‘We Were Told To Embrace Islam, Even Spat Upon’

Avtar Singh, 32, an Afghan Sikh, narrates his persecution in Afghanistan and why he left Ghazni, where his family lived for five generations. Singh sees the Citizenship Law as a blessing for people like him

My forefathers settled in Afghanistan five generations ago. We lived in Ghazni, about 170 kilometres from Kabul, the Afghan Capital. We owned multiple garment shops and nearly 40 acres of land. Why we had to leave everything behind and took refuge in Delhi is a tragic story, one of religious persecution and plight of minorities in Afghanistan.

Ever since I was born, I remember being discriminated against in Afghanistan. It started with being made fun of for our attires, our pagris. They would call us kafir, be-iman and by other derogatory terms. Every time we went out we would be taunted with: “Aaj pagri me aloo rakha hai ya pyaz?” (What have you hidden in your turban today – potatoes or onions?).They would tell us to get rid of our hair and look like them. We were constantly asked to convert to Islam.

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Things took a more sinister turn with people spitting at us in public for following Sikhism, at times throwing stones at us randomly. I couldn’t send my children out, or my younger brother to school. Afghanistan was the only home we had known and we were heartbroken by the way things were happening. My mother who had seen better times before 1979 (before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) lamented at what we had come to.

My father, Shaheed Harbans Singh Khalsa, a Member of Parliament in Afghanistan, was killed in an accident in 2003. We later got to know it was all pre-planned. Mysterious papers would be thrown at our house with threats to life and ransom money. Over the years, I paid nearly ₹80-90 lakh to keep my family safe.

After a decade of living in uncertainty, constant suffering and blackmailing, we reached the breaking point and decided to flee to India. We were helped by a few people to buy tickets amounting to ₹90, 000 for seven people for the Kabul-Delhi flight.

Singh now works as a Granthi at a Gurdwara in New Delhi

That was in 2014. I lived a lifetime on that flight. I had only ₹20,000 to start a new life in India and a family of seven to feed. However, we were happy that at least we came out of Afghanistan alive.

We live on meagre resources in India. I work as a Granthi at a Gurdwara in Delhi. My brother who is in his teens also has to work to support the family. I am greatly surprised how well-behaved Indian Muslims are. They always address us as Bhaijaan and Sardar Ji and make us feel welcome in every aspect of life.

ALSO READ: ‘CAA Will Help Sikh Refugees’

We have to extend our visas every two to three years. I have heard of the new Citizenship Law that would give refugees like us permanent citizenship of India, and we are glad about the same. Even though I understand the sentiments of several people who have been protesting against CAA, I feel they should know why citizenship in India is so important, no less than a blessing for people like us. We can finally call India our home.

After being on the receiving end of persecution, I have become a better person, not bitter and feel no one should be persecuted on the basis of religion. Our Guru Granth Sahib teaches us: Koi Bole Ram Ram, Koi Khudaye, Koi Sewe Gosaiya, Koi Alahe (God is one, people know it by different names).

Tragic Times For Afghan Sikhs

Last Sunday’s arrival in New Delhi of 11 Sikhs from Afghanistan marks the beginning of the end of a centuries-old historic process of Hindus and Sikhs moving to and from this India’s extended neighbourhood.

It may be a matter of time – perhaps a few months – before all of them, estimated at between 600 and 1,000, a microscopic minority in an overwhelmingly Islamic nation, may leave Afghanistan for good and seek new lives in India that one of them on arrival gratefully called “our motherland.”

This small but epochal event sadly reduces to a mere debate what is steeped in history. Can an Afghan be a Hindu or a Sikh? History says yes, asserts Inderjeet Singh in his book Afghan Hindus and Sikhs: History of A Thousand Years published in April last year.

There is no reliable information on when Hinduism began in Afghanistan that once had Hindu rulers, and when Buddhism thrived. But historians suggest that the territory south of the Hindu Kush was culturally connected with the Indus Valley Civilization (5500–2000 BC) in ancient times.

As for the Sikh, records show that its founder Guru Nanak Dev had visited Kabul in the early 16th century and laid the faith’s foundation.

ALSO READ: ‘CAA Will Help Sikh Refugees From Afghanistan’

Islam arrived in Afghanistan only in the seventh century. “The Hindu Shahi rulers of Kabulistan were replaced only by the end of the 10th century by the Ghaznavides, who maintained Hindu forces,” Inderjeet Singh asserts in his book.

Contemporary records show that Maharaja Ranjit Singh also ruled parts of Afghanistan. About 250,000 Hindus and Sikhs had thriving trade and lived in relative peace and harmony and travelled to and from British India. Father of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh used to trade with Afghanistan, carrying consignments of asafoetida (heeng).

11 Sikhs arrived in New Delhi from Afghanistan on Sunday, July 26, 2020.

Recorded or otherwise, this account must make a grim present-day note of the end of the presence of religious minorities – at least the Hindus and the Sikhs – in Afghanistan. A small minority in an overwhelmingly Islamic nation, they survived the violent civil war conditions that have prevailed since last King Zahir Shah was deposed in 1973. Last 47 years have seen a decade of communist rule backed by the erstwhile Soviet Union, a “jihad” supported by the Western nations, faction-ridden and violent rule by the Mujahideen five years of Taliban and since the US-led “global war against terrorism” that followed 9/11, eighteen years of the present government backed by the United States.

