea levels, climate-induced droughts, or rising temperatures.  The poor are also far more likely to be susceptible to respiratory problems or succumb to heat waves.  These are doubtless some of the reasons why the question of climate change remains to the elites and the country’s middle class something of an abstraction, though if they think that way they have yet to awaken to the fact that the devastations wrought of climate change will spare no one.

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School children in Delhi on a polluted winter morning.

 

As the recent elections demonstrated, political parties in India have shown little awareness of the critical importance of climate change.  The political manifesto of the Congress party devotes several paragraphs to “environment and climate change”, but strikingly Congress politicians made absolutely no mention of climate change when they were canvassing for votes.  People do not read manifestos, as the BJP surely surmised.  Not surprisingly, the BJP performance in this matter is, if anything, more pathetic.  The BJP manifesto speaks of increasing India’s “renewable energy” capacity, and how climate change and terrorism are issues which the country seeks to address. Just how climate change is to be addressed is altogether ignored.  Some politicians may think that installation of solar panels is enough to address the question of climate change, but that is only a reflection of how singularly ill-informed they are of the gravity of the problem.

Many people of liberal disposition with whom I’ve spoken have pointed to China’s apparent success in greatly diminishing pollution levels in the country’s huge metropolises, including Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.  Some readers might recall the headlines that appeared regularly in newspapers around the world in the early parts of this decade, through 2015-16, excoriating the Chinese government for unregulated development that had turned cities into death traps.  The Guardian, relying upon a study completed at the University of California, noted on 14 August 2015 that “Air pollution in China is killing 4000 people every day”. “Smog so Thick, Beijing Comes to a Standstill,” declared the New York Times on 8 December 2015 as an environmental emergency was declared and schools, factories, and major roads were shut down.  The latter newspaper, three years later, found it apt to reverse itself with this unequivocal headline:  “Four Years After Declaring War on Pollution, China is Winning” (New York Times, 12 March 2018).  Though the air pollution level in Beijing is still five times higher than the limit set by WHO, Beijing is not even half as polluted as Delhi, and air pollution levels in Beijing dropped by 40% over 2016-18.

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The pollution levels in Beijing and Delhi on 31 October 2018.

One is scarcely surprised, then, that Indians are being advised that the Chinese should be emulated.  One major Indian English-language daily’s view on this matter is representative:  “A Lesson or Two Delhi Can Learn from Beijing, Once Most Polluted,” declares the writer, suggesting that China’s “all-out-war against air pollution” is a model that India must follow if it seeks to save itself from “airpocalypse.”  The metaphor of “war” should itself be cause for concern:  we’ve had the war on terror, the war on drugs, the war on poverty, and all such ‘wars’ have, to use an euphemism with its own unsavory histories, collateral damage.  In the case of China, as a very recent scientific study suggests, a decrease in pollution levels in the large cities was achieved by moving energy production with the concomitant increase in air pollution levels to the countryside.  There is a larger problem here, and subject for other blog essays, namely that the countryside exists in most countries as ancillary to the city, as a place whose inhabitants are routinely called upon to sacrifice themselves for the nation.  The ‘Great Leap Forward’ exacted the lives of tens of millions nearly six decades ago, largely from the countryside where peasants dying from hunger were treated as disposable excess matter, and I suspect that the very same attitude persists to the present day, even if the sugarcoating has become more sophisticated.

This is not to say that there may be not be some “lessons” to be learnt in India from China’s attempts at reducing air pollution levels.  But there is far from being a policy on climate change as a whole in China that is worthy of emulation.  The only thing that is certain is that if we in India do not start addressing the question of climate change at once, there will be little, if anything, left to discuss a few decades from now.

*On Being at the Top of the World:   Mt. Modi and Mt. Everest

I opened the newspapers on May 24th to two disconcerting even stupefying stories that are wholly unrelated and yet, to my mind, seem strangely if not inextricably linked in several ways.  Both stories captured the world’s attention, if for altogether different reasons.  In India, the incumbent Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, had not only retained his seat in Varanasi by a huge margin but he had led his party to a crushing and decisive victory over his political foes, scattering his opponents like atoms in the dust.  The Indian Express’s chief political columnist, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, headlined the achievement of Modi with the phrase, “Staggering Dominance”.  Some in the media spoke of his “landslide reelection”, while others described the unambiguous “mandate” he had received from the country.

