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The Hindu Notes for 12th September 2018

Imitating to flatter?

The Opposition’s feeble and piecemeal response to the BJP’s challenge is mystifying

Whatever happens in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, or the decades thereafter, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah have already won the prize for self-belief and swagger. They had announced a blitzkrieg of plans for 2022 when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government was not yet midway through its first term. At the party’s National Executive meet on the weekend, Mr. Shah took aplomb to unexplored heights by announcing the BJP’s intention to stay put in office for another 50 years. Of course, with the caveat that the Opposition had a window of opportunity in the 2019 election.

Belligerent BJP

The BJP is genetically configured to exude confidence against the worst odds. But the current belligerence astounds in the face of the following: a less than exceptional record in office, a politics of polarisation that has kept the country in a state of tension and conflict, and new challenges to the party’s own carefully-constructed social constituency.

A microscopic scrutiny of the Modi government’s performance is beyond the scope of this piece. However, from the perspective of the common people, surely the failures stand out, especially those that have devastated the poor and small businesses. Among them: demonetisation; the Goods and Services Tax (GST); and galloping fuel prices pushed up further by a falling rupee. Today there is a near consensus (except in government circles) that demonetisation, while monumentally failing in its primary objective of nullifying black money and counterfeit notes, totted up unintended penalty points — slowing down the economy for several quarters and strangulating the cash-dependent informal sector. The GST, pushed at the midnight hour in an attempted equivalence with the new dawn at India’s Independence, has been turned into a byzantine nightmare by a government botching its implementation. The promised ‘Good and Simple Tax’ has become its ironic opposite.

On rising fuel prices and the falling rupee, it would be hard to beat the reactions from a different time — around 2013 when Mr. Modi and the then Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, lacerated Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with words that have come back to haunt them. Even the reported uptick in the GDP comes alongside feedback from the ground of severe distress among farmers, industrial labour and unemployed youth, graphically captured by a recent protest march by tens of thousands from these groups.

Social tensions

But by far the most troubling legacy of the government has been in the social sphere, which has been wrecked, possibly beyond restoration, by a pernicious brand of Hindu nationalism that has taken violence to new, grotesque levels. There are many milestones here. In the new order of things, communal violence is no longer episodic but a continuum without end. Its execution is in the manner of a ritual, with the victim held captive and a video crew filming for larger audiences every blow, every beating, especially the final sadistic kick before life ebbs away. The crime is not hidden, as would be the normal instinct, but worn as a badge.

In another first, the violence has been drawing approval not only from social media troll armies that applaud acts of depravity but from sections of the ruling class, including MPs and Ministers. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s occasional and generic condemnation of violence did not stop Union Minister Jayant Sinha from garlanding and posing with men accused of lynching.

The marauders have had their way so easily, openly and so often in these four and a half years that the lynchings, mainly of Muslims and Dalits, do not numb the senses, as happened in 2015 when Mohammed Akhlaq was killed in Uttar Pradesh for the alleged sin of storing beef. At the time a further shock was how unconscionably the debate moved to whether it was beef or mutton that was stored. Since then we have had Pehlu Khan, Junaid and many more. The names have morphed into statistics… 10, 11, 15 and so forth.

Incendiary calls from the right have become the expected thing. Neither Mr. Sinha nor those found to have repeatedly crossed the red lines have been punished with expulsion. Undoubtedly because of the impunity offered to the offenders, the violence has spread and taken different forms, including copycat lynchings of people suspected to be child lifters, and mob vandalism by Kanwariya processionists returning from pilgrimage.

The descent into darkness can be judged from increasingly worried public voices. Industrialist Anand Mahindra took to Twitter to express his disapproval: “If there’s one thing that worries me about the future, it is dictatorship by mobs… Quelling these mobs has to be non-negotiable.” The Supreme Court, which felt constrained to call for a law against lynching, wondered if mobocracy had become the new normal: “Horrendous acts of mobocracy cannot be permitted to inundate the law of the land.”

The arrests recently of rights activists with a record of support and service to Dalits and Adivasis has added to the liberal perception of a vindictive regime that has already whipped up public opinion against them by publicising unproven charges, some of them ludicrous. The Supreme Court has had to intervene to restrain the police and ease the terms of their detention.

