Nehru, Kashmir And The ‘Lost Frontier’

Kashmir is in the news these days for reasons right and wrong, and promises to persist for long. Pakistan is most upset with India’s nullifying the special status under Article 370 of the Constitution. It calls Kashmir “unfinished part” of the 1947 Partition.

But now it is being asked: was it part of the Partition at all?

New research points to the British introducing it after the Congress abandoned its government in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) (present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and also conceded Balochistan.

Old records show the British, after reaching an understanding with the Muslim League, coaxed Jawaharlal Nehru to visit NWFP which the latter did despite opposition from Sardar Patel and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad.

Most crucially, ‘Frontier Gandhi’ Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his brother and the province’s Chief Minister, Dr Khan Saheb, were not consulted, when they ran a “strong’ Congress government.

Raghavendra Singh, a retired civil servant while dwelling on his book, “India’s Lost Frontier: The Story of the NWFP Province of Pakistan, ” says that Nehru made the “fatal mistake” of visiting  the riot-hit province with approval of then Congress chief Acharya Kripalani and agreed to an election and later, a referendum. The ministry had to resign.

Once Ghaffar Khan and his Khudai Khidmatgar were “thrown to the wolves” (in their words) the British found it easy to include Balochistan in the south and Jammu and Kashmir in the north to be incorporated into the future Pakistan.

Citing correspondence among the top British rulers in New Delhi, the British Government and records of the Department of Commonwealth Affairs of that era, Singh says: “The British approach radically changed in 1946, soon after the end of the World War II. Lord Louise Mountbatten was sent as the last Viceroy “only to complete the formalities.” 

He rejects the principle of contiguity of the two provinces that the British insisted upon. But for the ‘sacrificing’ of NWFP and Balochistan, “there would have been neither the Kashmir dispute, nor lack of access to Afghanistan that irk India today.”

Respective roles of the British and the Indian leaders stand in stark contrast. The Congress and the Muslim League were both part of this as “nobody wanted to go back to jail. They wanted to bury the hatchet for good.  Some Indians with Western education and sensibilities thought the division was temporary.”  

This reinforces what is well-known and debated ad nauseam. Never the hapless umpire, the British wanted the Partition. They played the proverbial cat distributing bread among the squabbling monkeys.

They saw Pakistan as their bulwark to retain their influence in the region and that it would help ‘contain’ the Soviet spread to the Indian Ocean region. A new chapter of the “Great Game” was thus written.

In contrast, an independent India, too big and diverse, was perceived as being not amenable to the West. The British also wanted to create a Muslim nation to guard their interests with the monarchies and the oil resources in the Middle East.

They proved right on many counts. The Middle East saw unprecedented oil boom. The rise of a communist China, in addition to the Soviet Union posed a bigger challenge. Independent India empathized with both. They were proved wrong, however, that the British Empire itself declined, almost totally, within two decades of the Partition.

It’s time to question the inevitability of the Partition, at least how it was executed. How entire provinces were divided despite their mixed populations, causing millions to flee their homes amidst bloodshed – and bad blood that persists today. Neither the British, nor Indians anticipated this, despite communal tensions. 

Opinion is emerging among select Indian scholars, especially civil servants and diplomacy practitioners who have seen the world closely. Using British records, it challenges the British-guided history of the region.  

Through them, it is possible to view larger picture of the South Asian region and also the adjoining West Asia as part of the “Great Game” that continues to be played through its many avatars.

Also, through them, it is possible to view many faults and failures of Indian political leadership of that era without getting embroiled in the current, largely uninformed debate that is besotted with a political agenda, of deifying some leaders and demonizing some others.

The problem, pointed out by Ambassador TCA Raghvan, author of “The People Next Door: The Curious History of India’s Relations with Pakistan” (2017) is that “we view history with contemporary eyes”.   

It is not clear how far the Subcontinent’s political leaders were able to grasp the larger – regional, if not global – worldview, of how the European colonizers, having ruined themselves fighting the World Wars, sought to draw Asia’sn national borders, intent on keeping their strategic and economic hold.  They didn’t, or at least, not enough. For, all conflicts since then have occurred in Asia.    

India’s division was preceded by a line British India drew with Afghanistan. Ambassador Rajiv Dogra  in his book, “Durand’s Curse – A Line Across the Pathan Heart”(2017), emphasizes how an invisible, but powerful line (drawn by and named after British foreign secretary, Sir Mortimer Durand) divides the ethnic Pashtuns and continues to cause friction between Kabul and Islamabad to the detriment of both. 

To this day, in multi-ethnic Afghanistan, its dominant Pashtuns nurse an unrealized dream of Pashtun homeland.  And to this day, Afghanistan, the graveyard of many Empires, yet coveted by many because of its location, remains a nation in perennial turmoil. It is possible to foresee severe instability in Afghanistan, no matter who rules. 

Looking at the larger picture, yet another Afghanistan sub-chapter in “Great Game” may be written soon with the United States’ victory-less withdrawal. The Asians will play proxies, and the conflict will continue.

China, the emerging global power, already embracing most Asians with its multi-billion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), will be a significant player, backing its key proxy Pakistan. India may be ‘friendless’, yet again.  

Back to Kashmir: Whatever be domestic compulsions and consequences, the Kashmir factor that India has introduced also promises to be part of this larger ‘game.’ The India-Pakistan rivalry will surely persist. India will not roll back Kashmir’s re-worked avatar and Pakistan will not countenance it.

Odds are heavy against Pakistan. Like it could not keep out of the Afghan imbroglio in the past, much to its detriment long-term, it cannot ignore Kashmir either.        

Pakistan’s military-civil leadership now tackle two-front turmoil of having to secure border with Afghanistan while pushing the Taliban towards Kabul, and with India — opposition its Kashmir moves while keeping the Kashmir pot boiling within the country and before the world community.

Despite pressures from within and provocations from without, India can and may ‘digest’ this if it genuinely reaches out to the Kashmiris.  If it fails, not 1947, but the year 2019 will be the base year for future historians.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Bhagat Singh Practised Patriotism, Not Nationalism

The freedom fighter’s vision of a global federation of the future is still relevant today

Seven decades after the British left, a young Indian donning a hat uncharacteristically continues to stride on South Asia’s mental landscape, ruffling up the political discourse and occasionally questioning the conscience of the former colonial masters.

Overshadowing his Sikh identity, Shaheed Bhagat Singh’s ‘Western’ image emerged when he was on the run from the British Indian police. His is among the most recognized face in the pantheon of freedom fighters.

He practised and preached patriotism, and not narrow nationalism as understood today; and socialism, not what goes in the name of social and economic reforms today.

Eighty-eight years after he was hanged, at all of 23 years, he would be perplexed today to be termed a ‘terrorist’ by some contemporary British historians, and at his legacy becoming a bone of contention among India’s warring political forces.

September 28th was Bhagat Singh’s 112th birth anniversary. Not many observed it. That Mahatma Gandhi’s landmark 150th birth anniversary soon followed may have something to do with it. Whether the people have fully understood the content and spirit of what the two said and did is a different matter.

Bhagat Singh’s anniversary was preceded by a stealthy, overnight, unauthorized installation of his bust in the Delhi University. The problem was that it was one of the three, with Subhas Chandra Bose and Hindutva pioneer V D Savarkar. Credit for it was taken by the students’ affiliate of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The university authorities played footsy till Savarkar’s face was blackened by students of the opposition Congress. Removing all three busts became inevitable.

The three represent differing ideologies. Savarkar’s followers in power today have sought to appropriate along with Gandhi the others as part of their establishment’s efforts to re-write history, especially of the freedom struggle. This is despite the fact that these lives are well documented.

