Cry, the beloved country

Published : Jun 22, 2002 00:00 IST

Today India faces the classic situation of a pre-fascist upheaval. What used to be the political centre has collapsed, with the Congress reduced to a parliamentary minority and all the rest so splintered as to be assimilated as small ineffectual groupings into support for the fascist project.

EVEN by the standards of the planetary turbulence unleashed by the United States in the name of a global "war against terrorism", the past six months have been a time of extraordinary turbulence in the subcontinent, thanks to the extreme aggressivity of the Sangh fraternity on a variety of fronts.

This phase began with an aborted attack on Parliament building by a bunch of jehadi zealots, which was then used by the Indian government to mass 800,000 troops on the India-Pakistan border and thus put in place the largest and the most prolonged peacetime mobilisation anywhere in the world since the Second World War. The Chief of the Army Staff, General S. Padmanabhan, informed the government in mid-January that the mobilisation was complete and that the troops were ready to wage war. Except for some insignificant and symbolic gestures of de-escalation in recent days, and despite the growing opinion among top commanders that the deterrent effect of the mobilisation has petered out completely, the troops remain in place. Regardless of the scale of the disinformation campaigns in the media, no sober person has believed that there would be yet another India-Pakistan war with nuclear weapons on both sides and with the U.S. waging its own war, with the help of the Pakistani troops, in the northern regions of Pakistan itself. Defence Minister George Fernandes is known to have given repeated assurances but in private to the Western powers that India contemplates no military action. Yet the posture is maintained, even as it costs the national treasury billions upon billions of rupees. Almost the most depressing aspect of this strange scenario is that the Congress, the main Opposition party with delusions of its own grandeur, has conceded this whole field of policy determination to the Bharatiya Janata Party, refusing to enter into any kind of debate on the matter, thus forgoing the chance to expose the cynicism of the posturing, on grounds of non-partisan unity, on matters of national security.

Just about the time when the military mobilisation on the international border was deemed to have been completed, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's (VHP) Chetavani Sant Yatra left Ayodhya on January 20 while hordes of kar sevaks were mobilised from various parts of the country to converge on that unfortunate town, in preparation for the ritualistic inauguration ceremony for the construction of the Ram temple there on March 15. By early February, the Hindi press began publishing reports regularly of misconduct, vandalism and communal provocation indulged in by the kar sevaks in towns and at railway stations on their way. As has happened during all such mobilisations since L.K. Advani's infamous rath yatra of 1990, these outrages were to lead predictably to further violence and bloodshed. Godhra just happened to be the place where the fuse was first lit.

In late February began the systematic pogrom in Gujarat which even a European Union (E.U.) investigation team described as "ethnic cleansing" and the making of an "apartheid", which it then compared with the fateful events of the 1930s in Germany. The E.U. document held the Narendra Modi government in Gujarat and the VHP directly responsible, saying that members of Modi's Cabinet themselves had participated in the killings. The document compiled slightly earlier by the investigating team of the United Kingdom High Commission in India took a similar position and went on to say that normal inter-community harmony cannot be restored so long as Modi remained at the helm. Between them, the two documents confirmed every finding that the secular Indian media have themselves made public and which the government ignores or simply denies. Now, some four months later, the level of violence has predictably declined but the low-intensity cleansing continues, as do the consequences of the violence for the victims. Gujarat is the only State of the Union where the BJP rules with a majority of its own and where a former Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) pracharak is the Chief Minister. The ethnic cleansing there, in full view of national and international observers, is a microcosm in which one can glimpse the future that awaits the country if and when the BJP comes to rule the country with a clear majority of its own.

On March 13, a Supreme Court order denied the VHP the right to hold its planned ceremony in the vicinity of where the Babri Masjid once stood, even though the country's Attorney-General, Soli Sorabjee, argued in favour of the VHP position. Two days later, on March 15, the Vajpayee government retaliated by sending an officer from the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) to receive personally, on behalf of the government, the shila offered by Ramchandra Das Paramhans in order, in the words of BJP spokesman V.K. Malhotra, to give "sanctity" to the ritualistic inauguration. How a functionary of the PMO could bestow "sanctity" on what was purported to be a religious ceremony remained unclear, but it was clearly an indication of the government's resolve to help build that temple regardless of the fact that the matter is in the Supreme Court, which may yet disallow construction. This violation of the very spirit of the Supreme Court order was in keeping with Atal Behari Vajpayee's own declaration in Parliament on December 6, 2000 that the building of the Ram temple was an "expression of the national sentiment" and a task that had remained "unfinished". This was then capped by a full-scale attack on the Orissa State Assembly building by VHP and Bajrang Dal goons on March 16, ostensibly in pursuit of their demand that the disputed Ayodhya land be turned over to them - hardly something that was within the power of the Orissa Assembly to do. At no time during these events did the so-called 'secular allies' of the BJP inside and outside the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) care to invoke the National Agenda for Governance (NAG), which is said to be the programmatic basis for the NDA and which forbids its constituent parties from taking unilateral action on controversial issues generally and on Ayodhya in particular.