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The Tweeting Yogi: Narendra Modi meditating at Kedarnath. He tweeted this image, just before the conclusion of the elections. Source: Hindustan Times.

In neighboring Nepal, meanwhile, the summit of Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world at 29,028 feet, had become something like a clogged highway. “On Mt. Everest,” the article in the New York Times stated, “Heavy Traffic isn’t Just Inconvenient.  It Can Be Deadly.”  The photograph accompanying the article tells a story staggering in the extreme:  mountaineers are queued up, as people in South Asia often are at bus stations, railway ticket offices, cinema halls, and government offices, to climb the summit.  The line is several hundred meters long, perhaps even longer than a mile. Death at the highest point on earth can be caused by frostbite, oxygen depletion, long exposure to the inclement weather, high altitude sickness—and, now, a traffic jam.  Two climbers had died under these difficult circumstances when the first reports appeared on May 23-24; in the following days, at least another eight climbers died.  In 2018, by contrast, five climbers had died during the entire climbing season.

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The Zoo Atop the World: The line for the summit at Mt. Everest, May 2019. Source: Getty Images.

So what does it feel like being at the top of the world?  Narendra Modi would know, and what is wholly distinct about him is that he stands in singular and sinister isolation at the summit of Indian politics. The BJP had almost wiped out the Congress, and nearly all other opposition, in 2014; no one, barring perhaps the BJP, which in the voice of Modi has declared that it aims to win the votes of all 900 million Indian voters, thought that the 2019 election outcome would result in the further decimation of the opposition. Under the existing rules of the Indian Parliament, established by the first Lok Sabha speaker, G. V. Mavlankar, and finally codified under the Parliament (Facilities) Act 1998, an official “leader of the opposition” in either House cannot be declared until an opposition party has at least 10% of the seats.  With 44 seats in 2014 the Congress did not qualify as the “opposition” in the Lok Sabha, which has a membership of 543.  Having fallen short of the target of 55 seats by 3 seats this year, the Congress still does not quality.

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PM Jawaharlal Nehru with Ganesh Vasudev Mavalankar, the first Speaker of the Lok Sabha. Source: The Hindu Group.

We may say, then, that Modi rules the Indian political scene much as Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi did in their times.  It may be comforting for Modi’s critics to believe that those who rise so spectacularly to the top are likely to have a precipitous fall:  that is not always the case.   The greater concern, to invoke Lord Acton’s maxim, is that “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely”.  If Modi and the BJP have captured all the institutions of state power, and bankrupted or emasculated those which are not so readily pliable to the will of the party, the circumstances for the longevity of Indian democracy in any meaningful sense of the term cannot be described as propitious.  More than 70 years after independence, the summit should have been crowded—with ideas, with the play of the imagination, with parties speaking in different tongues and articulating compelling narratives of social justice.  Instead, what do we find?  The Congress has become moribund, the Communists eviscerated.  There is only one narrative now—call it Hindu pride or call it the Hindu nation-state, but it is more effectively captured by one word:  Modi.  “In New India,” as one newspaper put it, “the prime minister towers above all parties, including his own.”

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An Image from Pakistani Television. Source: You Tube.

Ironically, at the summit of Mt. Everest, where it should have been all quiet, the parking lot is full. The Arizona doctor who arrived on the summit was in for a surprise:  on the flat part of the summit, about the size of two ping-pong tables, 15-20 mountaineers were jockeying for positions to take selfies.  He thought he had arrived at a “zoo.”  The saints who in India have for millennia been arguing that there is no solitude anywhere except within one’s own self perhaps knew a thing or two that we may be recognizing today—even atop Everest.  Why do people climb Everest?  We doubtless know all the answers:  the thrill associated with taking risks, the flirtation with death, the challenge it poses to even experienced climbers, the human need to continue to scale new heights, and others in that vein.  One person, I forget who, put it starkly, and with likely greater plausibility:  because it is there.

