They long for a Congress-ruled Nehruvian India, when a cosy elite dominated politics, industry and media.
Many self-styled “public intellectuals” are deeply rattled nowadays. These are that group of people who believe that when they pontificate on any issue they are ipso facto credible and should be read or listened to with respect, if not awe, even on complex issues about which they know little. Often called the “Lutyens Delhi” or “Khan Market” crowd, such people are viscerally anti-Modi. This may be due to a genuine difference of opinion, but equally it is because after having dominated the intellectual debate in India for decades, they are now ignored and sidelined by the Narendra Modi government. They long for a return to a Congress-ruled Nehruvian India, when a cosy elite dominated politics, industry, the media and academia. There is little doubt that India under Modi has changed. Most people think it’s for the better, otherwise Modi would not have been re-elected with an even larger majority, but these naysayers refuse to see the writing on the wall. Recent decisions by the government and Parliament to restructure Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh are the latest provocation for them to vent their fury in the Western and Indian media to show not merely the government but, sadly, India too in poor light.
SILENCE OF THE -INTELLECTUALS
One charge, as Ramachandra Guha puts it in his piece in the Washington Post, is “government’s persecution of my Kashmiri fellow citizens”. Arundhati Roy dramatically charges the government of having gone “rogue”! Where were their voices when hundreds of thousands of Kashmiri Pandits, the original inhabitants of the Kashmir valley who had been living in the Kashmir valley for centuries, were driven out by Islamists in 1990? It was their silence then that was the loudest sound, to paraphrase the headlines-grabbing title of Roy’s long piece in the New York Times. Over the decades, Kashmiri Muslim politicians have indulged in electoral gerrymandering to ensure that they would always dominate the politics of J&K, at the expense of Jammu and Ladakh, which were ignored when it came to development. Well, the Kashmiri politicians didn’t even spare the Kashmiri people. All the money that J&K got from New Delhi, which in per capita terms was much more than New Delhi gives to other states, was spent on perpetuating the opulent and extravagant lifestyle of the politicians, who used various stratagems, including taking money out of the Jammu and Kashmir Bank (with nary a thought or intention of ever returning it) to benefit family and friends. Unlike in the rest of India, in J&K there was no reservation for Dalits and tribals, and people were denied the benefits of progressive legislation that forbids child marriage and guarantees the right to education. These are just a few examples of the iniquities in J&K under the cover of Articles 370 and 35A (which was introduced by subterfuge). When Partition took place in 1947, refugees who streamed into J&K from neighbouring regions (now part of Pakistan) were not given State citizenship rights, which meant no access to land, education, or right to vote in local elections. Kashmiri women who married outside J&K lost their inheritance rights; this was corrected only a few years ago, but despite this their children were denied rights as citizens of J&K. Who was doing the persecution? Not the Central government, but the corrupt, selfish and yes, misogynistic, leaders of J&K.
CONGRESS MUST SHARE BLAME
Unfortunately, over the years—and various, mostly Congress, governments in Delhi have to share much of the blame—a sense of entitlement and unaccountability got ingrained among the people of Kashmir valley, even as Pakistan vigorously stoked terrorism and separatism, and signs of growing and dangerous radicalism were visible. This could not have been allowed to carry on indefinitely. If people behave in an anti-national manner, like unfurling Pakistani flags and desecrating Indian flags, should the State just stand back and do nothing? If the Islamic State talks about creating an Islamic Caliphate in Kashmir, should the Indian State not worry about it? Isn’t it the duty of the Indian state to preserve India’s territorial integrity? In giving so much space to Roy’s intemperate ravings, the editors of the New York Times conveniently forgot that Americans had fought a long and bloody civil war to keep the country united, and that anyone who dares to throw stones at US security forces would invite swift and severe retribution.