The US is keen to quit its longest war, whether or not President Trump gets re-elected. Its iffy pact with the Taliban is not working and the way is opened for the Taliban, with their sordid record of suppressing women and minorities, backed by Pakistan that has its own sordid record, returning to power. That makes the status of Afghan religious minorities more uncertain than ever. That makes India’s move, with American blessings, timely.

The Afghan minorities have already felt the heat. Twenty-five Sikhs were killed at a Gurdwara in Paktia province in March this year. They were targeted by an Afghan group owing allegiance to the Islamic State (IS). Indeed, the IS’ spread has been the reason for the US, Russia, Iran and China coming on the same page, leaving Pakistan as a key factor and India, an ‘outsider’, yet again. History is repeating itself.

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The 11 Afghan Sikhs have been granted short-term Indian visas. They include Nidan Singh Sachdeva, who was abducted from Paktia’s gurudwara in June. The rest are families of those who were killed in the Kabul Gurudwara terror attack earlier this year. Twenty-five Afghan Sikhs and one Indian Sikh were killed on the March 25 terror attack in Kabul by a heavily armed ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K) suicide bomber. The group includes Salmeet Kaur who was reportedly kidnapped in Kabul but later came back.

An emotional reunion upon arrival of Sikh delegation from Afghanistan on July 26

This Sikh group hopes that India would give them long-term visas and eventually grant citizenship under the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed last year. It gives citizenship to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian religious minorities from three countries –Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan with a cut-off date of 31st December 2014.

While that may happen, for the Afghan Sikhs and Hindus, the decision to come to India poses an agonizing dilemma. In Afghanistan, they have livelihoods — shops and businesses passed down through generations — but spend their days dreading the next attack. Making a new start in India would most likely mean living in poverty, they said, particularly during an economic slump exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Lala Sher Singh, 63, who was attacked in March, told The New York Times that the community had shrunk so much that his thoughts were occupied “day and night” by a fear that “the next assault might not leave enough people who can perform the final rituals for the dead.”

“I may get killed here because of these threats to Hindus and Sikhs, but in India I will die from poverty. I have spent my whole life in Afghanistan. In this neighbourhood close to the temple, if I run out of money and stand in front of a shop and ask for two eggs and some bread, they will give it to me for free. But who will help me in India?”

The New York Times reported that there was no official reaction from the Afghan government to India’s offer. “A senior Afghan official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the news media, said that ‘violence affected all Afghans’,” and that an offer of safety only to Hindus and Sikhs put religious diversity in Afghanistan in doubt.

The Afghan official, ostensibly making no excuse about the poor security available to the religious minorities in his country, attributed the Indian government’s move to being “aimed at a domestic audience in India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi has tried to move the country away from its secular, multicultural foundations and give it a more overtly Hindu identity, while projecting itself as a champion of persecuted Hindu minorities elsewhere.” The beleaguered Afghan authorities fighting for their own survival amidst civil war of their own, would likely stay silent and not mind the minorities leaving.

Truth be told, the Tibetan refugees took years to settle in India and thousands of Hindus from Pakistan have yet to get their citizenship documents, leave alone facilities and opportunities to settle, earn livelihood and send their children to school. By contrast, those who come in illegally, do manage to get their ration cards, citizenship certificates and even voter’s cards from the grey market on payment. Despite the sentiments of those who support this “ghar wapasi”, this is the harsh reality.

Even if necessary, this is a thankless, unending task. “Mother India” must pay a price for embracing back its sons and daughters troubled in their chosen homes.

‘Bleeding From Gunshot Wound, I Was Taken To Hospital On A Bike’

Bhavya Gautam, a 27-year-old lawyer, in Brahmpuri, northeast Delhi was hit by a bullet when he along with local youth tried to stop a mob from attacking a local temple

I lost my mother at a young age and was raised by my maternal uncle, Shankar Lal Gautam. My uncle tells me that our family shifted from Haryana to Brahmpuri in 1962. I was born here and have always considered Brahmpuri as home. Even the bullet that I received in my stomach on February 25 during communal riots is not going to change that.

Till a few weeks ago everything in Brahmpuri was normal. Peaceful life, friendly neighbours and life as usual. Then we heard about protesters occupying the area near Jaffrabad Metro station to create a Shaheen Bagh-style demonstration (on February 23). Brahmpuri is less than a kilometre from the protest site and as traffic issues cropped up due to the protest, the ripples reached our area too.

Things flared up on February 24 around 10 am and by the night, things had taken a scary turn. What started as a fight between pro- and anti CAA protesters soon took a communal colour. Our mohalla also became tense after news of a fight near Maujpur Metro station reached us. We were already taking preventive measures like guarding the entry points to our colony and keeping an eye on outsiders since morning. However, a mob still managed to reach a temple near my house and started throwing stones at it.

ALSO READ: ‘People Ask Us If We Save Only Hindus Or Muslims’

As local gathered to counter the mob, they took out firearms and shot at us multiple time to scare us away. Several of those trying to protect the temple go injured. I was also hit in my stomach. Thankfully, unlike as reported by other riot-hit areas, police reached our colony within 10-15 minutes of our making a distress call.

