The Indian Express | 1 week ago | 19-03-2023 | 12:45 pm
Legend has it that when Zhou Enlai, China’s late premier, was asked about the impact of the French Revolution, he replied that it was still too early to tell. It has been over a month since the Bharat Jodo Yatra has concluded and I am reminded of the wisdom of this tale every time someone asks me about the impact of the Yatra. Especially so, when Rahul Gandhi’s attempts to raise our political discourse and challenge us to look at our democracy anew are still greeted by infantile reactions and shrill lamentations. The Bharat Jodo Yatra was not the politics of every day. The compellingly distinct message and the vast amount of energy that congregated upon the Yatra produced ripples that penetrated the farthest corners of society. These ripples will continue to echo in our political landscape for a long time. The collective impact of these countless reverberations in unseen spacs and times to come are beyond our ability to assess. What can and deserves to be done is to reflect upon and record for posterity what the Yatra was.There was one experience that occurred every day, multiple times a day, on our long walk from Kanyakumari to Srinagar. A band of yatris would come upon groups of people waiting along the route. The bystanders would light up as they saw us approach. They would bustle with excitement and their eyes would begin scanning our band to spot the one increasingly bearded face they have been waiting to see. Upon realising that he is not among us, their excitement would wane, just a little bit, but visibly so. They would give us a polite wave, offer words of encouragement and with a gesture of interrogation ask simply, “how far?”. Then, their gaze would turn back once more to scan the horizon behind us. Make no mistake, it was Rahul Gandhi they had come to see. And it was not simply the thrill of sighting a celebrity that had brought them out. The affection in their eyes, the solidarity in their patient vigil and their benevolent goodwill towards our enterprise all spoke of a desire to commune with someone with whom they shared something deep. A bond that has miraculously survived the long and vicious onslaught of poisonous slander that his persona has endured.This vast store of affectionate attention came upon a man walking in the spirit of tapasya. The tapasvi recognises that identities do not constitute his existence but instead shrink him to the limited confines dictated by his ego, fear and desires. The tapasvi does not walk to embellish and project himself upon the world. He walks instead to confront and eventually dissolve the boundaries that separate him from the world outside. The tapasvi walks, as Rahul Gandhi mentioned many a time, to become shoonya. In walking to shed rather than celebrate his self, he chose a path that defies prevailing political superstition, one that harks back to a path trodden by a long list of seekers of yore — Nanak, the Sufis, the Bhakti saints and most recently Mahatma Gandhi. A Sabarmati Ashram prayer says: “Tu tabhi madad ke liye aata hai jab manushya shoonya ban kar teri sharan hota hai” (“You come in aid when a human being becomes shoonya and takes refuge in you”).This sangam of mass participation and tapasya gave the Yatra a form and politics with no parallel in recent times. Those who came looking for Rahul Gandhi found instead, in the wake of his shoonyata, an invitation to look within. Rather than agendas and vitriol they found a gentle reminder of India’s soul and the undeniable imperative of our time, rendered with elegant simplicity in just two words — “Bharat Jodo”. Rather than a call to join a crusade upon an enemy outside, they found instead, a challenge. A challenge, to rediscover our freedom, reclaim our agency, recollect our values and with the gentle urging of “Daro Mat” (“Don’t be afraid”), dare to speak them out loud. The Yatra gave Indians a canvas and dared them to paint their dreams. And paint they did. They came out in vast numbers — workers, activists, politicians, thinkers and most of all, people, everyday extraordinary people — and splashed the Yatra with the myriad colours of their dreams.Perhaps, the best way to understand what transpired is as a mela, a jashn — a collective celebration of a shared belief. Like a mela, the Yatra was uninhibitedly public. The only predetermined elements of the design were the walk, the route and the time. Everything else, including the people, the ideas, the expressions and the events that transpired, were created anew, every day by the lakhs who descended upon the yatra. The yatra possessed a shared logic that bound the vast variety of revellers who came. Like a mela, the shared logic that inspired the Yatra was not based upon intellectual rationalisations but instead upon a tug at a primordial, organic sensibility rooted deep within the consciousness of those who came. And even while the conviction that ignited the Yatra was shared, the celebrations themselves were fiercely personal. Millions of yatris celebrated this jashn on their own terms with deeply individual and unique expressions of their truth. Like a mela, the collective reverberations of these millions of celebrations far exceed the sum of its parts.A mela deals in imaginations. A mela awakens, scatters and nourishes the seeds of an idea. Like a mela, our Yatra too dealt in seeds: The seeds of an Idea for India. We saw these seeds take root in the imaginations of the many children along the route who shouted “Nafrat Chodo, Bharat Jodo”. We saw these seeds reach the minds of the political workers who were challenged to reimagine their politics as tapasya. We saw these seeds find a home in the hearts of the countless people who experienced the power of taking a public stand about something they believe in.Seeds are very diminutive. They do not announce themselves. Let alone dominate a forest, they are unlikely even to be visible to those who do not look for them. But seeds are also deeply subversive. When they take root, edifices crumble. A mela is not an end, it is merely a beginning. But a beginning is now at an end. Like all good beginnings ours has created possibilities. It is up to us what we make of them.The writer is in charge of Training and Sandesh for the Congress party. He walked on large parts of the Bharat Jodo Yatra
