Politics over beef  — the Hindutva project to undermine Indian democracy

The ascent of Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP to power in India has rekindled a brand of politics that many thought had been consigned to history  —  that of the cow. It has created a discourse that is not only questions many of the fundamental rights granted by the Constitution, but also raises doubts over the future of the country as a secular and democratic republic.

A “rule of mob”, supported by the ruling dispensation in many cases, has descended upon the country. The Sangh parivar’s target is clear — it wants a country of upper castes, for the upper castes and by the upper castes. They have also chalked out a strategy to achieve that goal — periodic outbreaks of violence against Muslims and Dalits.

Politics over beef is not new to India. Wendy Doniger, noted author and a scholar of Sanskrit for over 50 years, traced the origin of politics over the cow to the 19th century as an implicit objective to oppress the Muslims.

Mahatma Gandhi attempted to make vegetarianism, particularly the taboo against eating beef, a central tenet of Hinduism, tying it to his idea of nonviolence.

In the modern age, the pioneer of the cow protection movement was M.S. Golwalkar, the second sarsanghchalak of the RSS. A thorough reading of the autobiography of Verghese Kurien — the Milkman of India — provides an insight into Golwalkar’s thoughts.

Golwalkar was the brains behind the 1960s’ cow protection movement that forced the government of the day to set up a committee to consider the demand of a nationwide ban on cow slaughter. The committee lasted 12 years.

Kurien opposed this ban for economic reasons. “It was important for us in the dairy business to keep weeding out the unhealthy cows so that available resources could be utilised for healthy and productive cattle. I was prepared to go as far as to allow that no useful cow should be killed,” Kurien wrote in his autobiography.

He then cited a conversation with Golwalkar where the then RSS chief outlined his vision, and it had nothing to do with gau bhakti (cow reverence). It was a political move then; today it is a social move to finally create the India of Golwalkar’s vision.

In India, traditionally, the slaughter of cattle has always been associated with either the Muslims and Christians or the Hindu lower castes — the Dalits. Beef forms an important part of the diet for Muslims. The Dalits, on the other hand, were scavengers and their eating habits still reflects their ancient status at the bottom of the food chain, forced to eat even rats. Beef presented an alternative source of nutrition to them and has since been included in their diet — it was more of an economical habit than a cultural one.

Amid the hoopla, the consumption of beef by Hindus is forgotten. Doniger wrote that even “after the fourth century BC, when the practice of vegetarianism spread throughout India among Buddhists, Jains and Hindus, many Hindus continued to eat beef”. She paraphrased ancient ritual texts, known as the Brahmanas and others, that taught religious duty (dharma), from the third century BC. These texts said a bull or cow should be killed to be eaten when a guest arrived.

Doniger credited the Sanskrit epic, Mahabharata, to explain the transition of Hindus to non-eating of cows: “Once, when there was a great famine, King Prithu took up his bow and arrow and pursued the Earth to force her to yield nourishment for his people. The Earth assumed the form of a cow and begged him to spare her life; she then allowed him to milk her for all that the people needed.”

The cattle slaughter legislation was the BJP’s attempt to live up to its 2014 election manifesto, where it promised to protect “the cow and its progeny” in a nod to its Hindu nationalist roots. This was an attempt to appeal to India’s Hindu population, which holds cattle — particularly cows — to be sacred. State Assemblies have also begun to follow suit and pass laws that would make cow slaughter a punishable offence.

Alongside their dietary choices, most of India’s leather business is also handled by Muslims or the so-called lower castes. A blanket ban on the slaughter of cattle specifically aims to cut off their source of livelihood. For a nation that so reveres its gau mata (mother cow), India remains one of the largest exporters of beef in the world. Its buffalo meat export has grown from Rs 3,533 crore in 2007 to Rs 26,685 crore in 2016.

“The new rules of buffalo trade on which we were not consulted has come as a surprise and shock for the industry. It is not possible for individual farmers to sell their spent animals for slaughter (directly to us) without going to the nearest animal market,” Fauzan Alavi, spokesperson for the All India Meat and Livestock Exporters Association, the trade lobby of buffalo meat exporters, said.

