How India can become the world’s greatest nation

We must never allow Indian soil to be a place where justice is denied and people are massacred in the name of religion. (Representative Image: Wikipedia)

We must never allow Indian soil to be a place where justice is denied and people are massacred in the name of religion. (Representative Image: Wikipedia)

The republic of India has officially turned 69. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi once said, “India is an old country but a young nation.” During its near seven-decade long journey as a nation state, this young nation has achieved multiple feats to be proud of. Following the brutal origins of the Partition, India was successfully able to lift itself out of the economic mess which the British Raj had resulted into. Today, India is the second-fastest growing economy in the world and is busy keeping the neighbouring “dragon” at its toes.

But India has its own set of Chinese walls to climb. Financially speaking, India is yet to eliminate economic inequality and redistribute wealth which has been pocketed by a few. On the other hand, a billion plus Indians have to remain committed to the mantra of secularism. What makes India unique is its plurality. The notion of our composite culture has often been challenged by fanatical elements who have unleashed a wave of violence on the society.

On India’s 69th Independence Day, let us take a pledge that we will never compromise on the principles of a multi-faith, multi-cultural India. As Indians, let us feel remorseful about the 1984 riots when innocent Sikhs were at the receiving end of a vicious campaign which can be best summarised in the words of Robert F Kennedy as a “mindless menace of violence”. We must reach out to our Sikh brethren who have lent in tremendous capacity to our armed forces and have toiled hard in their fields to grow food for us. Let us demand justice for the victims of 1984 riots and ensure that such a calamity never takes place again.

It’s been more than 25 years since Kashmiri Pandits were driven out of their homes in the valley. Isn’t that a blot on the secular fabric of our nation? Pandits have to be resettled as soon as possible in Muslim-majority Kashmir because without Pandits, “Kashmiriyat” is incomplete and so is India’s commitment to secularism. Let us demand justice for the victims of the exodus and ensure that no Indian is ever forced to leave behind his home and live in exile.

We must also come together to remember the carnage which transpired in Gujarat. The killers of innocent men and women cannot be allowed to roam around freely. Truth has to be firmly established and retribution extracted. Let us demand justice for the victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots. In fact let us demand justice for every untoward incident which has occurred during these seven decades. Be it the Hashimpura massacre or the Babri Masjid demolition, the Dalit killings in Laxmanpur Bathe or the anti-Christian violence in Odisha, all those who take law into their own hands need to be tried.

We must never allow Indian soil to be a place where justice is denied and people are massacred in the name of religion. Thou shall never fall prey to religious fanaticism should be an article of faith for every Indian. The barriers of sex, caste, region, religion and language have to be overcome if India wishes to see itself among the greatest nations of the world where economic progress is complimented by communal amity. We are nowhere close to it on our 69th Independence Day but let’s aim to be an example of toleration and justice by the time we are 75.

(This article was originally published in DailyO.) 

Pandits shouldn’t let their grievance become hatred

Pandits shouldn't let their grievance become hatred - Kashmir Reader

Newspaper clipping from Kashmir Reader

On Sunday, May 02, the Kashmiri Pandits held a protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. Kashmiri Pandits held a protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. The KPs, who were forced into exile 25 years ago following the outbreak of insurgency in Kashmir, demanded that the New Delhi and state government of J&K consult the community members before devising a roadmap for their rehabilitation in Kashmir. The protesters carried placards with slogans like “Modi blinks, hope sinks,” “Going back but not to be butchered” and “We want Homeland.”

The protesters at the venue raised slogans against the pro-azadi leaders Yasin Malik and Syed Ali Shah Geelani. They urged the government to prosecute those who were responsible for the killings of KPs. Noted filmmaker Ashok Pandit also flew in from Mumbai to be a part of the demonstration. The event was well covered by the Indian mainstream media as reporters from Times Now, NDTV, ABP News and several others jostled with each other to get sound bites from the organizers and protesters.

However, one aspect of the protest has gone largely under-reported. Tarek Fatah, Canadian author and broadcaster, had also come to Jantar Mantar to support the protesters. A day earlier, the Pakistani-origin writer had released his book “Chasing A Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State” at the India Habitat Centre in the presence of former top cop KPS Gill and journalist Saeed Naqvi. Speaking at the book launch, Fatah batted in favour of the rehabilitation of KPs. The ‘Pioneer’ newspaper quoted him as having said, “Kashmiri people face many difficulties and being a Muslim, I want every Indian Muslim should come forward to support Kashmiri natives.”