Two days after the attack on the Orissa Assembly, on March 18, the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) was passed in the Lok Sabha with a comfortable majority, 261 to 137, paving the way for its swift passage through a joint session of the two Houses of Parliament, with an equally comfortable majority of 129 votes. It thus replaced the more provisional Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (POTO). The timing was significant in the perspective of Gujarat and, indeed, POTO itself had been used there against Muslims but not Hindus. In Jammu and Kashmir, Yasin Malik of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) was swiftly picked up under the new enactment, and Syed Ali Shah Geelani of the Jamaat-e-Islami has been picked up under the Act more recently. Since law and order is basically a State subject, the non-BJP parties which rule a majority of the States are of course free not to use this Act. However, its application so far under the National Conference in Jammu and Kashmir and under the RSS dispensation in Gujarat is a grim indication of times and abuses yet to come.

Then came the BJP's National Executive meeting in at Panaji, Goa, from April 12 to 14 with its hard Hindutva line. Leading up to that meeting, Vajpayee had let it be known that he was in favour of replacing Modi. In Panaji he changed his stance and joined the bandwagon to forge unanimous backing for Modi, clearly acting upon an RSS directive to stand firm with the pracharak. Vajpayee then went on to deliver his prime ministerial speech in classic RSS fashion, with its vitriol against the religious minorities, who were exhorted to live in accordance with the agendas set by Hindus, and its by-now famous line: "Wherever Muslims live in large numbers, they don't want to live in peace with others." Considering that Vajpayee fancies himself to be a poet, the columnist Anita Pratap bestowed upon him the fitting title "Poet of the Reich" in recognition of that speech. Meanwhile, the Panaji conclave was also notable for recommending a quick mid-term poll in Gujarat, in a situation where Muslim children are afraid of even going to school and sitting for examinations, let alone adults going to vote, and where the VHP and its allied organisations have staged riots, leading to mayhem and chaos, in two-thirds of the Congress-dominated constituencies.

The last week of April then witnessed two major developments. One is that the same BJP which had been acting with all the savage brutality of the RSS in the only State which it rules with a clear majority of its own was now seen to be becoming a junior partner to the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the Uttar Pradesh government. Part of the bargain clearly is that while Mayawati will have more or less a free hand in affairs of the State, the BSP will give basically unconditional support to the Vajpayee government at the Centre. Combined with Jayalalithaa's truce and developing alliance with the BJP-led government, this sea change in the role of the BSP in New Delhi means that, for the first time, the BJP no longer depends on any one party - not even the Telugu Desam Party - to stay in power, as is evident in the abject manner in which the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam are competing for the king's favour and the way Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu had to eat his words on the question of replacing Narendra Modi.

All this became depressingly clear during the parliamentary debate on the Gujarat holocaust which took place just when the BSP-BJP alliance was being cemented in U.P., on April 30. The horrific barbarity that one heard from the BJP and some of its allies, notably the insufferable George Fernandes, has been covered in the media at length and has provoked protests from women's organisations in particular. Other allies were notable for the repugnant duplicity of first playing to the gallery by delivering mournful speeches on the issue of the Gujarat killings and then calmly voting in solidarity with the BJP on the actual motion. The BSP was predictably part of this charade.

And then there was the pathetic case of Omar Abdullah, who resigned from his post as a junior Minister before he rose to speak, got his National Conference MPs to abstain on the vote, and then quickly returned to his post as Minister of State for External Affairs, as if the spectre of Gujarat had just been exorcised by a pretty speech. Unsurprisingly, the government won by 276 to 182 votes, with eight abstentions.