Incidentally, demands to stop cattle slaughter have not just been limited to the BJP or Sangh leadership. Rajasthan High Court recently recommended to the Centre that it should declare the cow as the national animal. Even a body of Muslim intellectuals said it would extend support to any proposal to ban cow slaughter and declaring it as the national animal.

Despite the political grandstanding over the cow’s sanctity, an ugly truth prevails: the animal is frequently mistreated, housed miserably, fed rubbish or left to fend for itself. Cow protection is just a smokescreen that the fringe needs to achieve their long-term goal of turning India into a Hindu Pakistan.

The mistreatment of cows has been widespread in India, said Naresh Kadyan, India representative of the International Organisation for Animal Protection. The politicisation of cattle welfare has distracted from the problem of how India’s cows — some 283 million, according to a 2003 census — are treated.

While cows used to be prized for their economic value, they are now “unproductive, as they have been replaced by machines,” Kadyan said, adding that cows had “become a tool of publicity and politics to divide society”.

In states such as Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh — where the consumption of beef is less common than in the south or north-east — cows are treated well until they are unable to provide milk. “When they become unproductive, they are then kept in animal shelters that are like full-time jails,” he said. “There’s no scientific care for the rest of their lives. They have no exercise, no freedom of movement, and no land to graze on,” Kadiyan said.

A 2010 investigation by the India chapter of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) found rampant abuse of cows in the dairy industry. They were frequently injected with oxytocin, although the hormone causes stomach cramps and pain, to boost milk yields.

“Most (cows) are chained by their necks in narrow stalls, where they are unable to stretch or move normally,” according to Peta. “Lack of proper food causes them to suffer from digestive problems, and lack of exercise causes lameness.”

Unproductive cows may also be turned out of their farms, resulting in the sight that is so familiar in Indian cities: the solitary cow, wandering the streets and picking plastic out of refuse bins. The Peta report also said that at least half of the cows sold to slaughterhouses die before they even get to the abattoir because they are forced to walk there.

Firebrand Hindutva leader Yogi Adityanath, who became the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, has promised to improve the conditions of cows in the state. In May, his government announced a Cattle Healing Mobile Van Service — an ambulance for cows, which may be summoned by anyone who spots a cow in distress. He has also proposed to establish “cow sanctuaries”.

Some of these shelters are to be housed on the premises of penitentiaries because jails have land and manpower to tend to cattle.

However, not everyone agrees with this move. “These shelters will function without any sort of scientific approach,” Kadiyan said. “These are just so-called animal rights activists using the cow as a political tool — to misguide others to achieve their own political targets or for personal gain or profit.”

Kadiyan calls them animal rights activists. In reality, they are foot soldiers of an administration that is intent on imposing its brand and idea of Hinduism on all Indians. It doesn’t matter if they are not followers of Hinduism — they have two options: follow or perish.

The views expressed in this blog are mine unless otherwise mentioned.



Decoding the inner workings of India’s lynch mob syndrome

A common thread unites Mohammad Akhlaq, Pehlu Khan, Junaid Khan — they were lynched by Hindu mobs in the name of cow protection.

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP took power in 2014, mob lynchings have become the new normal. The BJP’s rise and the regular pro-Hindutva sermons issued by party leaders have instilled a sense of invincibility in these gau rakshaks (cow protectors).

Chief among them is Mohan Bhagwat, sarsanghchalak of the RSS, the BJP’s ideological mentor, who has repeatedly urged the Centre to ban slaughter of cows. Party MPs, including Yogi Adityanath, who became chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in March, has issued open threats against beef trade. Adityanath’s appointment as the state’s chief minister was followed by an unprecedented crackdown on slaughterhouses.

In the backdrop of this violence lies the BJP’s ideological goal — to create an India of the upper caste by suppressing the Muslims and confining the lower castes to their “rightful” place at the bottom of the food chain. Its idea of India stems from the Manusmriti or the Laws of Manu and Bunch of Thoughts by M.S. Golwalkar, the RSS’s second sarsanghchalak.

