What is “Congress mukt Bharat” and why it is still very much in progress

A lightly edited version of this article appeared on Firstpost here.

Around December of 2017, BJP and its supporters would take much delight in sharing the political map of India. Most states were marked in saffron, showing the victory march of the party across the country. The march began four years ago, when the BJP swept Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in December of 2013. It intensified after the Modi wave of 2014. The BJP installed its first chief ministers in Haryana, Maharashtra and Assam.  It stormed back to power with a three fourth majority in Uttar Pradesh. By the time the BJP swept away the 25 year old Communist government in Tripura in March 2018, it seemed like there was nothing the BJP could not do.

Unfortunately for the BJP, the only thing that map showed was how quickly things could change again. I remember saying this back then on Twitter. However, the good news for the BJP is that “Congress mukt Bharat” is still very much in progress. And getting worse and worse for the Congress. This was true back then. It is still true now.

What about Karnataka then? What about Himachal Pradesh? But these states were never Congress mukt. Because Congress mukt does not just mean that Congress has lost an election. It means the end of the Congress party as a political force. A situation where people have lost confidence in the Congress to even play the role of main opposition. Such as in Uttar Pradesh. Even though the BJP is strongest in Gujarat, the state is not Congress mukt. The BJP is much weaker in Bengal, but the state is still Congress mukt. The Congress may technically be part of the ruling coalition in Tamil Nadu, but the state is already Congress mukt.

You may verify this meaning in Modi’s speeches when he first spoke of Congress mukt Bharat in 2013. It was supposed to fulfill Mahatma Gandhi’s dream of disbanding the Congress after independence. 

But then, the BJP and its supporters got greedy. Flushed with success, they began claiming that a state is Congress mukt as s0on as a sitting Congress government loses an election. This worked well until late 2018, when the Congress had to defend in most states. But then the wheel began to turn. Now it is mostly BJP Chief Ministers facing elections. And now it is the turn of the Congress and its supporters to mock the BJP with things like “BJP mukt South India.” Both are wrong.

But go beyond the short sighted jibes on both sides. And you will see that the overall collapse of the Congress continues all across India. Here is a teaser. Those who remember the politics of the 1990s, or even the 2000s, would find it hard to imagine that the Congress could one day become a junior ally of the Thackerays in Maharashtra. Here is a tiny, more data based example. This month, the Congress lost a bypoll for the Jharsuguda seat in Odisha. In fact, it was wiped out, as it got just 2 percent of the vote. Would you believe this used to be a sitting seat for the Congress back in 2009? From 49 percent, its vote share fell to 45 percent, then 11 percent, and now just 2 percent. In the same time, the BJP has increased its votes from 11 percent to 33 percent. That is what Congress mukt looks like.

Congress is slowly disappearing as an opposition party

India’s eastern seaboard is dominated by regional parties. The problem for the Congress is that people no longer look to them even as an alternative in these states. Consider Odisha. The last time the Congress won was in 1995. Since then, they have not just lost repeatedly. Their vote share has also faded away. From almost 40 percent, to below 30 percent in 2009, then 25 percent in 2014, and just 16 percent in 2019. The BJP has improved its votes to 33 percent. Therefore, chances are that the entire opposition vote in Odisha will move to the BJP, leaving the Congress with nothing.

In Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, the regional leaders broke away from the Congress. Today both Mamata Banerjee and Jagan Reddy rule their respective states with massive majorities. Remember that (united) Andhra Pradesh formed the bedrock of the two UPA victories in 2004 and 2009. In Andhra Pradesh, the Congress now has just 1 percent of the vote. In Telangana, it is still the main opposition party. But that is more of a technicality. The BRS of K Chandrasekhar Rao focuses most of its attacks on the BJP today. Because that is where his real opposition now comes from. In Bengal, the contest is between TMC and the BJP. The Congress has less than 3 percent.

The Congress has no plans to check this decline. However, it does have an emotional support mechanism. It now labels these states as places where BJP is losing elections. I guess if the Congress is not even running, it cannot lose. And this phenomenon is no longer limited to the east coast. Less than 10 years ago, the Congress used to rule Delhi. Now it is not even in the contest. Although it is too early to say for sure, there are signs of this story repeating in Punjab. The Congress just lost the Jalandhar bypoll to AAP, in a Lok Sabha seat it had held since 1999. Its vote share fell to just 27 percent. The BJP contested the seat for the first time ever, and walked away with 15 percent.

Congress has been reduced to near zero in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar

Just 2.33 percent. That was the Congress vote share in Uttar Pradesh last year. While Congress has not won in Uttar Pradesh for a while now, it still had a few votes. In 2012, it was still above 10 percent, which came down to 6 percent in 2017. In 1997, Kalyan Singh had saved the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh with support from 22 defecting MLAs from the Congress. The Congress still had over 30 MLAs at the time. Today it has 2. Because Uttar Pradesh is so massive, even a small fraction of seats from the state can be significant. The state contributed 21 Lok Sabha seats to the Congress victory in 2009. How many could they win today?

In Bihar, the BJP is easily the number one party in “real” vote share (once you adjust for the confusion caused by parties contesting in alliance). The Congress is a poor fourth, perhaps even a fifth, behind the LJP. Arguably, the reason UPA narrowly lost in 2020 was because the Congress did so badly in the seats they were contesting.  Again, the Congress gets away from this reality by counting the votes of any non-BJP party as if they were its own. But numbers do not lie. Sooner or later, the BJP will have its chief minister in Bihar, but the Congress has no chance. 

On social media, one of the favorite pastimes of Indian liberals is abusing the so called BIMARU states, especially Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Who will tell these people that six members of the Nehru family have been MPs from Uttar Pradesh? If the state is backward even today, whose fault is it? 

In bipolar states, Congress weakens with every cycle

What about the states where the Congress is still one of the two main options before the people? Even there, the Congress keeps getting weaker. Take Madhya Pradesh. The Congress managed to come out ahead in 2018, but could not even touch the majority mark. Even then, its vote share was still below that of the BJP. Compare this to the BJP which won 3 successive terms with massive majorities. People still treat Congress as an option, but only just. 

Or Rajasthan. The Congress still manages to rotate power with the BJP every five years. But look closer for the full story. The Assembly in Rajasthan has 200 seats. When the Congress wins, as in 2008 (96 seats) or in 2018 (100 seats), it barely touches the majority mark. The BJP won a majority for the first time in Rajasthan in 2003 (120 seats). When it won again in 2013, it got an astonishing 163 seats! Go back to the 1990s and you will see the opposite of this phenomenon. Back then it was the Congress which used to win huge majorities, such as 153 seats in 1998. When the BJP won in 1993, it had just 95 seats.

In stock market terms, therefore, the BJP sees cyclical downswings due to anti-incumbency, while the overall trend remains upwards. For the Congress, the long term trend is downwards. 

Once you look for it, you see this pattern everywhere. The Congress managed to snatch Himachal Pradesh from the BJP in 2022. But the vote share difference was less than 1 percent. When the BJP won in 2017, it was ahead by almost 7 percent. Go back to the 1990s and you will see the opposite. The Congress winning big and losing small. 

Because the long term trend for the Congress is always downward, sooner or later, a state will always slip out of its grasp. Just since 2019, the Congress has lost in two states where it was supposed to be the Congress’ “turn” to rule. In Uttarakhand in 2022 and in Kerala in 2021. 

Then there is Gujarat. With just a half hearted six month campaign, the AAP took away 13 percent of the opposition vote, which resulted in a rout for the Congress. Why do Congress voters find it so easy to leave their party? This rarely happens to the BJP. Even though the BJP has been out of power for decades in Delhi for instance, its core vote of about 35 percent sticks with the party. When the AAP started out, it tried to grab the anti-Congress space in Delhi. But they soon realized it was easier for them to take away Congress votes than BJP votes. Now they are trying to do this nationally, from Goa to Gujarat. BJP voters don’t shift easily, Congress voters do.

In coalitions, Congress is losing the upper hand

Maharashtra has the second highest number of Lok Sabha seats. It used to be a Congress stronghold. From its formation in 1960, all the way till 2014, Maharashtra had a Congress Chief Minister for all but four years. By 1999, the Congress had lost the ability to win the state single-handedly.  But it still managed to rule 3 successive terms as senior partner in a coalition. The Congress is now reduced to third place in its own coalition, and fourth overall. Across the state, the BJP is now a clear No. 1. The BJP might still struggle against the combined might of the Thackerays, the NCP and the Congress. But that alliance exists precisely because the BJP by itself is so far ahead of anyone else. 

The same thing is happening to the Congress in coalitions everywhere. Few would remember today that when Mamata Banerjee won in 2011, the Congress was a coalition partner. In fact, it won a respectable 42 seats. By 2016, the TMC no longer needed the Congress. In 2021, the Congress did not win a single seat in the Assembly. In the 2000s, the Congress was an essential part of the RJD led alliance in Bihar. By 2020, the Congress had become almost a burden. The reason that the RJD lost narrowly in 2020 was the fact that the Congress did so poorly in the seats it contested. In Jharkhand, the BJP and the JMM have worked together many times in the past. But now the BJP and the JMM have firmly established themselves as the two opposite poles in the state. The Congress is reduced to a junior ally of the JMM. 

BJP is still growing, its best days still ahead

You have to wonder. When the Congress shows off a “BJP mukt South India,” which state exactly are they celebrating? Is it Karnataka, where the BJP has now been number one in four successive Lok Sabha elections? Even in its crushing defeat in 2023, they have held onto their 36 percent vote, same as the last time. Or is the Congress celebrating Telangana, where they seem set to lose their status as main opposition? Is it Andhra Pradesh, where the Congress is likely to lose deposits? Is it Kerala, where the  CPIM beat them in 2021 and became the first incumbent to be re-elected since 1977? Or is it Tamil Nadu, where they have not won since 1962? 

The BJP just suffered a huge setback in Karnataka. But it is still growing in so many states. In Bihar, Bengal, Odisha, and Telangana. It is only just beginning to set a bit of the agenda even in Tamil Nadu. Where on the map of India is the Congress growing? The BJP has not lost its footprint in any state where it has been a player. It was losing relevance in Uttar Pradesh for about 10 years. But then it came roaring back. You can call a state “BJP mukt” only if BJP has ever been a player there, but has now become irrelevant. Except there is not even one such state. 

The Lok Sabha gap between BJP and Congress

The story is perhaps best captured by looking at Lok Sabha numbers. In 2024, the BJP’s most optimistic opponents talk of reducing the party to “just 200 seats.” As you might notice, this is above the 182 seats that Atalji had when he became Prime Minister. In other words, the BJP’s (possible) new lows are above its earlier highs. That is the long term upswing. 