The argument by former minister, P. Chidambaram, echoed by Guha, that one of the reasons for the crackdown in Kashmir is that the majority of Kashmiris are Muslims, is dangerously provocative and inflammatory. Has not the Indian state firmly dealt with large-scale disorder, violence, terrorism and separatism, no matter where it occurred? Look at what was done in Punjab to tackle Sikh separatism in the 1980s, under the leadership of a Sikh police chief! Regrettably, even today, some Western countries like Canada and the UK continue to blithely turn a blind eye to the activities of Sikh separatist groups, though they would surely strongly object to India harbouring and encouraging Quebec or Irish separatists. India has also had to deal with serious insurgencies in the Northeast of India, where there is no Muslim majority. Was there any communal angle when Hyderabad, Goa and Sikkim were merged into India?
Then there is the linked charge of the “rise and consolidation of an aggressive Hindu majoritarianism”. It is true that in recent decades Hindus have become more conscious of their rights. One needs to understand why. A lot of people were deeply offended when former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that the minorities had the first claim on the nation’s resources! Pray, why? Let us not forget that India was divided because the Muslim leaders under Jinnah felt that they could not coexist with a Hindu-majority India. The Partition of India, which was completely unnatural, has left a deep gash not only on the geography, but also the psyche, of the Indian people. Many people in India believe that the Muslim elite, which had ruled over India for many centuries, could not reconcile itself to the loss of its power, and had come to regard Hindus as people whom they could, and should, dominate. That’s why you see Pakistan’s quest for parity with India, and their absurd notion that one Muslim soldier is equal to ten Hindu soldiers. There is no real “minority” problem in India. The only religious minority that talks of this is the Muslim minority, but even here this is not a problem among Muslims in India in general; it is only the elite Muslims (not the masses) of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, who led the movement for Pakistan who think in such terms.
In addition, the Ayodhya dispute has played a role in the rise of Hindu awareness about their rights. The so-called leaders of the Muslim community, who are objecting to the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, are being short-sighted. To confront Hindus on a matter involving faith is not wise politics. The important thing is not whether the disputed site is actually the birthplace of Lord Ram, but that hundreds of millions of Hindus believe it to be so. Some analogies are not out of place. What would happen if a non-Christian were to question the belief that a virgin gave birth to Jesus Christ? Or if someone were to question that it is the hair of another human being and not the Prophet that was allegedly stolen from Hazratbal Shrine in Kashmir some years ago? Or that the tooth of the Buddha in Kandy is not really his?
Contrary to Roy’s belief, there is no hostility against Indian Muslims. Indian Muslims are an integral part of India’s society and India is their home. If Muslims were being demonised, why would some of the biggest Bollywood stars and sports icons be Muslims? Not all Muslims are low on the economic ladder; many are successful and prosperous business and industry leaders. We also have proud and patriotic Muslim soldiers and generals, wise and fair Muslim judges, efficient and committed Muslim officials and policemen, brilliant and respected Muslim scientists and engineers. Some people say that there are very few Muslims in Parliament and none from the BJP. Well, India does not believe in communal electorates. When someone is elected to Parliament, he/she represents all the people, not just those of his community. Moreover, in order to get elected, a candidate must reach out to all sections of the electorate. If Muslims continue to have a narrow agenda, obviously they won’t be elected. But leave that aside. Whatever development work is being done—roads, water supply, gas connections, housing, toilets, education, health etc.,—is not targeted to favour any particular community.
Admittedly, all is not rosy. There is work to be done to make Prime Minister Modi’s call of sabka saath, sabka vishwas a reality. It is convenient, and lazy, to put the onus exclusively on Hindus. All sides have to do their bit. It is easy to blame others, to wallow in “being the other,” but most so-called Muslim political and community leaders have only thought about themselves, not the welfare of ordinary poor Muslims. Why is it that so many Muslim leaders feel it necessary to emphasise their Muslim identity as their primary one? One is also struck by how virtually all Muslim intellectuals and politicians are obsessed with writing and speaking only on so-called Islamic issues rather than the larger issues, cutting across communities, facing the nation? Even in foreign affairs, their focus is on the “Muslim world”. Why? Global trends also shape perceptions. There is no getting away from the fact that globally, including in India, there is a growing wariness about Islam. Factors that have contributed to this include the role of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states in actively fanning and financing the spread of extremist ideology, which has affected the thinking of some Indian Muslims; the conflation of Islam with terrorism; and the reluctance of Muslims to speak out against terrorist attacks and atrocities (how many Muslims have written or spoken to condemn the numerous attacks by Islamist terrorists in Europe, US, India and elsewhere?)