But when Fatah turned up at Jantar Mantar to support the cause of KPs, he was in for a rude surprise. When Fatah, dressed in a green shirt, took to the stage, some of the right wing organisers objected to him addressing the gathering. As a result, Fatah wasn’t allowed to speak. The fact of the matter is that Fatah is one of the fiercest critics of Islamism and Pakistan. His writings have attracted so much of controversy that he has often been labelled as an Islamophobe. But Fatah himself became a victim of Islamophobia at the KPs protest venue.   Some of the embarrassed protesters tried to argue that the organizers might not have been aware of Fatah’s view on the subject and hence, protested against him addressing the audience. But the truth is that he was prevented from speaking merely because he had a Muslim name. This kind of outright bigotry certainly doesn’t help the cause of KPs.

The KPs have every right to be enraged at the fact that no government has come to their rescue in the past 25 years. It is precisely because of this reason that protests like the one held at Jantar Mantar should be organised regularly so that the government at New Delhi and the state is pressurized into acting on this humanitarian issue. But some right wing elements within the KP community need to realize that Muslims are not their enemy. It is understandable that many Pandits were disappointed when they saw lack of support from their Kashmiri Muslim neighbours during the time of migration. But that doesn’t mean they’ll continue to hold some form of prejudice against anyone who is a Muslim. Why didn’t the liberal protesters at the venue exhibit their dissent against the high handedness with which Fatah was treated? Why didn’t they protest against this blatant act of racism? Instead the demonstration continued as if nothing happened. After the event formally concluded, some of the protesters chanted slogans in favour of “Panun Kashmir”.

Panun Kashmir—the idea of a separate state/union territory for KPs—is a Pakistan-like solution to the prevailing problem. What needs to be realized is the fact that separatism cannot be used as a tool to fight secession. Rashneek Kher, being an opinion leader of KPs, should understand how unreasonable is the demand of settling all KPs in “one contiguous piece of land exclusively for KPs.” Is there any portion of territory inside India that is earmarked only for the members of a certain community? Yes indeed there is a need for resettlement colonies because the homes of several people have been destroyed post migration.  It is the duty of the government to provide such people with homes. Moreover, the houses of a number of KPs have been arbitrarily taken over by other residents living in Kashmir. The government should help KPs in retrieving their land and property. But at the same time communal demands of exclusive settlements cannot be tolerated. Union Finance minister Arun Jaitley was correct in pointing out that “KPs, Muslims and Sikhs are all an integral part of Jammu and Kashmir’s demography.” Hence, there is a need for mixed townships which promote intermingling among the different community members.

On Sunday, a small minority of conservative KPs were successful in silencing Tarek Fatah because of his Muslim identity. The incident hinted at the distrust which some Pandits harbour when it comes to Muslims. If such religion-based boycott has to be prevented from happening in the future then emphasis has to be laid on the spirit of togetherness, which cannot be developed in a union territory or an exclusive settlement for KPs.  The Kashmiri Muslims too cannot afford to remain silent. If the extra-judicial killing of single Kashmiri is enough to fill the streets of the state with protesters then why haven’t we seen demonstrations of the same magnitude demanding justice and rehabilitation for Kashmiri Pandits who have faced continued government apathy since 25 years? Why protests are mostly held to echo reservations about the resettlement of KPs and not against the unpardonable crime of their migration? It is high time that the two communities start understanding the perspective of the other and dump their prejudices for a while so that the process of bridging the gap is initiated.

(This article was originally published in Kashmir Reader.)

One year old Narendra Modi ‘Sarkaar’

- Narendra Modi addresses a rally in Agra, Uttar Pradesh. (Image Courtesy - Reuters)

– Narendra Modi addresses a rally in Agra, Uttar Pradesh. (Image Courtesy: Reuters)

The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi led Bharatiya Janata Party government at the centre will soon complete twelve months in office. Under the magnetic leadership of the former Chief Minister of Gujarat, the saffron party set an electoral record of sorts by bagging a total of 282 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Indian Parliament. This was the first time in the history of independent India that a party except for the Indian National Congress had bagged a majority of its own in the central legislature. The mandate which the electorate handed out to the Modi Sarkaar was the biggest electoral victory at the union level since the time Rajiv Gandhi stormed to power in Delhi riding on a massive sympathy wave generated following the tragic assassination of his mother Indira Gandhi.

However, the critical question at this moment concerns the major talking points which have emerged during the past eleven months of Narendra Modi’s rule. Prime Minister Modi’s first year in office coincided with a string of electoral victories at the state level for the BJP. Courtesy the popularity of the Prime Minister, the BJP formed government in several states including Maharashtra, Haryana and Jammu and Kashmir. In the process, Narendra Modi was able to perform a number of political manoeuvres which the old guard of BJP under Vajpayee and Advani failed to achieve. For instance in Maharashtra, the BJP overpowered the might of the Shiv Sena by emerging as the single largest party. This altered the relationship between the two saffron outfits as now BJP was playing the role of the elder brother and Sena was forced to assume the role of a sidekick.