Opposition’s strategy

So why is the BJP so confident? Is it because the party has calculated that the lawlessness visible to the naked eye is in fact its achievement, and will be viewed as such by an already Hindutva-ised India? The liberal opinion may be appalled by what it sees as an ‘undeclared emergency’, the apex court in its decision in the 377 case, felt to have wider applicability, may have emphatically upheld minority rights, but there is no evidence that the middle class with a vital role in moulding public opinion feels the same way. The social media has become the place to air and rejoice in collective bigotry. Besides, the BJP continues to find support among the Other Backward Classes, belying the conviction that proponents of social justice are necessarily opposed to Hindutva majoritarianism.

The fear of the ‘Hindu vote’ must then explain the Opposition’s feeble and piecemeal response to the BJP’s aggression. Civil society has been louder in its condemnation of the ‘culture of impunity’ under the NDA government than the Opposition which held its first joint protest on Monday — but only on the runaway fuel prices, not on the threat to democracy from a party and government seen to have laid siege to India’s social landscape.

The Opposition strategy, if there is one, is predicated on forming State-level alliances, not on ideologically challenging the incumbent coalition. The only leader who’s been something of a thorn in the BJP’s flesh is Congress president Rahul Gandhi. There are signs that the BJP is discomfited by his Kailash Mansarovar yatra. But not to worry. Mr. Gandhi’s intention is only to prove he is a better Hindu. This is a game that can spin out of control, and that might already be the case, with the Congress declaring Brahminism to be in its DNA and cow protection as its creed. If there is a threat to the BJP, it is possibly from within, judging by the upper caste anger against the party’s overtures to Dalits, a community itself in ferment over felt discrimination.

Vidya Subrahmaniam is Senior Fellow at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy. E-mail: vidya.subrahmaniam@

‘Dear Comrade Gautamji’

As the authorities summon the spectre of a Maoist threat, here’s what the Navlakha case shows us

When police picked up Gautam Navlakha from his home in New Delhi two weeks ago, it was part of a string of simultaneous arrests from across the country. Sudha Bharadwaj was picked up from nearby Faridabad, Arun Ferreira from Thane, Vernon Gonsalves from Mumbai, and Varavara Rao from Hyderabad.

Colour by number

In trying to make sense of the arrests of these well-known public figures — lawyers, activists, poets, teachers — it helps to think of a game plan inspired by the ‘colour-by-number’ books that young children so enjoy. Each page is only a confusing mess of lines and shapes at first. Only when you diligently follow the numbers, and fill in the boxes with the suggested colour, does the picture begin to emerge.

In this colour-by-number exercise, which box could Mr. Navlakha be fitted into? And what colour would it be?

At the time of the arrests the charges against all five were said to connect them to the violence that followed the Elgar Parishad rally just outside Pune, on January 1, 2018. As we enter the already overheated warm-up to the 2019 general election, the possibility of a powerful assertion of Dalit politics, exemplified by Elgar Parishad, seems imminent. And it clearly puts the political status quo represented by the Bharatiya Janata Party under pressure. The impulse to connect the five activists to a conspiracy around Elgar Parishad certainly existed. But Mr. Navlakha was not in the right box here: he was not present at this rally (nor were his other four co-accused), and no other links with the violence at Bhima-Koregaon was forthcoming.

The Pune police soon produced before the media a large cache of emails, evidence they said of “a larger conspiracy by Maoist organisations to overthrow the lawfully established Indian government”. For good measure these self-incriminating emails of unproven origin threw in an attempt to assassinate the Prime Minister as well. No codes were used in these ‘top-secret’ letters of the underground (and ultra-secretive) Maoists, nor were pseudonyms deployed. This made it convenient for an obliging media to run blithely with the accusations. Inevitably there was a ‘Dear Comrade Gautamji’ letter too.

The five names had not been picked out of a hat either. In recent months each one of them had been flamed in the media, in a vituperative and sustained campaign launched and conducted by TV channels. This continued even after the arrests, and the effort to link these activists, and produce something that suggested a major conspiracy, was melded under the obliging glare of TV cameras.