My friends were worried at my condition and one of them rushed me to Jag Pravesh Hospital (Shashtri Park, East Delhi) on a bike. I was bleeding during the journey but held on. Thankfully, we didn’t meet any mob or obstructions on the way. After initial treatment, I was referred to Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital at Dilshad Garden.


Shankar Lal Gautam (left) is thankful that his nephew Bhavya Gautam is safe

The hospital was already reeling under a rush of injured. Each of the bed was shared by two, even three victims for treatment. I was writhing in pain but there was not enough space to even turn on the bed. I kept on pleading with doctors to either discharge me or give me a proper bed as I had a bullet injury. Irked they discharged me but tagged my status as an “absconder”. Since I am an advocate myself I know how serious this charge can be and I have put in an RTI application to know why this happened.

ALSO READ: 1984 To 2020: State Riot Machine At Work

It has been nine days and I am just about beginning to put back the pieces of my life together. Let’s hope my ordeal gets over soon and life gets back to normal for everyone.

(At the time of this copy being uploaded, Bhavya’s uncle Shankar Lal Gautam who has access to the CCTVs in the area has been watching the footage minutely to observe if they can identify anyone from the attackers. The residents are weary and hurt but not scared. Gautam feels it will take a long time before life gets back to normal again in the area but he has faith in God.)

‘CAA Protesters Are Ill-Informed, Govt Must Talk To Them’

Aashi Sanjaya, an IT professional in Delhi-NCR, feels anti-CAA protesters at Shaheen Bagh do not fully understand what NRC and CAA are all about. The government must initiate dialogue with them to allay their fears

I wholeheartedly support the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). For a country as huge and populous as ours we surely need to be in the know about the people living here, so that our safety and security isn’t compromised. First, we should remove illegal immigrants with the help of NRC and later, with the help of CAA, give relief and refuge to those who have come to India after being persecuted in the neighbourhood on the basis of their religion. We have suffered for far too long when it comes to security concerns and we can’t afford to be lax anymore.

As for people who are opposing it, I think they need to inform themselves better. On the government’s part, it should open communication channel at multiple levels (right from the ground level authorities to the ministers) to alleviate the fears of people.

ALSO READ: ‘CAA Will Give Citizenship, Not Take It Away’

The logic behind CAA is simple. If Muslims are being persecuted in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, they have many Islamic countries (more than 50 I believe), but if Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists etc. are being persecuted on the basis of religion, which country do they turn to except India?

I think people need to understand this very clearly that the Home Minister Amit Shah isn’t going to take away the citizenship of Indian Muslims through NRC or CAA. Indian Muslims are safe here.

ALSO READ: ‘If Amit Shah Can’t Budge, Shaheen Bagh Won’t Either’

I don’t understand what the protests are all about. Sometimes, I feel people are protesting just for the sake of protesting. I belong to Lucknow where Hindus and Muslims have coexisted peacefully with each other for long. Believe me the ground situation is pretty difficult than what is portrayed in the media.

If people are scared, why are they sitting on the roads and making the lives of ordinary citizens difficult? Take a leaf out of a corporate setting. If, for example, I fear that something wrong might happen with me in future jobwise, shouldn’t I try to talk to my seniors or should I just go out on the road and start telling everyone that I am being treated unfairly? A public protest should probably happen after every other peaceful option to talk to the senior managers have failed.

ALSO WATCH: Modi Has Woken UP A Sleeping Tiger

Similarly I feel people from Shaheen Bagh should have formed a committee/group and taken the matter up with local representatives first and then to the higher authorities. Then if the authorities didn’t take any steps, the ball would be in their court. That might actually bring about some real change as well.

Do these protesters realise the hardships being caused to daily commuters and road users because of their protests?

My father has been keeping unwell since last year and I travel every weekend from Gurgaon to Noida to meet him, many a times alone. Due to the Shaheen Bagh protests I have to take a longer route (which goes through deserted stretches in some places), plus I am able to spend less time with my parents. I wonder how other people with family members who are unwell are managing, or women who have travel on this stretch everyday are managing. Proper communication from both the sides is the need of the hour.

‘Shaheen Bagh Inspired Kadru Bagh In Ranchi’

Khushboo Khan, 32, explains how she used her HR skills to recreate a Shaheen Bagh-like site in Ranchi’s Kadru area where women have been holding sit-in protests since January 19

Ranchi is a small city when compared to Delhi or Kolkata. Women here are also a little inhibited in coming out on street to protest. However, people have realised that this is a momentous time when one needs to show the courage to speak up. Ab nahi bolenge, to kab bolenge? (If not now, then when will we speak up?)

Therefore, inspired by the brave women from Shaheen Bagh, our committee, named Hum Bharat Ke Log (We, the people of India) started to come out and register our protest against Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizen. Our protest began on January 19, at a small ground near Haj House in Kadru area. As we are growing in strength, we have named it Kadru Bagh, so that people know our resolve is as strong as that of our sisters from Shaheen Bagh.

