The history of every nation is remembered by certain critical junctures that change the course of a people’s lives forever. India is remembered by 1857 (it’s first nationalist uprising), 1947, and perhaps even 1975, when the declaration of emergency tolled the death knell for civil liberty. We are once again at the brink of a historic moment in time. The last decade has seen an immense rise in public consciousness. We are sitting on dharnas on anti-corruption laws, crying ourselves hoarse over incidents of rape and violence against women, dealing with regional and communal identities from the Assam riots to Telangana, tussling between farmland and industrialization, and continuing the incessant fight against inflation, inequality and unemployment. The 2014 general elections is therefore not just another change of government but will mark a new era in Indian history. It brings with it the desire for decisive action. There is a fever in the country that demands change.
The political discourse this election season has been dominated by Narendra Modi. He has promised us many things. Primarily, he promises us an end to government mismanagement, corruption and inflation. He promises to bring the ‘Gujarat model of governance’ and development to India and guide her back to a path of explosive growth. He also claims to be a strong decisive leader with an iron control over his administration; a son of the Indian soil and a proud nationalist.
India is tired of grandiose promises and empty rhetoric effectively employed by politicians across the spectrum. Today, India wants a man of his word. India wants a man of action. We therefore plead that every voter inspects these promises a little more deeply. Look past the words and the beguiling magic of hollow promises to conclude for oneself which of these promises hold water. Subject both tall claims and careless accusations to the acid test of evidence, numbers and logic. We plead that each of us takes every one of these promises and analyses for ourselves the consequence of our vote. We owe it to ourselves (and to the country) to make an informed choice.
It is important that we remember that we are voting for the government of India. An India that was forged out of 200 years of struggle. The Indian Independence movement was not just a nation battling against colonial rule. In fact, Surendranath Banerjee had called us a ‘nation in the making.’ The freedom struggle wasn’t as much a struggle for freedom as it was a people struggling to come together as a nation and defining a collective identity of India. We share a truly unique national consciousness in India that encompasses 10000 languages and dialects, 29 states and incredible religious, cultural, racial and ethnic diversity. In a land of such stunning diversity, the act of exercising our electoral right in the Lok Sabha elections is therefore an expression of that shared identity and national consciousness. It carries both historical baggage and ramifications for the future evolution of our national identity. Remember that this vote, this choice and these promises affect 1.3 billion people.
The First Promise of Development
Narendra Modi’s administrative successes in Gujarat’s economic development have been celebrated endlessly. There is little doubt that Modi, from a strictly economic perspective has contributed positively to the economic development of Gujarat and allowed free enterprise to flourish by cutting down on bureaucratic red tape. It is to his credit that debates over economic statistics, growth numbers and data on malnutrition and child mortality have entered the electoral discourse for the first time in India. However, there are a host of mitigating factors.
Gujarat is the third most indebted state in the country. Gujarat’s debt which has tripled under Modi, now stands at ₹ 1,85,310 crore. Even its 26.9% debt to GDP ratio (which has been reducing in Gujarat and all over India as well) is much worse than other well developed states like Maharasthra and Tamil Nadu.
Social indicators (the real indicators of ‘development’) are below average, if not abysmal. For example: “Gujarat’s rank in each (1 is best): Human Development Index (11th), Infant Mortality Rate (12th); Poverty (15th); Households with no assets (14th); Hunger Index: (13th); Under-5 Mortality Rate (12th); underweight children (19th) and literacy (13th). With two-thirds of rural people defecating in the open, where does Modi hide but behind a PR machine.”
An oft overlooked fact is that Gujarat already had a strong growth foundation before Modi took hold of the reigns. Far from being a recent miracle, Gujarat averaged 12.9% growth from 1992-1997 and even in the 80s. Modi has merely maintained Gujarat’s forward momentum with an average annual growth rate of 10% from 2004-2012. A simple example of the hype and exaggeration is Modi’s claims of electrification in Gujarat. All but 170 villages in Gujarat were already electrified before Modi.
Chief Ministers across the board have contributed and succeeded in encouraging economic growth in other states as well. Gujarat is no outlier. Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Haryana are prime examples of states with equally good growth records and development stories. Maharasthra, an equally big state without a ‘base effect’, has averaged higher absolute growth rates than Gujarat not just in the last decade, but also relatively, when compared to the previous decade. Kerala consistently outranks all states in HDI and Rajasthan has made huge strides in reducing inequality. RBI’s Corporate Investment study indicates that even when it comes to attracting private investment, Gujarat is 5th on the list. The Raghuram Rajan Composite Development Index 2013 which places Gujarat in the ‘less developed’ category along with West Bengal, Tripura, Manipur, Nagaland and J&K further exposes the Gujarat growth story hype.
Most importantly, Modi in his extensive prime ministerial campaign has not once laid out any concrete economic plan for the nation. Thus his plan for ‘developing’ the nation in his five year term has so far remained hidden behind smoke and mirrors. In many ways this is reminiscent of Mitt Romney’s US Presidential campaign: high on rhetoric, low on details. Mr Modi promises to get growth back on track and build bullet trains, infrastructure and IITs; but has failed to articulate his stance on substantive economic policy issues of concern: subsidies, welfare packages, sector-wise FDI rules, gas pricing etc.
We must question whether the confident refrain that Modi will recreate the Gujarat ‘magic of development’ in India holds any water. How will he do this in a national context? What precisely is his economic agenda? What is his policy on subsidies and welfare-packages? What do the hard facts and numbers really say about his achievements in Gujarat? These are questions we must ask ourselves.