Bhagat Singh’s records show that for a 23 year-old, some spent in jail, and as one who spent a year in college, he was highly committed, well-read, well-informed, knew several languages and left behind a body of work.

The narrative so far remains one of his being wedded to socialist and revolutionary ideas. But who knows, the process of appropriating him may never end, given, as analysts say, the “tussle between Bhagat and Bhagat Singh.”

In a new edited 638-page volume, historian and academic Chaman Lal says the process of Bhagat Singh developing as a Marxist revolutionary began with the setting up of Naujawan Bharat Sabha and the later rechristening of HRA (Hindustan Republican Army) as Hindustan Socialist Republican Army/Association. Founded in 1924, the HRA galaxy included Chandrashekhar Azad, Ram Prasad Bismil and Ashfaquallah.   

Politically, he and his associates respected Mahatma Gandhi for the impact his ideas and actions created on the masses. But they did not believe that non-violence would yield the country freedom from the British.  

Bhagat Singh and his comrades shot dead British policeman John Saunders. But they also smuggled a bomb into the Central Legislative Assembly in Delhi and exploded it to create a noisy impact, without hurting anyone. If the first act was to send a stern message to the British, the latter was to arouse mass awareness for the same.  Along with Sukhdev Thapar and Shivram Rajguru, he courted arrest, was tried on both counts and the three were eventually hanged.

The dual act separates him and his group from other revolutionaries who, in their own belief of no less significance, sacrificed their lives. He had evolved from his belief in the Ghadar Party’s adherence to violence to people-oriented activism based on socialist ideas.

Their hunger strike in jail added to mass awareness. From Gandhi to Jinnah to Nehru and Bose, all spoke in support. Some criticized them for their violent means to seek freedom. Chaman Lal says there was “not a word” from Hindutva adherents. 

A controversy developed over Gandhi’s attitude to the death sentence on the three. Could he have bargained their exoneration before signing the Gandhi-Irwin Pact?

Chaman Lal told The Times of India: “Even if Gandhi had made it a point not to have the Gandhi-Irwin Pact without the commutation of their death sentences, the revolutionaries would not have accepted any compromise at their end. They had a clear perception that they had to sacrifice their lives to arouse the Indian masses for the freedom struggle. Yet one can say that Gandhi did make efforts but not with the passion of Nehru and Bose. Gandhi did not assert his moral position that he is against death sentence, whatever may be the crime. In the revolutionaries’ case, Gandhi should not have compromised on his principled position of opposition to capital punishment.”

Bose said that Bhagat Singh had become “the symbol of the new awakening among the youths.” Nehru acknowledged that Singh’s popularity was “leading to a new national awakening,”

Prof. Vinay Lal, Professor of History at UCLA quotes Nehru who thought “he had seen everything; but he had not, since, for a time, the popularity of Bhagat Singh appeared to exceed the popularity of Gandhi. He found that amazing.”

Singh and his comrades had rattled the British rulers. The three were hanged before the stipulated time to avoid mass protests.

In present times, his mystic endures. He is discussed by scholars and historians irrespective of their political credo. Numerous books have been written. At least seven films have been made between 1931 and 2002. Bhagat Singh’s role enacted by Shammi Kapoor, Manoj Kumar, Ajay Devgan and Bobby Deol has furthered the popular discourse.

At the political level, there is an unmistakable irony about Bhagat Singh’s portrayal as a socialist when socialism and indeed, Marxism, are on the back-foot in much of the world, even as caste considerations divide India’s socialists and the Marxists are being electorally vanquished.

Across South Asia, the Bhagat Singh mystique remains deeply embedded among the educated and discerning. Late Madeeha Gauhar of Pakistan’s Ajoka Theatre Group told this writer of several stage performances. To avoid any divisiveness, she said, the preferred image of Bhagat Singh is one of the clean-shaven man with thin moustache and fedora. The same endures in India.

Two bodies in Pakistan, Bhagat Singh Foundation and Bhagat Singh Memorial Foundation want a memorial in Banga, his birthplace in Lyallpur and a road named after him in Lahore, where he was hanged. One of them wants the British Queen to publicly apologize for the brutal treatment to him before he was hanged.          

From Bangladesh, Farooque Chowdhury recalls that the slogan that Bhagat Singh introduced during the freedom struggle turned into a war cry of the exploited people across the Subcontinent seeking their rights: Inqilab Zindabad – Long Live Revolution.”

In a 1924 essay, Bhagat Singh embraced the ancient Indian idea of “vasudhaiva kutumbakam” (the world as family) and visualized a global federation of the future. If only a dream, it is still relevant today in a world that is witnessing barriers built in the name of nationalism.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Recalling ‘Aradhana’ In Its Golden Jubilee Year

There are films that set box office records and there are some that script history. Shakti Samanta’s masterpiece creation Aradhana did both

Anniversary recalls of films are reserved for classics. Many may argue, but Aradhana, released on 27th this month, fifty years ago, was not one.

But it was much else. There are films that set box office records. There are some that script history. Aradhana did both. It made money, selling across India, in the erstwhile Soviet Union and elsewhere.

It refurbished romance as a popular theme and survived those that celebrated violence and the “angry young man”, invariably ending in tragedy.

Aradhana was essentially producer-director Shakti Samanta’s creation. Bengali literature provides numerous themes that can be made into films. Many have been first made into that language before being re-made in Hindi. But Aradhana was straight out of Hollywood, based on To Each His Own (1946).

Besides a gripping story, obvious inspiration was the Oscar-winning performance by Olivia de Havilland, the role that Sharmila Tagore enacted. Retaining the air force pilot bit but relocating it in scenic North Bengal, the Indianization by writer Sachin Bhoumick left little trace of the original.

This family drama spread over two generations was the launching pad for Rajesh Khanna’s twinkly-eyed superstardom. He had four flops before. With Aradhana began his journey of 17 consecutive hits at the box office between 1969 and 1974. 

I met him at a party during that period, dressed in gaudy silk kurta and tehemat, basking in success that few before him had enjoyed.

But his superstardom was short-lived. Undoubtedly charming and even successful, he lacked the physique and the mind to bear its burden.

Samanta had switched from his long-time favourite Shammi Kapoor who had given him two hits (Kashmir Ki Kali and An Evening in Paris) to this fresh-faced newcomer. Pairing him against Sharmila, his senior by a decade, was a gamble that paid off. 

Aradhana was a great musical. Samanta had replaced his long-time favourites Shankar Jaikishan. See any collection of old songs today – Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar or S D Burman – practically all Aradhana songs are there.

With S D Burman’s advent preference for male singers changed. The film cemented Kishore Kumar’s position as India’s most popular playback singer (Kora Kaagaz tha and Roop Tera Mastana) at the expense of Mohammed Rafi (Gunguna Rahe Hain). Kishored’s versatile but untrained voice, lost among those trained by Ustads of Hindustani Classical of that era, had remained on the periphery for 22 long years.

As in Guide (1965), both Rafi and Kishore had given outstanding songs to composer Sachin Dev Burman. But Kishore burst the popularity charts the second time over in Aradhana, never to look back. Common to both films, of course, were voices of Lata Mangeshkar and Burman’s own, in title songs.

Burman fell sick while composing for Aradhana. Son Rahul Dev Burman took up the baton. Kishore, too, shared the music credit. Once out of the father’s banyan tree shadow, RD’s musical genius came into its own.

Sharmila Tagore had by then done 22 films. Launched by Satyajit Ray (Apur Sansar in 1959), she had paired opposite Bengal’s superstar Uttam Kumar (Nayak in 19660. For Samanta, she had done Kashmir Ki Kali (1964), Sawan Ki Ghata (1966) and An Evening in Paris (1967). But her Aradhana performance was vastly different.    

