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COVER STORY

29-09-2017

Death for dissent

Gauri Lankesh

Briefing

Comment

Refusing to die

SASHI KUMAR cover-story

They killed her. And then they killed her again. And yet again. And yet, she does not die.

If you were one of them, you would actually consider her lucky the first time round. Because, of the four bullets fired from that countrymade pistol, from that close range, only three found their mark. If you were one of them and you had had your way, the fourth too should have. Now it is almost as if one bullet did not do its job. It is as if one bullet spared her by not ripping into her flesh and bones like the rest. So as you go about killing her again, you need to be unsparing, in the filth you throw at her, in the calumny you unleash on her, in the spleen you vent on her.

If you were one of them, her refusal to die in spite of this multiple killing would leave you in a fit of jealousy and rage. You would start seeing red and call her a Commie, that ultimate cuss word in your vocabulary for those you viscerally hate because they are intellectually way above and beyond your grasp. When it looks like that intended slight only enhances her reputation, you would turn apoplectic and lapse into incoherent obscenities against her. You would blindly hit out at anyone and everyone who so much as cast a sympathetic, kindly glance at where she stood, and what she stood for, before she was felled. You would berate the media for making her the subject of conversation and concern for even these few days. You would pettily grudge her the state honours with which she was laid to rest. You would vengefully crow about how she had it coming and how she deserved every bit of it. You would drop dark hints about more helmeted riders on motorcycles armed with countrymade pistols being out there on the streets to deal with others who, like her, foolishly took their freedom of speech seriously.

They ask, Why all this fuss

If you were one of them, you would not understand why there should be all this fuss about a woman who ran an independent niche newspaper without accepting any advertisements or corporate sponsorships, relying only on a dedicated subscriber base. You would be very worried, and therefore very indignant, about her scrutiny and exposure of corrupt legislators working hand in glove with corrupt businesses. You would be scornful of her passionate engagement with the cause of Dalits and the marginalised. You would be at a loss to understand why rationalists and atheists, including the likes of Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi before her, should not be eliminated as a matter of course because they threaten your blind-belief comfort zone, upset your assiduously cultivated religious mumbo-jumbo ecosystem, with logic and science.

If you were one of them, you would be impatiently furious that there were still those who believed that the religious minorities had the same rights, as citizens, as the majority because you thought you had already disposed of that canard by naming and shaming it as pseudo-secularism. You would be particularly aghast that a woman, of all the genders, was putting up the kind of resistance she was against your Manuvadi political legacy. You would be reaffirmed in your conviction that she had to go and feel self-congratulatory that you did away with her.

If you were one of them, you would not feel unduly insulted when you were called a fascist because that is your preferred or practised brand of politics, perhaps even your aspirational badge of honour. You might, in fact, be amused by those going blue in the face calling you that hoping to din some sense into you. You would not, by the same token, be unduly perturbed that you are held responsible for, or even culpable of, the mob murder of an elderly Akhlaq, or a young Junaid, or any number of those equally innocent men whom you chose to mistake, in your coloured view of a certain hue, of endangering the life of a cow. Because your finest protective sensibilities lunge to the fore when “bovinity” (a term that encapsulates what is at once divine and bovine) is threatened and you would not hesitate to pre-emptively kill, particularly those you consider of a lower religious persuasion or a lowly caste, to save that four-legged, and maybe that many times born, noble creature. You would, though, be quick to pretend to take offence whenever you are accused of killing Gandhi because he is too deeply entrenched in the psyche of the people and you need to make-believe that you too espouse his heritage and humane values. You would, at the same time and on the sly, try to resurrect his killer, Godse, as a cult figure.

If you were one of them, you would not like to be reminded that you would not come out from under your cots where you were hiding when the rest of the country was courageously engaged in the independence struggle, or that you wrote craven letters of apology to the British colonial power; or that you later rode pillion on the JP movement to claim martyrdom during the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi; and that you now need to desperately rewrite history so that all this ignominy can be whitewashed and retold so as to give you some retrospective validity.

If, on the other hand, you were not one of them, but one like her, who lived your life in the conviction that you could, in this day and age, take for granted the freedoms endowed by your democracy to write, speak up for, and act on behalf of the vulnerable, the oppressed and the marginalised and against ideologies that you opposed, that spewed hate and violence, you would, with her killing, be shaken out of that belief. If, like her, you thought your Constitution guaranteed you your fundamental rights, including that to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a), and particularly the very basic and existential right to life and personal liberty under Article 21, you now know better. There are no guarantees really. They are not, for you, worth the paper they are written on when the motorcyclist with the gun comes knocking at your door, again and again.

If you were one like her...

If you were one like her, a journalist by calling, a foot soldier of the fourth estate, of the fourth pillar of democracy, who strove to speak truth to power, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, you would begin to wonder why you alone were expected to do your job exposed and defenceless out there, your life repeatedly targeted, while the executants of the other three pillars—the executive, the judiciary and the legislature—had the full force of the police and the SPG and the commandos behind them and in front of them and to their left and to their right as they went about their work and their lives. You would begin to ask yourself why, every time there is a “VVIP movement”, almost the entire police force in the area lines the streets on both sides for hours on end, leaving the streets and gullies where the ordinary citizens live at the mercy of robbers, rapists and gun-wielding motorcyclists.

But that is the point. They, and not just the killers or the ones who put them up to the killings but the entire complicit Establishment, do not want you to be like her. They do not want you to question or challenge or expose or have an alternative view or vision. They want you to say and write what they want to hear and read. They want you to live your lives quietly, unquestioningly, even if miserably. They will show you your place and you will stay there. If you seek to step out of it, you are stepping out of line. For them, your rights and privileges flow not from the Constitution, not from the universal declaration of human rights, but from your religion, your caste and the electoral standing of your vote bank. If you are of a minority community or religion, behave like one, with expectations inferior to the majority, or else…. That is what they want.

But that is what she would not accept, for herself or for others. That is what she defied. They thought they could kill her for her views, and the views would die with her. But she does not die because hundreds and thousands rally around in solidarity to proclaim “I am Gauri”. Her views, what she stood for, do not die, because they are intrinsic to freedom and humaneness which ultimately and ever triumph. Gauri Lankesh was killed but refused to die. And the killers are confused. Because they do not know how they can kill any better than they have done.

Protests

Targeted but fragmented

cover-story

THE brutal murder of Gauri Lankesh has brought into sharp focus attacks on journalists in different parts of India over the past few years. Reports of various media watch groups and government agencies such as the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) on different aspects of the attacks on journalists have also been discussed in this context. One of the major takeaways from the renewed focus on this issue is that self-defeating fragmentation and polarisation in the media have resulted in the lack of a cohesive response from the fraternity to such attacks. In fact, this was stated in as many words in the 2016 Special Report of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent non-profit, non-governmental organisation based in New York. The CPJ report states: “Journalism as well as journalists [are] in danger from failure to stand up for India’s press.” One of the presentations in the report points out: “Journalists tend to devalue the attacks on themselves as a community and fail to speak out in one voice. We are fragmented ourselves.” Gauri Lankesh’s killing has led to calls from within the fraternity to overcome this and move ahead as a unified and purposive community. But even as these calls were doing the rounds in journalists’ groups, including social media groups, a number of pro-establishment journalists set forth to undermine this process through their sectarian and sensationalist behaviour.

One of the first tasks for any initiative that seeks to create a cohesive response to attacks against journalists is to build up a network and a system where information is collated and documented methodically from across the country in order to evolve multifaceted action plans that would have a decisive impact. The CPJ report focusses on the murder of 27 journalists, killed in direct retaliation for their work, that have taken place since 1992. A 2014 study by a Press Council of India member, Amarnath Konsuri, points out that as many 26 journalists were killed in the north-eastern States of India alone between 1992 and 2014. According to Konsuri, 25 journalists were killed while at work in Jammu & Kashmir during the same period.

While these are the figures for murdered journalists, NCRB data presented in Parliament in July 2017 list 142 cases of attacks against journalists in 2014 and 2015. Incidentally, the NCRB has been collecting data on attacks on journalists only since 2014. Uttar Pradesh is at the top of the NCRB data with 64 cases, followed by Madhya Pradesh (26) and Bihar (22). However, in Uttar Pradesh, only four arrests were made in these 64 cases while in Madhya Pradesh 42 arrests were made in 26 cases. Yet another report compiled by the media watchdog Hoot stated in May 2017 that there had been 54 attacks on journalists in India in the previous 16 months “mainly by lawmakers and law enforcers”.

A common aspect in the cases of killings and the attacks is the tardiness of investigations and the judicial process. There has not been a single conviction in any of these cases so far. Writing the foreword of the CPJ report, the senior journalist P. Sainath pointed out that one of the most conspicuous findings of the study was that “rural and small-town journalists are at greater risk of being killed in retaliation for their work than those in the big cities” and that “factors such as a journalist’s location, outlet, level in the profession’s hierarchy, and social background add to that risk”. He also noted that the Indian language journalists faced greater vulnerability because the language in which they wrote and, more importantly, what they wrote about challenged the powerful. He observed: “In the three case studies this report focuses on—and in CPJ’s list of 27 journalists who have been murdered in India since 1992—it is hard to find a single English-language reporter from a big city. That is, one who was working for an English outlet of a large corporate media house.”

Clearly, to develop a unified, cohesive and purposive response to attacks on journalists, the inbuilt discriminations and social and economic limitations within the profession need to be addressed. But, over and above these longstanding impediments and drawbacks, the most vile, vicious and immediate threat to journalists’ unity comes from the pro-establishment sections in the media, which spout communal and sectarian venom systematically, day after day.

Venkitesh Ramakrishnan

Cover Story

A dissenter silenced

PARVATHI MENON cover-story

It grieves me to write about Gauri Lankesh in the past tense. The television news flash on September 5 of her brutal murder on the steps of her house in Bengaluru was met with initial disbelief and incomprehension by her large constellation of friends, colleagues, acquaintances and admirers. Stunned, friends called each other for confirmation of the dreadful news and to assimilate its import: the similarities between the killing of the distinguished and outspoken academic M.M. Kalburgi in 2015 and Gauri’s murder; the knowledge that Gauri would also have been in the crosshairs of the same forces for her uncompromising stance against communalism; the enabling atmosphere in the country over the last few years for hate crimes of this sort to be committed. These connections provided tentative answers to the question on everyone’s mind: Why Gauri?

The response to news of her death in Bengaluru and other parts of the country assumed the proportions of a tidal wave of grief, anger and, perhaps, fear too. There is also the growing realisation that her killing, though one in a long line of similar killings of secular writers, activists and public intellectuals in recent months and years, represents in some sense a turning point, a new and significant moment in the growing environment of intolerance in the country. For Gauri is—was—a force in Kannada journalism, having carved out a niche in a special kind of adversarial journalism. She has been on the media scene from the 1980s—first with the English media, and since 2000 in Kannada journalism. Her tabloid, Gauri Lankesh Patrike, an offshoot of Lankesh Patrike which her father started and she took over after his death, is widely read precisely because it offers an alternative kind of journalism.

Gauri adopted her father’s anti-establishment, muckraking tone and style but steered the publication onto a fundamentally new path. She used it as a platform for waging a relentless battle-of-the-pen against the rising tide of Hindutva fundamentalism and its growing hold on India’s body politic. That is why she and her publication incurred the wrath of the Hindu Right. Gauri made no bones about her publication’s bias. She had declared herself an activist-journalist and used every public platform to speak out against communal politics, whether at the State or Central level. She campaigned on the ground and in her newspaper on some of the major flashpoints of communal tension in Karnataka–the Hubli flag-hoisting controversy, the attempt by the Sangh Parivar to convert the Sufi shrine of Bababudangiri into a Hindu temple, and the widespread phenomenon of moral policing by Hindu right-wing groups in coastal Karnataka. She was also active on issues of social justice and women’s rights, though it was unquestionably her anti-communal and secular credentials that she was known for.

It is not surprising that Hindu right-wing groups in Karnataka hate her, and the further down in the pecking order of the Sangh Parivar an organisation or group is, the more lethal its threats and abuse towards her. I recall covering the Bababudangiri crisis for Frontline in December 2003. (This was well before the era of social media, Twitter especially, which as we know has today become the platform of choice for anonymous purveyors of hate.) There had been a big mobilisation by the Bajrang Dal of young men who were to storm the shrine on the occasion of the annual Urs. My photographer colleague, V. Sreenivasa Murthy, and I had visited the shrine and were stationed in Chikmagalur on the day of the Urs. A large contingent of political activists from Left parties, along with prominent writers, artists and academics under the banner of the Karnataka Souharda Vedike, had also gone to Hassan to do what they could to foil the plans of the Bajrang Dal. Sensing a clash between the two groups, the district administration had imposed curfew in Chikmagalur. Gauri was a prominent member of the Vedike, and was present there both in her role as a journalist and as an activist. She and a group of around 500 members of the Vedike somehow smuggled themselves into Chikmagalur at night, and on the morning of the protest, held a public meeting in the town. They were all arrested and held in detention in the Chikmagalur jail grounds. We managed to get permission to speak to them but were told we could not take pictures. Sreenivas, however, let his camera hang at hip level as if unused and kept photographing Gauri while I engaged her in conversation through the bars of the iron gate behind which they were kept. (The photograph was carried prominently in the next day’s edition of The Hindu.)

That evening, the Bajrang Dal called a public meeting in Chikmagalur’s Azad Maidan, which was addressed by several pontiffs (heads of maths) along with many of the leaders of the Bajrang Dal and allied organisations. The then State convener of the Dal, K. Sunil Kumar, and its south India convener, Pramod Muthalik, addressed the gathering. The two special targets of their attack were Gauri and Girish Karnad, the noted Kannada playwright. I can never forget the stream of filthy and personal invective and threats that were directed at Gauri from the podium that night, with each abuse being met with roars of approval from the crowds.

Of interest to note is that the recent spate of attacks on journalists has been on those working in the vernacular media. There are reasons for this. Investigative stories in the vernacular have a potency and impact at the State level that the English media do not have.

Publications in the language people speak and read reach wider audiences and therefore play a substantial role in shaping public opinion amongst ordinary people. Bold and uncompromising journalists working for small vernacular publications are also vulnerable as they usually do not have the backing of powerful newspaper managements. Gauri’s political writing, especially on communalism, penetrated the interstices of the sociopolitical landscape, offering readers a close-up view of political processes at work. But she also strode two journalism worlds, the English and the vernacular, which gave her views an even wider reach and impact.

Opposed to Hindutva

Gauri’s assassination has rightly been connected to the other prominent three unsolved killings—of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi—for several reasons, the most important being a common hatred for Hindutva bigotry. But it is also important to comprehend the differences among them, and the distinctly individual paths that led them to oppose Hindutva. They were no bandwagon followers of secular movements. Indeed, each of them opposed the Hindutva ideology for reasons that were initially integral to their subject specialisations. They raised the hackles of the bigots for similar as well as different reasons. Pansare was a communist, well known for a popular Marathi book on Shivaji. Dabholkar, a medical doctor, was a staunch rationalist who engaged in a lifelong fight against superstition. Years of dogged research took Kalburgi to a position that could only be construed as anti-mainstream orthodox religion (see article by Rajendra Chenni on page 17). His studies revealed the manner in which the original social reform and anti-caste principles of the Lingayat faith were hijacked and replaced by a formidable form of Hindu orthodoxy by the ruling Lingayat elite.

Gauri stood with the others on basic principles, but she too came to that place from a different background–that of journalism. She may have made common cause with them in her fight for secular values, but like them her fight was also unique. It is obvious that the Hindutva forces felt aggrieved by each of the four fallen heroes. Gauri’s murder is a powerful assertion of the logic of the right wing: that hate is broad spectrum in its reach but in essence boils down to a visceral aversion to reason.

Soon after Gauri’s murder, Prahlad Joshi, Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament from Dharwad and the person who successfully sued her for defamation last year, claimed her journalism was insignificant because of the poor circulation of the Patrike. In reality, the Patrike punched far above its weight, to a level much higher than what circulation numbers reflect. It was Gauri’s agenda and her public image that gave the publication she edited and wrote for the reach that the English language media could not muster.

We still do not know who or which group was responsible for Gauri’s murder, but reasonable conjecture would suggest that it is only those for whom her writing and activities posed a threat who would want to get rid of her.

Two logical assumptions can be made. The first is that this was not an impulsive act of vendetta by an individual but a carefully planned and executed plot, the knowledge of which must have extended into the higher organisational echelons of whichever group it was. After all, Gauri was a prominent individual with a large constituency of support. The plotters would have weighed the possible scenarios that would follow the killing before taking the decision to do so.

The second assumption that can be reasonably made is that the killers were confident that whatever the outcome of her murder, under the current dispensation it could be managed and contained. At this particular juncture in Indian politics, the state appears to have shrunk into itself, leaving the arena open and lawless for bigots and fundamentalists of various hues to function with alarming confidence. People can be lynched for belonging to a particular religion, the exercise of the right to free speech by an individual makes her “anti-national”, and journalists who stand up are browbeaten or very simply removed from the scene.

Gauri knew well of the threats to her life. Members of her family have been quoted as saying that she had noticed unusual movements of strangers around her house in the days before she was killed, and had even told her worried mother that she would report this to the police if they continued. She had spoken on many occasions about the steady stream of hate mail and threats she received, mostly laughing it off, and, as we now know, never seeing it as serious enough to report to the police or to arrange private or police security for herself. One can only conjecture why Gauri, or for that matter Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi, did not act to protect themselves despite the threats they received. All of them valued their lives, all of them had so much more to do.

Perhaps it is a characteristic of the dedicated rationalist to assume, somewhat naively, that a kernel of reason exists somewhere in the recesses of the most bigoted of minds, a spot of morality or goodness that would activate at the appropriate moment to provide them protection, at least insofar as the most heinous of threats, death itself, were concerned.

And finally there is our Gauri: daughter, sister, colleague, friend; the person whose generosity of spirit and outreach was vast, the person who will be sorely missed. I have known her from the 1980s and recall now the petite, tousle-haired cub reporter with the impish grin that stayed in her eyes long after it had disappeared from her lips. She matured over the decades into the forceful journalist and activist she finally became. As for her legacy, knowing Gauri, she would have wanted her most cherished values of secularism, social equality, rationalism and humaneness to be passed on after her time. After all, they are what she gave her life for.

Kalburgi killing

Killers on the loose

cover-story

THE cold-blooded murder of Gauri Lankesh has brought the focus back on the tardy progress in the investigation into the killing of another outspoken critic of the right wing, Professor M.M. Kalburgi.

On August 30, 2015, Malleshappa Madivalappa Kalburgi, known for his strong stand against superstitious practices and right-wing groups, was shot dead by two unidentified persons at his residence in Dharwad. Kalburgi was reportedly speaking on his cell phone when someone knocked on the door of his house and he opened it. A moment later, his wife, Umadevi, and daughter, Roopadarshi, heard gunshots, and when they rushed out in panic, they saw Kalburgi in a pool of blood. The bullets had pierced his forehead. When he was taken to hospital, doctors declared him brought dead.

There were no eyewitnesses, and the surveillance cameras at most junctions in the city were defunct. The special investigating team constituted by the Hubballi Dharwad Police Commissioner hardly made any progress until it chanced upon CCTV footage from an institute in the neighbourhood which had images of two suspected assailants on a motorcycle.

Kalburgi had been provided security after he received threats over his remarks on idol worship (in 2014). Just a few days before he was killed, he requested the police to withdraw the armed guards deployed at his house. The police suspected a planned attack.

The police said they were investigating all angles, including the involvement of fringe elements. Meanwhile, similarities in the killings of Kalburgi and the rationalists Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar of Maharashtra started emerging. Dabholkar, the anti-superstition crusader, was shot dead on August 20, 2013, in Pune, and Pansare, the rationalist, was killed in Kolhapur in February 2015.

Following the public outcry and demands from the opposition for an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Chief Minister Siddaramaiah handed over the case to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). Interestingly, at one point the State Cabinet mulled over handing the case to the CBI. But at a press briefing after a Cabinet meeting in September 2015, Law and Parliamentary Affairs Minister T.B. Jayachandra said: “Since giving Kalburgi’s murder case to the CBI will take time, we have decided to conduct a probe by the CID before it is handed over.” Kalburgi’s family has not insisted on a CBI probe. But activists and writers are not happy with the progress made so far.

The investigating agencies in Karnataka and Maharashtra suspect the role of the Sanatan Sanstha, a Goa-based Hindutva group, in these killings. The weapon used and the modus operandi are similar. The only difference was that while Kalburgi was shot at his own doorstep, Dabholkar and Pansare were shot while out walking in the morning.

Ballistic reports have determined that 7.65 mm countrymade pistols were used in all three assassinations. Efforts to get a forensic test done on cartridges by Scotland Yard have also failed. Meanwhile, the special investigation team (SIT) probing the killing of Gauri Lankesh has determined that a similar weapon was used in her murder too.

While the agencies had been investigating the fringe element angle since 2013, the first breakthrough came in 2016 when the CBI, which is investigating Dabholkar’s murder, arrested Dr Virendra Tawade from Pune on charges of arranging weapons and logistics. Tawade is an ENT specialist and a member of the Sanatan Sanstha.

Another member of the organisation, Sameer Gaikwad, who was arrested by the SIT of Maharashtra in connection with Pansare’s murder, was granted bail this year in June.

The CBI announced a reward of Rs.5 lakh in March 2017 for information on Tawade’s associates Sarang Akolkar and Vinay Pawar, allegedly “sadhaks” of the Sanatan Sanstha, who are suspected to have carried out the attack. They are absconding. The CID in Karnataka questioned Tawade in the Kalburgi case. It is also on the lookout for Rudra Patil, another “Sanatan sadhak” who is an accused in the 2010 Goa blasts case. Witness accounts pointed to his presence near Kalburgi’s residence. He, too, is absconding.

But all said and done, in a case having its roots or branches extended to a neighbouring State, it is a bit difficult to expect perfect coordination between government-owned agencies of two different States investigating different cases, considering the technical hurdles involved. While some say investigation by a Central agency might help in such cases, persons like Megha Pansare, daughter-in-law of Govind Pansare, point to the tardy progress in the Dabholkar murder, which is being investigated by the CBI, until the High Court started monitoring it. Megha Pansare, who on a few occasions met Kalburgi’s family in Dharwad, has demanded a court-monitored probe into the Kalburgi case as is being done in the case of her father-in-law.

For the record, in August the Bombay High Court, hearing the cases of Dabholkar and Pansare, observed that the murders were not “stray incidents” and the accused seemed to have “organisational backup”. Going by the way the investigation is progressing, a court-monitored probe might be able to ensure some progress in the Kalburgi case.

Girish Pattanashetti in Hubballi

( With inputs from K.V. Aditya Bharadwaj, Bengaluru.)

Noteworthy effort

OVER the past two decades, structural reforms in India’s beleaguered power sector have been the subject matter of intense scrutiny and analyses by a spectrum of stakeholders, including journalists, scholars, policymakers and practitioners. Reams have been written, innumerable brainstorming seminars have been held and further reforms introduced, yet the industry seems to be sinking hopelessly into an ever-deeper morass. And now comes Prayas’ latest primer on the theme, Many Sparks but Little Light. It is a meticulous and comprehensive chronicle of the roller-coaster ride that the power sector has been on since the mid 1990s. It is the first effort by a group of professionals with invaluable insights into the working of a sector that touches the lives of virtually every citizen.

The first wave of reforms in India’s electricity sector, launched at the behest of multilateral institutions in the early 1990s, made the cardinal mistake of confusing the symptoms for the cause. The focus then was to attract investments in an ailing and unbankable sector, even if it meant that the government guaranteed payment security to investors. In the process, electricity itself got insidiously transformed from a development input to a market commodity. The restructuring of State electricity boards that followed the initial independent power producers’ programme was an accessory to facilitate investments in the sector, but it did bring a level of hitherto unseen transparency.

Insidious centralisation

Since electricity is a concurrent subject in the Constitution, piecemeal reforms undertaken by some States were consolidated and brought under the umbrella of the Electricity Act, 2003, an insidious centralisation of a sector hitherto administered mainly by State governments.

The new law mandated the unbundling of State electricity boards and the establishment of independent regulatory commissions in every State, which resulted in the Centre wresting control of the sector from the States. But it did have the salutary effect of opening up what had been a black box and ushering in a modicum of transparency in the working of the industry. Transparency, unfortunately, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for achieving the objects of reform. As measure after miscalculated reform measure failed and the sector sank further into the quicksand of unviability, transparency was a useful lens to focus on what had gone wrong with the sector. Prayas has wielded this lens constructively to show how things could have been done better in each of the segments that make up this complex industry.

The chapters of the book are organised functionally: generation from thermal, hydropower and renewable sources of energy, followed by distribution and transmission reforms, supplemented by two separate chapters on coal and natural gas, the principal fuels that go into thermal generation. The failure to synchronise reforms in the power sector with those in coal and natural gas has been a critical factor in the failure of reforms, a fact that is obvious to every observer, although the government seems to have turned a blind eye to this critical aspect.

The problems of the generation sector, after many snakes and a few ladders, are less about availability and more about affordability, sustainability and viability, a point that is well argued in the book. However, it is not clear why the authors are aggrieved about hydropower promoters making windfall profits from the carbon credits claimed by developed countries. To the extent that Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) credit makes hydropower projects attractive in India, the country is a net gainer in terms of generation capacity. The additionality of carbon saved by hydropower projects is the concern of the registering authority, not the Indian government. In fact, the Indian government has been smart in encouraging hydropower projects to take the CDM route. All one can argue is that the financial benefits accruing from carbon credits must be passed on to the consumer, something that is provided for in Central Electricity Regulatory Commission (CERC) regulations but can be fine-tuned further.

Much of the analysis has already been well documented by several industry-watchers, including Prayas, albeit in different contexts and not quite as comprehensively. What this book does is to present the analysis in a cogent and comprehensive format that gives the reader an idea of the overall trajectory of reforms and their impact on the sector. The book scores brilliantly in its expose of the botched-up coal sector reforms, probably the first chronological, authoritative and comprehensive record of developments in the coal sector impinging upon the performance of the power sector.

So where does India’s power sector stand after a quarter century of reforms? Statistics show that the proportion of households without access to electricity has been halved. But in absolute numbers 5.8 crore households still await connectivity, as compared to 6.4 crore in 1991. Complaints about unreliable power supply, high electricity bills and poor grievance redress remain unaddressed. Voltage fluctuations are a daily feature. Public funds still finance the sector, and distribution companies’(discoms) balance sheets are still splattered in red. The environment continues to be a casualty, and distribution losses refuse to go away.

Drawing strength and support from the government’s own statistics, the book exposes the lack of commitment to real reforms despite several loss-reduction programmes—such as the Accelerated Power Development Programme (APDP), the Accelerated Power Development and Reforms Programme (APDRP), the Restructured APDRP and the Integrated Power Development Scheme—that have utilised huge amounts of taxpayers money to clean up discom balance sheets. The reduction in ATC (average technical and commercial) losses, the main reasons why reforms were initiated, has been modest during the last two decades. The reform years have also been one of spiralling power purchase costs, despite the dwindling costs of renewables, particularly solar and some very competitive tariffs quoted by ultra mega power projects (UMPP). Discoms prefer expensive short-term bilateral power contracts, usually with related businesses to purchasing power through power exchanges at market-discovered prices. Such incestuous arrangements are a clear conflict of interest, and yet stakeholders seem to turn a blind eye to them.

The book rightly lays the blame at the door of the sector watchdogs, the State Electricity Regulatory Commissions (SERCs), which through their acts of omission and commission have failed to stem the rot in the distribution segment. The SERCs, whose primary task is tariff determination, have taken the course of least resistance, waiting for utilities to file for tariff revision instead of proactively directing them to do so. Typically, utilities wait for the political bosses to decide whether they should file for tariff revision or not even as their expenditures balloon far beyond their revenues. In a federal polity like India, elections are always round the corner in one State or another, and the government in power is reluctant to risk a tariff increase.

Regulatory failure

If tariffs cannot be revised to recoup the increasing costs, there are other dubious means to compensate discoms. Regulatory commissions do not balk at compensating discoms through fuel surcharge, and so on, which bypass the structured process of regulatory and public scrutiny that regular tariff determination entails. Finally, State governments seldom fork out the subsidies they are committed to providing, to meet at least part of the widening gap between revenue and cost of supply, driving discoms to borrow from public sector banks. In 2014-15, 60 per cent of the non-performing assests (NPAs) of the entire infrastructure sector was accounted for by the power sector alone. Prayas concludes that increasing short-term borrowings by cash-strapped defaulting discoms can crowd out priority infrastructure investment. Banks lend to discoms without adequate due diligence and, according to Prayas, in anticipation of bailouts, which have become alarmingly frequent. Regulatory failure is at the core of the mess in which India’s power sector finds itself today.

Regulatory commissions were set up as a core reform agenda, ostensibly to “depoliticise” decision-making without considering the ground realities of the intensely political nature of the electricity industry. As a result, despite being armed with extensive powers, regulatory commissions have failed to instil commercial sense into the discoms. As the book points out, no regulatory commission has devised a road map for the financial turnaround of the sector, much less conduct a comprehensive review of power and systems requirements with a view to optimisation of investments. Public interest has seldom informed regulatory decisions.

Further, the SERCs have signally failed to true up the tariff proposals of their respective discoms to correct for avoidable costs incurred in the past because of poor performance and/or other inefficiencies. Performance accountability is the casualty. A huge number of infructuous litigation cases arising from ambiguous regulatory orders has also hampered the functioning of discoms. Finally, the unacceptable levels of regulatory assets piled up by virtually every SERC over the years has seriously impacted the viability of discoms. As the book rightly points out, the success of the Ujjwal Discom Assurance Yojana (UDAY), the latest bailout scheme, will become apparent only when tested against election or drought years.

Rural situation

Nowhere is the failure of power reforms more evident than in the story of rural electrification. Seventy years after independence, we are still aspiring for Power for All, wherein every household in the country will get power supply 24/7. Although statistics claim high levels of village electrification, household access has remained poor, and even where households have been connected, hours of supply leave a lot to be desired. Village electrification has focussed mostly on energising irrigation pump sets and not on household access. But even in regions where penetration of household access is good, actual supply of electricity has been intermittent at best. Prayas’ own monitoring of supply in 250 locations across the country revealed shocking figures of frequent interruptions, low voltage and restricted hours of supply even in urban areas in megacities, leave alone rural supply.

Even if governments succeed in connecting all households, affordability will pose challenges to the rural poor. Prayas’ prescription of earmarking cheap power from UMPPs or fully depreciated plants specifically for supply to rural households is old wine in a new bottle. The idea was first mooted by the energy expert and former bureaucrat T.L. Sankar but was never considered seriously by any government. Stable and assured electricity supply to rural households is probably a silver bullet that could at one stroke provide livelihood opportunities to the rural poor and check mass migration to urban areas, but successive governments have failed to bite that bullet.

Coal mess

Appropriately titled “A black past and a grey future”, the chapter on coal is a scathing commentary on how the mishandling of the sector over the past several decades has dragged the electricity sector down with it; after all, currently, coal fuels two-thirds of all electricity produced and consumed in India. From the days of coal linkage and captive mines to the comprehensive New Coal Distribution Policy (NCDP) announced in 2007 at the behest of the Supreme Court, the coal industry’s knee-jerk response to contingencies has been unsparingly documented.

The promulgation of the NCDP was only the beginning of further mismanagement of the coal sector wherein coal linkages were handed out indiscriminately to all and sundry by the coal linkage committee without regard to Coal India Limited’s (CIL) ability to honour the commitments. Substantial power generation capacities came up in the wake of these paper linkages, only to languish for want of physical supplies of coal. These power generation capacities were funded by financial institutions primarily because of the assured coal linkages, and the attendant implication from the stranded asset was the ballooning NPAs of banks. The government compounded the complications by getting a presidential directive issued that ordered CIL to honour all its linkage commitments, as if this could be done by mere fiat.

Salvaging the situation required CIL to supplement its own production with imported coal without clarity on who would bear the cost of high-priced imports. Issuing fiats to regulators to pass on fuel cost increases in the tariff met with huge protests and has since been struck down by the Supreme Court, albeit in a different case and context. As Prayas rightly points out, consumers cannot be punished for “ambiguous drafting of NCDP by the government, overly generous linkage allocation… and convenient interpretations of the various documents by the power generators, their financiers and coal companies”.

The illegalities and procedural irregularities in the allocation of coal blocks unravelled when what is termed the “Coalgate” scam was unearthed by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India in its scathing report tabled in Parliament. Eventually, the Supreme Court struck down the allocations. Now the sector is back to square one. With the passage of the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Act, 2015, auctioning and allotment of mines for captive use as well as the possibility of commercial mining should put the sector back on the rails, although this would happen at a time when coal itself is becoming a dirty word and the 2016 Paris climate accord foretells a decisive move away from coal.

Weak plans

Most of the above factors are well-known to stakeholders and industry-watchers. The book lays the blame squarely on five factors: poorly conceived objectives, weak plans and design flaws, weak institutions, entrenched interests and absence of competition except in the solar photovoltaic segment. But it rightly argues that the solution is not to abandon reforms and go back to government ownership and control of the industry; after all, it was government ownership of companies such as CIL and the State electricity boards that created the problems in the first place.

The trick lies in acknowledging the type of reforms appropriate to each segment. For instance, the natural monopoly character of transmission and distribution activities warrants better regulation under state ownership. Good governance across the sector irrespective of ownership is key to turning around the industry. This should go hand in hand with clear prioritisation of social and environmental objectives such as universal access to affordable modern energy, reliable supplies, equitable treatment of competing uses and users of common resources such as water or common land and better treatment of project-affected peoples. Instruments to achieve these would include appropriate policies and pricing and robust frameworks to assess competing needs. Above all, credible monitoring and tracking of implementation of policies and compliance with regulations, under the glare of public scrutiny, will go a long way in putting the sector back on track. Additionally, planning for the sector should incorporate agility and nimbleness since future developments cannot be fully anticipated, a recommendation that cannot be stressed enough. Formulating clear and implementable policies through transparent and extensive stakeholder consultations would avoid the pitfalls of future litigation.

Drawing up appropriate policies and programmes and prioritising social and environmental objectives is the easy part. How to incentivise policymakers and regulators to implement these objectives, enforce and monitor progress, make the actors concerned accountable, and improve governance are questions with which we all grapple, without satisfactory answers.

Where this book scores is in its disarming candour, the complete absence of rancour and the constructive suggestions to deal with the complex challenges of this sector. Our policymakers would do well to heed this sane voice from Prayas.

Letters to the Editor

letters

Right to privacy

fl15 cov privacy

THE unanimous judgment by the nine-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court recognising the right to privacy as a fundamental right protected by the Constitution is a historic one (Cover Story, September 15). Though the right to privacy was recognised as a fundamental right in some judgments, it was generally considered a common law right. This judgment has made it explicit that it is an integral part of the right to life and liberty granted by the Constitution.

The right to privacy, the government held, was an imported and elitist idea, too amorphous to be defined exactly. Besides, it was claimed that since it had been given statutory safeguards in various forms, there was no need to recognise it as a fundamental right. This judgment has set aside all such arguments. The Union government’s arguments to establish the validity of Aadhaar, saying privacy was not a fundamental right, have been undermined. Above all, other rights such as the right to food habits, the right to choice of dress, etc., will be protected, widening the space for freedom in the true sense of the term.

Buddhadev Nandi, Bishnupur, West Bengal

A PERSON’S right to privacy includes digital activities. Millions of Indians use social networking sites and search engines whose servers are located in the United States.

Apart from data protection laws, India also needs to enact a separate Act for the protection of the data of Indian citizens stored in countries such as the U.S. China and Russia have enacted data residency laws. The U.S. has laws for the protection of the data of its own citizens, but does not offer protection for data of non-U.S. citizens stored in the U.S. The U.S. government can access such data. Lobbyists in the U.S. can dig up digital data stored in servers in the U.S. to serve their vested interests.

Data is the new weapon for colonising nations. India has taken baby steps to protect the government’s digital data, Now, we need a law to protect the data of Indians stored in servers abroad. All cell phone makers should be put under the scanner, not just those from China or South Korea, to protect data on mobile phones and prevent their misuse.

Deendayal M. Lulla, Mumbai

THE Supreme Court’s judgment is a welcome one. The government can place reasonable restrictions on the grounds of national security, decency, etc. But what is “reasonable” is debatable, and one hopes that such restrictions will have a sound logic behind them and will not be used for narrow political gains.

M. Kumar, New Delhi

Triple talaq

THE Supreme Court’s judgment declaring instant triple talaq unconstitutional is welcome (“Instant talaq illegal”, September 15). A country aspiring to be a superpower should shun religious obscurantism and regressive practices. Civil society should now initiate steps to ban age-old rituals/superstitions, such as bird/animal sacrifices in temples, that go on in the name of religion.

B. SURESH KUMAR, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu

THE verdict on triple talaq brings hope to Muslim women and is a shot in the arm for women’s organisations such as the All India Democratic Women’s Association, which have fought for women’s rights. The ulema has a greater role to play as centuries-old conservative practices are revisited in the light of the verdict.