ALSO READ: Cops Bully Us… But Ghanta Ghar Protest Is On

We are protesting against CAA-NRC not only on the grounds that it is discriminatory, but also because we believe that our country isn’t equipped to take on any more people from outside and be able to give them job opportunities, health benefits etc. For, our own countrymen are not getting jobs, access to good health, transport facilities etc. We have slid down as a country on various indices, right from economic growth to women’s safety (a huge issue in Jharkhand), to food safety etc., but the government is busy trying to create a rift between communities to hide their failures.

I worked as a human resource professional for many years before I decided to quit and launch an NGO called ‘She’ that imparts vocational training to women. I must admit that my HR skills came handy in leading this protest against the divisive CAA-NRC. I have been coming here every day for 12 hours and with each passing day people are attending in huge numbers. We are braving 4-5 degree Celsius temperature and some of the protesters are having health issues too but we are ready to risk everything to be heard.

ALSO READ: With CAA, Modi Has Woken Up A Sleeping Tiger

Ever since this (BJP) government came to power, we as Muslims have been at the receiving end of communal taunts, snide remarks and insulting messages. We remained silent at many instances when our community was directly targeted: the Triple Talaq law, abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir and the court verdict on Ayodhya. But we decided to break our silence when Citizenship Bill was passed because we saw this an attack on the Constitution and constitutional rights of the people.

It is heartening to see common people from all religions protesting against CAA-NRC, because frankly everyone can read between the lines when it comes to this government.  Human beings are losing precious lives and peace in this situation. This government knows only raj (to rule) and not neeti (policies). It must learn to engage with people sincerely. The media must also help the government in its engagement with the people. For now, Shaheen Bagh has shown us the way, and we are going to follow the path of truth sincerely and tirelessly.

ALSO READ: Mothers Are At Shaheen Bagh For Their Children

Kashmir Lockdown, Azadi Slogan Echoes Across India

Kashmir – It’s been more than five months since the Army occupation, armed siege and total lockdown of the Valley of Kashmir. Ladakh, Jammu and Kargil were exceptions and life seemed to be reasonably normal out there, with both Jammu and Ladakh welcoming the scrapping of Article 370 while Kargil strongly resented its new found status of a Union Territory under the direct control of the ruling regime in Delhi.

However, the scrapping of Article 35A remained a bone of contention in all the three regions because there has been widespread fear that powerful ‘outsiders’, industrialists, businessmen and real estate Mafiosi, with connections with the ruling party in Delhi, might enter these areas and buy of huge chunks of residential, commercial, agricultural and forest land, thereby pushing the people out of their own geographical time and space, including their original and inherited homeland. This would, thereby, defeat the very purpose of the exclusive status of the original birth and legitimacy of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, where outsiders were not allowed to buy or usurp land or local property. This was in tune with the inner line permit and similar laws of autonomy as it prevails in most of the North-east states in India.

The resentment was deep even in Jammu and Ladakh which had otherwise celebrated the loss of statehood, the end of dominance of the Kashmir Valley in regional politics and in the legislative assembly, the scrapping of Article 370 and the declaration of the state as a Union territory under the direct command and control of the government in Delhi. The predominantly pro-BJP sections in the Jammu region, which also shares its neighbourhood with Poonch, Doda and Rajouri, which are largely Muslim-dominated, did not care a damn about the concerns of the Muslim population in that region, or in the Valley, nor in the Shia-dominated sensitive border zone of Kargil. Their views were dismissed with contempt and the ‘Hindutva’ card of the central government was celebrated by traders and locals in Jammu with overwhelming pro-BJP sympathies.

That is why it took a while for the bitter realism to sink in that the simultaneous scrapping of Article 35A might indeed spell doom for the locals in the days to come. The assurance of Amit Shah and the Delhi regime that locally owned land will be protected from outsiders seemed as ambivalent as the fact that the loyalist village heads who came for the meeting with the Union home minister in Delhi on September 3, actually were compelled to stay put in sundry Srinagar hotels because they were afraid they will be termed as sold out; they were afraid to face their own angry people back in their villages in the interiors of the Valley.

Amit Shah had then reiterated that “only government land would be used to establish industries, hospitals and educational institutions”. He told a delegation from Jammu and Kashmir, comprising sarpanches and civil society groups that “nobody’s land would be taken away”.

The ambiguity is as stark as the statement made by Amit Shah, pushing the people in these regions into a scenario of dilemma and crisis. What kind of land is he referring to? Government land, agricultural land, commercial land, residential land, forest land? Indeed, only Amit Shah knows what he meant and the people continued to remain on tenterhooks, trapped in a twilight zone.

This promise seemed as vague and meaningless, as the fake claim dished out the government and its propaganda machinery in Srinagar and Delhi that all is normal and hunky dory in the Valley since August 5 and the people of Kashmir are indeed celebrating their new found freedom and integration with India, the military occupation and lockdown notwithstanding.

Meanwhile, in the frozen expanse of Kashmir, with the Army still posted in the large terrain while some of them have been packed off to Assam and the North-east to counter the CAB/NRC protests, some things have not changed. The schools and colleges remain shut, the digital editions of the media are down, the main newspapers are nothing but ‘His Master’s Voice’, tens of thousands of youngsters remain jobless, internet and pre-paid mobile is still down, there have been no classes since August 5, students who sat in the exams just cannot access their results on the internet, the economy is down in the dumps with unprecedented losses allegedly up to the gigantic sum of Rs 18,000 crore, trade, business and transport has shut, thereby impacting the dependent economies of the neighbouring states of Himachal Pradesh and Punjab also, tourism is zero, and a general sense of collective phobia and alienation persists.