The Second Promise of an End to Corruption
Advocates of Modi have tried to leverage Modi’s reputation for probity and honesty in public life. Modi himself zealously projects his ‘clean record’ against the backdrop of a deluge of crores of rupees worth of scams miring the UPA. At a rally in Himachal, he noted, “I am single. I have no family. Who will I be corrupt for?” Yet, Modi, the self-proclaimed champion of corruption-free politics, has ensured that the Lokayukta post in Gujarat was empty for 10 full years, since 2003. Blatantly disregarding three consecutive Supreme Court judgments, the administration tried every trick in the book to stall Justice Mehta’s appointment as the head of the state anti-corruption body. Following this unsavoury episode, Justice Mehta rejected the seat, noting that the office of the Lokayukta had been ‘denigrated’ and that it was clearly impossible for an independent Lokayukta to function without the necessary support of the government. The government finally passed a heavily diluted Gujarat Lokayukta Aayog Bill, despite stringent opposition from the Governor, who called it a ‘travesty of the institution of the ombudsman’. The law effectively empowers the government and gives the Chief Minister primacy over the Lokayukta. Furthermore, the ombudsman has a mandate to look into corruption cases only after 2008, eliminating from its jurisdiction, the time period in which most of the murky land deals and other corruption related offences are alleged to have taken place. Some of these corrupt deals have been highlighted by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India as well. A CAG report tabled in the Gujarat Assembly recently slams the Modi govt. for giving ‘undue benefits’ to industrial and corporate houses such as Adani, Ambani, Essar, Ford and L&T.
The pathetic state of implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) Act is another glaring inconsistency in Gujarat’s corruption free fairy tale. The unquestionable truth is that despite Rahul Gandhi’s ineptness on national TV, his one constant refrain was an important one: the RTI is the strongest weapon against corruption and the tool behind most scams unearthed so far. Modi however, has little time for the RTI. Gujarat and Maharashtra have the unholy distinction of leading India in the number of attacks and murders of RTI activists exposing state corruption or complicity in riots. Gujarat, which accounts for 5% of India’s population, also accounts for 1 out of every 6 attacks on RTI activists. Even today, there are only 2 Information Commissioners in Gujarat, as opposed to 7-9 in other large states. The implementation of the RTI in Gujarat is reflected in the statistics, with a poor 52% disposal rate according to its own annual report.
Curbing corruption is an issue every government has battled with. What is terrifying is this eerie silence and imposition of control. The Right to Information Act and the position of the Lok Ayukta have been celebrated as tools of empowerment, accountability and transparency. Even the most corrupt governments of every state have implemented it and allowed for it to function. To its credit, the BJP RTI-cell has filed over 2000 applications to expose government scams. What is it then that Gujarat wants to hide that they deny the right to information. The frightening and plausible explanation is that Gujarat is led and ruled by a man who does believe in or see the need for the common citizen to have a right to information and transparency.
To add to that, a string of fake encounters have implicated the top brass in the Gujarat administration. Senior cops like DIG Vanzara, NK Amin, PP Pandey and IB official, Rajinder Kumar are either already in jail or facing trial for their role in fake encounters such as Ishrat Jahan, Tulsiram Prajapati and Sohrabbudin Sheikh; encounters which include extortion rackets, rapes, extra judicial killings and cold blooded murders targeting minority communities. Modi’s trusted aide, Amit Shah, who is now out on bail and running Modi’s campaign in UP, became independent India’s first serving Minister to be arrested on charges as serious as murder, suppression of evidence and extortion. There is now a minefield of evidence awaiting Shah in court. It defies logic that Amit Shah, Modi’s right hand man, handled all this skullduggery himself without the knowledge of Modi, who was heading the Home Ministry with Amit Shah (who headed an astonishing 10 ministries in Gujarat at a time), as a Minister of State under him. DIG Vanzara, a Gujrati police officer was arrested and accused along with Amit Shah for being involved in the fake encounter cases of Sohrabbudin Shiek among others. In an incriminating letter of resignation, DIG Vanzara writes that the CBI must “arrest the policy formulators also as we, being field officers, have simply implemented the conscious policy of this government, which was inspiring, guiding and monitoring our actions from very close quarters.” He went on to deny that these were instances of fake encounters as the shootings were a conscious policy of the government to prevent Jihad and terrorism. Equally disturbing is Vanzara’s comments about his deep respect for the God-like Modi for following this policy, but a sense of betrayal as Modi had allowed him to be punished rather than rewarding the indicted police officers for their unwavering loyalty to the administration (rather than to the Constitution of India).
One is left with an almost eerie sense of fear. What sort of government resorts to illegal and extra judicial killings to deliver justice? What kind of leader has such little respect for the constitution that empowers him to serve? What sort of moral standing are we left with if we need to resort to premeditated murder for personal gain? If a constitutionally elected government needs to circumvent the law then what stops the common man from taking matters of crime and justice into his own hands? Are we confident about entrusting such a man with 1.3 billion Indian lives?