Manohar Lal Khatter became not only the first BJP Chief Minister of Haryana but also the first non-Jat CM of the state. In the insurgency hit state of Jammu and Kashmir, BJP swept through the region of Jammu and formed a coalition government with the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). But all streaks come to an end as the law of averages kicks in. The challenge posed by Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party was too humongous for the BJP to overcome. From being the single largest party in Delhi Assembly, the BJP was reduced to a tally of just three seats. Thus, the AAP ended the electoral dominance of Modi-Shah combine.

The second most visible feature of the Modi government has been a stark increase in communal rhetoric and hate mongering against minorities. While Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat repeatedly stated that India was a Hindu Rashtra, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj wanted the Gita to be declared as the country’s national scripture as her cabinet colleague described the government as one of “Ram Bhakts.” The more insensitive remarks were credited to the likes of Yogi Adityanath, Sakshi Maharaj and Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti. From Sadhvi’s Ramzaade remark to Adityanath’s crusade against love jihad, BJP MP’s left no opportunity to embarrass the government. Unfortunately, the communal atmosphere wasn’t limited to speeches and press statements. The disease had spread to the ground and manifested in the form of vandalism of several churches. Even the national capital of Delhi wasn’t spared as it witnessed communal clashes in Trilokpuri area which led to the imposition of a curfew.

Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar had once referred to Prime Minister Narendra Modi as an “event manager” owing to his ability to host glitzy programs. If there was one thing which Modi did relatively better during his first year in office then it has to be in the realm of foreign policy. It all began with the invitation forwarded to leaders of SAARC nations prior to the swearing-in ceremony of the new government. What followed next were a series of diplomatic visits to countries like USA, Australia, Sri Lanka and Nepal. The Prime Minister’s public address at Madison Square Garden in New York was one event which caught the eye of the global media even though the same event saw his supporters getting into a fistfight with noted journalist Rajdeep Sardesai. One has to credit Modi for bringing Obama to India on the occasion of the country’s Republic Day and paying a visit to war-torn region of Jaffna during his visit to Sri Lanka. However, Modi’s foreign policy initiatives had their own set of gaffes. The first one was probably when Modi referred to Bhutan as Nepal during his address to the joint session of Bhutan’s Parliament. During Obama’s visit, the BJP government earned criticism from the Delhi High Court for putting up over 15,000 CCTV cameras for the security of a foreign individual during a short span of time but not doing the same for the citizens of the country.

A noteworthy trend which has become very frequent during this government’s stay in office is the “ban culture.” From the BBC documentary India’s Daughter to AIB’s Youtube roast video to Tamil author Perumal Murgan, governments in different states as also the centre found themselves in the midst of heated free speech debates. Thereafter, came the Maharashtra government’s beef ban thus elongating the ambit of restrictions from literature and cinema to food. All of this was conveniently happening at a time when certain academic quacks made bogus claims of India having invented the world’s first flying machine and Prime Minister himself claiming that ancient Indians had knowledge of genetic sciences and plastic surgery as evident from the birth of Karna and the elephant head of Ganesha in Hindu mythology. But many free speech supporters were delighted on seeing the landmark Supreme Court judgement which declared Section 66A as unconstitutional on a plea filed by Shreya Singhal. Similarly, Delhi High Court’s judgement in the case of Priya Pillai, a Greenpeace activist, who was offloaded a flight while going to give testimony in relation to the violation of the forest rights of Tribal people in Madhya Pradesh before a British parliamentary group, was a vindication of the right to freely dissent.

Another major goof up which this government might be remembered for during its first year in office was concerning the BJP’s position on black money. Supreme Court advocate Ram Jethmalani was not at all happy with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley refusing to name black money account holders. This earned the BJP the dubious accolade of being a “U-turn Sarkaar” but the brickbats got more severe with Amit Shah’s description of Narendra Modi’s poll promise of depositing Rs 15 lakh in the bank account of every Indian family after bringing back black money stashed abroad as a “chunavi juml”a or poll gimmick.