Winning after two successive terms is not easy. The last time it happened was in 1962. But the country has changed a lot since 1962. And so it is that the Congress is desperately hoping for a 2004 like verdict in 2024. But the 2004 tally of 145 seats for the Congress included 29 from (united) Andhra Pradesh, 12 from Gujarat, 9 each from Uttar Pradesh and Assam, 7 from Delhi and 6 from Bengal. That adds up to 72 seats. In 2004,, the Congress was 6 seats ahead of the BJP. In 2024, how many of these 72 seats do you think the Congress will win? Are there states where the Congress can make up the losses? Which ones? Do the arithmetic. For the BJP, simply add up the likely sweeps in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan. You already have 120 seats. 

Of course, this does not mean that 2024 is a done deal for the BJP. Back in 2010, Chidambaram had said that the BJP would not come to power for at least 10 years. So you can never be sure of anything in politics. But is it now a given that the BJP will remain the single largest party in 2024? Is the family of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi so reduced in its ambitions? The BJP boldly announced “Mission 272+”  before the 2014 election. Does the Congress have a number in mind for 2024? 

Let me conclude by remembering a stunningly farsighted prediction made by the great Lal Krishna Advani. The Congress will not even get 100 seats in the next Lok Sabha election, he had written in his blog in 2012. Congress mukt Bharat: perhaps the formidable “maharathi” of Indian politics was the first to see it coming.

Forget small changes by NCERT, liberals are preparing a dangerous new radical version of history

A lightly edited version of this article appeared on Firstpost here and News18 here.

Have you heard the expression “idea of India?” Most likely, yes. For a lot of people, it means doing things the Nehruvian way. They just want to roll back everything that has happened since 2014, and go back to how it used to be in the good old days. What could be so bad about that?

Not so fast. Because we are actually looking at a moving target here. ‘Pre-Mughals, I don’t think there was any idea of India,’ says historian Rudrangshu Mukherjee, who is also the chancellor of Ashoka University. He is also one of the authors of a new book with a rather bold title. They called it “A new history of India.”

Do you see what is happening? It used to be that eminent historians would attribute the idea of India to Nehru. Here it must be said that Nehru himself made no such claim. In fact, Nehru writes most humbly about his effort to understand India, to discover the ancient nation to which he belonged. But that is not surprising. The courtiers are always more loyal than the king.

But that was then. The Congress party has not been in power for a while now. And for a number of historians, Nehru is no longer good enough. The idea of India must belong to the Mughals now. Of course, both points of view are ridiculous. A thousand years ago, Adi Shankara established four mutts at the four corners of Bharat. Over two thousand years ago, the Greeks came in contact with the Mauryan emperors. After Chandragupta defeated Alexander’s former general Selukus Nikator, the Greek traveler Megasthenes visited our land and recorded his impressions in his book ‘Indika.’ India has always been around, before the Mughals and before Nehru. But it is still disturbing if they want to switch one myth with another.  

You must have heard about the recent changes made by the NCERT. No, they did not get rid of the Mughals from the textbooks. They merely removed one chapter for students in the twelfth grade. But while many historians fume in public over these minor changes, they are actually using the downtime to revise their old narratives. They are preparing a much more radical, dangerous new version of history. As and when a new ruling party comes to town, as it inevitably will, this might be the version they teach in schools. In the name of “desaffronizing” textbooks, of course. Nehru would be too much of a Hindu name for their liking. This time it would have to be the Mughals instead.

India, that is not Bharat

‘India is an overarching and inclusionary idea; Bharat is atavistic, emotional, exclusionary,’ Aatish Taseer wrote in 2020. At the time I thought the remark was an aberration, or even a joke. The word ‘Bharat’ is exclusionary? Since when? But Taseer explains his view. The name ‘Bharat’ reminds Hindus that this is their holy land. Yes, but so what? What is wrong with a Hindu remembering their own culture? Do we all have to become like the soulless bots at the New York Times, the Washington Post, the BBC and Atlantic magazine? You know, serving the US military industrial complex, and the objectives of globalism.

But in the world of intellectuals, no bad idea ever goes to waste. Rudrangshu Mukherjee now claims that the Sanskrit word Bharatvarsha does not even include Dakshina, or the south. In other words, they are sowing the seed. The name Bharat is too much of a reminder to Hindus about their ancient nation. Even after partition, the current geographic form of India is too close to that glorious ancient nation. Too close for comfort, in fact. And thus, it cannot be trusted. It must be torn apart, thread by thread.

It is no use telling these people about Adi Shankara establishing four mutts at the four corners of Bharat. As it happens, Adi Shankara was from modern day Kerala. One of the places that they think was not included in Bharatvarsh. You cannot even embarrass these people by pointing out that our constitution begins with the words ‘India, that is Bharat.’ They already know. The whole point of their radical ideology is to give a handle to those who want to break up the republic. We can guess the ugly ways in which this will play out. Before long, you will see street protests against use of the term Bharat, from passports to currency notes. The intellectual class knows our faultlines very well, and how to use them.

Mahatma Gandhi, public enemy

“The Hindu religion was invented in the early 20th century in order to hide the fact that the lower caste people are the real majority of India. In fact, religious minorities have been victims of this false majority and Gandhi played a very significant role in its construction. He helped to construct a false Hindu majority and a new Hindu identity.” So says philosopher Divya Dwivedi. A bold new conspiracy theory is taking root, with Mahatma Gandhi as the main oppressor of Indians. And what better way to deny a nation to Hindus than to argue that Hindus never existed in the first place.

It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words, Orwell wrote in his famous dystopian novel. Once the word Hindu is no more, you can do anything to the leftover groups of people. To their holy places, their history and their culture. How will you describe the oppression of a people if you don’t even have a name for who they are? 

The old kind of leftist, or “sarkari leftist” if you will, used to have a bit of a compromise position. But with the Congress party no longer in power, the radical new left wants to take a wrecking ball to Hinduism itself. And openly so. And for that they must take on Gandhi, arguably the world’s most fondly remembered Hindu. “Gandhi theologized politics just when it was beginning on the subcontinent…Of course he was one of the many upper caste leaders who constructed this origin for this polity, but today we must discard it,” Dwivedi adds. 

He is often pictured holding a Bhagavad Gita. He had favorite bhajans such as “Vaishnav jan toh.” He opposed cow slaughter. He died with “Hey Ram” on his lips. In fact, one wonders how leftist intellectuals let him be all these years, without attacking him. Most probably because the Congress party wanted to claim the legacy of Gandhi. It suited them to keep connecting the Mahatma’s assassination to the RSS. As the Congress goes into decline, the left will turn on Gandhi. And Nehru too. 

Bhagavad Gita, a book of hate

By now, you can guess how they would approach this. Where was the Bhagavad Gita revealed? On a battlefield. And so, it “rationalizes mass slaughter.” That is according to Audrey Truschke, now a celebrated historian on the left. She admits that many Hindus, including Gandhi, read the Bhagavad Gita as a ‘standalone work,’ even use it to justify non-violence. “In the Mahabharata’s plot, however,” writes Truschke, “The Bhagavad Gita rationalizes mass slaughter.” 

In other words, Gandhi and all those other Hindus who honor the Bhagavad Gita are simply taking things out of context. Deliberately or otherwise. Much of Truschke’s work has been about establishing Aurangzeb as an enlightened, generous and secular ruler. So maybe Gandhi was bad, but Aurangzeb was good. 

Would any historian turn such a lens upon any other religion? Do we dare name the books or quote the passages? No, we would not want to be accused of having any phobias. In fact, Truschke complains about how the story of the Mahabharata blurs the line between ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ ‘The bad guys sometimes act more ethically than the good guys,’ she tells the world. Yes, because that is how reality works. And that is what makes the Mahabharata so wonderful. Unlike the simple minded absolutes of Abrahamic religions, the pagan mind view of the world is more complex. Our minds can deal with ambiguity. The Westerner has always looked at this with disgust. They have always accused pagan cultures of being uncivilized, having no sense of right or wrong. Old prejudice is not new research.

But such research may find its way into Indian textbooks one day, in the name of “desaffronizing” them. Along with stories of how Hindus were behind the 2021 attack on the US Capitol, which is another of Truschke’s inventions. They are already telling that to the world anyway. 

Who let out the radical left?

Ironically, it was the downfall of the Congress. The radical left has come alive. They sense the opportunity to teach their real agenda the moment the BJP is dislodged from power. The small changes made by the NCERT recently are not even a scratch on the old establishment. School textbooks contain no original research. They can only put out what historians are saying. The left has all the keys to the establishment. And the establishment is getting more radical.

Meanwhile, a word changed here and there, or a chapter deleted, makes little difference. It does not affect the tone and tenor of these textbooks, nor their emphasis. Worse, they provide a soft target to the radical left. The left will use this as a license to make sweeping changes to textbooks the moment they get another chance. The sarkari intellectual of old talked of Nehru. The new intellectual talks only of Mughals. The sarkari leftist would offer Akbar, but the new ones prefer Aurangzeb. The old textbooks had comforting myths around secularism. And all religions being peaceful. The new ones will denounce the Bhagavad Gita, and Hinduness as the root of all evil. It is coming. It is just a matter of time. Because no government lasts forever. 

How the worrying over blue ticks has exposed the shallowness of our social elites

A lightly edited version of this article appeared on News18 here.

There is a certain image that has been doing the rounds on Indian Twitter for a while now. It purports to show a license of some kind, apparently called a “Kursi Nashin,” issued in Delhi in 1887. It is made out to one “Ram Narain, son of Sheo Parshad,” and entitles him to sit down when in front of government officials. While I cannot verify this document independently, it sounds exactly like something the British would do. Secure the loyalty of people, especially the elites, by allowing them to feel important in petty, meaningless ways.

It may seem funny today. How could social elites of that time, all grown-ups, have cared so much for something so small? But is it really such a mystery? As a symbol of social status, how different is the Kursi Nashin of 1887 from the blue tick on Twitter today? Until last year, only certain special people, chosen by an inner circle of Twitter executives, could have one. 

Then Elon Musk took over and said everyone who wanted a blue tick would have to pay for one. When many people were too proud to pay, he took their blue checkmarks away. A couple of days later, he restored some of them. Perhaps for the accounts with millions of followers. Perhaps just to troll them. I don’t know. Elon deserves to have his $44 billion worth of fun. And now everyone is worrying over whether they can get a free check mark, whether to pay for one, whether people will come to know if they did, and whether a paid blue tick would have the same prestige as the legacy one. Not just in India, but all over the world. Over one hundred years after 1887, the intellectual shallowness is exactly the same.

