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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 41, New Delhi, September 28, 2019

Two Politicians Grow in Houston

Saturday 28 September 2019

by L.K. Sharma

Two events held on the same day confused India-watchers. At Howdy Modi, a gigantic political extravaganza in Houston, more than 50,000 Am-Indians kept cheering Prime Minister Modi and US President Trump. India appeared like a superpower strutting on the global stage! Modi sold an America-sized India!

The India that got projected in a meeting in Bangalore appeared afflicted with social degradation, faux nationalism, mob lynching, rising religious intolerance and falling economic growth. The audience nodded in agreement with the diagnosis of these ailments. The speaker presenting this negative analysis was the noted TV journalist, Ravish Kumar. He cautioned the young Indians that bigotry they were learning in WhatsApp University would destroy their future.

A grim assessment of the situation in India is not shared by a vast majority that gave twice an overwhelming electoral victory to Modi and believes that Modi can do no wrong. Most Indians do not read the Forbes article that advises Modi to remain in India and fix its economy instead of travelling abroad to tell foreigners how well India is doing. Many Indians, including intellectuals and creative persons, agree with Ravish Kumar who is trolled by Modi’s army of volunteers and the BJP employees dominating social media. There are any number of academics, writers, artists, ordinary concerned citizens and retired civil servants expressing anxiety about the direction that India has taken.

The large Houston gathering of Am-Indians felt no trace of anxiety about India. The audience filling a large stadium did not want its adoration of Modi to be affected by reports of mob lynching, bigotry or the violation of human rights in India. Elation electrified it. Modi fuelled its euphoria by declaring that everything is fine in India. He repeated this freshly-minted slogan in different Indian languages. It reminded one of the 3 Idiots film song: “All izz well” sung by students to calm their nerves while expressing anxiety about their future!

Ravish Kumar’s award acceptance speech offered a trenchant criticism of the media that overlooks the people’s problems and spreads hate in order to distract the voters from the Modi Government’s failures. The criticism was validated on the same day by the long-running fawning coverage of the Houston event designed to boost Modi’s political capital.The Indian media had little interest in those protesting against Modi because of the civil right abuses in Jammu and Kashmir and mob violence against the Muslim minority in India.

As was expected, the ”nationalist” TV anchors and reporters indulged in Pak-bashing. Even the Pakistani immigrants were not spared. They were called taxi-drivers and contrasted with the highly successful immigrants from India. The reference to the profile of the Indian community in America was relevant. Of course, the commentator would not applaud the Nehruvian ethos that nurtured such Indians, equipping them for their success in America. That would have gone against the barrage of Modi’s propaganda that nothing was done in India till he assumed power in 2014.

The state’s dominant role is criticised by many of its beneficiaries as socialist democracy is no longer fashionable. But without the state-subsidised education, millions of young Indians would have been denied access to higher education. This topic figures in the Pan-IIT conferences in the US. As one IIT Director remarked in jest: Nehru rightly said that the IITs would produce the leaders of tomorrow but he did not say “the leaders for America”! Trump will not compensate India for the supply of highly skilled manpower to his country. Nor will Modi raise this issue with his friend.

Unexpectedly, a laudatory reference to Nehru cropped up at the event when a leader belonging to the party opposed to Trump spoke in praise of Nehru. Democrat Steny H. Hoyer, Majority leader in the House of Representatives, wanted India to secure its future in accordance with Nehru’s vision of a secular and democratic nation with respect for pluralism and human rights to safeguard every individual. Nehru, he said, had imbibed Gandhi’s message to wipe tear from every eye. He referred to Lincoln’s vision of a society with malice towards none.

Now that was the last thing that Modi wanted to hear at the event since he holds Nehru responsible for India’s ills. Modi kept his face composed but became more determined to do business with Republican Trump who has no time for noble principles and ideals. Modi and Trump are made for each other. Trump is called American Modi. Modi is called Indian Trump.

