India’s Socio-Political Climate In 2019: A Hindutva Authoritarian Regime’s Dream?

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So 2019 finally came to an end, and now I feel bad for having whined about how interminable it seemed back then. True, the crazies haven’t abated, and in fact, have gone into overdrive since, but still, we can celebrate the fact that we are about to ring in a new calendrical cycle – at least in a Gregorian sense – of crazies. No wonder the global mental health burden is increasing. But, just for the sake of collective sanity, let me enumerate what I saw as the top five ‘crazies’ of the year.

1. Pulwama Attack

The government knew that people were baying for some blood, even if the blood were imaginary.

Have democracy, will vote. The general election for the 17th Lok Sabha, held in seven phases across two months, occurred with a lot of heat and noise in the background. The year started with the government making frantic efforts to win their marginally-committed voter base back; given that the BJP’s popularity, including Modi’s, had plummeted after allegations of impropriety in the Rafale deal, and historic high unemployment levels briefly convinced them to look for alternatives.

Then came the constitutional guarantee for 10% reservation to ‘economically weaker sections’, mainly upper-caste Hindus, who are poor, which was nodded through both Houses of the Parliament. Regardless of how unreasonable this was, (economically weak upper caste Hindus have not been victims of institutionalised caste violence or systematic deprivation, which was exactly what the reservation system was designed to provide rather weak reparations for, and reservation is not a substitute for capacity-building policy), this prepoll manoeuvre helped consolidate the ruling party’s upper-caste Hindu vote bank.

Then came the Pulwama terror attack. Valentine’s Day turned lethal for close to 50 on-leave, CRPF men, who were in a convoy of buses taking them home, when a suicide bomber rammed a car laden with explosives into one of them in Pulwama, Kashmir on National Highway 44. Apart from the 50 killed, scores were left injured. The tragedy was received, initially with shock by a large number of Indians.

As the enormity of the event sunk in, shock morphed into sorrow, anger, anguish and even fear. It was understandable. While terror attacks on Indian military and paramilitary forces were not new, this one was the deadliest ever. If even the security forces are not safe, how safe can one feel?

The 2008 terror attacks across Mumbai hit the Indian psyche hard because the whole thing felt really intimate, live and mobile. We were all hooked to our TVs tracking how things transpired, even as terrorists from Pakistan had laid siege to India’s commercial capital. Due to a combination of meticulous planning on the part of the terrorists, and massive intelligence failure on the Indian side, they managed to take the marine route on their way to make their entry, untrammelled, through the Gateway of India.

It was an act of war against our nation. Not until the last terrorist, Ajmal Kasab, had been nabbed alive – at the cost of ASI Tukaram Omble, who was shot even as he heroically held on to Kasab’s gun, so that others could be saved – that we could breathe easy.

When we learned that the attacks, which had spanned 2 days, had consumed 15 personnel with Mumbai police, including Omble and JCP Hemant Karkare, and 2 NSG commandos, it shook us. Since then, whenever any terror attack has taken place anywhere in India, there have been strident demands for a “befitting reply” to Pakistan, especially from civilians.

The 2008 attack not only made Indians more anxious, but it also made many of them indignant – that a proxy war outfit aided by the Pakistani security establishment could make its way to the most intimate, and thitherto deemed secure, of mostly middle-class Indian spaces. It was also around this time that the West’s “War on Terror” extravaganza came to India, (mainly because 26/11 claimed American, as well as Israeli victims, and because of the West’s realization that its deal with the devil in this War was not paying off) along with all the narratives that the “War” machine had built over the years to justify its existence.

9/11 had pushed a lot of Western conservative pundits to dig deeper into Islamic religious texts to look for the “cause” of terrorism, and the focus seemed to shift from the historical and geopolitical reasons behind the rise of Islamism, and the use of terrorism by this ideology to achieve its political ends. These pundits, it would seem, deliberately linked Islamism and original Islamic theology, to Islam as it was practised by people, which was as diverse as nations. They urged “reform” within Islam, suggesting all Muslims were more or less the same, and that they were sympathetic to Islamism.