Whether they admit it or not, we have just seen a fascinating social experiment. And there are many lessons here. The first is that people are willing to support any system as long as they are made to believe that they can feel just a little more special than others. The British used to do this with titles such as “Rai Bahadur” and “Khan Bahadur.” Or allowing them to dress up like an Englishman to attend the grand durbar of King George V in Delhi. You should look up the old albums of some famous families that claim to have fought for India’s freedom. 

Remember that when social media came around, the number one worry among the elites was that it had made the playing field too level. Would the opinion of someone with a degree in journalism, or English, from Oxford for instance, be placed at the same level as someone with just an internet connection? Or in their words, a troll. Or in India, the Internet Hindus. Back in the day, even Al Jazeera did a show about the dangers posed by them. With time, the words they use to show their contempt for fellow Indians has changed. Now the term “Whatsapp University” has caught on. Even if the elites themselves cannot tell the difference between a spam email and a job offer from Harvard.

But then, the social media companies agreed to play ball with the social elites. They could have a little blue tick next to their names. Of course, as with any major change, a handful of new elites were created as well. But for the most part, they could transfer the social hierarchy as it was, from the old public square to the new one on the internet. Even more importantly, the social media companies agreed to police speech on terms set by the old elite. They were back as gatekeepers. If they wanted to get rid of someone for “hate speech,” they could. If they wanted to elevate someone as an “activist,” they could do that too.

The second lesson from this massive social experiment is just how far people will go to justify their little status markers to the world. With the blue ticks gone, they worry. How can the masses now be sure that they are getting their information from the high and mighty? Now anyone can spread ‘misinformation.’ 

As with most excuses, there is a bit of truth to this. There are genuine concerns about how to verify things that we read on the internet. But also note that these are the same people who are the most silent on issues such as the “Twitter Files.” What do they have to say now that we know how closely big tech platforms work with certain agencies in the United States’ government? What happens when big media itself spreads big lies, such as coordinating with the Biden campaign to get former intelligence officers to say that the Hunter Biden laptop story was “Russian disinformation?” Or when big media suppresses the covid lab leak theory? If tech platforms had not suppressed the Hunter Biden laptop story, the results of the 2020 US Presidential elections might have been different. Has this ever bothered those who say they care about misinformation? 

In other words, the blue tick was to social media what the red beacon car used to mean to politicians and bureaucrats. A handful of these might make sense. The time of the Prime Minister, or the Chief Minister of a state, could indeed be more valuable than that of the average person. But most of the red beacons served no meaningful purpose at all. In fact, considering how bad traffic is in most Indian cities, I wonder if having a red beacon actually helped in reducing travel time. But that was never the point. Just as a blue tick had little to do with giving out verified information. It was always about status, and being close to power.

The next lesson from this episode is that elites do not like transparency. “It is embarrassing to have a blue tick now because it’s a signal you paid for it,” writes economist and real life Cornell professor Kaushik Basu, who used to have a blue checkmark, but not any more. As long as the blue ticks were decided in some hidden manner, they had more value. For example, the system could use them as a reward for putting out “pre-approved thought.” Now anyone who can manage eight dollars and a phone number can have one. Rather disturbingly, Basu also compared this to a possible situation in which Cornell decides to sell its degrees. It shows you just how seriously the elites used to take their blue ticks. It might also be a sad commentary on how those on the inside of the liberal arts really think about higher education. 

No wonder then that the elites are coping with changes at Twitter by pretending to care about social justice and countering “hate speech.” A BBC reporter recently made the mistake of saying this to Elon’s face, but could not give any examples. But you can be sure that they will soon make up a study to back him up. About how Twitter has become less “safe” for minorities, people of color, or something of that sort. The Indian imitations of these theories, created more or less by using the search and replace function, will also be ready shortly. For what it’s worth, there is already scholarly “research” out there about how one should only use gifs and memes showing people of their own race. Or else, it’s racist. Yes, whatever you think is parody, social science is always one step ahead. 

Finally, consider this. If the elites care so much about a blue tick, how did they feel about their other status markers of old? How about bungalows in Lutyens’ Delhi, and getting all sorts of government awards. Or maybe coordinating the choice of portfolios for cabinet ministers. Or flying abroad on the Prime Minister’s official plane. Can you imagine how emotional they are about that? Now you know why democracy in India has been in danger for a while now.

Government licensed extortion? Inside the ‘secret’ model that funds the BBC

A lightly edited version of this article appeared on Firstpost here

In February this year, Indian income tax authorities carried out a brief survey at the offices of the BBC in New Delhi. Following this, the BBC released a lengthy video on their Hindi platform, with the claim that they are an independent media organization funded by the British public. A number of foreign governments took note of the Indian income tax survey. The foreign press, always ready to jump on India’s throat, acted on cue. Civil society groups cried that democracy is in danger in India. Or in other words, the usual stuff.

For many Indians and a number of people around the world, the BBC carries an automatic air of respectability. We all know that they are linked to the British state. But we have all been assured that the BBC is somehow independent, factual and most of all, impartial. Not surprising. After all, in disputes around the world, from the Indian subcontinent to the Middle East and Africa, the ability of the British to act ‘impartially’ has never been in doubt.

But then Elon Musk came along. And Twitter decided to label the BBC’s official handle as “government funded media.” The BBC objected, saying that they are funded not by the government, but by the British public through a license fee. We have heard that before, but what exactly does it mean? How does the BBC raise money from the public without being government funded? You mean from voluntary donations and such? Does not seem likely. 

What if I told you that the BBC has its own private army of enforcers with the power to raid any household in the UK?  And that the BBC prosecutes over 100,000 people each year, most of them poor, many of them immigrants, some who may not even understand English well. In other words, the least powerful in society. In fact, the BBC’s private army now has a special unit to raid the homes of those who are over 75 years old. Such is the dark underbelly of sophisticated global ‘liberalism.’

How is the BBC actually funded?

The BBC has something called a royal charter. That is just a fancy way of saying that the BBC has the legal power to collect a license fee from every household in the UK. Well, almost. From everyone who owns a TV, or a laptop, a phone or a tablet that is. And it is not cheap. Currently, it is set at £159 (nearly $200) a year. 

What is wrong with the BBC charging subscribers for its services, you may ask. Except ‘subscribers’ is just an Orwellian term. Those people don’t have a choice. Even if you do not watch the BBC, you must pay. And this applies to all platforms, not just TV. Even if you are just watching your favorite youtuber live on your phone, for some reason, you owe money to the BBC. Two hundred dollars a year.

This sounds so absurd that it may take a while to believe it. Indeed, where am I getting all this information? From the website of the BBC! Imagine if you were charged a car license fee even if you don’t own, need or want a car. Or had to pay a license fee to McDonald’s to eat at KFC. 

Oh, so the BBC is like the government after all. We all have to pay for government services we may never use directly. Even if you travel in your own car, you still pay for the government to run public buses. It’s called taxes. So what is the problem?

But remember that the BBC rejects the tag of “government funded media.” Governments collect taxes. The BBC collects only fees. According to the BBC, they are not the government, but a corporation. That is what the ‘C’ in BBC stands for. A very special kind of corporation, with the legal power to throw people in jail for refusing to buy its product.

The BBC’s ruthless fee collection model

Understandably, the reporting on this is thin, because big media do not like to embarrass each other. A 2014 article in the Guardian describes what happens in the courtroom to the poor souls who are herded together to be prosecuted by the BBC:

“Between 1 December 2013 and 31 December 2013 you used a colour television receiver without a licence at this address. Do you plead guilty or not guilty?”

The victim is a young woman, who apologizes to the court, hoping for leniency. It doesn’t work. She is found guilty, ordered to pay court costs, a fine as well as some kind of surcharge.  There is no way she can pay upfront. The court allows her to go on a payment plan of £5 per week. The Guardian article mentions another defendant who has health issues and who says:

“I rang the BBC and asked them to hang on and I will pay, but they wanted it here and now … It wasn’t because I didn’t want to pay, it was because I couldn’t pay ….  I’m already paying these extra things I can’t afford. What do they want us to do, kill ourselves?”

He is found guilty and put on a payment plan as well. He can afford to pay only £2.50 a week. Remember that the next time you hear of high profile BBC reporters and their slick production teams who travel the world looking for human interest stories. Remember it for the next time the BBC says they have come to India to ‘speak truth to power.’ It is all being funded by taking money from the desperately poor guy who can barely afford £2.50 a week! Independent media? Perhaps. But at whose cost?

The Guardian article mentions another unfortunate soul who thought he could get out of paying the fee by handing over his TV to the government. Another victim, evidently a foreigner, asked for a Turkish language interpreter. I wonder if the BBC in the UK even has any programs in Turkish. Must pay the “license fee” though. For the sake of press freedom.

These are not isolated incidents. It happens to lakhs of people every year. The BBC’s own website mentions 1,14,531 convictions in 2019 alone. Some 50 people even go to jail every year for this. Who says there is no debtor’s prison in the UK? Or should we call these people political prisoners held by the BBC? 

If you think it can’t get worse, it does. On its website, the TV licensing authority in the UK says they have a database of every household in the country. They have their team of enforcers and detection vans, who can visit any house any time to check for a license. Remember that this is not even the government, but a corporation. The violations of privacy and civil liberties are simply off the charts. And the BBC does keep it classy. Which is why they just hired an extra unit in their private army specifically to go after those who are over 75 years old but failed to pay the license fee during the pandemic. But if that is what it takes for the global liberal elite to have their ‘independent’ media, they think it is worth every frail old grandmother they can throw into jail.

The Nazi roots of the BBC

What else could the BBC cover up in plain sight? For instance, the fact that Lord John Reith, founder of the BBC and its first director general, was a Nazi sympathizer who praised the way Hitler had “cleaned up” dissent against him. Yes, he said “cleaned up.” Exact words. ‘Hitler continues in his magnificent efficiency,’ Reith wrote even as German troops occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939.

The BBC website has a separate page on its founder, but makes no mention of his Nazi sympathies of course. They also have a bust and a portrait of him at their offices in London, which they refuse to get rid of. Instead, the BBC runs a highly prestigious annual lecture series in honor of John Reith. Because the job of the BBC is to promote Britain’s brand, not to hurt it. Even if they have Nazi skeletons in their own closet.

To be fair, Nazi sympathies were actually fairly common among British elites of the time. This is partly because much of the British nobility, including the royal family itself, is of German descent. And the BBC is in charge, whether officially or unofficially, of hiding embarrassing facts. So when old video emerged in 2015 of Edward VIII teaching a young Elizabeth the Nazi salute, the BBC wrote a long article providing context (read excuses). Edward VIII became king, later abdicated, but remained a supporter of Nazism throughout. Incidentally, the real name of the British royal family is the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, named after counties in Bavaria in Germany, and descended from the House of Hanover. It was changed to the now familiar House of Windsor by royal decree in 1917, at the peak of anti-German sentiment during the First World War. 