The most devastating aspect of the siege has been the social-psychological and emotional impact on children and women – post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has become an epidemic among 99 per cent of the population. Depression stalks the frozen landscape.

Despite this abysmally pessimistic scenario, certain events and developments seem to have marked a subtle departure in the Valley. One, the ‘civilian curfew’ has been taken off and the shops have opened. Though the economy is down and employment and trade is zero, people are out on the streets, there is mobility, and the area around the famous Dal Lak is back with people, especially when the sun shines. Children, for instance, can meet their friends, and play outside their homes, though internet is severely missed. Similarly, relatives and friends can visit each other, and patients need not be blocked by barricades and armed check-points.

Second, a group of envoys from other nations have visited Jammu and Kashmir, though, predictably, much of the visit has been stage-managed. For instance, BJP leaders have been introduced to them as civil society leaders, etc. However, it did not seem as farcical as the last visit by certain Right-wing European Union leaders organised by certain fly-by-night operators with dubious credentials. The presence of the American ambassador in the latest delegation and the statement from Washington which followed decrying the continued imprisonment of several politicians, including three former chief ministers, has yet again sent a signal which might seem a shift for the restoration of authentic normalcy.

Third, Amit Shah has said in the past that statehood will be restored to Jammu and Kashmir once the situation becomes ‘normal’. Indeed, only he knows when the situation will become normal according to his own genius. However, a recent meeting of the current Lt Governor with former legislators who demanded that statehood should be restored has sent a signal that perhaps the Narendra Modi regime is moving towards a face-saving solution, having been found caught in a Catch-22 scenario of no return. Time will tell if statesmanship and moderation will be used in the Valley, or it will be back to masculine arrogance and the machismo of State repression calling the shots.

The fourth and most significant development is the Supreme Court observing that Internet lockdown should be reviewed and so should the imposition of Section 144, considering that peaceful protest is a fundamental right in India. Indeed, is it a case of case of better late than never, or will it be really be implemented in the days to come outside the rhetoric of national security and the phobia of terrorism, remains a dilemma. Time will tell if Kashmir will really find freedom, peace, justice and democracy in the days to come, even while the nooks and corners of the rest of India is resonating with the slogans of Azadi.

Why Arvind Kejriwal Still Has The Edge In Delhi Polls

As Delhi goes to the polls on February 8, and campaigning by the three main political parties hots up, there is much speculation over who could win this key election. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which runs the central government, has been recently bruised by defeats or weak performances in other state elections. It would want to regain its position by winning Delhi. But Delhi’s incumbent Aam Admi Party (AAP) government, currently in its second term, enjoys popularity and is largely not beset by anti-incumbency factors. Many believe, however, that the recent student protests in Delhi, which led to unprecedented violence across the city, particularly in university campuses, will have a bearing on the outcome of the elections.

Delhi is not a full-fledged state. Its government, no matter which party or alliance gets to form it, has limited jurisdiction over its administration. For instance, the state, home to nearly 30 million people, is policed by a force that comes under the central government’s home ministry and not the Delhi government. Likewise, matters relating to the state’s land come under the central government and not the state. The New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC), which administers the central part of Delhi, including what is known as Lutyens’ Delhi, is under central government’s authority, while the three other municipal corporations for the rest of the state are governed by elected councillors but has blurred reporting lines—they report to the central government-appointed Lieutenant-Governor but are also partly funded out of the state government’s budgets.

When the government at the Centre and the government of Delhi’s state are politically aligned, the system works better. However, for the past five years, Delhi’s government has been led by the Aam Admi Party (AAP), headed by chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, which has been at loggerheads with the central government and the Lieutenant-Governor. The Kejriwal government has been rooting for full statehood for Delhi as it feels, and probably rightly so, that its powers are hobbled by constraints.

During his two tenures—the first one lasted 49 days—Kejriwal has formed governments that have been remarkably transparent and largely untainted by corruption or any other scandals. His schemes, aimed at the poor and lower middle class segments of the population, have included free bus services for women, and reduced electricity and water bills, which have found great favour by ordinary voters. Besides, he has burnished his reputation as a representative of the common man by not eschewing his original activism. Kejriwal’s AAP gained popularity before he won electoral victories by staging protests to back citizens’ needs. Even as a sitting chief minister of Delhi, he has continued to build that image. He sat on a dharna in front of the Lieutenant-Governor’s office when the latter was not clearing files related to some schemes. And he continues to be the rallying point for anti-BJP voters.

It is true, however, that Kejriwal’s party turned in a poor show in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections when he failed to win a single seat in Delhi. But in following months, he has recalibrated his position. When the NDA government brought the bill to bifurcate Jammu & Kashmir and scrap Article 370, Kejriwal promptly supported them. Kejriwal’s decision to support abolition of 370 comes from the understanding that in the Lok Sabha polls, a large number of Muslim voters had voted for the Congress. So, if Kejriwal cannot depend on a section of the Muslim vote, he would rather woo the wider Hindu vote-base. It’s a political gambit based on chasing electoral numbers. Whether it will work or not depends on how the BJP woos Delhi’s voters.