Precisely three months after Aradhana’s release, when she married Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, the cricketer, it is said, the Nawab’s mother faced the dilemma of having to choose between a bikini-wearing bahu (first Indian actress to do so in An Evening in Paris) and a self-sacrificing unwed mother of Aradhana and of her earlier film, Satyakam (1966).

The sensitive unwed mother theme was not new. At least two films, B R Chopra’s Dhool Ka Phool (1959) and Dharmaputra (1961) with both roles enacted by Mala Sinha had preceded Aradhana. But in Sharmila’s two performances, neither the mother nor the child, aroused pity or disdain.      

After Aradhana, Rajesh-Sharmila became the hit pair of the 1970s. Samanta repeated them with similar success in Amar Prem (1972). It was located in Calcutta (now Kolkata) for which R D Burman lent that rare Bengal folk lilt. No fan of Rafi, RD took Kishore all the way. Today, it would be difficult to judge which of the two films is better, popular.   

Indeed, the first half of the 1970s belonged to Rajesh-Sharmila. Other directors starred them together in Safar (1970), Daag (1973), Maalik (1972), Chhoti Bahu, Raja Rani and Avishkaar – seven in all.

Sujit Kumar, who drives the jeep riding which Rajesh croons “mere sapnon ki rani” acquired huge fan following. After being the leading man’s sidekick, he leap-frogged to play lead roles in Bhojpuri films.

Shakti Samanta did many more films later, including Kati Patang (1971), pairing Rajesh with another senior, Asha Parekh. It had great music by RD. But arguably, that film is not so lasting in public memory as Aradhana and Amar Prem. 

Half-a-century hence, Samanta and his story-teller Bhowmick are gone. Rajesh Khanna passed away in 2012, to be posthumously awarded Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian award.

He won four Filmfare Awards for performances and two special awards for lifetime achievements. Long past his superstardom, he remained popular, though, and was elected to Parliament (1992-1996). The generation he mesmerized has faded.

Sharmila, gracefully aged, looks the same — pretty and petite. Her children have taken to films and she had a long stint as the Chief of the Central Board of Film Certification.   

Both the Burmans are gone, none to replace them — none to replace Kishore Kumar either.

One of the few survivors, Farida Jalal, the bubbly muse of Suraj, the pilot-son who sang Baaghon mein bahar hai, trade-marked that kind of role for years. Even as she plays the mother today, she remains a happy combination of wit and wisdom.  

For Samanta, Aradhana won the Filmfare Award for Best Film. At the 17th Filmfare Awards, Sharmila won her first Filmfare Best Actress Award. The song “Roop Tera Mastana” fetched the Best Male Playback Singer for Kishore Kumar.

Originally released in Hindi-Urdu and dubbed in Bengali, Aradhana’s huge success led to two remakes, with Tagore’s role being enacted by Vanishri. The Tamil film Sivagamiyin Selvan and the Telugu film Kannavari Kalalu were both released in 1974.

Old records say that Aradhana made a large impact on Indians in general. Wearing kurta over trousers became fashionable, and so was Khanna’s hairstyle, with parting in the middle, ears covered.    

It inspired many to take up films as a vocation. One of them was the popular American actor Tom Alter, who had made India his home and Bollywood his artistic arena.

He confessed in an interview that impressed watching Rajesh Khanna in Aradhana, he had headed to Film and Television Institute of India to train as an actor.  

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

]]>

India Has Placed Scientific Temperament In Orbit

Modi deserves credit for bringing out space science from its bureaucratic halo of the past and creating a mass following through an approving media

Science is one of those disciplines where even a failure can leave much to explore, learn and correct. This is the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)’s immediate task after the last-minute debacle of its moon mission Chandrayaan-2.

It might have failed in one of its objectives, but the mission itself is not a failure. The ISRO came tantalizingly close to creating history in the early hours of September 7 when the robotic lander Vikram followed the predetermined descent trajectory and came just within 350 meter of the lunar surface before contact was lost.

Vikram was located a day later. But mystery surrounds whether it landed ‘softly’ as its fall was slowed or crash-landed and its condition after the fall. The orbiter and other systems, however, continue with their assigned tasks.

If successes have their stories, so do failures on which future successes are hopefully built. This writer, although not equipped with science studies, had meant to dwell here on India’s numerous achievements in the field of science. Now, it must be a solemn narrative, admitting the obvious that there have been both failures amid successes.

ISRO deserves applause for its maiden effort at moon landing. Only three other nations, the United States, Russia and China have done it, after multiple efforts “soft landing” on the moon’s South Pole. Someone calculated the cost of Indian mission at a measly Rs 9.78 per capita — peanuts when compared to what others have spent.

To put it in perspective, there have been 38 attempts so far by other countries to land a rover on the moon and have succeeded only a little more than half the time. This April, Israel’s Beresheet lunar lander crashed to the lunar surface. Early January this year, China’s Chang’e-4 touched down on the lunar far side and deployed the Yutu-2 rover to explore the South Pole-Aitken basin.

A significant and positive change lies in the way the world has viewed the mission. Support and sympathy came from NASA and space agencies of advanced nations most of whom are cooperating/ collaborating. The foreign media in general applauded the effort. Gone are the days when the West viewed Indian efforts condescendingly, advising against putting money on expensive ventures and instead, feed and educate the poor.

Or, when there was unwillingness to give credit. When late APJ Abdul Kalam became the President of India, sections of Western media had sought to project the home-grown scientist as one who had ‘borrowed’ knowledge. Much was made of the brief visit to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) he had paid as a practicing scientist. An economically strong India is in different league today.  

At home, applause is due for this scientific mission capturing the imagination of a whole nation when the ruling political dispensation and its myriad ideological affiliates pursue a revisionist agenda that encourages obscurantism.

Whatever critics may say, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did well to go back to the grieving scientists who lost by a whisker and offer his shoulder, literally, to their emotional leader. The heart-felt consolation was also a morale booster for the scientists and calmed the millions who had anxiously watched the wee-hour aborted touch-down. 

Undoubtedly, Modi deserves credit for bringing out space science from its bureaucratic halo of the past and creating a mass following through an approving media. But his critics complain with some justification that even space is not the limit for his personal political branding.

It contradicts and mercifully, corrects the prevailing ethos to which he has contributed. It was Modi who initiated at the Indian Science Congress in 2014 the trend of mixing up science with religion, beliefs, tradition. To be fair, he has not got the science wrong since. But the trend he set has encouraged his many ministers and partymen and women to question, among other things, the Darwin Theory. Recent deaths of ailing ruling party stalwarts were blamed on “destructive magic” of opposition parties that are already in a political coma.

India survives, even thrives on such contradictions. They have always been there, even when Jawaharlal Nehru, the first premier after two centuries of slavery, laid the foundations of modern science and technology, including this space programme. He had then advocated that a tradition-bound people should develop “scientific temper.” He is a political untouchable today. Even this expression is shunned and history is sought to be selectively rewritten.         

All of India expressed solidarity with ISRO and its scientists. But disregarding Modi’s morale-booster to the scientists, some of his acolytes dragged in “Pakistan and its Indian supporters” (read the Modi’s political opponents) for “planning celebrations.” Select TV channels also chimed in with this cacophony. To think that their consumers and purveyors are educated middle class people.

They offer the mirror image to their adversarial neighbour. Over there, too, predictably, amidst the current tiff over the changes India has made in Kashmir, the narrative was one of India’s ‘hopes dashed” and its space agency experiencing “lunar moment of truth.”