Mukul Kesavan wrote in The Telegraph that “the anti-cow-slaughter campaign has become for the BJP and its vision of Bharat what the anti-blasphemy law used to be for Zia-ul-Haq and his vision of Pakistan: an occasion for the public enactment of the supremacy of a religious majority and, correspondingly, the subordination of religious minorities.”

Kesavan described a visit to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington where he realised that “lynchings were public performances, designed to strike terror into minds of black people, specially blacks who had forgotten their place vis-à-vis their white betters.”

He also drew a parallel between the lynchings of the Ku Klux Klan and the violence of Hindu mobs. The Ku Klux Klan, he wrote, “used violence to intimidate free blacks, to ritually enact their ‘inferiority’. White vigilantes attacked black men and killed them in the name of protecting white womanhood. Between 1890 and the middle of the 20th century nearly 3,500 black men were lynched in the name of white supremacy.”

They also took pictures of their handiwork, which were often published as postcards. It was a “form of white terrorism in America, specifically designed to intimidate black Americans,” Kesavan wrote.

Most lynchings in India take place in the Hindi belt of the north, where the BJP has traditionally wielded more power. The lynch mobs see clear complicity of the people at the helm in the violence where the prime minister, as the chief minister of Gujarat, had himself advocated extrajudicial encounters. The mobs feel empowered. They also know that they enjoy impunity and patronage from the power.

Another aspect of emboldening the lynch mobs is their glorification by the ruling dispensation. The body of Ravi Sisodia, an accused in the murder of Akhlaq, was draped in the Tricolour and hailed as a martyr after he had died in jail.

Modi’s silence on this rabid expression of violence also provides tacit approval of their actions. Forest fires in Portugal elicit a quicker response from their leader than the gruesome murder of a 15-year-old boy.

This has created an “us versus them” mentality among the fringe elements where even police are mute spectators, while the courts are too busy debating whether a peahen reproduces by merely drinking the peacock’s tears.

The lynchings take place not just in the name of cows. It has ranged from fake WhatsApp messages alleging that a rape accused was an illegal Bangaldeshi immigrant through allegations of child trafficking to civic officials allegedly lynching a political activist after he tried to stop them from photographing women defecating in the open.

These were not the only instances. At the height of last year’s students’ movement in Jawaharlal Nehru University, there were repeated, some successful, attempts at attacking students, teachers, and activists on the court preemies. Some lawyers even managed to beat up students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar when he was lodged in jail at the time.

Decoding lynchings from the point of view of neuroscience, Sumaiya Shaikh, a medical scientist with a PhD in neuroscience, wrote in The Wire that a mob lynching differed from physical harm or a killing. According to her, several components come together — the attackers, spectators and the outnumbered victim(s) for this public spectacle that dates back to the medieval ages. “It needs the public humiliation of the victim and, unlike a lawful process of punishment, a lynching is a demonstration that the sentiments of the attackers are beyond the law or the government,” she wrote.

The perpetrator category of ‘participants’, Shaikh wrote, “isn’t an individual but a group that unites to act as a single entity. Within this group, there is trust, recognition, validation, power and anonymity for its members. Every action and thought of a group of this sort, like the workings of an insect swarm, consists solely of achieving their shared objective.”

But not all lynchings are spontaneous outbursts of mob sentiment. Two cow vigilantes had tailed the van of Asgar Ali alias Alimuddin on a bike from Chitarpur in Ramgarh, a known beef hub, to Bazartand in the heart of the district town on June 29 morning, providing regular updates during the 15km stretch to their friends in the marketplace waiting to kill, a chilling example of premeditated mob murder in India.

Apoorvanand agreed that “the spate of violent attacks are in no way spontaneous expressions of mob anger. They are the product of systematic incitement to violence by Hindu nationalists.”

The “atmosphere of sustained hatred against Muslims makes attacks on them seem spontaneous and the product of mob anger. But few question why the mob is angry in the first place,” he wrote.

In April 2017, when a man succumbed to his injuries suffered in a mob attack in Rajasthan, the state’s home minister told reporters that cow protectors were trying to stop people from trafficking cows. The chilling logic — those who are lynched are on the wrong side of the law and those who lynch are protecting it — gives further credence to the work of these lynch mobs.