India’s political system is veering towards a full-blown tyranny. The targeting of Opposition leaders leading to the farcical disqualification of Rahul Gandhi, the hounding of civil society and research organisations, censorship of information, the suppression of protest, are harbingers of a full-blown system of rule where all the interlocking parts add up to the one objective of tyrannical rule: To create pervasive fear.These actions are alarming, not because this or that leader has been targeted. They are alarming because the current BJP government is signaling not just that it will not tolerate the Opposition. It will not, under any circumstances, even contemplate or allow a smooth transition of power. For, what these actions reveal is a ruthless lust for power, combined with a determination to use any means to secure it. Neither the form of power the BJP seeks, nor the ends they deploy to achieve it, knows any constraints or bounds. That is the quintessential hallmark of tyranny.In a democracy, a smooth transition of power in a fair election requires several conditions. The ruthless crushing of the Opposition and the squelching of liberty erodes these conditions. The first is that professional politicians treat each other as members of the same profession, not as existential enemies to be vanquished by any means. Once a regime does that to its opponents, it fears the consequences of losing power. It can no longer rest in the comfortable belief that democracy is a game of rotating power; transitions should be routine. Can you now imagine Prime Minister Narendra Modi or Amit Shah or their minions calmly contemplating the prospect that they could ever be in the Opposition, after the hubris they have deployed against opponents and critics? The hallmark of tyrants is impunity in power and therefore an existential fear of losing it.The issue is not whether the government is popular. It may well be. Tyranny can be a stepchild of democracy, as Plato knew so well. The insatiable show and assertion of power the BJP is engaged in traps them in a logic where they will seek to create the conditions in which a fair and open contest is no longer possible. Their institutional imagination is paranoid — desperately trying to shut out even the slightest opening from which light might appear. What else but a paranoid system would target small think tanks or civil society organisations that do social service? What else but a paranoid system would appear to politically orchestrate a disqualification of an Opposition MP?And this same paranoia will make the prospect of even risking a fair electoral contest from now on a non-starter. Paranoia is the seed of all repression and we are now seeing it in full measure.Political parties that situate themselves as unique vanguards of a majoritarian national identity find it difficult to relinquish power. In normal politics there are many sides to an argument, and we can all pretend that different sides are acting in good faith even when we disagree. But when the ideological project is singularly communal and wears the garb of nationalism, every dissent is treated as treason. Ideological parties like the BJP will play by the electoral rules when they are not in a position to wield power, or when they feel electorally secure. But once this regime is entrenched, it will think it is its historical destiny to act as a kind of nationalist vanguard, no matter what the circumstances.In its own imagination, this nationalism will justify everything: From playing footloose with the law to outright violence. It has institutionalised vigilantism, violence and hate into the fabric of politics and the state. But this culture is not just difficult to dismantle. It is also part of a preparation to exercise other options in case a purely political hold on power is no longer possible. Parties that have institutionalised structures of violence are less likely to give up power unless they are massively repudiated.But the logic of tyranny goes further. Increasingly, the issue is not just the weaknesses of the Opposition parties. Even in the wake of this disqualification, Congress’s political reflexes, the willingness of its members to risk anything, and its ability to mobilise street power, is seriously in doubt. Opposition unity is still a chimera, more performative at the moment than real.But has the psychology of tyranny now been internalised by enough Indians to make resistance more difficult? India still has the potential for protest on many issues. But what is increasingly in doubt is whether India wishes to resist deepening authoritarianism.To take one example, India’s elites, broadly understood, have gone well past the quotidian fear of those in power. This kind of fear often expresses itself in a gap between public utterances and private beliefs. But what is happening is something far more insidious, where a combination of fear or outright support for government is so deeply internalised that even private demurring from blatantly authoritarian and communal actions has become rare. Ask any victim, who has been the object of the state’s wrath, whether they are at the receiving end of horrendous violence, or targets of administrative or legal harassment. Even the private shows of support will disappear as swiftly as the state intervenes. This suggests either a deep-seated cowardice or a normalisation of