Pakistan’s minister for science and technology Fawad Chaudhary tweeted his glee at the failure of the mission and advised India not to ‘waste’ money in trying to reach the moon. He was rightly pulled up by saner compatriots who said it was ‘childish’ to attack India when Pakistan’s own achievement in space science was largely borrowed and miles behind.

Leaving domestic and sub-continental shenanigans behind, one must return to Chandrayaan 2. The orbiter is safe in the intended orbit around the moon. And with the “precise launch and mission management”, its life span will extend to almost seven years. Carrying eight of the 13 payloads, the orbiter will spend the next nearly seven years making high-resolution maps of the lunar surface, mapping the minerals, understanding the moon’s evolution, and most importantly looking for water molecules in the polar regions. Some of the impact craters in the South Pole are permanently shadowed from sunlight and could be ideal candidate sites to harbour water.

With the U.S. wanting to send astronauts to the South Pole by 2024, NASA, in particular, will be keen on data from the Chandrayaan 2 orbiter. The ISRO’s Moon Impact Probe and NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper on board Chandrayaan 1 had already provided evidence of the presence of water in the thin atmosphere of the moon, on the surface and below. A NASA study last year found regions, within 20° of each pole in general and within 10° in particular, showed signs of water. The Chandrayaan 2 orbiter will now possibly reconfirm the presence of water on the moon.

For ISRO, there is vast scope beyond the moon. It wants to go to Venus, and send up a manned space mission. France is a partner. Time was when France launched Indian satellites in the Pacific. Then, India launched French and other satellites in the Indian Ocean region, The two have agreed to send up almost 12 satellites to enhance maritime domain awareness.

Didn’t poet Muhammad Iqbal say, exhorting the mankind’s never-ending quest: “Sitaraon se agey, jahan aur bhi hain”?  

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

]]>

Can India & Pakistan Settle Kashmir Through Talks?

Having failed to generate world attention on the Kashmir’s status, Pakistan may rely back on terror attacks. But such acts will now carry a high risk of Indian retaliation as happened in Balakot

I wrote this elsewhere on August 5, the day India ended special status of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, and find that perception reinforced a month hence. The credit/blame for ratcheting up the Kashmir issue for South Asia and the world should go to United States President Donald Trump.

Things were not hunky-dory in the troubled state, now sliced into two union territories. But Trump set the timetable for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to implement his party’s long-held political agenda.

Modi felt cornered when Trump offered to mediate/adjudicate on Kashmir issue between India and Pakistan, claiming that Modi had asked for it, He said this before visiting Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on July 22 in Washington.    

Asking Trump to mediate goes against Modi’s grain. This is also not the position of his government and the party. Even in the past, India has always thwarted, except when expedient, any outside move to discuss Kashmir.

Trump possibly misread Modi’s mind. His announcement in Khan’s presence infuriated the Indians. Anxious to get Pakistan’s fullest cooperation in quitting Afghanistan, Trump may have thought he was giving Khan and his military mentors an additional reason to play the ball. This has boomeranged with consequences for Kashmir.

Look at the compulsions of all three players, Trump needs Khan to evacuate. Khan wants to make the best of this in money and military terms and firm up Pakistan’s position as the principal guarantor of everything happening to Afghanistan. Trump’s linking Kashmir was a bonus.

But having furthered Indo-US relations to where they are Modi has no real compulsion or incentive to seek Trump’s good offices on the Kashmir issue.

Now, having worked within its own territory, India doesn’t need any mediation.

India’s problem lies elsewhere. Special constitutional provisions, Articles 370 and 35A that have been abrogated were diluted, anyway, over the years and were largely symbolic. Annulling them has caused a huge set of issues – political, social, economic and psychological – for an entire state of 12.5 million people (2011 census figures) used to a way of life for seven decades.

Their lockdown is complete with communications snapped, movement restricted and despite official claims, a complete disruption of lives. Their future uncertain, mood is one of anger and disenchantment.

Like its geographical location, a Muslim majority state topped India’s image of a secular democracy. This erstwhile princely state’s accession was under unique circumstances and the provisions were definitely ‘temporary’. But undoing them has sent negative signals far and wide. History students ask if this belatedly justifies Hindus and Muslims being two separate ‘nations’, which led to the Partition.

Despite virtual separation of a Hindu-majority Jammu and a Buddhist-majority Ladakh, the challenge persists from a Muslim populace that forms a majority in the Kashmir Valley, with sections of it espousing separatism, some even preferring Pakistan.      

Trying to solve this over a long period is Modi’s most formidable challenge. There is no denying it is a long haul and as of now, the conditions are grim.  

Modi needs to reach out to the people, particularly in the Valley, sooner than later. All political players have been clubbed together. Indications are that curbs could ease on mainstream political parties with release of their chiefs from house-detention. But the government would be tough for separatists and worse for those looking for political and/or armed support from across the border.  

Frankly speaking, there are no principles – it’s realpolitik at work. 

If street protests ensue and India puts them down with a heavy hand – both are stark possibilities — one can expect denunciation of human rights violations. But in today’s world, human rights violations taking place daily in different parts of the world have, regrettably, lost their salience as instigators of international pressure.

As for Pakistan, raising the nuclear specter as it is wont to, Khan has warned of a third world war. Putting school children in front, he has unleashed a weekly national campaign where he attacks Modi, his faith and government as ‘fascist’, ‘Hindu supremacist’ etc. He seems unmindful of the risk he is putting the religious minorities in his own country, already discriminated socially and economically and frequently targeted by Islamist militants.

Khan tells the world community to intervene – or else. But things have changed since 9/11. With emergence of aggressive ‘nationalist’ leaders across the world, everyone has things to hide and people to get tough with.

Pakistan is unhappy that the world doesn’t listen to its angry laments. Except Turkey and its all-weather friend China that has its own compulsions with India, everyone wants the issue to be resolved bilaterally.

The Pakistan Senate passed a strong resolution. But it loudly wailed that the world is indifferent to the “Kashmir cause”. A restive opposition demands Khan to do more. Support came in the form of a resolution by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) asking India to roll back its action and follow the UN resolutions. But “the bubble of an Islamic ummah has burst,” said former Senate Chief Raza Rabbani. Dawn newspaper editorially noted that the OIC had been “a mere spectator.”

That Saudi Arabia’s Aramco signed a deal with India’s Reliance and the UAE conferred its highest civilian award on Modi last month, says Pakistan, demonstrates that economic gains with and from India have influenced prominent Muslim nations. 

The Kashmir glue binds Pakistan. From Tehreek-e-Labaik to the liberal human rights bodies alike, all are united, although the latter have eschewed jingoism. Khan’s position is unenviable. Caught napping, the military has taken control of the discourse. Any criticism comes only from analysts safely ensconced in the West.

Since Kashmir issue was born with the Partition and has been linked to its very raison d’etre, Pakistan is unlikely to give up.    

In India, criticism, if not outright opposition to Modi’s action, is strong, reflecting diversity. Pakistan and Kashmir do not rouse sentiments down south. It’s a relatively strong democracy, but the opposition is divided and on back-foot. Modi has made it a Kashmir-versus-the rest issue. Politically, this reinforces his party’s predominant position.   

Serious differences are voiced on legal and constitutional aspects. India’s Supreme Court has shown no inclination to do anything immediate and/or drastic, giving the government time to restore normalcy, while constituting a 5-judge bench to hear the petitions.

Pakistan’s stakes are high, but it is working from a position of disadvantage. One, it cannot alter the new reality through pulic protests and diplomatic campaign. Two, India is, or ought to be, well prepared to meet the local situation, ruthlessly as and when required, and can take care of cross border moves.