The absence of laws against lynchings also allows these mob vigilantes get away with little or no punishment whatsoever. The founding fathers of the Constitution of India, perhaps, expected that India had moved on from the medieval practices and didn’t see the need to include any clause against mob violence. They didn’t realise, however, that the party which would hold the country’ts reins from 2014 would steer it back to the dark ages of mob justice.

A draft law to address the menace was unveiled on July 7 by the National Campaign Against Mob Lynching as a response to a spate of lynching incidents that have rattled the nation over the past few months. The draft Maanav Suraksha Kanoon (Masuka) defines lynching as “any act or series of acts of violence, whether spontaneous or planned, committed to inflict extra judicial punishment, or as an act of protest and caused by the desire of a mob to enforce upon a person or group of persons any perceived legal, societal & cultural norms/ prejudices.”

Masuka is expected to fill a glaring hole in India’s constitution. Whether the ruling dispensation makes any efforts to get it passed without delay is, however, still up in smoke.

The views expressed in this blog are mine unless otherwise mentioned.


Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth — Joseph Goebbels

On March 5, 2015, an outraged mob of 7,000-8,000 stormed into Dimapur jail, dragged out a rape accused, and lynched him. A government report to the Centre following that event said “it appeared to be a case of consensual sex”. It also said the victim had paid the woman Rs 5,000 after they twice had sex.

The spark behind the attack was a Facebook post that claimed that the man, a Muslim, was an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh. In reality, Syed Farid Khan was a 35-year-old used car businessman. Originally from Karimganj district in Assam, Khan had been living in Nagaland for eight years.

That was the first real instance of fake news being directly responsible for the loss of a life in India. Since then, the “industry” has only exploded, and India can thank its ruling dispensation for that. The BJP has become pioneers in unleashing its massive army of Twitter trolls on both voices of dissent against the party and the government as well as Opposition leaders. The phenomenon first began after the party anointed Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections; since then, it has only got worse. There have been attempts to falsify facts to either glorify the government and the party or undermine the Opposition, including celebrities who hold an opposing view.

The BJP’s massive information-technology cell uses photo editing software, source images from other countries — positive and negative — and use those to further their goals. But the phenomenon is not entirely Indian.

Long before Modi even considered running for India’s premiership, a burgeoning fake news industry existed in Nazi Germany, and, after its fall, the Soviet Union. The powers that be in these two countries used the lack of alternative information sources to further their agenda by using propaganda machinery.

Robert Darnton traces this history even further, going back, through the Roman “pasquinade”, French “canards”, and English “paragraphs”, to the sixth century AD.

George Orwell was the first to identify the problem of fake news in Politics and the English Language where he explained that political language “is designed to make lies sound truthful” through the use of “euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness”. Donald J. Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” has its roots in this theory.

The explosion of the Internet and its easy availability coincided with the growth and expansion of fake news to become what it is now — and social media, especially Facebook, has been blamed for its role in that expansion. The New York Times, in an editorial, even went as far as calling it the “digital virus”.

The term itself first caught on after Trump accused CNN of being “fake news” during his first press conference as president-elect. In fact, Trump was perhaps the biggest winner of the fake news industry that has made Facebook its home.

Max Read went as far as crediting the social media giant for Trump’s rise. “The most obvious way in which Facebook enabled a Trump victory has been its inability (or refusal) to address the problem of hoax or fake news,” he wrote in Donald Trump Won Because of Facebook.

When people were still reliant on newspapers and television and radio for information, editors and reporters had the nous to suppress conspiracy theories or stories that could potentially cause harm. Although these would slip out at times, such occurrences were rare thanks to the “gatekeepers” (editors, reporters) of the news industry. But the explosion of the Internet have made them redundant.

Several surveys have put the percentage of people whose primary source of news as social media significantly higher than those that depend on mainstream sources. The results of a 2016 YouGov survey of 50,000 people across 26 countries and published by the BBC put social media ahead of television as the main source of news for people in the 18-to-24 age bracket. The results also showed that of the people surveyed, 28 per cent of the youth cited social media as their main news source, compared with 24 per cent for television. The study also found that Facebook was the most common source — used by 44 per cent of the respondents, followed by YouTube on 19 per cent and Twitter on 10 per cent.

A Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism research showed 51 per cent of people with online access used social media as a news source. It also showed that more than half of all online users across the 36 countries (54 per cent) it surveyed said they used social media as a source of news each week, ranging from 76 per cent in Chile to 29 per cent in Japan and Germany. It said that more than one in 10 (14 per cent) were now dependent on social media as their main source.

It’s not only the consumers who depend on social media for news. A survey of 275 people, including 239 journalists and 36 from related professions such as PR and brand consultants, communication managers, content writers, journalism students, ex-journalists, conducted by The Hoot, an Indian website that monitors media in the subcontinent, found how the advent of social media has changed news-gathering as well. It showed that among the journalists who professionally used social media, 69 per cent (190 out of 275) for Twitter and 61 per cent (169 out of 275) for Facebook, used the two forums as a news source, including to find leads for their stories.

Facebook’s pre-eminence as a source of dissemination of news, while getting a lot more people in the know, also has its downside. In the run-up to the presidential elections in the United States, Gizmodo published a story where a former news curator at the social media giant said they routinely suppressed stories of interest to conservative readers from its Trending section. The former journalist, who worked on the project, said they prevented conservative topics from appearing in the section despite organically trending among the site’s users.

This caused furore across the country and there were calls on Facebook to investigate. Three days later, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said the company “found no evidence that this report is true.” Another two days later, Facebook announced automating Trending Topics, fired the section’s editorial team and replaced them with engineers. While many thought that would curtail the problem of fake news, a Washington Post experiment dispelled that myth with Facebook Has Repeatedly Trended Fake News Since Firing Its Human Editors.

Perhaps the greatest view of the inner workings of Facebook came from John Herrman in The New York Times Magazine. His Inside Facebook’s (Totally Insane, Unintentionally Gigantic, Hyperpartisan) Political-Media Machine highlighted “how a strange new class of media outlet has arisen to take over our news feeds”.

What social media has done is made news “social”. Instead of verifying the truth or logic behind the link to a news being shared on Facebook or Twitter, people tend to be driven by the number of “likes” and/or “retweets” the item has as well as the potential number of “likes” and/or “retweets” it will get them. The user interface and options available on social media have also made people dependent on social media, and, as a result, susceptible to fall prey to fake news. There is also the question of crediblity, and having been a credible source for new for a long time, any post or news shared on Facebook and Twitter are naturally accepted at face value.

Writing on the US presidential election coverage, Hermann found that “a brighter media narrative was unfolding in the growing importance of online social networks — the real new mass media. On Facebook and Twitter, election coverage could be consumed on a large scale, and readers were promised a restructuring of the news media that put them in a position of greater power”.

Twitter allows users to post photos and videos, making news delivery livelier. Facebook, with its 1.5 billion users worldwide, has the capacity to reach more people than all media organisations in the world, combined. Millions of people are on the platform throughout the day or updating news and articles on what they believe their friends might also be interested in.

The dangerous thing, however, according to the YouGov survey, is that consumers are happy to have their news selected by algorithms. Thirty-six per cent of the respondents said they would like news chosen based on what they had read before and 22 per cent were happy for their news agenda to be based on what their friends had read. “People like the convenience of algorithms choosing their news but are worried about whether that would mean they were missing out on key points or challenging viewpoints,” said lead author of the report Nic Newman.

This system has one drawback — instead of the users looking for the right content, it has revered to content looking for the right users.

So, why do people fall for fake news? Dr Michael Shermer links it to four factors — cognitive simplicity, cognitive dissonance, backfire effect and tribal unity. Some others have suggested that confirmation bias — the idea that we selectively seek out information that confirms our beliefs — was the root of the problem. There is also the factor of the casual reader’s relative inattentiveness towards the credibility of the news source.

Then, there are the people who willfully consume and share falsehood through fake news. During the recent communal clashes in Bengal’s Basirhat-Baduria towns, leaders and spokespersons of the BJP spread misinformation, even sharing images of the Gujarat riots as those of that in Bengal.