This racialised Muslims, amplifying the perception that Muslims were essentially inflexible, grasping, untrustworthy, clannish and given to violence, giving an intellectual sheen to Islamophobia. This kind of thinking was already a part of the Hindutva mindset, so Islamophobia in India was reinforced by Western and Israeli Islamophobia after 2008. The fact that state power has been in the hands of Hindutva since 2014, and been in synergies with Zionism and White nationalism, especially circa 2017, means that Islamophobia has now got the kind of universal imprimatur never seen before.

The proponents of Hindutva have kept track of how well institutional Islamophobia has been incubated in India. Pulwama was almost godsend for the government, much of which belongs to the Hindutva cadre. It knew that there couldn’t be a better occasion to galvanise the Hindutva-sympathizing voter base just ahead of the election. It knew that people had stopped thinking. It knew that people were baying for some blood, even if the blood were imaginary.

Pakistan needed to be punished for the suffering it had supposedly inflicted upon our paramilitary soldiers. This allowed the government to justify a highly dangerous pre-poll gambit, deploying some of India’s best air-force resources to undertake a vanity mission of breaching Pakistan’s airspace, and dropping bombs on what the government claimed was a training camp for terrorists in Balakot, and where claimed casualty figures enjoyed a free pendulum swing, between 250 and 350.

Independent verification by international news media, however, turned up little more than a few felled trees on a hilltop. Be that as it may, the radar- shattering ‘boldness’ displayed by the government was enough to convince voters that Modi was their man. How the Wg. Cdr. Abhinandan Varthaman saga played out, only convinced them of the validity of their choice further. Those who asked for evidence, given the conflicting accounts, were summarily lined up for despatch to Pakistan or were branded ‘anti-national’.

It seemed few had stopped to wonder how, despite having a formidable intelligence apparatus, a convoy of 70-odd vehicles could so easily be attacked on NH-44. Few seemed to question, why the best fighter pilots were deployed only to destroy one so-called terror camp. Few seemed to question why casualty figures varied so wildly.

Certainly very few seemed to understand the implications of the breach of Pakistani airspace by India, and its subsequent riposte, which led to Wg. Cdr. Abhinandan’s life being endangered. What would have happened if he had been killed? Escalation? Between two nuclear-armed countries? Those on the Opposition tried hard to keep voters focused on more mundane issues, like unemployment, inflation, gender discrimination, and even tried to whip up their own little paranoia over the reliability of EVMs, but with little success. The ruling NDA roared back to power with a thumping majority, and has since then “Pakistan” and “national security” have become excuses for tyranny. Even the weakening of India’s nuclear doctrine is now being peddled as a kosher idea.

2. The Election

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah after a landslide victory in Lok Sabha elections 2019 at BJP HQ, New Delhi

Have democracy, will vote. The general election for the 17th Lok Sabha, held in seven phases across two months, was held with a lot of heat and noise in the background. The year started with the government making frantic efforts to win their marginally-committed voter base back; given that the BJP’s popularity, including Modi’s, had plummeted after allegations of impropriety in the Rafale deal and historic high unemployment levels briefly convinced them to look for alternatives.

Then came the constitutional guarantee for 10% reservation to ‘economically weaker sections’, mainly upper-caste Hindus who are poor, which was nodded through both Houses of the Parliament. Regardless of how unreasonable this was, (economically weak upper caste Hindus have not been victims of institutionalised caste violence or systematic deprivation, which was exactly what the reservation system was designed to provide rather weak reparations for), this pre-poll manoeuvre helped consolidate the ruling party’s upper-caste Hindu vote bank.

Then came the Pulwama terror attack, which killed close to 50 CRPF men, and which quite understandably, led to sorrow, anger, anguish and even fear, among a large number of Indians. This allowed the government to justify a highly dangerous pre-poll gambit, deploying some of India’s best air-force resources to undertake a vanity mission of breaching Pakistan’s airspace, and dropping bombs on what the government claimed was a training camp for terrorists, and where claimed casualty figures enjoyed a free pendulum swing, between 250 and 350.

Independent verification by international news media, however, turned up little more than a few felled trees on a hilltop. Be that as it may, the radar-shattering ‘boldness’ displayed by the government was enough to convince voters that Modi was their man.

