The hollowing out of India

The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi.BUFFETED by strong economic headwinds, which have gathered momentum since the insane demonetisation exercise of last November and made more fierce by a poorly designed change in the national taxation system, Indians have had little time to worry about what else is shaking their republic. Perhaps they feel the tremors but are as yet unaware of how seriously the pillars of its democratic traditions are being rocked. When everyone from IT-sector geeks to traders in the country’s most prosperous hubs see their livelihoods evaporating it’s difficult to focus on such things as the wellbeing of institutions that have been the bedrock of its democracy.

What the anarchic demonetisation exercise did, apart from reducing the country’s GDP by one per cent and sending the economy into a tailspin, is to undermine the Reserve Bank of India, which has long been lauded for its independence. That reputation now lies in tatters after it was forced go along with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political gamble.

Of more serious concern is what is happening to other institutions such as academia and, most worryingly, the armed forces. Take the curious case of Lt-Col Shrikant Purohit, which the previous government had highlighted as an instance of saffron terror. Purohit was released on bail by the Supreme Court last month after spending nine years in jail. His case is important because he is the first serving Indian Army official to be accused of involvement in an act of terror.

The Modi government is chipping away at the institutions and traditions that define the republic.

Purohit was arrested in 2008 as one of the conspirators in the Malegaon bomb blast, which killed seven persons and injured 100 in a town known for its Muslim weavers. What is unnerving is the silence of the army. The army has made no official statement but ‘sources’ were quoted as saying he would remain under suspension but would be attached to a unit.

For the ordinary person, it is difficult to fathom how an officer accused of terrorism will be rejoining duty. In the increasingly widening ‘reality distortion field’ that is India it is not easy to sift facts from the persistent propaganda, misrepresentation and hyperbole that accompanies all controversial events. While TV channels notorious for toeing the official line have hailed Purohit as a hero in no uncertain terms, other media outlets have reminded us that the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad, which investigated the Malegaon attack, had found Purohit to be the founder of Abhinav Bharat, a Hindu extremist group that emulates Islamist militancy. They have also pointed out that Purohit’s release was in line with the reluctance of the National Intelligence Agency to pursue the case vigorously and follows the bail given to other conspirators. This was foretold by Rohini Salian, special public prosecutor in the case, who had revealed in a 2015 interview that she was under pressure from the NIA to go soft on the accused ever since “the new government came to power”.

Purohit’s case merits closer scrutiny. Although he maintains that he was the army mole in radical Hindu organisations, reports by the army has shredded his claim. A 2011 inquiry report of the Directorate General of Military Intelligence had found his presence in several of the Hindutva group meetings to be “illegal”. Newspapers quoting from the report said DGMI had found that Purohit used his “relaxed work environment” to hold meetings with prominent religious leaders and arms dealers and that he was “involved in procurement and disposal of wpns [weapons] for monetary benefits”.

These are murky waters and unsettling since it involves national security. It has deepened the unease over the ruling party’s politicisation of the armed forces, which has been talked about but seldom debated in public despite the seriousness of concerns it raises. Eight months ago, the Modi government rattled India by casting aside a decades-long tradition and superseding two reputedly outstanding officers to appoint Bipin Rawat as the army chief. Rawat appears to have been handpicked for his aggressive stance on the Kashmir problem, which is line with the BJP’s own hawkish policy and fits in nicely with the party’s nationalist discourse.

Given its penchant for the forces, it’s not surprising that military personnel have been used by the party and the RSS to undermine another institution: universities. Last year, the RSS student wing ABVP invited former army officers to an event in memory of military martyrs at the JNU, at which pointed remarks were made about the lack of nationalism among the students.

Universities, inevitably, have been under relentless assault, with the RSS determined to take its ‘war for minds’ to the next level. Public universities known to be the citadels of liberal thought and left-wing student politics have come under systematic attack, their academic freedom hugely circumscribed by a slashing of funds. JNU, for instance, has been forced to cut its intake of research scholars by over 80pc as the RSS goes ahead with its “ideological battle against Macaulay, Marx and Madrasawadis”.

If the government has been more cautious in meddling with another pillar of Indian democracy it has not been for want of trying. In April last year, Modi reduced former chief justice T.S. Thakur to tears in public because he said the judiciary was unable to handle the “avalanche” of litigation because of shortage of judges. The Modi government has refused to increase the strength of judges from the current 21,000 to the required 40,000 in an effort to keep the judiciary, which has remained firm in its resolve to decide the appointments, firmly in check.

Damaging institutions, which can destroy modern democratic values based on the constitution, is patently not a concern for the BJP-RSS combine since its contempt for the constitution is barely disguised. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has indicated where the next battlefront will be: bringing in a new legal system based on the “ethos of the society”. Although the Indian constitution was based on an understanding of the ‘Bharatiya ethos’, our founding fathers did not get it quite right since many of the laws are from foreign sources. This is something to be addressed, he says. In other words, it is not Hindu enough. Indian democracy’s next battle could be its most decisive yet.

The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi.

Published in Dawn, September 18th, 2017

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