Considering the massive mandate which this government possesses, it would be foolish to believe that the BJP would not complete its tenure in office. If the hapless UPA government under Dr Manmohan Singh can remain in power for ten years then the BJP can be expected to easily survive five years in office with a Prime Minister who is a naturally gifted orator and communicator. However, the challenge for the BJP lies not in occupying office as it was in the case of the politically fragile Congress led UPA. The BJP with a majority of its own should try and utilize these five years to prove why it’s a party with a difference which can only be done by providing world class governance facilities to the people of this country. Simultaneously the central government has to nurture an environment of pluralism and harmony where minorities are not threatened and intimidated. Very importantly, the government also has to protect the right to free speech of the citizens of this country as long as they do not transgress the reasonable restrictions in regards to the same.

(This article was originally published in The Kashmir Walla.)

Why fear of Losing BMC Polls could be driving Shiv Sena’s anti-Muslim tirade

After having played second fiddle to the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra for several decades, the BJP has finally managed to wrestle control of the saffron leadership in the state. (Image: Getty Images)

After having played second fiddle to the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra for several decades, the BJP has finally managed to wrestle control of the saffron leadership in the state. (Image: Getty Images)

The right wing Hindutva brigade has this incredible ability to never prove wrong its detractors. And just when one starts thinking that the going can’t get any worse, they pop up with yet another “surprise”. This time it is none other than the Shiv Sena. In two venomous editorials published in its party mouthpiece Saamna, the Shiv Sena has suggested stripping Muslims of their voting rights and introducing compulsory family planning for Muslims and Christians. The former remark came from a sitting MP named Sanjay Raut who paraded his brilliant suggestion as a necessary measure to put an end to votebank politics.

The 2014 state elections in Maharashtra resulted in humiliation for the Shiv Sena. They bagged only 63 seats, while the BJP emerged as the single the largest party with 122 wins. Predictably, the BJP formed a coalition government in the state with the Shiv Sena but not before some hard political bargaining and the traditional tantrums of regional satraps. This indeed was a historical moment in the Sena-BJP relationship. After having played second fiddle to the Sena in Maharashtra for several decades, the BJP had finally managed to wrestle control of the saffron leadership in the state.

The electoral re-alignment which we are witnessing at present has definitely posed an existential dilemma before the Shiv Sena. If the Economic Times is to be believed, the Shiv Sena fears losing the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections slated to be held in February 2017. The same article states that BMC has “has literally bankrolled the Shiv Sena all these years, despite the party coming to power in Maharashtra just once.” Winning the BMC elections is no less than winning a state election – not only is the BMC the richest municipal corporation in the country, its financial budget is often more than the combined budget of several states.

During the recently held BJP National Executive in Bengaluru, party president Amit Shah stated that Modi Sarkar “will be in power for next 10 – 20 years.” Keeping this goal of the party in mind, we can easily ascertain BJP’s keenness to march into states like West Bengal where it has never tasted power. It is precisely because of BJP’s imperialist tendencies that the Shiv Sena has started feeling terrorised. Emboldened by its stellar performance in the Maharashtra state elections, the BJP might try and replicate its success in the BMC elections in 2017.

If this happens, the Shiv Sena would be literally crippled. We have seen how Narendra Modi behaves once he is in the driver’s seat. Keshubhai Patel and Lal Krishna Advani are fine examples. Shiv Sena supremo Uddhav Thackeray could well be on that list if the BJP manages to lay claim over the BMC. Uddhav’s nightmare at the moment might be to possibly face a Rahul Gandhi-like situation for failing to do for the Shiv Sena what his mighty father Bal Thackeray did – why, he might even have his leadership challenged by his nephew Raj Thackeray. To avoid such a development, the Shiv Sena might be doing what it is doing.

The strategy seems to be simple and divisive. Return to the Sena avatar of 1990s which gathered momentum courtesy the notorious Ram Janmabhoomi Movement. The two controversial editorials which have appeared in Saamna hint at the fact that the Sena is preparing for a militant run seeking to polarise voters in the lead up to the BMC elections. If the ploy works, the Sena would yet again be viewed as a burgeoning symbol of Hindu pride in the face of Muslim appeasement. Indeed, this would shift the ultra-conservative Hindu votebank from the BJP’s clutches back towards the Sena and the ensuing polarisation would enable Sena to retain BMC.

Needless to say, this kind of politics is devastating for the Marathi populace as well as Indian society in general.

Though the ideological moorings of the BJP and Shiv Sena are pretty much the same, one can only hope that the Central Government is aligned enough with the Indian Constitution to consider severing coalition relations with the Shiv Sena which has openly espoused disenfranchising the country’s biggest minority group.

(This article was originally published in The Huffington Post.)