The recent lynchings in Jharkhand are another example of how misinformation has spread its roots and the manner in which it incites violence is a clear indicator of the dangers of social media, especially WhatsApp. “WhatsApp has become the most popular form of rich messaging, better than SMS and MMS,” said anti-fake news crusader Pratik Sinha, whose AltNews has taken up the mantle of busting online myths.

“The conditions under which messages circulate often tend to act as triggers. In an already charged environment, false pieces of information could be interpreted in ways that contribute to enhancing pre-existing prejudice, rumours or intent,” said Vibodh Parthasarthy, faculty member at the Centre for Culture, Media and Governance at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi.

Half-truths and misinformation are regularly circulated on these mass media platforms and many regularly forward these to their friends, peers and colleagues without even verifying the truth. India is teeming with journalism schools which lay emphasis on two very important aspects of the profession — the 5Ws&H (who, when, what, where, why and how of an incident) and verifying a piece of news from multiple sources.

Despite the efforts of these premier journalism institutes, even corporate media houses fall victim to fake propaganda in their haste to get a story on air or print.

Sinha’s AtlNews is one of several websites that have taken up the task of debunking fake news and misinformation. Others, including Boomlive and SMHoaxSlayer, have taken the fight to the spread of misinformation, but founders of all these websites agree that more such portals are needed to tackle the menace. “On social media, the manpower behind the pushing of the propaganda plays an important role. And the Right-wingers have the numbers,” Sinha said.

Fake news is not, however, just the forte of the Right-wing; Left-wing websites have also started spreading misinformation against Trump on several websites.

“We realised there was a huge gap in what the media was trying to say and what people were believing, so we decided to use Boom to break down every such story,” Boomlive’s managing editor Jency Jacob said.

“While 230 million people have WhatsApp, they do not always have access to newspapers to verify what was sent to them,” said Govindraj Ethiraj, former editor-in-chief of Bloomberg TV India, and founder of Boomlive. “What also comes as a surprise to us is how politicians and powerful public figures cite numbers or share pictures which are clearly fake,” he said.

However, the instances of political leaders spreading misinformation shows that not everyone who fall victim to fake news do so unknowingly. Many do it on purpose to achieve some political goal, making that old adage of ends justifying the means ring true.

The views expressed in this blog are mine unless otherwise mentioned.


Protests like “Not In My Name” only strengthen RSS resolve against liberal values

Several cities across India reverberated with slogans of “Not In My Name” on June 28 as thousands thronged the streets to protest the spurt in lynching of innocents in the name of gau bhakti (cow reverence).

Crimes against Muslims have gone up leaps and bounds since the Hindu nationalist government of the BJP under Narendra Modi’s leadership came to power in 2014. Most of these crimes have strategically targeted Muslims, either in the name of the holy cow, or on the pretext of child trafficking (as in Jharkhand). But Muslims are not the only victims.

Last July, Modi and Amit Shah’s home state, Gujarat, erupted in an uprising after seven Dailt men in Una were publicly flogged by gau rakashaks (cow vigilantes) for skinning a dead cow.

Moreover, atrocities are not just limited to north India, the so-called cow belt, or states ruled by the BJP — the murder of a Dalit man for marrying an upper caste woman in broad daylight in Chennai highlights this.

If the attacks in Una exposed India’s gruesome underbelly of cow vigilantism, the Chennai murder shone light on the impact that caste still holds in a so-called progressive society.

To disregard these attacks would be to undermine the progressive polity that a majority of the educated Indian hope would dictate the discourse. Looked at from this point of view, the “Not In My Name” protests across India does more harm than good — it highlights selective outrage of the Indian elite. Moreover, Modi’s statement against attacks by cow vigilantes a few days after the protests should also not be taken as a victory. Modi has a habit of uttering a customary rebuke against vigilantism — he did it after the murder of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri in 2015, he did it again at the height of the protests in Una, and he did it now.