It leaves scope for only terror attacks. But the surprise element of such attack(s) also carries high a risk of Indian retaliation as had happened at Balakot after Pulwama.  

Talks on laying a corridor across Punjab border to Sikh shrine at Kartarpur and consular access to alleged Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav in Pakistani prison are two discernible signs of attempts at restoring a semblance of calm.

Given this situation, any substantive talks are far away. Everyone says: no war. Both sides are claiming the full territory. There is scope only for a negotiated settlement. Can that be based on on-ground realities? Will the neighbours agree to keep what they control? For now, this possibility is into an uncertain future.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

]]>

Khadi Inc Bucks Slowdown, Creates Jobs & Wealth

Like it or not, Modi has lent glamour to the khadi fabric and contributed to its popularity and profitability. This is evident from the Khadi Commission’s balance sheets in the last five years

Amidst India’s current economic slowdown — from aviation to biscuits to cars – the ‘desi’, or the native, is defying the depressing trend. 

Rooted in soil and traditions, khadi or khaddar, the hand-spun, hand-woven fabric and an array of home-made products of daily use in drawing room, kitchen and toilet are selling better than the branded domestic and multinational stuff.

This is no mere patriotic song; it means jobs and money. And it’s voluntary and now, market-driven.

The Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) ought to be on the national and global bourses except that it is a statutory government corporation established by an Act of parliament.

After long years of neglect and charges of bad performance despite being heavily subsidized, it has entered the profit trajectory.

Its annual turnover of Rs 75,000 crore in 2018-19 is more than double of Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL). India’s largest corporate manufacturer/marketer, the British-Dutch MNC accounted for Rs 38,000 crores in that year.

KVIC’s growth has been phenomenal in the last five years. From relatively low Rs 33,000 crores during 2014-15, it jumped to Rs 50,000 crores two years later, growing at 25 percent annually. Buoyed by the latest performance chart, the target for 2019-20 is 20 percent higher, at Rs 80,000 crores.

Proportionately, others do make greater profits. But KVIC, more than just a corporate success story, should be viewed for depth and extent to which half-a-million people work for it directly, making it one of the largest employers. And indirectly, another 15 million collaborators are spread across individual homes and farms and small and medium manufacturing units.

This defies the current phase of growth without producing jobs, especially in the manufacturing sector.  

This is the India that has grown over a century since M K Gandhi launched khadi or khaddar in 1918. Before he involved the masses in the fight for political freedom, this was his first mass-based venture bringing the rural India under the spell of productive self-reliance that meant work and gave a sense of dignity. Thus, khadi was not mere a piece of cloth but became a way of life.

It’s an unlikely story that explains why and how India sustains despite poverty and vagaries of nature.

Gandhi started spinning himself and encouraged others. He made it obligatory for all members of the Indian National Congress, then in fore-front of the freedom movement against the British, to spin cotton themselves and to pay their dues in yarn.

He collected large sums, including from industrialists and thus involving them directly, to create a grass-roots network to encourage handloom weaving. Ironically, handloom thrives today even as many textile mills have closed.

Charkha (spinning wheel) was the symbol of Gandhi-led movement. It became part of the Congress flag, eventually to be replaced by the Ashok Chakra in the national tricolor.

Tragically, people in the present century need to be reminded of all this. The political class has discarded khadi. Economic reforms have pushed urban India away from this cost-effective, climate-friendly fabric.

The other reminder is to people discarding khadi. The white cap that carried Gandhi’s tag is fast disappearing with the ebbing of the Congress party and its political culture.

It began early: Babu Jagjivan Ram who swore-in 400 Congress winners in 1984 Lok Sabha polls lamented before senior journalist Vijay Sanghvi that leave alone Gandhi cap, none was even clad in khadi. Today, the party has moved farther way from the common man it once represented.

This has naturally opened space for political appropriation and re-branding by the present dispensation that was not part of the Gandhi-led movement.  Last century’s “Nehru jacket” is now popularized and marketed as “Modi jacket”. The current premier patronizes khadi in its multiple hues and textures. He has also clothed several world leaders in khadi.

Modi has lent glamour to the fabric and contributed to its popularity and profitability. This is evident from the KVIC’s balance sheets in the last five years. The sale of khadi products has reached USD 1.56 billion in the last five years.        

Modern textile technology has helped immensely in softening khadi’s cotton yarn and its bleaching and blending. KVIC is collaborating with top textile brands Arvind for denim and with Raymond.

Helped by fashion designers, khadi helps the elite make fashion statement if only to help them to “rise above” the class that chases the easy-to-maintain global brands or their local imitations which are mass-manufactured and hence relatively cheaper.

It has gone digital. A pair of trendy Western wear is available for a modest Rs 2,000. The high range could be a few hundred rupees for a meter of fabric. 

The challenge lies in marketing. Leaving out main markets in major cities where it is given peppy look, Khadi Bhandars across India wear traditional, desolate look.

Yet, marketing of khadi and other products, even their exports, remains a unique example of public-private participation (PPP). Private entities buy from KVIC-affiliated and state government-run cooperatives. Encouraged, KVIC is looking for export markets after a survey in 21 overseas markets showed that khadi was the most recalled Indian brand, along with yoga. Its success could build on India’s ‘soft’ diplomacy.   

Having credited khadi for generating the overall ‘desi’ revolution, it must now be conceded that the fabric that sold for Rs 2,005 crores forms only 4.3 percent of the total KVIC turnover. Fuller credit is due to numerous items like papad, soaps and shampoos, herbal medicines and cosmetics, honey, handicraft material, brassware, vegetable oils and organic grains and pulses.

They are produced by nameless housewives, rural artisans including cooks, potters and painters and small entrepreneurs in both public and private sectors. They make and market goods with or without the KVIC supervision and umbrella and form a unique network that probably exists nowhere else. 

Industry experts attribute the organisation’s success to many domestic and international fashion designers preferring to work with sustainable and natural fabrics. There is also a buzz among millennial shoppers, who care about whether the clothes they wear or the products they use create jobs. Since khadi cloth is handspun and its products are mainly created by artisans in rural areas, the brand invokes good vibes in consumers.

In the last five years, the KVIC has promoted new schemes under Prime Minister Employment Generation Programme (PMEGP) that have created 2.17 million new jobs. They include Honey Mission and Kumhaar Sashaktikaran Yojana (for potters’ empowerment). This includes distributing bee boxes and electric chaaks or potter wheels in the troubled Kashmir Valley and in Ladakh.  

Such a massive exercise cannot be a top-down process from capital cities without involvement of the makers-cum-beneficiaries. There is need for debate. For instance, where does one draw a line between preserving cultural heritage and industrial/commercial pursuit?

Handloom, for one, should be revived as a skilled occupation that offers livelihood with dignity for both the weaver and the physical environment around, says B. Syama Sundari, coordinator, policy research and advocacy at Dastkar Andhra, an organisation that   promotes handloom weaving as a viable rural livelihood. 

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

]]>

Indian Automobile Sector – Stuck In A Jam?

A formidable lobby is looking for a bailout to come out of the current slump in the auto industry. Amidst a general economic slowdown, the Centre would have to think hard before obliging

“What is good for General Motors is good for the United States,” US Secretary of Defence Charles Wilson, incidentally a former CEO of the automobile giant, once said. Can such hype work for India’s automobile industry?  

From boost in the mid-1980s thanks to the “Maruti revolution” to a boom as the century closed amidst economic reforms that brought in many domestic and foreign players and lasted over 25 years, to an unprecedented bust now, is its latest story.