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Line Up, Please, for the Summit: The delights of Mt. Everest and Being on Top of the World. Source: National Geographic.

The history books which speak of Everest being first “conquered” by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norway in 1953 are still closer to the truth in that they suggest, if unwittingly, that the narrative of conquest has all along triggered the exodus to Everest.  This exodus has, besides the zoo at the summit, created a veritable garbage dump all along the path from the base camp to the summit.  Though Modi stands singularly at the top of the world, and Everest as the top of the world has become a crowded place, Mt. Modi and Mt. Everest share, in more ways than we can imagine, threads of the same narrative of conquest, of twitter and selfies, and the difficulties of solitude and reflection in these times.  We don’t know how many lives have been discarded on the ascendant path to Mt. Modi and Mt. Everest and where it will stop.

(First published on ABP Live Blog under the same title, here.)

 

 

 

 

 

*The Victory of the Hollow Men:  India’s Lost Generation

(First of an occasional series on the Indian Elections of 2019 and its outcome)

In the mid-1920s, a few years after he had published his early masterpiece, The Wasteland, T. S. Eliot wrote a poem which is apt for our times.  He called it “The Hollow Men”.  Eliot had witnessed a generation lost to what, until that time, had unquestionably been the most brutal war of modern history.  World War I took millions of lives, leaving behind a trail of misery, destruction, and deep depression.  The wise men of the times, and those with a sunny disposition, called it the “war to end all wars”; and, yet, it paved the way, though scarcely anyone could have imagined it at that time, for a still more destructive war.

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Narendra Modi and Amit Shah: Architects of a Victory.

Narendra Modi has achieved in India a victory of such calamitous proportions that its consequences will reverberate for decades to come.  He has amassed power on a scale unwitnessed in the experience of the vast majority of Indians.  The BJP and its supporters are describing it as a magnificent achievement, a stupendous outcome—and stupendous it is, not merely on account of the evisceration of what one even hesitates to call “the opposition”, but because the victory has been delivered by a massive and largely unsuspecting electorate rather than having been achieved at the barrel of the gun or even by coercion.  It is pointless at this juncture to argue whether some EVMs were tampered with, or whether the outcome was foretold by the extraordinary resources that the BJP brought to this election, including vast sums of unaccounted money contributed by the crony capitalists who must be exulting yet again at the victory of their champion, a self-proclaimed ordinary chai-wallah.  The indisputable fact established by the electoral results is that the BJP, even if the playing field had been somewhat more level, would easily still have been triumphant.

Most analyses of the election have focused on Narendra Modi’s spectacular success in projecting himself as indispensable to the nation and as the only person at all capable of catapulting India on to the global stage as a supposed world power.  One study after another has shown, or has attempted to establish, that many electors cast their vote for Modi, and Modi alone.  If Donald Trump is now the Republican Party, Modi is the BJP.  Doubtless, the BJP has a massive following, and many among the ranks of the party’s acolytes have an ideological commitment to political positions advocated by the party, just as Amit Shah has displayed, as he has since his rehabilitation within the BJP before the 2014 election, a mastery of organizational details and a ravenous appetite for propaganda.  Nevertheless, it is also necessary to recognize that Modi stands, singularly so, at the summit of Indian politics.

The consequences of this election, however, cannot be reduced to questions about the future of the Congress, the personality of Modi or his style of governance, and whether the BJP will have the grace to rule with something that might be described as civility, and even whether the battle lines are likely to harden between the Hindu extremists who have been emboldened by the victory and all those who are rightly alarmed if not terrified at the prospect of a Hindu Rashtra.  The BJP’s warriors may already be starting to prepare for the next battle, but the rot has unfortunately, indeed I should say tragically, already set in.  The BJP spent the previous five years in decimating the institutions that are the bulwark of any democracy.  The country’s leading public universities, among them Delhi University and JNU, have been gutted; the Election Commission has not merely seen better days, but is shorn of much of its credibility; and the army, which was long been distinguished from the army of neighboring Pakistan as an institution that stayed outside the fray of politics, has increasingly been drawn into political scandals.