Modi, very calculatedly, used the term “gau bhakti”, highlighting that there was nothing wrong in worshipping the cow and using it as a political tool. He even invoked Vinobha Bhave to drive home his point. It could be argued that Modi’s remarks about “Kabristan-Shamshan” in the run-up to the Assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh gives tacit support to these fringe elements, his silence provides further encouragement to them.

The Modi government’s tenure has been blighted by attacks on civil liberties, educational institutes, liberal and free thinking, press, to just name a few. Sporadic protests against the government will not yield dividends. It only works to further widen the already-existing divide between those who see Modi as the messiah and those who see him as the demon, responsible for all the atrocities that have occurred since his ascension to power.

There were no hashtags on Twitter and Facebook over the death of five farmers in Madhya Pradesh, allegedly in police firing. Several other farmers have since committed suicide, both in Madhya Pradesh and other states. Over 100 people died in queues while waiting to get their old notes exchanged following demonetisation. It may be true that the brutal murder of a 16-year-old for allegedly being a beef-eater sparked the protests, but India has been here before over the past three years.

India has not become communal all of a sudden because Modi is the prime minister, he is the prime minister because India is inherently communal. Protests like “Not In My Name” fan the communal hatred even further, especially in RSS sakhas. These protests consolidate the BJP’s hold on the upper caste. The RSS highlights these protests as a liberal conspiracy against the Hindus, and the liberals are playing into their hands. A standalone protest for the murder of a Muslim boy will not change anything, it needs to filter through to the absolute bottom layer if it wants to make an impact on the populace. The issues need to be broader, long-term policies and targets need to be fixed. Moreover, the protests need to be organised and cannot be selective.

The BJP wants to divide and conquer, the best way to defeat them is use the same policy against them. They don’t necessarily care about the Muslims, but they need the Dalits. The protests should include atrocities against the Dalits as well, they should not be left to fend for themselves, like what happened to them after Una and Saharanpur. This is a fight for the idea of India and all Indians must be included in the fight — the farmer and banker, Dalit and upper caste, Hindus and Muslims, the educated and the illiterate, the Malayali and the Gujarati.

Civil rights movements at the height of the Arab Spring brought down dictatorships inTunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, forced changes in Kuwait, Lebanon and Oman, and constitutional reforms in Morocco and Jordan. India, for the time being, still remains a democracy. And actions must be taken to preserve the values of that democratic, socialist, secular republic before it’s too late.

A few roaring protests, coverage in the international media will scare the government and its ruling party. And that will be the ideal moment to strike.

The views expressed in this blog are mine unless otherwise mentioned.


Modi-BJP’s habitual u-turns dent an already flimsy credibility

The BJP-led NDA government at the Centre launched the Goods and Services Tax (GST), the “most ambitious” tax reform in India’s history, from July 1 amid much fanfare and mobilisation of the party machinery.

Behind the scenes, however, it represents yet another BJP volte-face on reform. The party, which swept into power in 2014, can best be described as overseeing a bungling and blundering policy regime. Its periodic flip-flops, both on issues it had opposed during the earlier UPA government and turnarounds on its own policy decisions, have become the norm rather than the exception.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his stint as Gujarat chief minister, was one of the staunchest critics of the GST, citing infringement of the states’ freedom and strike on its coffers. His vehement opposition to the GST, ironically approved for planning by the first BJP prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, forced erstwhile finance minister Pranab Mukherjee to fly down to Ahmedabad in 2010 to seek his support. The Gujarat government opposed the UPA’s plans to implement the GST in 2011, 2012 and even October 2013. It had claimed that India lacked the infrastructure to push through the reform programme.

The first flip-flop on this issue came just before the general elections, in February 2014, when Modi was grilled by a group of industrialists while canvassing for votes. After he assumed the prime minister’s chair in May 2014, Modi, all of a sudden, began to pursue quick passage of the GST bill, claiming that the information-technology infrastructure was now in place to implement the reform. This raises a simple question — how did the country develop its infrastructure within just eight months to undertake such a big reform.

It was just the first in a series of policy u-turns that have punctuated this government’s tenure. Last year, the venerable Wall Street Journal annoyed right-wing commentators and Modi bhakts with its list of Modi’s Greatest Misses: New Delhi’s Top Policy Flip Flops.