‘HINDU PAKISTAN’ IRRESPONSIBLE -NOTION
It is also necessary to denounce the irresponsible notion that India could become a “Hindu Pakistan”. India is a country where all religions not just survive, but thrive. Whereas in Pakistan (and Bangladesh) the percentage of Hindus has come down drastically, in India the percentage of Muslims has steadily increased from less than 10% in 1947 to about 15% today. Apart from Muslims (of all sects), India has many smaller religious minorities. The Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Jains and Buddhists are doing quite well economically and have preserved their respective traditions and cultures. Unlike in Pakistan, where abductions and forced conversions of Hindu and Christian girls is common practice, minorities suffer no such disability in India. Islamic mosques, Christian churches, Sikh gurudwaras, Jain temples, Buddhist monasteries and Parsi fire temples are to be seen everywhere. Festivals of all religions are widely and freely celebrated. In fact it is the Hindus who suffer from disabilities in some respects. Minorities manage their own places of worship and institutions, and can have their own educational institutions where their children are taught about their religions. No such luck for the Hindus! In their case, minority groups and individuals have the temerity to raise objections to the teaching of yoga, distribution of the Bhagwad Gita, even to singing the national song, Vande Mataram! Muslims have their own personal law, including till recently the triple talaq practice, which has now been made illegal and punishable. On the other hand, Hindus accepted the Hindu Code Bill more than six decades ago. Thus, talk of “Hindu Pakistan” betrays a poor understanding of, and lack of pride in, India’s history, culture and ethos. In India, everyone is required to take an oath on the Constitution, whereas interestingly in the US the President takes his oath on the Bible. Going by such logic, I suppose, one should call the US a “Christian” country. The same would apply to Britain, where the monarch is the head of the Church of England.
DEMOCRACY IS BY MAJORITY
These worthies also make serious charges about Indian democracy. Amartya Sen, in a recent interview to NDTV, talked loftily about “sustaining the rights of all human beings”, advocated “government by discussion”, and bemoaned the “tyranny of the majority”. The Nobel Prize winner’s disdain for majority rule is puzzling. Democracy is all about the rule of the majority. Of course, discussion is important in a democracy, but discussion is a means, not an end. No doubt, the views and interests of the minority have to be taken into account, but there cannot be a tyranny of the minority. Ultimately, decisions have to be taken, and in a democracy the views of those who constitute a majority prevail. How would Sen rationalise the acts of a community that may be a minority in India but as a majority in a state tramples over the rights of minorities in that state? How would he describe the US, where a President can get elected even though he gets fewer votes than his opponent? Or the UK, which is hurtling towards Brexit thanks to a slim majority vote in a referendum? Guha thinks that India is an “election-only democracy”, with “unaccountable” rulers and the lack of a “credible opposition”. One hopes that he realises that elections are the essential element of a democracy that legitimise the authority of the rulers, who have to periodically go back to the people and get a revalidation; otherwise, they are thrown out. In the case of Modi, he went back to the people after five years and came back with a bigger majority. What is legitimate—Modi’s victory or the fevered and apoplectic rants of his critics?