2002 Riots- The One Hitch in an Otherwise Supposedly Flawless Political Career
The standard criticism of Modi’s prime ministerial campaign is the 2002 riots. BJP’s standard response to that is the 1984 Sikh riots. Recourse to 1984 has become the BJP mantra, holding sway over media debates, dining table arguments and chai stall conversations all over the country. The repulsive and sordid attempt to use one tragedy to justify or silence criticism of another needs to stop. Victims of both tragedies deserve the same justice. 1984, however, cannot be used to silence questions of Modi’s role in 2002. First and foremost, the leaders accused of complicity in the 84 riots are not prospective PM candidates of India. If they were, one would hope that their detractors would be as vociferous as those of Modi. If Rajiv Gandhi were PM candidate today, one hopes that the opposition would be equally loud. But Rajiv Gandhi is dead, and politicians accused of leading the 84 riots aren’t PM candidates. Furthermore, accused leaders like Tytler have been rejected a Lok Sabha ticket by the Congress both in 2009 and 2014. On the other hand, BJP leaders accused of inciting riots in Muzzafarnagar have been publicly felicitated and subsequently been given tickets for the 2014 elections as well.
The second response that most BJP proponents have to the question of 2002 is the supposed ‘clean chit’ granted to Modi by the SIT. The reality is that although the SIT dismissed the case for a ‘lack of prosecutorial evidence’, it neglected to take into account several depositions against Modi. BJP Cabinet Minister, Haren Pandya who disclosed that Modi ordered police officials to refrain from stopping the Hindu backlash, was mysteriously murdered mere months after his disclosure. The SIT refused to take his statement into account post his death, despite one High Court judge (Justice Hosbet Suresh) and one Supreme Court judge (Justice PB Sawant) vouching for the veracity of his testimony. Sworn statements and leads offered by several senior police officers such as Sanjiv Bhatt and RB Sreekumar testifying against Modi were also ignored. Former DGP of Gujarat, Sreekumar has submitted recordings of Modi’s Principal Secretary and Advocate General instructing him to lie to the Nanavati Commission about the riots, and multiple affidavits affirming Modi’s role in instructing police officers to allow the riots to take place. Sanjiv Bhatt was present at the meeting where Modi told senior officers to ‘allow the Hindus to vent their anger.’ There is no dearth of other sources of evidence. Two prominent examples are the detailed reports and evidence collected by the Concerned People’s Tribunal (headed by Supreme Court Justices PB Sawant and VR Krishna Iyer) that indicted Modi and the 2007 Tehelka sting tapes, which documented on-camera confessions by several Sangh Parivar activists such as Babu Bajrangi (later convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment) detailing the pogrom, Modi’s role in facilitating it and the various machinations used to subvert the judicial process. Some of Bajrangi’s bone-chilling statements and revelations are worth reproducing in order to remind people what 2002 was about:
“Hacked, burnt, set on fire, many things were done… many… We believe in setting them on fire because these bastards say they don’t want to be cremated, they’re afraid of it… I can’t tell you what a good time it was…
I don’t want to be incarcerated… I don’t care if I’m hanged… Give me two days before my hanging and I will go and have a field day in Juhapura [a Muslim dominated area], where seven or eight lakh of these people stay… I will finish them off … Let a few more of them die… At least 25-50,000 should die…
I came back after I killed them them, called up the home minister and went to sleep… I felt like Rana Pratap, that I had done something like Maharana Pratap… I’d heard stories about him, but that day I did what he did myself.
he’s a real man, Narendrabhai…Narendrabhai kept me at… the Gujarat Bhavan at Mount Abu for four and- a-half months… After that, [I did] whatever Narendrabhai told me to… Nobody can do what Narendrabhai has done in – Gujarat… If I did not have the support of Narendrabhai, we would not have been able to avenge [Godhra]…
Narendrabhai got me out of jail…… He kept on changing judges…. He set it up so as to ensure my release, otherwise I wouldn’t have been out yet…”
Hartosh Singh Bal, in his analysis of the SIT report,comments: “If officers who in the immediate aftermath of Godhra held firm and ensured violence did not take place were transferred within the same month, the report claims these were routine administrative actions. If senior officers who acted in a manner the administration seems to have preferred—thus inviting reason for criticism of their handling of the violence—were rewarded with plum government posts or post-retirement benefits, the SIT sees this only as evidence of their capabilities. If officials of the Modi administration were caught on tape tutoring witnesses, the SIT casts suspicion on the intentions of the person who attempted the clandestine recording.”
The travesty of the SIT investigations has been further exposed in a recent book, The Fiction of Fact Finding: Modi and Godhra. Award winning journalist, Manoj Mitta (who has also authored When a Tree Shook Delhi: The 1984 Carnage and its Aftermath) meticulously dissects the SIT case, demonstrates that the SITs composition and impartiality is highly questionable, and exposes its shoddy investigation, refusal to follow up on important leads or ask meaningful questions of Modi, blatant disregard of facts and glaring inconsistencies in testimony. Siddharth Vardharajan, reviewing the book for Outlook, writes: “Indians know it’s the rare inquiry commission or SIT that ends up saying or finding something that brings justice. This book drives home that tragic point, mercilessly…… So a Justice M.S. Liberhan can take two decades investigating the demolition of the 1992 Babri Masjid only to produce a report of shabby and breathtaking pointlessless. Justice G.T. Nanavati has already spent more than 11 years running his commission of inquiry into the 2002 Gujarat riots and there is no end in sight to his noble exertions. Despite the fact that his terms of reference include probing the role, if any, that Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi might have played, the learned judge has decided there is no need to question or cross-examine him before the commission. Several commissions have looked into the 1984 pogrom against the Sikhs—including one by the same Nanavati who willingly took time off the 2002 probe in order to conduct and finish the 1984 one in double-quick time—but the politicians and policemen who allowed over 3,000 innocent people to be massacred are still beyond the reach of the law.”