C. Chandrasekaran, Madurai, Tamil Nadu

70 years of freedom

THE editorial was a coolheaded, compact and comprehensive panoramic painting in prose of the seven decades of socio-economic polity after India won freedom from colonial rule in 1947 (September 1). The issue is a classic one, worth preserving as a souvenir. The foreign colonisers were not as deceptive and dangerous as the hidden leeches, jackals and foxes amongst us are. Our democracy is at a crossroads. Individual freedoms and human values are at stake.

M.N. Bhartiya, Alto-Porvorim, Goa

CONGRATULATIONS on your remarkable Independence issue with its cogent analyses of the many things still lacking in India and the rise of the Right. There was, however,a noticeable gap. You did not examine the reasons for the abysmal failure of the Left, especially the two communist parties, to make any impact on the Indian economy and society.

Also, the caption for the Raj Kapoor/Nargis photograph on page 115 should have been “Shree 420”, not “Awara”.

Meghnad Desai, via email

IT is unfortunate that terms such as women’s freedom, sex ratio and reservation for women are just fancy vote-capturing mantras in this country even 70 years after Independence (“A silent struggle against inequality”, September 1). Although we glorify women in our language through the use of terms such as “motherland”, “Bharat Mata” and “mother tongue”, the reality is horrible for women in India.

A.J. Rangarajan, Chennai

North Korea

Nuclear alarm

JOHN CHERIAN world-affairs

The crisis in the Korean peninsula has escalated to unprecedented levels in the past couple of months, and going by the statements from Washington, there are no indications that the situation will be defused any time soon. In the first week of September, even as the leaders of the BRICS countries—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—started assembling in the Chinese city of Xiamen for their annual summit, North Korea conducted its most powerful nuclear test so far.

The international community, spearheaded by the United States, imposed draconian sanctions against North Korea after it conducted a series of missile tests at the beginning of the year. In August, U.S. President Donald Trump threatened “fire and fury such as the world had never seen” if North Korea went ahead with more missile and nuclear tests. It was an implicit threat from the world’s largest superpower that it would use nuclear weapons.

After Trump’s “fire and fury” speech, North Korea seemed to have backtracked from the threat to target the waters around Guam, which hosts one of the U.S.’ biggest military bases. And Trump tweeted that the North Koreans were treating the U.S. with respect once again. However, Korea watchers were not surprised when North Korea launched a ballistic missile over Japan in late August. It was the first time that a North Korean missile flew over another country.

War games

The North Korean action was a response to the war games that the U.S. and South Korean armies were jointly conducting in the South along its borders. As many as 17,500 U.S. troops and 50,000 South Korean soldiers participated in the war games. The two armies simulated “decapitation” raids on the North Korean leadership and surgical strikes on nuclear and missile sites in the North. The U.S.’ B-1B supersonic bombers, which are nuclear capable, made regular flights between Guam and the Korean peninsula during the 11-day-long exercises in August. The long-range bombers started participating in the military exercises only from 2016. China and Russia had called on the U.S. to postpone its military exercises on the Korean peninsula and on North Korea to simultaneously stop testing its new missiles and nuclear weapons. The leadership of the two countries had said that the stopping of the annual war games by the U.S. on the Korean peninsula was an important prerequisite to get meaningful talks restarted to defuse the long-running crisis. But the appeal fell on deaf ears.

The new South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, who had promised to improve relations with the North, has been overtaken by the events of the past few months. The man who had protested against the installation of the American THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) missiles on Korean soil has now been forced to adopt a more hawkish tone; he is now requesting for four more of the systems to be located in South Korea. China had strongly protested when the U.S. stealthily installed the first THAAD system as South Koreans were preparing to face elections. President Moon, however, seems to have got an assurance from Washington that no pre-emptive attacks will be launched against North Korea, although after the latest nuclear test Trump has again threatened punitive action. An attack on the North could lead to immediate retaliation against the South where the U.S. has many bases. The North has always viewed the government in the South as inconsequential for its survival.

Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the U.S. has wartime operational control over South Korea and jurisdiction over half the demilitarised zone, which divides the North and the South. There are 28,500 U.S. troops permanently based in South Korea. Pyongyang’s top priority has always been to engage in direct talks with Washington.

Pyongyang has described the test of its “hydrogen bomb” as “a complete success”. If the North Korean claim is true, it is the first time that it has successfully tested a hydrogen bomb. Its destructive power is significantly more than that of the atomic bombs dropped by the U.S. on Japan in 1945. The United States Geological Survey record of the seismic impact of the latest nuclear test conducted by North Korea revealed that it was seven to eight times more powerful than the last nuclear test conducted by the country, in September 2016. North Korea has said that the nuclear test, the sixth it has conducted so far, has given it the capability of loading a miniaturised hydrogen bomb in an intercontinental missile. The North has already successfully test-launched intercontinental missiles twice this year.

The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, was shown inspecting a miniaturised nuclear warhead that could be fitted into the cone of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Experts in the West have cast doubts about the claims. The same experts were sceptical of the North’s claims of mastering ICBM and nuclear weapons technology, only to be proved wrong within a short time. The North Korean leadership has apparently decided that a full-fledged missile and nuclear deterrent is the only insurance against regime change.

Pyongyang has shrugged off all the “fire and brimstone” ultimatums from the Trump administration. Top U.S. intelligence officials have been planting stories in the media that the Trump administration has a contingency military plan to make “a pre-emptive strike” against North Korea. Any strike against the North would lead to the immediate devastation of Seoul from counter-strikes. The South’s capital is where most of the country’s population and wealth are concentrated. As Steve Bannon, a former key adviser of Trump and an alt-right ideologue, recently observed, the U.S. knows that it cannot realistically resort to the military option in North Korea.

Chinese response

The latest North Korean actions have further alarmed China, the country’s biggest trading partner and until recently a close political ally. North Korea was particularly upset with China for supporting the passage of the United Nations Security Council sanctions in August against it, the toughest so far. North Korea’s exports have been cut by one-third as a result of the latest Security Council resolution.

Global Times, the Chinese newspaper that is close to the political establishment in Beijing, had in an article cautioned North Korea against carrying out another nuclear test. “The game of chicken between Washington and Pyongyang has come to a breaking point. If North Korea carries out a sixth nuclear test as expected, it is more likely than ever that the situation will cross the point of no return,” the newspaper wrote. A nuclear war in the region would engulf not only the Koreas but also countries like China and Russia. The editorial urged Pyongyang to take a “small step back” to make the conflict easier to solve, which “doesn’t mean being a coward, but being courageous to face the challenge in a different way”. Of course, the advice did not have any impact on the decision-makers in the North.

After the latest nuclear test by the North, there have been renewed calls on China and Russia from the U.S. to cut off all oil supplies to the cash-starved and energy-deficient North. The Trump administration has now called for a total economic blockade on North Korea and has threatened to impose punitive sanctions on any country trading or having commercial links with North Korea. This is a move akin to an open declaration of war by the U.S. on the North. China has not been very happy with North Korea for some time. The latent tensions between the two sides have been exacerbated with the emergence of the young Kim Jong-un as the leader of his country.

The North Korean leadership historically has had a tendency to take important decisions unilaterally. The first President of North Korea, Kim Il-sung, launched a war for Korean reunification in 1951 without consulting neighbouring China. The war that followed led to the division of the country on a long-term basis. It was only the intervention of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that helped the North Korean army avoid complete defeat at the hands of the U.S. The PLA intervened when the American forces threatened to cross into China. The U.S. Air Force had bombed the North into rubble using more ammunition than it had used in the Asia Pacific region during the Second World War. Every family in Korea lost a family member in the Korean War.

Similarly, the North has been pursuing its missile and nuclear deterrent policy without keeping China in the loop. The leadership of the Workers’ Party of North Korea knows that the last thing China wants is the precipitate collapse of the North Korean state and the advance of the U.S. to China’s borders. A nuclear or even a conventional war in the region is an unthinkable scenario for the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.

As recent events have shown, Beijing has very little leverage over Pyongyang. The more sanctions North Korea is subjected to, the more defiant it becomes. The Trump administration is aware of China’s limitations, but it is seeking to use the Korean crisis to wrest more concessions from Beijing on the economic front.

Method in the madness

For the time being, the leadership of the hermit kingdom prefers to remain in isolation than make any unilateral concession to the U.S. As most observers of the region now agree, there is a method in the seeming madness emanating from Pyongyang. North Korea’s bluster backed up by facts on the ground now leaves the U.S. with no option but to talk with its new nuclear adversary on the block.

India and Pakistan were eventually recognised as de facto “nuclear powers” by the West, despite being non-signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Saner voices in the Trump administration, such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have indicated that eventual talks with the North have not been ruled out despite the recent assertions to the contrary by his commander in chief.

Meanwhile, the ongoing tensions in the Korean peninsula have provided the pretext for further militarisation of the region. The Trump administration has asked for an additional $54 billion for the U.S. military, a 10 per cent increase in the military’s budget. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been using the Korean crisis to change the character of the Japanese defence forces and change the pacifist constitution in the country. Along with South Korea, Japan has decided to spend much more on its defence budgets citing the “North Korean threat”. Japan and South Korea have already sent their shopping lists for more sophisticated weaponry to the U.S., which is good news for the thriving U.S. arms industry. More worrying for the U.S. is the growing chorus among right-wing circles in Japan and South Korea to acquire nuclear deterrents of their own. It is well known that both Japan and South Korea have made tremendous advances in the field of nuclear technology and can produce nuclear weapons at short notice. In fact, the South Koreans had embarked on a secret mission to produce nuclear weapons of their own in the 1990s. It was the Americans who nipped that project in the bud.

The crime

A method in the madness

The crime, chilling and macabre, was a challenge to the sovereignty of the state and to the freedom of thought and expression and individual activism. The gruesome, premeditated shooting of Gauri Lankesh on the evening of September 5 outside her home at Rajarajeshwari Nagar in south-west Bengaluru raises worrying questions about the growing intolerance of independent voices.

The 55-year-old publisher and editor of the Kannada tabloid Gauri Lankesh took on with courage the political establishment and Hindu right-wing forces through the three decades of her journalistic life. She attempted to bring naxalites to the mainstream and batted for the rights of Dalits, farmers and minorities. Certainly, she had detractors. But who would gun her down with such brutality? What was the motive, and who will gain from her death? To put it more simply, was the murder (clearly a professional hit job by as yet unidentified assailants) meant to send out a chilling message to those supporting her views?

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) D.N. Jeevaraj, who represents the Sringeri Assembly constituency, actually insinuated that she might have been killed for her statements against the Hindu right wing. At a rally in Koppa taluk in Chikmagalur a day after the murder, Jeevaraj, a former BJP whip in the Karnataka Assembly, criticised the language that Gauri Lankesh used in her writing and quoted the headline of one of her articles: “ Chaddigala Maaranahoma” (Death to wearers of shorts), a reference to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). “If she had not written ‘chaddis’ maaranahoma’ in her paper that day, would she still be alive today?” he asked his audience. Later, he claimed that he had been misquoted.

On September 5, Gauri Lankesh left her office in south Bengaluru just after seven and drove 10 kilometres to her home. She reached minutes before eight. She sat briefly in her parked car checking her mobile phone before she got out and entered her premises through the smaller of two gates. She then opened the larger gate, apparently to facilitate the parking of her car, and at this point she was shot at from what appears to be within a distance of 10 feet. The preliminary investigations were based chiefly on footage from two closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras that she had installed at the front of her home. It shows a person of medium height in a black jacket and a helmet covering the face shooting at her four times. Digital-image-enhancing software is being employed to get a clearer view of him (or her) because investigations hinge largely on the identification of the assailant.

A senior officer from the special investigating team (SIT) that has been set up by the Karnataka government to probe the murder told Frontline that three bullets pierced her body while the fourth missed; its fragments were found in a wall of her home. One bullet entered her body from behind in the shoulder region, while two hit her abdomen from the front. A doctor involved with the post-mortem examination of her body at the Victoria Hospital said that there were entry and corresponding exit wounds for each of the three bullets, which damaged her heart and lungs and killed her instantaneously. Investigating officers disclosed that a preliminary analysis of the four empty cartridges and the small fragments of the four bullets found at the site showed that a countrymade 7.65 mm pistol, which is rather commonly available, was used.

Assailants on a motorcycle again?

Footage from nearly 500 CCTV cameras installed all along the 10-km route from Gauri Lankesh’s office to her house has been analysed. But it has not yet been ascertained whether the assailants were following her or even how many of them there were. But the footage that captured the shooting also shows a light that the police said could be from the headlights of a motorcycle. The light from behind Gauri Lankesh’s car disappears when the shooter leaves after the killing. So did the assailants come on a motorcycle? So far there have been no witnesses. Gauri Lankesh’s neighbours reacted only after they heard the gunshots. They alerted the police and informed her mother when they saw the bleeding body.

Curiously, the modus operandi of the killing mirrors the one used in the murders of three other left-thinking intellectuals in recent years: the rationalist Narendra Dabholkar, 67, in 2013 in Pune; Govind Pansare, 81, of the Communist Party of India in 2015 in Kolhapur; and the Kannada scholar M.M. Kalburgi, 77, also in 2015 in Dharwad. In each case, two assailants rode up to the victim on a motorcycle; the pillion rider either alighted or continued to sit on the motorcycle to fire from close range, and the assailants sped away after the murder. The similarities between the murders, all unsolved, do not end here. At all four sites, 7.65 mm cartridges were found, and countrymade pistols were used in all the murders.

An officer who investigated the Kalburgi murder pointed out that “the 7.65 mm pistol used to kill Kalburgi in 2015 was the same weapon that was used to murder Pansare the same year” and also that forensic evidence clearly indicated that “one of the two guns used to shoot Pansare was used to kill Dabholkar in 2013”.

An officer with the newly formed SIT said bullet fragments and cartridges from the scene of Gauri Lankesh’s murder would have to be analysed and compared with similar material found in the other three cases before any firm conclusion could be drawn on whether the same people or organisation was responsible. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is probing the Dabholkar murder; an SIT in Maharashtra is probing Pansare’s murder; and the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the Karnataka Police is investigating Kalburgi’s murder. The State government has announced a reward of Rs.10 lakh for information leading to the killers of Gauri Lankesh. The similarities that have been noted between the murders raise the question whether a more coordinated effort and sharing of information would not bring better results. The CBI and the Maharashtra SIT have filed charge sheets and made arrests in the Dabholkar and Pansare murders. There has as yet been no charge sheet or arrest in the Kalburgi case.

In September 2015, the Maharashtra SIT arrested Sameer Vishnu Gaikwad from Sangli in connection with Pansare’s murder and charge-sheeted him as one of the assailants. The CBI arrested an ENT doctor, Dr Virendra Tawade, from Panvel in June 2016 in connection with Dabholkar’s murder and filed a charge sheet accusing him of being part of the murder conspiracy. In November 2016, the SIT probing Pansare’s murder interrogated Tawade and filed a supplementary charge sheet accusing him of leading the conspiracy behind Pansare’s murder.

Tawade is a member of the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, an organisation that is allegedly an offshoot of the Sanatan Sanstha, a Hindu radical group based in Goa and founded by Dr Jayant Athavale. Gaikwad is alleged to be an activist (or “sadhak”) of the Sanatan Sanstha. Thus, the charge-sheeting of Tawade in both the Dabholkar and Pansare murders links the organisation with both crimes. While Gaikwad has been out on bail since June 2017, Tawade has filed an application seeking bail.

Neither the CBI nor the SIT has been able to secure clinching evidence, leave alone a conviction. Officers investigating the cases say this is because two of the key accused in the Dabholkar case, Vinay Pawar and Sarang Akolkar, are absconding. They are believed to have fled to Nepal or Bhutan or Bangladesh. In March 2017, the CBI announced a reward of Rs.10 lakh for any information that could lead to their arrest. The CBI claims that both Pawar, who is from Maharashtra’s Satara district, and Akolkar, who is from Pune, are sadhaks of the Sanatan Sanstha and are “close associates of Dr Tawade and involved in the murder of Dabholkar”. Informed sources also said that Akolkar was named an accused in the 2009 Goa blast case and has a red corner notice issued against him since 2012. The CBI’s view is that Pawar killed Dabholkar, while Akolkar was a key conspirator.

There is an apprehension that the Karnataka CID’s intelligence networks, which are largely restricted to the State, do not have the wherewithal to investigate a crime or conspirators with links in another State. It has been on the hunt for Rudra Patil, also an alleged Sanatan Sanstha activist and a childhood friend of Gaikwad. He has been absconding since his name cropped up in the 2009 Goa blast case.

According to police sources, Sanatan Sanstha sadhaks are a crafty lot and emulate Israel’s Mossad and the Soviet KGB. A senior officer said: “They do not carry mobile phones. To deliver a small message they will travel 400 km and back. Among a number of dos and don’ts, the organisation prescribes a code of conduct and behaviour for its sadhaks and a charter of punishments for non-believers. If a non-believer commits a minor misdemeanour, he is punished; if it is something irreparable, death is the punishment.”

The Sanatan Sanstha denies it all. Its spokesperson, Chetan Rajhans, told Frontline that it did not advocate violence and that the “communists were attacking [it] because [it] was spreading spirituality in India”. He added: “We condemn the killing of Gauri Lankesh as we do any other killing. But for the past 10 years, the communists have employed the philosophy of ‘calling him a mad dog and shoot him, Goebbels style’. It has been three months since Tawade applied for bail. The two cases [Dabholkar and Pansare] are not progressing since the investigating agencies have no proof. We are an NGO. There is not a shred of evidence against the Sanatan Sanstha.” When questioned over sadhaks like Gaikwad, Rajhans admitted that he was part of the organisation but said that his “role was restricted to driving vehicles that belonged to the Sanatan Sanstha”. As for Tawade, he “conducted free medical clinics at the ashram”. He said the organisation had asked Pawar and Akolkar to come and “face the judiciary since their continued absence from the law was giving the Sanstha a bad name”.

Police officers were sceptical. One of them said: “It is obvious why the investigative agencies are unable to nab them….” The insinuation was that it was because both Goa and Maharashtra are now ruled by the BJP.

This indeed may be why Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has not handed over the Gauri Lankesh murder investigation to the CBI. The victim’s brother has asked for a CBI probe. But the track record of Central agencies in dealing with Hindutva terror has not been confidence-inspiring. The National Investigation Agency, for instance, dropped charges against the accused in the 2008 Malegaon bomb blast case citing a lack of evidence.

The Congress has linked Gauri Lankesh’s killing to the RSS and the BJP. Party vice president Rahul Gandhi caused a political storm when he said: “It is a philosophy. Anybody who speaks against the ideology of the BJP, against the ideology of the RSS, is pressured, beaten, attacked, and even killed. They want to impose only one ideology which is against the nature of India.” The BJP called this comment “mala fide” and claimed that disgruntled naxal groups angered by Gauri Lankesh’s efforts to bring some of them into the mainstream might be responsible for her murder.

Ravi Shankar Prasad, Union Minister of Law and Justice, said: “I would like to ask Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah whether she [Gauri Lankesh] was undertaking efforts to [have naxals lay down their arms] with permission from the government. If so, why was she not given security?” He added that the slain journalist’s brother had also said that it could be the handiwork of disgruntled naxals. (Indrajit Lankesh’s statement was, however, dismissed by Gauri Lankesh’s sister Kavitha, who said that that was not possible.)

RSS denial

The RSS, too, has denied involvement. Speaking to Frontline, Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat, one of the RSS’ most influential figures in the south, said that the needle of suspicion “pointed to the naxals” and that “even her [Gauri Lankesh’s] brother was saying so”. He added: “We are not in violence. We do not support violence. Our ideas may clash, defer…. But then independence of thought and expression is guaranteed under the Indian Constitution.”

The Left has condemned the killing. Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury addressed a protest meeting organised by journalists’ associations in New Delhi. He noted that there was an “eerie pattern” in the murders of Kalburgi, Pansare and Dabholkar. He added that the Sangh Parivar was fostering a climate of bigotry, hate, intolerance and violence in India. Stating that the killing was one in a series of murders of rationalists and that they were “interconnected”, the CPI(M) said: “All of them were vociferous in their opposition to superstition, obscurantism and the perpetuation of the communal agenda by the right-wing Hindutva forces. The Polit Bureau strongly condemns the cold-blooded murder.... This killing, fits into a by now familiar pattern of eliminating voices that dare to speak out against the current climate of hate and intolerance by the RSS/BJP.”

Protests and candlelight vigils were organised by civil society across the country. In Bengaluru, Gauri Lankesh’s body was kept for public viewing in the precincts of the iconic Ravindra Kalakshetra. Just next door to the venue, at the equally iconic Town Hall, she had led numerous protests. The Chief Minister, some of his Cabinet colleagues, former Union Minister M. Veerappa Moily, theatre personalities, journalists, activists and members of civil society were among the mourners.

A number of film personalities, including Javed Akhtar, Shekhar Kapur, Dia Mirza, Nandita Das, Renuka Shahane and Shirish Kunder condemned her killing. Javed Akhtar tweeted: “Dhabolkar, Pansare, Kalburgi, and now Gauri Lankesh. If one kind of people are getting killed which kind of people are the killers.” The well-known Kannada writer Baraguru Ramachandrappa said: “It is an attack on rational and progressive thinkers in Karnataka.”

Journalist as activist

Indomitable spirit

BAGESHREE S. cover-story

GAURI LANKESH married her craft of journalism to social and political activism in a manner few have done in recent memory, and paid the ultimate price. Journalism for her was a calling, not a mere job.

There were many sceptics when Gauri Lankesh took over Lankesh Patrike after her illustrious father, P. Lankesh’s death in 2000. They sniggered at her for her “lack of experience”, her “political naivete” and what they claimed was her “poor hold on Kannada”. Evidently, she was stepping into the big shoes of her father, a leading light of the Navya movement of literature in Kannada, film-maker, playwright and a journalist who shaped a generation through his writings in the 1980s and 1990s. And anyone less gutsy than Gauri Lankesh would have shrivelled under the intense heat of such expectations.

The distinct path Gauri Lankesh chartered from then on until her brutal killing on the night of September 5, 2017, was all her own as much in journalism as it was in political activism. In fact, the two roles melded into each other and lent her a trademark style. Her indefatigable confidence and hard work soon silenced the sniggers. Gauri Lankesh doggedly kept the magazine going during the most trying times. Money to run it was always hard to come by, and she brought it out almost single-handedly, right down to proofreading the pages, with little or virtually no help.

The transformation of the weekly tabloid’s masthead from Lankesh Patrike to Gauri Lankesh in 2005, though not by choice but because of a dispute with her brother, Indrajit Lankesh, who claimed proprietorship, could well be seen as symbolic of the shaping of her distinct identity.

Journalism from the trenches

The magazine her father ran with unprecedented success in Kannada journalism’s history, with no advertisement support, was unique for the way it lent a literary flavour to the bold tabloidy analysis of contemporary politics. Gauri Lankesh, though arguably the most starry-eyed fan of her father (she kept the chair and table her father had used in the editor’s office, but never used it herself), soon successfully moved out of his shadow, freely admitting that she was indeed not the “litterateur” that her father was. The weekly she edited did not have the same flavour as the one her father ran, but there is little reason to argue that it should have been. While individual style is one matter, the spirit of the times after 2000, marked by the rise of Hindutva in Karnataka, most notably in its coastal belt, certainly played a major role in shaping Gauri Lankesh’s uniquely feisty personality.

Taking on the Sangh Parivar

What made her voice distinct in the years that followed was the unapologetic plunge she took into activism and how she used the paper she ran as a forum to espouse those causes. Issues such as communal politics, women’s rights, Dalit liberation and farmers’ agitations constantly found place in her paper, and there was no ambiguity as to whose side she was on. There was no “balancing of views” as mainstream journalism would call it. Her critics sometimes said that her style lacked “nuance”, but she vociferously argued that this was often a ploy to play safe or to obfuscate ideas and political positions. She was never “careful” as an editor; nor was she a “careful” as a person.

Predictably, this resulted in obnoxious trolls, online and offline, and defamation cases became her constant companions. Around the time of her death, she had gone on appeal to the High Court on a prison sentence pronounced by a lower court in connection with a defamation case filed by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Dharwad Member of Parliament Prahlad Joshi. She particularly “offended” the Sangh Parivar affiliates (whom she always referred to as “chaddis”, often in bold letters on the tabloid’s cover) in edition after edition. Scanning through the issues over the past few years, it is hard to come across even a single one that did not take on the Hindutva political actors in what some would describe as language that was shrill and strident.

However, as G. Rajashekhar, culture critic, political activist and regular contributor to both Lankesh Patrike and Gauri Lankesh points out, it was not unbridled iconoclasm. Gauri Lankesh held the Indian Constitution sacrosanct across contexts and never advocated violence to take on those whom she unsparingly attacked in her magazine every week. “You cannot find a single line in any of her editorials that advocates defiance of the Constitution or taking to violence,” he says. Gauri Lankesh had the courage to publish Rajashekhar’s strong critique of the seer of the Pejawar Mutt in Udupi that most mainstream magazines were afraid to touch, but there were always limits she would not cross.

Mainstreaming Naxalites

Her unwavering faith in constitutional values was also reflected in the enormous effort she put in to bring those who were once in the forefront of the naxal movement back into the mainstream along with like-minded persons such as the freedom fighter H.S. Doreswamy.

Two important leaders, Sirimane Nagaraj and Noor Sridhar, who joined the mainstream thanks to her persistent efforts, became active in democratic struggles and even wrote occasionally for Gauri Lankesh. Interestingly, Gauri Lankesh’s fallout with her brother involved disagreements over publishing an interview with a naxalite leader, which Indrajit strongly opposed. While her touchstone was the Constitution, she believed that journalism should hear out every side of a story to reflect genuine plurality.

Lingayat issue

In fact, her virulent opposition of the BJP and the Sangh Parviar could also be read as stemming from her abhorrence of those who did not believe in the constitutional values of secularism and moving towards a casteless society. Rather than shut out such forces, she constantly engaged with them, especially in social media platforms. Over the past few months, when the demand for a separate religious tag for Lingayats escalated in Karnataka (“Struggling for a new status”, Frontline, September 15), Gauri Lankesh wrote extensively on the issue both in Gauri Lankesh and in English publications.

In an article for the news website, “The Wire”, she wrote: “Lingayats are followers of Basavanna and the sharanas, whose philosophy is expressed in thousands of vachanas. In several vachanas, the sharanas have rejected the Vedas, shastras, smritis and the Upanishads. They also rejected the system of caste based on the varnasrama, rebuffed faith in karma based on caste, denied the concept of paap and punya which was based on karma, spurned the notion of heaven and hell as based on paap and punya. They scorned temple and idol worship. They rejected the phallic linga symbol of Siva and opted for ishtalinga, which represents inner conscience. They declared that work was worship and tried to break the barriers of caste by inter-caste dining. They fought against discrimination on the basis of gender and birth. They abhorred superstitions. They ignored Sanskrit— which was understood by very few—and addressed the people in Kannada. Essentially, Basavanna and all sharanas rejected everything about the Hindu religion and rebelled against it.”

She pointedly observed that the demand for a separate status for Lingayats was raised by many even during the drafting of the Constitution, especially by Lingayat members of the Constituent Assembly such as S. Nijalingappa. The scholar M.M. Kalburgi, killed two years ago in a manner strikingly similar to how Gauri Lankesh was killed, also held similar views. She may not have been a scholar, but her keen appreciation of why the issue rankled the Hindutva bigots who had no time, patience or inclination to understand culture in its multifaceted dimensions and nuances of which religion is only a small part ensured that she stayed her course come what may.

For those who felt that her magazine lacked nuance, the editorials Gauri Lankesh wrote every week under the title “Kanda Haage” (As Perceived) showed another face of her potential as a writer and journalist. They reflected the vastness and depth of her understanding of the world as a journalist that the screaming headline may have often masked. Her editorial on triple talaq (published in the September 5 issue), for instance, hailed the Supreme Court verdict but also questioned the earlier verdict on “love jehad”.

An abiding role model

The last editorial Gauri Lankesh wrote (in the issue dated September 13) titled “Sullu Suddigala Yugadalli” (In the age of fake news) is a fine analysis of the Sangh Parivar’s untiring fake news manufacturing machinery. She confesses to falling prey to one such photoshopped image herself, and, after a detailed analysis of how fake news is created and spread, talks about the newly emerging young band of activists who are countering them online and offline. She was all praise for Youtuber Dhruv Rathi, who has the “looks of a college boy” as she put it, and expressed happiness over many youngsters like him raising their voice of dissent. In fact, anyone who closely interacted with Gauri Lankesh could not have missed her drive to nurture the young to be right-thinking and bold in their resistance to right-wing politics. She kept in close touch with young activists such as Kanhaiya Kumar and Jignesh Mewani and called them her “adopted sons”. Many young journalists, especially young women, looked up to her as a role model. She entered journalism in the 1980s. Gauri Lankesh concluded her last editorial with a note of optimism: “I offer my salaam to the lonely soldiers of truth who are exposing the fake news propagated by chaddis. May their tribe increase…”

It is not clear what will happen to the magazine that carries the legacy of Gauri Lankesh and in some ways her father as well. The rights over the magazine, which has no strong financial backing or editorial structure, will now go back to the family. Her sister, Kavitha Lankesh, who is a film-maker, said she would not want to take it on but would be happy if some friends and colleagues of Gauri Lankesh wanted to keep it alive. For now, Gauri Lankesh’s friends and admirers are busy putting together an edition of Gauri Lankesh that will be a tribute to its slain editor and her indomitable spirit. Gauri Lankesh had put together a similar special edition as a tribute to her father when he passed away in 2000.

Essay

Ansari & Modi

A.G. NOORANI politics

IN all the annals of ceremonials, it would be hard to find a more uncivilised send-off than the one that Vice President Mohammad Hamid Ansari received from Prime Minister Narendra Modi on August 10 in the Rajya Sabha, which he had presided over with singular distinction for a whole decade. The televised proceeding exposed to the whole country what a noted academic, Ananya Vajpeyi, so aptly described as “a humiliating farewell” in which the Vice President “was rudely demoted from the status of an Indian citizen, patriot and public official to a narrowly defined and ideologically confirmed member of, as they used to say in press reportage of communal riots until quite recently, ‘a certain community’” ( The Hindu, August 22).

Equally offensive is the commonly used epithet “nationalist Muslim”. But it is highly significant since it reveals the mindset. If Jawaharlal Nehru is hated by the Sangh Parivar, it is because he mercilessly exposed this diseased mentality which never speaks of “nationalist Hindus” except in the communal sense. “On 11 May, 1958, he told a meeting of the AICC [All India Congress Committee] that the ‘communalism of the majority is far more dangerous than the communalism of the minority’.” He was certainly not condoning the latter. But as he explained later, on January 5, 1961: “Communalism is a part of our society.” He refused to accept that one particular community was communal and not the other. However, “when the minority communities are communal, you can see that and understand it. But the communalism of a majority community is apt to be taken for nationalism.”

The only good Muslim is a Sarkari Muslim, an Uncle Tom, or a dead Muslim. Muslims are not unique in having Uncle Toms in their midst. The Parsis had the Congressman one in R.K. Sidhwa. He got his just deserts from Sir Homi Mody in an interview he gave to The Times of India published on August 29, 1947. Referring to the rights of minorities in the Constitution that was being drafted, he said: “So far as Parsis are concerned, the position as I found it in the early stages of the discussions in the Minorities Sub-Committee was that the very existence of the community as a national minority was being questioned in certain quarters. This was the result of its renunciation all these years of any special privileges for itself, either in the legislatures or in the public services. My business was, therefore, to secure a sort of statutory recognition for the community as an important minority which had played a notable part in the struggle for the political and economic emancipation of the country. When this was secured, I decided to follow the traditions which the community had maintained in the past and withdrew all claims for special reservation. …

“From the report of the discussion which took place yesterday in the Constituent Assembly, I find R.K. Sidhwa has sought to make out that I had veered round to his point of view. With regard to that, I would only say that if Sidhwa had had his way, Parsis would not have received any sort of recognition and would not have figured at all in the political map of the country. Happily, the Minorities Sub-Committee did not regard him as representing the Parsi point of view, and the community is today in the position of having secured a recognition of its special place in the political life of the country and has earned for itself general goodwill.”

Now just ask yourself one question: Had the Parsis been discriminated against, is there the slightest doubt that any of its leading figures would have spoken up? And if they had done this basic duty to the community and to the country, could one have doubted their patriotism?

Muslim and Indian

Delivering the convocation address at Kashi Vidyapith on August 14, 1935, Dr Zakir Hussain said: “There are a few well-meaning but extremist nationalists who have a concept of Indian nationalism which will consider Muslims’ claim to such a right as dangerous to the integrity and progress of the country; but if our educationists earnestly consider the problem of Indian education, then I am sure they will willingly accept Muslims’ aspiration to base their education on their own culture. That will be good education and wise politics at one and the same time. You will forgive me if I express this view plainly before this august gathering that while among the considerations that wean away Muslims from Indian nationalism are personal selfishness, narrow-mindedness and the absence of a correct vision of the country’s future, it is also due to a large extent to the deep suspicion that under a national government the existence of Muslim culture will be imperilled. Muslims are not willing to pay this price for unity under any circumstances. I, not only as a Muslim, but as a true Indian, am glad that Muslims are not ready to pay that price; because, not only will Muslims suffer thereby, but the composite culture of India will also be the poorer for the loss. That is the reason why Indian Muslims, because of their religion, history, culture, and their cultural aspirations consider their common identity valuable not only for themselves but precious also for the Indian nationhood. They regard its destruction or weakening to be not only oppressive to themselves, but a betrayal of the nation as well. Indian Muslims do not love their country less than anyone else. They are proud of being part of the Indian nation, but they will never like to be a part whose identity is destroyed. They agree to be good Muslims and good Indians.”

On March 21, 1940, just two days before the Muslim League adopted the Lahore Resolution on Pakistan, Maulana Azad presented an alternative in his presidential address at the Congress session in Ramgarh. He said: “I am a Muslim profoundly conscious of the fact that I have inherited Islam’s glorious traditions of the last thirteen hundred years. I am not willing to lose even a small part of that legacy. The history and teachings of Islam, its arts and letters, its civilisation and culture, are part of my wealth and it is my duty to cherish and guard them. As a Muslim I have a special identity within the field of religion and culture and I cannot tolerate any undue interference with it. But, with all these feelings, I have another equally deep realisation, born out of my life’s experience, which is strengthened and not hindered by the spirit of Islam. I am equally proud of the fact that I am an Indian, an essential part of the indivisible unity of Indian nationhood, a vital factor in its total make-up without which this noble edifice will remain incomplete. I can never give up this sincere claim.

“It was India’s historic destiny that its soil should become the destination of many different caravans of races, cultures and religions. Even before the dawn of history’s morning, they started their trek into India and the process has continued since. This vast and hospitable land welcomed them all and took them to her bosom. The last of these caravans was that of the followers of Islam….

“Eleven centuries have passed by since then. Islam has now as valid a claim on this land as Hinduism. If Hinduism has been the religion of its people for several thousand years, Islam, too, has been its religion for a thousand years. Just as a Hindu can say with legitimate pride that he is an Indian and a follower of Hinduism, so can a Muslim proudly claim being an Indian and a follower of Islam. I would go further and say that an Indian Christian (or the follower of any other religion) can similarly claim, with legitimate pride, that he is an Indian following one of her many religions.

“Eleven hundred years of common history have enriched India with our common creative and constructive achievements. Our languages, our poetry, our literature, our culture, our art, our dress, our manners and customs all bear the stamp of this common life. …

“Our shared life of a thousand years has forged a common nationality. Such moulds cannot be artificially constructed. Nature’s hidden anvils shape them over centuries. The mould has now been cast and destiny has set her seal upon it. Whether we like it or not, we have now become an Indian nation, united and indivisible. No false idea of separatism can break our oneness.”

Clash of nationalisms

All this was said as president of the Congress. There was not a murmur of dissent. Elsewhere, at Ahmedabad, the president of the Hindu Mahasabha, V.D. Savarkar, propounded the two-nation theory in 1937. His acolyte was Syama Prasad Mookerjee, who founded the Jana Sangh in 1951 in a compact with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). Its progeny was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, 1980). India now faces a clash of two nationalisms: Indian nationalism and Hindu nationalism. The Constitution of India is based on Indian nationalism.

Ours is a plural society governed democratically under the rule of law. Every interest has a right to voice its views, demands, grievances and laments; labour, industry, peasants are a whole range of interests, whether State or municipal, as well as teachers, students and minorities, linguistic, cultural or religious.

The Constitution reflects this liberal outlook. The fundamental rights not only assure every person, whether a citizen or a foreigner, of equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws (Article 14) but also recognise the minorities as a collective entity by conferring on them certain rights as minorities. “Every religious denomination” is assured the right to establish its own religious and charitable institutions (Article 26); every linguistic minority has the right to “ conserve” its “distinct language, script or culture of its own” (Article 29) and “all minorities, whether based on religion or language, shall have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice” (Article 30). If, then, any of these rights of a minority is violated—for example, discrimination in recruitment in police service or discrimination by the police services in affording protection from violence—can it fairly be argued that the minority itself must keep quiet and not protest?