INDIA MANAGES -DIVERSITIES WELL
These armchair pundits also have doubts about India’s future as a multicultural democracy. Roy goes so far as to say that there was no “whole” India that was partitioned, and rubbishes India’s nation building as a “project of assimilation”. This is a bit rich coming from someone with Kerala Christian and Bengal Hindu parentage, who was born in the Northeast, studied in the South and lives in the North. They need not worry. In fact, India’s record of managing its diversities is much better than that of many other countries, including the US. India’s unique strength lies in its ability to assimilate people from diverse origins in an environment and society where they feel Indian and where they can also retain their narrower cultural identity. We give constitutional and legal protection, and affirmative action, to the weaker sections of society like the Dalits, the tribals, and the backward castes. Why, two seats in Parliament are reserved for the minuscule community of Anglo-Indians. If India were intolerant, why would Bangladeshis, Sri Lankan Tamils, Afghans, Tibetans and Rohingyas have sought shelter in India? Why do millions of Nepalis live and work in India? Unlike the US, which wiped out the native Red Indian tribes, India has taken special steps to preserve tribal cultures and traditions. India is a remarkable success story of managing a dazzling diversity of 1.3 billion people in its polity and society, when much smaller countries like the UK are struggling to deal with separatism. Look at the hatred and killings in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, despite having been one country for seven decades. Or the mutual animosities among the countries that have emerged from the former Soviet Union.
EVERY DEMOCRACY IS FLAWED
Of course, no democracy is perfect, as everyone living in democratic regimes around the world will agree. Surely, Parliament’s functioning could, and should, be better. However, any objective observer would have noted that more often than not it has been the Opposition parties that disrupt Parliament sessions, and that the first session of the newly elected Parliament has been the most productive in more than two decades. If the Opposition parties are discredited and in disarray, it is because they offer nothing to enthuse the people. It’s not the job of any ruling party to create a “credible opposition”, neither in India nor in the US, the UK or any other democracy. As for the media, there is freedom to criticise—critics of the government can and do freely express themselves in India in the media and on public platforms. The problem is that under the Congress regime, large sections of the media were in collusion with the ruling party. Now that things have changed and they don’t wield the same power, obviously they are frustrated—and frightened, particularly if they have been charged with tax evasion and money laundering. Yes, India is a flawed democracy. Whether it is 50:50 or 40:60 or 30:70, as Guha puts it, can be debated. But which democracy isn’t flawed? Is the US a perfect democracy? Can anyone without deep pockets stand for election as the US President? Yet in India we have many ordinary Indians who have made it to the top—whether it is Modi as Prime Minister, or women like Mayawati (a Dalit), Jayalalitha and Mamata Banerjee as Chief Ministers. India has had universal suffrage since 1950, while in the US the blacks got such rights only in the 1960s. Yes, there is political corruption in India, as there is in the US. Yes, there is violence in India. Isn’t the US too wracked by senseless violence on innocent school children? But the overall balance sheet of democracies, including India’s, is still positive.
Finally, these critics make gratuitous references to colonialism. Sen thinks that preventive detention is a colonial heritage. Either he is forgetful, or maybe he was not in India when MISA, TADA and POTA laws were in force. If Roy smells “a whiff of colonialism in the air”, perhaps it is emanating from her writings and utterances. Any colonial thinking that there might have been could only be among some of those who got to rule India in the aftermath of the “transfer of power” from the colonial ruler; sovereignty, as we all know, came a little later. By their sweeping statements and alarmist views, which reflect merely their own prejudices and do not represent the views of the majority of the Indian people, these self-important “public intellectuals” are doing a great disservice to India. Good writers, historians or economists they may be but, ignorant of what it takes to run a country and keep it together, these innocents, unencumbered by any responsibility or accountability, can luxuriate in venting their intellectual flatulence, unmindful of how they are polluting the environment for others.
India is changing rapidly—for the better. Some of us may not benefit from the changes, but the vast majority of Indians like and support the changes being ushered in. That is democracy, which we must respect, even when it doesn’t suit us personally.
Rajiv Sikri is a former diplomat and the author of Challenge and Strategy: Rethinking India’s Foreign Policy.