It would be difficult to identify institutions of the state that have not been hollowed out.  That is what hollow men do.  The BJP is utterly devoid of any imagination, and for intellectuals the party hacks and their devoted followers have nothing but absolute contempt.  The Prime Minister has made the customary noises, following the election, about carrying everyone along with him and the need for “inclusive growth”.  There are the usual slogans about sabka saath, sabka vikas, and the call to the party to strive for sabka vishwas:  all mindless chatter, the most predictable ploys to shore up the idea of the magnanimous victor.  Among the vanquished, there will be much talk about weathering the storm for the next five years.

I have described the electorate that delivered a victory to Modi and the BJP as “unsuspecting”, and I do so with the full awareness that, as will doubtless be pointed out to me, among those who voted for the incumbent many did so with the expectation that he will stand up for the Hindu, fill (as it is imagined) the much maligned Hindus with pride, make India Congress-free, and—to speak of hope against hope—vindicate “the common man”.   But the electorate is unsuspecting because there is, in my view, little realization that with this victory an entire generation of Indians is now lost to values of civility, decency, and moral probity.  It is, for the moment, immaterial whether the BJP implodes five years from now, or, miraculously, the Congress or some other force emerges to offer viable opposition.  An entire generation will now have to pay the price for the obliteration of social goods that we hold in common and the values that are enshrined in the Constitution of India.  The BJP has already, in effect, described this victory as total, as, so to speak, the war that ends all wars.  It will take a generation, I suspect, to recover our humanity even partially from what has been wrought by “the hollow men” of our times.

 

*Lovers of the Motherland:  Pragya Thakur and the Glorification of Gandhi’s Assassin

I write this small piece as an addendum to my essay, from less than a week ago, on Pragya Thakur, a mean-spirited, callous, and I should say wretched woman disguised as a holy person.  I don’t know that Mohandas Gandhi ever described anyone, not even his most ardent opponents, as “callous” and certainly not as “wretched”, but the ideals by which Mohandas Gandhi lived are exacting and not easily observed by ordinary mortals.  However, the standards set by Gandhi at the very least stop me from using more stringent language to describe a woman who is as bigoted and insensitive as she is a vainglorious lout who carries within her the malodorous air that everywhere accompanies the Bharatiya Janata Party.

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Nathuram Godse (left, front row), Narayan Apte (right, front row), Vinayak Savarkar (right, back row), and others at their trial on charges of murder and conspiracy for the assassination of Gandhi. Dour-looking as always, Savarkar tried to keep the attention away from himself.

In her most recent foray into the public sphere a couple of days ago, Pragya Thakur, who was put up as the BJP’s candidate for the Lok Sabha seat in Bhopal, described the assassin of Gandhi as a patriot, and more.  “Nathuram Godse”, she said, “desh bhakt the, hain, or rahenge”: this murderer “was, remains, and will continue to be a lover of the motherland”.  Over the last several years, I have been writing about how Nathuram Godse is truly venerated by the BJP and other Hindu nationalists, and their efforts to distance themselves from the assassin should be treated not merely with suspicion but with the assurance that such efforts are wholly fraudulent.  The same BJP, it must be recalled, some years ago installed a portrait of Vinayak Savarkar in Parliament, and Narendra Modi has been caught on tape performing obeisance before this image.  It must not be forgotten that Savarkar—and it is doubtful that anyone has been less deserving of the appellation “Veer” [Brave] that was erroneously conferred on him—was among those tried as part of a conspiracy to murder Gandhi.  Though evidence against him was found wanting, no serious student of the history of those times has ever had reason to doubt Savarkar’s contempt and hatred for Gandhi and, equally, his nefarious role in instigating the murderers of Gandhi.  If at all Savarkar had the gift for anything, it was for charming or seducing others to do the most dastardly deeds for which he never had the daring:  the smoking gun, he made sure, was never to be found in his hands.