In a media appearance last year, veteran journalist Karan Thapar made fun of the BJP’s way of changing historical names that it does not like. He pointed out that the British had the maturity not to rename Hanover Square in London, despite two wars with Germany. Well Karan, there is your answer. They did not change the name because Britain is still ruled by the House of Hanover. You wouldn’t know if you only watched the BBC.

How does the BBC keep getting away with everything?

For that, we must ask a better question. Who would gain from calling out the BBC on its extortion of the poorest and weakest in society? Usually, such calling out is the job of media, civil society groups, intellectuals, activists, NGOs and so on. What do these people want? They want fame, prestige, awards and junkets. The BBC can already help them advance their careers. Why would they go against it? Even if they are not directly connected to the BBC, the BBC brand makes all the difference. Due to its privileged position, the BBC can decide which narrative is ‘cool.’ 

And so, everyone wants to be like them. Other news organizations copy the narrative of the BBC. Many people in these organizations would aspire to work for the BBC one day, or align themselves with it. Working for the BBC would open doors in important places. On the other hand, BBC alumni would find it easier to enter high positions in existing media organizations or even start new ones of their own. Hence, what appears like a free market is not so free after all. The incentives for going against the BBC simply aren’t there.

The other reason is that the BBC is a highly prized weapon of information warfare. Think about it. Using the BBC, the British are able to exert influence over the elites inside every country, well within their borders. It gives them enormous power over world affairs. This would be practically impossible by conventional military means, and too far beyond the resources of a small nation such as the UK. And therefore it is in the supreme national interest of the UK (and more broadly, the West) to make sure that the sun never sets on Britain’s information empire. Even if it means breaking the backs of over 1 lakh of the poorest and most vulnerable residents of the UK each year. The empire always works for the elites.

As a Citizen, I Disagree with Supreme Court’s Verdict on Election Commission: Here’s Why

A lightly edited version of this article appeared on News18 here

Article 324 of the constitution of India says that:

“The Election Commission shall consist of the Chief Election Commissioner and such number of other Election Commissioners, if any, as the President may from time to time fix and the appointment of the Chief Election Commissioner and other Election Commissioners shall, subject to the provisions of any law made in that behalf by Parliament, be made by the President.”

Although that sentence is long, it is not particularly difficult to understand. Or so we thought. Recently, the Supreme Court explained that what that sentence really means is that the Chief Election Commissioner must be appointed by a panel consisting of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha and the Chief Justice of India. And also the captain of the winning team at that year’s IPL.

Okay, I made up the last bit about the IPL. But the rest of it is mostly true. Significantly, the Supreme Court did leave the door open and say that these new rules could be changed in case Parliament makes a law. This might be a concession to the actual text of the constitution, which says that the appointment is subject to laws passed by Parliament. But with a little more clever “interpretation” in the future, I am sure there is a way around that as well.

In an ideal world, India’s political parties should have come together to oppose this judgment. Is the Supreme Court merely interpreting the constitution or writing a new one? But the ruling party is scared. It does not want to be seen as opposing a verdict that supposedly imposes fairness from outside. The opposition has welcomed the verdict. They see it as a backdoor to power despite losing the last election. Perhaps they do not feel so confident about the next one. This is why they see no downside in the near future.

All this likely means that the verdict will stand. We folks (in this case, our representatives) were too divided. So someone else will walk away with all the power. You know we have a long memory of this kind of thing happening to our country. So the least we can do is ask some questions.

Is it really more democratic to choose the Chief Election Commissioner in this way?

When a larger body makes decisions, as opposed to just one person, it is generally good for democracy. But the larger body must have at least some claim to representing the will of the people fairly. The new judgment puts the Prime Minister at the same level as the Leader of the Opposition. To become Prime Minister, you must have 272 Lok Sabha MPs on your side. To become Leader of the Opposition, you need just 55. And in this new panel, the Leader of the Opposition could come together with the Chief Justice and overrule the Prime Minister by a 2:1 vote. How is this democracy?

But wait! The judgment goes even further. It says that if there is no official Leader of the Opposition, the role shall be played by the leader of the opposition party that has the highest numerical strength. This means that the bar for sitting on this panel is even lower. In theory, it is set at just 1 seat. And what happens if no opposition party has met the threshold of 55 seats, but there are two parties tied at say 35 each? This almost happened in 2014. Will leaders of both opposition parties get to sit on the panel? Then the Prime Minister would have just 1 vote, and the opposition would have 2! They would have twice the votes precisely as a reward for losing the election so badly that neither could get the 55 seat minimum. Still democratic? And who exactly does the Chief Justice represent? Do we dare ask? 

Or maybe there is only 1 seat for the opposition in the panel. In case of a tie between opposition parties, perhaps the Chief Justice also has the power to decide which one has been elected more “democratically.” The possibilities seem unlimited.

A whole new constitutional structure? 

Article 324 of the constitution said that the Chief Election Commissioner is to be appointed by the President. So far, it was understood that the President acts on the advice of the Council of Ministers. This is made explicit much earlier in Article 74, which reads:

There shall be a Council of Ministers with the Prime Minister at the head to aid and advise the President who shall, in the exercise of his functions, act in accordance with such advice…

If the President is now required to act as per the advice of any panel appointed by the Supreme Court, it would appear that we have a whole new constitutional structure. So we have to wonder. Since the Supreme Court has the power to decide who sits on this panel, could they actually remove the Prime Minister from this panel tomorrow if they wanted? Could the court have created this panel without including the Prime Minister at all? Perhaps they could have made this panel with only opposition leaders on it, or only judges, or even members of so-called civil society. Would that be legal too? 

What other appointments can the judiciary interfere with?

They say this judgment is good because we need the Chief Election Commissioner to be non-partisan. I agree with the second part. But why does non-partisan necessarily mean judicial intervention? For that matter, we need people in all sorts of positions to be n0n-partisan. How about teachers in government schools? Surely we do not want a partisan education system. So should there be a panel in each state to select school teachers, with both judges and opposition leaders represented on it? 

How about doctors? We should ensure that they are non-partisan as well. And then there is the most obvious one, possibly with the most direct impact on our daily lives. We need the local police to be non-partisan. The same goes for every bureaucrat in every government department, from secretaries to the local motor vehicle bureaus. Could the Supreme Court transfer all the powers of elected governments to a panel consisting of various other political parties and judges? 

Is our judiciary beginning to resemble a “priestly class?”

The system works when we have checks and balances. If the judiciary can insert itself into decisions of the executive, then the executive should have a say in matters of the judiciary. The NJAC Bill of 2014 had done exactly this. It had proposed to replace the existing collegium system for appointment of judges with a National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC). Its composition was roughly similar to the format that the Supreme Court considers ideal for selecting a non-partisan Election Commissioner. The NJAC would have senior judges, a representative of the ruling government and a representative of the main opposition. 

And yet, the Supreme Court in 2015 struck down the act that had been passed by Parliament and ratified by 16 state legislatures. So the collegium system stays. Only judges can decide among themselves who their successors will be. Interestingly, the word collegium does not appear anywhere in the actual constitution. Instead, the collegium came into existence through a series of Supreme Court judgments “interpreting” the constitution, culminating in the 1990s. Only the courts have the power to discover hidden meanings in the constitution. But as with most things involving the judiciary in India, it just takes a few decades to figure out. Today, the inner workings of the collegium are kept secret, of course.

In all of history, a recurring theme is that of capture of power by something called the “priestly class.” They say that only they can interpret the scriptures. This class begins to give more and more privileges to itself. The masses cannot easily approach them. And when they do, the process is time consuming and expensive. Membership in the priestly class is often hereditary. We should at least ask if there are parallels between such a priestly class and the Indian judiciary today. Does the idea of going to court make the common citizen feel empowered or disempowered? 

Has the Election Commission been behaving in a partisan manner recently? 

Before we go around fixing something, we must ask a more basic question. Is it broken? In other words, has the Election Commission been doing its job or not? By all accounts, yes. Election campaigns in India have never been more vigorous. Voter participation is up. Despite all the conspiracy theories in the world, the electronic voting machines have been shown to be perfectly reliable. In 2017, the EC challenged political parties to show how an EVM could be hacked or tampered. No party even showed up to the event.

In other words, everyone knows that India’s elections are being conducted in a free and fair manner. Additional safeguards such as VVPAT have been created. After every election, one booth is chosen randomly in each constituency and the VVPAT slips are tallied with the EVM vote totals. In thousands of booths spread across dozens of elections for nearly a decade, not even one mismatch has ever been found. Then what is the worry? 

I know. This is all part of the “democracy in danger” narrative after 2014, isn’t it? The exact opposite is true. Did you know that in 2007 the Election Commission dragged the BJP through a series of hearings on whether its recognition as a political party should be revoked? Look up this incident, because it got quite serious. And yet it somehow managed to stay out of the limelight due to a high level of cooperation between the ruling party and narrative makers in the media. Can you imagine if that were happening to the main opposition today? For that matter, as a candidate from Varanasi in 2014, Narendra Modi was not allowed to address a single rally in the city. The Election Commission always found a reason to say no to him. 

This kind of thing no longer happens today. Rahul Gandhi recently went to Lal Chowk in Srinagar and raised the Indian flag there. When Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley and other BJP leaders had tried to do the same in 2011, they were all arrested. So while our democracy is not perfect, it is doing better than ever before. 

Indeed, for those who want the Supreme Court to suddenly interfere with the Election Commission, let us flip this question on its head. Is there anyone who wants the Election Commission to start working more like the judiciary? Our elections are easily the biggest in the world. Most of our large states have more voters than any major country in Europe. The EC has few permanent staff. During elections, they get temporary workers from other government departments. The EC trains them to set up and manage booths in every corner of the country. Then, it manages to count all the votes accurately in a matter of hours. Compare this to the judiciary that is sitting on over 4 crore pending cases. 

Is it not the role of the courts to make citizens feel empowered?

In 2016, the Supreme Court framed rules for retired judges (and their surviving spouses) to hire domestic help at public expense. The reason apparently was that standing in lines to pay bills like common people would embarrass retired judicial officers. Such decisions are quite common. In 2018, the Madras High Court ordered the National Highway authorities to create separate VIP lanes for judges. Again, because waiting in line like everyone else would “embarrass” the judges. 

Such a sense of entitlement grates on the psyche of an aspiring young India. And they groan each time sons and daughters of former judges invariably make it through the collegium system. Through a process that is kept secret, of course. Add to that the 4 crore pending cases, the sword of “contempt” which hangs over anyone who disagrees with the court, and you can see why people would complain. 