Yet, this is precisely the attitude adopted towards Muslims. Unfortunately, the community has produced a rich crop of Sidhwas of the most hideous kind. They go so far as to deny that the minorities have a distinct interest which calls for protection. Thus, on December 29, 1980, at the very first session of the BJP, when the political resolution was being discussed, Mehboob Ali made an innocuous and unexceptionable suggestion: the minorities’ interests must be protected. The mover of the resolution, Sikandar Bakht, rejected the suggestion in good Uncle Tom manner. “Minorities were not second rate citizens and had equal rights as the majority had under the Constitution. The use of the terms majority and minority should be avoided” ( The Hindustan Times, December 30, 1980).

How low this tribe can sink became clear to me during a visit to the State Department of the United States in February 1993. A top official dealing with South Asia told me that Sikandar Bakht had visited him and bitterly complained of the “aggressiveness” of Muslims. He was sharply told off: minorities are entitled to be aggressive if they are discriminated against. They are aggressive everywhere for the same reason, including in the U.S., the official said.

Nehru exposed this school in his Autobiography. “The Hindu Mahasabha is always laying stress on its own irreproachable nationalism when it criticises Muslim communalism. That the Muslim organisations have shown themselves to be quite extraordinarily communal has been patent to everybody. The Mahasabha’s communalism has not been so obvious, as it masquerades under a nationalist cloak. The test comes when a national and democratic solution happens to injure upper-class Hindu interests, and in this test the Mahasabha has repeatedly failed. The separation of Sind has been consistently opposed by them in the economic interests of a minority and against the declared wishes of the majority.”

Savarkar propounded the two-nation theory in his presidential address in 1937 (much before M.A. Jinnah did), amplified his thesis in Hindutva published in 1924, and emerged as the BJP’s icon when it took up the Ayodhya issue. The RSS supremo M.S. Golwalkar’s Bunch of Thoughts (1968) drew on Hindutva. Common to both is the rejection of “territorial nationalism”—everyone born in India is a national—and espousal of its antithesis, “cultural nationalism”, which is synonymous with Hindutva.

From 1996, the BJP’s election manifestos swore by it. The 1998 manifesto had a section on “Our National Identity, Cultural Nationalism”. It asserted that “the cultural nationalism of India… is the core of Hindutva”. L.K. Advani, as the BJP’s president, told the BBC: “It would not be wrong to call the BJP a Hindu party” ( Organiser, August 5, 1989). Narendra Modi, his former protege who had him discarded for good, proudly said when he became Prime Minister in 2014: “I am a Hindu nationalist.”

Modi as Hindu nationalist

As in most things, including the style of governance, Modi simply replicated his record in Gujarat. Christophe Jaffrelot’s essay entitled “Narendra Modi between Hindutva and sub-nationalism: The Gujarati Asmita of a Hindu Hriday Samrat” ( India Review, 2016, pages 196-217) repays study. He recalls what Modi said at a public meeting on September 9, 2012: “The Muslim philosophy is ‘ hum paanch, hamare pachhees’ (We are five—allusion to Muslim polygamy—we will have twenty-five children)—an open criticism of the high Muslim birth rate that many Hindus fear.”

“Narendra Modi’s identification with the religion of the majority found expression in the invitations he extended as Chief Minister to Hindu clerics and saintly figures to public functions or in the fact that he attended religious functions in Hindu sacred sites only. For instance, sadhus took part in the grand celebration of the mixing of water in Ahmedabad when new canals took the Narmada to the Sabarmati in the city in 2002 for a grand function known as the Narmada-Sabarmati Sangam. He then performed a puja from a boat near Ellisbridge, along with Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the then president of BAPS (the main branch of the Swaminarayan movement), which was ‘telecast live on four giant screens along with pyro techniques’.

“Symmetrically, many years later, in 2010, Narendra Modi inaugurated the new, post-earthquake, Swaminarayan temple in Bhuj (Kutch), while emphasising in his speech that ‘Cultural nationalism is once again leading our country on the right path that was shown by saints and sages centuries ago.…’ Three years later, he was the chief guest of the 60th anniversary of BAPS youth activities. This grand function, which brought together 60,000 people at the Sardar Patel Stadium in Ahmedabad on 6 January 2013 was inaugurated by Pujya Mahant Swami, who was to officially become the chief of BAPS in March 2013, and Narendra Modi. The former garlanded the latter on stage and they both lit the inauguration deepa (lamp).… Similarly, the tradition of Iftar parties was discontinued by Modi in Gujarat.”

Attack on Hamid Ansari

True to form, in his very first speech in the Lok Sabha as Prime Minister, Modi lamented a thousand years of slavery: British rule plus Mughal, to him, Muslim-rule. Like the RSS, he is at war with history. That explains his rabidly communal speeches during the Bihar and Uttar Pradesh election campaigns; that explains his studious refusal to condemn the lynching of Muslims; and that explains his attack on Ansari.

Modi began with a snide insinuation of insincerity, diplomats dissimulate; another on his ambassadorships to West Asian countries over the years where he was contaminated, “in that atmosphere, in that thought, its debate and around such people” (read: the abominable Muslims).

Even after his retirement, horror of horrors, he “remained in that circle”. For, he became Vice Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University and Chairman of the Minorities Commission. But for 10 years as Vice President, he assumed a different responsibility. That was spelt out to buttress the aspersion of insincerity by suppression of Ansari’s own beliefs, as if a Vice President is supposed to promote any ideology whether his own or that of the state. But that is precisely what the Modi regime wants. Seshadri Chari, a former editor of Organiser and member of the BJP’s National Executive, told The Hindu (August 18) that Ansari should have served as “ a bridge between the government and the Muslim community”.

Presumably, that is what is expected of the sprinkling of Muslims who have received alms from Modi. Endowed with such an outlook, Modi’s attack in the finale becomes as understandable as it is revoltingly cheap. “You now have the joy of being liberated and the opportunity to work, think and speak according to your core beliefs.”

But Ansari was ever a public servant committed to the values and discipline of public service, whether in West Asia, Australia or as Permanent Representative to the United Nations. What irked Modi & Co. was Ansari’s remark to Karan Thapar the day before on the insecurity among Muslims and Ansari’s Indian nationalism, which does not exclude mention of wrongs done to Muslims—a trait that marks the true Indian nationalist from the authentic Sarkari nationalist.

The record on both Muslims’ insecurity and Ansari’s nationalism is incontrovertible. On August 15, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson released the Report of the Commission on International Religious Freedom for 2016. It said: “There was an increase (in 2016) in violent incidents by cow protection groups against mostly Muslim victims, including killings, mob violence, assaults and intimidation.” Such actions are not exactly calculated to foster a sense of security among Muslims.

Manini Chatterjee’s crisp summary tells all: “The Sangh Parivar’s foot soldiers and storm troopers make no bones about their mission to make India a Hindu rashtra. It is not just the lynchings in the name of cow protection that mark this mission. It is in the daily invocations to a nationalism imbued with Hindutva: making the singing of Vande Mataram compulsory in schools, deleting Mughal history from textbooks, altering facts to glorify a mythic Hindu past, uttering cries of “Jai Shri Ram” at official functions, imposing diet codes on everyone during Navratri, abusing an outgoing Vice President for expressing the same concerns that an outgoing President did because the former is a Muslim and the latter is not” ( The Telegraph, August 14). Americans did not impugn Colin Powell’s nationalism when he complained to a Congressional Committee about the poor recruitment of blacks in the armed forces.

Ansari’s world view

In his scholarly addresses, Ansari’s world view emerges with inspiring clarity. Just four days before the TV interview, he addressed the 25th Annual Convocation of the National Law School of India University at Bengaluru. It has 34 footnotes, a characteristic of his addresses. He spoke on the representativeness of legislation, the functioning of the legislatures and the like.

“Since a wall of separation is not possible under Indian conditions, the challenge is to develop and implement a formula for equidistance and minimum involvement. For this purpose, principles of faith need to be segregated from contours of culture since a conflation of the two obfuscates the boundaries of both and creates space to equivocalness. Furthermore, such an argument could be availed of by other faiths in the land since all claim a cultural sphere and a historical justification for it. In life as in law, terminological inexactitude has its implications. In electoral terms, ‘majority’ is numerical majority as reflected in a particular exercise (e.g. election), does not have permanence and is generally time-specific; the same holds for ‘minority’….

“Within the same ambit, but distinct from it, is the constitutional principle of equality of status and opportunity, amplified through Articles 14, 15 and 16. This equality has to be substantive rather than merely formal and has to be given shape through requisite measures of affirmative action needed in each case so that the journey on the path to development has a common starting point. This would be an effective way of giving shape to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s policy of Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas.…

“Tolerance alone is not a strong enough foundation for building an inclusive and pluralistic society. It must be coupled with understanding and acceptance. We must, said Swami Vivekananda, ‘not only tolerate other religions, but positively embrace them, as truth is the basis of all religions’.

“Acceptance goes a step beyond tolerance. Moving from tolerance to acceptance is a journey that starts within ourselves, within our own understanding and compassion for people who are different to us and from our recognition and acceptance of the ‘other’ that is the ra i son d’etre of democracy. The challenge is to look beyond the stereotypes and preconceptions that prevent us from accepting others. This makes continuous dialogue unavoidable. It has to become an essential national virtue to promote harmony transcending sectional diversities. The urgency of giving this a practical shape at national, State and local levels through various suggestions in the public domain is highlighted by enhanced apprehensions of insecurity amongst segments of our citizen body, particularly Dalits, Muslims and Christians.” The TV interview to Karan Thapar came later.

Ansari proceeded to discuss the concept of nationalism and quoted the Israeli scholar Yael Tamir, who said: “Liberal nationalism requires a state of mind characterised by tolerance and respect of diversity for members of one’s own group and for others; hence it is polycentric by definition and celebrates the particularity of culture with the universality of human rights, the social and cultural embeddedness of individuals together with their personal autonomy. On the other hand, the version of nationalism that places cultural commitments at its core is usually perceived as the most conservative and illiberal form of nationalism. It promotes intolerance and arrogant patriotism. What are, or could be, the implications of the latter for pluralism and secularism? It is evident that both would be abridged since both require for their sustenance a climate of opinion and a state practice that eschews intolerance, distances itself from extremist and illiberal nationalism, subscribes in word and deed to the Constitution and its Preamble, and ensures that citizenship irrespective of caste, creed or ideological affiliation is the sole determinant of Indianness. In our plural secular democracy, therefore, the ‘other’ is to be none other than the ‘self’. Any derogation from it would be detrimental to its core values.”

I have quoted extensively from this address because of its relevance to the issues under debate. There are two volumes of his writings and speeches. One is entitled Teasing Questions: Exploring Disconnects in Contemporary India (2014). Another, published last year, is entitled Citizen and Society (Rupa, 322 pages, Rs.595). It has 45 writings on the polity, including the judiciary, identity, security, empowerment and matters global. The speech on “Intelligence for the World of Tomorrow” makes a powerfully reasoned plea for democratic accountability of the intelligence services.

Barring S. Radhakrishnan and Zakir Hussain, no Vice President made a comparable contribution. One can confidently predict that Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu will break their record.

Ansari’s speech at the inauguration of the All India Majlis-e-Mushawarat Golden Jubilee on August 31, 2015, is an excellent contribution which reckons with the problems and suggests approaches for redress. With good reason I quote it in extenso.

“It is evident from this compendium of official reports that the principal problems confronting India’s Muslims relate to: identity and security; education and empowerment; equitable share in the largesse of the state; and fair share in decision-making. Each of these is a right of the citizen. The shortcomings in regard to each have been analysed threadbare. The challenge before us today is to develop strategies and methodologies to address them.

“The default by the state or its agents in terms of deprivation, exclusion and discrimination (including failure to provide security) is to be corrected by the state; this needs to be done at the earliest and appropriate instruments must be developed for it. Political sagacity, the imperative of social peace, and public opinion play an important role in it. Experience shows that the corrective has to be both at the policy and the implementation levels; the latter, in particular, necessitates mechanisms to ensure active cooperation of the State governments. …

“It is evident that significant sections of the community remain trapped in a vicious circle and in a culturally defensive posture that hinders self-advancement. Tradition is made sacrosanct but the rationale of tradition is all but forgotten. Jadeediyat or modernity has become a tainted expression. Such mindset constrains critical thinking necessary both for the affirmation of faith and for the well-being of the community. The instrumentality of adaptation to change—Ijtihad—is frowned upon or glossed over. Forgotten is its purpose, defined by the late Sheikh Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi as ‘the ability to cope with the ever-changing pattern of life’s requirements’. Equally relevant is Imam Al-Ghazali’s delineation of the ambit of Maslaha—protection of religion, life, intellect, lineage and property. Both provide ample theoretical space for focussed thinking on social change without impinging on the fundamentals of faith.

“It is here that the role of Mushawarat becomes critical. As a grouping of leading and most respected minds of the community, it should go beyond looking at questions of identity and dignity in a defensive mode and explore how both can be furthered in a changing India and a changing world. …

“This would necessitate sustained and candid interaction with fellow citizens without a syndrome of superiority or inferiority, and can be fruitful only in the actual implementation of the principles of justice, equality and fraternity inscribed in the Preamble to the Constitution and the totality of Fundamental Rights. The failure to communicate with the wider community in sufficient measure has tended to freeze the boundaries of diversities that characterise Indian society. Efforts may be made to isolate the community; such an approach should be resisted.

“The Indian experience of a large Muslim minority living in secular polity, however imperfect, could even be a model for others to emulate.

“The world of Islam extends beyond the borders of India, and Muslims here, as in other lands, can benefit from the best that may be available in the realm of thought and practice. A few years ago I had occasion to read the Algerian-French philosopher Mohammed Arkoun and was impressed by his view that our times compel us to rethink modernity so that, as he put it, ‘critical thought, anchored in modernity but criticising modernity itself and contributing to its enrichment through recourse to the Islamic example’ could open up a new era in social movements. ‘Verily never will God change the condition of a people until they change it themselves with their own souls’ (The Quran, 13, 11).

“And so the task before Mushawarat in the foreseeable future should remain a threefold one; to sustain the struggle for the actualisation in full measure of legal and constitutional rights, to do so without being isolated from the wider community, and to endeavour at the same time to adapt thinking and practices to a fast-changing world.”

Modi would have loved to face either a Sarkari Muslim to manipulate or an authentic bigoted communalist to denounce. He had to face, instead, a patriotic Indian and a devout Muslim. The clash was of Modi’s choosing. He made it a clash of Hindu nationalism and Indian nationalism. The tide of history runs in Hamid Ansari’s favour.

Comment

Refusing to die

SASHI KUMAR cover-story

They killed her. And then they killed her again. And yet again. And yet, she does not die.

If you were one of them, you would actually consider her lucky the first time round. Because, of the four bullets fired from that countrymade pistol, from that close range, only three found their mark. If you were one of them and you had had your way, the fourth too should have. Now it is almost as if one bullet did not do its job. It is as if one bullet spared her by not ripping into her flesh and bones like the rest. So as you go about killing her again, you need to be unsparing, in the filth you throw at her, in the calumny you unleash on her, in the spleen you vent on her.

If you were one of them, her refusal to die in spite of this multiple killing would leave you in a fit of jealousy and rage. You would start seeing red and call her a Commie, that ultimate cuss word in your vocabulary for those you viscerally hate because they are intellectually way above and beyond your grasp. When it looks like that intended slight only enhances her reputation, you would turn apoplectic and lapse into incoherent obscenities against her. You would blindly hit out at anyone and everyone who so much as cast a sympathetic, kindly glance at where she stood, and what she stood for, before she was felled. You would berate the media for making her the subject of conversation and concern for even these few days. You would pettily grudge her the state honours with which she was laid to rest. You would vengefully crow about how she had it coming and how she deserved every bit of it. You would drop dark hints about more helmeted riders on motorcycles armed with countrymade pistols being out there on the streets to deal with others who, like her, foolishly took their freedom of speech seriously.

They ask, Why all this fuss

If you were one of them, you would not understand why there should be all this fuss about a woman who ran an independent niche newspaper without accepting any advertisements or corporate sponsorships, relying only on a dedicated subscriber base. You would be very worried, and therefore very indignant, about her scrutiny and exposure of corrupt legislators working hand in glove with corrupt businesses. You would be scornful of her passionate engagement with the cause of Dalits and the marginalised. You would be at a loss to understand why rationalists and atheists, including the likes of Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi before her, should not be eliminated as a matter of course because they threaten your blind-belief comfort zone, upset your assiduously cultivated religious mumbo-jumbo ecosystem, with logic and science.

If you were one of them, you would be impatiently furious that there were still those who believed that the religious minorities had the same rights, as citizens, as the majority because you thought you had already disposed of that canard by naming and shaming it as pseudo-secularism. You would be particularly aghast that a woman, of all the genders, was putting up the kind of resistance she was against your Manuvadi political legacy. You would be reaffirmed in your conviction that she had to go and feel self-congratulatory that you did away with her.

If you were one of them, you would not feel unduly insulted when you were called a fascist because that is your preferred or practised brand of politics, perhaps even your aspirational badge of honour. You might, in fact, be amused by those going blue in the face calling you that hoping to din some sense into you. You would not, by the same token, be unduly perturbed that you are held responsible for, or even culpable of, the mob murder of an elderly Akhlaq, or a young Junaid, or any number of those equally innocent men whom you chose to mistake, in your coloured view of a certain hue, of endangering the life of a cow. Because your finest protective sensibilities lunge to the fore when “bovinity” (a term that encapsulates what is at once divine and bovine) is threatened and you would not hesitate to pre-emptively kill, particularly those you consider of a lower religious persuasion or a lowly caste, to save that four-legged, and maybe that many times born, noble creature. You would, though, be quick to pretend to take offence whenever you are accused of killing Gandhi because he is too deeply entrenched in the psyche of the people and you need to make-believe that you too espouse his heritage and humane values. You would, at the same time and on the sly, try to resurrect his killer, Godse, as a cult figure.

If you were one of them, you would not like to be reminded that you would not come out from under your cots where you were hiding when the rest of the country was courageously engaged in the independence struggle, or that you wrote craven letters of apology to the British colonial power; or that you later rode pillion on the JP movement to claim martyrdom during the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi; and that you now need to desperately rewrite history so that all this ignominy can be whitewashed and retold so as to give you some retrospective validity.

If, on the other hand, you were not one of them, but one like her, who lived your life in the conviction that you could, in this day and age, take for granted the freedoms endowed by your democracy to write, speak up for, and act on behalf of the vulnerable, the oppressed and the marginalised and against ideologies that you opposed, that spewed hate and violence, you would, with her killing, be shaken out of that belief. If, like her, you thought your Constitution guaranteed you your fundamental rights, including that to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a), and particularly the very basic and existential right to life and personal liberty under Article 21, you now know better. There are no guarantees really. They are not, for you, worth the paper they are written on when the motorcyclist with the gun comes knocking at your door, again and again.

If you were one like her...

If you were one like her, a journalist by calling, a foot soldier of the fourth estate, of the fourth pillar of democracy, who strove to speak truth to power, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, you would begin to wonder why you alone were expected to do your job exposed and defenceless out there, your life repeatedly targeted, while the executants of the other three pillars—the executive, the judiciary and the legislature—had the full force of the police and the SPG and the commandos behind them and in front of them and to their left and to their right as they went about their work and their lives. You would begin to ask yourself why, every time there is a “VVIP movement”, almost the entire police force in the area lines the streets on both sides for hours on end, leaving the streets and gullies where the ordinary citizens live at the mercy of robbers, rapists and gun-wielding motorcyclists.

But that is the point. They, and not just the killers or the ones who put them up to the killings but the entire complicit Establishment, do not want you to be like her. They do not want you to question or challenge or expose or have an alternative view or vision. They want you to say and write what they want to hear and read. They want you to live your lives quietly, unquestioningly, even if miserably. They will show you your place and you will stay there. If you seek to step out of it, you are stepping out of line. For them, your rights and privileges flow not from the Constitution, not from the universal declaration of human rights, but from your religion, your caste and the electoral standing of your vote bank. If you are of a minority community or religion, behave like one, with expectations inferior to the majority, or else…. That is what they want.

But that is what she would not accept, for herself or for others. That is what she defied. They thought they could kill her for her views, and the views would die with her. But she does not die because hundreds and thousands rally around in solidarity to proclaim “I am Gauri”. Her views, what she stood for, do not die, because they are intrinsic to freedom and humaneness which ultimately and ever triumph. Gauri Lankesh was killed but refused to die. And the killers are confused. Because they do not know how they can kill any better than they have done.

Protests

Targeted but fragmented

cover-story

THE brutal murder of Gauri Lankesh has brought into sharp focus attacks on journalists in different parts of India over the past few years. Reports of various media watch groups and government agencies such as the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) on different aspects of the attacks on journalists have also been discussed in this context. One of the major takeaways from the renewed focus on this issue is that self-defeating fragmentation and polarisation in the media have resulted in the lack of a cohesive response from the fraternity to such attacks. In fact, this was stated in as many words in the 2016 Special Report of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent non-profit, non-governmental organisation based in New York. The CPJ report states: “Journalism as well as journalists [are] in danger from failure to stand up for India’s press.” One of the presentations in the report points out: “Journalists tend to devalue the attacks on themselves as a community and fail to speak out in one voice. We are fragmented ourselves.” Gauri Lankesh’s killing has led to calls from within the fraternity to overcome this and move ahead as a unified and purposive community. But even as these calls were doing the rounds in journalists’ groups, including social media groups, a number of pro-establishment journalists set forth to undermine this process through their sectarian and sensationalist behaviour.

One of the first tasks for any initiative that seeks to create a cohesive response to attacks against journalists is to build up a network and a system where information is collated and documented methodically from across the country in order to evolve multifaceted action plans that would have a decisive impact. The CPJ report focusses on the murder of 27 journalists, killed in direct retaliation for their work, that have taken place since 1992. A 2014 study by a Press Council of India member, Amarnath Konsuri, points out that as many 26 journalists were killed in the north-eastern States of India alone between 1992 and 2014. According to Konsuri, 25 journalists were killed while at work in Jammu & Kashmir during the same period.

While these are the figures for murdered journalists, NCRB data presented in Parliament in July 2017 list 142 cases of attacks against journalists in 2014 and 2015. Incidentally, the NCRB has been collecting data on attacks on journalists only since 2014. Uttar Pradesh is at the top of the NCRB data with 64 cases, followed by Madhya Pradesh (26) and Bihar (22). However, in Uttar Pradesh, only four arrests were made in these 64 cases while in Madhya Pradesh 42 arrests were made in 26 cases. Yet another report compiled by the media watchdog Hoot stated in May 2017 that there had been 54 attacks on journalists in India in the previous 16 months “mainly by lawmakers and law enforcers”.

A common aspect in the cases of killings and the attacks is the tardiness of investigations and the judicial process. There has not been a single conviction in any of these cases so far. Writing the foreword of the CPJ report, the senior journalist P. Sainath pointed out that one of the most conspicuous findings of the study was that “rural and small-town journalists are at greater risk of being killed in retaliation for their work than those in the big cities” and that “factors such as a journalist’s location, outlet, level in the profession’s hierarchy, and social background add to that risk”. He also noted that the Indian language journalists faced greater vulnerability because the language in which they wrote and, more importantly, what they wrote about challenged the powerful. He observed: “In the three case studies this report focuses on—and in CPJ’s list of 27 journalists who have been murdered in India since 1992—it is hard to find a single English-language reporter from a big city. That is, one who was working for an English outlet of a large corporate media house.”

Clearly, to develop a unified, cohesive and purposive response to attacks on journalists, the inbuilt discriminations and social and economic limitations within the profession need to be addressed. But, over and above these longstanding impediments and drawbacks, the most vile, vicious and immediate threat to journalists’ unity comes from the pro-establishment sections in the media, which spout communal and sectarian venom systematically, day after day.

Venkitesh Ramakrishnan

Cover Story

A dissenter silenced

PARVATHI MENON cover-story

It grieves me to write about Gauri Lankesh in the past tense. The television news flash on September 5 of her brutal murder on the steps of her house in Bengaluru was met with initial disbelief and incomprehension by her large constellation of friends, colleagues, acquaintances and admirers. Stunned, friends called each other for confirmation of the dreadful news and to assimilate its import: the similarities between the killing of the distinguished and outspoken academic M.M. Kalburgi in 2015 and Gauri’s murder; the knowledge that Gauri would also have been in the crosshairs of the same forces for her uncompromising stance against communalism; the enabling atmosphere in the country over the last few years for hate crimes of this sort to be committed. These connections provided tentative answers to the question on everyone’s mind: Why Gauri?

The response to news of her death in Bengaluru and other parts of the country assumed the proportions of a tidal wave of grief, anger and, perhaps, fear too. There is also the growing realisation that her killing, though one in a long line of similar killings of secular writers, activists and public intellectuals in recent months and years, represents in some sense a turning point, a new and significant moment in the growing environment of intolerance in the country. For Gauri is—was—a force in Kannada journalism, having carved out a niche in a special kind of adversarial journalism. She has been on the media scene from the 1980s—first with the English media, and since 2000 in Kannada journalism. Her tabloid, Gauri Lankesh Patrike, an offshoot of Lankesh Patrike which her father started and she took over after his death, is widely read precisely because it offers an alternative kind of journalism.

Gauri adopted her father’s anti-establishment, muckraking tone and style but steered the publication onto a fundamentally new path. She used it as a platform for waging a relentless battle-of-the-pen against the rising tide of Hindutva fundamentalism and its growing hold on India’s body politic. That is why she and her publication incurred the wrath of the Hindu Right. Gauri made no bones about her publication’s bias. She had declared herself an activist-journalist and used every public platform to speak out against communal politics, whether at the State or Central level. She campaigned on the ground and in her newspaper on some of the major flashpoints of communal tension in Karnataka–the Hubli flag-hoisting controversy, the attempt by the Sangh Parivar to convert the Sufi shrine of Bababudangiri into a Hindu temple, and the widespread phenomenon of moral policing by Hindu right-wing groups in coastal Karnataka. She was also active on issues of social justice and women’s rights, though it was unquestionably her anti-communal and secular credentials that she was known for.

It is not surprising that Hindu right-wing groups in Karnataka hate her, and the further down in the pecking order of the Sangh Parivar an organisation or group is, the more lethal its threats and abuse towards her. I recall covering the Bababudangiri crisis for Frontline in December 2003. (This was well before the era of social media, Twitter especially, which as we know has today become the platform of choice for anonymous purveyors of hate.) There had been a big mobilisation by the Bajrang Dal of young men who were to storm the shrine on the occasion of the annual Urs. My photographer colleague, V. Sreenivasa Murthy, and I had visited the shrine and were stationed in Chikmagalur on the day of the Urs. A large contingent of political activists from Left parties, along with prominent writers, artists and academics under the banner of the Karnataka Souharda Vedike, had also gone to Hassan to do what they could to foil the plans of the Bajrang Dal. Sensing a clash between the two groups, the district administration had imposed curfew in Chikmagalur. Gauri was a prominent member of the Vedike, and was present there both in her role as a journalist and as an activist. She and a group of around 500 members of the Vedike somehow smuggled themselves into Chikmagalur at night, and on the morning of the protest, held a public meeting in the town. They were all arrested and held in detention in the Chikmagalur jail grounds. We managed to get permission to speak to them but were told we could not take pictures. Sreenivas, however, let his camera hang at hip level as if unused and kept photographing Gauri while I engaged her in conversation through the bars of the iron gate behind which they were kept. (The photograph was carried prominently in the next day’s edition of The Hindu.)

That evening, the Bajrang Dal called a public meeting in Chikmagalur’s Azad Maidan, which was addressed by several pontiffs (heads of maths) along with many of the leaders of the Bajrang Dal and allied organisations. The then State convener of the Dal, K. Sunil Kumar, and its south India convener, Pramod Muthalik, addressed the gathering. The two special targets of their attack were Gauri and Girish Karnad, the noted Kannada playwright. I can never forget the stream of filthy and personal invective and threats that were directed at Gauri from the podium that night, with each abuse being met with roars of approval from the crowds.

Of interest to note is that the recent spate of attacks on journalists has been on those working in the vernacular media. There are reasons for this. Investigative stories in the vernacular have a potency and impact at the State level that the English media do not have.

Publications in the language people speak and read reach wider audiences and therefore play a substantial role in shaping public opinion amongst ordinary people. Bold and uncompromising journalists working for small vernacular publications are also vulnerable as they usually do not have the backing of powerful newspaper managements. Gauri’s political writing, especially on communalism, penetrated the interstices of the sociopolitical landscape, offering readers a close-up view of political processes at work. But she also strode two journalism worlds, the English and the vernacular, which gave her views an even wider reach and impact.

Opposed to Hindutva

Gauri’s assassination has rightly been connected to the other prominent three unsolved killings—of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi—for several reasons, the most important being a common hatred for Hindutva bigotry. But it is also important to comprehend the differences among them, and the distinctly individual paths that led them to oppose Hindutva. They were no bandwagon followers of secular movements. Indeed, each of them opposed the Hindutva ideology for reasons that were initially integral to their subject specialisations. They raised the hackles of the bigots for similar as well as different reasons. Pansare was a communist, well known for a popular Marathi book on Shivaji. Dabholkar, a medical doctor, was a staunch rationalist who engaged in a lifelong fight against superstition. Years of dogged research took Kalburgi to a position that could only be construed as anti-mainstream orthodox religion (see article by Rajendra Chenni on page 17). His studies revealed the manner in which the original social reform and anti-caste principles of the Lingayat faith were hijacked and replaced by a formidable form of Hindu orthodoxy by the ruling Lingayat elite.

Gauri stood with the others on basic principles, but she too came to that place from a different background–that of journalism. She may have made common cause with them in her fight for secular values, but like them her fight was also unique. It is obvious that the Hindutva forces felt aggrieved by each of the four fallen heroes. Gauri’s murder is a powerful assertion of the logic of the right wing: that hate is broad spectrum in its reach but in essence boils down to a visceral aversion to reason.

Soon after Gauri’s murder, Prahlad Joshi, Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament from Dharwad and the person who successfully sued her for defamation last year, claimed her journalism was insignificant because of the poor circulation of the Patrike. In reality, the Patrike punched far above its weight, to a level much higher than what circulation numbers reflect. It was Gauri’s agenda and her public image that gave the publication she edited and wrote for the reach that the English language media could not muster.

We still do not know who or which group was responsible for Gauri’s murder, but reasonable conjecture would suggest that it is only those for whom her writing and activities posed a threat who would want to get rid of her.

Two logical assumptions can be made. The first is that this was not an impulsive act of vendetta by an individual but a carefully planned and executed plot, the knowledge of which must have extended into the higher organisational echelons of whichever group it was. After all, Gauri was a prominent individual with a large constituency of support. The plotters would have weighed the possible scenarios that would follow the killing before taking the decision to do so.

The second assumption that can be reasonably made is that the killers were confident that whatever the outcome of her murder, under the current dispensation it could be managed and contained. At this particular juncture in Indian politics, the state appears to have shrunk into itself, leaving the arena open and lawless for bigots and fundamentalists of various hues to function with alarming confidence. People can be lynched for belonging to a particular religion, the exercise of the right to free speech by an individual makes her “anti-national”, and journalists who stand up are browbeaten or very simply removed from the scene.

Gauri knew well of the threats to her life. Members of her family have been quoted as saying that she had noticed unusual movements of strangers around her house in the days before she was killed, and had even told her worried mother that she would report this to the police if they continued. She had spoken on many occasions about the steady stream of hate mail and threats she received, mostly laughing it off, and, as we now know, never seeing it as serious enough to report to the police or to arrange private or police security for herself. One can only conjecture why Gauri, or for that matter Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi, did not act to protect themselves despite the threats they received. All of them valued their lives, all of them had so much more to do.

Perhaps it is a characteristic of the dedicated rationalist to assume, somewhat naively, that a kernel of reason exists somewhere in the recesses of the most bigoted of minds, a spot of morality or goodness that would activate at the appropriate moment to provide them protection, at least insofar as the most heinous of threats, death itself, were concerned.

And finally there is our Gauri: daughter, sister, colleague, friend; the person whose generosity of spirit and outreach was vast, the person who will be sorely missed. I have known her from the 1980s and recall now the petite, tousle-haired cub reporter with the impish grin that stayed in her eyes long after it had disappeared from her lips. She matured over the decades into the forceful journalist and activist she finally became. As for her legacy, knowing Gauri, she would have wanted her most cherished values of secularism, social equality, rationalism and humaneness to be passed on after her time. After all, they are what she gave her life for.

Kalburgi killing

Killers on the loose

cover-story

THE cold-blooded murder of Gauri Lankesh has brought the focus back on the tardy progress in the investigation into the killing of another outspoken critic of the right wing, Professor M.M. Kalburgi.

On August 30, 2015, Malleshappa Madivalappa Kalburgi, known for his strong stand against superstitious practices and right-wing groups, was shot dead by two unidentified persons at his residence in Dharwad. Kalburgi was reportedly speaking on his cell phone when someone knocked on the door of his house and he opened it. A moment later, his wife, Umadevi, and daughter, Roopadarshi, heard gunshots, and when they rushed out in panic, they saw Kalburgi in a pool of blood. The bullets had pierced his forehead. When he was taken to hospital, doctors declared him brought dead.

There were no eyewitnesses, and the surveillance cameras at most junctions in the city were defunct. The special investigating team constituted by the Hubballi Dharwad Police Commissioner hardly made any progress until it chanced upon CCTV footage from an institute in the neighbourhood which had images of two suspected assailants on a motorcycle.

Kalburgi had been provided security after he received threats over his remarks on idol worship (in 2014). Just a few days before he was killed, he requested the police to withdraw the armed guards deployed at his house. The police suspected a planned attack.

The police said they were investigating all angles, including the involvement of fringe elements. Meanwhile, similarities in the killings of Kalburgi and the rationalists Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar of Maharashtra started emerging. Dabholkar, the anti-superstition crusader, was shot dead on August 20, 2013, in Pune, and Pansare, the rationalist, was killed in Kolhapur in February 2015.

Following the public outcry and demands from the opposition for an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Chief Minister Siddaramaiah handed over the case to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). Interestingly, at one point the State Cabinet mulled over handing the case to the CBI. But at a press briefing after a Cabinet meeting in September 2015, Law and Parliamentary Affairs Minister T.B. Jayachandra said: “Since giving Kalburgi’s murder case to the CBI will take time, we have decided to conduct a probe by the CID before it is handed over.” Kalburgi’s family has not insisted on a CBI probe. But activists and writers are not happy with the progress made so far.

The investigating agencies in Karnataka and Maharashtra suspect the role of the Sanatan Sanstha, a Goa-based Hindutva group, in these killings. The weapon used and the modus operandi are similar. The only difference was that while Kalburgi was shot at his own doorstep, Dabholkar and Pansare were shot while out walking in the morning.

Ballistic reports have determined that 7.65 mm countrymade pistols were used in all three assassinations. Efforts to get a forensic test done on cartridges by Scotland Yard have also failed. Meanwhile, the special investigation team (SIT) probing the killing of Gauri Lankesh has determined that a similar weapon was used in her murder too.

While the agencies had been investigating the fringe element angle since 2013, the first breakthrough came in 2016 when the CBI, which is investigating Dabholkar’s murder, arrested Dr Virendra Tawade from Pune on charges of arranging weapons and logistics. Tawade is an ENT specialist and a member of the Sanatan Sanstha.

Another member of the organisation, Sameer Gaikwad, who was arrested by the SIT of Maharashtra in connection with Pansare’s murder, was granted bail this year in June.

The CBI announced a reward of Rs.5 lakh in March 2017 for information on Tawade’s associates Sarang Akolkar and Vinay Pawar, allegedly “sadhaks” of the Sanatan Sanstha, who are suspected to have carried out the attack. They are absconding. The CID in Karnataka questioned Tawade in the Kalburgi case. It is also on the lookout for Rudra Patil, another “Sanatan sadhak” who is an accused in the 2010 Goa blasts case. Witness accounts pointed to his presence near Kalburgi’s residence. He, too, is absconding.

But all said and done, in a case having its roots or branches extended to a neighbouring State, it is a bit difficult to expect perfect coordination between government-owned agencies of two different States investigating different cases, considering the technical hurdles involved. While some say investigation by a Central agency might help in such cases, persons like Megha Pansare, daughter-in-law of Govind Pansare, point to the tardy progress in the Dabholkar murder, which is being investigated by the CBI, until the High Court started monitoring it. Megha Pansare, who on a few occasions met Kalburgi’s family in Dharwad, has demanded a court-monitored probe into the Kalburgi case as is being done in the case of her father-in-law.

For the record, in August the Bombay High Court, hearing the cases of Dabholkar and Pansare, observed that the murders were not “stray incidents” and the accused seemed to have “organisational backup”. Going by the way the investigation is progressing, a court-monitored probe might be able to ensure some progress in the Kalburgi case.

Girish Pattanashetti in Hubballi

( With inputs from K.V. Aditya Bharadwaj, Bengaluru.)

Frontline Special

Godmen’s own country

the-nation

Insan. Human. Homo sapiens.

This sweet Urdu word immediately evokes fellow feeling. In a community of insans, how does it matter who you are? It is your humanity, your insaniyat, that counts.