authoritarianism.The hallmark of a successful tyranny is to induce a sense of unreality in those who support it. This sense of unreality means no disconfirming evidence can dent their support for the regime. In this world, India has little unemployment, its institutions are fine, it has ascended to the glorious heights of world leadership, it has not ceded any territory to China, and there is no concentration of capital or regulatory capture. But the unreality centres mostly on the lynchpin of this system of tyranny, the prime minister. In his hands, repression becomes an act of purification, his hubris a mark of his ambition, his decimation of institutions a national service.Institutionally and psychologically, we are already inhabiting a tyranny, even if its violence is not in your face. A regime that is paranoid and full of impunity will overreach. But what is the threshold of overreach? The threshold seems to be shifting higher and higher. Communalism was unleashed. No reaction. The information order collapsed. No reaction. The judicial heart stopped beating. No reaction. The Opposition is being vanquished by unfair means. No reaction. Such is the logic of tyranny that the ogres of oppression roam free, while we look on indifferently as justice and freedom are tied in chains.
THE committee under Finance Secretary TV Somanathan, announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman last week, to relook at pension may not recommend a solution where the gains made over two decades are reversed, The Indian Express has learnt.That’s the big-picture sense from conversations with officials who have to balance the imperatives of politics in a pre-poll year and a reform that has withstood the pressures of time — and partisanship.There are options.One, increase the government contribution to the pension corpus of its employees from the current 14 per cent to such a level that the employee can expect 50 per cent of her last drawn basic pay as pension upon retirement.Indeed, one of the models being looked at is the Andhra Pradesh government proposal which has a “guarantee” that employees will get 50 per cent of the last drawn salary as pension.Officials said the government may also explore ways to make good for the increase in payout (dearness relief announced twice every year increases the pension by a certain percentage taking care of the rise in living expenses) as it happens under the old pension scheme (OPS).The NDA lost elections in 2004, the year NPS was implemented. But the Congress carried it forward. After a decade, when NDA returned under Modi, it consolidated the gains. But in 2019, just before elections, NDA hiked government contribution. Now, a fresh review again just ahead of 2024 polls.Whatever the formula that’s worked out, one thing is clear.The committee and its mandate mark a sharp turnaround in the Modi government’s support of the new pension system (NPS) — where contributions are defined, and benefits market-linked — which came into effect in January 2004, just a few months before the Lok Sabha elections.“There was no question of any looking back when the BJP under the leadership of Narendra Modi returned to power. His political conviction in pension reforms and fiscal conservatism meant the NPS was there to stay,” said an official.And yet there was no escaping the politics.In fact, the BJP’s electoral loss in May 2004 may have nothing to do with pension reforms – the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government was convinced of the economic rationale behind the move. But the party’s 10-year loss of power, between 2004 and 2014, is a memory that still stalks North Block.This when, in 2009, BJP’s loss in the Lok Sabha elections had not deterred the Congress from staying the course on pension reforms. With Manmohan Singh at the helm, and P Chidambaram as Finance Minister, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government earnestly implemented the NPS, exhorted states to follow suit, and also introduced a Bill to develop and regulate the pension sector. This was one of the many reforms that earned bipartisan support.There were four good reasons the government reformed the pension sector at the time it did: i) with increasing life spans, pension bills were ballooning, putting to risk future finances of the Centre and states, ii) a safety net for a very small percentage of workforce was being funded ironically by even the poor taxpayer, iii) inter-generational equity – the next generation footing the bill for the previous – presented a difficult-to-ignore moral hazard, and iv) India was at the cusp of a 50-year demographic dividend opportunity beginning 2005-05 with the best working age population ratio (workers or those in the 15-64 age group age/ dependents or those under 15 plus 65 and over).However, after the first five years in power, the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre did not take any chances. Just before Lok Sabha elections in 2019, it increased the employer’s contribution to NPS to 14 per cent of the employee’s basic pay every month from 10 per cent earlier; the employee continued to contribute only 10 per cent of her basic pay.The timing was not lost on those keeping a tab on BJP’s economic thinking; this came into effect from April 1, 2019.Now with just a year to go for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP is acutely aware of an altered economic and social landscape. The straws in the wind have been there for the past couple of years.Low growth that precedes the pandemic, job and income losses during Covid-19, stretched financial resources of people due to medical expenditure, and high inflation – which works like a painful tax on the poor, have highlighted the inadequacy of safety nets for a bulk of the country’s people. The political class cannot be blind to this. To discount the giveaways in