And now we have the sorry spectacle of judges coming out to complain that folks on social media are being unfair to them. How could the judiciary feel pressured by mere words on social media, from people who have no power over anything? If that is still the case, would it not make more sense for judges to voluntarily stay away from reading what is said online?

Even if provisions for contempt of court are rarely used, it still has a chilling effect on free speech. Most people would not feel free to talk about judges the way they would talk about a politician or a bureaucrat for instance. Why is that? 

In a democracy, the onus is not on the people to respect any particular institution. Rather, the onus is on every institution to earn the respect of the people. And for that, they must make their case, very humbly if I may add, before the Supreme Court of common citizens. I believe that those who wrote the constitution would agree.

Why CJI Chandrachud’s speech at Ramnath Goenka awards was hilarious

When the lights dim … we turn to the North Star for its guiding light.” These were the glowing words with which Rajkamal Jha, editor in chief of the Indian Express spoke of the role of the Supreme Court at the recent Ramnath Goenka awards. Apparently, Rajkamal Jha, and CJI Chandrachud before him, had said many important things about freedom of the press. And if you go by the clips on Twitter, they had made at least two senior BJP leaders in the audience squirm. I just had to go to Youtube and see what the hype was about.

To his credit, Rajkamal Jha in no way picked on BJP governments only. He also mentioned how courts in 2020 had protected journalist Arnab Goswami from being hounded by a state government that was out to get him. I noticed that clips on social media being circulated by liberals have left out this important portion of Jha’s speech. Perhaps because this part would have made the liberals squirm.

Anyway, I wanted to see the whole thing for the sake of our ‘star’ Chief Justice, not Rajkamal Jha. So here are some highlights of what the CJI said.

A functional and healthy democracy must encourage the development of journalism as an institution that can ask difficult questions to the establishment, as it is commonly known, speak truth to power. The vibrancy of any democracy is compromised when the press is prevented from doing exactly this. The press must remain free if a country is to remain a democracy.

These are fairly general remarks if you ask me. Even Raghuram Rajan could have easily come up with this stuff. But when you have hype on your side, people will manage to find star quality in them. Or better still, an indictment of the policies of Modi govt. Just as with Raghuram Rajan.

But what comes soon after makes it all hilarious.

In recent years, we are also witnessing a rising interest in legal journalism. Legal journalism is the story teller of the justice system, shedding light on the complexities of the law. However, selective quoting of speeches and judgments of judges by journalists in India has become a matter of concern. This practice has a tendency to distort the public’s understanding of important legal issues. Judges’ decisions are often complex and nuanced, and selective quoting can give the impression that a judgment means something entirely different from what the judge actually intended. It is thus essential for journalists to provide a complete picture of events, rather than presenting a one sided view. Journalists have a duty to report accurately and impartially.

Did you catch that? The moment it came to legal journalism, the view of the Chief Justice changed immediately. From being someone who must speak truth to power, the journalist is quickly demoted to a mere “story teller.” Moments ago, the CJI wanted journalists to ask difficult questions to the establishment. No such luck for those doing legal journalism. They must become mere scribes.

Worse, the CJI seems to look at the rise of legal journalism as some kind of threat. These legal journalists are selectively quoting judges and distorting public understanding of legal issues. Why Justice Chandrachud sir? What happened to speaking truth to power? Should a legal journalist not ask tough questions to the judiciary? How is it different from a journalist who covers say education or health asking tough questions to the government?

Our constitution provides for the judiciary to be independent. But surely not for a judiciary that is above question. Then why have such a negative attitude towards legal journalists?

Ah! But Justice Chandrachud explains that judicial decisions are “complex.” And that people might get wrong impressions of them. But that excuse is too broad. Everything is complex. A large state like say Karnataka or Gujarat has 60 million people, at par with France or the UK. Every administrative issue in such a state would be complex and nuanced. Maharashtra has 120 million people. If Uttar Pradesh were a country, it would be the world’s 5th most populous. Could the Chief Ministers of all these states dismiss journalists as a threat because every decision they take would be complex and nuanced? Not to mention the Central government itself. They could all accuse journalists of failing to report “accurately and impartially,” or giving a “one-sided view.” What would you say then?

What is hilarious is that the CJI made these two arguments within minutes of each other. He did not realize that he was basically contradicting himself.

I do not blame him though. It is a structural problem that comes from the nature of his work as a judge. Whatever his star qualities, it has been a long time since he has had to battle wits against another person. This does not happen to experts in any other profession. No scientist for instance, no matter how accomplished, would be allowed to reach a position where their ideas cannot be critiqued by other scientists. They would never be called “Your Honor” by others. As a result, they would have to remain sharp. They would generally have noticed such gaping holes in their arguments before someone else pointed them out.

Of course, I could be wrong too. And if Shobha De or anyone else thinks that Justice Chandrachud was in the right here, I would be happy to understand their point of view.

Renewed Khalistani threat : We need some clarity about who is on which side

A lightly edited version of this article appeared on Firstpost here.

It was a Thursday. The Punjab police had picked up one Lovepreet “Toofan,” said to be an aide of separatist leader Amritpal Singh. Outside, his supporters snapped their fingers and summoned a mob of thousands. They set a one hour ultimatum for the police. In videos that have since gone viral, we then see the mob storm the police station and free their man. 

We know that this was a mob of Khalistani separatists. Because they said so openly. And they just concluded a successful daylight raid on a police station in Amritsar. Even the most renowned “fact-checkers” cannot spin their way out of this one. But then, they probably do not need to. Because we have reached that stage of guerilla war against the Indian state where the attackers feel bold enough to show their hand. Their overground supporters are no longer needed to make excuses for them.

But it is not like they sneaked up on us. When they laid siege to the borders of Delhi, we could have seen it coming. When the fanatical religious police that controlled their encampments began Taliban style executions, we could have seen it coming. When they stormed the Red Fort on Republic Day in 2021, they were obvious about what they wanted. These people were not there to protest some agricultural reform. They wanted to take down the Indian state. 

If we had a broad political consensus back then, we could have nipped this problem in the bud. Who are the people that prevented us from having this unity? At what point does dissent, even mindless rage against a democratically elected government mean becoming a tool in the hands of anti-India forces? Who created puff pieces making the separatists into heroes on TV and the internet? Who gave them intellectual covering fire? Some of them might just have been “useful idiots.” But how many were actively collaborating? And how many of them just did not care as long as they could oppose a government they hate? To fight the new Khalistani threat, we need some clarity about who is on which side.

A hybrid war against the Indian state

Much like the “new” Taliban, the new Khalistanis understand the importance of a media strategy. They understand exactly how to carry out targeted violence and how to whitewash it using “woke” rhetoric. The attack on the Red Fort was a perfect example of this. They wrapped their agenda inside the covering foil of “dissent” against farm laws. They have learned to use terms like “self-determination” that are palatable to the academic and activist class everywhere. Just last month, Khalistanis in Melbourne announced a compact with indigenous peoples’ groups in Australia to support a referendum in Punjab!

In this hybrid war against the Indian state, the Khalistanis have two important assets. First, they have unprecedented access to the Sikh diaspora in countries such as Canada, England and Australia. We saw this during the so-called farmer protests. People flew in and out from Canada to the protest sites. Rappers and musicians in England crafted songs to keep the protesters motivated. In the coming days, expect the Khalistan issue to be raised in parliaments from England to New Zealand. As well as some city councils in the United States.

Why is this particularly dangerous? In the 1980s, Punjab used to be India’s richest state. Now it is barely in the top fifteen. The state has failed to industrialize. Nor has it adapted to the new knowledge economy. After four decades of economic underperformance, going abroad seems like the only promise of a better life. The diaspora maintain close ties with their communities back home, and they have enormous influence within these communities. 

Second, the Khalistanis will plug into the readymade anti-India (primarily anti-Hindu) hate network now established in media and activist circles everywhere. These days, public intellectuals worldwide are busy tossing out Nazi comparisons for anything that happens in India. Farm laws? Fascism! Giving citizenship to persecuted Hindus (and Sikhs too!) from Pakistan? Nazism! Since 2014, the government of India has celebrated Oct 31 as “Rashtriya Ekta Diwas” in honor of Sardar Patel’s birthday. Coincidentally, Oct 31 also happens to be the day that Indira Gandhi was assassinated. Last year, a prominent Indian liberal news portal picked up on this coincidence, and suggested that “Rashtriya Ekta Diwas” was actually a trick by the Hindu nationalist government to celebrate the anti-Sikh riots of 1984! The propaganda is wicked, and very clever. Classically, the blame for the shameful events of 1984 used to be on the Congress. This is now cleverly shifted to Hindus as a whole, and to the current BJP government as well. That way it can be used as fodder for Khalistani separatism today.

The Khalistanis have also picked up on an obvious trick now perfected by Islamists everywhere from old Delhi to Leicester. It is okay to raise genocidal slogans against Hindus, attack their temples, or beat them up on the streets. Just say that you are fighting “Hindutva.” The Lashkar terrorist who carried out the Pulwama attack said he was taking revenge against the “cow urine drinkers.” The cow urine jibe has been picked up and normalized by everyone from trolls to opposition members of parliament.

The “bhakts” had called it correctly from Day 1

It was the early days of the so-called farmers’ protest. A well-known journalist was live streaming an interview with one of their leaders. Towards the end, she asked if he would like to clear the air about allegations on social media about him being a Khalistani sympathizer. To her surprise, as she later claimed, the man openly declared that he was a fan of Bhindranwale. She also admitted that many of her young associates were complaining about her for asking this question. By letting the world know, even if by mistake, that the man was a Khalistani, she had hurt the ‘cause.’ What ‘cause.?’ Apparently, anything that is against Modi is a good cause, by definition.

What do we learn from this incident? And from everything that followed, from the attack on the Red Fort to the raid on the police station in Amritsar? That the much reviled common BJP supporter had identified the threat correctly from Day 1. It was obvious from the moment the cameras zoomed in on the guy who said they could do to PM Modi what they had done to Indira Gandhi. It was obvious that he was not alone. Else, he would not have dared to express such a sentiment openly.

But ‘civil society’ refused to believe this. The usual insults were tossed out: “bhakt,” “IT cell” and “Whatsapp University.” Those who toss out these insults operate at an unbelievable level of arrogance. There were obvious questions. If the outrage against the farm laws was universal, why was the protest so regional? And why was it so focused around one religion? And why had farmer unions been advocating almost these exact reforms for decades, even the latest Congress party manifesto? But for the unbelievably arrogant, facts don’t matter. All that matters is opposing PM Modi. Everything else is “Whatsapp University.”

No, every single protester at the site could not possibly have been a Khalistan supporter. But it was also clear that Khalistani elements were using the protests to gather support. The arrogant thought leaders of the liberal establishment will never accept it, not even now. And they will never apologize.