Dera Sacha Sauda, the religious order that burst into the national headlines recently, insists on identifying all followers as insans. Indeed, the moniker “insan” has almost become the trademark of Sacha Sauda and sets it apart from the competing deras (camps) in the region.

Ten years ago, the Dera’s godman, Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan, began a new initiation ceremony which he called Jaam-e-Insan. Those who wished to join the Dera were to drink a ruhani jaam—a jaam, or a peg, of “humanitarian nectar” made of water, milk and rose essence (rooh-afza). Partaking of the nectar was followed by reciting a 47-point pledge (naam) whose very first commandment to the initiate was to replace (or at least, supplement) his/her caste name with one simple word, “insan”. No longer a “Sharma, Verma, Arora, Sandhu, etc.” (to cite the Dera’s website), all were now reborn as Insan, human beings. The ceremony took place on April 29 each year, the foundation day of the 69-year-old religious order, and used to be conducted by the baba himself. (The similarities with the Sikh baptism ceremony, which involves drinking of amrit [nectar] and recitation of the “Ik Onkar” verse from the Granth Sahib, are striking.)

Now that Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan, aka Messenger of God, has finally got his comeuppance for his crimes, the diabolical nature of this seductive but hollow and corrupted humanism stands exposed. It capitalises on the very real hunger for fellow feeling among the struggling masses of our society and turns it into political currency to be traded for political and economic advantage.

In a society where surnames are dead giveaways for one’s caste status, it is easy to understand why such a religion of insaniyat would appeal to those who have been denied a life of dignity. What is more, Sacha Sauda supplements the symbolic humanism with material humanitarianism: it runs a network of social welfare programmes like schools, health and de-addiction clinics, speciality hospitals and vocational training programmes. Dera Sacha Sauda describes itself as a “Social Welfare and Spiritual” organisation for which it gets tax breaks and grants from the state.

It is this whole package, which ties together the need for community, spiritual meaning and material welfare, that explains the explosive growth in the popularity of Sacha Sauda, with a membership running upward of 60 million, concentrated in the States of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Maharashtra but apparently spread all over the world. For all the evidence of criminality, from rapes to murders and castrations, the “premis” remain loyal to their guru, with thousands of them terrorising the city of Panchkula after his conviction.

Providing food security, education and health are the basic obligations of the state. In a secular democracy like we claim to be, no citizen should have to barter his or her “ruhani” (spiritual) aspirations to have access to basic goods and services. Yet, this is the New Deal of neoliberal India: the fundamental social functions of the state have been “spiritualised” and contracted out to gurus and ashrams, which have amassed great wealth and power in the process.

Noxious nexus

Plenty has already been written on the serial complicity of all major political parties in courting the convicted guru who, in turn, played each one of them for his own ends. In 2009, it was the Congress that received his support and won 40 assembly seats in Haryana; in 2014, it was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that got his nod and shot up from 4 to 47 seats to form the government. Once in power, a payback was expected and duly delivered. Barely 10 days before he was convicted, senior Ministers of Haryana were in attendance with Rs.51 lakh—all from public funds—as a birthday gift for the godman. There is plenty of evidence to show that the state machinery of Haryana went easy on the rampaging devotees because it was beholden to the godman for being in power in the first place.

Through all of this, the Dera managed to accumulate great wealth, with assets in land and the entertainment industry, including Ram Rahim’s movie and music ventures, running into billions of rupees. Following the lead of Baba Ramdev, the Dera launched its MSG brand of consumer items, including rice, pickles, honey and biscuits. According to Jansatta, the daily income of the Dera was over Rs.16 lakh—and that was three years ago. The icing on the cake is that all this wealth is exempt from income tax because the Dera is a religious institution.

In a nutshell, this is how the state-temple-business nexus works: the godmen buy them with votes of their followers, and they pay back with subsidies and protection, while both parties get rich on the spoils of their collaboration.

The two women who pursued justice against great odds and succeeded in having their rapist convicted deserve our admiration and gratitude—admiration for their courage, and gratitude for helping us see up close the workings of a prominent state-sponsored spiritual corporation. It is now up to us to understand the dangers of what we are faced with and do something to break this noxious nexus between spirituality, politics and money.

The biggest danger of the tie-up between state and religious institutions lies in the erosion of legal-rational sources of authority and the growth of charismatic authority centred on God-like men and women. Indeed, the very words that Max Weber, the 19th century German social theorist, used to describe charismatic authority come uncannily close to the personality type we so routinely encounter in our numerous babas and matas. Charismatic authority, according to Weber, stems from the entirely personal devotion to, and personal trust in the “quality of a personality, held out to be out of the ordinary (and originally thought to have magical powers…) on account of which the person is evaluated as being gifted with supernatural or superhuman or at least out of the ordinary power not accessible to everybody, and hence as a leader”.

It is the person deemed extraordinary, with God-like abilities of insight, grace and miracle-making, who defines what is right and wrong and who gets what. Contrast this with a constitutional or legal-rational basis of authority in which a common and impersonal set of rules and laws applies to everyone equally, the charismatic person included.

The legal-rational authority has not given way to the charismatic in India—at least not yet. After all, the law did eventually (after 15 years) catch up with the guru and he is now sitting in a prison cell. At the same time, the deep and widespread reach of charismatic authority also stands exposed in the obeisance that top elected officials (including Prime Minister Narendra Modi) routinely paid to the alleged godman of Sacha Sauda and in the response of his followers who were ready to kill and to die in his name. For his followers, Ram Rahim was not just a God-like insan, but literally God, an incarnation of Shah Mastana, who founded the Dera in 1948. Ram Rahim himself actively cultivated the image of his person as a channel through which miracles were performed, such as giving speech to the mute, eyesight to the blind, babies to childless mothers and curing AIDS and cancers.

While India is technically a country of laws, the guru culture weakens the reach of law. After all, gods and their human messengers are not bound by human laws: rape becomes “divine forgiveness” (“Pitaji’s maafi,” as the victims described it), castrations will bring you closer to God. No wonder that the Dera devotees reacted with such violent passions after the verdict, for how can you imprison God? Such “divine” lawlessness is bound to thrive in the current climate. The collusion between vote-bank politics, outsourcing of state welfare to spiritual entrepreneurs, and our cultural-religious heritage that exalts the mystic visionary, the “seer” of higher truths, over common mortals, is creating ideal conditions for the erosion of the already frayed and fragile constitutional order in the country.

To some among the Hindu Right, but also among the Left-leaning postcolonial theorists, there is nothing wrong with the balance tilting in favour of charismatic authority. On the contrary, they see it as a welcome rebalancing of India’s “colonial modernity” towards its own indigenous cultural ethos. Rakesh Sinha, a professor at Delhi University with Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh sympathies, defended the huge monetary gifts by the Haryana government to Ram Rahim as an example of “constructive engagement with the faith of millions”. BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj lashed out against the guilty verdict as an insult to Indian culture and the faith of the millions.

Such sentiments find an echo in postcolonial theory which has declared war not just against Western imperialism but also against Western or Eurocentric categories of thought. True decolonisation requires “provincialising Europe” (the title of an influential book) so that we can begin to “be what we are” and not some mimetic copies of the West. Dipesh Chakrabarty, the author of the book and the quote, insists that the “hyper-rationalism” borrowed from the missionaries and colonial administrators prevents the Indian Left from sympathetically engaging with the religion of the masses to whom their gods and ghosts and spirits are very real and meaningful. Rather than try to disenchant and secularise the popular masses, a truly democratic engagement with them would require, according to Chakrabarty and his fellow-travellers, that we step into the enchanted, magical world of the masses and adopt the conceptual framework that makes the gods real.

However democratic the intentions, this is a recipe for authoritarianism of the worst kind. The problem with gods and their messengers is that they are infallible. Divine commands cannot be challenged by evidence and logic; they can only be obeyed. Besides, the assumption that the subaltern masses will only respond to charisma of godmen and that the legal-rational regime of laws is necessarily foreign to them is nothing but a form of self-Orientalisation, for it grants that the Indian mind is essentially spiritual and to think rationally is to be mentally colonised by the West. The growing visibility of religious movements in the public sphere and political affairs should surprise no one. We have not guarded the fence between religion and politics properly, and we are now reaping the whirlwind.

Keeping religion out of politics is not easy even when the boundary wall is well-demarcated and guarded, for the rhetoric of god and morality has a natural tendency to influence political affiliations and voting behaviour. Take the case of the United States, a country with the strictest separation of the two spheres. There are laws in the U.S. (notably the Johnson Amendment of 1954) that prohibit tax-exempt organisations—which includes all religious institutions—from directly or indirectly supporting or opposing any candidate for elective public office. The law did not stop evangelical preachers like Jerry Falwell from openly supporting Donald Trump in the last election. Nearly three-fourths of white evangelical Christians voted for Trump, taking him to the White House. Now that he is President, Trump has signed an executive order that aims to get rid of the Johnson Amendment. It is not clear if he will succeed in this goal, for there is a lot of resistance—even among the mainstream churches themselves—to weakening the wall between the church and the state in the U.S.

Religion and Indian secularism

In India, secularism never recognised such a boundary wall in the first place. We have no laws that restrict what religious bodies can say and do when it comes to political advocacy. On the contrary, aspirants for elected office openly court religious bodies, donning the appropriate attire, touching the feet of the “holies” and participating in ritual prayers. The godmen for their part—even actors playing gods on TV or films!—use their divine auras to win political offices.

All such mixing up of two spheres is perfectly within the law in India. Indian secularism is not premised on a wall of separation but only on equal treatment to all religions: as long as all religions are theoretically allowed to jump into politics, and none is singled out for special treatment, everything goes. We don’t have an American-style First Amendment that disallows the state from entangling itself with matters of faith, and vice versa. But still, there are some things we can do. If we cannot regulate speech that crosses boundaries between politics and religion, can we not at least regulate the flow of money changing hands between the two spheres? We cannot stop politicos from courting the godmen, but why must we allow them to raid the public treasury to enrich the babas of their choice?

Recall that earlier this year, Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekhar Rao happily took out five and a half crore rupees from the public exchequer to make a gift of gold to the Tirumala temple. The Rs.1 crore or so that the Haryana government has gifted to Dera Sacha Sauda since it came to power is small potatoes in comparison. This is only the cash payment: there are hardly any public records of the grant of lands and other legal/administrative privileges (like setting aside environmental laws to let mega events sponsored by religious bodies, accreditation of religious universities and colleges).

What law in the Constitution prevents us from regulating the money nexus? There has been much talk of anti-corruption laws. Are politically motivated gifts to religious bodies not a form of corruption? Why should they not be regulated and brought under control? We must learn some lessons from the Dera Sacha Sauda fiasco. Otherwise, let us all get ready for many more Panchkulas.

Meera Nanda specialises in the history and philosophy of science and religions. She is the author of The God Market: How Globalization is Making India more Hindu , published by Random House in India (2009), Monthly Review Press in the United States (2011).

Deras and babas

the-nation

DERA is a Punjabi word for a camp, a place to rest, and a place to gather. Religious deras are congregations headed by living sants and babas that are not affiliated with mainstream faiths, even though they liberally borrow the mainstream (especially Sikhism’s) religious idioms and symbols. To quote Pramod Kumar, who directs the Institute for Development and Communication in Chandigarh: “There are six major deras in Punjab—Radha Soami, Namdhari, Dera Sacha Sauda, Nurmahal, Nirankari and Dera Sachkhand Ballan. They draw their discourses from multiple traditions like Islam, Sufism, Kabir, Christianity and Sikhism and couch them in regional dialects, myths and symbols. Dera ‘babas’ (self-appointed godmen) rely excessively on oral discourses. In this region, oral tradition is dominant and text reading is not very popular. Therefore, these babas become the sole mediators between God and the devotees for imparting holistic knowledge and guidance.”

The reverence for living sants, something that Sikhism does not allow, has been a source of sometimes serious conflicts between the deras and the orthodox Sikh establishment. (Sikhism recognises only the 10 canonical gurus.)

In fact, the first skirmish between Ram Rahim and mainstream Sikh groups happened in 2007 when the godman dressed up as Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh guru, an act that Sikhs deemed blasphemous. A large proportion of followers of Deras comes from Dalits (who make up nearly one-third of the population of the region) who do not feel welcome in traditional Sikh gurdwaras.

M.M. Kalburgi

Murdering scholarship

RAJENDRA CHENNI cover-story

Professor M.M. Kalburgi was an extraordinary scholar who dedicated himself to research and writing for over 50 years. His writings collected in several volumes under the title Marga (the path) run into nearly 5,000 pages. His first scholarly article on Shabdamanidarpana, an early work on Kannada grammar, was published when he was 25 and, until the morning of his brutal murder on August 30, 2015, at the age of 77, Professor Kalburgi had literally spent all his life in scholarly pursuits.

The outstanding feature of Kalburgi’s scholarship is the mind-boggling heterogeneity of the subjects and the plurality of approaches and methodologies he employed. The subjects ranged from proverbs used in his village to the linguistic loyalties of the Vijayanagara empire; from names of places in Karnataka to the real history of the Lingayat religion. Like his research agenda, the sources of evidence he employed were just as diverse. He employed literary-textual interpretations, epigraphic studies, archaeology, popular culture, analysis of socio-religious practices, linguistics, interpretation of written records (especially the kaifiyats) and oral traditions in his research. His research also involved a vast amount of fieldwork. From these details one would probably construct the image of Professor Kalburgi as a typical traditional scholar covered in the dust of old epigraphs and manuscripts, with an otherworldly outlook, totally unconnected to the mire of cultural politics so dear to activists.

Therefore, it came as a surprise to read Kalburgi’s statements on research as “treading on a dangerous path” or on the fate of the scholar as having to “bear many crosses”, and so on. His scholarly style was neither polemical nor provocative. Instead, it depended largely on the empirical method of compiling information from various sources and drawing reasonable inferences. Since Kalburgi did not make any major attempts at theory-building, there is very little ideological aggressiveness in his writings. How then does one explain the ferocious attacks on Kalburgi, of which his murder was the culmination? What was it in his scholarship that touched a raw nerve among at least two groups?

For an appropriate answer, one has to go back to the events of 1989 when certain Veerashaiva Lingayat groups unleashed verbal attacks against Kalburgi and he also narrowly escaped physical assault. Nearly three decades later, the details of these attacks are still unnerving to any scholar.

In the first volume of Marga, Kalburgi had published research articles on Naagalambike, Basava’s sister and Channabasavanna’s mother, and Neelambike, Basava’s wife. Kalburgi had tried to interpret some of the obscure details figuring in the poet Harihara’s narrative about Basava and similar grey areas relating to these three individuals. He had made a reasonable surmise that Naagalambike could have been married off to Dohara Kakkayya from the untouchable caste by Basava as an exemplary inter-caste marriage. He had also questioned the myth of Channabasavanna being born of “Prasada”. In the same volume, Kalburgi had suggested that the adjective “Punya Stree” preceding the names of the spouses of some vachanakaras probably indicated their low-caste origin or that they were mistresses who had converted to Basava’s religion. These surmises, based on the reinterpretation of available material, were seen as slanderous and derogatory by certain sections of the Lingayat community, especially because they were iconic figures in the Lingayat tradition which was being reconstructed.

The controversy snowballed into a movement, involving threats to Kalburgi’s life. He was asked to appear for a trial at Murughamatha in Dharwad. At the trial he was asked to tender an unconditional apology, promise not to write anything which would hurt the sentiments of the community and give up his position at the Basava chair of studies at Karnatak University, Dharwad. He was also forced to retract the controversial parts of the book. Until his death, Kalburgi continued to recollect the episode in great anguish as an intellectual suicide.

Years later, he gave his own explanation for research turning out to be a dangerous profession. He said that in an emotionally driven country people were unwilling to accept any truth that upset their beliefs and prejudices. He lamented the lack of an intellectual culture that valorises the truth at any cost. In another statement, he said attacks happen on scholars when a debate is shifted from the academic intellectual domain to which it properly belongs to the public domain in which truth and objectivity are not seen as values. In a way, this statement summarises the situation in recent years in Karnataka and elsewhere in India.

Religious institutions such as mathas, communal organisations, caste associations and political parties become the major participants in debates involving books, intellectual discourses and research. These groups are obviously partisan, with powerful biases and prejudices, and ranged against scholars who question their cultural, religious or caste icons. The history of Karnataka during the late colonial period witnessed the consolidation of dominant caste groups, which began to stake their claims for more representation in education and employment. The Veerashaiva Mahasabha and the Vokkaligara Sangha were established by the two dominant caste groups that control Karnataka politics even today. The consolidation and institutionalisation of caste groups required the construction of real or imagined historiographies of religious icons of Puranik historical relevance as well as of contemporary individuals of the community. It also demanded the construction of the “Other”. These processes also involved a great deal of sanskritisation since the two dominant communities had been considered Shudra communities and derogated as uncultured. This explains why the sub-caste groups of jangamas and aradhyas tried to project themselves as Vedic and brahminical by claiming that they adhered to the varna system, studied Sanskrit and owed allegiance to ancient Saiva sects.

A tale of two sects

The second attack on Kalburgi had to do with the two sects that are now in open and bitter conflict in Karnataka. The Veerashaiva sect loyal to the Guru Mathas and the Panchapeethas (the five mathas) claim that Veerashaivism has a hoary ancient tradition and that Basava, the leader of the 12th century Vachanakara movement, was only a late reformer and not the founder of a new religion. They also seem to have no problems identifying their religion with the Hindu religion. The other sect loyal to the Virakta mathas believes that the Lingayat religion was founded by Basava and that it is an independent religion opposed in many ways to the essentials of the Hindu religion.

Kalburgi, undoubtedly the finest, most erudite scholar of the vachanas, was categorical in his support of the Lingayat sect, arguing that it was the only indigenous Kannada religion and that other major religions had their origin elsewhere. He believed that the vachanakaras had heralded a great revolution by rejecting the varna system and caste and gender inequalities. The major research questions he formulated for himself focussed on how such a radical religion ended up as a mere caste or at most a conglomerate of sub-caste groups. What were the causes for its regression into Vedic and brahminical practices? This led him to theorise that the Guru Matha and the Panchapeetha sect had little to do with the radical religion of Basava and his companions. The battle between the two sects supported by hundreds of powerful mathas and pontiffs on both sides is a fierce one.

Kalburgi’s scholarship, consistent within its own premises, was seen as ideologically adversarial by one sect. Such was the animosity that when Kalburgi was murdered, it was seen by many as related to the sectarian conflict.

The third and last phase in the conflictual engagement of Kalburgi’s scholarship with cultural politics has everything to do with the fanatical Hindutva organisations. In reading out certain passages from U.R. Ananthamurthy’s writings on his boyhood experiences, Kalburgi gave the unfortunate impression that he was also in favour of desecrating religious objects. The Kannada electronic media ran a frenzied 24x7 campaign against Kalburgi, targeting him as a vilifier of Hindu idols and icons. Kalburgi, whose 5,000 pages of scholarship had not been read by the masses, suddenly became a household name as a Hindu-hating rationalist. His view that Hinduism was not a religion (what he meant was that it was not a revealed religion, with a prophet and a holy book) was also seen as slanderous. A tireless researcher and a fine academic scholar was demonised as a Left-leaning anti-Hindu rationalist. Alas, as he had said years ago, an emotionally driven society has no special love for scholarship and objectivity. The vicious media campaign most certainly put him on the hit list of an organisation that believes in eliminating anti-Hindu rationalists.

There is absolutely no doubt at all that Kalburgi’s murder was an ideological murder. It is tragic because his scholarship was not in itself ideological.

Professor Rajendra Chenni, Professor of English at Kuvempu University and a literary critic, was closely associated with Prof. M.M. Kalburgi from the mid 1970s until his assassination in 2015.

PUBLIC HEALTH

‘We are making Kerala future ready’

How do you see the tasks ahead now that the Aardram mission and the eHealth project have been launched?

In Aardram, we seek to improve the patient experience at government hospitals. We also seek the transformation of primary care. If you look at the National Health Service [NHS] of Britain, they have this family physician concept, or GP concept. One person handles 4,000 cases. In our primary care system, one unit handles 10,000 to 30,000 cases. There is no way we can meet the demand with the existing structure. Our other challenge will be non-communicable diseases [NCDs], all of which lead to severe complications. And unless we act now, and we are not acting too well, and start tracking people on an individual basis, tomorrow Kerala’s healthcare will go for a toss. It is a gigantic task. But if Kerala fails to do it, it is going to be in deep, deep trouble. The most important aspect is to ensure that we have a proactive personal care plan for every person and to track the person continuously. Whether Kerala will do well or not [in healthcare] will depend on how well we do this.

Doctors alone will not be able to handle all of it. So the challenge is how to train the nurses and other health workers and how to create a system that makes it possible for you to track a person, identify people in the target groups, say, people with diabetes or high BP. We would like to rework the family health centre to ensure that people become proactive and every person is screened and accounted for. But doctors and nurses today are not trained for it. There is such a huge training load. There is a huge referral network that we need to build. That is what we are engaged in right now. Once training modules are ready, the eHealth programme also comes in.

Government facilities account for only about 35 per cent of the patients visiting hospitals; the rest of the patients depend on the private sector. That is a big gap. In the context of Aardram, do you expect the government sector to handle the entire population of Kerala?

We also have a major programme to improve speciality health services in taluk and district hospitals. When we increase the working hours, and offer speciality services in taluk and district hospitals—I do not know if it is a good thing or a bad thing—we believe that a lot of people will shift from the private sector to the government sector. As you improve the availability of diagnostic services and drugs, people who value money above the convenience offered by the private sector will tend to shift. Is it good [for Kerala]? That is a question we cannot answer now. Because when the middle class shifts to the government sector, the poor may get pushed out.

So who are you targeting the new facilities for? Do you want the richer sections too to come in to the government sector?

We do not want that. But everybody pays their taxes. We cannot say we want to keep one section out. We have a clientele now, the poorest of the poor. We want to ensure that they get an experience that is technically as good as anywhere else. That is what we would like to happen. But then, the question that you are not asking is, will the discerning middle-class patients too not come to the government sector? We cannot exclude such a possibility. If that happens… I will try to explain with an example. We have taken a decision that in medical college hospitals, we will avoid prescribing out as much as possible. We know that anti-microbial resistance for antibiotics is very high in Kerala. So, a patient who has resistance necessarily has to pay more. Such resistance in patients is often a creation of the private corporate hospitals; after fleecing these patients, they will say, now go to the government medical college, there you will get the same drug free of cost. In such cases, for instance, we will try to restrict it to BPL [below poverty line]; but you cannot prevent people from coming in.

However, when it comes to long-term care, it is not profitable for the private hospitals. So, after they make their money in the first few days, then there is often only a question of ICU charges—such patients, too, are sent to the medical colleges. That may also happen. What I mean is, we are still ambivalent about whether it is a good thing or a bad thing. For instance, the government sector is handling 66 per cent of the cancer cases. Our aim is to take it to 80 per cent. The Kochi Cancer Centre will come up in two years. The Malabar Cancer Centre will also get upgraded to the level of the premier Regional Cancer Centre (RCC) in Thiruvananthapuram in two years. When that happens, you have the equivalent of three RCCs across Kerala. Moreover, five medical college hospitals are going to have comprehensive cancer care units. That is going to be a huge leap. Which means that 80 per cent of the cancer patients will come to the government sector. I have no hesitation in saying that is a good thing, because cancer treatment is so costly that even the middle class cannot afford it. Regarding cancer care, our aim is to identify them in advance and put them on treatment in advance. That will be a good thing for managing our scary cancer scene. So, the problem in all such interventions is that you proceed on certain assumptions. We have to wait and see what works out and what does not.

What is your timetable like for all this?

It is a good question. The real challenge with regard to Aardram is making the doctors and other health professionals own the programme. Will the doctors do that? Many of them will. But it requires a huge transformation. Will they acquire the knowledge? Will they start tracking patients? Will they track people who are not coming to the family health centres [FHCs]? Will they send their ASHA workers to their homes and bring them for treatment? That is the question. Even for TB treatment, will they ensure any person who has cough for three weeks is sent for a TB examination? If they put him on treatment, will they ensure that the treatment is completed? A lot depends on the sincerity and energy shown by the health personnel.

How are the local bodies reacting to the programme?

The local bodies are a major factor. But in each FHC, if the doctors take special care to explain the idea to the panchayat president, I do not think any panchayat president will say no to the programme. Because he or she is the one who will become popular if the programme runs smoothly. And wherever that has happened, they are doing a good job. There is enthusiasm among panchayat presidents for the eHealth programme because they also get mileage. eHealth is not the problem; it is Aardram that is going to be the challenge. But it is a big gamble. And, time frame? We have said three years but expect it to be some more.

What about urban primary health centres, or PHCs? It is a big chunk of people in the urban areas that the Aardram Mission is trying to ignore.

You were earlier referring to the private sector. If 70 per cent of the patients are outside, how do we cover them? What I hope will happen is that a market will develop in Kerala for the primary care provider—as it has developed in Lifecare centre in Bangalore, and so on. If the family health centre concept works in rural areas, an individual will realise it is better to consult a trained general physician and then get referred to speciality facilities only if needed, like it happens in many advanced countries. To make that possible, you need to have a decent course offering a PG degree in GP practice. Maybe the insurance companies can also work out a different model: that you first consult a GP and only with a GP’s reference should you go to a speciality hospital. Because treatment costs will come down and a lot of unnecessary procedures can be avoided. There will be other benefits too.

I believe an economic model is possible in the private sector with these people [small hospitals]. A large number of small hospitals are under threat today because of the spread of corporate hospitals. And we are thinking of having discussions with such small hospitals, encouraging them too to convert to family practice. But that requires a decent degree course to train doctors. We are negotiating with some universities abroad to see if they can conduct a twinned course for us for general practice. If that is the case, these doctors can be absorbed by the private sector. But given the present staff constraint in urban centres, the government will be able to cater only to, say, some slum areas, and some such places where there are at-risk populations. The rest of it we are not planning at this stage.

Is it because in urban areas these big private hospitals are already well established?

It is not because of that. We don’t have sufficient people. That is the main reason. But even in urban areas, they will benefit by having access to a GP. But at this point the government is not planning to provide that. Same question will apply to eHealth also. When a person consults a private hospital, we are not allowing eHealth access to private hospitals at this point. Only later, once it stabilises, will we think about how to include them in it.

Does the State have enough funds, say, for your timetable of three to five years?

The Finance Department is very supportive, the Finance Minister is sold on the idea. Major investments will happen during this period. We will have money coming in from the Budget, from KIIFB, and that will be huge. But whether the entire cost, which is mind-boggling, will be met is yet to be seen. For our current timetable, I think we can manage. And again, if we succeed it will be difficult to stop it. Before a new government comes this has to be put into place. Yes you are right, because every panchayat president will start demanding that an FHC should be established in their panchayat. The question is, can you make it a success?

You are planning to give everyone a unique health ID [UHID]. And you are trying to link it to Aadhaar? Have you thought of the privacy issues that would arise?

When we planned it initially, we only meant everyone to have a unique number. But then the UID authorities came to us. They were saying, why do you want to create yet another ID for this; Kerala has got 100 per cent Aadhaar coverage, and so why don’t you link it to Aadhaar? It was the easier option for us. Because data are already there and that makes it easier to tag people. It was later that privacy became such a serious issue.

So, earlier we were saying, the Aadhaar ID will be your identification number here too. But now we have decided that the Aadhaar ID will stay only in the background. Unless you hack our server, you cannot get the link. The front end will be on UHID, not on Aadhaar. That is the change we have made. Back-end linkage will still be through Aadhaar. That will be difficult to change. So your health records will be safe, unless our servers get hacked. We are trying to close all access to our servers, and the transactions will take place on the unique health ID numbers. But at the back end we are still retaining the Aadhaar linkage.

How are government doctors reacting to the eHealth programme’s requirements?

At the Peroorkada [Thiruvananthapuram] Government Model Hospital where the programme was launched, the general medicine doctor who handles 250 or more patients a day is finding it impossible to work on the system. But the respiratory medicine doctor who handles only 80 patients a day is able to do it. That is a challenge we have to deal with.

But there were protests by the Kerala Government Medical Officers Association (KGMO) as soon as Aardram was launched.

They have not said anything about eHealth. Aardram conceives of OP till 6 p.m. Then the doctors who were so far free and perhaps doing private practice from 4 p.m. will stop getting patients. Tomorrow, when the speciality services too are launched in the taluk hospitals, then who will seek them out in private clinics? Not only government doctors, but many private hospitals have now started working behind the scenes to foment trouble against Aardram. In Ernakulam, where the private sector controls the field, there is such a strong movement: because we are starting excellent cancer care facilities there and the corporates are rallying against government hospitals.

In all lower-level hospitals, facilities for specialist consultation will go up. The number of doctors and other staff will also go up. But not in the community health centres [CHCs]. They are not highly patronised in Kerala, as per our research. But taluk and district hospitals and medical college hospitals are. That is where we are focussing. There, funds are available, new posts are created, equipment, civil construction all are there.

Is eHealth not a difficult project to implement?

eHealth is a unique project. No other State is anywhere near us [in capability to implement it]. We made seven presentations in Delhi and we insisted that we must have this. We bid for this project, we fought for it, we made all sort of changes, finally the Union Secretary for IT said your project is so ambitious that I am sure it will fail. But even that failure is going to be such a learning experience that we think we will fund it. That is how we got the project.

They think that even Kerala will fail, but still gave it, because other States cannot even think of it, except perhaps Tamil Nadu. No other State has come forward for it. That is why nationally it is hot property. But there is a lot to be done.

Regarding both Aardram and eHealth, what does Kerala hope to achieve eventually, vis-a-vis other States?

Aardram’s focus is on primary care, and we are building it up to the taluk and district hospitals. And we are changing the orientation of primary care, from family planning, from mother-and-child care alone. We are changing the focus to communicable diseases, to NCDs.

eHealth is a big, ambitious thing. We are planning to create longitudinal data on individuals. Because the future of health is going to be AI big data and genomics. Genomics is also data-based. In genomics, research is all data mining, nothing else. So, what we hope to do is to create a database of the people in Kerala. Think of the research possibilities, of clinicians having so much data with them. That is why people are afraid that somebody might try to hack in and get the data. But then you cannot have one without the other. That is the real thing. We are making Kerala future ready.

Ashrams and crime

A tale of criminal sants

AYODHYA, one of the most prominent temple towns of India, reacted to the conviction of Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh with a unique mixture of sentiments. At one level, the ancient town accepted the facts of the case as a matter of routine. At another, there was conspicuous amazement. Ayodhya’s residents were not surprised that the Baba of Sirsa was found to be a criminal guilty of rape and accused of other forms of violence, including murder. The temple town has abounded with such “spiritual types” for decades. Their numbers are not in scores but in hundreds. Police records of Faizabad district, of which Ayodhya is a part, state that as many as 350 sadhus (declared spiritual persons) have been booked for crimes such as murder, rape, land-grabbing and dacoity over the past few years.

The records also state in unequivocal terms that a large number of the 7,000-odd “spiritual structures”, which includes big and small temples and “ashrams and maths” (temple-like abodes where a large number of the sadhus and their associates reside), have become centres of crime. “We have been living with these criminal sadhus and putting up with them for so long that we naturally see Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh too as one of their ilk. But as residents of Ayodhya, we are indeed astonished that a baba could get convicted in a court of law and that the conviction could be enforced. Here, it is a rarity if not an impossibility,” said Sheetla Singh, editor of Janmorcha, the popular Hindi daily with its headquarters in Faizabad. Sheetla Singh added that such was the clout and financial power of these criminal sant-mahants that the charges against them did not get framed in formal legal parameters. Consequently, there was no worthwhile investigation in most cases. Normally, he said, the cases did not reach the courts for trial too. Even when they did come up for trial, there were hardly any convictions.

Three broad categories

Sheetla Singh classified “sadhu crimes” into three broad categories. He told Frontline: “Money-related crimes aimed at grabbing land, property and riches of temples and other religious institutions form one category. A huge moneylending business too is carried out by these religious institutions and their leaders, and that too leads to money-related crimes. Power-related crimes, where religious superiors, particularly heads of temples, ashrams and maths, are either killed or subjugated by junior mahants form the second category. A sizable number of disciples of the mahants are impatient to acquire power and they cannot wait till the senior passes away naturally. This impatience drives them to planned murders or evictions. The third category is sex-related, where rape and trafficking are carried out by these criminal sadhus to satisfy their lust-ridden cravings. You can find many of these criminal sadhus jetting across the town in huge four-wheel-drive vehicles or fancy motorcycles. They all flaunt their power and money in various ways, including public exhibition of guns and firearms. This, in turn, has encouraged an active illicit gun-running racket that is guided and controlled by people in some of the temples, ashrams and maths. The cumulative effect of all this is that some sadhus indulge in crimes blatantly, knowing fully well that their so-called spiritual garb provides them near-certain protection from being proceeded against legally.”

A complaint of gang rape that was reported in May 2017 is a clear case in point. A middle-aged woman and her daughter approached the Chief Judicial Magistrate’s court in Faizabad stating that the police were refusing to file their complaint of rape against five sadhus of the Janki Niwas Mandir in Ayodhya. The women had been trying to get the complaint registered for as long as three months, but the police had paid no heed. Their plea in the court stated that the mother had been raped repeatedly over many months and the sadhus had threatened her into silence, warning her about dire consequences. The woman had put up with this torture, but when the five sadhus raped her daughter too in February 2017, she decided not to suffer in silence any more and approached the police. A case was registered and an inquiry initiated, but there has not been much progress after that.

Murder of sants

The fate of cases relating to the murder of four sants in 2013-14 is no different. The murders took place between July 2013 and August 2014. Cases were registered and some arrests took place, but many of the accused, prominent figures, decamped to safer havens, and some of them have been marked in official records as perennially missing. All the four killings were apparently related and had tussles for property and riches of so-called spiritual centres at their core. The urge to acquire greater “mahant power” also played an important part in these crimes. At the centre of all this is the Ganga Bhawan, a temple run by the Maniram Das Chhawni Seva Trust, headed by Mahant Nritya Gopal Das, who is also chairman of the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas, a trust controlled by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) under the directions of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar, with the self-professed objective of constructing a grand Ram temple in Ayodhya at the spot where the Babri Masjid stood until December 6, 1992. The Maniram Das Chhawni Seva Trust is arguably the largest and richest trust in Ayodhya and has several institutions under its control, including temples, ashrams, maths, hospitals, Sanskrit schools and colleges. A sizable number of these properties and institutions are in Ayodhya, but the trust has grown beyond the temple town to other parts of Uttar Pradesh and the country.

The last of the killings was on August 28, 2014. The man killed was 45-year-old Mahant Vijay Ram Das. He was found murdered in the Ganga Bhawan temple a few weeks after he had been appointed “vyavasthapak sadhu” (priest manager) of Ganga Bhawan by Mahant Nritya Gopal Das. The vyavasthapak sadhu of the more-than-100-year-old Ganga Ram temple is considered to be in a powerful position in Ayodhya as donations and other receipts are routed mainly through this temple manager of sorts. From the initial investigations, it was clear that there was an “insider element” in the killing. By the end of August 2014, the police arrested a person called Durgesh Tiwari, one of the residents of Ganga Bhawan. Investigation reports had it that Durgesh Tiwari had financial dealings with Mahant Vijay Ram Das and there were disputes over the dealings. There was also the perception that Durgesh Tiwari himself wanted to rise to the higher echelons of the trust’s structure and viewed Mahant Vijay Ram Das as an impediment.

Similar power- and money-related tussles were behind the other three murders too, a senior police official of Faizabad told Frontline. According to him, these tussles had manifested as gang clashes as early as July 2013 and began with clashes between gangs led by Mahant Bhavnath Das and Mahant Balram Das of Sagariya Patti. Amidst the clashes, one Ramesh Das shot dead Ram Bharat, a disciple of Mahant Balram Das. Ramesh Das was arrested, but one of the main instigators of the clashes, Mahant Bhavnath Das, was not apprehended. Incidentally, Mahant Bhavnath Das is the founder-president of Samajwadi Sant Sabha, which, apparently, seeks to link spiritual activities with the concepts of socialism. Following this, Ramdev Das, the vyavasthapak sadhu of the Ayaramji Akhara Udaseen temple, was shot dead in the first week of February 2014. Three and a half months later, Ayodhya Das Lal, the priest of a temple in the Vasudevghat area, also went missing in mysterious circumstances and was later reported dead by the police. Common to all the killings was the fact that the so-called spiritual institutions with which the murdered men were associated had massive wealth. The main reason for each of the murders, initial investigations revealed, were tussles aimed at enhancing material wealth and power. But beyond these findings, the cases are yet to produce any concrete legal results.

A senior retired police officer who has spent considerable time in Ayodhya and Faizabad said that around 200 sadhus had been killed in Ayodhya in the past decade according to informal estimates. He said: “Among those murdered are sadhus like Mahant Lal Das, the priest of the Ayodhya Ram temple in the early 1990s. He was committed to protecting communal harmony and peace in the region and he was hounded by the criminal sadhus for that reason too. But there are other sadhus who have been killed by the police in encounters because the department could not take concrete legal measures for want of evidence, though their atrocities had become rampant and unbearable.”