Gautam Navlakha emerged as a particular favourite, and those who know him, and admire him, know why. There is nothing secret about his beliefs. He is someone who is simply unwilling, and perhaps even unable, to hold back from calling a spade a spade, whether in the context of Kashmir, or Bastar, the two issues about which he has written with the most consistency in recent years. So grainy videos of his speeches have been dug out from the archives, and with short excerpts looped out of context, an unspecified conspiracy is sought to be shaped.

The day after his arrest someone pointed out, only half in jest, that the possibility of Mr. Navlakha being part of any conspiracy was remote. For so fierce is his commitment to justice, and so highly does he value his independence, that he was certain to be a liability! It is precisely that principled intransigence, that consistency of commitment that comes shining through if you even casually rifle through his writings of the last three decades. His wide-ranging columns in the Economic & Political Weekly have covered a range of urgent issues, from human rights and civil liberties to defence and militarism. Long before the human rights community in India had even taken note of the situation in Kashmir, Mr. Navlakha had begun travelling there and produced analysis that systematically looked at the pattern and consequences of militarisation.

More recently Mr. Navlakha has written extensively about the context of the Maoist rebellion in central India, and his 2010 journey to the forests of Bastar in the company of the Swedish writer, Jan Myrdal, resulted in Days and Nights in the Heartland of Rebellion, a book where he is a witness at once “both critical and partisan”. It is that ability to stay as the outsider, and keep a distance from the rigidities both of conventional scholarship and of routine activism that make him an exceptional figure.

So what does the inclusion of someone like ‘Dear Comrade Gautamji’ in this conspiracy hope to achieve?

Convenient Act

While the recent attempt to silence people with the broad brush of #UrbanNaxal was confidently laughed off by the public at large, these arrests (as well as the earlier arrests of five activists in June this year) are clearly designed to summon a spectre, that familiar threat to the “lawfully established Indian government”. In Mr. Navlakha’s work the conspiracy has found a convenient way to link the “threat” posed by the Maoist insurgency to the disaffection and rage in Kashmir.

Much of what has transpired since the arrests would have been laughable too if the charges had not been made under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the draconian UAPA: Section 16 (punishment for terrorist acts), Section 17 (raising funds for terrorist acts), Section 18(B) (recruiting persons for terrorist acts), Section 20 (being member of a terrorist gang or organisation). It is the application of the UAPA, with the extreme difficulty of obtaining bail under it, that make even a ham-handed arrest a matter of grave seriousness, for long, debilitating stretches in prison invariably precede a trial under these sections.

In the coming months all of us will be faced with some form of the colouring book I began with, and asked to unquestioningly fill in the suggested colours. There is already enough to tell us that the predetermined picture is the wrong one. I like to think that Mr. Navlakha would have refused to follow the numbers, and gone by what he knew and understood for himself. Perhaps so should we.

Sanjay Kak is a documentary film maker and writer based in New Delhi

‘For the security of India, stability in Sri Lanka is very important’

The former Sri Lankan President says he is ready to put past ‘misunderstandings’ with India behind him, and could lead his party in the 2019 elections

Sri Lanka’s former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, is visiting New Delhi to deliver a public lecture and meet with various leaders, in the first such visit since his shock defeat in 2015, which he had blamed in part on Indian intelligence agencies. After sweeping local elections this year, Mr. Rajapaksa says he is confident his party will win in Presidential elections next year, and that a strong government in Sri Lanka is in India’s interest. Excerpts:

You have had a rocky relationship with India. Is your visit here a sign of reconciliation with the Modi government after 2015?

Yes. Just before and after the elections [(in 2015], we had a lot of misunderstandings. Now of course, I think it is about time to move on.

In March 2015, in an interview to The Hindu, you had accused R&AW, the intelligence agency, of helping bring the opposition together, which led to your defeat. A few weeks ago you said that India must not “meddle” in political affairs in Lanka. Are you worried it will?

It isn’t only India. I didn’t mention just India. I said no one should meddle with somebody else’s elections. It is an internal matter of a country whom the people decide to bring to power. That was in my mind. I think now they all have understood what went wrong at that time and what they did. So we need to forget about the past. This is the time to move forward and look forward.

On that subject, there were allegations that your party had accepted campaign funds from Chinese companies….