Liberal rage is getting unhinged, and it is hurting India

For a number of people, the current episode can be a useful awakening, even if a rude one. Since 2014, a class of academics, intellectuals and activists has locked large numbers of people into an echo chamber. Inside this echo chamber, all sorts of lunatic theories dominate. India is no longer a democracy. Everything that the Modi government does is Nazi and/or Fascist. Anyone who disagrees with you must be from  “Whatsapp University.”

This mindless rage creates a chorus, one which India’s enemies can easily exploit. There is the conflict in Ukraine, for instance. India’s foreign policy here is about a delicate balance between Russia and the West, putting our interests first. If you are in a highly charged emotional state and you believe that everything that the Indian government does is ‘fascist,’ you play into the hands of those who want to drag us into their war. Right now, they are attacking India for abstaining from a UN resolution that calls for “a just and lasting peace” in Ukraine. Sounds bad, for sure. But did you know that every year Russia proposes a UN resolution against glorification of Nazism, and every year the Western countries abstain from that one? Last year, they all voted against it, even Germany. Yes, Germany voted against a UN resolution to stop the glorification of Nazism. The reasons are complicated, and every country is putting their own geopolitical interests first. 

Or take the matter of Article 370. There are three players in that region: India, China and Pakistan. China is never going to be democratic, and Pakistan will always be run by its military. If India is constantly defamed as a fascist state, who does that help? 

This liberal rage is now so out of control that a few days ago, when billionaire George Soros all but declared war on India, several people actually played down the threat. Soros is a shady hedge fund manager, a criminal convicted of insider trading in France, and known for ‘breaking’ the Bank of England. Now he runs a vast international influence network, in which he has invested $32 billion with the aim of controlling people everywhere. It is estimated that he invested as much as $128 million into the most recent election cycle in the US. He does much of this through dark money outlets known as “Super-PACs” used to get around limits on campaign finance. It is illegal of course for these to coordinate with candidates, but you could never prove anything in court. And now we know Soros has declared his intention to spend up to 1 billion dollars: almost 8 times as much, in order to stop PM Modi. 

This is not dissent. This is dangerous foreign intervention. And supporting this is neither edgy nor cool. The US is freaked out about “Russian disinformation” right now. It is not paranoid to be aware of the fact that we have enemies.

In hindsight, withdrawing farm laws was a mistake

In November 2021, when the Prime Minister announced the decision to take back the farm laws, he said it had been done in “national interest.” It is almost certain that this was a reference to the spread of Khalistan sentiment from the protest sites, deep into the interior of Punjab. When the protests began in late 2020, the separatists had sometimes tried to stay in the background. By 2021, the movement had become much more hardline, and its tone explicitly religious.

But the concession has only made them bolder. They had tested their system of creating a media spectacle, and putting pressure on the Indian government through foreign capitals and foreign newspapers. And it worked. They had found too many ready allies within civil society in India. People who were ready to forget about everything else as long as they could strike a blow against the Modi government. They were not going to stop now.

Since that day, Punjab has been taken over by a culture of protest. Industry has fled. Drugs are everywhere. Rappers know how to reach out to unemployed youth through flashy displays of wealth, and glorifying gang culture. It is a fake reality in which the Indian state is blamed for all the problems in Punjab. Last year, we learned that there is a disturbing subculture of video game fantasies about the assassination of the Prime Minister. The fact that such videos were being made and posted online, and watched by lakhs of people, shows that something has gone badly wrong.

You cannot expect the AAP government in Punjab to do much about anything. They are inexperienced. And we cannot be sure if they even care. The AAP has a history of gaining from chaos and anarchy. Therefore, the onus is fully on the central government to sort out this mess. 

Two things are clear. First, in the desperation to oppose PM Modi, much of Indian civil society has helped push a sensitive border state into real danger. In this, they have collaborated with anti-national elements. Whether this was deliberate or not is up to their conscience, if they have one. The second thing is that the Khalistanis won’t win. They could not beat us in the 1980s and the 1990s, when the Indian state was at its weakest. They have no chance now. The problem though is the cost. This will take resources away from India’s rise. And it will ruin a lot of innocent lives.

Six takeaways from the Adani-Hindenburg saga and how India reacted to it

A lightly edited version of this article appeared on India Today here.

Ye market kab khulega reeeeeeeeee…,” tweeted one liberal commenter on a Friday morning, well past 10 AM. Her excitement came through in the extraordinary number of e’s in that sentence. Presumably, she was waiting for shares of Adani group companies to drop. Even though she does not appear to know when markets actually open, nor how to find out. This is just an example of the unreasoned glee in certain sections over the recent fight between Adani group and a US based short seller. Another journalist who has recently lost his job, but not his delusions of grandeur, tweeted to his millions of fans about Adani being caught out by a “global research institution.” 

How could such a confusion have happened? Probably because the US based short seller goes by the name “Hindenburg Research.” In other words, speak now, read later. So what would explain the bizarre emotional reactions all around to a fight between a billionaire and a short-seller? What are the lessons for the general public, the media, the ruling BJP and its supporters, as well as the opposition and its ecosystem? Here are six takeaways from this still developing story. In my defense, I waited at least two weeks.

The Indian financial system is rock solid

If there is any clear upside to the current episode, it must be this. Major international brokerages, ratings agencies, retail investors and everyone else on Dalal Street has spent the last two weeks looking for any systemic risk to Indian banks. Nothing significant was found. The RBI asked each bank to disclose their exposure to Adani group debt. As it turns out, the exposure of public sector banks was just 0.7 percent of their loan book, and for private banks, it was a mere 0.3 percent. For every single one of these banks, the debt exposure was well below the limit fixed by the RBI. And none of these loans had turned into NPAs anyway. After some initial jitters, the concerns about risk to our banks faded away. 

For years, the rumors had been circulated, with the kind of conviction that turns lies into truth. They said that the Modi government had pressured public sector banks to pour their money into the Adani business. Now they thought that the Adani group was about to collapse. And they salivated that SBI would be next. In the initial reactions to the short seller report, the words “bloodbath” and “carnage” appear frequently, along with the more moderate “too big to fail.” They imagined a run on banks, a total collapse of the economy, people losing their savings. And finally a popular uprising that brings down the Modi government, which was their real target all along.

Except it could never have happened. There never was any such risk. Even for LIC, the amount invested in Adani shares was under 1 percent of their total assets under management. And so far, they had returned a profit even on that. And thus, they quietly buried the talking point about SBI and LIC going down. Don’t they look silly now?

Was the Hindenburg report an ‘American conspiracy’ against India?

In a word, no. Because investment banks on Wall Street, hedge funds and short sellers operate at a level of selfishness and greed that can be difficult for an average person to understand.  In fact, it is difficult to imagine a short seller seeing themselves as part of any nation or group. For something to qualify as an ‘American conspiracy,’ the people behind it would have to see themselves as Americans. Do they? 

But was the short seller report used opportunistically to attack India? Absolutely, yes. Major international publications pounced on this report to declare India as unworthy of investment, a den of crony capitalism, and so on. Somebody out there was desperate to hurt India’s reputation. Who could that be? These are the same publications who would not dare ask how Biden’s son got to be on the board of shady gas companies from Ukraine. Of course, the short seller in this case was only too glad to seize upon the  narrative advanced by global liberals against India, with its jibe of “fraud cannot be covered by nationalism.”

Note here that for a short seller, ideas such as “nationalism” and “liberalism” are more like menu items. You choose your favored snack for the day. In this respect, the 2021 instance of what happened to the US based video game seller Gamestop is particularly instructive. A number of firms had taken too many short positions against the stock, betting on it to collapse. But it so happened that some ordinary Americans  got wind of this. They formed an online community of millions and began trading the stock upwards. This caused the short sellers to lose billions, in something known as a “short squeeze.” 

The response from big capital firms and their friends in the American establishment was swift. An op-ed in the Washington Post argued that ordinary Americans sticking it to Wall Street was opening the door to Russian disinformation and “economic terrorism.” Yes, the words “economic terrorism” actually appear, in a piece written by the director of the initiative on Digital Economy at MIT! When facing losses, short sellers, especially those with friends in high places, would happily cover themselves with an American flag, and plead “nationalism.” 

We Indians need to get used to the bruising battles of capitalism

Socialism is a morality play, but the problem is that it doesn’t actually produce anything. In this respect, it was funny to see people trying to use their outdated Nehruvian moral compass to find their way in the bruising battle over the last two weeks. Who is the good guy here? The billionaire or the short seller? We have seen old Bollywood movies. So we know that businessmen are bad. But could a short seller from Wall Street really be the kind of hero that Bachchan saab used to play? Unlikely. For all you know, maybe Hindenburg didn’t even take a short position. They only said they did. So much for those who thought Hindenburg was a “global research institution.” Everything here is morally ambiguous. As new India creates more and more business tycoons, there will be many more such battles. Because the stakes are so high. We will get used to it. Being the world’s fifth largest economy, soon to be the third, comes with an end to our innocence.

In this respect, some sense of history might help. Every great business, from Rockefeller’s Standard Oil to J P Morgan’s Northern Pacific railroad, was accused of monopoly, malpractice or manipulation.  They were dragged into hearings that became spectacles for the American public. The same J P Morgan who personally rescued the entire American economy during the great panic of 1907. The truth always lay somewhere in between. But these tycoons like Rockefeller, Carnegie and Morgan built the great industrial economy which enabled America to win two world wars. As India grows, what matters is whether we have the expressways, the high speed trains, the factories, the airports and deep sea ports. All other considerations are meaningless.

What is the lesson for the opposition and its ecosystem?

Never buy your own propaganda. Over the years, it has become an article of faith in the opposition ecosystem that the Modi years are one big scam, just waiting to be exposed. From the expressways to the toilets, the brand new AIIMS, to our status as the fastest growing major economy, nothing is real. Not even election results. The only reason they appear real is because everyone else is lying about it. And one day it will all come apart. 

Because of this paranoia, they always jump too often. And always too high. Back in 2019, it was the supposed “Rafale Scam.” It had no wings. Now they think they have found a new narrative around Adani group and public money. This one has no legs. Both SBI and LIC are doing perfectly fine. So are public sector banks, and more generally all the banks. Nobody is about to lose their savings. 

This paranoia is reflected in terms such as “undeclared emergency.” It is supposed to be real, precisely because you can’t see it. This Republic Day, one of India’s most respected public intellectuals wrote that the “Indian constitution is standing on a precipice.” Then he had a whole theory about how things feel so normal, when they are actually not. Perhaps like a sky god, dictatorship works in mysterious ways. This paranoia creates a number of jobs too. Make no mistake about that. Why else would so many people get together on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks to warn the world about the threat of “Hindutva”?