While Modi’s popularity among voters remains high, the BJP’s chief ministers can’t take their popularity for granted. This is evident from the string of losses the BJP has suffered in the assembly polls during the past year. Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra have not seen continuation of the BJP government. So, at the state level, the BJP looks vulnerable. Moreover, in the forthcoming Delhi elections, the BJP has not anointed anyone as the party’s contender for the chief minister’s post. Many voters will likely see the contest in February as a “Kejriwal vs. Who?” fight. It is likely that they could opt for the sitting chief minister as their preferred choice.

In all of this, the Congress’ position is the most vulnerable. In Delhi, the Congress is disadvantaged as it has no clear face to lead its charge. Its organisational disarray at the national level can also impact its fortunes in the elections. Kejriwal, on the other hand, has been quick to grab any opportunity to create an edge for himself and his party. The questionable conduct of the Delhi Police during the current student protests—in one instance, it entered a university campus and used violence against unarmed protestors; in another, it stood as passive bystanders while hooligans entered and laid siege in another campus and unleashed violence against students.

Delhi’s urban youth voters have rallied with student protestors and their collective disposition towards the BJP government has been changing. Urban youth in India have begun viewing the BJP and its recent efforts to change the Citizenship Act as discriminatory actions that go against the fabric of secularism that the Constitution of India guarantees. In Delhi, which has been the hotbed of student protests, this is most pronounced. Willy nilly, this could work to provide further advantage to Kejriwal and his party. Delhi’s youth who form a significant proportion of the electorate could prefer AAP to the BJP or the Congress. And, along with the poor and lower middle class voters, they could steer Kejriwal to a third term in the race for Delhi.

Modi Govt Has Dented India’s Image Abroad

When External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, a seasoned diplomat who understands America well, declined to meet a US Congressional delegation that included an Indian-origin member critical of India’s current Kashmir policy, eyebrows were raised. Besides Kashmir, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and a National Register of Citizens (NRC) that are widely perceived as discriminatory have painted a negative picture of India abroad.   

Signals are unmistakable. United States Ambassador to India, Ken Justor, has removed from his official web account pictures of him visiting different religious shrines. Diplomats posted in New Delhi do not speak on record but they convey their ‘concerns’ privately. Their classified reports sent back home couldn’t be positive.

Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe, although a friend of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and foreign minister of Bangladesh, India’s friendliest neighbour, recently postponed their visits. Dhaka is having to do diplomatic fire-fighting to prevent domestic fallout. While foreign governments are silently monitoring, some of their lawmakers, representative bodies and the media are vocal.

For many weeks, protests over the two laws are raging across the country and not just in the winter-hit North; in cities and not just the university campus where they are accused by the Modi Government and its voluble political and ‘cultural’ arms as housing “urban Naxals”. The government says these protests are engineered by disgruntled political parties and groups of Left-liberals and “anti-nationals” who are “pro-Pakistan”, having an agenda to “break” (tukde-tukde is the term).

The reality is quite different. Violence which has hit many a university campus, critics say, is officially sponsored. Only, the government does not want to acknowledge it. Over 25 protestors have died. Unsurprisingly, the world sees it as a Hindu-Muslim conflict. Nothing draws international attention to a country more than a religious conflict.

Some of the government’s political allies and members of the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) are, after supporting it have, quite opportunistically, done a U-turn.

The government has been assuring foreign governments that its actions, taken and those intended, are its “internal matter”. But widespread protests indicate that concerns persist.  Being a democracy, shutting out the Internet in parts of the country in this information age, legislating and acting without conducting due processes and marshalling of evidence before declaring chunks of population as “illegal immigrants”, even if they came from neighbouring countries, cannot exactly be seen as “internal”.

More so, because far from being a hush-hush exercise, it is part of a high decibel public discourse. The government’s credibility is being seriously questioned. Its aggressive, even toxic justification, calling supposed illegal migrants ‘termites’ and its policy’s critics ‘traitors’ has worsened things.     

Worst, perhaps, is enacting CAA to accord unsolicited citizenship to people in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. If it is meant to undo ‘injustice’ done to them during 1947 Partition, as the official argument goes, why Afghanistan, not really a part of the British Empire, and where India has invested billions to earn goodwill, is included? Why Buddhist majority Sri Lanka, the Maldives with near-total Muslim population, Hindu majority Nepal are excluded remains unexplained. Why a number of communities with microscopic or zero populations in those countries like Jains and Zoroastrians, are included? It is obvious, by process of elimination, why Muslims are not.

Asking people of other countries to become Indian citizens casts aspersions and is an affront to their sovereignty. Two questions arise. One, have those people sought Indian citizenship and two, what has been done about those who have sought and are already in India?           

The Modi Government with over four years left to renew its current popular mandate is firmly in saddle. But the restiveness at home has certainly hit its popularity abroad. What message an expelled foreign student on university exchange scholarship and a Norwegian woman tourist asked to leave for participating in protests carry back? 