The proposition that the Supreme Court has given a ‘clean chit’ to Modi is a myth supported only by a gross distortion of facts. The truth is that it is only the SIT that has cleared him for lack of evidence. This was upheld by a low-level Magistrate Court (in Gujarat) where Magistrate Ganatra’s astounding logic included assertions such as ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ not having relevance to Gujarat because the terms are of ‘foreign’ Latin and Greek origin. In other words, Gujaratis cannot commit genocide because genocide is derived from a Latin term!!
The Supreme Court, on the other hand, has had very different observations about Modi. Supreme Court appointed amicus curiae, Raju Ramachandran disagreed with the SIT in his report and noted that there was enough prima facie evidence for Modi to be tried in a court of law. The Supreme Court itself has actually gone so far as to refer to Modi and his government as ‘modern-day Neros.’ (Nero was a Roman General who contentedly played the lyre while watching his citizens burn in a fire he instigated) Furthermore, in a stinging and embarrassing rebuke to the Modi administration, the SC has transferred some of the 2002 riot cases out of Gujarat because it does not believe that a fair trial can happen under the Modi government. The Best Bakery case (part of the 2002 riots), for example, had initially been tried in Gujarat courts. All the accused were acquitted after witnesses received death threats and/or bribes and suddenly turned hostile. The Supreme Court then ordered a re-trial of the case in Maharashtra, saying it had ‘no confidence‘ in the Modi government. The case, now free of Modi’s influence, subsequently resulted in nine convictions as well as successful charges of perjury against hostile witnesses who were caught on tape admitting that they had been threatened by BJP officials into giving false testimony in court. Zakia Jaffri’s petition implicating Modi is still pending in higher courts today and is yet to reach the Supreme Court.
The actual evidence on record, and open to public perusal, is quite stunning in its revelations. In an ideal world, Congress and BJP leaders responsible for both massacres would be behind bars, or at the very least, expelled from political life. In the absence of that ideal reality however, proclaiming the innocence of one and guilt of another reeks of hypocrisy and heartless insensitivity to the monumental loss of human lives in both tragedies.
Equally disturbing is the propensity of a large portion of our citizenry today to trivialise the pogrom using the logic of GDP growth. N. Mannathukaren invokes Hannah Arendt to refer to it as the ‘The Banality of evil.’ He writes, “Evil becomes banal when ordinary people participate in it, build distance from it and justify it, in countless ways. There are no moral conundrums or revulsions. Evil does not even look like evil, it becomes faceless…… Every day, you see perfectly decent, educated, and otherwise civil people normalise the Gujarat riots and Modi, because he is, after all, the “Man of Development.” Yes, it might be that he is ultimately responsible for the riots, but look at the roads in Gujarat!” It is a strange moral world in which roads have moral equivalence to the pain of Zakia Jaffrey and other victims!”
At this juncture, it is critical to look at the genesis of the 2002 riots again. The most repeated story is that riots were a spontaneous outbreak following the VHP’s parading of the charred bodies of the victims of the Sabarmati Express tragedy (allegedly pre-planned by a Muslim mob). The trial court, in 2011, convicted 32 people for the ghastly burnings, although many official and non-official reports came to different conclusions and attributed the deaths on the train to an internal fire. A studyby sociologists, Raheel Dhattiwala and Michael Biggs at the University of Oxford exposes the implicit political logic behind the 2002 riots. The chillingly, cold blooded logic is simple: Riots win votes. Riots work. The study lays to waste the myth that the riots were spontaneous. If they had been spontaneous, why was the violence so unevenly spread? The study finds that violence was least in constituencies where the BJP was either very strong (ex: Junagarh) or very weak (Narmada, Dangs etc). Instead, violence was greatest in areas where the BJP faced electoral competition. Furthermore, polarisation of the electorate yielded success. The BJP won the 2002 Assembly election and their vote share increase was maximum in places that most Muslims were killed. Areas with greater violence were also places where police chiefs were more likely to get promoted.
Riots do not happen without the complicity or absolutely incompetence of political parties and the state administration. Anyone who portrays them as spontaneous and uncontrollable outbursts of violence is either lying or blindingly ignorant. There are enough avenues available to an administration to quell communal passions and prevent large scale atrocities by using the law and order machinery. The Code of Criminal Procedure gives enough power even to a lowly administrative secretary to quell violence. Quelling of violence in Indore, for example, stands testimony to that. It is hard to imagine that a chief minister who is believed to be a strong and decisive leader could not get his administration, police force or the army to impose a curfew and quell the violence in over two days. The riots therefore are either a damning indictment of Modi’s complicity in the carnage or his administrative incompetence. Dismissal of one charge automatically strengthens the other.