What is the lesson for BJP and its supporters?

The BJP also has a big gap in its defenses. The party has allowed the perception to build that the government is close to big businesses. And even more damagingly, to certain specific business houses. We now know that exposure of PSU banks to Adani group debt was a mere 0.7 percent. But why did the initial panic around SBI and LIC even happen? It shows that the rumors had taken root. If the BJP’s perception managers had done their job well, the questions would not have come up at all. This is a fight between two privately owned businesses. What is the government supposed to say about this?

Ultimately, the opposition may not be able to hurt the BJP on the Adani issue. But the issue for the BJP is that it has allowed the opposition to control too many squares on the chessboard. Time and again, the opposition has shown that it is capable of sowing doubt on a large scale, keeping the government on the defensive. We saw this during the protests against CAA and NRC. The CAA is yet to be notified, and the NRC appears to have been forgotten. The agricultural reform laws had to be taken back. The opposition may not be able to win elections, but it can create panic any time it wants, over anything. This is bad news for the BJP.

India’s economy and politics has now been internationalized

In Britain, Sep 16, 1992 is remembered as Black Wednesday, the day which “broke” the British pound. Most reserve banks around the world think long and hard before a 25 bps interest rate hike, or just 0.25 percent. On Black Wednesday, the rout in the British pound was such that the Bank of England held an emergency meeting and raised the interest rate by 5 percent in a single morning! Because when short sellers attack, they take no prisoners. The economic impact of this crisis was so deep that the ruling Conservative Party crashed in elections and did not recover for the next 13 years. The mastermind behind Black Wednesday was George Soros. He made over a billion dollars that day. 

Three weeks ago, almost nobody in India had ever heard of Hindenburg Research. And now almost everyone has an opinion on it. It came out of nowhere, gave a heart attack to our capital markets, and riled up our domestic politics. Is that not scary? And we don’t even know exactly what Hindenburg did, or if it even did anything at all. Short selling is effectively banned in India. The short seller from overseas must have used some kind of sophisticated financial instrument, perhaps trading in some kind of derivative. We have no idea.  

This was bound to happen one day. The sheer size of the Indian economy will now attract every kind of player. Going ahead, the impact of each policy decision will be in billions of dollars. That means both our economy and our politics will be internationalized. For example, George Soros pledged close to a billion dollars to stop Modi at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2020. Right now, we have only seen international players get involved in our national level politics. Before this decade is out, we will see the impact at the state, and even the city level.

In other words, it is going to get serious. And quite scary. Meanwhile, if you would like to hear about crony capitalism, I could tell you a story about a distant land, a car company, and a Prime Minister who just couldn’t say no to her son. 

Western countries protect their interests from activism, so should India

A lightly edited version of this article appeared in Firstpost here.

We have all heard of the World Economic Forum. But have you ever wondered why this all important meeting of global elites is held each year at a remote ski resort in the Swiss Alps? Because Davos is the only place in the world that has a parking lot which can hold 350,000 cars.

Well, not exactly. Many of the attendees actually like to fly in on private jets. These then have to be parked closely together, forming a line of hundreds of private jets whose emissions would add up to the same as that of 350,000 cars. As usual, the issue of climate change is high on the Davos agenda. There is Al Gore, the failed US presidential candidate who won a Nobel prize for his documentary on global warming. He likes to fly private. There is usually John Kerry, the US special envoy on climate. He once flew on a private jet to Iceland to receive an award for his contributions to highlighting the problem of climate change. The ‘inconvenient truth’ is that the common people of Mumbai must do better. So suppose there are a few trees in the path of say Mumbai Metro. Sorry, but then you can’t have a metro. Tweet with the hashtag #SaveAareyForest.

It’s not hypocrisy. At any rate, not the ordinary kind. Activism is an industry, albeit with a difference. In a typical industry that generates wealth, someone takes a risk and starts a business that brings in revenue. Some of this revenue they keep for themselves as profit. The rest goes towards growing the business, hiring people, and producing more goods that others want. Not so with the non-profit model. Here you don’t invest anything. All the money that comes in has to be spent on salaries, allowances, and lifestyles of those at the top who didn’t take any risk. So that there is nothing left at the end of the day. And then you can ask others for more money. That is activism.

Activism is rent-seeking behavior

Suppose that you are fighting a war against Russia, a proxy one at the very least. But you also need to buy Russian oil to keep your economy going, to keep your people warm during the winter, and still avoid embarrassment. So you create a distraction. You tell the world that it is actually India which is funding Russia’s war. Even though India is buying a tiny fraction of what you buy. And with a per capita GDP which is a fraction of yours, India can ill afford the higher oil prices. 

This is where the activists come in. India is ruled by an evil regime they say, and it is cozying up to dictators. You have the various indexes at your disposal to control the narrative. One index says that India is now an “electoral autocracy.” Whatever that means, but it sounds bad. Another says that India’s press is less free than say the theocracy of Qatar, and yet another says that India has less academic freedom than Taliban ruled Afghanistan. With so many supposedly independent voices saying the worst possible things about India, who will listen to what the Indian government has to say?

In this respect, India’s situation is particularly dire. Because of our open society, anyone can come in and set up an army of activists inside our borders. We cannot shut them down like China would. Anyone can come in and start pushing a narrative favorable to others. On the other hand, it is extremely difficult for us to fight back with institutions of our own that will examine others. We do not have white privilege. Western institutions also have legacy. This allows them to hand out patronage, starting from simple all expenses paid trips to fellowships and titles from prestigious Western institutions. Like any professional army, their activism has not been slapped together at the last minute. These assets have been cultivated for decades.

If India is seen as a sinister regime, nobody will trust anything that comes out of our country. This includes GDP numbers, public spending, debt, forex reserves and so on. That affects investment. It affects the interest rate at which the Indian government, as well as Indian companies can borrow money. Consider how long it took for the Indian vaccine to get WHO approval. Because it was all too easy for others to activate their assets within India, and to sow fears and doubt everywhere. 

The relentless activism hits the competitiveness of Indian companies, our prospects for growth, scares away investors and cramps our space for diplomatic maneuvering. The other day, the new cruise on the Ganga came under attack by environmentalists, because of what it supposedly does to river dolphins. I cannot say if these concerns are real. I do know that inland waterways are extensively used in the West. And they seem to be doing just fine. India’s $24 billion PLI scheme for manufacturing is already under attack. One group thinks the money would be better spent on “education.” Another group takes an ideological position that this is against free trade. Never mind the fact that the United States is spending $465 billion on subsidies for its own industries! With such obstacles, we are being made to pay rent to lobbies all around the world. 

What about Joshimath then? Yes, it is a terrible tragedy. We must give relief to those affected, and then try our best to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. But we cannot let the activists use the tragedy of Joshimath to stop everything being built in India. The costs of that are far greater in the long run. Remember that Sri Lanka listened to activists and banned all chemical fertilizers. Then, the country ran out of food to eat.

Western countries know how to protect their interests

So what would happen if a group of protesters in a liberal western country, say Canada, were to occupy the streets and shut down a major city? No need to speculate. When truckers began protesting in Ottawa last year, the government assumed emergency powers. They seized fuel from the truckers, leaving them to freeze in the brutal Canadian winter. They shut down the bank accounts of the protesters, making it impossible for them to make payments on their home mortgages, cars, and credit cards. You can protest against Trudeau if you want. But then you would lose your home, your car, and be forced into bankruptcy. There is more. Animal protection agencies of the city of Ottawa threatened to seize the pets of those protesting. There was word that the child welfare folks would be next. The state would take away minor children of the truckers. To protect the children, of course.

What if someone tried to raise money for the truckers on the internet? Not so fast. The American Big Tech companies seized the money and decided to donate it instead to a cause they support! Resistance is futile. In less than a week, the protests fizzled out. Try searching on the internet for anything related to this protest.  The top search results are all “fact-checks,” all designed to vilify the protesting truckers and show the Canadian government in the best possible light. Big government, big media and big tech companies are all on the same side.  What could a bunch of working class protesters have done?

In Britain, they didn’t even wait for actual large scale protests to break out. The British are making amendments to their Public Order Bill, which will give the government special powers to stop protests that restrict highways, railways or any such public infrastructure. Violations would even include walking too slowly with possible intent of blocking a road. And no, you don’t have to actually protest, or in this case, walk too slowly in order to get arrested. The police can act as long as they believe that you are about to do something. 

In Germany last week, the government threw out everyone from an entire village because it was sitting on top of a large coal deposit that they wanted to mine. But do not expect any changes in the democracy index, or press freedom rankings of countries such as Canada, Germany or Britain. These indexes are designed to give moral legitimacy to western governments to keep the rest of the world in check.

The West and the activist class are cooperating but also competing

It is important to understand how this ecosystem works and how it doesn’t. The western governments, the big global media, and the activist class are all nominally independent of each other. Some big media did in fact object to how the Canadian government was treating the truckers. But they made sure it was done softly enough, and that it was too little and too late. The German government did in fact detain Greta Thunberg at the coal protests. It was just enough to make sure they could still get the coal, and the environmental groups could keep raising money. 

Instead of a central command, each member of the cartel lays down its red lines that the others will not cross. Remember what happened recently when an Indian liberal news portal fabricated a story against a big American tech company? In their response, the tech company actually praised the news portal as a whole, and hoped that they had been scammed into believing this particular story. In other words, the tech company itself supplied them with the excuse and offered a way out. The news portal got the hint that they had crossed a red line, and retreated. In less than a month, the story was forgotten. By December, the portal was receiving awards all over again. That way they reinforce each other’s legitimacy, making the ecosystem as a whole more powerful. 

The real fury of the ecosystem is reserved for the outsider. For a country such as India, which is trying to leave behind its old status as a developing country, and take a seat at the global power table. That is when terms such as “fascist” or “electoral autocracy” are rolled out. 

“Rebellious” youth need to remember that India is not a superpower

The year was 1969. The angry young radicals who gathered in Flint, Michigan were disillusioned with absolutely everything. The Vietnam war, the US government, mainstream American society, absolutely everything. They wanted to hit out. And so their leaders held up four finger salutes to cheering crowds. It was a gruesome celebration of the ritual murder of the Tate family by cult leader and musician Charlie Manson, a murder that had shaken America. The four fingers were a reference to the fork that Manson had stuck in Sharon Tate’s belly. She had been eight and a half months pregnant when she was murdered.

The left wing organization that organized this rally was called SDS, or Students for a Democratic Society. In the 1960s and 70s, they riled up campuses all over the United States. They talked of revolution and dismantling the American system. They spat at all symbols of American greatness. They shouted down even the astronauts of Apollo 8 who had circled the moon. The focal point of all this was the prestigious Columbia University in New York. The SDS occupied the university and shut it down. The New York police clashed with hundreds of students, in a televised spectacle for the American public. Raise your hand if this sounds familiar. Eventually, the SDS turned into a terrorist organization known as the Weather Underground, which carried out bombings and assassinations all across the country. 