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PM Modi paying his obeisance to Savarkar. “The Economist”, which I cite since the educated middle class in India adores this magazine, carried this photograph in an article entitled “Savarkar, Modi’s Mentor: The Man Who Thought Gandhi a Sissy” (17 December 2014). Photo: Getty Images. Source: https://www.economist.com/christmas-specials/2014/12/17/the-man-who-thought-gandhi-a-sissy

As can be expected, Pragya Thakur has now issued an apology.  The assassins of Gandhi’s memory are, not surprisingly, bereft of imagination:  not only do they lie, but their lies are pathetic.  This supposed apology by Thakur was accompanied by the usual claim that her earlier words had been “twisted” by the media and taken out of context.  She now says of Gandhi that “his work for the country cannot be forgotten.”  Nathuram Godse, unlike Pragya Thakur, cannot be viewed as unintelligent; but how someone like her, who reeks of mediocrity in every respect, could have risen so far in the estimation of the BJP is a sign of the absolute rot which has befallen the party.  The Election Commission, which has seen much better days, had banned her earlier this month from campaigning for 72 hours after her offensive remarks on Hemant Karkare.  It is possible that they will now pass some strictures against her, though if the Commission wants to remain some semblance of integrity, they have no recourse but to cancel Pragya Thakur’s candidature.

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The Gandhi Murder Trial at the Red Fort, 22 June 1948. Sarvarkar is in the back row: he does not look cheerful, unlike many of his other compatriots.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Modi has played the part for which the script was written beforehand.  “I will never be able to forgive Sadhvi Pragya”, Modi has told the TV Channel News24, “for insulting Bapu.”  But notice the sleight of hand:  he refers, in his interview remarks in Hindi, to Pragya’s attempt at atonement:  “She sought to apologize, but let’s leave that aside; in my mind, I can never forgive her.”  The supposition is that the nation might forgive her, and that is for the nation to decide; but he, Modi, with his unimpeachably high moral standards, cannot forgive her.  So Pragya Thakur has fallen in his eyes—as if someone, whose actions throughout her life point to her utter disdain for the lives of others, had left any room to fall at all.  Modi would like everyone to forget that he and Amit Shah, the party’s managerial guru, hand-picked Pragya Thakur for the Bhopal seat.  But Pragya Thakur has revealed, howsoever inadvertently, that notwithstanding the BJP’s attempt to distance itself from her remarks by characterizing them as personal opinions, the party itself stands condemned for its unstinting admiration for Nathuram Godse.  As Pragya Thakur said when asked to explain her remarks, “The party line is my line” (“party ki line meri line hain”).  The terrorist has spoken and her words should not be censored.

*A “Natural Alliance”:  India, Israel, the United States, and the Muslim in the National Imaginary

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Benjamin Netanyahu and Narendra Modi shortly after Modi’s arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv, 4 July 2017. Source: Times of Israel.

As Israel prepares to celebrate the anniversary of its founding on May 14, 1948, the transformation in its relationship with India over the course of the last seven decades offers a palpable demonstration of the fact that there are no permanent foes or friends in politics.  India voted with Arab states in opposition to the UN Partition Plan that divided Palestine into two states, and formal diplomatic relations between India and Israel date back only to 1992.  Yet today India, the world’s second largest importer of arms and accounting for 9.5% of the global total, is Israel’s largest arms market just as Israel is the second largest exporter, after Russia, of arms to India.  Over the past decade, Indian imports of Israeli arms have increased by 285 percent.  In July 2017, Narendra Modi not only became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, but he pointedly, unlike Indian cabinet ministers on previous official visits, did not go to Palestine—not on that trip. Benjamin Netanyahu returned the compliment with the following official pronouncement on 13 January 2018:  “This evening I am leaving on an historic visit to India.  I will meet with the Prime Minister, my friend Narendra Modi, with the Indian President and with many other leaders. . . . We are strengthening ties between Israel and this important global power.  This serves our security, economic, trade and tourism interests . . . This is a great blessing for the state of Israel.”

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Benjamin Netanyahu with his wife Sara by his side tries his hand at a spinning wheel — where else but at Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad, January 2018. With devoted followers such as these, Mohandas Gandhi scarcely needs any enemies. Source of the photograph: Times of India.