Stories also abound in Ayodhya about how hardened criminals take refuge in the temple town as sadhus with the intent of escaping from the law. The so-called sadhus, when they are co-opted by an ashram, math or temple or even a mahant, are allowed to give up their former identities, including their parentage and places of birth and origin. They come to be identified as chelas of different sants and mahants who are in charge of various institutions. In turn, the sants and mahants use these criminals to do their dirty work. This was revealed in a case relating to the 1998 shooting at Guptar Ghat near the Sarayu river in Ayodhya, which led to the death of four people and injuries to many. This case involved an assault on the local fishermen’s community launched by a group of sadhus led by the infamous Mauni Baba, mahant of the Yagya Shala ashram. When the case on this assault was filed, four of the five accused were merely named as chelas of Mauni Baba.

It is common knowledge in Ayodhya that all the well-known temples, ashrams and maths encourage criminals to take refuge with them. The bigger institutions such as the Maniram Das Chhawni Seva Trust, the Digamber Akhara and the Ram-Janaki Nivas that support the RSS, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Sangh Parivar, as well as the Hanuman Garhi temple, which swings between the Samajwadi Party and the Congress, are no exception when it comes to this illegal activity. However, Sheetla Singh pointed out that such activities became more widespread and accepted after the Sangh Parivar launched the Ayodhya Ram temple agitation in the mid 1980s. Sheetla Singh said: “To start with, that movement was led by Mahant Ramachandra Paramhans, who took the lead to smuggle in idols of Ram, Sita and Lakshman into the Babri Masjid in 1949. While that itself was a criminal act, what unfolded in the mid1980s was the Sangh Parivar’s desperate attempt to polarise society on communal lines to overcome its organisational deficiencies. It was because of this overwhelming intent at that point of time that the RSS, the VHP and the BJP patronised these criminal elements as never before. That has taken root and become the norm and the system now.”

The author Scharada Dubey, in her 2012 book Portraits from Ayodhya, which records oral history and relates tales of the temple town, shows how Mahant Nritya Gopal Das’ emergence as a prime player in the Sangh Parivar itself was through this route. The book contains several instances of the mysterious deaths of people who opposed him institutionally and those who refused to give him their land or property. But, as is the wont in Ayodhya, none of these cases has reached its logical conclusion. Mahant Nritya Gopal Das and the Maniram Das Chhawni Seva Trust he leads reign over the temple town with not many asking questions about their supremacy or the manner in which it was acquired. And of course, chelas also rule the roost as best as they can under the tutelage of the masters.

Dera Sacha Sauda

Victims of a guru

KHANPUR KOLIAN village in Pipli block in Kurukshetra district of Haryana lies on the Grand Trunk Highway. The narrow entry to the village is as nondescript as its location, but it is from here that in 2002 an anonymous letter went out to the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Chief Justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, and to a few concerned citizens in the village. Others to receive the copy were Jagmati Sangwan, the then general secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, and Raja Ram Handaiya, the president of the Rationalist Society.

Khanpur Kolian was the ancestral home of its seven-time sarpanch, Joginder Singh, who was an ardent follower of Gurmeet Singh. All his children, including his five daughters and the only son, Ranjit Singh, served at the Dera Sacha Sauda. A Jat, Joginder Singh organised satsangs whenever Gurmeet Singh was in the area. Ranjit Singh was an important sewadaar [worker] in the Dera from 1972 and handled the prayer meeting expenses of Pipli. “There was a special room for Baba ji in our house,” Ranjit Singh’s college-going son said. The family owned about 100 acres (40 hectares). Joginder Singh was afraid that his only son would fall into bad company and decided to send him to the Dera. Joginder Singh had a good reputation in the village and that influenced many people from the village and the neighbouring areas to join the Dera. The anonymous letter also reached Balwant Singh, a “rationalist” and a friend of the sarpanch. “We were sitting at a tea shop when the postman arrived with the letter. It had no name; the sender’s address was smudged. Some of us read it and the contents just shocked us beyond words,” he told Frontline.

It was May 2002. No one knew who had penned the letter though it contained a reference to an influential sewadaar from Kurukshetra and a sadhvi who had quit the Dera. “I didn’t know that Ranjit had left the Dera. Ranjit was a sewadaar and a top-ranking official in the special 10-member committee of the Dera,” said Balwant Singh. On July 10, 2002, Ranjit Singh was shot dead by assailants as he was returning from the fields. The needle of suspicion pointed to the Dera. There was a strong rumour that Ranjit Singh’s sister was the woman disciple referred to in the letter and that the letter had been written by him. Balwant Singh and Handaiya received threats for allegedly writing and circulating the letter. Handaiya was beaten up by Dera followers and was asked to seek a pardon from the Dera if he wanted to live. The turning point came when Poora Sach editor Ram Chander Chhatrapati was shot at outside his home on October 24. He succumbed to his injuries on November 21, 2002. All of Sirsa came out in protest. It was the first public protest against the Dera.

The High Court directed the District and Sessions Judge, Sirsa, to inquire into the anonymous letter. The Sirsa judge, in his report, said that nobody in the Dera was prepared to disclose anything about the sexual abuse of girls and that none could enter their hostel without the Dera head’s permission. The report also said that “the possibility of such acts could not be ruled out” and the truth could be ascertained if the matter was investigated by a central agency. The Central bureau of Investigation (CBI) stepped in on the directions of the High Court.

Dera’s origins

The Dera Sacha Sauda was established in 1948. Gurmeet Singh, who later added Ram Rahim to his name, originally belonged to a Jat Sikh landowning family in Rajasthan. He became the head of the Dera in 1990. The organising committee of the Dera and its heads were from “upper” castes; the bulk of its followers were from the Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes. The Dera Sacha Sauda was originally located in land spread over 25 acres (10 hectares). It gradually added 600 acres (240 hectares), mostly during Gurmeet Singh’s time.

Residents of Begu village adjoining the Dera land said that Dera followers intimidated them into selling their land. “The Dera did offer good rates, so farmers parted with the land. But there was an element of fear as well,” said a teacher in Begu.

The educated sadhvis of the Dera taught students while the uneducated women disciples looked after the young children. In 2005, the CBI got the information that 53 sadhvis were staying in the Shah Satnamji Girls Hostel, 80 sadhvis were in the ashram of the Dera, and 24 sadhvis had left the Dera. Some 20 of the 24 who had left between 1997 and 2002 could be traced. Most of them were married and initially declined to speak for fear and concerns about family reputation.

Frontline spoke to a cross section of people, including Dera followers, in Sirsa. A ritual involving the giving of an exclusive “name” to Dera followers made them feel special. The concept of “naam dena” was lifted from the Gurbani (various teachings of Sikh gurus), and the followers were told that the “name” kept them alive even after death. “They were made to believe that the baba had a direct link with that ethereal space,” said Virender Bhatia, a Sirsa-based writer. The devotees were given monetary incentives to bring new members. The Dera Sacha Sauda had its own administrative units. Titles such as “Bhangidass” were conferred on nodal persons who would be responsible for holding meetings, recruiting new members and spreading the philosophy of the Dera head. They would also be used to mobilise votes for any particular party that had “received the blessings” of the Dera head. Bhangi is a derogatory term used by caste Hindus for the Dalit scavengers in northern India. By adding the suffix of “dass”, Gurmeet conferred an aura of respectability to an occupation considered to be inferior in the caste hierarchy.

A good number of Dera followers were women, who sought refuge or looked for spiritual solace. “Our work is not appreciated in our homes. In the Dera, we get recognition,” said a woman follower. In short, they were made to believe that they were equals in an unequal system and Gurmeet Singh had answers for all the problesm they faced in their lives. His new religion was “insan” (human being) and his acolytes were given the suffix “Insan”. It was an opiate of a different kind, that which offered ephemeral equality.

Vegetables and other products “blessed” by the Baba were auctioned at ridiculous rates. A crate of grapes was bought by a Dera follower for Rs.25 lakh; a pumpkin was sold for Rs.67,000; one okra piece was sold at Rs.5,000. Musical nights called “Roohani Nights” with high-priced tickets were organised within the Dera where Gurmeet Singh performed. The Dera complex boasted a five-star floating hotel, hospitals, colleges and schools as well as a cricket stadium. Observers recalled the passion with which Dera followers worked. For instance, a sewer line was set up within a month without the use of machines. The Dera got the tender from the government.

Two women change the narrative

No investigation could be carried out before 2005 as the Supreme Court had granted a stay in December 2003. The stay was vacated in October 2004. The CBI zeroed in on 18 of the 24 sadhvis who had left the Dera. Getting them to depose before the CBI was still a problem. Two of them finally decided to come out with the truth. Their testimonies were horrifying. One of them was posted as a sentry at the entrance to the “gufa”, or den, which was Gurmeet Singh’s sanctum sanctorum. While on sentry duty, she saw two other sentry sadhvis enter the cave in the night and leave the site in a disturbed state. One of them abused Gurmeet Singh while the other wept. The main prosecuterix told the CBI that she had been raped by Gurmeet Singh twice but she was unable to leave the Dera as her brother Ranjit Singh’s daughters were studying there. Her testimony was similar to the contents of the anonymous letter that detailed the circumstances of the rape. She was brainwashed into believing that she was impure on account of her “mistakes” and that the sexual experience (which was statutory rape) with the “Baba” had purified her. He warned her against disclosing the incident to anyone. She was summoned to the “gufa” a second time within a year of the sexual assault. When she refused to go, she was told that she would be denied food from the langar (community meal). She went, and when Gurmeet Singh forced himself on her, she told him that she would tell her brother everything. Gurmeet Singh allegedly said that being a staunch disciple, Ranjit Singh would not believe her and that if he did, he would get him killed. He boasted of his connections with Ministers. Within six months, she was summoned a third time. This time she freed herself before the assault could be committed. She finally told her brother, who believed her and took her and his two daughters out of the Dera in April 2001. Even this could not happen without the baba’s permission. The family did not file a police complaint.

The other prosecuterix also gave a similar testimony alleging that there was a route from the girls’ hostel to the godman’s den. When she was posted as a sentry in September 1999, she was summoned to the den. As she regarded the “Maharaj” as God incarnate, she went and was subjected to rape. She learnt later that her sister, too, had been raped. The next day, she left the Dera along with her sister when her parents came for the majlis (assembly). It was evident that in all the cases, the families of the girls had strong ties with the Dera and not all of them were from poverty-stricken backgrounds. Other sadhvis traced by the CBI also narrated similar tales of sexual exploitation.

Blind faith

The sadhvi victim, the daughter of Joginder Singh, came in contact with Gurmeet Singh in 1992 when he stayed at her house in Khanpur Kolian. He told her to visit the Dera. A graduate from Kurukshetra University, she was impressed by what she saw at the Dera, and in July 1999, she started living in the Dera as a sadhvi. One of the reasons for her joining the Dera was to escape the persistent attention of a man she knew. Joginder Singh thought it would do her good to send her to the Dera, which was seen as a safe haven and a purifying experience. She was asked by the fellow sadhvis whether “ pitaji” (father), as Gurmeet Singh was known, had pardoned her. She did not then understand that “pardon” was an euphemism for rape.

On July 1, 2002, Ranjit Singh told her that people from the Dera had been threatening him regarding the anonymous letter and that he had told them that he would expose everything if the threats did not stop. “Apologise or pay with your life” was the message. Ranjit Singh refused to go back to the place he had served for 25 years. Within 10 days, he was shot dead. It was only after the arrest of two Dera followers allegedly involved in the murder that the sister came forward, with moral support from her in-laws and family, and gave her statement on March 19, 2007, to a judicial officer in Chandigarh. In the case of the second rape victim, too, it was found that two generations in her family were followers of the Dera. Her induction was but natural. She was renamed by Gurmeet Singh. Within a year of her joining the Dera, she was raped by Gurmeet Singh. She told her parents about it and left the Dera the very next day. She got married and found that her in-laws were followers of the Dere. She faced tremendous pressure in the form of phone calls, threats and compulsions to sign affidavits resiling from the charges.

The CBI interrogated senior employees of the Dera. Their statements, subjected to polygraph tests, corroborated stories of sexual exploitation. Charges of rape and criminal intimidation were framed against Gurmeet Singh as early as September 6, 2008. In his defence, the Dera head placed on record welfare activities such as alcohol de-addiction and female foeticide prevention campaigns carried out by the Dera and that he was sexually unfit to commit a rape. There was a huge delay in recording the victims’ statements. There was no formal complaint and the anonymous letter was the only basis for the case.

The final hearing in the murder charges against Gurmeet Singh will take place on September 16. The High Court ordered search and sanitisation of two Dera premises in Sirsa. Yet, there are few who speak out openly against the Dera head. “You see, we have to live here. The Dera premis are very angry especially as the baba is in jail and many of them were shot dead,” said a Sirsa resident. Anshul Chhatrapati, son of the slain journalist, was happy that justice was done.

M.M. Kalburgi

Murdering scholarship

RAJENDRA CHENNI cover-story

Professor M.M. Kalburgi was an extraordinary scholar who dedicated himself to research and writing for over 50 years. His writings collected in several volumes under the title Marga (the path) run into nearly 5,000 pages. His first scholarly article on Shabdamanidarpana, an early work on Kannada grammar, was published when he was 25 and, until the morning of his brutal murder on August 30, 2015, at the age of 77, Professor Kalburgi had literally spent all his life in scholarly pursuits.

The outstanding feature of Kalburgi’s scholarship is the mind-boggling heterogeneity of the subjects and the plurality of approaches and methodologies he employed. The subjects ranged from proverbs used in his village to the linguistic loyalties of the Vijayanagara empire; from names of places in Karnataka to the real history of the Lingayat religion. Like his research agenda, the sources of evidence he employed were just as diverse. He employed literary-textual interpretations, epigraphic studies, archaeology, popular culture, analysis of socio-religious practices, linguistics, interpretation of written records (especially the kaifiyats) and oral traditions in his research. His research also involved a vast amount of fieldwork. From these details one would probably construct the image of Professor Kalburgi as a typical traditional scholar covered in the dust of old epigraphs and manuscripts, with an otherworldly outlook, totally unconnected to the mire of cultural politics so dear to activists.

Therefore, it came as a surprise to read Kalburgi’s statements on research as “treading on a dangerous path” or on the fate of the scholar as having to “bear many crosses”, and so on. His scholarly style was neither polemical nor provocative. Instead, it depended largely on the empirical method of compiling information from various sources and drawing reasonable inferences. Since Kalburgi did not make any major attempts at theory-building, there is very little ideological aggressiveness in his writings. How then does one explain the ferocious attacks on Kalburgi, of which his murder was the culmination? What was it in his scholarship that touched a raw nerve among at least two groups?

For an appropriate answer, one has to go back to the events of 1989 when certain Veerashaiva Lingayat groups unleashed verbal attacks against Kalburgi and he also narrowly escaped physical assault. Nearly three decades later, the details of these attacks are still unnerving to any scholar.

In the first volume of Marga, Kalburgi had published research articles on Naagalambike, Basava’s sister and Channabasavanna’s mother, and Neelambike, Basava’s wife. Kalburgi had tried to interpret some of the obscure details figuring in the poet Harihara’s narrative about Basava and similar grey areas relating to these three individuals. He had made a reasonable surmise that Naagalambike could have been married off to Dohara Kakkayya from the untouchable caste by Basava as an exemplary inter-caste marriage. He had also questioned the myth of Channabasavanna being born of “Prasada”. In the same volume, Kalburgi had suggested that the adjective “Punya Stree” preceding the names of the spouses of some vachanakaras probably indicated their low-caste origin or that they were mistresses who had converted to Basava’s religion. These surmises, based on the reinterpretation of available material, were seen as slanderous and derogatory by certain sections of the Lingayat community, especially because they were iconic figures in the Lingayat tradition which was being reconstructed.

The controversy snowballed into a movement, involving threats to Kalburgi’s life. He was asked to appear for a trial at Murughamatha in Dharwad. At the trial he was asked to tender an unconditional apology, promise not to write anything which would hurt the sentiments of the community and give up his position at the Basava chair of studies at Karnatak University, Dharwad. He was also forced to retract the controversial parts of the book. Until his death, Kalburgi continued to recollect the episode in great anguish as an intellectual suicide.

Years later, he gave his own explanation for research turning out to be a dangerous profession. He said that in an emotionally driven country people were unwilling to accept any truth that upset their beliefs and prejudices. He lamented the lack of an intellectual culture that valorises the truth at any cost. In another statement, he said attacks happen on scholars when a debate is shifted from the academic intellectual domain to which it properly belongs to the public domain in which truth and objectivity are not seen as values. In a way, this statement summarises the situation in recent years in Karnataka and elsewhere in India.

Religious institutions such as mathas, communal organisations, caste associations and political parties become the major participants in debates involving books, intellectual discourses and research. These groups are obviously partisan, with powerful biases and prejudices, and ranged against scholars who question their cultural, religious or caste icons. The history of Karnataka during the late colonial period witnessed the consolidation of dominant caste groups, which began to stake their claims for more representation in education and employment. The Veerashaiva Mahasabha and the Vokkaligara Sangha were established by the two dominant caste groups that control Karnataka politics even today. The consolidation and institutionalisation of caste groups required the construction of real or imagined historiographies of religious icons of Puranik historical relevance as well as of contemporary individuals of the community. It also demanded the construction of the “Other”. These processes also involved a great deal of sanskritisation since the two dominant communities had been considered Shudra communities and derogated as uncultured. This explains why the sub-caste groups of jangamas and aradhyas tried to project themselves as Vedic and brahminical by claiming that they adhered to the varna system, studied Sanskrit and owed allegiance to ancient Saiva sects.

A tale of two sects

The second attack on Kalburgi had to do with the two sects that are now in open and bitter conflict in Karnataka. The Veerashaiva sect loyal to the Guru Mathas and the Panchapeethas (the five mathas) claim that Veerashaivism has a hoary ancient tradition and that Basava, the leader of the 12th century Vachanakara movement, was only a late reformer and not the founder of a new religion. They also seem to have no problems identifying their religion with the Hindu religion. The other sect loyal to the Virakta mathas believes that the Lingayat religion was founded by Basava and that it is an independent religion opposed in many ways to the essentials of the Hindu religion.

Kalburgi, undoubtedly the finest, most erudite scholar of the vachanas, was categorical in his support of the Lingayat sect, arguing that it was the only indigenous Kannada religion and that other major religions had their origin elsewhere. He believed that the vachanakaras had heralded a great revolution by rejecting the varna system and caste and gender inequalities. The major research questions he formulated for himself focussed on how such a radical religion ended up as a mere caste or at most a conglomerate of sub-caste groups. What were the causes for its regression into Vedic and brahminical practices? This led him to theorise that the Guru Matha and the Panchapeetha sect had little to do with the radical religion of Basava and his companions. The battle between the two sects supported by hundreds of powerful mathas and pontiffs on both sides is a fierce one.

Kalburgi’s scholarship, consistent within its own premises, was seen as ideologically adversarial by one sect. Such was the animosity that when Kalburgi was murdered, it was seen by many as related to the sectarian conflict.

The third and last phase in the conflictual engagement of Kalburgi’s scholarship with cultural politics has everything to do with the fanatical Hindutva organisations. In reading out certain passages from U.R. Ananthamurthy’s writings on his boyhood experiences, Kalburgi gave the unfortunate impression that he was also in favour of desecrating religious objects. The Kannada electronic media ran a frenzied 24x7 campaign against Kalburgi, targeting him as a vilifier of Hindu idols and icons. Kalburgi, whose 5,000 pages of scholarship had not been read by the masses, suddenly became a household name as a Hindu-hating rationalist. His view that Hinduism was not a religion (what he meant was that it was not a revealed religion, with a prophet and a holy book) was also seen as slanderous. A tireless researcher and a fine academic scholar was demonised as a Left-leaning anti-Hindu rationalist. Alas, as he had said years ago, an emotionally driven society has no special love for scholarship and objectivity. The vicious media campaign most certainly put him on the hit list of an organisation that believes in eliminating anti-Hindu rationalists.

There is absolutely no doubt at all that Kalburgi’s murder was an ideological murder. It is tragic because his scholarship was not in itself ideological.

Professor Rajendra Chenni, Professor of English at Kuvempu University and a literary critic, was closely associated with Prof. M.M. Kalburgi from the mid 1970s until his assassination in 2015.

The crime

A method in the madness

The crime, chilling and macabre, was a challenge to the sovereignty of the state and to the freedom of thought and expression and individual activism. The gruesome, premeditated shooting of Gauri Lankesh on the evening of September 5 outside her home at Rajarajeshwari Nagar in south-west Bengaluru raises worrying questions about the growing intolerance of independent voices.

The 55-year-old publisher and editor of the Kannada tabloid Gauri Lankesh took on with courage the political establishment and Hindu right-wing forces through the three decades of her journalistic life. She attempted to bring naxalites to the mainstream and batted for the rights of Dalits, farmers and minorities. Certainly, she had detractors. But who would gun her down with such brutality? What was the motive, and who will gain from her death? To put it more simply, was the murder (clearly a professional hit job by as yet unidentified assailants) meant to send out a chilling message to those supporting her views?

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) D.N. Jeevaraj, who represents the Sringeri Assembly constituency, actually insinuated that she might have been killed for her statements against the Hindu right wing. At a rally in Koppa taluk in Chikmagalur a day after the murder, Jeevaraj, a former BJP whip in the Karnataka Assembly, criticised the language that Gauri Lankesh used in her writing and quoted the headline of one of her articles: “ Chaddigala Maaranahoma” (Death to wearers of shorts), a reference to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). “If she had not written ‘chaddis’ maaranahoma’ in her paper that day, would she still be alive today?” he asked his audience. Later, he claimed that he had been misquoted.

On September 5, Gauri Lankesh left her office in south Bengaluru just after seven and drove 10 kilometres to her home. She reached minutes before eight. She sat briefly in her parked car checking her mobile phone before she got out and entered her premises through the smaller of two gates. She then opened the larger gate, apparently to facilitate the parking of her car, and at this point she was shot at from what appears to be within a distance of 10 feet. The preliminary investigations were based chiefly on footage from two closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras that she had installed at the front of her home. It shows a person of medium height in a black jacket and a helmet covering the face shooting at her four times. Digital-image-enhancing software is being employed to get a clearer view of him (or her) because investigations hinge largely on the identification of the assailant.

A senior officer from the special investigating team (SIT) that has been set up by the Karnataka government to probe the murder told Frontline that three bullets pierced her body while the fourth missed; its fragments were found in a wall of her home. One bullet entered her body from behind in the shoulder region, while two hit her abdomen from the front. A doctor involved with the post-mortem examination of her body at the Victoria Hospital said that there were entry and corresponding exit wounds for each of the three bullets, which damaged her heart and lungs and killed her instantaneously. Investigating officers disclosed that a preliminary analysis of the four empty cartridges and the small fragments of the four bullets found at the site showed that a countrymade 7.65 mm pistol, which is rather commonly available, was used.

Assailants on a motorcycle again?

Footage from nearly 500 CCTV cameras installed all along the 10-km route from Gauri Lankesh’s office to her house has been analysed. But it has not yet been ascertained whether the assailants were following her or even how many of them there were. But the footage that captured the shooting also shows a light that the police said could be from the headlights of a motorcycle. The light from behind Gauri Lankesh’s car disappears when the shooter leaves after the killing. So did the assailants come on a motorcycle? So far there have been no witnesses. Gauri Lankesh’s neighbours reacted only after they heard the gunshots. They alerted the police and informed her mother when they saw the bleeding body.

Curiously, the modus operandi of the killing mirrors the one used in the murders of three other left-thinking intellectuals in recent years: the rationalist Narendra Dabholkar, 67, in 2013 in Pune; Govind Pansare, 81, of the Communist Party of India in 2015 in Kolhapur; and the Kannada scholar M.M. Kalburgi, 77, also in 2015 in Dharwad. In each case, two assailants rode up to the victim on a motorcycle; the pillion rider either alighted or continued to sit on the motorcycle to fire from close range, and the assailants sped away after the murder. The similarities between the murders, all unsolved, do not end here. At all four sites, 7.65 mm cartridges were found, and countrymade pistols were used in all the murders.

An officer who investigated the Kalburgi murder pointed out that “the 7.65 mm pistol used to kill Kalburgi in 2015 was the same weapon that was used to murder Pansare the same year” and also that forensic evidence clearly indicated that “one of the two guns used to shoot Pansare was used to kill Dabholkar in 2013”.

An officer with the newly formed SIT said bullet fragments and cartridges from the scene of Gauri Lankesh’s murder would have to be analysed and compared with similar material found in the other three cases before any firm conclusion could be drawn on whether the same people or organisation was responsible. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is probing the Dabholkar murder; an SIT in Maharashtra is probing Pansare’s murder; and the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the Karnataka Police is investigating Kalburgi’s murder. The State government has announced a reward of Rs.10 lakh for information leading to the killers of Gauri Lankesh. The similarities that have been noted between the murders raise the question whether a more coordinated effort and sharing of information would not bring better results. The CBI and the Maharashtra SIT have filed charge sheets and made arrests in the Dabholkar and Pansare murders. There has as yet been no charge sheet or arrest in the Kalburgi case.

In September 2015, the Maharashtra SIT arrested Sameer Vishnu Gaikwad from Sangli in connection with Pansare’s murder and charge-sheeted him as one of the assailants. The CBI arrested an ENT doctor, Dr Virendra Tawade, from Panvel in June 2016 in connection with Dabholkar’s murder and filed a charge sheet accusing him of being part of the murder conspiracy. In November 2016, the SIT probing Pansare’s murder interrogated Tawade and filed a supplementary charge sheet accusing him of leading the conspiracy behind Pansare’s murder.

Tawade is a member of the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, an organisation that is allegedly an offshoot of the Sanatan Sanstha, a Hindu radical group based in Goa and founded by Dr Jayant Athavale. Gaikwad is alleged to be an activist (or “sadhak”) of the Sanatan Sanstha. Thus, the charge-sheeting of Tawade in both the Dabholkar and Pansare murders links the organisation with both crimes. While Gaikwad has been out on bail since June 2017, Tawade has filed an application seeking bail.

Neither the CBI nor the SIT has been able to secure clinching evidence, leave alone a conviction. Officers investigating the cases say this is because two of the key accused in the Dabholkar case, Vinay Pawar and Sarang Akolkar, are absconding. They are believed to have fled to Nepal or Bhutan or Bangladesh. In March 2017, the CBI announced a reward of Rs.10 lakh for any information that could lead to their arrest. The CBI claims that both Pawar, who is from Maharashtra’s Satara district, and Akolkar, who is from Pune, are sadhaks of the Sanatan Sanstha and are “close associates of Dr Tawade and involved in the murder of Dabholkar”. Informed sources also said that Akolkar was named an accused in the 2009 Goa blast case and has a red corner notice issued against him since 2012. The CBI’s view is that Pawar killed Dabholkar, while Akolkar was a key conspirator.

There is an apprehension that the Karnataka CID’s intelligence networks, which are largely restricted to the State, do not have the wherewithal to investigate a crime or conspirators with links in another State. It has been on the hunt for Rudra Patil, also an alleged Sanatan Sanstha activist and a childhood friend of Gaikwad. He has been absconding since his name cropped up in the 2009 Goa blast case.

According to police sources, Sanatan Sanstha sadhaks are a crafty lot and emulate Israel’s Mossad and the Soviet KGB. A senior officer said: “They do not carry mobile phones. To deliver a small message they will travel 400 km and back. Among a number of dos and don’ts, the organisation prescribes a code of conduct and behaviour for its sadhaks and a charter of punishments for non-believers. If a non-believer commits a minor misdemeanour, he is punished; if it is something irreparable, death is the punishment.”

The Sanatan Sanstha denies it all. Its spokesperson, Chetan Rajhans, told Frontline that it did not advocate violence and that the “communists were attacking [it] because [it] was spreading spirituality in India”. He added: “We condemn the killing of Gauri Lankesh as we do any other killing. But for the past 10 years, the communists have employed the philosophy of ‘calling him a mad dog and shoot him, Goebbels style’. It has been three months since Tawade applied for bail. The two cases [Dabholkar and Pansare] are not progressing since the investigating agencies have no proof. We are an NGO. There is not a shred of evidence against the Sanatan Sanstha.” When questioned over sadhaks like Gaikwad, Rajhans admitted that he was part of the organisation but said that his “role was restricted to driving vehicles that belonged to the Sanatan Sanstha”. As for Tawade, he “conducted free medical clinics at the ashram”. He said the organisation had asked Pawar and Akolkar to come and “face the judiciary since their continued absence from the law was giving the Sanstha a bad name”.

Police officers were sceptical. One of them said: “It is obvious why the investigative agencies are unable to nab them….” The insinuation was that it was because both Goa and Maharashtra are now ruled by the BJP.

This indeed may be why Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has not handed over the Gauri Lankesh murder investigation to the CBI. The victim’s brother has asked for a CBI probe. But the track record of Central agencies in dealing with Hindutva terror has not been confidence-inspiring. The National Investigation Agency, for instance, dropped charges against the accused in the 2008 Malegaon bomb blast case citing a lack of evidence.

The Congress has linked Gauri Lankesh’s killing to the RSS and the BJP. Party vice president Rahul Gandhi caused a political storm when he said: “It is a philosophy. Anybody who speaks against the ideology of the BJP, against the ideology of the RSS, is pressured, beaten, attacked, and even killed. They want to impose only one ideology which is against the nature of India.” The BJP called this comment “mala fide” and claimed that disgruntled naxal groups angered by Gauri Lankesh’s efforts to bring some of them into the mainstream might be responsible for her murder.

Ravi Shankar Prasad, Union Minister of Law and Justice, said: “I would like to ask Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah whether she [Gauri Lankesh] was undertaking efforts to [have naxals lay down their arms] with permission from the government. If so, why was she not given security?” He added that the slain journalist’s brother had also said that it could be the handiwork of disgruntled naxals. (Indrajit Lankesh’s statement was, however, dismissed by Gauri Lankesh’s sister Kavitha, who said that that was not possible.)

RSS denial

The RSS, too, has denied involvement. Speaking to Frontline, Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat, one of the RSS’ most influential figures in the south, said that the needle of suspicion “pointed to the naxals” and that “even her [Gauri Lankesh’s] brother was saying so”. He added: “We are not in violence. We do not support violence. Our ideas may clash, defer…. But then independence of thought and expression is guaranteed under the Indian Constitution.”

The Left has condemned the killing. Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury addressed a protest meeting organised by journalists’ associations in New Delhi. He noted that there was an “eerie pattern” in the murders of Kalburgi, Pansare and Dabholkar. He added that the Sangh Parivar was fostering a climate of bigotry, hate, intolerance and violence in India. Stating that the killing was one in a series of murders of rationalists and that they were “interconnected”, the CPI(M) said: “All of them were vociferous in their opposition to superstition, obscurantism and the perpetuation of the communal agenda by the right-wing Hindutva forces. The Polit Bureau strongly condemns the cold-blooded murder.... This killing, fits into a by now familiar pattern of eliminating voices that dare to speak out against the current climate of hate and intolerance by the RSS/BJP.”

Protests and candlelight vigils were organised by civil society across the country. In Bengaluru, Gauri Lankesh’s body was kept for public viewing in the precincts of the iconic Ravindra Kalakshetra. Just next door to the venue, at the equally iconic Town Hall, she had led numerous protests. The Chief Minister, some of his Cabinet colleagues, former Union Minister M. Veerappa Moily, theatre personalities, journalists, activists and members of civil society were among the mourners.

A number of film personalities, including Javed Akhtar, Shekhar Kapur, Dia Mirza, Nandita Das, Renuka Shahane and Shirish Kunder condemned her killing. Javed Akhtar tweeted: “Dhabolkar, Pansare, Kalburgi, and now Gauri Lankesh. If one kind of people are getting killed which kind of people are the killers.” The well-known Kannada writer Baraguru Ramachandrappa said: “It is an attack on rational and progressive thinkers in Karnataka.”

Journalist as activist

Indomitable spirit

BAGESHREE S. cover-story

GAURI LANKESH married her craft of journalism to social and political activism in a manner few have done in recent memory, and paid the ultimate price. Journalism for her was a calling, not a mere job.

There were many sceptics when Gauri Lankesh took over Lankesh Patrike after her illustrious father, P. Lankesh’s death in 2000. They sniggered at her for her “lack of experience”, her “political naivete” and what they claimed was her “poor hold on Kannada”. Evidently, she was stepping into the big shoes of her father, a leading light of the Navya movement of literature in Kannada, film-maker, playwright and a journalist who shaped a generation through his writings in the 1980s and 1990s. And anyone less gutsy than Gauri Lankesh would have shrivelled under the intense heat of such expectations.

The distinct path Gauri Lankesh chartered from then on until her brutal killing on the night of September 5, 2017, was all her own as much in journalism as it was in political activism. In fact, the two roles melded into each other and lent her a trademark style. Her indefatigable confidence and hard work soon silenced the sniggers. Gauri Lankesh doggedly kept the magazine going during the most trying times. Money to run it was always hard to come by, and she brought it out almost single-handedly, right down to proofreading the pages, with little or virtually no help.

The transformation of the weekly tabloid’s masthead from Lankesh Patrike to Gauri Lankesh in 2005, though not by choice but because of a dispute with her brother, Indrajit Lankesh, who claimed proprietorship, could well be seen as symbolic of the shaping of her distinct identity.

Journalism from the trenches

The magazine her father ran with unprecedented success in Kannada journalism’s history, with no advertisement support, was unique for the way it lent a literary flavour to the bold tabloidy analysis of contemporary politics. Gauri Lankesh, though arguably the most starry-eyed fan of her father (she kept the chair and table her father had used in the editor’s office, but never used it herself), soon successfully moved out of his shadow, freely admitting that she was indeed not the “litterateur” that her father was. The weekly she edited did not have the same flavour as the one her father ran, but there is little reason to argue that it should have been. While individual style is one matter, the spirit of the times after 2000, marked by the rise of Hindutva in Karnataka, most notably in its coastal belt, certainly played a major role in shaping Gauri Lankesh’s uniquely feisty personality.

Taking on the Sangh Parivar

What made her voice distinct in the years that followed was the unapologetic plunge she took into activism and how she used the paper she ran as a forum to espouse those causes. Issues such as communal politics, women’s rights, Dalit liberation and farmers’ agitations constantly found place in her paper, and there was no ambiguity as to whose side she was on. There was no “balancing of views” as mainstream journalism would call it. Her critics sometimes said that her style lacked “nuance”, but she vociferously argued that this was often a ploy to play safe or to obfuscate ideas and political positions. She was never “careful” as an editor; nor was she a “careful” as a person.

Predictably, this resulted in obnoxious trolls, online and offline, and defamation cases became her constant companions. Around the time of her death, she had gone on appeal to the High Court on a prison sentence pronounced by a lower court in connection with a defamation case filed by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Dharwad Member of Parliament Prahlad Joshi. She particularly “offended” the Sangh Parivar affiliates (whom she always referred to as “chaddis”, often in bold letters on the tabloid’s cover) in edition after edition. Scanning through the issues over the past few years, it is hard to come across even a single one that did not take on the Hindutva political actors in what some would describe as language that was shrill and strident.

However, as G. Rajashekhar, culture critic, political activist and regular contributor to both Lankesh Patrike and Gauri Lankesh points out, it was not unbridled iconoclasm. Gauri Lankesh held the Indian Constitution sacrosanct across contexts and never advocated violence to take on those whom she unsparingly attacked in her magazine every week. “You cannot find a single line in any of her editorials that advocates defiance of the Constitution or taking to violence,” he says. Gauri Lankesh had the courage to publish Rajashekhar’s strong critique of the seer of the Pejawar Mutt in Udupi that most mainstream magazines were afraid to touch, but there were always limits she would not cross.

Mainstreaming Naxalites

Her unwavering faith in constitutional values was also reflected in the enormous effort she put in to bring those who were once in the forefront of the naxal movement back into the mainstream along with like-minded persons such as the freedom fighter H.S. Doreswamy.

Two important leaders, Sirimane Nagaraj and Noor Sridhar, who joined the mainstream thanks to her persistent efforts, became active in democratic struggles and even wrote occasionally for Gauri Lankesh. Interestingly, Gauri Lankesh’s fallout with her brother involved disagreements over publishing an interview with a naxalite leader, which Indrajit strongly opposed. While her touchstone was the Constitution, she believed that journalism should hear out every side of a story to reflect genuine plurality.

Lingayat issue

In fact, her virulent opposition of the BJP and the Sangh Parviar could also be read as stemming from her abhorrence of those who did not believe in the constitutional values of secularism and moving towards a casteless society. Rather than shut out such forces, she constantly engaged with them, especially in social media platforms. Over the past few months, when the demand for a separate religious tag for Lingayats escalated in Karnataka (“Struggling for a new status”, Frontline, September 15), Gauri Lankesh wrote extensively on the issue both in Gauri Lankesh and in English publications.