recent Budgets by even fiscally prudent states like Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra as an election freebie will be drawing a wrong message.It is in this backdrop that government employees are demanding a return of the old pension scheme. At least five states (Congress-ruled Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Himachal Pradesh, JMM-led Jharkhand, and Aam Aadmi Party-led Punjab) have done so, having already notified the old pension scheme.The Congress win of the Assembly elections in Himachal, which most attribute to its promise to bring back OPS, has made the BJP leadership anxious. In Maharashtra, protests by state government employees prompted the Eknath Shinde government, whose finance minister is BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis, to set up a committee and address the NPS shortcomings. Some national employee unions continue to protest too, giving calls for rallies demanding restoration of OPS.Then, there is the insider bias. A section of senior IAS bureaucrats – who have the political executive’s ear – feel their juniors who joined service after January 1, 2004, can’t be left to the “mercy” of markets while seniors retire with the assurance of a continuously rising pension kitty.This conversation on NPS has been in the top echelons of power for a while now. Not that the Prime Minister is not aware of these noises around him. But if his preference for fiscal prudence is an indication, he will be happy only with a solution that doesn’t put the future of state finances in jeopardy.
CV Ananda Bose on how as Governor of West Bengal he follows the path of conciliation and cooperation, the relevance of his post, and why Indian democracy is still vibrant and buoyant. This session was moderated by Deputy Political Editor Liz MathewLiz Mathew: West Bengal Raj Bhavan has now become a role model for a cordial relationship between the elected government in the state and the governor. How did you do that?I was only a mute witness to the process of evolution that is taking place in the concept of cooperative federalism in the country. In place of confrontation, we should have conciliation. Antipathy should be replaced by empathy. And passion should be tempered with compassion. A middle path is always better for society. The Raj Bhavan should become a no-conflict zone. I’m happy that this concept has been subscribed to by all the enlightened stakeholders of Bengal, including the political setup, the media, the government, the judiciary.Be it a politician or a bureaucrat, their first, second and third duty is to the people. People are supreme. And if anything goes wrong, Indian democracy has a lot of buoyancy and mid-course correction can be doneLiz Mathew: Your father was so fascinated by Subhas Chandra Bose’s ideology that he named you after him. You have also started cultural exchanges between West Bengal and other states, including Kerala. How relevant is it?When cultural cooperation takes place effectively, there is a shared heritage… When politics invades culture, there is chaos. When culture enters politics, there is refinement. People of my generation in Kerala have read Bengali novels. Almost every week, leading journalists would bring out translations of Tarashankar Banerji and other great writers of Bengal. Gurudev Tagore was a household name in Kerala. I remember having fallen in love with Mini (from Rabindranath Tagore’s short story Kabuliwala) at the age of eight. When I was in college, Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen were our heroes and role models. So that cultural affinity between Bengal and Kerala has always been there. Now, with the cooperation of the government of West Bengal, particularly the Education Minister, we hit upon the idea of a Kerala-Bengal culture corridor. The process has already started. We are inviting artists, writers, painters, dancers from both states for exchange programmes.Liz Mathew: Centre-State relations have recommended that a political person should not be in a constitutional post which calls for impartiality. What is your view?It depends on the attitude and approach of the individuals who occupy these positions. I do not find anything wrong with a political leader occupying a constitutional profession. We have great statesmen who are also good politicians. The bureaucracy is thrice removed from the people. In a democracy, particularly the democratic setup in India, we, the people, gave this Constitution to ourselves. The authorities, including bureaucrats and politicians, get authority to be the dispensers of India’s destiny because the people have given it to them. So be it a politician or a bureaucrat, their first, second and third duty is to the people. People are supreme. And if anything goes wrong, Indian democracy has a lot of buoyancy and that mid-course correction is done.Vandita Mishra: Now that the West Bengal governor’s house is a place of calm, what would you say to other governors in other states, where we have seen a pattern of BJP-appointed governors taking on the opposition-ruled governments so openly?I have neither the inclination nor the competence to deliver value judgments on my counterparts in other states. They all have their own style and each state has its own milieu.Amrith Lal: You were a popular bureaucrat in Kerala and cited people like (Ritwik) Ghatak, (Mrinal) Sen and (Tarashankar) Banerjee as inspirations. So, how did you end up with the BJP?Right from my birth, I was a part of the bharatiya janta. It’s only recently that the ‘party’ element has been added… I belong to all parties.Bengal has led the nation in many spheres… it is all decided by the will of the people… Bengalis have an inner strength. Once they tap into that, no force can prevent Bengal from reaching its destination as a world leaderLiz Mathew: You recently had an issue — the tenure of West Bengal Vice Chancellors (VCs). It was a setback initially but you made it an opportunity. Could you tell us how you resolved that issue?As a Chancellor and Governor, it is my duty to see that a Supreme Court judgment is upheld. There were only two ways open before me. I called the VCs and told them — one was that if the VCs feel that a Supreme Court judgment is binding on all of India, they have the option to resign, but I am not pressing them for that. Otherwise, the other option: termination notice. All of them said, ‘Sir we’re resigning.’ Nobody had any objection. It was a very graceful resignation. I compliment the VCs for their magnanimity. I didn’t have to issue the notice. But the next day, they had no place to go, and I had to run the universities. There is nothing that prevents the Chancellor from requesting the same Vice Chancellor to continue for two-three months in an interim or caretaker arrangement…The government also cooperated. We are glad that the High Court has completely endorsed the position.Liz Mathew: There is an alleged overreach of the judiciary into the executive. How do you see this?Separation of powers is basic to the constitutional democracy that we have adopted in this country: the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. There are defined areas of operation for them… Our democratic system is strong enough to face any eventuality and come up with acceptable solutions.Shubhajit Roy: In terms of the country’s economic improvement and growth trajectory, Bengal has lagged behind other states. What do you think plagues Bengal?Every state has its own ups and downs. Bengal has led the nation in many spheres. It has potential and Bengal will develop it. In a democracy, it is all decided by the will of the people… governments will come and go, but I treat Bengal as a state. Bengalis, as a people, have an inner strength. Once they tap into that, no force can prevent Bengal from reaching its destination as a leader of the nation.Independence of the media is very important and Indian democracy protects that, the Constitution protects that, and the courts are there… there are checks in place… Dissent is the essence of democracyLiz Mathew: What are the challenges before the state?Gopal Krishna Gokhale had said, what Bengal thinks today, India will think tomorrow. Bengal is still capable. There may be many factors which stand in the way. These may be political, economic, or cultural. These factors have to be addressed separately. A comprehensive view is to be taken on how Bengal can go forward, which the political system, particularly the democratic system, will be able to address adequately from time to time.P Vaidyanathan Iyer: There have been a perception of corruption and rising violence, at times related to elections also. What has been your sense in the last four or five months?There will and should be zero tolerance to corruption. Violence has no place in democratic elections. Force is no arbiter. The Constitution is to be upheld. Whenever there is laxity in maintaining law and order, as a constitutional head, the governor will not remain a mute witness. Effective and proactive action will be taken as is mandated by the Constitution of India.P Vaidyanathan Iyer: What is the status on the Lokayukta? Are you looking at a revised ordinance or bill?As per the Lokayukta Act, the Lokayukta cannot be given reappointment in any manner — in the public sector, private sector, cooperative sector. But somehow the will of the legislators was to give reappointment. What is reflected in the amendment was that the term can be renewed. In my opinion, renewal can be done only when somebody holds office. Once somebody has remitted the office, renewal cannot be done, so reappointment is not possible. So, the amendment is not valid. Then, what is the way out? Amend the act within the framework of the Constitution and the law of the land. That is why that file was returned, because there is no legal provision for it. The legislators’ intention was not reflected in the way the amendment was made. Now, it has not come back to me. So, I cannot comment on that. Once the amendment is done, the situation will be different.Monojit Majumdar: The friction between the office of the governor and elected governments, especially Opposition governments, is historical. Do you feel there is an overall shrinking of space for disagreement in Indian politics?Democracy is an evolutionary process. As we evolve, new problems may come and new solutions will also come. So, I don’t think there is anything strange or disturbing. Conflict of interest has always been there in any growing society. From the conflict, a balance should emerge. The quality of the balance is what determines the strength of society. I see the death throes of an old order and the birth of pangs of a new one in the so-called conflicts.Sudhakar Jagdish: Panchayat elections are to be held. Will you take a preemptive action regarding the deployment of Central forces, considering the violent rural elections that have taken place in West Bengal earlier?I would not use the word preemptive, I would prefer the word proactive. All proactive steps will certainly be taken. In an event of an election, particularly panchayat elections, where millions are involved, a conscientious administrator should look at four points: intelligence, preparation for action, action and mopping up. Intelligence — get all information about the goings on in the field. Check if the ecosystem permits people to come and vote freely and if there are any disturbing forces working from behind. Preparation for action — law and order have to be maintained. I can’t say whether Central forces will come or not… Action is on the day for voting. There should be freedom for everyone to come and exercise their vote without fear or favour. Then mopping up — if