It must have made Indians proud to hear their country being described as an “important global power”, but it isn’t one.  Nor should it be a fact of life that being one such power is necessarily a virtue:  “the meek shall inherit the other”, says one revered text, though I am fully aware of the modern wisdom which thinks that virtue only belongs to those nations which are “important global powers”.  But let us leave aside these esoteric considerations for the present.  There are yet other, often little considered, registers of the friendly ties developing between India and Israel: along with an influx of Israeli arms, young Israeli men and women have poured into India for long stays. According to the Jerusalem Post, so many young Israeli citizens swarm to India to enjoy a post-military training repose that one can now chart a “Hummus Trail” through various Indian landscapes and a proliferation of restaurants serving local kosher cuisine.  Israel’s own Foreign Ministry has reported that there is more support for Israel in India than in any other country of the world, the United States not excepted.  In one study, 58% Indians expressed support and admiration for Israel, exceeding the 56% Americans who responded in like fashion.

The bonhomie between the two nations is all the more remarkable considering the frosty relations between the two nations at the time of Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.  One might think that India, with the world’s second largest Muslim population after Indonesia, did not want to antagonize its own Muslim population and was indeed keen to cultivate the idea that India would remain a home for Muslims even after Pakistan had been carved out of the country.  Nor, as a country heavily dependent on oil imports, could India afford to antagonize Muslim-majority Arab states or Iran—all of which, for decades after the creation of Israel, displayed unremitting hostility to the Jewish state.  As one of the principal architects of the idea of non-alignment, Nehru was also wary of close relations with a U.S.-friendly Israel.  Some might think that India, not unlike most other countries, surrendered to anti-Semitism in not having diplomatic ties with Israel for well over four decades.  But nothing could be further from the truth:  as every scholar of global Jewish history knows, India, with a history of Jewish presence dating back to perhaps as early as 79CE, is nearly singular in having absolutely no history of anti-Semitism and, to the contrary, in having a clear historical record of offering hospitality to Jews.  Nathan Katz, author of the scholarly study, Who are the Jews of India? (UC Press, 2000), unequivocally states that “Indian Jews never experienced anti-Semitism or discrimination”, and lived “as all Jews should have been allowed to live:  free, proud, observant, creative and prosperous, self-realized, full contributors to the host country.”

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The emergence of an India-Israel nexus, and, as is becoming patently clear, a tripartite alliance of India, Israel, and the United States, owes everything to the changing place of the Muslim in the national imaginary of India and the United States.  It was in the mid-1990s that the notion of Israel and India as two democracies surrounded by predominantly Muslim nations that had an aversion to democracy, and having in common the problem of communal violence, first arose.  The Indian middle class, I suggested in a piece published in the Indian magazine Outlook in 2006 entitled “Emulating Israel”, has long admired Israel as a tough, no-nonsense state with zero tolerance for terrorism from which India—a comparatively soft state in this imagination—can learn to confront the threat of terrorism from Pakistan and, as Hindu nationalists increasingly argue, Muslim fifth columnists within the country.  Middle class Indians have long demanded an aggressive response against terrorists (and, as they argue, their patrons in Pakistan) and they hold up Israel as a country that India should emulate.

It is also no secret that India furnishes sinecures to retired Israeli army generals who serve as consultants to anti-terrorist operations in India.  In 2000, when L. K. Advani, then the Minister of Home Affairs in the BJP-led government, visited Israel, the two governments pledged to stand together against terrorism.  Prime Minister Netanyahu, on his aforementioned visit to India in January 2018, pointedly harkened back to both the devastating terrorist attacks on Mumbai’s suburban train network in 2006 that killed 209 people and the grisly attacks by Lashkar-e-Taiba militants on the Taj Hotel and other sites in Mumbai in 2008 that led to 166 fatalities.  It is no surprise, then, that one Indian academic has called attention to the “ideological convergence” between India’s BJP and Israel’s Likud Party since “both promote a narrative of their respective populations being victims at the hands of Muslims.”