Repeatedly, the senior most politicians in India have not faced the consequences of riot politics. Not Rajiv Gandhi, not Mulayam Singh, not Bal Thackeray, not Sudhakar Naik and not Narendra Modi. Suppression and destruction of evidence, intimidation and mysterious murders of key witnesses, political patronage and collusion between politicians, senior bureaucrats and judges have put paid to hopes of fair and clean trials. It is our monumental collective ethical failure that we have allowed such a travesty to happen time and again. Instead, cold-blooded massacres and riots in India have been subsumed in our modern media discourse by an obsession with apologies. It dominates interviews, it dominates newspaper op-eds and it dominates the common man’s conversations. It is nothing but a national disgrace; a blot on our democratic credentials that we attempt to wash away barbaric acts of savagery through the disgusting logic of apologies. The absurdity of this discourse reached its farcical zenith a few weeks ago, when BJP President, Rajnath Singh issued a pre-emptive, anticipatory apology to Muslims for mistakes that it has already decided it will commit in the future! It does not matter if Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi apologised for 1984. It does not matter if Modi ever apologises for 2002. It does not matter if politicians hone their unparalleled apology skills via references to 93 Bombay, 99 Kashmir or 2013 Muzzafarnagar. Apologies do not bring back lives. Apologies do not stitch together the ripped secular fabric of India. Apologies cannot and should not soothe the soul of a grieving nation. Only justice can.
It is evident that the political and judicial system in India has failed to deliver justice to victims of riots in India. Is the electoral system going to fail them as well?
The Promise of A Strong Leader
The radical Modi-fication of the electorate and its propensity to resort to abuse against the dissenting voice that has been labelled ‘pseudo-seculars’, ‘libtards’, ‘anti-nationals’ and ‘sickulars’ speaks volumes about the society that Modi promises. Mindless violence, radical intolerance and bigotism is the logical conclusion of a carefully cultivated and fetishised image of Modi – the masculine, strong-willed Alpha Male, who brooks no dissent, acts decisively and rules with an authoritarian iron hand to serve the true interests of the country. “Woh logon ko seedha kar dega” is the constant refrain.
Vaishna Roy writes in The Hindu, that it is no accident but a carefully nurtured persona who has been taught that it is weakness to respond to an argument with mere counter-argument; one must destroy the arguer. Accommodating opposing ideas is considered submission, as is allowing the existence of films, art or books that question your belief system… This is the Indian who imagines he must now shout to be heard, one whose national pride is at stake at every turn. The voices representing this personality must be über masculine and willing to take up arms to defend honour, religious beliefs, sexual mores — anything that is perceived to be under threat. To this personality, any Gandhian talk of non-violence sounds wimpish; Iron Man Patel makes a far better icon.”
Modi’s ‘strong leadership’ has been contrasted heavily this electoral cycle against the perceived ineffectiveness of our current PM. Racip Erdogan of Turkey is a modern example of the pitfalls of ‘strong’ leadership. He democratically rose to power a decade ago on similar promises of ‘strong leadership’ and injected vitality into a struggling economy. Today, Turkey has more journalists in prison than China and Iran. Judges, police officers and civil servants are subjugated and transferred at will if they do not conform to the wishes of the government. Most recently, peaceful protests in June 2013 opposing his authoritarianism were brutally suppressed on his orders. This was followed by a nation-wide Twitter ban in 2014 to crack down on dissenting voices.
It is a sad commentary of our political condition that we characterise brashness and aggressiveness as strength and fail to characterise Modi’s inability to tolerate a murmur of dissent as a monumental flaw (one of many). A strong leader is not one who silences and suppresses a contrarian voice; but who forges consensus by allowing the free exchange of ideas.
The Promise of being a Proud Nationalist
Modi famously stated last year that he was a Hindu and a nationalist and therefore, by virtue of being a Hindu, was a Hindu nationalist. The term ‘Hindu nationalist’ is in itself a misnomer. It effectively posits that a Muslim or a Sikh’s nationalism is different from a Hindu’s nationalism; that patriotism to the country is defined by religious affiliation. If this is not the case, if being Hindu does not distinguish your nationalism in any way; then the term ‘Hindu nationalist’ becomes irrelevant and a misnomer. Nonetheless, an analysis of Modi’s ‘nationalism’ divorced from his Hindutva agenda is quite revealing. Modi’s brand of nationalism or patriotism (which Modi incorrectly equates as the same), conditioned by his RSS upbringing, is pathologically anti-Pakistan. He was quoted in 1999 in an interview saying, “Chicken biryani nahi, bullet ka jawab bomb se diya jayega.” More recently, he has advocated giving ‘befitting replies’ to Pakistan and boasted in a rally in Assam, “Today Assam is disturbed due to Bangladeshi immigrants, but the whole of Pakistan is disturbed because of me.” His comments come in the backdrop of the BJP criticising Manmohan Singh’s talks with Pakistan following the barbaric murders of Indian soldiers at the LOC. Such a stance betrays a myopic understanding of foreign policy. It ignores the galvanising effect that Indian hostility towards Pakistan would have on jihadist elements currently fractured by internal divisions within Pakistan. It is dismissive of India’s proud history of non-violence and interventionism and overlooks the simple maxim that peaceful resolutions to international disputes can never ever been reached without keeping channels of communication open. Of course, it cannot be discounted that any aggressive policy will be resisted by South Block and coalition partners, and that Modi may eventually walk the Vajpayee line when it comes to foreign policy. But Modi’s comments reveal a ‘nationalistic’ sentiment that equates nationalism with aggressiveness and violence. It is this same brand of nationalism that has the BJP campaigning for the framing of archaic sedition charges against Kashmiri students who cheered for a Pakistani cricket team. The subsequent withdrawal of sedition charges following national outrage was condemned by the BJP as ‘vote bank politics.’
