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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*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.

*The Greatest Show on Earth?  The Indian Elections and a Puzzle

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The Greatest Show on Earth: a poster from Barnum & Bailey Ringling Bros. Circus, 1913.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus described itself for well over a century as “the greatest show on earth”.  Political sensibilities changed enough over the last few decades to send it into obsolescence.  Animal rights activists had long complained that the circus exploited animals and was an affront to the majesty of nature.  But one can be certain that video gaming, the modern obsession with social media, the morbid addiction to smart phones, and the internet played a role in sounding the death knell of traditional forms of family entertainment.

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Patience Personified: Standing in Line to Cast a Vote in the General Elections, India, 2019. Source: BBC.

In truth, however, the Greatest Show on Earth in the post-World War II era has been the general Indian Elections.  Some have even likened the Indian elections to a circus: though the campaigning begins only a few months beforehand, it is a lively, garrulous, and combative affair where the antics of one candidate after another are likely to lead a person to gasp for air.  In every state, a not inconsiderable portion of the candidates have criminal records, though the worst of these candidates are more likely to compete for seats in the elections to the state legislative assemblies. The charges, moreover, are often not for comparatively mild criminal offences, but rather for murder, attempted murder, arson, and rape, among others.  No one appears to think it rather odd that candidates who pledge to make the streets safe for women or induce respect for law and order among ordinary citizens should themselves be the most egregious violators of the law.

The element of the bizarre has, of course, a great many other dimensions.  Thus, in the 1996 general elections, 1033 candidates contested for a single seat in the Modaurichi constituency in Tamil Nadu.  The names were too numerous to be accommodated in a ballot; a booklet was issued.  Though the CPM dominates among the traditional communist parties, the dozens of communist parties have often disputed arcane points of ideology as though the interpretation of a particular passage from Marx, Lenin, or Rosa Luxembourg was calculated to shift the fortunes of a country.  I suspect the vast majority of the 2,293 political parties that are registered with the Election Commission of India—the Commission recognizes seven as “national” parties, and another 50-60 as parties of demonstrable regional strength—similarly differ from each other in minutiae.

It is, however, the gargantuan nature of this exercise that has long captured the attention of the world.  The Indian electorate, at 900 million, dwarfs the electorate in any other country.  It grows by leaps and bounds every five years.  In the 2016 Presidential elections in the US, 138 million Americans cast their vote, constituting around 58% of all eligible voters; in contrast, 815 million people were eligible to vote in India in the 2014 elections, and nearly 66.5% of them voted.  Over a million polling stations have been set up for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.  Nearly 11 million election personnel are helping to conduct polling, and 3.96 million electronic voting machines (EVMs) are being used.  One could reel off many more statistics in this vein, though, if I had to hazard a guess without tabulating numbers, I suspect that perhaps nothing is more impressive than the probable fact that the Indian electorate is greater than the electorate of all and certainly most of the world’s other democracies put together.

It is also a singularly impressive fact that, barring the imposition of an emergency by Mrs. Indira Gandhi in 1975, which also extended the life of the 5th Lok Sabha, India has held elections regularly.  Mrs. Gandhi did call for elections in 1977 and went down to a crushing defeat.  One might say that the desire on her part for adulation from the public and legitimation at the polls curbed her authoritarian instincts.  There is much in her decision to seek redemption by putting her political future in the hands of voters that is puzzling and merits introspection.

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Indira Gandhi at an election rally in 1980. Source: Hindustan Times.

For the present, however, there is another and much greater puzzle in the story of elections that confronts the student of Indian politics.  The Election Commission’s guidelines stipulate that a voter should not have to travel more than 2 kilometres to cast a ballot, and the country’s highest polling station is at an altitude of 15,256 feet above sea level at a village in the Spiti Valley where it serves 48 eligible voters.  Remarkably, where necessary, election personnel go to a voter to ensure that no eligible vote is ignored.  In a remote part of Arunachal Pradesh, a 6-person election team traveled for three days by bus, on foot, and across hilly terrain and rivers to reach a single voter in the village of Anjaw.  All this appear to be an admirable commitment to democracy on the part of the Indian state. Indeed, the rest of the world sees it that way, and nothing on the Indian elections has done the international news rounds as much as the item on a polling station established in the heart of the Gir National Forest, home of the majestic Asiatic lion.  Here, at least for one day every few years, it is the sheer pomp of the Indian elections that steals the show. The booth is intended to facilitate the exercise of the democratic rights of a solitary voter, the caretaker of the local Mahadev temple known as Banej.

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Darshandas, better known as Bapu, walks to the polling booth set up for him in the Gir National Forest, home of the Asiatic Lion.