The month of May witnessed the amazing spectacle of the BJP, which already has its Prime Minister and holds all the main Cabinet posts except Defence, picking a veteran Shiv Sainik, Manohar Joshi, to occupy the key position of Speaker of the Lok Sabha. The rest of the allies, inside the NDA and outside of it, simply acquiesced and the Congress itself was unable to stir itself out of its slumber and mount at least symbolic opposition. Joshi's nomination went through the Lok Sabha like a knife through melting butter. The Left was alone in its opposition to Joshi, as it was to be alone again on the question of the Presidency the following month.

HAVING wormed its way into government in U.P. on Mayawati's proverbial coat-tails, the BJP then conspired with the Shiv Sena in early June to break the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party government in Maharashtra by buying up MLAs through corruption, sleaze and intimidation, under the friendly eyes of its favourite Governor, P.C. Alexander. It has so far failed in the effort. The other event of early June, the nomination of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam as the NDA candidate for the Presidency, was in any case far more significant. It is perhaps befitting that the short period of six months that we are reviewing here and which began with the largest peacetime military mobilisation in modern history should culminate in the nomination of a super-hawk to the Presidency of the Republic.

The first thing to be said in this regard is that Kalam's main expertise is in missile technology, and that his extraordinary dedication to the creation of weapons of mass destruction is his sole claim to fame and eminence. He has no other achievement to his credit. Nor is it at all clear why a man who administers such a programme should be called "a great scientist". What about those who have rendered similar 'patriotic' services to their government in Pakistan? Are they also "great scientists"? Why not? And those who gave us Hiroshima and Nagasaki? What would we say, for example, if the shoe was on the other foot and Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the "father" of the Pakistani bomb, were to be made President of that country? The prospect of Kalam being elevated to an office that was designed to symbolise the moral and visionary side of Indian national aspirations is a precise measure of the distance the nation has travelled since those innocent times when Gandhi had held out the promise of a non-violent India, Jawaharlal Nehru had formulated the panchsheel principles and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan had occupied this august office.

The BJP's reasons for choosing Kalam are ignoble, and if he had the moral fibre that is befitting a President of this Republic he should have declined. First, the BJP did not really want him. Krishan Kant came close to be chosen but was then discarded because, with his chameleon-like character, he simply could not be trusted to do the RSS bidding; nor could the Congress be predicted to join the consensus. Alexander seems to have been their real favourite but the fear was, as rumour has it, that President K.R. Narayanan himself might have stood and given a fight over the question of communalism and secularism. So, Abdul Kalam became the nominee by default.

Second, having a Muslim who otherwise has no standing and is therefore expected to do as he is told was convenient in the aftermath of the ethnic cleansing in Gujarat. That ongoing holocaust has not only shocked many sections of the Indian population but, more crucially, brought the RSS veterans to a point where there may soon be cases in European courts asking for extradition not only of Modi but also Vajpayee and Advani for "crimes against humanity". These gentlemen are on their way perhaps to becoming international untouchables, like Ariel Sharon who has for years avoided landing on European soil for fear of getting arrested as a war criminal. Abdul Kalam can be their fig leaf, the badge of their pseudo-secularism.

IIWhat lies, then, behind all this?

Five things, to start with: 1. The lack of stability in South Asia, which was the direct consequence of Pokhran, and of Chagai in response; 2. Kargil, a direct consequence of delusions arising out of nuclear capability; 3. Agra, which raised the possibility of enduring peace between the two countries and which the Far Right in both countries then set out to undo; 4. The great turbulence unleashed by America's so-called "war against terror" and the calculations that respective - and feuding - clients started making of what they could get out of it; and 5. The calculated aggressivity of the RSS in the present juncture.

Pokhran was the original sin that produced on both sides illusions of winnable military actions. Advani & Co on the Indian side immediately started talking of strikes across the Line of Control (LoC) and they have not stopped doing so. Pakistan, on the other hand, actually acted on its fantasy of winnable limited action and staged Kargil; it had to beat a humiliating retreat. It was in this context that the U.S. first started thinking of Kashmir as a "nuclear flashpoint" and it was in response to its diplomatic pressure that Vajpayee undertook the Lahore yatra in the first place.