Those who asked for evidence, given the conflicting accounts, were summarily lined up for despatch to Pakistan or were branded ‘anti-national’. Those on the Opposition tried hard to keep voters focused on more mundane issues, like unemployment, inflation, gender discrimination, and even tried to whip up their own little paranoia over the reliability of EVMs, but with little success. The ruling NDA roared back to power with a thumping majority.

3. The Lynchings

The battle cry of Hindutva extremists became the anthem of Islamophobic lynch mobs.

India has seen a rise in hate crimes this year. Lynchings have been the favoured mode for operationalisation of hate by violent mobs. India is a country where mobs lynch for most irrational of ‘reasons’, like a member form the Dalit community riding a horse. Or WhatsApp rumours about ‘child-lifters’ roaming around in the neighbourhood. Or old-school rumours about a Muslim family having stored beef in their refrigerator. The victims of lynching have overwhelmingly been from the Dalit community or Muslim.

In the immediate aftermath of the Pulwama attack, hate-mobs attempted to lynch Kashmiri Muslim traders, professionals and students all across India. They were forced to chant ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai‘ even as they were beaten up. After Hindutva’s resounding victory at the polls, Muslim- and Dalit-hunting lynch mobs took their violence up a few notches, starting with young Tabrez Ansari in Jharkhand. This time it was ‘Jai Shri Ram‘ that he was made to chant.

Lynch mobs started to pop up everywhere, and here is a list of attempted anti-Muslim lynchings from all over the country during the year. Lynching has been normalised to the extent that some MPs now openly call for the lynching of lynch-rapists.

There is no Union law that punishes lynchers; in fact, some lawmakers have in the past actually garlanded alleged Muslim-lynchers who had been bailed out. Goes to show how much faith lawmakers in this country have in the rule of law. The question we usher 2020 in with is, “Democracy who?”

4. The Economy

Nirmala Sitharam, Finance Minister of India in 2019.

A shambles. It was only last year that unemployment levels were shown to be the worst in five decades. If anything, it has only gotten worse this year. There were massive job cuts following a depression in demand in the automobile sector in the latter half of this year.

Rural demand, in particular, is sinking, suggesting a hit to the agri-sector as well. Jobs are hard to come by, and a large percentage of youth are flitting from one contractual gig to another, with no security of their futures in sight.

The government seems to have abdicated its responsibilities in this regard, encouraging young people to ‘start-up’, even as banks are stressed due to high NPAs, and are reluctant to lend.

Education is being made costlier, and also sought to be privatised, without any substantial or economically relevant changes being made to curricula. Without education, young people will be unable to acquire the tools necessary to exploit the startup economy. That aside, chaotic assignment of GST slabs to a variety of raw materials, makes the design of business plans a rather arduous task.

Those without deep pockets or institutional backing are unlikely to want to invest in anything big enough to employ a substantial number of people. The big corporations have been given significant tax cuts in the superstitious belief that it would boost investment and hence employment stats. None of that has been realized.

As a result, the collection of tax revenues has continued to fall. States have not been compensated for GST-induced losses in revenue for four months now as a result. The Centre hoovered up all of RBI’s surpluses, worth ₹ 1.76 lakh crore, in order to make up for its revenue shortfall. Government investments have failed to improve the picture. Production has been contracting, which should alarm most observers. Demand has picked up a sloth, as mentioned earlier. GDP, as a result of all this, is growing at a much lower rate than it was even a year ago.

It’s ironic that at a time when India’s ‘Ease of Doing Business’ rank is improving, business itself is slowing down in India. On top of all this, there is now high inflation, especially in food and fuel prices. A prolonged combination of high inflation and unemployment leads to stagflation. Some economists argue that no matter how vehemently the government opposes the idea that the economy is in a recession, if we take the informal sector into account, then we are decidedly in recession. The situation looks grim. If nothing else, fantasies keep being “Made in India”.

5. The Parliamentary Acts

Amit Sha, Anti CAA protest
Those criticising and protesting the CAA have refused to accept the nonsense that this government wants to protect victims of religious persecution in the neighbouring countries.

Plenty has been written about these, and I don’t think I can add much to insights already provided by many keenly observant writers. Still, before signing off for the year, I would like to make mention of the way a bruising parliamentary majority has been abused to push through a Hindutva agenda. The amended Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the J&K Reorganization Act, and finally the Citizenship Amendment Act; all these laws are a Hindutva authoritarian regime’s dream.