Leaving out political shenanigans, the issues coming to fore are how the world looks at India. Since its Independence, it has been comfortable with an India that, despite all its flaws, is pluralist, tolerant of its great diversities and essentially democratic and federal, where rule of law by and large has prevailed. Indeed, progress following economic reforms of the 1990s, democratic values, culture and the positive role of the diaspora have defined India’s image so far.

Pakistan figuring in India’s political discourse has had many debilitating effects. It has revived the “two-nation” theory – treating Hindus and Muslims as separate ‘nations’ that India had rejected right from the beginning. But this has been Home Minister Amit Shah’s principal justification for enacting the twin laws.

The Hindutva fervour has made India seem a mirror image of Pakistan. Ordinary Indians seem like Pakistan-haters and by implication, wary, suspicious and even hostile to fellow-Muslims. Despite recurring sectarian violence that is mostly politically inspired, this has not been India’s record.   

The tragedy is that Modi Government’s own development agenda has been overtaken by the political one. This is compounded by an economic slowdown, a halved GDP, dip in rural spending, increasing evidence of joblessness and farm distress. Most of the political agenda that it is in haste to implement is strongly divisive and two together have contributed to its current image abroad.

Many Indians reject this as foreign ‘interference’ in internal matters. But being democratic, India is not water-tight. There is no absolute freedom, be it political or economic on how religious, ethnic and other minorities are treated in a country. Support to this thinking comes from some European scholars who are mesmerized by Hinduism but are unable to distinguish it from the political agenda currently sought to be thrust. Sadly, many Indians have also fallen victims f this.       

Some of the Modi Government’s own achievements during its first term (2014-2019) are being undone on the diplomatic. Modi’s close rapport with Trump, including “Howdy Modi” has not prevented Congressional censures, the US from trying to block crucial defence purchases, restricting visa facilities, pressurising on “buy more” of American goods and getting India into the US-China trade crosshair. Rapport with Saudi Arabia and the UAE have fetched investment pledges. But that has not stopped the two royalties from holding a Kashmir conference to boost Pakistan’s standpoint. The personal rapport that Modi has painstakingly struck with many a world leader has its limits.

Ditto, the diaspora. They respond to the Indian situation because the governments in the countries they live treat them accordingly. The admiring crowds that thronged Madison Square Garden and Wembley are silent. After Shinzo Age postponed his India visit, a small group was shown supporting the controversial laws in Tokyo. You wonder for whose benefit these expensive shows of solidarity are staged. Politicizing diaspora, even assuming many are Modi admirers, has its limits too.

Granted that we are living in a world — societies down to individuals and families — that is getting divided, if the birthplace of Yoga does not have peace for its own citizens, its plans to become “vishwaguru” (teacher to the world) carry little relevance.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

‘Why Can’t India Show Some Heart To Rohingyas Too?’

Mohammad Haroon, 50, a Rohingya from Myanmar, says he is grateful to have found shelter and safety in Okhla, New Delhi some five years back. However, he is worried about “new laws” that seek to leave them homeless once again.

Nobody wants to leave his or her ancestral land unless there are severe compulsions. Rohingya Muslims are no exception. We fled our motherland about five years back. The military-led government of Myanmar was trying to kill us all, charging the entire Rohingya community with involvement in terrorist activities. Village after villages were burnt down, our people were chased away or taken to custody and tortured.

Many of our people were killed in cold blood and labeled as terrorist without any trial. The country’s regime did not want us. There was state-sponsored ethnic cleansing happening in Rohingya-dominated Rakhine. We were left with no other choice than to pack our belongings on a dreaded night and leave before the military could knock on our doors.

Some of us managed to cross the border first to Bangladesh and from there to India. Doing odd jobs, my family made our journey to Delhi for better means of living. But of late, for several months, we hear the talks about throwing out infiltrators, illegal migrants from India. Do Indians not have the heart to show some sympathy for a persecuted community? I want to ask all Indians from your platform: Why can’t we live here?

Most of the Rohingyas living in India are working in garbage disposal sector. Most of us are in the business of collecting garbage and segregating them for bigger contractors. We are helping this country keep clean. There is no harm if we continue with our business.

Children of Haroon family outside their dwelling at Okhla in New Delhi

We earn just enough to feed ourselves. We are poor. Our kids don’t have proper clothing for winters. We have actually never faced such winters before we came to Delhi.

The winters in Myanmar are mild and, often, pleasant. Not as harsh as here in Delhi. Since we do not live in pucca houses, the wind at night makes it worse. But home is where safety is, where acceptance is.

Many media persons come here to interview us. We show them the condition of our houses. They are all made of bamboos and polythene. We live in conditions very similar to the Hindu refugees who came from Pakistan. But now, with passing of the new law, they will be accepted as citizens, while we will continue to be refugees.

We have been repeatedly requesting the Indian government to give us citizenship, considering us as refugees. We do not want to live in fear, that’s all. We just want to live our lives peacefully and don’t want our children to face what we have faced in Myanmar. 

We worry for our children. Thanks to the diverse culture of this country, we are not seen as outsiders mostly. Yes, we do face several hardships because we do not have any identification documents. But we are grateful to this nation as we are at least alive here. Even if our children become rag-pickers, they will at least be alive here in India.

Citizenship Law And Justice For All!