there are a few conflicts and skirmishes, these are all part of democracy. Steps should be taken for that also. This four-fold approach will be taken and whatever decisions are required, it will be proactively taken.Liz Mathew: The BJP state leadership seems to be upset with the way you are functioning. Have you addressed their concerns?I have interacted with all political parties and non-political groups there. I listen to them. Whatever is possible from the part of the governor, I try to do it without delay… Criticism is good and improves you. I’m very hopeful that if winter comes, spring cannot be far behind.Vijay Jha: In today’s political environment, how relevant is the post of the governor?The post of the governor has relevance… The nominated governorship’s role and relevance were defined in the Constitution… The governor has the right to be consulted, the right to be informed and the right to intervene… governors are also given discretionary powers. These are to be used very sparingly, to uphold the Constitution and to clear a constitutional backlog. The governor still has relevance as a friend, philosopher and guide to the elected government.Sudhakar Jagdish: But when the governor takes on a bipartisan role, don’t you think this argument of scrapping the whole governor’s office gains strength?Canadian statesman Lester B Pearson said, ‘It’s easy to frame a constitution but difficult to make it work.’ That is the fate of the constitution where democracy is there. I think there is a silver lining. I’m sure institutional ownership will improve. Whether a governor stands by truth or not, is for posterity to decide.Avishek G Dastidar: In your meetings with the chief minister, have you exchanged gifts?She gifted me a lot of goodwill. I gifted her a lot of understanding.Avishek G Dastidar: Since you’re living in Kolkata, how is your life there? What do you like about Bengalis?What I love most about Bengal is that it’s full of Bengalis… Calcutta is a city with a soul. People are very accommodating, sentimental, emotional and friendly. There is a larger humanity which pervades it.Monojit Majumdar: Is there one figure from either Kerala or West Bengal who guides you in the way you conduct yourself?That one and only figure is Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.Kaushik Das Gupta: You spoke about democracy as an evolutionary process. What do you think would be the challenges of the governor in this new order?The designation of the governor itself is intriguing. The governor does not govern. He’s like the Speaker. The Speaker does not speak. That’s the beauty of democracy. I don’t think I feel any special challenge this position… It’s an evolutionary process.Vandita Mishra: How would you define this new order that you are saying is going to be born?There is a growing feeling among the entire world that democracy can deliver only if there is good governance. We must be able to put in place systems of good governance and ensure that these systems will work. That is going to be the biggest challenge, not only for India but for any nation. I’m sure that Indian initiatives and good governance are widely noted by the world. Other democratic countries are following suit, particularly our insistence on inclusiveness in every sphere. I’m not saying that everything is perfect here, but the process has started. India is becoming a perfect democracy. The way of the world, in the future, is the Indian way. I feel proud that democracy has come of age. It has been tried, tested and found to be effective. We know how to do mid-course correction.Liz Mathew: There is growing criticism about the way Indian democracy functions, regarding freedom to dissent and speak, in every sphere of life. Do you see any point in that criticism?So long as the Indian press is assertive, democracy will flourish in this country. As Joseph Pulitzer said, ‘Our republic and its press will rise or fall together.’ This applies to all republics. The independence of the media is very important and Indian democracy protects that, the Constitution protects that, and the courts are there. There are sufficient checks and balances in a democracy. Dissent is the essence of democracy. There may be aberrations here and there because we are a growing democracy… I think, freedom of expression and democracy are safe in the hands of the vibrant and vigilant media.Liz Mathew: Unlike in the past, Raj Bhavans have become a hub of activities. What is the purpose of this?The Raj Bhavan is meant to be a neutral centre for encouraging the cultural and social life of the state. There is nothing which prevents it from becoming accessible to the people. We are going to make the Bengal Raj Bhavan more people-friendly. The process of dignified decolonisations is already taking place. We know that the Raj Bhavan represented the conquerors and intruders. We do not want to obliterate history, but democratic India has no need to glorify those who acted against the interests of this nation. Raj Bhavan should be jan bhavan.