The first one allows the Union government to label any individual it wants a terrorist, and arrest them without any warrant. Some have suggested that this allows the government to label even dissidents as terrorists. This is an incredible power for any democratic government to have, and even emergency situations can’t justify such violation of an individual’s right to liberty based on the state’s whims.

The irony, in all this, is that one of the lawmakers who voted in favour of these amendments, is herself, an alleged terrorist out on bail. It also gives the National Investigation Agency the authority to override the State police, in terror-related cases, which has been seen by many as a sinister plot to bypass federalism.

Kashmir Amit Shah
What has happened in Kashmir since the abrogation of Article 370 is the stuff of some post-Orwellian dystopia, piling on whatever misery ordinary Kashmiris had already been subjected to for decades.

The abrogation of Article 370, which was a special arrangement between the erstwhile State of J&K and the Union of India, was an act of legislative bullying. Following this, the State was downgraded and broken up into two Union Territories, where all Indian laws, except for the most draconian J&K laws, like the Public Safety Act, would supersede J&K legislation. What has happened in Kashmir since then, is the stuff of some post-Orwellian dystopia, piling on whatever misery ordinary Kashmiris had already been subjected to for decades.

Someday, someone will write a book about it. For now, Hindutva has turned paradise on Earth into living hell. The Citizenship Amendment Act, in combination with an all-India NRC, an idea being flirted with by the Union government, has set off massive protests all over the country, due to fears that the combine is meant to exclude most Muslims from citizenship.

Those criticising and protesting the CAA have refused to accept the nonsense that this government wants to protect victims of religious persecution in the neighbouring countries, as its stand towards Rohingya Muslim refugees from neighbouring Myanmar has been consistently hostile.

The Act also doesn’t mention Sri Lanka, where mostly Hindu Tamils have been persecuted by Sinhalese zealots, nor does it mention Bhutan, where Christians have been persecuted. Simply mentioning non-Muslim persecuted minorities from three neighbouring Muslim-majority countries in the Act is clearly discriminatory.

Also, the current government has shown no interest yet in signing the UN Refugee Convention of 1951, even though it pretends to care about refugees. Protesters have been quite predictably labelled “anti-national” or “urban Naxal”, and supporters of the government say that Indian Muslims have no reason to fear the CAA and that the Opposition and the “anti-nationals” are instigating protesters to violence.

Available evidence of police terrorism, especially in Delhi and UP, suggest quite the opposite. The overwhelming majority of victims of these attacks have been Muslim, relatively well-off Muslim families, and their properties and businesses have been targeted using various excuses. The elderly and children have not been spared, working-class Muslims, who had nothing to do with protests, have been shot dead or brutally beaten up, and many have been told they belong either in ‘kabristan’ (graveyard) or Pakistan.

It is true that there has been violence and arson in some places by troublemakers, but instead of punishing those responsible for those offences, collective punishment is being meted out to Muslims. It’s clear that Hindutva has infiltrated the law and order machinery, and that is quite frightening because Indian citizens are defenceless against police violence. All this, on top of the vicious attacks on brave students, again mostly Muslim, who dared to peacefully protest against the violent and should-be-unconstitutional Act.

If anything, events since the passage of the Act firmly have further repudiated the Hindutva canard, that Indian Muslims are actually loyal to Pakistan. Hindutva, which took inspiration from Nazism, and had no role to play in the building of the nation as we have known it, is as ‘foreign’ to the spirit of our nation as it is to the spirit of humanity itself. It has, therefore, zero authority to decide on anyone’s citizenship.

As the year ends, we stand both more united, and more divided than before. We are finding it hard to focus on mundane issues that stare us in the face but which the government is playing its trump cards to distract us from.

In Vision 2020, the late Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam had suggested that India needed its youth to settle their superficial differences and strive, united, for a common goal – a truly developed India. As the forces of division and hate deepen their influence instead of democracy, 2020 tells us that we are quite far from becoming a developed country, and brings to us challenges we have never faced before, in a brand new decade. Can we devise a technology in the ’20s to tame the crazies that we saw a culmination of in 2019?

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