The sole synagogue of Delhi

Rabbi Malekar is the head of the Jewish community in Delhi. He is a former government servant, having served for 15 years as Deputy Registrar in National Human Rights Commission. (Image: Reuters)

Rabbi Malekar is the head of the Jewish community in Delhi. He is a former government servant, having served for 15 years as Deputy Registrar in National Human Rights Commission. (Image: Reuters)

It is Friday morning and as part of an academic assignment, I am to visit a little known place of worship in New Delhi.

On my way to the Judah Hyam Synagogue, I meet Saleem Khan. Saleem, 35, hails from Bareilly district of Uttar Pradesh and runs an auto rickshaw in the Indian capital to make ends meet. He agrees to take me to my destination on the condition that I pay him Rs 20 more than what the electronic metre installed in his auto rickshaw computes as travelling fare.

“I hate the Jews for what they’re doing in Palestine. I once saw internet videos of Palestinian children who had been amputated as a result of bombardments by the Israeli Army,” says Saleem, after learning that I was going to visit a Jewish place of worship.

I try to convince him that not all Jews can be held accountable for the excesses committed in Palestine. We discuss several issues ranging from Islam to ISIS and by the time our journey ends, he concedes, “It would be wrong to say that all Jews are responsible for the violence perpetrated on Palestinians.”

Saleem drops me off at the Taj Mahal Hotel, a few metres away from Judah Hyam Synagogue, the only Jewish house of worship in Delhi. Guarding the synagogue are two Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel who were posted here following the 26/11 terror attacks on Nariman Point, a Jewish settlement in Mumbai.

“Is Ezekiel Isaac Malekar available?” I ask the CRPF personnel.

They don’t appear to be familiar with the name and ask me to ring the doorbell at the entrance of the synagogue to check for myself. I thought it rather odd that the security personnel were clueless about the man who has been striving since three decades to prevent the flame of Judaism from extinguishing in Delhi.

Located at 2 Humayun Road, the Judah Hyam Synagogue stands right next to the busy Khan Market. The synagogue was built by the Jewish Welfare Association in 1956 on land allocated by the Indian Government.

The establishment of a formal building was made possible due to a handsome donation given by Dr Rachael Judah in the memory of her father Dr Judah Hyam, who happened to be a prominent religious scholar. Prior to this, the Jews of Delhi held their prayers in a private residence located in the older part of the city.

The synagogue is attached to a Jewish cemetery, which shares its boundaries with two more cemeteries belonging to the Parsi and Christian communities. This in turn makes the place a sort of meeting spot for the micro-minorities of India. Since it is Sabbath day and the Rabbi is busy with preparations for the weekly prayers, he agrees to speak to me for no more than 15 minutes.

“We are not orthodox. Men and women have been praying together in this synagogue since 20 years. We don’t believe in gender discrimination,” says Ezekiel Isaac Malekar.

Rabbi Malekar is the head of the Jewish community in Delhi. He is a former government servant, having served for 15 years as Deputy Registrar in National Human Rights Commission. He also recited Jewish prayers at the funeral ceremonies of Indian Prime Ministers Indira and Rajiv Gandhi.

Malekar has a liberal approach. He has conducted several inter-faith marriages but his daughter Shulamith’s wedding to Sharon Pinhas Bhalkar in 2012 was the first Jewish wedding in Delhi in over five decades.

Though the synagogue was originally established to cater to the growing needs of the Jewish community, the population of Indian Jews has fallen drastically over the years.

Out of a total population of 1.2 billion, there are no more than 5,000 Jews living in India. A large chunk of the Jewish population in India resides in Mumbai, the commercial capital of the country. The city is home to the famous Gate of Mercy Synagogue which was built in 1796 and is alternatively referred to as Juni Masjid.

At one point in time, the membership of the Judah Hyam Synagogue was held by 250-300 people but currently, it’s down to just 10 families.

However, the place has retained its importance courtesy high profile visits from Israeli diplomats and officials. After the establishment of diplomatic ties between India and Israel, the synagogue had a surprise visitor in 1995 in the form of Israeli politician Shimon Peres.

Besides holding prayers regularly on Sabbath days, the synagogue conducts the Jewish rituals of bat and bar mitzvah for girls and boys.

“India is a very tolerant nation. The Jews have never faced any persecution in this country. There’s not even a trace of anti-semitism,” says Malekar.

Interestingly, Malekar supports the proposition of the Uniform Civil Code, an overarching central law which would do away with personal laws of various religious communities and replace it with a common civil law.

“We support the Uniform Civil Code. The Jewish religious laws are anyway not recognised in India. We register our marriages under the Special Marriage Act, 1954,” he says.

Malekar has often been asked why he doesn’t move to Israel. He says that while “Israel is in my heart, India is in my blood.”

(This article was originally published in Dawn.)