They have not funded me. But this is what people talk about because the [Maithripala Sirisena] government has nothing else to accuse us of. When they came to power, they were looking for my $18 billion, but they are still looking for it (laughs)… despite the help of the U.S. and other countries. They haven’t even found a dollar.

All eyes at present are on Sri Lanka’s Chinese debt. Do you think your original deal for Hambantota and the Colombo Port project could have been done differently?

Look, the loans that we took, Sri Lanka could have paid them back. But the [Sirisena government] has messed things up. For the Colombo Port City, we didn’t have to pay anything, it was a contract sharing arrangement, where they got a share of the land they developed. At the time of the Hambantota port deal, our debt from China was less than our debt from the U.S. and other countries and debt-to-GDP ratio was under control. So if the problem has grown now, and the government has not managed it, then how can you blame us?

What is your longer view of Sri Lanka’s relationship with India and China, which seemed to be the cause of the “misunderstandings” at the time?

India is our closest relation, I would say, and our neighbour. And China has been a long-standing friend. In all our dealings with China, we never forgot about the interests of India. We had a very good understanding with the Indian government and we always told them that we would never allow our territory to be used for any activity against our neighbour.

India’s other concern at the time was a Chinese nuclear submarine being docked in Colombo harbour. Since then, there is Gwadar port, there are Chinese inroads in the Maldives. Was India justified in its concerns that it raised with you?

Look, the Chinese submarine was on a routine trip to the Gulf and South Africa. And they just stopped for a short haul. That’s all. I think this was used as an excuse [by India] at the time.

What was the reason for the deterioration in ties then?

Misunderstandings. My priority was always to develop my country and I always kept India informed and asked them first to build the port, to build the airport, to build the highways… we always came to India. We offered them first, then the next offer went to China, because they were the only people who could do it. And within eight months the Chinese had started [construction].

You say that, but recently your party opposed the Mattala airport being leased to India. What is your objection?

I am not opposing India, I am opposing the privatisation that is the policy of the Sirisena government. I never privatised the way they have. In fact I bought back the shares of the gas company, insurance company, and also the SriLankan Airlines that was sold to Emirates.

How do you see India-Sri Lanka ties at present? While the leadership says that relations are at their closest, many agreements are pending, including on the ETCA (Economic Technology Cooperation Agreement), Trincomalee oil farms, and Mattala airport.

Well they say there is a very good relationship between the two countries and the leaders, much better than earlier. I think it is all only talk from our side. I don’t want to criticise my government when abroad, and I appreciate all the meetings they have had, but no investments are coming in to Sri Lanka. The government isn’t stable. For the security of India, stability in Sri Lanka is very important. A weak government cannot give that guarantee.

If your party comes to power, what would be your first priority with India?

I think our first priority is investment. And better communication. We had a mechanism during the war [against the LTTE in 2009] called the Troika, where three officials from both sides were able to discuss any issue, even in the middle of the night. For economic purposes also, we must have a mechanism like that, where India and Sri Lanka coordinate on all the issues we have today.

You described your government as strong. Your government was in fact accused of being too strong and criticised for its policies too…

A government must be strong and speak in one voice. Currently, the [Sri Lankan] Prime Minister says one thing, the President contradicts him. Policies differ within the government.

Even so, despite the challenges and a no-confidence motion , the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party-United National Party (SLFP-UNP) combine of Mr. Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe has stayed together. Do you think they will go into elections together?

I have my doubts. But even when they get together, I don’t think they can win.

Would you be willing to work with Mr. Sirisena, your former colleague and from your old party, the SLFP, again?

Unfortunately he is not prepared to work with me. We have a new party [Sri Lanka Podujana Peramunal], and our president is G.L. Peiris. So he must reach out to us since we got about 45% of the vote in a three-cornered fight.

In 2015, it wasn’t just the opposition that came together against you. Tamil populations, Muslim minorities felt marginalised and persecuted during your tenure. Why do you think they would vote for you?

I think they have understood the mistakes this government has done. The minister responsible for the anti-Muslim violence in 2014, for example, is a minister in this government. When we were in government, we rebuilt houses that were destroyed at that time itself. But this year, the government has done nothing for the victims of the Kandy violence. When the violence began [February 2018], I rushed to the area and convened a meeting of all the communities together along with the religious leaders. The PM and the President only went later.