Its formidable lobby with any government is desperately looking for a bailout. Amidst a general economic slowdown, the Narendra Modi Government would have to think hard before obliging.

Forget the ‘B’ alliterations – the passenger cars sales alone have plummeted by 36 percent and 350,000 jobs are lost. The fall could rise to 40 percent with a million jobs at stake in the coming months.

As recently as March this year, India was ranked the world’s fourth largest automobile market after China, the USA and Japan, surpassing Germany in terms of sales. New car models were being announced every month.

Any warning or words of caution were lost in the cacophony of the elections whose outcome was decided on ‘nationalism’ platform, despite the economic slowdown and rising unemployment.

Last month, however, the sale of vehicles across categories in the country slumped 18.71 percent to about 1.82 million units, down from about 2.24 million units in July 2018. This has been the steepest fall in nearly 19 years.

The combined vehicle dispatches across all categories, from factories to dealers, fell by about a fifth. Dispatches of passenger vehicles fell by almost a third with passenger cars declining by a steep 36 percent or by over a third compared to the same month 2018. Dispatches of motorcycles fell by almost a fifth and scooters by more than 12 percent, while dispatches of trucks, buses and light commercial vehicles were down by over 37 percent.

Auto industry contributes over seven percent of India’s GDP. Its honchos say this is the worst-ever crisis. The Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM) data shows that the sector also accounts for 14 percent of India’s total GST collections. Now, the government’s revenue is also hit.

The industry found some solace in the fact that historically, vehicle sales decline in the months preceding elections, and expressed the hope that demand following the elections would pick up. But like the overall economy, this did not happen.

Polls’ uncertainties drove people to postpone vehicle purchases. Ownership costs, an overall weak economy affecting demand and floods thanks to climate change in many parts of the country last year, as also this monsoon, combined to squeeze auto demand.

Government policies contributed to the confusion. It imposed deadline of mandatory transition to the Bharat Stage VI (BS VI) emission norms. It pushed another simultaneously to convert some vehicle categories to electric from the present internal combustion engine (ICE) technology that drives three of the four vehicles on the road. It proposes to ban all ICE-driven vehicles under 150cc in six years and all three-wheelers within four.

The automobile industry has mounted a quiet resistance to the technology-switch and now, it is the first major producer/employer to loudly protest the government’s economic policies. After a gap of over five years, one hears again the accusation of “policy paralysis.”

The entire auto industry is hit. To cope with slow demand, 15 auto makers including Honda, Maruti Suzuki, Nissan, Datsun, Mercedez and Indian ones like Tata and Mahindra and Mahindra (M&M) have reduced seven percent workforce as they stagger production. Some have declared two weekly holidays.

This extends to ancillary units like Japanese motorcycle maker Yamaha Motor and auto components makers including France’s Valeo and Subros. They add up to 100,000 jobs lost, according to a Reuters report.

India’s jobless rate rose to 7.51 percent in July 2019 from 5.66 percent in July 2018, according to private data group CMIE whose data is more up-to-date than government figures and regarded in financial markets as more credible.

Seven percent of those in temporary jobs are sacked. Swank car sales outlets have closed down enforcing more job-cuts. There is also fall in insurance that is mandatory before a vehicle touches the road.

Auto-makers are concentrated in and around Mumbai, Pune, besides Gujarat, Modi’s home state. Chennai accounts for 35 to 40 percent of all car manufacture.  At Gurugram and Manesar, the Maruti Suzuki hub in Haryana, 40,000 to 50,000 workers have already been laid off.

If that is any consolation to India, layoffs in global auto industry have hit Mexico, China and the US as well. While all are hit by a general slowdown, Edelweiss Research says India’s auto slump is different from others, differs from the ones it suffered in the past and is driven by domestic factors. Much of rural India’s auto aspiration was driven by non-banking financial institutions. But they were hit by November 2016 demonetization of 83 percent of currency in circulation.

Changing social mores are contributing to the slump. While owning a car and one’s own house remain symbols of social status, the urban youth, at least, want to utilize their disposable incomes differently. They increasingly prefer a rented house and travel by app-based vehicles to escape repaying heavy loans on both and to avoid maintenance hassles. This partly explains the glut in unsold city houses and cars, two major producers/employers.

Sadly, the car/housing bust is unlikely to change the attitude of the politicians who failed to widen the roads enough and promote public transport. Among the car owners, the rich want to park vehicles free on public roads. On the other hand, the harried car owner rues traffic jams and delays at work, occasionally causing accidents or getting into road rage.      

Analysts say there are better ways of boosting and measuring the economy than car production. It is sad that many jobs are being lost in the automobile sector. But the way out is not to bail out the automobile sector but to create jobs in more socially useful sectors.

The crisis is expected to last two to three years. Perhaps, longer due to expected rise in costs  estimated at 13 to 30 percent due to safety, insurance and emission-related compliance. As for the fuel costs, with rising tensions in West Asia, it is anybody’s guess.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

]]>

Affable, Affectionate And Accessible

Indian political stage has lost three of its hearty and humble personalities in a single week, leaving behind a void that will be greatly missed

Politicians come and go. Those who hold office are more powerful as they can do favours, but are also more vulnerable. Assessing them becomes an if-and-but exercise.

Fragrance or odour they spread by their deeds and words matters. And when they go, memories they leave behind. Their political legacies, if any, are for the scholars and historians to study. Their families, mostly, are a different story.

Two diminutive women and a polio-stricken man strode India’s political scene for close to four decades. They passed away in the last three weeks. As a scribe who watched and reported them, I do think they spread frangrance amidst a lot of muck around, and have left something to remember them by. 

Sheila Dikshit, 81, Delhi’s longest-serving Chief Minister, went first on July 20. She can rightly be credited for making New Delhi a world capital worth visiting and a little more habitable.  

Next to go on July 28 was Sudini Jaipal Reddy, 77, a Congressman-who joined Janata Party and Janata Dal and then, returned to the old stable. He was acceptable to all as their spokesman, doing his job with equal dedication and conviction. Remarkably, media lapped up whatever he said in all his avatars.

And last week, on August 6, Sushma Swaraj, the youngest of them at 67, left.  India’s external affairs minister till only two months ago, she opted out of this year’s elections on health grounds. Despite speculation about her willingness, she found no place in Modi-2. If she had a premonition of what was coming, we will never know.

Qualities common to the three were grace and personal charm in whatever they did or say in public, a high level of credibility and the ability to carry others along.

Although belonging to different parties, they got on well among themselves in the country’s political roadshow. Actually, like politicians anywhere, the Indians, too, snipe at each other in public, but the better ones share mutual warmth.

After attacking the Congress-led government from her seat as Leader of the Opposition, Swaraj was among the first to rush to hospital when her political bête noir, Congress President Sonia Gandhi, took ill during the proceedings.

That Gandhi had defeated her in an election earlier did not matter. Also forgotten was her declaration when Gandhi was close to becoming the prime minister that she (Sushma) would shave her head off and live like an ascetic in protest. Coming from one woman about another, it was not received well. Yet, Swaraj, with her trademark ‘bindi’ and Hindu-Hindi persona, was BJP’s perennial antidote to Gandhi. That is politics.      

India has lost three sharp minds that went beyond their calling and well beyond the routine and the humdrum. If Sushma quoted Sanskrit scriptures and Urdu couplets spontaneously, Sheila was often seen at Sufi festivals.

Each of them was intensely humane and earned goodwill by helping whoever they could.

Do-gooder Dikshit was called “Aunty Number 1”. Like Reddy, Swaraj, too, was among the more accessible ministers. At the Foreign Office where much of the work was done from the prime minister’s office (PMO) and when she was unwell and unable to travel, she used the social media and provide succor to whoever could reach her. They included a girl who on losing memory had strayed into Pakistan, stranded spouses, someone needing urgent medical help — and they came from across the world.