The blood in Uttar Pradesh has still not dried. At least 22 people have died in various towns of this state, even as clashes continue. The police in a bizarre argument has said that the people killed, died because of the crossfire within protesters. Only the UP Police can give such an argument even while media reports say they allegedly went inside homes of Muslims in Muzaffarnagar at midnight, beat up residents, including women and children, broke whatever they saw including refrigerators, TVs and washing machines, and stole money. Despite the police denial, there is visual evidence to prove how law enforcement agents became lawless goons loaded with a communal bias. After all, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had called for ‘revenge’. That the Prime Minister, the Home Minister are backing Yogi is also without doubt.

Will the people of Uttar Pradesh get justice?

In 1984, media reporters, including this writer, were on the spot in the State-sponsored killings of Sikhs in Delhi and elsewhere, master-minded by Congress goons and politicians, especially in Delhi. The mediapersons covered on foot bloody lanes and bylanes in east and west Delhi, witnessed the burnt out homes with the smell of kerosene.  

Also Read: Deconstructing India’s New Citizenship Law

When a big tree falls, the earth will shake, said Rajiv Gandhi, then. The Congress ran a diabolical and sinister anti-Sikh campaign after Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her own bodyguards. The Congress won by a huge margin in the next national polls. The BJP got two seats in the Lok Sabha. It took more than three decades to put Sajjan Kumar in jail. After god knows how many commissions of enquiry.

How did the Sikhs feel then? Did they get justice? No.

Ask the Muslims of Hashimpura, Maliana and Meerut in Uttar Pradesh about 1987 violence. Taken out with their hands up in the lanes of their colonies, with guns pointing at them, scores were shot in cold blood by a communal Provincial Armed Constabulary in mafia/Nazi execution style, their bodies dumped in the Hindon river. It was a Congress regime at the Centre and the state.

Did they, their relatives, the survivors, the community, get justice? No.

Not till date, after 33 years. And what was the message to the Muslims by a so-called secular regime? Trust, you know, you were, you are, you will be, always, second class citizens of independent, modern India, though you willfully chose a secular democratic State, not a theocratic State.

Did the secular Indian society get justice in the protracted Babri Masjid demolition issue which was trapped in the labyrinths of the judicial process for decades? Who led the demolition as a public spectacle under a BJP regime in Lucknow, who were the leaders who were openly celebrating the demolition in Ayodhya, while Indian and foreign journalists were getting bashed up by the Bajrang Dal activists? Who led the Somnath-to-Ayodhya regime with the slogan: Mandir wahin Banayenge?

Was anyone held responsible for the riots that followed and killed scores across the damned Indian landscape?

Did anyone get punished for the killings of Muslims in Bombay in the macabre winter of 1992-93, despite the meticulously documented Sri Krishna Commission Report? Did the Congress, NCP, BJP, Shiv Sena regime implement the report?

I will skip the details about the 2002 barbaric, State-sponsored genocide in Gujarat under the helm of Narendra Modi. Mediapersons reported the genocide in great details and even after 2002 kept digging and documenting. We waited for justice after the macabre gang-rapes and killings, the people burnt alive as a public spectacle, and the fake encounters that followed. Not one, a series of fake encounters. Mission Assassination Modi – they were called.

Did the mass murderers get punished? Did the fake encounter specialists get punished? Did the Muslims of Gujarat get justice? No.

Till date, almost four months after 8 million people in Kashmir, under military occupation, await justice from the highest court. In Assam, almost 19 lakh Indians, mostly Hindus, tribals, Gorkhas and indigenous communities, apart from Muslims, have been left out of the National Register of Citizens and condemned allegedly as foreigners or ‘doubtful voters’ – will they get justice? Undoubtedly, no.

It is a good thing too. The loss of faith should energise the political struggle. Because, it is the non-violent political struggle which will liberate us from our masters’ masculine arrogance and disregard for all institutions, including the Indian Constitution. Can we have faith in the courts in contemporary times? That is the widespread question right now across the spectrum which had always believed in the judicial process, especially the Supreme Court.

However, the peaceful political resistance and mass movement must do what it must, as a political struggle, and not seek judicial intervention which might effectively kill the movement. And it is a struggle which is secular. Everywhere, in Assam and the Northeast, as much as all over India now, from Kurnool in Andhra to Nuh in Mewat, from Mumbai to Kolkata. It has spread and taught the masculine arrogance of the current regime a good lesson.

But there is a remote possibility of justice, especially when it is political struggle for justice. But who will turn the tide? A mass movement, in synthesis with theory and praxis, led by the young. A peaceful, non-violent, united mass movement – as it is now happening across the Indian landscape, as a rainbow revolution. Yes, led by the young.

There is no defeat in a movement. All movements are victorious, for they create a spiral of new movements and ideas and adventures and literature and cinema, counter-culture and knowledge systems. They create new scaffoldings of resistance and barricades.

That is why an idea cannot be killed. That is why Bhagat Singh and his comrades, as much as Babasaheb Ambedkar, or even Lenin and Che and Fidel, can never die. Nor will Gramsci. Nor will the Mahatma.

There is hope in a non-violent, Gandhian, mass upsurge. ‘Don’t be silent, Don’t be violent’ – as the current slogan says, among an extraordinary repertoire of brilliant slogans. Like a hundred flowers blooming, and one hundred new sublime schools of thought.