But there is a worry that you represent a Sinhala-Buddhist muscular majoritarianism where minorities don’t feel as safe.

Look, we won 71% of the seats in the last elections [local elections in 2018], so I think most people are with us. This is just a canard spread by my opponents, I don’t think this is a perception amongst people.

How about your past role in the war against the LTTE and accusations of human rights violations? You were also recently questioned for the torture of a journalist… How much of a liability will those charges be?

I don’t think they will be a problem. People know these charges are just to harass us. Because all the cases are against only the Rajapaksa family, and their supporters. What about all the people in my government before, who are now in government? The evidence in these cases is in any case flimsy and unproven all these years. As far as international human rights groups go, let them come after me. We have nothing to hide. After all, defeating the LTTE, a terrorist organisation, was not done only for us, no? It was not just for a community or for one country. They killed Rajiv Gandhi, they were operating with other organisations in other countries too. They introduced suicide jackets to the world. So defeating them helped many other countries too.

In recent days, there has been the question in India of whether those LTTE cadres convicted for Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination should be released with a recommendation from the Tamil Nadu Cabinet. What is your opinion on this?

I have no view on this. It is up to the government, it is an internal matter for India. If this was in Sri Lanka we would have taken a different line. But how can I say anything when the issue is in India?

Who will lead the SLPP into elections in 2019, given that you have completed two terms and according to the 19th Amendment that is the limit?

I will lead the SLPP. There is a view that despite the Amendment I can fight elections and then fight it out in court.

But I still have to decide whether to take that risk. Another option is to announce a candidate acceptable to all.

Will it be a member of your family, or would you consider someone outside it?

My son [Namal Rajapaksa] can’t be a presidential candidate since they have now raised the minimum age to 35 years, instead of 30, so he can’t be considered in 2019. My brother is certainly a contender, but the party and the coalition will have to decide who the people want.

Encouraging young minds

Exploring scientific ideas is difficult in India’s education ecosystem

When the Fields medals were awarded earlier this year, the Indian media was quick to highlight that Akshay Venkatesh, one of the four medal winners, is of Indian descent. While this is correct per se, we need to also think about how little our education system has to do with Prof. Venkatesh’s achievements, and whether, given the present state of affairs, an Indian education can produce Fields medallists.

Although Prof. Venkatesh was born in Delhi, his family moved to Australia when he was a child. The Indian education system hardly played any role in moulding the child prodigy and this was also rather the case with Manjul Bhargava (Fields medal 2014). Subhash Khot, who won the Rolf Nevanlinna Prize in 2014, had more of an Indian education — a bachelor’s degree in computer science at IIT Bombay.

The question, therefore, is, why has our education system not produced any Fields medallists, especially when there is no dearth of talent? The answer lies in the opportunities and training that these talents receive — or fail to receive rather the lack of these.

One of the programmes in India devoted to training students of mathematics and identifying and nurturing talent is the Mathematics Training and Talent Search, which was started 25 years ago, in 1993. There are also programmes that train students to compete in the Mathematics Olympiad; Mr. Khot is a two-time International Olympiad silver medallist.

Yet the number of students being trained in these programmes is still small. With 36.6 million students enrolled in higher education and 36.4% joining the science and humanities streams (All India Survey on Higher Education data), it is safe to assume that there is a considerable gap between the requirement and the availability of training and nurture.

France, a country with a population close to 6.5 crore, has about 3,000-4,000 scientists. It also boasts of 12 Fields medallists. This is comparable to the U.S., which has much more in terms of resources, according to Sinnou David, a mathematician and professor at Sorbonne University, France. He puts it down to the existence of schools like the École normale supérieure, in Paris, where a number of Fields medallists were trained.. Of course, one cannot simply create such schools out of thin air. They must be nested in a balanced network of universities, teacher education systems, and most importantly, a solid base in school education.

One may dismiss this argument claiming that such honours are not what India needs now. However, while top prizes are not themselves a solution to all problems that beset education in India, they remain a characteristic of a healthy educational ecosystem. Only such an ecosystem can create enough space for young minds to explore abstract mathematical and scientific ideas freely and in turn challenge the boundaries of existing knowledge.

The writer covers science for The Hindu