Diplomats from 51 countries at the United Nations signed her condolence book. Indian diplomats who had worked with her were nostalgic. In Pakistan, there were sentimental outpourings for Sushma even as the neighbour was receiving the shock treatment over New Delhi’s Kashmir move that has since blown into a full-scale political and diplomatic war. Her last tweet was to ‘congratulate’ the prime minister.

Born in Haryana’s orthodox, anti-woman social order Sushma, then 25, was a socialist to boot and the state’s and the country’s youngest Cabinet minister. An effective Leader of Opposition, she was the first full-term external affairs minister. It was no mean achievement.

Political analysts say Modi had ‘downgraded’ Sushma because she belonged to the ‘rival’ L K Advani camp within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Yet, Modi had tears in his eyes while bidding final farewell.         

Reddy shed his feudal background to join students’ politics. He never let his physical handicap keep him down. “I can take care of myself,” he politely said when I tried to help him balance his crutches, papers and his coffee mug.

His life was a saga of an irrepressible creative spirit that transcended all obstacles to soar to great heights, says India’s Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu, a long-time associate, but from a different camp.

As young lawmakers, the two rocked the Andhra Pradesh Assembly. Their personal cooperation and political clash is the stuff of how political culture evolves in a democracy. Sadly, the public only gets to know the crude side of politics, which abounds aplenty.  

When Reddy was depressed, it is said, he would lock himself in, read books and take detailed notes. He would emerge fresh with more quotations from Rousseau, Dante, Immanuel Kant, Shakespeare, whoever.

An erudite scholar, among the many that Indian parliament has had, he was both fiery and persuasive. You hardly noticed his Telugu intonations when he spoke in English. Its limited knowledge could make you reach for dictionary, if you cared.

Long before Shashi Tharoor, India parliament’s current super-wordsmith, Reddy gave currency to ‘humungous’ to describe a scandal of the Rajiv Gandhi Government. In the opposition then, he debunked the “Mr Clean” campaign to project Rajiv as one that smacked of “an advertisement of a detergent.” It hit the political bull’s eye.

If Reddy was a man of words, Swaraj and Dikshit were women of action, often para-dropped by their parties when locked in adverse situations. Although from neighbouring Haryana, but undoubtedly BJP’s national leader, Swaraj became Delhi’s chief minister for just three months to quell an internal party rivalry. She lost, besides this rift, to sky-rocketing onion prices in demand during festive season.

She was succeeded by Dikshit. A Punjabi married into an Uttar Pradesh family with deep political roots, she became Delhi’s chief minister — and ruled for 15 years.

Political fortunes changed with her hosting the Commonwealth Games.  She arguably received much opprobrium during its preparations. The Games, though, went off well. But they triggered an anti-corruption campaign that sent Dikshit’s party downhill. She lost by a huge margin.

The Congress has not recovered since. It projected her as is “Brahmin face” in Uttar Pradesh polls, but then abandoned her. At a ripe age, she was Delhi Congress chief, contesting an election, and losing it. Her last act before suddenly being moved to hospital was to address a letter to her paralyzed party.

Think of a minister who can publicly say politicians are “wild animals” who need to be kept in check. None left after Reddy’s departure.

Perceptions matter in journalism while understanding and appreciating politics. The effort was worthwhile with these three stalwarts.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

]]>

Triple Talaq Ban – Gender Justice Or Political Agenda?

The political pendulum has now swung from one extreme to the other, from ‘appeasement’ to ‘appropriation’ of the community

It is not unusual, given the great churning India is going through, to welcome legislation, soon to be law, with a few caveats and some apprehensions.

With Rajya Sabha doing so last week, both Houses of Parliament have passed the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2019,  that makes talaq-e-biddat a criminal offence. It provides for three years’ imprisonment to a Muslim husband who divorces his wife by pronouncing the word ‘talaq’ thrice, irrevocably, in one sitting.

ALSO READ: The Law Will Get Me The Respect I Deserve

After a prolonged, yet inconclusive, debate in parliament, by top judiciary and the academia, if one excludes sections of the Muslim clergy, the conservatives and sections of the political class (for reasons both legal and political), the move has received widespread approval.

With that India, having the world’s third largest Muslim population, is on par with several Islamic countries, including Sudan, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen and Iraq. Of those with similar social norms to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh had outlawed it in 1961. It remains in vogue in Sri Lanka.

Indian Muslims are governed by the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act of 1937, as interpreted by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB). This body comprising mainly Sunni ulema, has rigidly stuck to its turf and opposes any ‘interference’ in the ‘divine’ law.

But others like Professor Tahir Mahmood, an internationally recognized expert on sharia law, support a ban on triple talaq. Mahmood recently told Scroll, an Indian news website: “Ignorance, obstinacy, blind belief in religion and morbid religiosity are undoubtedly the factors responsible for triple talaq being allowed in India.”

ALSO READ: This Law Will Empower Muslim Women

Lawyer-politician Arif Mohammed Khan, who played a key role in drafting the legislation, says despite prohibition, this practice is rampant in Pakistan and many with overwhelming influence of the clergy that propagate it as the “word of God” among illiterate masses.

To end the practice effectively, he justifies a law that deters. However, debate persists on this point. Criticism centres heavily on criminalizing of a marriage that is essentially a civil act. The opposition was outvoted on this in parliament.

Then, there are practical issues: How does one adjudicate in a his-word-against-hers exchange between husband and wife? Who will look after the wife, abandoned and in all probability ostracized by the husband’s family through this illegal act? More importantly, the children, once the erring husband goes to jail? The problem is acute if the wife has no independent income and worse if she is not accepted in her parental home.  

Despite this law as a deterrent, the practice is unlikely to end soon. Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad who piloted the bill, said some 300 marriages dissolved under the spell of instant talaq while the debate was on. In 2017 alone, 574 instant divorces had occurred, just before the Supreme Court declared it illegal.

Seeking to implement this verdict, the government amended some provisions of its original legislation, making the offence cognizable only if the affected wife, or one related to her by blood or marriage, files a police complaint. A man arrested under this law may get bail, after the Magistrate grants a hearing to the wife. Thirdly, the offence is compoundable, that is, the parties may arrive at a compromise.

Questions persist. Why this new law when wife and children’s abandonment, failure to provide for them and dowry harassment can be tackled under the existing law? Once the apex court has declared instant talaq illegal, what is the need for criminalizing it?  The bill doesn’t convincingly answer these and many other questions.

The government has chosen to give teeth through a three-year jail term, ostensibly in keeping with a general approach that makes many other laws, even traffic violation, stringent with higher punishment.

Moving on to giving credit and the blame, a less-talked aspect of the debate is that the predecessor Congress-led government had studied status of India’s Muslims through a commission headed by late Justice Rajinder Sachar. A committee it formed to assess Muslim women’s status said in 2013 that the triple talaq “makes wives extremely vulnerable and insecure regarding their marital status”.

However, over half-a-century in power, the Congress followed the liberal/secular approach of leniency to ‘protect’ the minorities. In the case of Muslims, it adopted the British colonial practice of tackling the community through its generally orthodox clergy. This got institutionalized as AIMPLB in 1973.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its government accuse the Congress and the Left parties of ‘appeasing’ the Muslims and holding them as “vote bank.” Now it ingeniously takes the credit for this Muslim-specific law enacted in the name of “gender justice”. The political pendulum has now swung from one extreme to the other, from ‘appeasement’ to ‘appropriation’ of the community.