Then came Kargil. The U.S. surely arranged for Pakistan's unconditional retreat but it also increased diplomatic pressure to get the two sides to resolve the dispute politically. Meanwhile, Musharraf, who oversaw the Kargil operation as Commander-in-Chief, seemed to have understood that in the prevailing environment there was no military solution even to Siachen, let alone the whole of Kashmir. His subsequent, conciliatory diplomacy after taking power reflects that fact.

A whole phase of abortive ceasefires that were announced by the two sides elapsed before India decided that there was no alternative to a dialogue with Pakistan - which is what led to the Agra Summit of July 2001 that came close to a breakthrough. We know that there were drafts that were agreed upon by the two Foreign Ministers and then mysteriously rejected by the Indian side. A.G. Noorani wrote quite rightly in Frontline (March 15, 2002) that if the texts of those drafts were to be published all of us could see that they addressed all the Indian concerns, including what India calls "cross-border terrorism". There were forces at Agra itself, on the Indian side, that wanted the summit to fail, and it failed. There were other forces, on the Pakistan side, not present at Agra but waiting in the wings, who wanted the summit to fail. And once it failed, they wanted it to remain a failure. The fact of the matter is that the Indian RSS is just as little interested in peace as are the Pakistani jehadis, and that, being the parent organisation of the ruling party that has all the major policymakers in the present government under its discipline, it is in a much better position to sabotage movement toward peace than are the pathetic little groupings of the jehadis in Pakistan.

The jehadis understood well what the logic of Agra meant for them because the Musharraf regime had been trying to curb them for some time well before that summit. Then, as preparations for the summit got going, Musharraf had this to say, in a televised off-the-cuff address on June 5 last year to the assembled audience of Pakistan's Islamic religious luminaries, well before the events of September 11 and the subsequent "war on terror" - when he is supposed to have first turned against jehadi elements seriously:

We claim it [Islam] is the most tolerant of faiths. How does the world judge our claim? It looks upon us as terrorists. We have been killing each other. And now we want to spread that violence and terror abroad. Naturally, the world regards us as terrorists... One hears the boast that we will hoist our flag on the Red Fort. We will do this, we will do that. Have you ever thought of the consequences of such talk for Muslims in India... (and he goes on in this vein.)

Implicit in this kind of talk was the assertion that he, as head of state and Army chief simultaneously, was going to curb those "terrorists" - and all this well before September 11. The attack on Parliament needs to be seen in that perspective. It is significant that although the culpability of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) was established very quickly, India still has no evidence, six months after the event, that the Pakistan government was in any way involved in authorising that attack. The U.S., which is so keen to see the jehadi establishment in Pakistan destroyed and which does so much to accommodate Indian sensitivities, has never endorsed the view that either the attack on Parliament building or the subsequent massacre in Jammu was in any way linked to the Pakistan government. Nor has any other intelligence agency made that claim. Indeed, these outfits have been carrying out spectacular acts of terror in Pakistan, including the latest one in Karachi on June 14. There is no certainty in the matter but it seems virtually certain to this writer that the attack on Parliament was carried out by Pakistan-based organisations which were undoubtedly hostile to India but which (a) were equally hostile to the prospect of peace between the two countries and (b) therefore wanted to undermine the credibility of the Musharraf government which had launched a campaign against them as well as a peace offensive in relation to India. The logic of Agra had to be undone.

And so it was. A wanton attack by a small group of terrorist jehadis, belonging to organisations which Musharraf was to ban with great alacrity, was portrayed in India as if the Musharraf regime itself had ordered the attack. This then became the justification for the massive, expensive and prolonged military mobilisation. After six months of war hysteria, the fact that much had been achievable but was then blocked in Agra by the RSS hawks has simply receded from memory. One can no longer even suggest that a revival of the Agra process is the only way out of this impasse. That was the intent of those who launched the attack on Parliament and they succeeded in it spectacularly by offering the RSS establishment the alibi to bury that process entirely. Meanwhile, India's hawkish brinkmanship became credible internationally because it coincided with America's own global war on jehadi Islam, so that Indian statesmen could now get a much more sympathetic hearing when they claimed that the entire problem of militancy in Kashmir is reducible to the problem of infiltration of jehadis from Pakistan. Terror in Kashmir of course needs to be defeated, but the danger now is that as the Indian government gains the upper hand it will simply refuse to address the real causes that underlie that insurgency. Jack Straw, the British Foreign Secretary, drew attention to a similar tendency in Western diplomacy when he remarked: "There is a danger, given our current preoccupation with the Middle East, that our eyes turn away from the intrinsic problem of Kashmir." What he means by "intrinsic problem" is of course the problem that has been there for half a century or so and into which the more recent insurgency had inserted itself. Jehadis or no jehadis, the "intrinsic problem" continues to have a life of its own.