Beset by electoral setbacks and legal troubles, the police crackdown in Punjab in the wake of the Amritpal Singh episode has provided the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Badals an opportunity to regain its lost ground in Panthic politics, something that had made the party a strong political force starting in the 1990s.The SAD has been pushed to the margins of state politics since the debacles in the Assembly elections in 2017 and last year, with its tally plummeting to a record low of three constituencies. The party’s decline, in part, is a result of the erosion of its Panthic vote base that occurred because of the way it handled the sacrilege cases.The third incident of sacrilege on October 12, 2015, led to massive protests followed by heavy-handed police action that has remained a political issue in the state ever since. Police firing that day in Kotkapura alone left around 60 people injured, including over 30 police officials. The Badals, who were in power at the time, are still dealing with the legal fallout of the case. On March 16, a court in Faridkot declined the anticipatory bail plea of former Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal but granted it to his father and former CM Parkash Singh Badal. Sukhbir then secured interim bail from the Punjab and Haryana High Court on March 22.Amid these troubles for the SAD, came the police crackdown and manhunt for Sikh preacher and Khalistan sympathiser Amritpal Singh. The police detained more than 200 people, but have started releasing some of them. On Friday, the police released 44 youngsters held under preventive detention and handed them over to their families. This came a day after Punjab Inspector General of Police (Headquarters) Sukhchain Singh Gill announced that 177 of the 207 people detained would be let off with a warning and action would be taken against 30 involved in “substantive criminal activities”.But the police action has drawn criticism from the SAD, which announced earlier this week that it would set up a legal cell to help the young men arrested by the police and those charged under the National Security Act (NSA). Former Akali Dal MLA Harinderpal Singh Chandumajra told The Indian Express on Saturday, “The party decided to help young, innocent youth after discussions among the senior leaders that Akali Dal, being the regional party representing the Sikh community, should come forward at his juncture where the youth in their early twenties were detained without any reason. Apart from the Sikh community, the issue also concerns human rights and freedom of speech and expression.”On Tuesday, announcing the move to provide legal help for the youths arrested Sukhbir Singh Badal said, “It is shocking that scores of youth are being arrested indiscriminately merely on suspicion.”“Many Sikh youths are being implicated in fake cases,” Akali Dal MLA Manpreet Singh Ayali said in the Assembly on Wednesday. “Over the years Punjab has gone through tough times. Sikhs in Punjab are being made to feel like slaves by invocation of the NSA.” Ayali’s party colleague Virsa Singh Valtoha has said the Amritpal episode is “an ordinary law-and-order situation” and condemned the use of the NSA.On Thursday, Parkash Singh Badal expressed concern over the “sequence of recent events in Punjab” and called for “an end to the ongoing wave of repression against innocents”. He also called for “maximum vigil” to preserve the hard-earned atmosphere of peace and communal harmony in the state. “This is a critical hour and it calls for an exercise of optimum restraint, sagacity and far-sightedness by those in power,” said Badal.Course correctionThe SAD’s statements and actions in the wake of the Amritpal episode illustrate its attempts to re-establish itself as the pre-eminent political party representing the interests of the Sikh community. But these actions have not come about in a vacuum but are part of a strategy the party adopted following a review conducted last year after its poll debacle. Among other recommendations, the review committee suggested a course correction and an overhaul in the functioning of the party to win back Panthic support.In November, Sukhbir attended the wedding of the grandson of Khalistani militant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who was killed in the Golden Temple in the Army’s Operation Bluestar in 1984. Then, in the first week of January, Sukhbir attended two events within days that signalled a shift in the party’s strategy. On January 1, the former Deputy CM visited the house of Satwant Singh, one of Indira Gandhi’s assassins, in Gurdaspur district’s Agwan village and also went to a local gurdwara constructed in Singh’s memory. Five days later, Sukhbir became the first Akali Dal president to visit the Golden Temple on January 6, which is the death anniversary of Satwant and another of Indira’s assassins, Kehar Singh.Professor Jagrup Singh Sekhon, a former head of the Department of Political Science at Guru Nanak Dev University, is sceptical about the political mileage the Akali Dal can derive from offering legal assistance to the arrested Sikh youth.“The Akali leadership has lost political sense. First, they condemned Amritpal on the Ajnala incident, then they initially kept mum after the police crackdown and later announced the offer of legal assistance to the arrested men. The Akali leadership appears to be cut off from the grassroots realities. Everyone is against the idea of Khalistan. The villagers who were the main support base of the Akali Dal were the ones who suffered the most during the days of militancy and terrorism. The (AAP-led state) government has said it will release 177 of the 207 detained and will proceed legally against 30 hardcore criminals. Who will the Akali Dal help? The ones involved in heinous crimes?”