Matters do not, however, end here:  we can now speak of an emerging tripartite alliance between India, the US, and Israel, the logic of which has been captured by one scholar of public policy, Vivek Dehejia:  “India, Israel, and the United States are natural allies. All three are democratic and pluralistic societies, and all have suffered grievously from the scourge of Islamic terrorism.”  One might question a good deal in this assessment, such as what it means for three very diverse countries to be deemed “natural allies”—and why only these three democracies?  The US, to raise another difficulty, appears to be suffering from the scourge of white supremacism, not “Islamic terrorism”.  For Dehejia to imply that Palestinians are but a synonym for “Islamic terrorism”, which appears to be the case from his formulation, is objectionable in the extreme, even if one were to agree that Hamas is, notwithstanding its façade as a social welfare organization, at the very least a quasi-terrorist outfit.  But questions of the merit of his observations apart, what is most striking is that countries such as Pakistan, and the Muslim world more broadly, may be taking notice of this tripartite alliance. The Chairman of Pakistan’s Senate, Raza Rabbani, in a speech in January 2018 warned his fellow legislators about the “changing world scenario” and described the developing “nexus between the US, Israel, and India” as “a major threat to the Muslim world.”

Is it then the foreign policy wisdom in India, Israel, and the United States that these three democracies are, or ought to be, united by the menace posed by Muslim extremists?  To what extent are these countries collaborating in anti-terrorist and surveillance activities, more particularly with the thought of containing “Muslim terrorists”, and might such collaboration have implications for the exercise of their democratic rights by Muslim residents of these nations?  If India’s friendly relations with Israel on the one hand, and its growing ties with the U.S. on the other, augur new trilateral links, can we speak of such an alliance as a new force in geopolitics?  And, if we can, what might be the implications of such an alliance for the global world order?          

(A slightly shorter version of this was published at abplive.in on 13 May 2019, under the title:  “India, Israel, and the Geopolitics of an Emerging Tripartite Alliance, accessible here.)                                 

*A Woman’s Curse and the Death of a Hero

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Pragya Thakur, May 2019. Source: Hindustan Times.

 

On Wednesday, April 17, Pragya Singh Thakur enrolled in the BJP.  Hours later, she was nominated by the party to contest the elections from Bhopal, where the BJP has not lost in nearly three decades.  Prime Minister Narendra Modi defended his party’s decision to give her a ticket with these words, “They defamed a 5000-old culture that believes in Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam. They called them terrorists. To answer them all, this is a symbol and it will cost Congress.”

What a supposedly “5000 year-old culture” has to do with the nomination of a woman charged with heinous crimes of murder, terrorism, and the incitement of hatred between religious communities is far from being clear, but the Indian Prime Minister is not known to be a clear-headed thinker.  No one has even remotely suggested that Hinduism—which is not the same thing as either Hindutva or Hindu nationalism—ought to be linked to the terrorist attacks in Malegaon, Ajmer, and elsewhere more than a decade ago, and for Modi and the BJP to pretend otherwise points to the desperation, deceit, and rank opportunism that drives them to play the communal card.  Obfuscation is the first weapon of those whose only conception of worship involves the naked admiration for power and a ruthless determination to wield it in their own self-interest.

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Malegaon Bomb Blast 2008: Accused Muslim Men were Made Scapegoats, according to a headline in the Times of India.

Let us be clear about what is at stake in the BJP putting forward the name of Pragya Thakur as the party’s candidate for a Lok Sabha seat from Bhopal.  On 8 September 2006, during the festival of Shab-e-Barat, three serial blasts rocked Malegaon in District Nashik, Maharashtra, leaving 40 dead (mainly Muslims) and 125 injured.  The police and Mumbai’s Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) took into custody nine Muslim men and extracted false confessions after torturing them and conducting Narcoanalysis tests that were not authorized by any court.  Two years later, bomb blasts once again shook Malegaon:  this time the bomb was fitted on a Hero Honda motorcycle registered to Pragya Thakur, who was arrested a month later in October 2008.  She was charged with offences under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and spent eight years in jail, and is presently out on bail—furnished partly on the grounds that she is in poor health, though whatever ailments she has have clearly not prevented her from running for office.  Indeed, she has been campaigning vociferously for the Bhopal seat.