Modi’ brand of nationalism is a perversion. It is nationalism morphed into obsession, cultural chauvinism, narcissism and jingoism. Is this the ‘nationalism’ that India wishes to project? Is it nationalistic to demand sedition charges against students from a region that has suffered because of militant infiltration, political chicanery and human rights abuses for the better part of a century? Or is there a vision of nationalism based on a liberal, plural idea of India that gives the Kashmiri a voice in the narrative, corrects past wrongs and gives those Kashmiri students a reason to feel as patriotically about the Indian cricket team as other UP students do. Is there a vision of nationalism that does not equate strength with the use of force, muscle flexing and aggressive rhetoric? Is there a vision of nationalism that does not alienate more than half the country? Tagore, ironically the unwitting composer of our national anthem, condemned such a Modi brand of nationalism: “Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter; my refuge is humanity. I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds; and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity.”
The Consequences of our Vote – Civil Liberties and Free Speech
There is much to criticise the Indian democracy for. Yet we stand today, the world’s largest democracy; one has survived every prediction of doom and gloom and consistently proven the naysayers wrong. The limited success of the Indian democracy can arguably be attributed to one single virtue. We have at all points almost jealously guarded the sacred Freedom of Speech and Expression. Our freedom movement has a long heritage of opposing British attempts to silence the press. Even at the height of the emergency, the Indian Express noted its dissent and protected this hallowed right by printing black columns. Modi has not even come to power. Yet one can already feel an insidious silencing of print and broadcast media. The Caravan published a piece recently on the rightward tilt of the Ambani controlled Network18 media company that runs multiple channels and newspapers such as CNN-IBN, Television 18 and FirstPost. Open Magazine revealed that there are instructions from the higher levels of management of Network 18 to reject stories criticising Modi and and cut live to any Modi rally or speech. A piece on the online magazine, Scroll,documents how several leading and highly reputed journalists of India such as Siddharth Vardharajan, Hartosh Singh Bal (both quoted above), Sagarika Ghose, Nikhil Wagle and many others have either lost their jobs or been muzzled by the management for criticising Modi. The piece is replete with multiple examples such as those of journalists being fired for the scandalous suggestion that people should think before voting for Modi or tried for sedition for criticising Modi’s flood relief efforts in Gujarat. Some of the tweets and comments of the journalists are worth reproducing:
Sagarika Ghose: “There is an evil out there, an evil that is stamping out free speech and silencing independent journalists: journalists unite!
Nitin Wagle: “Dangerous alliance of communal politicians and crony capitalism in this country. Want to muzzle the media…Indira Gandhi tried it in the emergency and failed… Modi and RSS should learn the lessons of history.”
Siddharth Vardharajan, whose housekeeper was recently beaten up by goons for his criticism of Modi, tweeted: “In the Emergency, media owners crawled when asked to bend. Now several are crawling even before asker is in a position of power.”
Is this the same country where Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Dadabhai Naoroji and Mahatma Gandhi fought the British for decades and defied their attempts to muzzle the free press and deny Indians the right to express their opinions? Can Indian democracy survive the imposition of a narrow vision of society that has scant respect for fundamental rights on its staggeringly diverse electorate?
The Dying Right to Free Speech
Penguin’s decision to pulp Wendy Doniger’s controversial book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, is an alarming example of the threat to free speech and civil liberties in India today.
Doniger’s book was attacked by a Hindu right wing group, Shiksha Bachao Andolan (affiliated to the RSS), ostensibly to protect the ‘sentiments of Hindus all over the world.’ Proponents of the book point to the voice it gives to subaltern groups like women and Dalits in the evolution of the Hindu faith. Opponents decry the focus on sex, turning a blind eye to erotic sculptures in places such as Khajuraho. The merits of the book are however, irrelevant, in lieu of the death of freedom of speech and expression.
Arundhati Roy lamented that ‘despite the absence of a fatwa or ban, the book had been withdrawn even before the fascists came to power. In other words, the book had been withdrawn in fear of violent reprisals and in fear of an ideological climate that might come to power in the country; a climate that supports and encourages the use of violence and threats of rape and murder to quell artistic license and freedom of speech and expression.
The incident is one in a long line of Hindu right wing groups affiliated to the RSS and BJP that have successfully used threats of violence to ban other works of art and literature, exiled MF Hussain from India, led violent attacks on art exhibitions in Baroda and led mobs to tear up the sets of movies like ‘Water’, Deepa Mehta’s movie on the plight of Indian widows; just to name a few examples.
In the aftermath of the Doniger episode, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, in the New Indian Express expressed his disdain for the gradual transformation of our liberal traditions: “The argumentative Indian is being replaced by the offended Indian, the tolerant Indian by the intolerant mob, the reflective citizen by the hurt communal mobiliser, the courageous Indian by the cowardly thug who needs the state to protect it against every argument, the pious Indian by the ultimate blasphemer who thinks he needs to protect the gods rather than the gods being there to protect him. ….the assault on free expression is winning.”
It isn’t just the assault on free speech that is winning; the assault on the liberal future of India is winning. While several senior leaders of different political parties in India expressed their disappointment with the retrograde Section 377 Supreme Court judgment, the BJP, almost unanimously supported the shocking ruling. Mr Modi maintained a studied silence, his second favourite weapon (after storming out of interviews) against actions that are difficult to defend. Senior BJP leader, Subramaniam Swamy, meanwhile tweeted, “Next govt should catch gays and confine them in Ramdevji’s ashram till cured” while Yashwant Sinha advocated the extension of the law to US diplomats during the Khobragade stand-off.