Written by Pramod KumarHistory comes alive once again in Punjab with the emergence of a pro-Khalistan preacher Amritpal Singh and the unfolding of a cat and mouse game. These events have touched off different responses in the three Punjabs – Diaspora Punjab, Indian Punjab and Pakistan’s Punjab.In Diaspora Punjab, the political narrative echoes the Khalistan slogan, communally divisive and violative of national unity. In Indian Punjab, the support for Khalistan is only among the fringe elements and not divisive on religious lines, as communalism may have a long tongue but no teeth. The main political narrative has been peace and harmony at any cost. The Pakistan Punjab establishment has found a pretext in the current situation to revive its efforts to disturb the peace.Fortunately, for a large section of Punjabi society, the memories of the 1980s are still vivid. There is, thus, a greater responsibility on the political leadership and the state machinery not to make any concessions for those who wish to violate peace and harmony.Parallels drawn between the current moment and the times of Bhindranwale in the 1980s can be misleading. The current situation has its own specific features.First, the Punjab farmers are grappling with a crisis in agriculture. They have just emerged from a long protest movement that engulfed almost every facet of life in the state. They have realised that the traditional ways of doing agriculture and politics are in question and their future is uncertain.Secondly, moderate politics has been turned away from the protest sites — be it the Congress, the BJP, the Akalis, and even the AAP. The space vacated by the moderate political parties is being occupied by those like Waris Punjab De and other fringe elements encouraged and patronised by sections of the pro-Khalistan political outfits.Thirdly, the dominant narrative has been to bring closure to the tragic events by reaching out to the Sikh minority. The BJP has made efforts to reach out to the Sikh community, the Akalis are in retreat to consolidate their support in the Jat Sikh peasantry, the Congress is in flux, and the ruling AAP is perplexed.The current episode began when Amritpal arrived from Dubai on the political scene of Punjab and was installed as head of the organisation Waris Punjab De. He mimicked the demeanour, attire and oratory of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. He termed the farm laws, drug menace, migration of labour from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, exodus of Sikh youth from Punjab, alleged neglect of Punjabi language and denial of justice to the Bandi Sikhs (incarcerated Sikh prisoners in cases for years) as a “silent genocide”. He exhorted the youth to make sacrifices to reverse this trend and prescribed a code of conduct for his followers.The state responded to these developments with ineptness and hyperbole. On the day Amritpal’s followers stormed Ajnala police station, a charge sheet in a 2015 case against the then Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, his deputy Sukhbir Singh Badal and a number of policemen for opening fire on those protesting against incidents of sacrilege of the Sikh holy book, was filed. Two protesters were killed, and around 20 policemen were injured. The message to the police was to hold back.Amritpal was only a trigger. In the post-terrorism phase, on several occasions, there have been other such triggers but they could not succeed in disturbing the peace as the horrific outcome of such a kind of politics is still fresh in people’s memory. For instance, apart from the incidents of sacrilege, there was the holding of a congregation of the Sikhs labelled as “Sarbat Khalsa”, and the announcement of hardliners as the custodians of Sikh religious institutions, namely Akal Takht and the SGPC. But the way in which events have unfolded recently indicates that these were planned, not spontaneous, politically motivated and ideologically driven. The underlying serious issue remains — political battles continue to be fought in the religious (panthic) domain rather than on development, agrarian or governance agendas.These triggers, including Waris Punjab De, very carefully manipulated the absence of a vigorous and grounded counter-narrative. The consensus in the country to ensure justice for the Sikhs killed in Delhi 1984 was extended to the rehabilitation of the terrorists. This was interpreted as a licence by a section of the militants to pursue “revenge” for the “hurt Sikh psyche” and to stoke the perennial demand for a separate Sikh state. This was further reinforced by eventually conceding (in 2014) the twice denied appeal of the Dal Khalsa (a radical Sikh organisation) for the conferment of martyrdom on hardline leaders by the Akal Takht. These organisations, having acquired legitimacy, raised their claim to control the SGPC and the Akal Takht and to “liberate” these institutions from the moderates and the liberals.All the political parties, in different ways, allowed the regrouping of the fundamentalists in order to appropriate the religious (panthic) constituency. On the other hand, the inept handling by the state of incidents of sacrilege, for instance, provided enough fodder to the fringe groups to articulate their divisive agenda in mainstream politics. The emergence of Amritpal should be located in this context.The structural reality continues to produce a dwarfed Punjabi identity and a stunted economy which finds it difficult to accommodate the emerging agrarian interests, and is unable to produce employable youth along with employment opportunities, even as politics continues to appropriate the existing faultlines.Let me hypothesise that in the contemporary phase, the decline in the political and economic hegemony of the dominant religio-caste identity, that is, the Sikh farmers, might provide more fodder for the resurgence of panthic politics and in turn, give space to radical fundamentalist assertions.The space for moderate politics is shrinking as politically separatist, socially divisive and electorally retrogressive tendencies compete with each other in the power game. There is also a dominant trend to discredit the moderate leadership — which should sound an alarm bell for liberal politics. Moderation is the key to subverting radical separatists and fundamentalist tendencies.A phenomenon like Amritpal accelerates the process of delegitimisation of moderate politics, its leaders, the peaceful methods and the state machinery. The need is to urgently reverse this disquieting trend. The main focus should be on the delegitimisation of violence, and on delivering restorative justice.The writer is Director, Institute for Development and Communication (IDC), Chandigarh