This government has also made shifting goalposts a habit whenever things don’t go its way. The purpose of the demonetisation exercise is a case in point. When Modi announced his “landmark” decision to scrap all currency notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000, he said it was to weed out funding for terror outfits and curb the circulation of black money and fake currency. Eight months and more than a hundred deaths later, the Reserve Bank of India is yet to formally come up with the data showing how much black money it has retrieved from the “parallel economy”. As soon as things started going south, Modi, and his finance minister Arun Jaitley, moved to claim that the exercise was meant to promote digital transactions and e-wallets as part of the government’s Digital India programme through the Lucky Grahak Yojana and the Digi Dhan Vyapaar Yojana. That claim looks flimsy considering the negligible Internet connectivity in rural and semi-urban areas.

The shifting of goalposts is also down to Modi’s tendency to lob half-truths into the public discourse and his love for playing to the galleries when announcing policy decisions.

Modi and the BJP were swift to volte-face on several UPA-era policies such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), once referred to as the “living monument of failures” of the government. They now believe it to be the “nation’s pride”.

Modi has also backtracked on issues such as FDI, Aadhaar and the civil nuclear deal.

The government’s tenure has also been highlighted by ironies. As the prime minister talked up a cashless society, it was expected that digital transactions would benefit following demonetisation. However, the GST has taxed all bank transactions, including digital, at 18 per cent. The government has pumped a lot of money into its JAM programme (Jan Dhan for banking and Direct Benefit Transfer, Aadhaar, mobile phone). However, telecom services have been hit with an 18 per cent tax rate, compared to 15 per cent earlier.

Twitter user @AnandRM_ conducted an estimate of GST rates on some items, bringing into focus the government’s double-speak on issues they claim to support and those they actually do. Temples and prasad are tax exempted, while schoolbags and notebooks are taxed at 18 and 12 per cent, respectively. Despite a pet programme like Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, bindi and bangles have been exempted, while sanitary napkins have been put in the 12 per cent slab.

Environment policy has also suffered because of Modi’s hurry to push through the GST. While as a signatory of the Paris Agreement, India did not agree to cap its emissions outright, it did pledge to greatly increase the use of green energy. It has pledged to get 40 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030, which will include building about 100 gigawatts of solar energy by 2022. India is set to pass Japan this year to become the world’s third largest market for solar (after China and the US).

However, the GST has reduced coal tax from 12 per cent to just 5 per cent. Solar cells were initially to be taxed 18 per cent. Later, public pressure forced the government to backtrack and tax it at 5 per cent. Another Twitter user, @ramdasrocks, highlighted Modi’s u-turn in promoting clean energy. Despite the plans to go green by 2030, the government has slotted hybrid cars in the highest tax bracket (28 per cent GST + 15 per cent cess).

But the BJP’s biggest volte-face came in Jammu and Kashmir. Article 370 has always been a core issue of the party, even during its Jana Sangh days. Less than 48 hours since Modi swept into power, Udhampur MP Jitender Singh Rana boasted to the media that the time was ripe to look into Article 370.

The junior minister in the Prime Minister’s Office told a news channel: “We are speaking to the stakeholders. Article 370 has done more harm than good.”

However, all that was just noise. The BJP held no qualms in joining forces with the PDP, known for its staunch support for Article 370, when the opportunity presented itself, to become a junior partner in a coalition government in the state. In fact, the BJP’s opposition to Article 370 stems from a lack of understanding of its powers — the only party its abrogation benefits are the separatists.

It may have come as a disappointment to the followers of Shyama Prasad Mukherjee and the RSS, the benefits of Article 370 to the Centre, and by extension, the BJP, explains its u-turn on the issue.

Amid all this, India’s foreign policy offers some level of consistency, but much of it is down to external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and the foreign office bureaucrats who tirelessly worked to secure India’s standing as a global force.

But that doesn’t paper over the cracks that Modi’s government, and the BJP, are showing when it comes to formulating policy decisions. The man with the 56” chest would do well to cut out the rhetoric and turn his attention to properly planning the policies that he wants to implement.

The views expressed in this blog are mine unless otherwise mentioned.