This fits in with the BJP’s majoritarian agenda and its two-pronged strategy of neutralizing the community’s vote while seeking support from among its women.

There is another less-talked aspect that needs attention. Given the rising education levels among Muslim women, especially in the cities, it is conceivable that they would vote for Prime Minister Modi for this act. Statistics of the last two decades show that more Muslim girls are entering schools and colleges and into the work force when compared to boys who are either not inclined to study or are required to turn family’s bread-earners early in life.

The community leaders are subdued. The AIMPLB has not reacted. Save some Muslim lawmakers, there is no significant opposition. Including a Congress in disarray, the Opposition was out-maneuvered and outvoted. The government managed the numbers even in the Rajya Sabha where it is in minority, first by engineering defections and then ensuring absenteeism.

India is on the cusp of social and political change. The challenges are all-round and more layered as the changes are being initiated by a Hindu right-wing majority party. Its triumphal mood is palpable.

Doubts and apprehensions arise as it seeks to ‘protect’ women of a community when its men are lynched by right-wing vigilantes if they happened to be cattle traders. Why single out one community when others, too, require reforms?

The social and political cost of not having a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) is showing. Besides being mandated by Article 44 of the Constitution, the UCC is also part of the BJP’s agenda. It would unite India in true fashion where citizens irrespective of religion would follow the same laws for marriage, divorce, succession, etc.

Will Modi and his government bite the bullet while seeking to earn everyone’s saath and vishwas (support and trust)?

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

]]>

Is It the End Of Liberalism, World Over?

The current set of democratically-elected leaders have little understanding of the deep contradictions of global order, or their own conflict-ridden societies

The circle is now complete. Major democracies — the ‘oldest’ (Britain), ‘greatest’ (the United States) and the ‘largest’ (India) – all have elected populist, aggressive government leaders. This sounds the death-knell to whatever is left of political liberalism.

They all want to make their respective nations ‘great’, which is fine. But they stand charged with using divisive methods at home and adopting protectionist and exclusivist measures abroad.

The ‘greatest’ is erecting walls, wooing North Korea while winking at Russia and China and threatening Iran, the bête noire in West Asia. The latest muse is Imran Khan who must keep the Afghan door ajar to facilitate an American flight faster than Vietnam.

The ‘largest’ is calculating a $5 trillion economy and become a ‘guru’ to the world. But on the ground, it protects its bovine population in a mix of death to those who kill or tan it, but profits for those who export it.

‘Outsiders’ and those not in sync with the majoritarian agenda are asked to leave. Someone ordained: “go to the moon” – and this is not inspired by Chandrayan 2, the moon mission.

As their number mounts, finding a common thread becomes difficult. But their varying agendas using race, religion, region, ethnicity, colour, besides trade and global concerns like the climate change, has become the new normal. It has pushed the world further to a restless and triumphant political right.

The democratic distinction that they give themselves but deny to others is blurred. Vladimir Putin recently said: “the liberal idea” had “outlived its purpose.” The growth of populist movements throwing up ‘nationalist’ leaders and political parties across the world suggests he is correct.

Long before Donald Trump, these movements brought to power Viktor Orban (Hungary), Erdogan (Turkey), Duterte (the Philippines) and Matteo Salvini (Italy); with populists sharing power in Poland, Austria, Slovenia, Finland and Estonia. In France and Germany populist parties are set to play an increasing role in coming years. Brazil’s Bolsanero is a latter day addition – and more are coming.

Xi Jinping and Abe Shinzo would fall in that category.  So would Benyamin Netanyahu and a common friend of them all, Narendra Modi.

The latest is Boris Johnson. His aggressive Brexit advocacy is part of the same isolationism.

“I’ll make Britain great again’, Johnson says, distinctly echoing Trump. For a former journalist and editor of prestigious journals, he is being unoriginal. But then, he feels close to Trump and despite Trump’s past fusillades against him, they (add Imran, too) are now a mutual admiration society.

Johnson, a biographer of Winston Churchill, sees himself in that leader. But times and contexts change. As Economist says, like Churchill, Johnson has also inherited Britain’s worst crisis since World War II. Brexit, Britain’s self-goal, could do or undo him, with deep repercussions either way.       

To be fair to Boris, strictly going by promises made last week, he has defied many things that Brexit crusade has been about. Many Britons have viewed it from racism and anti-immigration prisms. Brexit was about reductions in future. But Boris has said he will make legal half-a-million illegal or unregistered immigrants, introducing a number system with some compassion.

Boris, given his Turkish ancestry, perhaps, has done better than Trump who, although of German descent, wants ‘outsider’ to quit America. Sustaining Britain’s inclusive approach, he has a Pakistani Muslim to manage finance and a via-Africa Indian woman to pilot the immigration and counter-terrorism policies. Only time will tell how Britain holds out against the global illiberal avalanche.

There is hope, perhaps. As an Urdu expression goes, “umeed par duniya kaayam hai,” (hope sustains life).  Post World War II, whatever be their political belief, people could aspire for a better future. That hope is sinking with the advent of this century.

Unwelcome, migrants are ghetto-ed and ill-treated, if not killed. No trade union rights. No dissent. Not even disagreement. Even elections, with varying degrees of democratic processes, are only hurtling people in one direction. Humans live by hope. But there is no utopia to live for.     

Sadly, the current set of our leaders have little understanding of the deep contradictions of the global order, or their own conflict-ridden societies. They engage in politics of name-calling and sensationalism, Trump’s boast that he could kill 10m Afghans, but won’t, is a classic example.

If truth be told, this didn’t’ begin with Putin or Trump. From the 1980s onwards beginning with the Reagan-Thatcher combine, ruling classes all over the world presided over a period of psychological repression. A new normal was propagated through media, education and other means — that a world free of exploitation and injustice is impossibile. Inequalities are increasing, and are justified.

By the 1990s, younger generations had come to believe that There Is No Alternative (TINA). They were told that the idea that we share of collective interests is simply hogwash. It was explained in the name of individual liberty and advancement.  

Liberalism is probably more challenged in India today than anywhere else because the country is the most diverse. Self-proclaimed custodians of caste and religion enjoying tacit political support are dictating people who they must meet, converse with, befriend and marry, what they should eat, wear, watch or read, whether or not they can use mobile phones, and even where they can go and when.

Aided by a corporate-owned media driven by profits and eyeballs, a public culture of hurt sentiment, violation of honour, with social and political license given to react to it in any brutal manner possible has been created. This climate of fear affects artists, intellectuals and even ordinary persons in public conversations.

Most founders of the Indian Republic (Nehru above all) aspired to create a liberal society. They did not foresee the extent to which it would, over time, evolve in a decidedly illiberal direction. Today, Nehru is a swear-word.

Here again, if truth be told, this did not begin yesterday. The political forces claiming to lead, and thriving on, a liberal ethos – the Congress, the communists, the socialists and the likes – themselves adopted illiberal courses and have now yielded space to those they fought. They are only whining today, unable to unite and fight back.

Mercifully, societies are not monoliths. Whenever and wherever a new draconian normal takes root, there are always forces who speak out for the oppressed. But as ordinary people increasingly become integrated into a digital political sphere in which melodrama rules, states and corporations will become more adept at manipulating ‘public opinion’. Already, those opposing it are being termed seditious.

Is it, then, the end of liberalism the world over? This is, like asking at the spiritual level: is it the end of Kalyug, the ultimate downfall?

Academic-journalist Pratap Bhanu Sharma says the end of liberalism is announced very frequently globally. “It’s almost like a recurring theme that there is a fundamental infirmity that makes it periodically vulnerable.”

This eludes a clear answer – if there is one.  

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

]]>