After expressing his disingenuous hope that the BJP will change its colours and condemn the withdrawal of the book, Mr Mehta makes a very valid point in the aforementioned piece: Liberal India has been silenced not just by the professional hurt mongers of the Hindu right but also by its universities, its publishers and the public at large. It is a collective failure of society from which we cannot shirk responsibility. Part of that responsibility lies in ensuring an atmosphere of healthy debate and intellectual curiosity by condemning the politics of violence and rejecting the anachronistic and illiberal vision of society that Mr Modi and the BJP propagates.
Vasundhara Sirnate writes, “It is these same groups that beat up couples on Valentine’s Day, attack women in nightclubs, and impose dress codes on women for no good reason, except that a woman’s knees or armpits somehow offend them. The problem, from my perspective, is that the capturing of the corridors of power by a right-wing party strengthens groups in society with a narrow vision of modernity, a deep dislike of intellectual freedom, a commitment to sanitise Hindu history, and to persist in an unabashed encroachment on the rights of others.”
Justifying these concerns, just after the book was pulped, BJP leaders gloated at the coming ‘saffron wave’ while Dinanath Batra, the man responsible for leading the agitation, ominously commented, “The good times are coming. Believe me.”
Saffronisation of Education
It is not a mere coincidence that the historical revision of school textbooks by infusing them with a Hindu nationalist agenda has taken place during the two tenures of BJP govts: the Janata interregnum and the Vajpayee era. The BJP has made no secret of its ‘saffronisation’ agenda. Murli Manohar Joshi, the NDA HRD Minister, was responsible for making “the content of education in the primary, secondary and higher stages Indianised, nationalised and spiritualised.” Although NCERT books have reverted to original texts following NDA I’s demise, a similar agenda is visible in BJP ruled states even today.
For example, textbooks in Karnataka (where the BJP was in power till 2013) portray maps of India which depict only Hindu temples and shrines and refer to Muslim rulers such as Hyder Ali as ‘Shatru’ (enemy). Other examples include texts that refer to Christians and Muslims as ‘The World Outside’ while chapters on ‘Unity and Diversity’ refer only to Vedic traditions and disregard all other religions. Sufism is presented as a purely Hindu tradition, the Indus Valley civilisation is the ‘Sindhu-Saraswati’ civilisation, Mughal history occupy all of six pages and tigers refuse to eat cow meat because it is immoral. Christianity and Islam are vilified for their ‘immoral practices’ with barely a passing mention of the evils of the Hindu caste system, the mistreatment of Dalits and subaltern groups or untouchability. It isn’t just history books. Science textbooks in Class 9 proclaim Dronacharya to be ancient India’s first test tube baby: “One day Baradwaja went to the Ganges for a bath and saw a beautiful apsara named Ghritachi. He was overcome with desire, causing him to ejaculate. Baradawaja captured the fluid in an earthen pot [drone], from which Drona was born and took his name.” In math, the concept of zero is a ‘jewel of the Hindu mind’ and the achievements of ‘Hindu’ scientists are illustrated at the cost of contributions from Arabic or European scholars. Similarly, chapters on Biology end with Sanskrit quotes from saints and priests.
Incidentally, Narendra Modi’s life story is suggested reading at primary and secondary level schools in Gujarat. Class 7 textbooks in Gujarat introduce the Mughal rule with references to their ‘gaudy clothes’ and indulgence of ‘sensuous pleasures’ in the first line. The Solanki and Vaghela dynasties get 5 pages of space while the copious details of 400 years of Mughal and Sultanate rule occupy one paragraph. There are many other examples.
There is little doubt that a Modi-led BJP is likely to make another attempt at this falsification of school textbooks. As voters, you have a choice to make: Is this the communal bias which we wish to infuse the young and impressionable minds of children with?
Modi has shed Hindutva?
An oft heard argument propounds that Modi and BJP has discarded its hardline communalist vision borne of the realisation that it is impossible to come to power in Delhi without the support of minority elements. This claim has been backed up by a lack of reference to divisive issues such as ‘Hindu Rashtra’ and the Ram Temple in the campaign discourse. Such arguments are at best, a desperate attempt to soothe what little is left of the voter’s conscience and justify support for Modi. The DNA of the BJP; its raison-d’etre; rests on its Hindutva plank. Articles explaining the meaning of Hindutva on its official website talk about ‘the barbaric Islamic hordes’ who don’t play by the same rules that Hindus do, contrast the cruelty and Hindu slaughter by Islamic forces against the tolerance and non-vengefulness of the Hindus, and expose the ‘1500 years of unmitigated stagnation of Islam.’ It is interesting that in the face of months of criticism, these articles have (very recently as of Jan/Feb 2014) been removed from the website’s ‘Core Philosophy’ page. Significantly, however, and symbolic of the permanence of its vitriolic ideology, each of these articles still remain on the website, catalogued under ‘Articles.’ It is indicative of the rationale behind the change – a short-term political necessity with a focus on electoral results that in no way derogates from or implies a change in the founding philosophy.