The main uses of the war hysteria have been domestic. Even as the BJP went from one electoral debacle to the next, it was able to garner the enthusiasm of the hawkish urban middle classes by projecting itself as the party that had finally given India a "strong" government which could not be pushed around by a belligerent neighbour. This was well reflected in the schizophrenia of the liberal wing of the national media which would one day castigate the government for its "mishandling" of Gujarat and would, the very next day, gape at its leaders with ardent admiration as they threatened all-out war against Pakistan. This sustained war hysteria has been a major factor in allowing the RSS fraternity its relentless aggressivity on a variety of fronts during this time, except in the matter of Gujarat. How could one get truly agitated about POTA since India does need to fight "terrorism" with all possible means? And why, in the face of oncoming war, should one pay much attention to the fact that the Speakership of the House has gone to a Shiv Sainik or even to the Prime Minister's irresponsible conduct on the minor matter of Ayodhya and the Ram temple?

ABOVE all, this war hysteria proved to be a point of culmination in the dogged campaign to identify anti-Pakistan patriotism with anti-Muslim sentiment. Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agents were in every corner of the country and they were all Muslims; perhaps Godhra itself was the handiwork of the ISI; and the Muslims of Gujarat were at any rate getting a constant supply of arms from Pakistan; Gujarat, like Kashmir, is just another example of "cross-border terrorism" in which Indian Muslims routinely take part. Such sentiments are now much more widespread than ever before, and the war hysteria of the past few months has certainly played a role in making it possible to express such sentiments more freely, as has the carnage in Gujarat and the manner in which that carnage has been explained as a consequence simply of Godhra. The BJP is probably right in its assessment that the killings have improved its electoral position in Gujarat, and, for all the exceptionally communalised character of Gujarati society, trends there are also indicative of a far greater level of communalisation of Hindu society more generally. Nothing else can explain the fact that none of the BJP's so-called secular allies, inside the NDA and outside of it, feel that their electoral base might shrink because of their identification with the RSS progeny and platform. That none of these allies eventually insisted on something as paltry as Modi's removal, or that a whole range of forces from the BSP to Jayalalithaa moved closer to the BJP precisely at the time of the Gujarat killings, speaks volumes in this regard.

For, the main responsibility for the success of the RSS offensive during this time lies with its existing and would-be allies. As this offensive went from one plank to the next, there was never even a possibility that any of the allies would quit on a matter of principle. If principle was involved, one would have assumed that the so-called "secular" allies would form a bloc so as to strengthen their negotiating position vis-a-vis their "communal" leader. In the event, only the BJP turned out to be serious about its communalism; none of the so-called secular allies cared much for their secularism, beyond the "speechifying". And, each of the little formations is built so much around an opportunistic, charismatic leader that each would make separate petty deals which the BJP was very willing to grant, in exchange for total obedience, which it received.

We are faced with the classic situation of a pre-fascist upheaval. What used to be the political centre has collapsed, with the Congress reduced to a parliamentary minority and all the rest so splintered as to be assimilated into support for the fascist project as small, ineffectual groupings. The BJP rules on the strength of its own inner cohesion and the obedience of those splinters in the first instance; the machinery of terror in the hands of fraternal organisations such as the VHP and the Bajrang Dal, in the second instance; a sufficiently large proportion of the state personnel and the privileged professional strata allied with it, in the third instance; rapid changes in the social and cultural environment which favour its ideological positions, in the fourth instance; and, negatively, the isolation and relative weakness of the Left and the labour movement, in the fifth instance. All this is happening in an international environment far more conducive to forces of the Right and the Far Right on the global scale.

Vajpayee is no more a man of the Right than George Bush; Modi looks almost benign in comparison with Ariel Sharon; RSS-style parties of the Far Right are gaining in strength in any number of countries in Europe. Those who have demanded the banning of jehadi outfits in Pakistan in the name of a "war against terrorism" will never demand the banning of the VHP and the Bajrang Dal on the same grounds, rivers of the blood of innocents in India notwithstanding, because our terrorists are pro-imperialist.

Such are the dark times in which one has to keep up the struggle.

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