Meanwhile, in January 2008, Hemant Karkare was appointed head of the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS), and it in consequence of the investigations by him and members of his team that a conspiracy among Hindu extremists, in which Pragya Thakur played a critical role, to terrorize Muslims was uncovered.  In December 2010, a man going by the name of Assemanand, whose real name is Naba Kumar Sarkar, confessed before a magistrate that the Malegaon blasts of 2006 and 2008 had been carried out by a radical Hindu group in “revenge against Jihadi terrorism”.  Pragya Thakur was named as the person who had assumed responsibility for assembling terrorist teams to carry out the 2008 Malegaon attack.  According to the chargesheet filed by the National Investigative Agency, Thakur, Aseemanand, and various other radicals had lengthy discussions and they “developed (a desire for) vengeance not only against the misguided jihadi terrorists but against the entire Muslim community.”  Aseemanand subsequently retracted his confession.

Just how exactly the investigations against these Hindu extremists proceeded, and with what consequences, is another story.  What emerges quite clearly from the reports is that Pragya Thakur is not only unprincipled, ruthless, and vituperative in her hatred towards Muslims, but that she has played the role of a ‘holy’ and aggrieved Hindu woman who is animated purely by love for the motherland to her advantage.  She calls herself Sadhvi, a devout woman given to the cultivation of spirituality, but this designation grossly ill suits her.  She would not, of course, be the first spiritual renunciate to hunger after power.

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Hemant Karkare (left); Pragya Thakur (right).

Pragya Thakur’s recent remarks regarding Hemant Karkare, who was killed in the line of duty during the coordinated attacks on the Taj Hotel and other sites in Mumbai in late November 2008, are if anything more illuminating of her disingenuousness and her extraordinary capacity for manipulation.  Karkare was declared a hero for his part in attempting to neutralize or kill the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists and posthumously conferred the Ashoka Chakra, India’s highest peacetime award for gallantry.  Less than two months before his death, Karkare had traced the Malegaon bomb blast to Pragya Thakur and it is his investigation that led to her being taken into custody.  Thakur now claims that Karkare had to die—and, so to speak, at her hands as in sending her and her fellow conspirators to jail, he had caused Hinduism’s custodians grievous harm.  Pragya Thakur says that she cursed Karkare, “I had told him you will be finished, and he was killed by terrorists in less than two months.”

As Pragya Thakur spoke these words at a press conference, the members of the BJP who stood by her side clapped.  It says something about the execrable state to which the BJP has fallen that a woman who stands charged of terrorist offences under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, as well as charges under the Indian Penal Code of murder, criminal conspiracy, and incitement to hatred against members of another community, should now be championed as a defender of the faith and be rewarded with political patronage.  But it is her “curse” that is striking:  in India, at least, the curse remains a potent force of excommunication and revenge, as much as a peculiar demonstration of the power of primal (female) energy.  The curse is everywhere in the Mahabharata and Ramayana; it is part of the sensibility of the epic.  It has worked its way into the sinews of Indian society; it speaks in a language that resonates with many.

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Gandhari curses Krishna, from the Mahabharata.

In stating that she had hurled a curse on Karkare, and that he was thus doomed to death, Pragya Thakur has cast herself as a woman wronged.  The power of the virtuous is thought to form the backdrop of the curse.  Many commentators have supposed that Hindutva is most “successful” or effective when it exercises its muscle, but Pragya Thakur’s invocation of the curse suggests that Hindutva’s pharmacopeia runs deep.  I have long argued that Hindutva cannot be combated merely by producing better histories, or exposing what the secularists call ‘myths’, and Pragya Thakur’s “curse” on Karkare points to the fact that the forces arrayed against Hindu nationalists, bigotry, xenophobia, and religious hatred will have to be inventive and similarly resourceful in their deployment of Indian traditions, cultural norms, and popular lore if they are to force Hindutva on to the back foot and bring back civility and a genuine commitment to pluralism in Indian politics and society.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The men with puffed-up and bloated chests who have run the country, or rather have run the country into the ground, are now counting upon a woman who claims that her shaap (curse) sent the leader of the anti-terrorism squad of one of the country’s principal police forces to his death.