You were silent when they came for Kashmir. You were silent when they came for Assam.” Words of a prominent left wing media personality the other day, as she was riling up a crowd of mostly young people.  Young people always want to rebel against what they see as the old ways.  In the last eight years, the frustrated liberal intelligentsia in India has tried to harness this energy against PM Modi. This would be a fully legitimate tactic if the goals were not so depraved, such as “Azaadi” and “Bharat ke tukde.” 

In their desperate hatred, the liberal influencers have ended up legitimizing all manner of anti-national activity. Such as hero-worshiping the “80 year old poet” who accuses India of illegally occupying the Nizam’s territory of Hyderabad. Or the missionary who was working as a front for Naxals in Jharkhand. Or the terrorist supporter who wanted to cut off the North East from India. Listen to his full speech: he is so radicalized that he calls Mahatma Gandhi the biggest fascist of all time. This man is currently in jail not because he is a “dissenter,” but because he is a national security threat. He is no hero.

Young people who might be falling for liberal influencers need to understand something. India is not America. The US could withstand the depravity of the SDS’ four finger salutes, and its terrorist attacks, because it was a superpower. India is not. We have plenty of vulnerabilities. We have very powerful enemies. So when the elites talk of a separate Kashmir, or a separate Assam, hold back the temptation to cheer, just for the sake of appearing “rebellious” or “counter-cultural.” 

The really bad guys are coming for us

Where were you when Jack Straw broke the world? That is the former UK Foreign Secretary, under whom the myth of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq was created. US intelligence said that Iraq had WMDs. British intelligence confirmed it, “independently” of course. The US military industrial complex then gave the go ahead for the invasion of Iraq. The rest is history. 

Now Jack Straw is back. It seems he has a new report for the BBC. This one fixes the blame on PM Modi for the 2002 riots in Gujarat. Do you know what this means? The really bad guys are coming for India. First they branded India’s democratically elected government a “regime.” And now they want regime change. 

India is not a superpower, yet. But it is the fifth largest economy, ready to play in the big leagues. And those in the big leagues do not like to see a new kid on the block. They will do absolutely anything it takes to stop us. And they have their army of activists right inside our borders. This should bother us. 

Why has media coverage of protests against missionaries in Chhattisgarh been so one-sided?

A lightly edited version of this article appeared on Firstpost here.

In Los Angeles, a crowd of protesters gathered around a statue of Junipero Serra, a missionary who had been tasked with converting and suppressing the native people during Spanish colonization. Elders from the indigenous community told stories of their ancestors and recounted the crimes of Serra, who had been declared a saint by the Catholic Church in 2015. The cries from the crowd grew louder. Ultimately, some of them tied a noose around the neck of the statue, and pulled. The statue of Serra bearing the cross was ripped from its pedestal, and came crashing down upon the ground, face first.

In the United States, it was the summer of discontent following the death of George Floyd. Black lives matter, they said. As well as the rights of indigenous people everywhere who have been subjected to colonization, conversion and racial prejudice for centuries. The world cheered. In Britain, protesters tore down a statue of a colonial era slave trader in Bristol. The following year, activists in Canada beheaded a statue of Queen Victoria outside the state legislature in the province of Manitoba.

While these were technically speaking acts of vandalism, much of the world saw them as good, positive outcomes. Because every issue is ultimately about how the media frames it. Why then has the media coverage of protests by tribal people over the last few weeks in Chhattisgarh been so one-sided? Why is the media insisting on reducing the matter to a single video showing a young man breaking a Catholic statue outside a church? To this, they added the usual commentary about “rising intolerance” in India. Western media got involved as well, covering the supposed attacks on Christianity and raising the bogey of Hindutva.

Why not turn around this gaze?  And for once, talk about the anxieties of people as the Church pushes demographic change in India. And the historic as well as continuing role of the Church in suppressing indigenous cultures around the world. After all, what makes a protester breaking a statue in California a “liberal,” but a “fascist” in Chhattisgarh? And what is a fascist anyway? It actually describes an ideology that has historically been sponsored by the Church itself. Let us talk about such things. Because as the African proverb goes, until the lion learns to write, every story will glorify only the hunter.

Conversion is an attack on India’s sovereignty

What is organized religious conversion, whether in India or anywhere else? Our ancestors have lived in this land for thousands of years. We worship this land, its mountains, forests and rivers. Every tree that grows here, and every season has its own special significance in our culture. These traditions are much older than Christianity, and in some sense older than history itself. Imagine someone coming in from outside to say that we are fallen, sinful or worse, devil worshipers. And then offering to save our souls. How? By becoming loyal to the Pope, a monarch who rules over Vatican City, a kingdom located in Europe.

That is colonialism. In order to rule effectively, they divide up our country into their own administrative divisions, which they call dioceses. The Vatican appoints an officer to oversee each diocese. He is called a bishop. And thus inside our borders, they are building a state within a state. A state whose interests may or may not be the same as those of India. Ask the activists carrying Vatican flags who stopped the construction of Vizhinjam deep sea port in Kerala a few months ago.

The problem of conversion by enticements

Because they have rich donors from the West, the church is able to build schools and hospitals, which can be used as bargaining chips for enticing people to convert. And where that does not work, there are always things like “miracles.” These are events where large numbers of people are cured of all sorts of diseases, organized by preachers who are well-practiced in the art of performative deception. Incidentally, what is the official criterion for someone to be declared a “saint” by the Vatican? It is two “confirmed miracles,” whatever that means.

No wonder that these efforts are targeted at people in the poorest parts of the country. We are talking about tribal regions of Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh. There is no way for state capacity in these areas to compete with foreign money. And even if they tried their best, it wouldn’t work. By its very nature, the state has to distribute its resources uniformly across all parts. But the church is a private entity. It can concentrate its spending in specific areas, and target them for conversion. On top of that, these targeted areas quickly become votebanks for “secular” political parties. One more reason for these parties, whenever in power, to ignore the problem of religious conversion.

The church is now a player in our domestic politics. It also understands the faultlines in Indian society. And how to play off one against the other: the south against the north, or the northeast against the rest. In the 1993 Rwandan genocide, church priests played a major role in turning the Hutus against the Tutsis. What might happen tomorrow in a country with as many competing identities as India?

Conversion is a European colonial project

In 1935, the world watched with horror as Mussolini’s Italian troops invaded and occupied Ethiopia, then known as Abyssinia. At the time, Ethiopia was a sovereign member of the League of Nations, one of the last remaining places in Africa that had not been colonized by Europeans. But the Vatican announced its support to Mussolini. The invasion became a holy war to “civilize” the native people and bring them under the banner of the Roman Catholic Church. And that is how the fascists justified their aggression before the world.

In fact, the collusion between the church and the fascists goes much deeper. As part of a 1929 deal, Mussolini gave the Pope the power to rule over Vatican City as a sovereign state. In return, the Pope recognized the fascist regime in Italy and praised Mussolini as a man sent by God. Four years later, the church signed a similar agreement with Hitler, legitimizing the Nazi regime in return for special religious privileges. This was just after the Catholic party gave Hitler the votes he needed to amend the constitution and give himself absolute power. Incidentally, both these agreements remain in full force even today, with the modern Italian and German states  enforcing these special privileges of the church.

These are not unique examples. Across continents, from Africa to Asia, and from Australia to the Americas, religious conversion has always been part of the colonial project. And not just for the Catholic Church. Even the more enlightened colonial officers, such as Montstuart Elphinstone, the governor of Bombay after whom Elphinstone College is named, believed that upliftment of the native people would eventually lead to them converting to Christianity. 

Just as the first millennium saw the cross firmly planted in the soil of Europe, and the second in that of America and Africa, so may the third Christian millennium witness a great harvest of faith on this vast and vital continent.” These were the words of the Pope during his 1999 visit to New Delhi. The colonial tone of those words can hardly be missed. How much has really changed?

The long resistance of Indian people against the Church

On Dec 24, 1899, tribal people in Chotanagpur region, now in Jharkhand, began a series of attacks on missions run by Anglican and Roman Catholic churches in the area, as well as local zamindars loyal to the British. Their leader was the 24 year old Birsa Munda, now remembered as a legendary freedom fighter of the Indian independence movement. The British suppressed the Munda rebellion of 1899. Birsa Munda was captured the following year, and tortured in a Ranchi jail, where he died in 1900.

As a child, Birsa had actually attended a missionary school, where he had been given the name of “Birsa David.” But when he grew up, he rejected Christianity, returned to the original Munda traditions, and began a movement against missionary activity. Our names contain our history, the stories of our ancestors. When you take away our names and our traditions, you are cutting us off from our land. Birsa Munda understood this. He knew that the people had to resist.

Why won’t the  ‘activist’ class speak up for people to keep their way of life?

Speaking of resistance by indigenous people, where is the ‘activist’ class? This class has given intellectual covering fire even to organized terrorist activity against the Indian state. Members of the elite with obvious connections to the banned CPI(Maoist) and other left wing terrorist groups are often hailed as poets, and human rights activists in intellectual circles. While violence is always wrong, the recent troubles in Chhattisgarh are nothing compared to the scale of Naxalite violence in those same parts. 

If these people had been protesting against a new factory, a new railway line, or a dam, it is more than likely that the activist class would have supported them. But not against missionary activity. Why? Because people in those parts don’t need jobs, but they do need churches? Because the Indian state is supposed to be an outside force in Jharkhand or Chhattisgarh, but the Roman Catholic Church is an insider? 

All over the world, the activists say they are for the rights of indigenous people to keep their way of life. But in India, they support religious conversion by the church. Why?

I will tell you why. Because India is a living civilization, the last of its kind in the whole world. The descendants of the great Egyptians, the Mesopotamians, the Chinese, the Greeks, the Romans and the Aztecs and the Incas have all been subdued by one of the Abrahamic faiths or by Communism. But in India, we still grow up with stories, culture and traditions that have remained unbroken for thousands of years. 

Remember the statue in Los Angeles mentioned at the beginning of this piece? In 2021, the governor of California signed a bill to replace the toppled statue of missionary Junipero Serra with a monument to indigenous peoples. But that is really lip service. The fact remains that the civilization of Native Americans has been almost entirely wiped out, and their land colonized forever. This lip service today does not cost the liberals anything at all. If our indigenous culture were wiped out tomorrow, I am sure that the activist class would pretend to show the same courtesy to us. 

But what if we want to save our living civilization? You know, before it is reduced to museums. Then, they will say that we are “fascists.” Or worse.