Rakesh Sharma, the director of The Final Solution (a documentary detailing the 2002 massacre, its perpetrators and its exploitation for electoral gains), recently released audio clips online which depicts speeches made by Modi after the 2002 pogrom. Far from expressing his ‘deep anguish and pain’, Modi characterises the riots as a conspiracy against Gujarat. Sharma notes that there has been a brilliantly orchestrated whitewash and PR makeover of his image from that of a blood stained messiah to Vikas Purush. Modi’s PR campaign which has masterfully distracted the electorate and redefined the context of the debate is reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s famous quote: “The propagandist’s purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human.”
Post publication edit: Recent developments in the heated electoral battle in UP are important reminders that the Hindutva agenda under Modi is very much alive and kicking. One prominent example is Modi’s right hand man, Amit Shah (accompanied by Muzzafarnagar riot accused on the dias) proclaiming at a speech to Jats in UP: “This is the time to avenge…This is the time to take revenge by voting for Modi.” Another example is senior leader Uma Bharti’s promises that Narendra Modi and she would solve the Ram Temple issue by building the temple at Ayodhya and bringing Ram Rajya to the country. Not to be outdone, senior leader, Subramaniam Swamy (who has earlier called for restricting a Muslim’s right to vote) noted that ‘mosques aren’t religious places and can be demolished by the government.’
The fact is that there isn’t a shred of evidence to indicate a change in Modi’s fundamental beliefs. If anything, right wing groups are more active all over the country, riding on the so-called ‘Modi wave.’ Has Modi cut all affiliations with fundamentalist organisations like the RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal and the like? Will he cut the umbilical cord between the BJP and the RSS that preaches its ideology of hate all over the country? Has he distanced himself from the riot politics of Muzzafarnagar and brought the perpetrators to book? Has he distanced himself from Amit Shah, who is currently heading his campaign in UP? Has he rejected the Hindutva dream of building the Ram Temple? Has he made a stirring speech where he has demonstrated even a remote understanding of liberalism and pluralism? Has he spoken out against Section 377 and the pulping of Doniger’s book – an action that does more to ridicule narrowly interpreted Hinduism than conserve its traditions. Has he condemned the historical distortion and saffronisation of school textbooks?
Most importantly, even if in a fictional and hypothetical world, he does all of that; by which twisted moral logic does that excuse the carnage and crimes that he has already facilitated; replacing the inside of a cold, dark prison cell with the reward of the chair of the Indian Prime Minister’s office?
It is inconceivable that a man of such taint should even stand a chance of becoming the Prime Minister of the land that gave us the likes of The Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi. It is a damning indictment of our moral consciousness, of our misplaced priorities and our complicity in the degradation of India’s proud heritage. The foundations of a liberal, plural, democratic order; the dreams, ideals and constitutional values of our founding fathers and mothers are in question today. Cries of ‘Hinduism in danger’ and ‘Islam in danger’ have been invoked to justify religious fundamentalism for many years. It is not religion, but India which is in danger. India stands on the cusp of a generational change, of social, political and economic reform. In the age of information technology, reams of information are available online. Each voter owes it to himself or herself and to the country to actively peruse the detailed evidence available against Modi before coming to a decision on election day. Anything less is a stunning act of cowardice and apathy.
A young Muslim boy from Ahmedabad was quoted in the Economist recently,saying: “What worries me is that nobody here thinks Modi is innocent. They know what he did and they are okay with that.” There are those of you who this young boy refers to that are beyond redemption. There are those of you who are complicit in evil of the worst kind: the deliberate desensitisation and normalisation of human massacres. The rest: Despite the mountain of evidence implicating Modi, even if you are to come to a conclusion that Modi is innocent, you must be aware of the choices that you are making. You are not just voting for your hopes of ‘development’; but you are voting for an ideology that stands at odds with the traditions of our great country; an ideology that rejects the democratic defence of minority rights in favour of enforced majoritarian assimilation; you are voting for a man that presided over the greatest mass massacre in recent times; you are voting to place the future of the world’s biggest democracy in the hands of a man who takes pride in his authoritarianism and inability to brook dissent; you are voting for the suppression of free speech and a free press; you are voting for the head of a party that criminalises people based on sexual preference and actively advocates the suppression of freedom of thought and expression; you are voting for a party that claims to represent the Hindu community yet ignores and rejects Hinduism’s glorious liberal traditions, your are voting to give right wing fundamentalist groups a freer hand in the country; you are voting for a movement that destroyed the Babri Masjid to correct 500 year old wrongs; you are voting for a brand of nationalism that is characterised by aggressive muscle flexing and violence, one that supports the framing of sedition charges against youth cheering for a different cricket team and dishes out vitriol and vigilante punishments to anyone who dares to disagree; you are voting for the sacrifice of India’s ideals at the altar of GDP growth; you are voting to sell the soul of India.
At a time when criticizing Modi is condemned as ‘anti-national’, one is reminded constantly of Albert Camus: “There are means that cannot be excused. And I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice. I don’t want just any greatness for it, particularly a greatness born of blood and falsehood. I want to keep it alive by keeping justice alive.”
We expect criticism for being nakedly partisan in this piece. However, we would like to pre-empt that discussion by paraphrasing Haskell – “Objectivity is not neutrality.” Objectivity is the ability to differentiate between fact and fiction based on logic and reason. The ability to present both sides of an argument is often incorrectly equated with objectivity. In a debate between 2+2=4 and 2+2=5, an objective assessment does not give equal merit to both arguments, but picks the more credible argument.
This piece is a partial one; in the sense that it is directly and unabashedly critical of Narendra Modi. We believe that it is simultaneously objective because it makes its conclusions after a careful examination of evidence and facts.