In an article for the news website, “The Wire”, she wrote: “Lingayats are followers of Basavanna and the sharanas, whose philosophy is expressed in thousands of vachanas. In several vachanas, the sharanas have rejected the Vedas, shastras, smritis and the Upanishads. They also rejected the system of caste based on the varnasrama, rebuffed faith in karma based on caste, denied the concept of paap and punya which was based on karma, spurned the notion of heaven and hell as based on paap and punya. They scorned temple and idol worship. They rejected the phallic linga symbol of Siva and opted for ishtalinga, which represents inner conscience. They declared that work was worship and tried to break the barriers of caste by inter-caste dining. They fought against discrimination on the basis of gender and birth. They abhorred superstitions. They ignored Sanskrit— which was understood by very few—and addressed the people in Kannada. Essentially, Basavanna and all sharanas rejected everything about the Hindu religion and rebelled against it.”

She pointedly observed that the demand for a separate status for Lingayats was raised by many even during the drafting of the Constitution, especially by Lingayat members of the Constituent Assembly such as S. Nijalingappa. The scholar M.M. Kalburgi, killed two years ago in a manner strikingly similar to how Gauri Lankesh was killed, also held similar views. She may not have been a scholar, but her keen appreciation of why the issue rankled the Hindutva bigots who had no time, patience or inclination to understand culture in its multifaceted dimensions and nuances of which religion is only a small part ensured that she stayed her course come what may.

For those who felt that her magazine lacked nuance, the editorials Gauri Lankesh wrote every week under the title “Kanda Haage” (As Perceived) showed another face of her potential as a writer and journalist. They reflected the vastness and depth of her understanding of the world as a journalist that the screaming headline may have often masked. Her editorial on triple talaq (published in the September 5 issue), for instance, hailed the Supreme Court verdict but also questioned the earlier verdict on “love jehad”.

An abiding role model

The last editorial Gauri Lankesh wrote (in the issue dated September 13) titled “Sullu Suddigala Yugadalli” (In the age of fake news) is a fine analysis of the Sangh Parivar’s untiring fake news manufacturing machinery. She confesses to falling prey to one such photoshopped image herself, and, after a detailed analysis of how fake news is created and spread, talks about the newly emerging young band of activists who are countering them online and offline. She was all praise for Youtuber Dhruv Rathi, who has the “looks of a college boy” as she put it, and expressed happiness over many youngsters like him raising their voice of dissent. In fact, anyone who closely interacted with Gauri Lankesh could not have missed her drive to nurture the young to be right-thinking and bold in their resistance to right-wing politics. She kept in close touch with young activists such as Kanhaiya Kumar and Jignesh Mewani and called them her “adopted sons”. Many young journalists, especially young women, looked up to her as a role model. She entered journalism in the 1980s. Gauri Lankesh concluded her last editorial with a note of optimism: “I offer my salaam to the lonely soldiers of truth who are exposing the fake news propagated by chaddis. May their tribe increase…”

It is not clear what will happen to the magazine that carries the legacy of Gauri Lankesh and in some ways her father as well. The rights over the magazine, which has no strong financial backing or editorial structure, will now go back to the family. Her sister, Kavitha Lankesh, who is a film-maker, said she would not want to take it on but would be happy if some friends and colleagues of Gauri Lankesh wanted to keep it alive. For now, Gauri Lankesh’s friends and admirers are busy putting together an edition of Gauri Lankesh that will be a tribute to its slain editor and her indomitable spirit. Gauri Lankesh had put together a similar special edition as a tribute to her father when he passed away in 2000.

Targeting rationalists

Voices of reason

ANUPAMA KATAKAM cover-story

The murder of Gauri Lankesh is uncannily similar to the killings of Narendra Dabholkar (2013) and Govind Pansare (2015). Both men were shot at close range and no one claimed responsibility. Sadly, investigations seem reduced to mere formality. While activists and the victims’ families try hard to keep the issue alive, there seems little inclination on the administration’s part to nab the culprits or even get to the bottom of the conspiracy.

Whether there is a link between the killers of Gauri Lankesh and those of Dabholkar and Pansare will be revealed when investigations into the case begin. If it is the same group (the modus operandi is identical, according to a police officer), there may be some hope of finding answers to the killing of the two highly respected rationalists who fought relentlessly against blind faith, superstition and other beliefs that they saw as irrational and exploitative. The two cases have come to the fore again with Gauri Lankesh’s killing. The failure of both State and Central agencies in tracing the assailants so far is apparent. Whether or not the lack of effort is deliberate, the latest murder will hopefully snap investigators out of their inertia. One police officer that Frontline spoke to felt that investigations into those two cases might provide leads in the Gauri Lankesh case.

Dabholkar’s family has repeatedly said that had his attackers been caught and prosecuted, Pansare might not have been killed. Similar points were raised at a rally in Mumbai after Gauri Lankesh’s killing, and the sentiment seemed to be that the killers could have been caught if there was the will to find them. The Maharashtra Police and Central agencies have cracked serious terror and underworld cases. Why are they floundering on this? Why are they not more aggressive in their search and investigations? A frightening pattern is emerging, and the state is not moving fast.

Dabholkar and Pansare were fearlessly outspoken and stuck to their mission without compromise. In spite of constant death threats from various organisations and individuals, reportedly from extreme right-wing fringe groups, they persisted in the movement to help vulnerable people from being exploited. Dabholkar apparently dismissed police protection, saying many people would be happy to see him dead and adding that it would be a worthwhile death if any good came out of it. Similarly, Pansare is known to have dismissed threats to his life, asking why anyone should target an old man like him.

Dabholkar was out on his morning walk on August 20, 2013, when two young men on a motorcycle intercepted him on the Omkareshwar bridge near Pune’s Shanivar Peth and shot him dead at close range. He was 67. The police at the time said that they were certain it was a planned killing as it was known that Dabholkar visited Pune twice a week, on Mondays and Tuesdays. Militant Hindu right-wing organisations such as the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti and the Sanatan Sanstha, which used to constantly lash out at the rationalist and accused him of being anti-Hindu, immediately denied involvement in the murder. It later emerged that the Sanatan Sanstha might have a link to it.

Although the Maharashtra government initially offered a bounty of Rs.5 lakh for leads on Dabholkar’s murderers, little information could be gleaned. Eventually, with the Pune police failing to make any headway in the case, Ketan Tirodkar, a former journalist, filed a public interest litigation (PIL) petition in the Bombay High Court asking for the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to take over the case. The court took notice of the PIL and ordered a CBI probe.

On the basis of CCTV footage that grabbed some images of the assailants, the CBI released the names of Sarang Akolkar and Vinay Pawar, both linked to the Sanatan Sanstha. Both are absconding. In a breakthrough that came in June 2016, the CBI followed leads to ENT specialist Dr Virendra Tawade, a member of the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, which is affiliated to the Sanatan Sanstha. During a raid on Tawade’s and Akolkar’s residences, the agency recovered documents, mobile numbers, emails and other material that linked the two. The most incriminating were two emails in which Tawade instructed Akolkar on the Dabholkar murder. It found that Tawade received Rs.6,000 a month as an honorarium from the Sanatan Sanstha. Tawade is in jail and named as main conspirator in the case. But there has been little progress following his arrest.

Why Dabholkar was targeted

Why was Dabholkar targeted? As a doctor who lived in small towns in Maharashtra, Dabholkar saw that many people, including his patients, fell prey to superstitions and followed gurus, godmen, tantriks or mantriks who promised cures and miracles. A confirmed rationalist, Dabholkar decided to help vulnerable people and started the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS), a committee to eradicate superstition. The organisation grew rapidly, with Dabholkar using unique and convincing methods to expose the mumbo-jumbo that godmen spread. For instance, he would go to village meetings, recreate the “miracles” some godman had performed, and prove that anyone could do these tricks.

One of his main goals was to emancipate women from superstitious practices and work for their entry into the temples that forbade women. In fact, it was Dabholkar who, under the banner of MANS, began the protest in 2000 against the Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar which does not allow women into the sanctum sanctorum. Several well-known social activists joined the fight, and it became the trigger for a larger movement for women’s access to all public temples.

Dabholkar led an aggressive and successful campaign for the passing of the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and Other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Bill. (Some people suspect he was killed for it.) He was instrumental in drafting the legislation. In response, Hindu right-wing forces turned against him in earnest and alleged that he was attacking Hindu practices. The legislation was vehemently opposed in the Assembly by the Shiv Sena, the Bharatiya Janata Party and other Hindu right-wing organisations such as the Sanatan Prabhat and the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti. Even the Congress, which seemed to support his crusade, backed out, saying it would hurt some sections’ sentiments.

Dabholkar demanded that an Ordinance be promulgated as the process of enactment of the Bill would in any case be delayed because of the general election in 2014. The Bill was eventually promulgated as an Ordinance on August 24, 2013, days after he was shot. The Maharashtra Assembly passed the Bill in December that year.

At Dabholkar’s funeral, Govind Pansare, a senior communist leader in Maharashtra who had worked closely with him, shouted slogans condemning the murder and vowed to take his legacy forward. Pansare stepped up the campaign for the Black Magic Bill, as it became known, and pursued his mission to expose unhealthy practices in the name of religion. Pansare was known for his fiery and outspoken speeches. He warned that extreme Hindu groups were growing in prominence. Their mission, he said, was to muzzle anyone opposed to the concept of Hindu Rashtra. Pansare was shot on February 16, 2015. The similarities with Dabholkar’s murder were glaring. He and his wife, Uma, were out on their morning walk. As they walked back to their Kolhapur home, two men on a motorcycle drove up and shot them at close range. He died four days later. Before his shooting, Pansare was battling the collection of toll tax on the Kolhapur highway.

Pansare was the Maharashtra State secretary of the Communist Party of India and a member of the party’s national executive. A practising lawyer, he was part of a progressive group that encouraged inter-caste marriages. In the years preceding his death, he decided to take on the Hindu right wing and would give talks busting myths about Nathuram Godse that were being perpetuated by right-wing forces. Using factual information, he would often slam the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh for its version of Gandhi’s killing. Just before his death, he ensured that a function discussing the book Who killed Hemant Karkare? was not stopped by right wingers. The book alludes to Hindu groups being behind Karkare’s assassination.

In the 1980s, Pansare wrote a book in Marathi called Shivaji Kon Hota (Who was Shivaji?). Associates of Pansare say it is a balanced (and popular) account of the warrior king. In his speeches, he often argued that Shivaji was a secular ruler and not a Muslim hater or “Hindu king” as the right wing has decided to call him.

Two years have passed since his murder, and there is a reward of Rs.10 lakh for leads on his killers. Still, very little has emerged. Threatening letters which said he would meet his end are apparently in police custody.

Because the shootings were so similar, the police and the CBI conducted two forensic and ballistic tests at the Bengaluru and Mumbai laboratories. While the Mumbai laboratory claimed the same type of weapon was used in both killings, the Bengaluru laboratory said it was different. The evidence was then sent to Scotland Yard, where it languishes in a web of red tape. Dabholkar’s son said that soon after his father died the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti put up a picture of Dabholkar on its website with a big red X mark across it. The Sanatan Sanstha, short of saying good riddance, made veiled comments on the death. When so many fingers point in a certain direction, it is curious that the angle is not being pursued.

PUBLIC HEALTH

‘We are making Kerala future ready’

How do you see the tasks ahead now that the Aardram mission and the eHealth project have been launched?

In Aardram, we seek to improve the patient experience at government hospitals. We also seek the transformation of primary care. If you look at the National Health Service [NHS] of Britain, they have this family physician concept, or GP concept. One person handles 4,000 cases. In our primary care system, one unit handles 10,000 to 30,000 cases. There is no way we can meet the demand with the existing structure. Our other challenge will be non-communicable diseases [NCDs], all of which lead to severe complications. And unless we act now, and we are not acting too well, and start tracking people on an individual basis, tomorrow Kerala’s healthcare will go for a toss. It is a gigantic task. But if Kerala fails to do it, it is going to be in deep, deep trouble. The most important aspect is to ensure that we have a proactive personal care plan for every person and to track the person continuously. Whether Kerala will do well or not [in healthcare] will depend on how well we do this.

Doctors alone will not be able to handle all of it. So the challenge is how to train the nurses and other health workers and how to create a system that makes it possible for you to track a person, identify people in the target groups, say, people with diabetes or high BP. We would like to rework the family health centre to ensure that people become proactive and every person is screened and accounted for. But doctors and nurses today are not trained for it. There is such a huge training load. There is a huge referral network that we need to build. That is what we are engaged in right now. Once training modules are ready, the eHealth programme also comes in.

Government facilities account for only about 35 per cent of the patients visiting hospitals; the rest of the patients depend on the private sector. That is a big gap. In the context of Aardram, do you expect the government sector to handle the entire population of Kerala?

We also have a major programme to improve speciality health services in taluk and district hospitals. When we increase the working hours, and offer speciality services in taluk and district hospitals—I do not know if it is a good thing or a bad thing—we believe that a lot of people will shift from the private sector to the government sector. As you improve the availability of diagnostic services and drugs, people who value money above the convenience offered by the private sector will tend to shift. Is it good [for Kerala]? That is a question we cannot answer now. Because when the middle class shifts to the government sector, the poor may get pushed out.

So who are you targeting the new facilities for? Do you want the richer sections too to come in to the government sector?

We do not want that. But everybody pays their taxes. We cannot say we want to keep one section out. We have a clientele now, the poorest of the poor. We want to ensure that they get an experience that is technically as good as anywhere else. That is what we would like to happen. But then, the question that you are not asking is, will the discerning middle-class patients too not come to the government sector? We cannot exclude such a possibility. If that happens… I will try to explain with an example. We have taken a decision that in medical college hospitals, we will avoid prescribing out as much as possible. We know that anti-microbial resistance for antibiotics is very high in Kerala. So, a patient who has resistance necessarily has to pay more. Such resistance in patients is often a creation of the private corporate hospitals; after fleecing these patients, they will say, now go to the government medical college, there you will get the same drug free of cost. In such cases, for instance, we will try to restrict it to BPL [below poverty line]; but you cannot prevent people from coming in.

However, when it comes to long-term care, it is not profitable for the private hospitals. So, after they make their money in the first few days, then there is often only a question of ICU charges—such patients, too, are sent to the medical colleges. That may also happen. What I mean is, we are still ambivalent about whether it is a good thing or a bad thing. For instance, the government sector is handling 66 per cent of the cancer cases. Our aim is to take it to 80 per cent. The Kochi Cancer Centre will come up in two years. The Malabar Cancer Centre will also get upgraded to the level of the premier Regional Cancer Centre (RCC) in Thiruvananthapuram in two years. When that happens, you have the equivalent of three RCCs across Kerala. Moreover, five medical college hospitals are going to have comprehensive cancer care units. That is going to be a huge leap. Which means that 80 per cent of the cancer patients will come to the government sector. I have no hesitation in saying that is a good thing, because cancer treatment is so costly that even the middle class cannot afford it. Regarding cancer care, our aim is to identify them in advance and put them on treatment in advance. That will be a good thing for managing our scary cancer scene. So, the problem in all such interventions is that you proceed on certain assumptions. We have to wait and see what works out and what does not.

What is your timetable like for all this?

It is a good question. The real challenge with regard to Aardram is making the doctors and other health professionals own the programme. Will the doctors do that? Many of them will. But it requires a huge transformation. Will they acquire the knowledge? Will they start tracking patients? Will they track people who are not coming to the family health centres [FHCs]? Will they send their ASHA workers to their homes and bring them for treatment? That is the question. Even for TB treatment, will they ensure any person who has cough for three weeks is sent for a TB examination? If they put him on treatment, will they ensure that the treatment is completed? A lot depends on the sincerity and energy shown by the health personnel.

How are the local bodies reacting to the programme?

The local bodies are a major factor. But in each FHC, if the doctors take special care to explain the idea to the panchayat president, I do not think any panchayat president will say no to the programme. Because he or she is the one who will become popular if the programme runs smoothly. And wherever that has happened, they are doing a good job. There is enthusiasm among panchayat presidents for the eHealth programme because they also get mileage. eHealth is not the problem; it is Aardram that is going to be the challenge. But it is a big gamble. And, time frame? We have said three years but expect it to be some more.

What about urban primary health centres, or PHCs? It is a big chunk of people in the urban areas that the Aardram Mission is trying to ignore.

You were earlier referring to the private sector. If 70 per cent of the patients are outside, how do we cover them? What I hope will happen is that a market will develop in Kerala for the primary care provider—as it has developed in Lifecare centre in Bangalore, and so on. If the family health centre concept works in rural areas, an individual will realise it is better to consult a trained general physician and then get referred to speciality facilities only if needed, like it happens in many advanced countries. To make that possible, you need to have a decent course offering a PG degree in GP practice. Maybe the insurance companies can also work out a different model: that you first consult a GP and only with a GP’s reference should you go to a speciality hospital. Because treatment costs will come down and a lot of unnecessary procedures can be avoided. There will be other benefits too.

I believe an economic model is possible in the private sector with these people [small hospitals]. A large number of small hospitals are under threat today because of the spread of corporate hospitals. And we are thinking of having discussions with such small hospitals, encouraging them too to convert to family practice. But that requires a decent degree course to train doctors. We are negotiating with some universities abroad to see if they can conduct a twinned course for us for general practice. If that is the case, these doctors can be absorbed by the private sector. But given the present staff constraint in urban centres, the government will be able to cater only to, say, some slum areas, and some such places where there are at-risk populations. The rest of it we are not planning at this stage.

Is it because in urban areas these big private hospitals are already well established?

It is not because of that. We don’t have sufficient people. That is the main reason. But even in urban areas, they will benefit by having access to a GP. But at this point the government is not planning to provide that. Same question will apply to eHealth also. When a person consults a private hospital, we are not allowing eHealth access to private hospitals at this point. Only later, once it stabilises, will we think about how to include them in it.

Does the State have enough funds, say, for your timetable of three to five years?

The Finance Department is very supportive, the Finance Minister is sold on the idea. Major investments will happen during this period. We will have money coming in from the Budget, from KIIFB, and that will be huge. But whether the entire cost, which is mind-boggling, will be met is yet to be seen. For our current timetable, I think we can manage. And again, if we succeed it will be difficult to stop it. Before a new government comes this has to be put into place. Yes you are right, because every panchayat president will start demanding that an FHC should be established in their panchayat. The question is, can you make it a success?

You are planning to give everyone a unique health ID [UHID]. And you are trying to link it to Aadhaar? Have you thought of the privacy issues that would arise?

When we planned it initially, we only meant everyone to have a unique number. But then the UID authorities came to us. They were saying, why do you want to create yet another ID for this; Kerala has got 100 per cent Aadhaar coverage, and so why don’t you link it to Aadhaar? It was the easier option for us. Because data are already there and that makes it easier to tag people. It was later that privacy became such a serious issue.

So, earlier we were saying, the Aadhaar ID will be your identification number here too. But now we have decided that the Aadhaar ID will stay only in the background. Unless you hack our server, you cannot get the link. The front end will be on UHID, not on Aadhaar. That is the change we have made. Back-end linkage will still be through Aadhaar. That will be difficult to change. So your health records will be safe, unless our servers get hacked. We are trying to close all access to our servers, and the transactions will take place on the unique health ID numbers. But at the back end we are still retaining the Aadhaar linkage.

How are government doctors reacting to the eHealth programme’s requirements?

At the Peroorkada [Thiruvananthapuram] Government Model Hospital where the programme was launched, the general medicine doctor who handles 250 or more patients a day is finding it impossible to work on the system. But the respiratory medicine doctor who handles only 80 patients a day is able to do it. That is a challenge we have to deal with.

But there were protests by the Kerala Government Medical Officers Association (KGMO) as soon as Aardram was launched.

They have not said anything about eHealth. Aardram conceives of OP till 6 p.m. Then the doctors who were so far free and perhaps doing private practice from 4 p.m. will stop getting patients. Tomorrow, when the speciality services too are launched in the taluk hospitals, then who will seek them out in private clinics? Not only government doctors, but many private hospitals have now started working behind the scenes to foment trouble against Aardram. In Ernakulam, where the private sector controls the field, there is such a strong movement: because we are starting excellent cancer care facilities there and the corporates are rallying against government hospitals.

In all lower-level hospitals, facilities for specialist consultation will go up. The number of doctors and other staff will also go up. But not in the community health centres [CHCs]. They are not highly patronised in Kerala, as per our research. But taluk and district hospitals and medical college hospitals are. That is where we are focussing. There, funds are available, new posts are created, equipment, civil construction all are there.

Is eHealth not a difficult project to implement?

eHealth is a unique project. No other State is anywhere near us [in capability to implement it]. We made seven presentations in Delhi and we insisted that we must have this. We bid for this project, we fought for it, we made all sort of changes, finally the Union Secretary for IT said your project is so ambitious that I am sure it will fail. But even that failure is going to be such a learning experience that we think we will fund it. That is how we got the project.

They think that even Kerala will fail, but still gave it, because other States cannot even think of it, except perhaps Tamil Nadu. No other State has come forward for it. That is why nationally it is hot property. But there is a lot to be done.

Regarding both Aardram and eHealth, what does Kerala hope to achieve eventually, vis-a-vis other States?

Aardram’s focus is on primary care, and we are building it up to the taluk and district hospitals. And we are changing the orientation of primary care, from family planning, from mother-and-child care alone. We are changing the focus to communicable diseases, to NCDs.

eHealth is a big, ambitious thing. We are planning to create longitudinal data on individuals. Because the future of health is going to be AI big data and genomics. Genomics is also data-based. In genomics, research is all data mining, nothing else. So, what we hope to do is to create a database of the people in Kerala. Think of the research possibilities, of clinicians having so much data with them. That is why people are afraid that somebody might try to hack in and get the data. But then you cannot have one without the other. That is the real thing. We are making Kerala future ready.

Ashrams and crime

A tale of criminal sants

AYODHYA, one of the most prominent temple towns of India, reacted to the conviction of Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh with a unique mixture of sentiments. At one level, the ancient town accepted the facts of the case as a matter of routine. At another, there was conspicuous amazement. Ayodhya’s residents were not surprised that the Baba of Sirsa was found to be a criminal guilty of rape and accused of other forms of violence, including murder. The temple town has abounded with such “spiritual types” for decades. Their numbers are not in scores but in hundreds. Police records of Faizabad district, of which Ayodhya is a part, state that as many as 350 sadhus (declared spiritual persons) have been booked for crimes such as murder, rape, land-grabbing and dacoity over the past few years.

The records also state in unequivocal terms that a large number of the 7,000-odd “spiritual structures”, which includes big and small temples and “ashrams and maths” (temple-like abodes where a large number of the sadhus and their associates reside), have become centres of crime. “We have been living with these criminal sadhus and putting up with them for so long that we naturally see Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh too as one of their ilk. But as residents of Ayodhya, we are indeed astonished that a baba could get convicted in a court of law and that the conviction could be enforced. Here, it is a rarity if not an impossibility,” said Sheetla Singh, editor of Janmorcha, the popular Hindi daily with its headquarters in Faizabad. Sheetla Singh added that such was the clout and financial power of these criminal sant-mahants that the charges against them did not get framed in formal legal parameters. Consequently, there was no worthwhile investigation in most cases. Normally, he said, the cases did not reach the courts for trial too. Even when they did come up for trial, there were hardly any convictions.

Three broad categories

Sheetla Singh classified “sadhu crimes” into three broad categories. He told Frontline: “Money-related crimes aimed at grabbing land, property and riches of temples and other religious institutions form one category. A huge moneylending business too is carried out by these religious institutions and their leaders, and that too leads to money-related crimes. Power-related crimes, where religious superiors, particularly heads of temples, ashrams and maths, are either killed or subjugated by junior mahants form the second category. A sizable number of disciples of the mahants are impatient to acquire power and they cannot wait till the senior passes away naturally. This impatience drives them to planned murders or evictions. The third category is sex-related, where rape and trafficking are carried out by these criminal sadhus to satisfy their lust-ridden cravings. You can find many of these criminal sadhus jetting across the town in huge four-wheel-drive vehicles or fancy motorcycles. They all flaunt their power and money in various ways, including public exhibition of guns and firearms. This, in turn, has encouraged an active illicit gun-running racket that is guided and controlled by people in some of the temples, ashrams and maths. The cumulative effect of all this is that some sadhus indulge in crimes blatantly, knowing fully well that their so-called spiritual garb provides them near-certain protection from being proceeded against legally.”

A complaint of gang rape that was reported in May 2017 is a clear case in point. A middle-aged woman and her daughter approached the Chief Judicial Magistrate’s court in Faizabad stating that the police were refusing to file their complaint of rape against five sadhus of the Janki Niwas Mandir in Ayodhya. The women had been trying to get the complaint registered for as long as three months, but the police had paid no heed. Their plea in the court stated that the mother had been raped repeatedly over many months and the sadhus had threatened her into silence, warning her about dire consequences. The woman had put up with this torture, but when the five sadhus raped her daughter too in February 2017, she decided not to suffer in silence any more and approached the police. A case was registered and an inquiry initiated, but there has not been much progress after that.

Murder of sants

The fate of cases relating to the murder of four sants in 2013-14 is no different. The murders took place between July 2013 and August 2014. Cases were registered and some arrests took place, but many of the accused, prominent figures, decamped to safer havens, and some of them have been marked in official records as perennially missing. All the four killings were apparently related and had tussles for property and riches of so-called spiritual centres at their core. The urge to acquire greater “mahant power” also played an important part in these crimes. At the centre of all this is the Ganga Bhawan, a temple run by the Maniram Das Chhawni Seva Trust, headed by Mahant Nritya Gopal Das, who is also chairman of the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas, a trust controlled by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) under the directions of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar, with the self-professed objective of constructing a grand Ram temple in Ayodhya at the spot where the Babri Masjid stood until December 6, 1992. The Maniram Das Chhawni Seva Trust is arguably the largest and richest trust in Ayodhya and has several institutions under its control, including temples, ashrams, maths, hospitals, Sanskrit schools and colleges. A sizable number of these properties and institutions are in Ayodhya, but the trust has grown beyond the temple town to other parts of Uttar Pradesh and the country.

The last of the killings was on August 28, 2014. The man killed was 45-year-old Mahant Vijay Ram Das. He was found murdered in the Ganga Bhawan temple a few weeks after he had been appointed “vyavasthapak sadhu” (priest manager) of Ganga Bhawan by Mahant Nritya Gopal Das. The vyavasthapak sadhu of the more-than-100-year-old Ganga Ram temple is considered to be in a powerful position in Ayodhya as donations and other receipts are routed mainly through this temple manager of sorts. From the initial investigations, it was clear that there was an “insider element” in the killing. By the end of August 2014, the police arrested a person called Durgesh Tiwari, one of the residents of Ganga Bhawan. Investigation reports had it that Durgesh Tiwari had financial dealings with Mahant Vijay Ram Das and there were disputes over the dealings. There was also the perception that Durgesh Tiwari himself wanted to rise to the higher echelons of the trust’s structure and viewed Mahant Vijay Ram Das as an impediment.

Similar power- and money-related tussles were behind the other three murders too, a senior police official of Faizabad told Frontline. According to him, these tussles had manifested as gang clashes as early as July 2013 and began with clashes between gangs led by Mahant Bhavnath Das and Mahant Balram Das of Sagariya Patti. Amidst the clashes, one Ramesh Das shot dead Ram Bharat, a disciple of Mahant Balram Das. Ramesh Das was arrested, but one of the main instigators of the clashes, Mahant Bhavnath Das, was not apprehended. Incidentally, Mahant Bhavnath Das is the founder-president of Samajwadi Sant Sabha, which, apparently, seeks to link spiritual activities with the concepts of socialism. Following this, Ramdev Das, the vyavasthapak sadhu of the Ayaramji Akhara Udaseen temple, was shot dead in the first week of February 2014. Three and a half months later, Ayodhya Das Lal, the priest of a temple in the Vasudevghat area, also went missing in mysterious circumstances and was later reported dead by the police. Common to all the killings was the fact that the so-called spiritual institutions with which the murdered men were associated had massive wealth. The main reason for each of the murders, initial investigations revealed, were tussles aimed at enhancing material wealth and power. But beyond these findings, the cases are yet to produce any concrete legal results.

A senior retired police officer who has spent considerable time in Ayodhya and Faizabad said that around 200 sadhus had been killed in Ayodhya in the past decade according to informal estimates. He said: “Among those murdered are sadhus like Mahant Lal Das, the priest of the Ayodhya Ram temple in the early 1990s. He was committed to protecting communal harmony and peace in the region and he was hounded by the criminal sadhus for that reason too. But there are other sadhus who have been killed by the police in encounters because the department could not take concrete legal measures for want of evidence, though their atrocities had become rampant and unbearable.”

Stories also abound in Ayodhya about how hardened criminals take refuge in the temple town as sadhus with the intent of escaping from the law. The so-called sadhus, when they are co-opted by an ashram, math or temple or even a mahant, are allowed to give up their former identities, including their parentage and places of birth and origin. They come to be identified as chelas of different sants and mahants who are in charge of various institutions. In turn, the sants and mahants use these criminals to do their dirty work. This was revealed in a case relating to the 1998 shooting at Guptar Ghat near the Sarayu river in Ayodhya, which led to the death of four people and injuries to many. This case involved an assault on the local fishermen’s community launched by a group of sadhus led by the infamous Mauni Baba, mahant of the Yagya Shala ashram. When the case on this assault was filed, four of the five accused were merely named as chelas of Mauni Baba.

It is common knowledge in Ayodhya that all the well-known temples, ashrams and maths encourage criminals to take refuge with them. The bigger institutions such as the Maniram Das Chhawni Seva Trust, the Digamber Akhara and the Ram-Janaki Nivas that support the RSS, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Sangh Parivar, as well as the Hanuman Garhi temple, which swings between the Samajwadi Party and the Congress, are no exception when it comes to this illegal activity. However, Sheetla Singh pointed out that such activities became more widespread and accepted after the Sangh Parivar launched the Ayodhya Ram temple agitation in the mid 1980s. Sheetla Singh said: “To start with, that movement was led by Mahant Ramachandra Paramhans, who took the lead to smuggle in idols of Ram, Sita and Lakshman into the Babri Masjid in 1949. While that itself was a criminal act, what unfolded in the mid1980s was the Sangh Parivar’s desperate attempt to polarise society on communal lines to overcome its organisational deficiencies. It was because of this overwhelming intent at that point of time that the RSS, the VHP and the BJP patronised these criminal elements as never before. That has taken root and become the norm and the system now.”

The author Scharada Dubey, in her 2012 book Portraits from Ayodhya, which records oral history and relates tales of the temple town, shows how Mahant Nritya Gopal Das’ emergence as a prime player in the Sangh Parivar itself was through this route. The book contains several instances of the mysterious deaths of people who opposed him institutionally and those who refused to give him their land or property. But, as is the wont in Ayodhya, none of these cases has reached its logical conclusion. Mahant Nritya Gopal Das and the Maniram Das Chhawni Seva Trust he leads reign over the temple town with not many asking questions about their supremacy or the manner in which it was acquired. And of course, chelas also rule the roost as best as they can under the tutelage of the masters.

Dera Sacha Sauda

Victims of a guru

KHANPUR KOLIAN village in Pipli block in Kurukshetra district of Haryana lies on the Grand Trunk Highway. The narrow entry to the village is as nondescript as its location, but it is from here that in 2002 an anonymous letter went out to the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Chief Justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, and to a few concerned citizens in the village. Others to receive the copy were Jagmati Sangwan, the then general secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, and Raja Ram Handaiya, the president of the Rationalist Society.

Khanpur Kolian was the ancestral home of its seven-time sarpanch, Joginder Singh, who was an ardent follower of Gurmeet Singh. All his children, including his five daughters and the only son, Ranjit Singh, served at the Dera Sacha Sauda. A Jat, Joginder Singh organised satsangs whenever Gurmeet Singh was in the area. Ranjit Singh was an important sewadaar [worker] in the Dera from 1972 and handled the prayer meeting expenses of Pipli. “There was a special room for Baba ji in our house,” Ranjit Singh’s college-going son said. The family owned about 100 acres (40 hectares). Joginder Singh was afraid that his only son would fall into bad company and decided to send him to the Dera. Joginder Singh had a good reputation in the village and that influenced many people from the village and the neighbouring areas to join the Dera. The anonymous letter also reached Balwant Singh, a “rationalist” and a friend of the sarpanch. “We were sitting at a tea shop when the postman arrived with the letter. It had no name; the sender’s address was smudged. Some of us read it and the contents just shocked us beyond words,” he told Frontline.

It was May 2002. No one knew who had penned the letter though it contained a reference to an influential sewadaar from Kurukshetra and a sadhvi who had quit the Dera. “I didn’t know that Ranjit had left the Dera. Ranjit was a sewadaar and a top-ranking official in the special 10-member committee of the Dera,” said Balwant Singh. On July 10, 2002, Ranjit Singh was shot dead by assailants as he was returning from the fields. The needle of suspicion pointed to the Dera. There was a strong rumour that Ranjit Singh’s sister was the woman disciple referred to in the letter and that the letter had been written by him. Balwant Singh and Handaiya received threats for allegedly writing and circulating the letter. Handaiya was beaten up by Dera followers and was asked to seek a pardon from the Dera if he wanted to live. The turning point came when Poora Sach editor Ram Chander Chhatrapati was shot at outside his home on October 24. He succumbed to his injuries on November 21, 2002. All of Sirsa came out in protest. It was the first public protest against the Dera.

The High Court directed the District and Sessions Judge, Sirsa, to inquire into the anonymous letter. The Sirsa judge, in his report, said that nobody in the Dera was prepared to disclose anything about the sexual abuse of girls and that none could enter their hostel without the Dera head’s permission. The report also said that “the possibility of such acts could not be ruled out” and the truth could be ascertained if the matter was investigated by a central agency. The Central bureau of Investigation (CBI) stepped in on the directions of the High Court.

Dera’s origins

The Dera Sacha Sauda was established in 1948. Gurmeet Singh, who later added Ram Rahim to his name, originally belonged to a Jat Sikh landowning family in Rajasthan. He became the head of the Dera in 1990. The organising committee of the Dera and its heads were from “upper” castes; the bulk of its followers were from the Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes. The Dera Sacha Sauda was originally located in land spread over 25 acres (10 hectares). It gradually added 600 acres (240 hectares), mostly during Gurmeet Singh’s time.

Residents of Begu village adjoining the Dera land said that Dera followers intimidated them into selling their land. “The Dera did offer good rates, so farmers parted with the land. But there was an element of fear as well,” said a teacher in Begu.

The educated sadhvis of the Dera taught students while the uneducated women disciples looked after the young children. In 2005, the CBI got the information that 53 sadhvis were staying in the Shah Satnamji Girls Hostel, 80 sadhvis were in the ashram of the Dera, and 24 sadhvis had left the Dera. Some 20 of the 24 who had left between 1997 and 2002 could be traced. Most of them were married and initially declined to speak for fear and concerns about family reputation.

Frontline spoke to a cross section of people, including Dera followers, in Sirsa. A ritual involving the giving of an exclusive “name” to Dera followers made them feel special. The concept of “naam dena” was lifted from the Gurbani (various teachings of Sikh gurus), and the followers were told that the “name” kept them alive even after death. “They were made to believe that the baba had a direct link with that ethereal space,” said Virender Bhatia, a Sirsa-based writer. The devotees were given monetary incentives to bring new members. The Dera Sacha Sauda had its own administrative units. Titles such as “Bhangidass” were conferred on nodal persons who would be responsible for holding meetings, recruiting new members and spreading the philosophy of the Dera head. They would also be used to mobilise votes for any particular party that had “received the blessings” of the Dera head. Bhangi is a derogatory term used by caste Hindus for the Dalit scavengers in northern India. By adding the suffix of “dass”, Gurmeet conferred an aura of respectability to an occupation considered to be inferior in the caste hierarchy.

A good number of Dera followers were women, who sought refuge or looked for spiritual solace. “Our work is not appreciated in our homes. In the Dera, we get recognition,” said a woman follower. In short, they were made to believe that they were equals in an unequal system and Gurmeet Singh had answers for all the problesm they faced in their lives. His new religion was “insan” (human being) and his acolytes were given the suffix “Insan”. It was an opiate of a different kind, that which offered ephemeral equality.

Vegetables and other products “blessed” by the Baba were auctioned at ridiculous rates. A crate of grapes was bought by a Dera follower for Rs.25 lakh; a pumpkin was sold for Rs.67,000; one okra piece was sold at Rs.5,000. Musical nights called “Roohani Nights” with high-priced tickets were organised within the Dera where Gurmeet Singh performed. The Dera complex boasted a five-star floating hotel, hospitals, colleges and schools as well as a cricket stadium. Observers recalled the passion with which Dera followers worked. For instance, a sewer line was set up within a month without the use of machines. The Dera got the tender from the government.