“Bharatdas Darshandas, the lone inhabitant and caretaker of a Hindu temple deep in the Gir Forest,” the correspondent of the New York Times has written, “has become a symbol of India’s herculean effort to ensure that the votes of every one of its 900 million eligible voters is counted.”  In a similar vein, the Guardian, visibly impressed by both the country’s faith in democracy and the resolve of the local priest who has “not missed a single election since 2002,” noted that four election officials, escorted by a policemen, trekked for 70 kilometres (45 miles) to ensure that a “69-year old holy man” got to cast his vote “in the world’s biggest democratic exercise.”  When we consider that the news from the United States, which has the world’s second largest electorate and where the elections determine not only the future of the country but the fate of many other nations, has revolved in good measure around voter suppression, the commitment in India to democracy seems worth celebrating.

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Tashigang Village in the Spiti Valley, 30 kilometres from the India-China border, has the distinction of being home to the world’s highest polling station at an altitude of 15,256 feet.

However, just exactly how are we to understand this somewhat heroic narrative of a state that lives in thrall of the Indian voter?  Many critics of how elections are in reality conducted have pointed to the phenomenon known as ‘booth capturing’, partly in response to which India began to make extensive use of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) well over 15 years ago, though some have pointed to manipulation of these very machines as yet another problem.  One could also mention various other irregularities.  But these matters, important as they may be, are not at the heart of what I would call the puzzle behind the narrative of the sovereignty of the Indian voter.  It is not as if the Indian state cares at all for its subjects:  after 70 years of independence, India’s record with respect to nearly all the major indices of what conventionally counts for “development” is appalling.  Twenty-two of the thirty most polluted cities in the world are in India; the country is the so-called “defecation capital” of the world; a staggeringly large proportion of the population has no access to drinking water; state-run schools are, by everyone’s admission, in absolute shambles; the ranks of the unemployed are enormous.  One could go in this vein, ad infinitum:  the point is that everything suggests to the complete indifference of the Indian state to the vast majority of the citizens of the country.  The Indian state could begin by taking strident steps, as they have done so in China, to clean the air—and save millions of its citizens from early death and future generations from a nightmarish scenario.  Whatever one may say of other countries, it is no exaggeration to argue that in India there is no war on poverty but rather a war on the poor—for it the poor who suffer the most from dirty air, water, and soil, not to mention policies that have been designed with the intent of snuffing the life out of them.

Why, then, does the Indian state take such an interest in ensuring the right of every single voter?  It won’t do merely to say that political parties are cognizant of the power of the voter, or that in India, as in every other democracy, the “vote bank” has become a critical factor in how political parties position themselves to the public.  The state is not just a sum of political parties, and here it is not the conduct of parties that is in question; moreover, the notion of the “vote bank” does not explain the extreme lengths to which the Indian state goes in ensuring the right of a single voter in the middle of a thick jungle dozens of kilometres from the nearest polling station or remote Himalayan villages.  India must be singular among democracies in sending election officials with voting machines to remote villages, and it certainly does not send doctors to these same villages.  Apparently, by the reasoning of the state, the health of these people is less important than their vote—never mind that, if they are dead from lack of medical care, they cannot cast a vote.  One might also, perhaps with some plausibility, argue that India is aware that the world’s eyes are on its elections, and that the world delights in spectacles and narratives with a touch of the adventurous, the heroic, and the bizarre.  But that also seems far from being a wholly persuasive narrative.

Democracies the world over have sadly become merely electoral democracies.  It may be that in India, as some would say, this is most certainly the case. It is even possible to argue that elections, to the extent that they have overwhelmed the imagination and preclude the possibility of a democratic imaginary that moves well beyond the mechanics of voting, are profoundly anti-democratic.  That proposition needs careful and deliberate articulation—all the more so because, at least in India, the poor and the marginalized have been, understandably, more protective of the vote than those with privilege.  Universal franchise in India only came in with the first general election in 1951-52 and it is to the credit of the country that it was able to hold an election of that magnitude, with an electorate of over 235 million of which 45%, or almost 106 million, cast a vote—and this only four years after independence and 200 years of colonial servitude.  I suspect that, in the Indian state’s textbook and “herculean”—the word, the reader might recall, is from the New York Times article—effort to secure the right of every voter, there are residual memories of the anti-colonial struggle.  A critical part of this struggle, which Indian historiography does not recognize, was the effort that tacitly every Indian had to make to free themselves of the notion that they were merely part of collectivities—Hindus, Muslims, Brahmins, Sudras, Dalits, Kshatriyas, Bengalis, Tamils, and thousands of others.  The vote is precious to every Indian as it is one public exercise that permits the Indian to individuate herself or himself.  I started with the idea of the Indian elections as bearing the ambiance of a circus, but we should not scoff at what is undoubtedly the “Greatest Show on Earth”.

(A slightly shorter version of this was published at ABP [abplive.in], 2 May 2019)