Two women change the narrative

No investigation could be carried out before 2005 as the Supreme Court had granted a stay in December 2003. The stay was vacated in October 2004. The CBI zeroed in on 18 of the 24 sadhvis who had left the Dera. Getting them to depose before the CBI was still a problem. Two of them finally decided to come out with the truth. Their testimonies were horrifying. One of them was posted as a sentry at the entrance to the “gufa”, or den, which was Gurmeet Singh’s sanctum sanctorum. While on sentry duty, she saw two other sentry sadhvis enter the cave in the night and leave the site in a disturbed state. One of them abused Gurmeet Singh while the other wept. The main prosecuterix told the CBI that she had been raped by Gurmeet Singh twice but she was unable to leave the Dera as her brother Ranjit Singh’s daughters were studying there. Her testimony was similar to the contents of the anonymous letter that detailed the circumstances of the rape. She was brainwashed into believing that she was impure on account of her “mistakes” and that the sexual experience (which was statutory rape) with the “Baba” had purified her. He warned her against disclosing the incident to anyone. She was summoned to the “gufa” a second time within a year of the sexual assault. When she refused to go, she was told that she would be denied food from the langar (community meal). She went, and when Gurmeet Singh forced himself on her, she told him that she would tell her brother everything. Gurmeet Singh allegedly said that being a staunch disciple, Ranjit Singh would not believe her and that if he did, he would get him killed. He boasted of his connections with Ministers. Within six months, she was summoned a third time. This time she freed herself before the assault could be committed. She finally told her brother, who believed her and took her and his two daughters out of the Dera in April 2001. Even this could not happen without the baba’s permission. The family did not file a police complaint.

The other prosecuterix also gave a similar testimony alleging that there was a route from the girls’ hostel to the godman’s den. When she was posted as a sentry in September 1999, she was summoned to the den. As she regarded the “Maharaj” as God incarnate, she went and was subjected to rape. She learnt later that her sister, too, had been raped. The next day, she left the Dera along with her sister when her parents came for the majlis (assembly). It was evident that in all the cases, the families of the girls had strong ties with the Dera and not all of them were from poverty-stricken backgrounds. Other sadhvis traced by the CBI also narrated similar tales of sexual exploitation.

Blind faith

The sadhvi victim, the daughter of Joginder Singh, came in contact with Gurmeet Singh in 1992 when he stayed at her house in Khanpur Kolian. He told her to visit the Dera. A graduate from Kurukshetra University, she was impressed by what she saw at the Dera, and in July 1999, she started living in the Dera as a sadhvi. One of the reasons for her joining the Dera was to escape the persistent attention of a man she knew. Joginder Singh thought it would do her good to send her to the Dera, which was seen as a safe haven and a purifying experience. She was asked by the fellow sadhvis whether “ pitaji” (father), as Gurmeet Singh was known, had pardoned her. She did not then understand that “pardon” was an euphemism for rape.

On July 1, 2002, Ranjit Singh told her that people from the Dera had been threatening him regarding the anonymous letter and that he had told them that he would expose everything if the threats did not stop. “Apologise or pay with your life” was the message. Ranjit Singh refused to go back to the place he had served for 25 years. Within 10 days, he was shot dead. It was only after the arrest of two Dera followers allegedly involved in the murder that the sister came forward, with moral support from her in-laws and family, and gave her statement on March 19, 2007, to a judicial officer in Chandigarh. In the case of the second rape victim, too, it was found that two generations in her family were followers of the Dera. Her induction was but natural. She was renamed by Gurmeet Singh. Within a year of her joining the Dera, she was raped by Gurmeet Singh. She told her parents about it and left the Dera the very next day. She got married and found that her in-laws were followers of the Dere. She faced tremendous pressure in the form of phone calls, threats and compulsions to sign affidavits resiling from the charges.

The CBI interrogated senior employees of the Dera. Their statements, subjected to polygraph tests, corroborated stories of sexual exploitation. Charges of rape and criminal intimidation were framed against Gurmeet Singh as early as September 6, 2008. In his defence, the Dera head placed on record welfare activities such as alcohol de-addiction and female foeticide prevention campaigns carried out by the Dera and that he was sexually unfit to commit a rape. There was a huge delay in recording the victims’ statements. There was no formal complaint and the anonymous letter was the only basis for the case.

The final hearing in the murder charges against Gurmeet Singh will take place on September 16. The High Court ordered search and sanitisation of two Dera premises in Sirsa. Yet, there are few who speak out openly against the Dera head. “You see, we have to live here. The Dera premis are very angry especially as the baba is in jail and many of them were shot dead,” said a Sirsa resident. Anshul Chhatrapati, son of the slain journalist, was happy that justice was done.

Interview: Harka Bahadur Chhetri

‘Leaders are scared to call off the bandh’

After much violence and a bandh that has lasted nearly three months, there is no indication of the agitation for a separate State of Gorkhaland in the Darjeeling hills of West Bengal being called off (as of September 7). If the long-awaited meeting between the Trinamool Congress government of West Bengal and the representatives of the hill parties led by the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) on August 29 had given cause for hope for a speedy resolution of the impasse in the hills, expectations were soon dashed with GJM supremo Bimal Gurung’s announcement that the shutdown would continue. To add to the prevailing political uncertainty and general confusion, differences within the GJM top leadership on the issue of the bandh came to the fore, culminating in the expulsion of the party heavyweight Binoy Tamang, assistant general secretary and chief coordinator of the GJM.

Harka Bahadur Chhetri has for long been one of the most respected political leaders in the Darjeeling hills. Once a heavyweight of the GJM, the former MLA from Kalimpong broke away and formed his own party, the Jan Andolan Party (JAP), and became one of the GJM’s most outspoken critics. Though a long-time advocate of a Gorkhaland State, Chhetri does not believe that agitations and confrontations with the State government will yield the best results. Speaking exclusively to Frontline on the ongoing agitation, Chhetri said that the reins of the movement are now in the hands of the people rather than any political party. “It is really a confusing situation, where we have no idea where the movement is heading.” Excerpts:

This has been the longest ever continuous strike in the hills. Under the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), a bandh once lasted for 40 days. What do you think is the essential difference between the old movement and the new one?

During the GNLF’s movement, once the bandh was announced by Subash Ghising, nobody questioned it. He was in complete control of the movement. Though people suffered a lot during the 40-day bandh and would talk in private about the fruitlessness of it, nobody would dare say such things openly. But in the present case, it is the people who are more interested in the bandh than the leaders. Now the leaders are scared to call the bandh off. In fact, when delegates from different parties are going for the GMCC [Gorkhaland Movement Coordination Committee—a body comprising representatives of the different hill parties] meeting, they are stopped by the public and told: “If you are planning to stop this strike, then you had better not come back here.” In the earlier movement there was one undisputed leader, but this time the people have refused to accept one single party or individual as the sole leader.

During the 1986 agitation, mostly Darjeeling was involved, and the Dooars were affected, and there was sympathy from different pockets of the country where there was Gorkha population. But it was nowhere close to being as strong as it is this time. For the Unity March on July 30, Gorkha people from all over the world, including Italy, Australia, the United States and France, had come to show solidarity. This time it has become a pan-Gorkha movement.

Can we say that the Gorkhaland movement is today facing a leadership crisis?

Well, there are too many leaders now, but the GJM being the largest party is still the most powerful political force. The crisis is there in terms of programme rather than in the leaders. We know that this bandh is not going to provide a solution. Those who are agitating feel that both the State government and, more importantly, the Union government will feel pressured and so the agitators will not lift the bandh— that is the general mood in the hills. But the Centre seems to have its own political compulsion. It is clearly looking at the 2019 general elections and is targeting all the 42 Lok Sabha constituencies in West Bengal. So why would they risk 41 seats for one? That seems to be their only reason to remain silent.

I also feel that maybe because of the nature of the agitation; it has become a law and order issue rather than a constitutional-political issue. So it is easy for the State government to label it a law and order problem and demand forces from the Centre. When the GJM leaders are meeting representatives of the Union government, they are being told: “You settle it with the State.” It is really a confusing situation in which we have no idea where the movement is heading. But the guiding force is not a single party, nor the GMCC, but the common people who for some reason are convinced that this time they will achieve Gorkhaland. But even they cannot suggest the right way to move forward.

Most people had hoped that after the first round of dialogue with the State government, the bandh would be relaxed. Now it is almost three months. What is the rationale behind it?

The JAP has always maintained that strikes will yield nothing in Darjeeling, and such long strikes are inconsequential and against the interest of the people. But since this strike was called by the GJM, we told them that it is your prerogative to decide, we don’t want to get into this mess.

Now, let us take the case of the GJM. It is clear that there is a fight for leadership taking place there. Bimal Gurung and Roshan Giri [GJM general secretary] are scared that the State government is projecting Binoy Tamang as an alternative. The dissatisfaction in their rank and file is showing.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has alleged that foreign hands are playing a role in the ongoing agitation. What do you think?

That is very difficult to digest. When we talk about foreign hand, it is a very serious allegation. The weapons used by the agitators are bricks and stones so far, not the kind of sophisticated weapons we can expect if foreign hands have got involved in Darjeeling. But, as the saying goes, give a dog a bad name and hang him. There is no denying that it has become a mass movement, and this is one way of demeaning it.

The recent blasts, in which the police claim explosives similar to the ones used by Maoists were involved, should be treated in isolation. Before jumping to conclusions and arresting leaders of the movement, a full inquiry needs to take place. During the previous agitations, such improvised gadgets were never used. It is possible that this long bandh has given scope for anti-social elements to cause mischief. If indeed forces across the border have a hand behind the blasts, then it is the worst that could happen to Darjeeling.

You have been one of the most respected leaders of the GJM and now are one of its most vocal opponents. What is your stand on the agitation?

After the formation of the JAP, we knew we had to have a long-term road map and that we needed to proceed gradually and not in haste. Within three months of the formation of the JAP, we even prepared a Bill for a separate State. Whether that finally materialises or not is a different issue and rests with Parliament. That is precisely why I have always been insisting that there is no need to fight with the State. The State government has no role in it—even if they support it, it does not count.

What we had decided to do was to place our demand for a separate State and, in the meanwhile, work within whatever system there is to assure the Union government that we are capable of running things on our own. The DGHC [Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council], the GTA [Gorkhaland Territorial Administration], and the next thing that will come are all essentially systems that will test our capability and we can upgrade ourselves from one level to another. For example, if the DGHC and the GTA had been utilised to the hilt, there would undoubtedly have been a point where we could have turned to the Centre and said we have utilised the system and still there are things that remain to be addressed, so we need to go to the next stage, and in this way we get closer to the ultimate realisation of Statehood. At the same time, we enter into dialogue with the Union government. We need to convince them on the basis of logic and facts and not just emotion. That was the direction in which the JAP was heading. Meanwhile, this [the fresh agitation] happened, and respecting the popular sentiment, we also joined it.

Instead, if we had taken some programme that would hurt the interests of the Union government, it would have served us better. The Union government had some commitments towards us. We did not use the MPs properly either. Even now, the leaders of the agitation are not refuting the reasons being put forward against the formation of a separate State—for example, the small area, no resources, population, etc. We, in fact, qualify in every aspect to be a separate state—size, population and even revenue.

When the State government submitted its report on the extent of damage and loss because of the agitation [10 days after it had begun] to the High Court, it put the figure at Rs.150 crore: Rs.20 crore for destruction of government properties and Rs.130 crore for loss of revenue. Rs.130 crore of revenue in 10 days means Rs.4,680 crore in a year. That is the revenue by the State government’s own submission. In 2015, when I was an MLA taking part in budget discussions, West Bengal’s budget was Rs.39,000 crore, and Darjeeling got Rs.178 crore only as planned budget; if you add the non-plan budget, it hardly exceeded Rs.500 crore. So, on the one hand our revenue generation is Rs.4,680 crore, and we are getting back less than Rs.500 crore. Doesn’t that say it all?

Demonetisation

Spinning a web

V. SRIDHAR the-nation

ON August 30, after almost 10 months of waiting, India finally got to know what happened as a result of its biggest economic adventure, euphemistically termed demonetisation. Tucked away deep inside the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) Annual Report for 2016-17 were a few nuggets of information that revealed the travails of the Indian currency, which the central bank, with some cooperation from the Union Finance Ministry and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had kept carefully hidden away from a nation that went through and is still going through a crisis of unprecedented proportions.

The troika has added newer and newer dimensions to its explanation of the logic of demonetisation as the magnitude of the crisis spreads far and wide. Initially, it was about an assault on black money, which Modi and his supporters claimed was hoarded as cash, especially in high-denomination notes. This explained the November 8, 2016, decision to demonetise high-value currencies—the 500- and the 1,000-rupee notes. The RBI’s report reveals that almost 99 per cent of the two denominations came back via the banks, raising the question, If all the money came back, where is the black money? In fact, if the banned notes in the possession of the cooperative banks and those in Nepal are accounted for, almost all the money in these two denominations are back safely with the government.

Soon after demonetisation, as it became anecdotally evident that most of these notes were returned via the banking system, the narrative of the logic of demonetisation shifted to replacing the evil of cash with the more “modern” digital payments for conducting financial transactions. Still later, when evidence revealed that this was not happening, the narrative shifted to how demonetisation was resulting in improved tax collections or about how “shell” companies were being unearthed as a result of the grand exercise.

Currency system destabilised

But, leaving aside the motives of the government for the moment, what does the data reveal about what has happened to the Indian currency system as a result of demonetisation? In its cover story on demonetisation (“Wrecking the system”, Frontline, December 9, 2016), Frontline indicated that demonetisation was likely to have far-reaching implications for the Indian currency situation. This rested on the premise that the replacement of the high-denomination notes, which accounted for 86.4 per cent of the value of all currency in circulation in March 2016, by new Rs.500 and Rs.2,000 notes is likely to seriously distort the Indian currency regime. The latest RBI data affirm these apprehensions in good measure.

Before demonetisation, the 500-rupee note was the central pivot of the Indian currency system, accounting for almost 48 per cent of the value of all currency in circulation. In any case, if the logic of demonetisation was to reduce the scope for high-denomination notes in circulation ( ostensibly, to fight the black money menace), it did not make sense to replace the 1,000-rupee note with one that was double its value.

But this is exactly what has happened as a result of demonetisation. The RBI report shows that demonetisation has resulted in the 2,000-rupee note occupying the role of the central pivot in the Indian currency system. While the 2,000-rupee note accounts for a little more than half of all value of currency in circulation, the share of the 500-rupee note has fallen from a little less than half of the value of all currency to just over a fifth (see accompanying charts).

As the impact of demonetisation resulted in massive dislocation of lives and livelihoods of a kind never seen before, it became clear that the only plausible reason for the introduction of the 2,000-rupee note was to quickly pump currency into a system that went through a sudden deflation, like a tyre of an aeroplane travelling at great speed on a runway. What the RBI data reveal is that the introduction of the 2,000-rupee note has seriously distorted the currency system. More importantly, it seriously undermines the stability of the Indian currency system. In short, demonetisation may well be a work in progress for some time, although nobody knows for how long, simply because of the troika’s insistence on keeping information that ought to be in the public domain secret.

Three important factors stand out in the RBI’s report. The first is the stress introduced by the dominance of the 2,000-rupee note. The second pertains to the manner in which smaller currency denominations have had to carry the burden imposed by the whimsical and illogical introduction of the 2,000-rupee note. The third important dimension revealed by the report is the serious impact the continued compression of cash in the Indian economy is likely to cause.

The portrayal of cash as the last refuge of the Indian scoundrel demonstrates an utter lack of understanding of either the nature of the Indian economy or how the majority of Indians earn their livelihoods. Cash was clearly the lifeblood for small businesses and, the importance of the 500- and the 1,000-rupee notes, especially the former, was critical. Also, as anyone with an understanding of the basics of a currency system would know, there is a logic in the alignment of various currency denominations in a system. What is clear now—as critics had warned soon after demonetisation—is that the 2,000-rupee note has seriously warped the alignment of currency denominations, probably irreparably, unless the pink note is sent into oblivion.

Recall that the distance in value between the 500 and the next highest denomination has become threefold after demonetisation. The reckless abandon with which this note was introduced, simply in order to overcome the problem caused by a self-inflicted policy, has meant that a significant proportion of all other currency denominations—not just the new 500 rupee—are simply present to support the slothful 2,000-rupee note. The common refrain of ordinary folk that they “don’t have change” for the new note reflects this reality.

In other words, every other denomination has had to bear a part of the load imposed by the new 2,000-rupee note. In March 2016 all smaller denominations—from the two-rupee to the 100-rupee notes—accounted for 13.6 per cent of all value of currency in the system; a year later, their share in the currency system almost doubled, to 26.6 per cent. As expected, the 100-rupee note carried the heaviest load, its share having increased from 9.6 per cent of overall value to almost one-fifth of all value of currency in circulation. If, as is evident, a higher proportion of the smaller-denomination notes was merely providing “support” to the biggest denomination, it has two serious implications. First, it means that not all the notes of smaller denominations have been available for actual transactions by millions of people but have been merely providing “passive” support to the biggest denomination that has been demonstrated to be lethargic in a cash-starved economy.

The second implication of this severe imbalance in the currency system is that it is no longer stable. The rumours of the possible reintroduction of a new 1,000-rupee note certainly cannot be ruled out because even votaries of the Modi government such as S. Gurumurthy, a well-known Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh ideologue, had once claimed that the 1,000-rupee note would be back in a new avatar. Given that the 2,000-rupee note is a serious nuisance, there is certainly a case for bringing the 1,000-rupee note back, but Modi would hesitate simply because it would appear to signal a defeat of the logic of demonetisation. Nevertheless, irrespective of what happens on this issue, the fact is that the currency system remains unpredictable. Given that predictability and stability are among the cardinal virtues of currency governance anywhere in the world, Indians will remain in fear of the unknown for yet some time.

While the widespread shortage of cash—and of the kind people wanted for their daily transactions—hit large swathes of occupations across the country, what was not known was the extent of this shortage. This closely guarded secret is now available in the RBI’s report, and it reveals a problem that none in the troika appears to be addressing. In March 2017, the total value of currency in circulation was a little over 13 trillion rupees, a decline of a whopping one-fifth of the value of all currency in circulation in the previous year. This spectacular drop in the value of nominal currency in circulation suggests a decompression of unprecedented proportions (see table). Recall that the value of currency in circulation increased by almost 15 per cent in 2016 compared with the previous year, and remember that a growing economy needs more nominal cash values to accommodate the growth in incomes (gross domestic product). Obviously, the severe decompression caused by the withdrawal of cash would have affected especially those who were dependent on cash for their transactions.

A quick calculation based on alternative scenarios is revealing. If one expects the currency in circulation to grow at the same pace as it did in 2016 (14.88 per cent), the currency system ought to have had 18.858 trillion rupees in circulation in March 2017; instead there was only Rs.13.102 trillion, implying a shortage of Rs.5.756 trillion in the system. A more sympathetic calculation, based on the premise that a 10 per cent increase would suffice—because of the all-out push towards digital payments—reveals a shortage of Rs.4.955 trillion.

The myth of digital bliss

The buzz about the digital payments “revolution” since demonetisation—orchestrated by various actors in government and in the world of business—requires some serious scrutiny. The fact of the matter is that the overwhelming proportion of digital payments in the Indian economy—almost 90 per cent—is concentrated in what are termed Systemically Important Financial Market Infrastructures. These are high-value transactions, which include real-time gross settlement (RTGS) systems; moreover, these include transactions undertaken by government agencies, large companies and business entities. The important fact to note is that the scale of these transactions had been increasing well before demonetisation and, therefore, has nothing to do with the so-called revolution ushered in by demonetisation. The more relevant data for measuring the success of digital payments after demonetisation is how retail payments through digital payment channels have progressed. And these reveal a disturbing picture, although that should hardly be a surprise. The data in the last few months show that after an initial spurt, payments through retail channels such as mobile wallets and prepaid payment mechanisms have been declining. For instance, the latest data from the RBI show that the value of transactions through prepaid payment instruments declined by 20 per cent in June 2017, compared with the previous month. Similarly, the volume of transactions through mobile banking channels declined by 15 per cent over the same period.

What is clear is that these modes of payments were forced on most people in conditions that were extraordinary. So, for some time people used these modes simply because they had no other option. But the idyllic world of cashless transactions was not costless or painless, as people found out sooner or later, no matter how Modi portrayed it (remember Modi’s claim, soon after demonetisation, that even beggars have swipe machines?). So, as the cash crunch eased somewhat, they went back to doing business in the only way they knew and could afford.

Meanwhile, the imposition of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) has imposed an additional burden on the same set of people who are still reeling under the impact of demonetisation. This is because the impact of the GST—just like demonetisation—imposes a disproportionate burden on smaller businesses; in fact, it does more than that by tilting the field away from small business and in favour of large. To a government, demonetisation may be a “success”, but to the rest, it is a night without end.

Rohingya

Double jeopardy

DIVYA TRIVEDI the-nation

MAKE no mistake. It is genocide. With 1,20,000 people having fled to Bangladesh within a fortnight, 2,00,000 stuck in no-man’s land between borders and 1,000 killed (United Nations figures), it is the unfolding of a humanitarian crisis of mammoth proportions. The latest wave of ethnic cleansing by Myanmarese security forces alongside Rakhine extremists or ultranationalist Buddhists has resulted in an exodus of the ethnic minority Rohingya to Bangladesh. While Bangladesh already has 4,00,000 Rohingya refugees and might not want more, its border guards have been allowing the Rohingya to enter. Hundreds of Hindus escaping the violence and blockade in Rakhine have also reportedly arrived in Bangladesh. But India is branding the Rohingya on its territory as “illegal immigrants” and threatening to deport them to Myanmar where they face certain death.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Myanmar in the thick of the violence. While international pressure mounted on the Nobel laureate and Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Modi’s government was also being watched to see what it would do for the most persecuted community in the world. “Prime Minister Modi must also use his visit to push the Myanmarese authorities to allow full and unfettered humanitarian assistance to people in need. Nothing can justify denying life-saving aid to desperate people. At the same time, PM Modi should also reaffirm his own government’s commitment to protect Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers in India who have been recently threatened with deportation,” said Aakar Patel, executive director of Amnesty International India.

The Indian government has mandated the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to register and provide assistance to refugees from non-neighbouring countries and Myanmar. There are 16,500 Rohingya registered with the UNHCR in India, and the government claims there are 40,000 of them in the country, but India does not recognise them as refugees and is now making a volte-face.

In August, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju disregarded the UNHCR recognition of Rohingya and said he had instructed the States to start the process of deportation. In a circular issued to all State governments and Union Territory administrations on August 8, his Ministry said the “detection and deportation of such illegal immigrants from Rakhine state, also known as Rohingyas, is a continuous process”. The Ministry advised all States and Union Territories to “sensitise all the law enforcement and intelligence agencies for taking prompt steps in identifying the illegal immigrants and initiate the deportation process expeditiously and without delay”.

“I want to tell the international organisations whether the Rohingyas are registered under the UNHCR or not, they are illegal immigrants in India,” said Rijiju. The Supreme Court sought the government’s stand on the issue when a plea filed by the Rohingya refugees Mohammad Salimullah and Mohammad Shaqir came up before a bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices A.M. Khanwilkar and D.Y. Chandrachud on September 4. The bench refused to issue an interim stay on deportation. The next hearing was listed for September 11. While the advocate Prashant Bhushan, representing the refugees, asked for an assurance that the state would not take any steps to deport the Rohingya, Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta refused to make any such statement.

“Proposed deportation is contrary to the constitutional protections of Article 14 (Right to Equality), Article 21 (Right to Life and Personal Liberty) and Article 51(c) of the Constitution of India, which provides equal rights and liberty to every person. This act would also be in contradiction with the principle of non-refoulement, which has been widely recognised as a principle of Customary International Law,” the plea said. The international principle of non-refoulement is part of customary international law and is binding on India. It forbids states from forcibly returning refugees or asylum seekers to a country where they would be at real risk of serious human rights violations. India is also a state party to other international treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, under which it must comply with this principle.

A worried lot

The Rohingya who were gathered at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi to protest against the violence in Myanmar were a worried lot. Ever since the government directive, police visits to their camps have become a daily affair. Intelligence Bureau officials ask them to gather around with their families before proceeding to photograph each and every family in the camp. Alarmed by the frequent police visits that have criminalised the Rohingya in the neighbourhood, many of them have been sacked from employment, and several landlords have refused to extend the rent agreements for the following year. On Eid, the Rohingya in Faridabad got two buffaloes in donation. But local goons came and forcefully took the buffaloes away and brutally beat up 10 Rohingya.

“If we are a burden or threat to India, as the Indian government imagines, then please take us out of India but not to Myanmar, to any country where we can live peacefully. When we look at the comments of Indian people below any news regarding the Rohingya, we feel we may be killed any time and we are totally not safe here,” said a Rohingya refugee, requesting anonymity. Several of the Rohingya stayed away from the protest in order to avoid the CB-CID, whose officials intimidated them. They also doubted whether Modi’s visit to Myanmar would bring them any relief. “When the Myanmar government shows one-sided fabricated evidence against us to Modi ji, which it is bound to do, our conditions will only worsen,” one of them said.

News of death and destruction from Myanmar only added to their woes. While the Myanmarese government claimed the death toll was 400, the Rohingya themselves said it was nothing less than 3,000. As journalists, researchers and aid workers were denied access to the western State of Rakhine, there was no way to verify these numbers. But the images of death, destruction and migration coming out from the area told a gruesome story.

On September 6, Modi and Aung San Suu Kyi vowed to work together to tackle terror and parroted the same lines after their meeting in Myanmar’s capital, Nay Pyi Taw. In a joint statement with Modi, Aung San Suu Kyi thanked India for the strong stand it had taken against the “terror threat that came to our country”, in reference to Rohingya Muslims. “Together, we will ensure terror is not allowed to take root in our country, on our soil or in neighbouring countries,” she said.

“We share your concerns about extremist violence in Rakhine State and violence against security forces, and how innocent lives have been affected,” Modi said. He said that India understood the challenges and praised Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership of the “Myanmar peace process”. He said it was important to work together towards the security “of our land and maritime borders”.

Situation in Myanmar

According to news reports, as many as 19 corpses were found floating in the river Naf, which connects Myanmar to Bangladesh, after the boat carrying them capsized in the end of August. The dead included children. The elderly and the injured (with bullet and shrapnel wounds) were carried through heavy rain and marshy land on makeshift carriages of bamboo and baskets tied together with belts and dupattas. Children were seen carrying younger children on their backs. Hundreds of men and women squatted on their haunches on the banks of the waterbodies with what was left of their worldly possessions—an umbrella, a hen, a steel tiffin box. Black smoke billowed out on the horizon from Rohingya hamlets set on fire by the military. Charred and twisted corpses in villages entirely gutted in the fire gave an impression of where a home might have been. Some of these bodies were beheaded. Reportedly, the Myanmar Army has laid landmines near the country’s border with Bangladesh to prevent the return of the refugees.

Scores of people were “missing” or hiding in the hilly regions of Rakhine State, unable to either escape through the border or enter any village. “Army personnel in plain clothes along with extremist Rakhine are shooting anybody they see, so it is very risky,” said Ali Johar, a member of the Rohingya community in Delhi. “Either the military will kill us or we will die of starvation,” the father of Maung Maung Khant, another Rohingya in Delhi, told him over phone on the ninth day of the recent cycle of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.

The current wave of ethnic cleansing supposedly began on August 25 in Rakhine State when the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked police stations, checkpoints, government offices and an army base. But the Rohingya say raids had started in three villages from August 20: any male above 12 years of age was arrested and some were brutally beaten to death. The community realised that the military wanted to finish all Rohingya members and whether they protested or not they would be killed. The insurgent group ARSA, or Harakah Al Yaqeen, meaning the Faith Movement, emerged in this climate of desperation and claims to fight for the “liberation of persecuted Rohingya”.

The ARSA declared the “Burmese Brutal Military Regime” a “terrorist organisation” for causing “terror and destruction to ethnic Rohingya population”. On August 24, it released a statement saying that the Rohingya community in Rathedaung had been blockaded for more than two weeks, leading to starvation deaths. It also said that a dozen people had been killed in the township in two days by Myanmarese security forces along with Rakhine extremists. “As they prepared to do the same in Maungdaw, and conducted raids and committed atrocities in some Rohingya villages in the township last night [August 24], we had to eventually step up in order to drive the Burmese [Myanmarese] colonising forces away,” it said. The ARSA’s official Twitter handle described it as a legitimate step to “defend the world’s persecuted people and liberate the oppressed people from the hands of the oppressors!”

Human rights violations

Satellite imagery released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) showed 17 sites burnt between August 25 and 30. On August 31, it spotted 700 buildings destroyed in the Rohingya-majority village of Chein Khar Li alone. Around 40 villages were completely destroyed, said Sabber of the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative in Delhi. However, the Myanmarese government accused the Rohingya of setting fire to their own homes. But it did not provide any evidence to support the allegations, nor did it ever prove similar allegations made during the burning of Rohingya areas between October and December in 2016.

According to HRW and others, the Myanmarese security forces deliberately set those fires. “Independent monitors are needed on the ground to urgently uncover what’s going on,” said Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director of HRW. “The U.N. Fact Finding Mission should get the full cooperation of the Burmese government to fulfil their mandate to assess human rights abuses in Rakhine State and explore ways to end attacks and ensure accountability,” he said.

In February, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights published a report that documented the human rights violations against the Rohingya, including mass killings and gang rapes. In March, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, warned that Myanmar might be seeking to expel all the Rohingya from its territory. On March 24, a three-member fact-finding mission was constituted to probe alleged human rights violations. The resolution was drafted by the European Union and co-sponsored by 43 other countries. India, along with Myanmar and other countries, disassociated itself from the resolution. An information committee set up by Aung San Suu Kyi accused members of the Rohingya community of fabricating the rape charges, calling them “fake rape”. Officials of the Myanmarese government have been threatening to deny visas to members of the fact-finding team and derail the mission.

On August 23, the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State were released. Chaired by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the commission was founded as an impartial body to propose concrete measures to improve the welfare of all people in Rakhine State. It was composed of six local and three international experts. “Unless concerted action—led by the government and aided by all sectors of the government and society—is taken soon, we risk the return of another cycle of violence and radicalisation, which will further deepen the chronic poverty that afflicts Rakhine State,” said Kofi Annan. It turned out to be almost prophetic when violence broke out two days later.

Since August, international aid agencies have been denied access to Rakhine State. The U.N. World Food Programme said it had not been able to distribute food in northern Rakhine since mid July. “A total of 2,50,000 people, including internally displaced persons and other vulnerable populations, [are] without regular food assistance,” it said. In fact, Aung San Suu Kyi accused international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) of helping Rohingya militants. A group of 16 NGOs, including Consortium Dutch NGOs, Oxfam and Care International, denied such charges and urged the government to re-establish access to conflict-affected areas in order to ensure the delivery of life-saving services.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres voiced concern over reported Myanmar security excesses and underlined the responsibility of the government to provide security and assistance to all those in need. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, urged all sides to renounce the use of violence and called on the state authorities to ensure they operated in line with their obligations under international human rights law. He said: “Unfortunately, what we feared appears to be occurring. Decades of persistent and systematic human rights violations, including the very violent security responses to the attacks since October 2016, have almost certainly contributed to the nurturing of violent extremism, with everyone ultimately losing.”

International pressure

Countries with large Muslim populations, including Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan, called upon Aung San Suu Kyi to rein in the violence. Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said: “The security authorities need to immediately stop all forms of violence there and provide humanitarian assistance and development aid for the short and long term.”

“There is a genocide there,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech in Istanbul during Eid. “Those who close their eyes to this genocide perpetuated under the cover of democracy are its collaborators.”

The Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai released a strong statement against the violence. She said: “Every time I see the news, my heart breaks at the suffering of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. I call for the following: Stop the violence. Today we have seen pictures of small children killed by Myanmar’s security forces. These children attacked no one, but still their homes were burnt to the ground. If their home is not Myanmar, where they have lived for generations, then where is it? Rohingya people should be given citizenship in Myanmar, the country where they were born. Other countries, including my own country Pakistan, should follow Bangaldesh’s example and give food, shelter and access to education to Rohingya families fleeing violence and terror. Over the last several years, I have repeatedly condemned this tragic and shameful treatment. I am still waiting for my fellow Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to do the same. The world is waiting and the Rohingya Muslims are waiting.”

The Rohingya are the most persecuted minority in the world. Largely Muslims, they have been denied citizenship rights in the Arakan country they have inhabited for centuries, making them vulnerable to rights violations. Beginning in 1978, several cycles of mass violence unleashed by the military forced tens of thousands of them to flee to Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Malaysia and other countries. Those who could not flee were left to face mass murders, gang rapes, burning of entire villages and torture in camps.

Instead of using the term Rohingya, the Myanmarese government calls them “Bengali”, which is the term preferred by ultranationalist Buddhists, implying illegal migrant status in that country. Aung San Suu Kyi calls them the “Muslim community in Rakhine State”. She has been severely criticised for not only allowing but also abetting the persecution of the Rohingya in her country. In an interview with BBC, she denied that there was ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State and walked out of the interview muttering: “No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim.”

Interview: Prof. Santosh Kumar Singh

Deras & Dalit identity

DIVYA TRIVEDI the-nation

Professor Santosh Kumar Singh of Ambedkar University, Delhi, has researched on and engaged with the Ravidassia religious movement in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh for the past several years. He spoke to Frontline on the recent developments around the Dera Sacha Sauda. Excerpts:

What is the historical necessity for deras?

Deras, variously referred to as akharas and ashrams, are typical of the north-west frontier region, which includes Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh in present-day India. A dera broadly connotes religious congregations around a living guru and is largely seen as an offshoot of the mainstream religious tradition. The Western notions of religion as watertight compartments do not fit in the Indian context. Our belief systems are more fluid; more often than not one stream flows into another. In other words, our world is not so much about boundary as it is about porosity and intercultural permeability. The north-western region, being an entry point, has been a crucible of multiple ideas and streams. The region also happens to be the seat of Sikhism, which was founded by Guru Nanak essentially as a counter to Hinduism’s orthodoxies and hierarchical caste principles and to propose an egalitarian space.

Deras are, at the same time, a reminder of our larger traditions of argumentation and counter views in the domain of culture and religion. Several deras have flourished here as they disagreed with the mainstream either philosophically or in other terms such as codes or false claims to the “gurudom”. Guru Nanak’s son Sri Chand Maharaj disagreed with his father and founded a new stream called Udasi Dera, which extolled the virtues of an ascetic life, contrary to Guru Nanak’s emphasis on household and this world. These deras became a favourite refuge of Dalits and people of the lower castes in the region because the mainstream, contrary to its premises and promises, gradually became discriminatory, and caste-like formations emerged there. For instance, although textually Sikhism is an equalitarian religion, in practice the lower castes and the untouchables could never be adequately integrated. The phenomenon of separate gurdwaras and funeral grounds for Dalits in the villages of Punjab is a testimony to the exclusionary practices prevalent in the mainstream. The Jat Sikhs and others emerged as dominant castes because of their monopoly over land, which led them to monopolise the Panth.

There are deras of all hues and orientations. There are both Sikh and non-Sikh deras. Namdhari and Nirankari, for instance, are Sikh deras as they follow the Sikh maryada, or code of conduct. Deras that accommodate other religious traditions, along with some of the Sikh maryada, are non-Sikh deras. In both deras, there is an element of a living human guru, and that is what makes the deras appear subversive to the mainstream as their panthic prescriptions prohibit the notion of a living guru. The Sikh tradition and its 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, brought a closure to the idea of “gurudom” beyond 10 gurus. The holy book Guru Granth Sahib is considered the Guru since then. It is this and other ways of tampering with the panthic traditions that make the relation between the dera and Sikhs strained.

What kind of ideas did Ram Rahim preach to win so many followers? What is the Dera Sacha Sauda’s history and how did Ram Rahim come to head it? Are the stories of coercion to be believed?

The Dera Sacha Sauda was founded in 1948 by one Sufi sant Mastana Beparwah of Balochistan, as a small spiritual and social organisation. In the 1960s, it was taken over by Baba Satnam Singh, and it was in the early 1990s that Gurmeet Singh took over the gaddi [seat]. There are many stories about the transition. Some stories point to criminal coercion, while others, especially those from dera supporters, believe he was spotted by Satnam Singh, who found the young man eligible and endowed with divine virtues. Gurmeet Singh came from a landlord Jat family in Ganganagar district in Rajasthan. His parents were followers of Baba Satnam Singh and were regular visitors to the Dera.

It is only later that Gurmeet Singh added Ram, Rahim and Insan to his name, probably to make himself and his Dera more appealing to people of all faiths. It is in his time that the Dera witnessed massive expansion, and his following increased multifold and the Dera headquarters at Sirsa, Haryana, transformed from a small derato a Dera with more than 700 acres [280 hectares] with massive infrastructure.

The region has a strong presence of Dalits. For instance, Punjab has the highest percentage of Scheduled Castes in the population [32 per cent] in the whole of India. Their alienation and disillusionment with the mainstream resulted in a huge number of this segment, along with other lower and backward castes, gravitating towards deras such as the Dera Sacha Sauda. The 1990s also happen to be a watershed in the country’s economic history as large-scale policy shifts took place towards privatisation and liberalisation. It is no surprise that these deras filled in these spaces through their philanthropic and social welfare activities in education and health. The poor and weaker sections, especially the most vulnerable, naturally found these deras trustworthy and of immense help.

For example, the Dera Sacha Sauda had built huge networks in the region through drug de-addiction camps as the region’s youth were badly hit by the menace of drug abuse. Post Green Revolution, stories of farmers’ suicide, agrarian crisis and decline in agriculture were heard. It is in these tumultuous decades that the Dera Sacha Sauda really expanded its base through some smart strategies, keeping in view the region’s changing social and economic profile.

Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s discourses, for example, used to be extremely earthy, with old-world wisdom and moral preaching that extolled virtues such as respect for parents and elderly people and love for family and brotherhood. He kept a conscious distance from anything that was esoteric or grand philosophy. Clearly, he was aware of his clients’ socio-educational and economic profile. His discourses catered largely to the illiterate or semi-literate, poor agri-gentry and became extremely effective. Premis [lovers], as his followers were called, loved their pitaji [father], especially when he ventured into films and songs. For his followers, all this only added to his charisma.

How is the Dera Sacha Sauda different from the more political deras such as the Sachkhand Ballan?

Just because most deras have a large Dalit base does not mean all of them could be considered to espouse aspirations of Dalit empowerment and politics around subaltern issues. The dera of Sachkhand at village Ballan, also known as Dera Ballan, near Jalandhar, for instance, is a Ravidassia dera that forefronts its ambition and political objectives around its religious guru, Sant Ravidas, a 15th century Bhakti poet belonging to the same caste as the followers of Dera Ballan. Dera Ballan has been in existence for close to a century. It has been in the news recently for articulating the independent religious identity of Ravidassia Dharma, especially since 2009 when one of its sants, Sant Ramanand, was killed in Vienna, Austria. The dera later brought out its own holy book, Amritbani Ravidas Maharaj. Such is the level of political awakening that the Dera Ballan has more pictures of Ambedkar in the shops outside and within its premises than those of its own sants. The Dera Ballan’s salutation, “ Jo bole so nirbhay, Guru Ravidas Maharaj ki jai” [those who hail Ravidas do not need to fear], resonates with “ Jai Bhim”, the salutation of Ambedkarites. The dera is actively engaged in building and developing the birthplace of Guru Ravidas in Varanasi. In comparison, there is absolutely no presence of Ambedkar or other heroes of Dalits in the Dera Sacha Sauda. It is all about its star guru, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, and his larger-than-life image, carefully constructed through market, money and materialist props.

Ambedkar realised the importance of culture and religion in the empowerment of a community and he set the example when he embraced Buddhism. But the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has not addressed that need of people. Is that why it is mostly Dalits and people belonging to the backward classes who form the core base of most deras?

In this respect, Ambedkar was simply outstanding among his contemporaries, someone who looked at the emancipatory possibilities within religion, provided it contained justice as its core principle. For him, Hinduism lacked that core. As for the BSP, it is ironic it has a mere rudimentary presence in the land of Babu Kanshi Ram and Mangoo Ram. Dalits are divided between two mainstream political parties, the Indian National Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal, and despite a substantial numerical presence, they have very little political base. The BSP chief, Mayawati, focussed more on her base in Uttar Pradesh; Punjab largely remained insignificant in her scheme of things. Deras’ affiliations, paradoxically, have gone against the cause of larger Dalit consolidation.

For instance, Valmikis and other groups in the region do not quite approve of the Dera Ballan’s foisting of the Ravidassia identity [on folllowers]. Many Ravidassia, too, are critical of the Dera Ballan, especially those who consider the Ad-Dharmi project of Babu Mangoo Ram a better model of Dalit identity crystallisation in the region. But the times have changed. The younger lot, an extremely articulate and modern generation, are familiar with Ginni Mahi’s Chamar Pop Songs but know very little about Babu Mangoo Ram, as I found out during one of my dinner meetings with a rich businessman’s family from Boota Mandi in Jalandhar. These young boys and girls take pride in their Chamar Ravidassia identity.

The followers of Dera Sacha Sauda are being painted with the same brush as Gurmeet Singh. Is that a correct depiction?

That is most unfortunate. The media painted his followers as criminals, and that was unfair. Most of them were victims of certain sociocultural and economic conditions, which the Dera Sacha Sauda exploited to lure these people under the garb of religion.

SACHAR REPORT

Shelved & forgotten

ABUSALEH SHARIFF the-nation

THE Bharatiya Janata Party has succeeded in isolating Muslims in such a manner that their votes are rendered irrelevant in Lok Sabha and even State elections, for example in Uttar Pradesh. Why? This type of power grab through the religious polarisation of votes has sown the seeds of alienation, which can germinate poisonous and even lethal reactions; finding an antidote can be difficult. Such political and social engineering is destroying the essential social networks between communities that are important to nation building and even economic development.

Efforts are on to single out Muslims and obstruct their independent choice at the local level such as in panchayats and municipalities. Religious prejudice may already have become rampant across the nation, including in rural areas, among women and youth. This will be disastrous to India’s pluralistic sabhyata (culture),which has evolved over millennia and survived even the onslaught of the British “divide and rule” policy. The watershed was India’s Independence, when democratic values became the cornerstone of nation building.

Countries the world over, especially those with democratic governance, have ensured that the lives, property and way of life of minorities defined differently, including on the basis of religion, are given constitutional protection. Although the Constitution of India provides similar guarantees, one finds that the situation in the country has become hostile to the peaceful living of minorities, especially Muslims and Christians.

It was a first in the history of independent India, when in March 2005 on the initiative of the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, the United Progressive Alliance-I (UPA) national government established a committee to find out the social, economic and educational situation of the Muslims of India. The committee, headed by Justice Rajindar Sachar, tabled its report in Parliament on November 30, 2006. This report became one of the most discussed and debated in India in the past decade. It has even given rise to a new stream of academic study identified broadly as “post-Sachar studies on exclusion and minority rights”, with over half a dozen PhD-level theses done in universities such as the London School of Economics and Political Science, Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard and Yale.

All such debates and research point to the presence of a broad-based systemic bias against minorities, especially Muslims and also lately Christians. Certain unwritten rules and some set perceptions in the mindset of policymakers have resulted in low levels of coverage amongst Muslims in practically all social and developmental programmes across India. The constraint, however, has been assessing and evaluating the social, economic and educational situation in such a manner that the outcome indicators were estimated and measured in terms of the socio-religious communities of India as demonstrated by the Sachar Committee.

The committee’s report highlighted broad-based relative deprivation (exclusion) of Muslims in most States compared with comparable subgroups of the majority Hindus. The deprivation was found in practically all social, economic and educational indicators. There was also evidence that Muslims were getting squeezed out of public spaces such as educational institutions, including universities, and public employment in State and Central government departments such as railways and defence services. Their representation in national-level services such as the Indian Administrative Service and the Indian Police Service was also low. There was evidence of low coverage from public sector banks in extending banking and development credit to the Muslim community. Another disturbing finding was the declining intensity of publicly provided social infrastructure as the proportion of Muslims increased in residential spaces.

An analysis of the recent data on indicators such as literacy, post-secondary education, employment in the organised sector, access to banking and credit, and political participation shows that Muslims are below average compared with other socio-religious categories as defined in the Sachar Report. The data for most indicators show Muslims to be at the same level or below Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Even considering the historically lower levels of Muslims, next only to S.Cs/S.Ts, with regard to many of these indicators, the longitudinal data clearly demonstrate a widening gap between Muslims and S.Cs and S.Ts. These data also indicate that Muslims have benefited less than other groups from national- and State-level policies and programmes targeting socially and economically excluded groups.

Increased insecurity

From Independence until 2006, India’s largest minority community lacked a cohesive political identity and the self-esteem and sense of belonging such an identity affords. The systemic exclusion of Muslims has increased since Independence, leading to their social, economic and educational isolation and backwardness. This situation has given rise to a sense of insecurity and subordination, which is pervasive among socio-religious minorities in India. The government’s integration strategies, such as those discussed at “national integration council” meetings, do not address the disadvantages Muslims face nor do they make provision for specific programmes to reduce or eliminate insecurities. Furthermore, Muslims and other socio-religious minorities lack the political influence and power to ensure that they systematically benefit from pro-poor policies and programmes, such as those that target S.Cs, S.Ts and Other Backward Classes. Politicians are known to treat religious minorities, especially the Muslim community, as vote banks.

A serious concern is the lack of progress by successive Central governments towards achieving the goal of universal elementary education (Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, or SSA). The funds allocated to remediate educational backwardness have not been fully or appropriately utilised. For example, only 61 per cent of the SSA allocations have been used (GOI, 2013-14). Bureaucratic procrastination in State departments of education and lack of community pressure obstruct the flow of resources to targeted communities, including socio-religious minorities. Equally, if not more, serious, the governments have not acknowledged this fundamental problem. Government programmes are in place to provide educational opportunities to minorities by supporting eligible students through pre- and post-matriculation scholarships and means-tested merit scholarships.

However, data indicate that large numbers of eligible students are not receiving scholarships, and almost none of the eligible students receives more than a single year of scholarship support. Multi-sectoral Development Programmes (MsDPs), which supposedly direct resources to Minority Concentration Districts, are similarly characterised by a failure to achieve their stated objectives (various media reports). Infrastructure development under the MsDPs, such as the construction of anganwadi and childbirth centres (labour wards) and student hostels, targets non-minority communities. Furthermore, infrastructure development in Minority Concentration Districts is inferior and inadequate—a childbirth centre, for instance, might be no more than a bare room in an under-equipped primary health centre, often with no paramedic or trained nurse working in it.

Diversity and development

The subcontinent’s history and geography give rise to a complex web of diversity. In fact, diversity pervades all aspects of life in India: cultural, economic, linguistic, political, religious and social. For example, national and State elections in India illustrate a component of political diversity: a party securing as little as 25 to 30 per cent of the vote can come to power by forming a coalition with allied political parties. Diversity across India’s workforce of about 500 million is indicated by the fact that around 51 per cent are self-employed and another 33.5 per cent are casual labourers and only 15.6 per cent have salaried employment (National Sample Survey Office, 2012). The self-employed workforce is engaged in thousands of different traditional occupations, including farming. The small organised employment sector is also highly diverse. Opportunities in both the traditional and organised workforce change continuously in response to changing technologies and labour demands in India and across the globe.

A discussion of diversity in India is not complete without reference to its highly politicised system of reservation for admission to publicly funded educational institutions, for positions in public sector employment and for access to publicly funded programmes that benefit specific sectors of the population. In this regard, Dalit (S.C.) and tribal (S.T.) communities have been identified as those whose historical deprivation and exclusion make reservation necessary. However, only specific subgroups within these communities are recognised, namely those who are also identified as Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist. In other words, Dalit and tribal communities that are Muslim or Christian are excluded from the S.C. and S.T. categories, because of which large proportions of Muslims and other minorities are misclassified and thus excluded from the benefits of reservation. This exclusion exemplifies the political nature of legal categorisation, which in this case discriminates against Muslims and Christians. Since the submission of the Sachar Report, the UPA-I government did take a number of initiatives to address the exclusion and deprivation among India’s minority communities.

With the preponderance of Muslims among members of India’s minority communities, government policies after the Sachar Report are often regarded as focussing on the social and economic development of the Muslim community with programmes aimed at remediating decades of exclusion and promoting inclusion or “mainstreaming”. To this end, the Ministry of Minority Affairs (MMA) was established in 2006 to implement Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s New 15 Point Programme for the Welfare of Minorities (National Commission of Minorities, 2009), which was informed by the empirical analysis of deprivation among minority communities and the recommendations in the Sachar Report. By 2012, prominent voices were calling for the programme’s revision and greater accountability around expenditures and outcomes. Particularly notable is the 2012 revision of the programme that included an investment programme in Minority Concentration Districts (including ones that had substantial Christian and Muslim populations). A novel provision to grant scholarships to minority students at both the elementary and higher levels across the country is now very popular, though grossly inadequate.

Continued deprivation

The Central government, however, was unable to undertake an evaluation of the post-Sachar policy changes and programme implementation. It is essential to note that government agencies and departments do not generate data that can be used to estimate the input-process-outcome measures separately. With great difficulty, in November 2014 the MMA established the Amitabh Kundu Committee to evaluate the post-Sachar developmental situation. It reaffirmed that there was continued deprivation of the Muslim community across States. It had become clear that government agencies and departments did not take measures to ensure the proper conception and implementation of the policies and programmes that could have favoured Muslims. Since States must take a major interest, one finds a large variation in implementation of the recommendations of the Sachar Report, with some States even refusing to access funds earmarked in the Union Budget for the development of minorities/Muslims.

Now that the National Democratic Alliance is at the helm of affairs at the Centre, one tends to find either unresponsive governance or often an unfriendly attitude. Even the opposition does not raise the issue of developmental initiatives for Muslims any more as it considers that doing so will hurt it politically, as happened during the elections for the 16th Lok Sabha. A few States such as Karnataka and Telangana do have noteworthy Muslim/minority friendly policies but often they are non-implementable, for example, the political promise and proposal to provide 12 per cent reservation for Muslims in government services and higher education in Telangana.

Ensuring that all segments of the population have educational and employment opportunities reduces social and economic exclusion and promotes diversity. When any group or groups are restricted from accessing education and employment through systemic social and economic exclusion, the government has a constitutional duty to intervene. Legislation is a tool to clarify the actions that the Central and State governments must take to meet their responsibilities to their diverse citizenry. No single policy or programme will ensure equal access and opportunity for minorities. In some cases, it may be that the government can promote access by offering incentives to publicly funded units such as government departments, universities, panchayats and public sector undertakings. However, bias and discrimination against minorities are entrenched and pervasive in Indian society. Thus, it is necessary to pursue a more comprehensive institutional approach. Towards this end, many in-depth studies provide evidence to support the proposal to establish an equal opportunity commission (EOC) at the national level. It would serve as the institution charged with redressing discrimination and promoting opportunities for members of minority and other socially and economically excluded groups.

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) issued directives to public sector banks to increase development funding to minority applicants. However, a preliminary review of the status of these programmes indicates that the Minority Concentration District programme was not operating in West Bengal, Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand and Gujarat. Furthermore, the popularity of the scholarship programmes meant that only a fraction of all applicants received funding. The MMA got annual budgetary allocations each year to propagate its programmes, yet it was not able to disburse and make the States deliver even a fraction of allocations. For example, in 2011, less than 20 per cent of the annual funds were utilised although a higher percentage was reported to have been disbursed.

In what is a cause for serious concern, public sector banks have not responded to the RBI’s repeated requests to increase their priority sector developmental lending to minorities. In fact, relative access to priority sector advances to the Muslim community has declined from previous years. In addition to problems with programme implementation, the much larger issues of discrimination and exclusion need to be addressed in a concerted way across all government departments and Ministries at both the national and State levels. These issues also call for collaboration with civil society and private institutions.

Whether the programmes target S.Cs, S.Ts, Muslims or other minorities, the responsibility for the successful implementation of policies and programmes that aim to alleviate poverty, improve human development and promote social and economic inclusion should be shared across government Ministries and departments rather than rest with a single Ministry—as is the case now.

It is not reasonable to expect successful results from programmes that are without timelines and appropriate strategies for implementation, monitoring and assessment. Nor is it reasonable to expect that the current budgetary policy announcement of earmarking 15 per cent of all budgetary allocations for minority benefits will be successful. Instead, funds must be allocated in accordance with the size of the target population in proportion to the total population at the programme-specific level of operation, such as the district, taluk or development block, to ensure that the resources are allocated efficiently and equitably.

Rigorous social and economic research can provide accurate data to inform public policy. Decades of academic and applied research form the basis of empirical and econometric methodologies that are used to identify key characteristics associated with social exclusion and poverty. Research has identified these characteristics as caste and religion along with occupation (source of household income), place of residence (rural or urban) and regional (State or sub-State) identity.

The failure to pass anti-corruption legislation, the Women’s Reservation Bill, the Targeted and Communal Violence Bill and legislation to establish an EOC as the institution to promote and safeguard the rights of deprived communities, including the minorities, has not helped matters.

Equal opportunity, a constitutional right

There are ongoing debates over the constitutionality of public programmes that use religion to identify beneficiaries. Some argue that the practice amounts to discrimination on the basis of religion. On the other hand, a close study of the Constitution reveals that it does not preclude identification of beneficiaries on the basis of religion. In fact, it refers to religion in the same context as race, caste, sex and place of birth, and caste, sex and place of birth are liberally used to identify beneficiaries.

Given the cross-cutting characteristics defining social groups in India, it is important to be able to use multiple criteria, including religion, to identify groups in need of programmes that promote equal opportunity. The Constitution resolves to secure for all citizens “equality of status and of opportunity” and directs the government to be proactive about ensuring equal opportunity. The concepts of equality, equal access and equal opportunity are elaborated in Article 14 (right to equality), Article 15 (access to education) and Article 16 (public employment). The Constitution guarantees that the “state shall not discriminate… on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth…”. Article 15, Clause (4), states: “Nothing… shall prevent the state from making any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes (S.Cs) and the Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts).” Note that the phrase “socially and educationally backward classes” precedes a reference to the S.Cs and the S.Ts. Thereafter, Clause (5) directs the state to make special provision by law for the advancement of “socially and educationally backward classes” through admission to private, aided and unaided educational institutions. Article 16 ensures equal opportunity in government employment and forbids discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, and so on. Clause (4) makes provision for reservation in government appointments in favour of “any backward class” not adequately represented in the services of the state.

The task of deciding which groups and classes are “backward” rests with the state. References to group classification in Articles 14, 15 and 16 emphasise that it is not arbitrary and that it must be compatible with the “objective of classification”, always keeping in mind pre-existing inequalities. Backwardness should be determined on the basis of non-arbitrary factors, such as those mentioned in the Constitution: religion, race, caste, sex, descent and residence/place of birth. Backwardness can also be assessed on the basis of non-arbitrary data, including occupation, workplace, age and language. The Constitution directs the state “to promote the welfare of the people by securing and protecting as effectively as it may a social order in which justice, social, economic and political, shall inform all the institutions of the national life” (Article 38(1)).

A 1976 amendment to the Constitution reads: “The state shall, in particular, strive to minimise the inequalities in income, and endeavour to eliminate inequalities in status, facilities and opportunities, not only amongst individuals but also amongst groups of people residing in different areas or engaged in different vocations” (Article 38(2)). It is a common practice of government bodies, departments and Ministries to collect, collate and analyse data on the S.Cs and S.Ts to measure levels of literacy and education, share in state employment and other figures. Such data are also used to assess multidimensional gender discrimination and regional disparities arising from place of birth and residence. Given that these characteristics are studied, the exclusion of religion is neither logical nor defensible. That is, the position that targeting social development resources to groups on the basis of religion is unconstitutional arises from an erroneous interpretation of the Constitution. Along with gender and caste, religion is a basic constituent of social identity in India. Research over the past decade provides extensive data indicating that gender, age and regional background exacerbate the disadvantages and social exclusion linked to socio-religious identity. For example, if a citizen is an elderly woman living in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar and happens to be a Dalit or a Muslim, she is most likely to suffer from multiple deprivations and neglect both by the immediate community and in terms of government programmes. Furthermore, these data show that Muslim and Dalit women and children in less-developed States are the two most excluded socio-religious groups in India.

The Constitution confers on the government the authority not only to identify “backward” communities, which can be defined in terms of caste or religion, but also to implement programmes that target them. However, the Central and State governments have not shown the political will to ensure that excluded castes and religious communities get the full spectrum of benefits of policies and programmes, as the Sachar Report recommended. Article 25 of the Constitution articulates the nature and boundaries of the right to freedom of religion and includes the names of selected religions in order to bring a certain degree of clarity as to who constitute Hindus. It does not preclude naming or singling out Muslims and Christians (two large religious communities) in public papers and legal documents.

Conclusions

India is a highly diverse economy and society. We live in a world that appreciates choice and free will. Governments need to inculcate these values in governance and civic engagement. Within the contours of free will and free speech, no one should have to live in a society with a fear of the other. The Central and State governments are duty-bound to design policies with the objective of creating a peaceful society, which is essential for sustained high economic growth. Justice for all must be the cornerstone of nation building; “ Sabkasaath sabka vikas”must not remain a shallow, rhetorical slogan. Providing a level playing field and equal opportunity to all irrespective of caste and religious differences must be the essence of all policies and public expenditure. Denying a segment of the population prosperity amounts to removing consumers out of the market and will be a drag on real growth, whereas ensuring that everyone is on a level playing field creates a larger consumer base and will bring vikas to all; everyone will prosper.

The creation of independent, non-partisan democratic institutions to address the ever-growing needs of a fast-growing large economy is the need of the hour. Targeted discrimination with the backing of majoritarianism looks cheap and is an unnatural instinct that is best avoided. The lap of Mother India is vast enough to accommodate everyone, so there is no need for the animal instinct to eliminate those who are weak. Should majoritarianism tendencies prevail in India, all they will accomplish is to bring disgrace to the Indian ethos and to Hinduism itself.

Abusaleh Shariff is Chief Scholar, U.S.-India Policy Institute, Washington, D.C. He was earlier member-secretary to the Sachar Committee.

Defence

Creeping privatisation

SUPPLYING the Haubits FH77 (Bofors) artillery guns for the Kargil war against Pakistan in 1999, rushing engines for the T-90 tanks during the Indian Army’s “surgical strikes” inside Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in 2016, ramping up production of armoured personnel carriers and dispatching them to the Indian Army’s Eastern Sector during the recent standoff with China on the Doklam plateau, even bullet-proofing the offices of more than one Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh. The Indian Ordnance Factories organisation, a group of 41 ordnance factories that function under the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), Kolkata, has, in its history dating back to 1775, assisted both in the march of the British empire in India and in the wars fought by independent India, delivering, on more occasions than one, at short notice. By far the oldest government organisation, predating even the Indian Railways by over half a century, the Indian ordnance factories trace their origins to the British East India Company when the British authorities accepted the establishment of a Board of Ordnance at Fort William, Calcutta, in 1775. But being the sole supplier of ordnance to the Army and a crucial element in the country’s war efforts can be akin to tiptoeing through a minefield, a daunting responsibility even for an organisation that has had a monopoly over catering to the Army’s needs—from berets and boots and parachutes to assault rifles, howitzers and battle tanks. Operating under the aegis of the Department of Defence Production in the Ministry of Defence, the 41 ordnance factories “form an integrated base for indigenous production of defence hardware and equipment, with the primary objective being self-reliance in equipping the armed forces with state-of-the-art battlefield equipment”, according to the OFB website.

The ordnance factories’ numero uno status as far as supplies to the Army was concerned has been the accepted norm. But to many defence pundits, these factories are a labyrinth, a white elephant that must be broken up, restructured and hived off.

In July, Lieutenant General Sarath Chand, the Vice Chief of the Army Staff, set the cat among the pigeons when, rather out of character and throwing “official correctness” to the winds, he said that Indian ordnance factories had not only failed to keep pace with changing technology but also did not have the capability to absorb it in the event of a transfer of technology, and “in some cases they had even failed to assemble products that had been imported”. In short, according to the three-star general, the ordnance factories were “an unsuccessful method of supporting [India’s] defence requirements”.

Speaking at AMICON 2017, a conference organised by the Army and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), he lamented whether the below-par functioning of ordnance factories was because of the assured orders they had since “there was no competition whatsoever” or because of the lack of accountability. The Vice Chief openly stated what many in the upper echelons of the armed forces had been saying privately for years, that the ordnance factories supplied substandard and overpriced equipment, were unable to support a product, and suffered grossly from time and cost overruns. Nothing can be more glaring than the numerous criticisms against the battle tank Arjun and the assault rifle INSAS (Indian New Small Arms System). Bent barrel, inaccurate firing, chamber burnt, failures in high altitude, the grouses against INSAS are many. The criticism Arjun faces is that its heaviness affects its manoeuvrability, endurance and speed, and makes moving it over bridges a logistic nightmare. The Army is reluctant to place repeat orders for Arjun after receiving the initial 124 tanks manufactured by the Heavy Vehicles Factory (HVF) at Avadi in Chennai between 2004 and 2016. A senior officer said: “Deep into enemy territory and your equipment fails. That can be a disaster.”

Flaws and delays

Explained Lt Gen. V.A. Bhat, who retired as the Director General of Quality Assurance (DGQA): “There is a mismatch between what the Army wants and what the OFB can produce. If the Army gives the ordnance factories a GSQR [general staff qualitative requirement] they are unable to meet even 98 per cent accuracy. Both the raw material and the manufacturing process [machining, surfacing, etc.,] are substandard. There are also huge delays in placing orders on vendors. For example, the Army is not happy with the indigenously designed and produced INSAS rifle. The management cannot do much since labour laws are welfare oriented.” A Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India report in July criticised the OFB for supplying “inadequate quality of ammunition to the Army since March 2013” and for the “shortfall in meeting the production target set by OFB [itself]”. The report stated that despite an earlier high-level report (in 2015) on “ammunition management in the Army” highlighting the concerns about the quality and volume of supplies from the ordnance factories, no significant improvements had taken place. But it is also a moot point that the “majority of the procurement cases from other than OFB [sources], which were initiated by the Army headquarters during 2009-13, were pending as of January 2017”.

Modi’s doctrine

The Vice Chief’s public diatribe was also probably in line with the thinking in the corridors of South Block, which houses the office of the Defence Ministry. In February, largely in keeping with the Narendra Modi government’s official doctrine to usher in privatisation or hive off public assets in every conceivable entity, a letter went from the Prime Minister’s Office to the Secretary (Defence Production) asking all ordnance factories to “provide a complete listing of products manufactured, along with a photo description of each product, number of items... produced and their value”, and also lists of plant and machinery and, most pointedly, the land held by each of the 41 factories.

Ordnance factories are in possession of around 60,000 acres (24,281 hectares) out of the 17.3 lakh acres (seven lakh hectares) that comes under the nomenclature “defence land”, with the most valuable OFB parcels being in Kolkata, Pune, Jabalpur, Kanpur, Medak, Avadi and Dehradun. Further indications of the Modi government’s line of thinking—to break the monopoly of the ordnance factories—came in April, when the private sector was invited to participate in tenders to supply nine types of ammunition for tanks and howitzers, hitherto a preserve of the ordnance factories. On April 27, the Ministry issued a circular listing 143 items that could be sourced from the trade (read private sector). These items were to be categorised as non-core, and the armed forces would be allowed to buy them from the open market. Of the items, 48 are troop comfort articles such as blankets, socks, boots and rain capes, while 39 fall under the weapons category and include 12 types of ammunition boxes, seven types of empty shells, three types of bombs, two types of binoculars and three types of vehicles, including the Stallion MK-IV truck.

While declaring the 39 items “non-core”, the Ministry’s circular of April 27 stated: “These can be sourced from the trade.... The Army can procure them without a no-objection certificate [NOC] from the OFB.” This was a sharp departure from the prevalent norm wherein the Army was required to get an NOC to procure these items from sources other than the ordnance factories. The circular further indicated that the Ministry could “identify non-core activities [of the ordnance factories] that can be either closed down or put on the public-private partnership (PPP) model for optimal use of the OFB’s vast infrastructure and skilled manpower”. In June, the Ministry proposed that another 39 items, designated as non-core, be outsourced in a phased manner. These include Army logo jackets, man dropping and supply dropping parachutes, and extreme climate clothing and tents (Arctic), to name a few.

Unions protest

These decisions have naturally not gone down well with defence employees’ unions. According to C. Srikumar, secretary of the All India Defence Employees Federation (AIDEF), the largest federation of trade unions of defence civilian employees, “the government’s game plan is to dismantle the ordnance factories”. He said: “The decision to completely outsource these items is going to affect 25 ordnance factories and more than 20,000 employees. The former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had given the OFB a turnover target of Rs.20,000 crore by the end of 2017. The OFB was making good progress with a turnover of over Rs.15,000 crore in 2016-17. But this categorisation of 143 items as non-core will impact the OFB by around Rs.3,500 crore. All these decisions are taken to encourage private corporates in the name of ‘Make in India’. Making the existing state-owned defence industries sick and redundant and bringing in their place the private corporate sector, whose sole intention is profit, is against the security interests of the country. [State-owned] defence industries cannot be treated as commercial entities.”

Srikumar further said: “The fact remains that the Army takes its own time to decide its future requirements/equipment because of its own problems. The Army wanted an assault rifle to replace the 5.56 mm INSAS rifle. Accordingly, the ordnance factories in Tiruchi [Tamil Nadu] and Ishapur [near Kolkata] developed an assault rifle in the 5.56 version. After numerous trials, lasting more than two years, the Army decided that it wanted an assault rifle in the 7.62 mm × 51 mm mode. [The Indian Army has decided to go back to the lethal power of the 7.62 mm bore instead of the 5.56 mm it had opted for earlier.] And a global tender was floated. The OFB has developed the 7.62 version, and after a lot of persuasion, the Army will hopefully begin its first round of user trials. This is just one example. There is no delay on the part of the OFB in supplying items to the Army. Delays take place only in identifying standard and reliable vendors for uninterrupted supply of raw materials and components.”

Defence officers also agree that the Army keeps changing its GSQRs. On the INSAS, the Army wanted a switch from a sheet metal to a machine-forged body and from a hinged cover to a sliding cover, thereby necessitating drastic changes in the design of the rifle’s body.

Now with the Army issuing a request for proposal, there is no guarantee that the order for around 1.85 lakh assault rifles will go to the ordnance factories. Punj Lloyd Raksha Systems (PLR), a joint venture between Israel Weapon Industries (IWI) and Punj Lloyd (India’s first small arms manufacturing venture in the private sector), is offering the Israeli Tavor, made by IWI. Tavor is already in use by the Indian Army’s specialised units and sets the stage for Israel to capture the small arms market in India.

‘Give more autonomy’

This is what angers officials in the OFB. Said a general manager: “In terms of procedures, give us a level playing field with the private sector. The Ministry of Defence gives the private sector 10-year stable projections in the request for proposal for ammunition, but the OFB has been denied such a projection. How can you run a business with too many controls and checks from the Ministry? Give us the freedom to choose our partners from the trade. We are too procedure-oriented and monitored by too many super structures [agencies]—the Central Bureau of Investigation [CBI], the Central Vigilance Commission [CVC], the DGQA—and constrained by design IPR [intellectual property rights] issues.

“The OFB still works as a department of the government. Give it more autonomy and at the same time make it more accountable in the manner of the Railway Board, the Indian Space Research Organisation or the Department of Atomic Energy.

“The government is ready to consider requests from the private sector for tax breaks. The same has not been given to the OFB. The Defence Ministry has stalled several OFB projects in the name of Make in India. Can the armed forces be left to the mercy of private corporate houses and multinational corporations for their strategic requirements?”

And it is not as if the private sector does not delay supply. The CAG report on the Army Base Workshops (Report No 36 of 2016) points out the failure of a private sector entity in supplying the ordered items, which were subsequently supplied by ordnance factories.

Srikumar denies that the items are overpriced. “The demand in military acquisitions is generated by the government. The price is decided by the government. The OFB works on a no-profit no-loss basis to ensure war insurance. The volume of T-90 tanks manufactured in Russia is far greater than those made in India. The price of any item is related to the volume. Give the OFB the same volumes and we can match the price of imports. Price is not the sole reason, as any monopoly supplier tries to make unholy profits from the life supply of spares. Troop comfort items such as uniforms, blankets, boots and jerseys may be costlier than those available in the trade. But if you want quality products you have to pay. In the name of cost, the Army procured many of these items at a cheaper rate from many private sector firms. In many instances, the Army had to return to the ordnance factories since soldiers were unhappy with the quality of the products supplied by private players. Ordnance factories have stringent quality control systems in place and all raw materials and components are subjected to different types of testing in the NABL [National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration] accredited labs before the items are sent for production.”

An officer at the HVF said: “It is a misnomer that the OFB is loss making. Owned by the government and created for national security, the OFB does not take commercial considerations for any decisions in manufacture. Ordnance factories are not meant to make profits. The price the customer pays is decided mutually between the user and the producer. Moreover, the need for war reserves, idle investment to take care of surge production, social and welfare schemes, residential colonies, hospitals, schools, other statutory and non-statutory obligations, and the image of the government as an ideal employer are unavoidable factors. Further, the ordnance factories face orders that are of an uneconomical quantity.”

Officials at ordnance factories also lamented about sporadic orders and a lack of repetitive orders. One official said: “In 2008, Ordnance Factory, Medak, was asked to manufacture an AAD [armoured amphibious dozer]. We made one and are still waiting for an order. Similarly, an NBCRV [nuclear biological and chemical reconnaissance vehicle] was designed in 2007. We are still awaiting an order. That the private sector can supply at cheaper costs is a myth. One of India’s leading industrial houses is attempting to sell to the Army a wheeled armoured personnel carrier. At 22.5 tonnes, it is too heavy to be conveniently air-lifted, and the cost at Rs.32 crore is way above the international cost of similar vehicles that are around Rs.15 crore. Our ordnance factory manufactures tracked armoured troop carriers under Rs.6 crore.”

Said Bharat Singh, Senior General Manager at Ordnance Factory, Medak: “We need to strive for a strong industrial defence base. But you cannot build a defence manufacturing industry on borrowed technology. We are on a par with others in terms of infrastructure and machinery and even for the manufacture of defence products. But the items are not our design. So we don’t understand it, we are not authorised to inspect or improve it, are incapable of giving suggestions even, and hence are unable to make enhancements, leave alone the next generation of the product. There is a clear gap between design R&D and manufacturing, and we continue to be capable of only licence production. The DRDO [Defence Research and Development Organisation] has not given the ordnance factories any new designs after the Arjun tank. For decades, we followed the dictum that the DRDO will design, the OFB will produce, the DGQA will inspect, defence finance and defence accounts will exercise control. The manual has not changed since the British set up the defence industry. No defence industry can work without R&D. Since 2006, we have been given powers to do R&D and our products are giving revenues. Dhanush howitzer, L-70 gun upgrade, pump action gun, mine protection vehicle and the BMP-2 [armoured troop carrier] upgrade. For the BMP 2 upgrade, the Army tried to import the technology from the Russian OEM for 13 years. But could not. We developed the technology in two years and in July, the Defence Acquisition Council cleared an order for 693 BMP 2 upgrades worth Rs.2,400 crore. We needed a design base. The BMP 2 offered us a good platform and we had the design documents. We need to do reverse engineering.”

Bharat Singh said: “Take the example of tank design and development. There are around 15 crucial technologies which make a difference. The armament, the weapon systems, the sighting systems. But no one is working to develop an indigenous tank. Everybody wants to be an integrator. We in India are trying to develop front-end technologies without engine design capabilities or the expertise.”

The ordnance factory at Medak has started the path-breaking system of barcoding every item it produces. A reading of the barcode will divulge the complete history of the product; when, where and year of manufacture and all sources of suppliers. The Medak factory is also developing a Futuristic Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV).

The FICV’s capability matches that of BMP 4. India is, therefore, skipping the BMP 3 version, which Russia had offered to sell. The FICV’s designs have been frozen. It is in the soft model stage, with production expected to start in late 2019. It will have increased mobility and firepower, night capability and better protection levels.

Arjun tank

Deflecting criticism away from the Arjun tank, an official at the HVF said that for a better product, it was important that the user be involved right from the design stage. “We are hoping the Army will place an order for Arjun Mk2: initial trials have been completed and it is on the verge of going into limited series production. The Army has asked for a demonstration of missile firing, which we hope to undertake in 2017. Arjun Mk2 is as accurate and as manoeuvrable as the Russian designed T-90 [India has manufactured more than 700 T-90s]. Mk2 will also have automatic target locating, tracking and destruction capabilities,” said an officer. “The Army’s GSQRs are many times too optimistic, so design agencies find it difficult to meet them. Most of the time the user and the integrator are not on the same page. The user has to treat the manufacturer as a partner, not a vendor.”

At the Engine Factory, Avadi, officers are aghast at the fact that while the Army screams about delays in the delivery of engines for the battle tanks in their arsenal, it does not understand the modalities of the manufacturing process. Explained an official: “The Army’s orders are inconsistent. Take the case of the V-46 engine manufactured for the T-72 battle tank. In 2007, the Army wanted 111 engines, in 2008 it wanted 170, in 2009 it wanted 317 and in 2010, 71. No orders were placed in 2011 and 2012. In 2013, the Army wanted 418 and in 2016, it ordered 257. There is no continuity in the requirement and planning. How do we plan? It takes six months just to get quotations from the Russian OEM for spares. We need to order and then they will supply the spares. That is why it takes two years to deliver an engine. At meetings in the Ministry, Army officers do not address issues such as better planning; rather, they railroad the agenda using the emotional line that troops are at risk and are being killed. All we are saying is place the indent in time and with advance planning, we will deliver.”

Many officers expressed the hope that creation of an Army Design Bureau, akin to the Naval Design Bureau, will help remove the disconnect between the user and the manufacturer.

It is yet unclear what the government wants to do with its ordnance factories. Official sources disclosed that four ordnance factories—the Rifle Factory in Ishapore, the Small Arms Factory in Kanpur, the Ordnance Factory Project in Korwa and the Ordnance Factory in Tiruchi have been identified as possible choices for PPP ventures. Corporatisation of the OFB by turning the 41 factories into a conglomerate along the lines of other defence public sector undertakings, such as Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, has been suggested as a possible panacea by at least two Defence Ministry-appointed committees, one headed by former Revenue Secretary Vijay Kelkar in 2005 and another headed by Vice Admiral Raman Puri in 2016. But the unions, which control the 88,000 employees in the ordnance factories, are dead against any form of corporatisation.

Said Srikumar: “We are against corporatisation. Corporatisation is just a step away from privatisation. Five successive Defence Ministers have said that there will not be any corporatisation of the OFB.”

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Oct 9,2020