Interfering in America’s domestic politics, Modi nudged the Am-Indians to ditch the Democrats and vote for the Republican candidate in the Presidential elections. Modi shouted Ab ki baar Trump Sarkar (The Trump Administration Again). Trump looked satisfied by the deal that he had struck for coming to attend the Indian event!

The polarisation affecting India since Modi’s victory in the 2014 parliamentary elections has also gripped the NRIs of America. Some of them dislike Modi but large sections of Am- rally behind him. Some are bewitched by Modi’s popular appeal and communications skills. Some others see him as a decisive leader who will raise India’s profile and thus their status in the US. Some see Modi useful for promoting their business interests in India. There are digital patriots galore in the Indian community.

Above all are Hollywood Hindus drawn to Modi, the acknowledged Emperor of Hindu Hearts! They live in a culturally alien atmosphere and Hindutva propagated by the RSS makes them less insecure about their religious identity. This section enjoys the security and safety given by the liberal atmosphere of their adopted country but wants the motherland to follow a different path. It supports majoritarianism in India even at the cost of religious violence. They will be willing to send bricks of gold for constructing a Ram temple on the site of the demolished Babri mosque.

Bilateral relations are not influenced entirely by personal chemistry between two leaders. These are guided by national interests, not noble principles. Modi, who was denied the American visa for his failure as the Gujarat Chief Minister during the communal riots, is now proudly escorted by the US President on a red carpet running longer than the one that is spread for the Oscars.

Pragmatism has strengthened the Indo-American relations. After 9/11, the US became more tolerant of hatred and bigotry directed against one particular religious group. This has given the Modi Government greater flexibility in the area of human rights. Trump’s attack on Islamic terrorism got the loudest applause by the Am-Indian audience. Indian politicians end to say that terrorism knows no religion.

Because of America’s perception of the powerful China, the successive US governments lowered the level of traditional hostility towards India. Modi has raised the US hopes of increased sale of defence equipment and closer strategic and military partnership.

Modi has gone the farthest in leveraging India’s huge market for new business opportunities for America in several sectors. Trump prides himself as a deal-maker. Modi too has the instinct for cutting deals, holding out promises of a modified foreign policy and strategic convergence. Thus, Trump lost no time in accepting Modi’s invitation to appear with him, hand and hand, and get introduced to what Modi called his large family of Am-Indians. All this prepared the ground for the outstanding success of the Houston extravaganza.

The mega event went off without a hitch. Some drum-beating TV anchors were initially a bit wary and kept referring to Trump’s unpredictably and disruptive tweets. However, Trump gave no surprise and dropped no brick. He made no stray remark requiring the Prime Minister’s office to do damage control.

As fellow members of a mutual admiration society, Modi and Trump sang from the same hymn-sheet. Both said what a wonderful person the other one is and what a wonderful job each of them has done for developing his country. Modi used more superlatives for admiring Trump. It seemed like an Indian Prince of the yore paying tributes to the British Emperor! Trump showed no signs of embarrassment because modesty is not a virtue in America. Indians are different, so Modi kept bending forward to greet the audience.

The two leaders made their election campaign speeches, detailing their achievements and seeking to impress the voters with their report cards. Facts do not matter in an emotionally-surcharged atmosphere. One does not pour over dry documents to scrutinise the statistics when told that the enemy is at the gate! Modi was simultaneously conveying his message to the audiences back home. The live TV show began during prime time in India.

Trump, seeking to be the President for a second term, got exposure to the largest live audience because political rallies in the US are usually much smaller. He sent a reassuring signal to Am-Indians that when he calls the immigrants termites he would not have Indians in mind. That and Modi’s endorsement of Trump, the Republican candidate in the elections, will surely wean away some of the traditional Democrat voters. Indian-Americans will loosen their purse-strings more for the Trump campaign because he called himself as their greatest friend.

The lobbyist, who works for the Adminis-tration and was reportedly associated with the Houston event, will monitor India’s ties with Iran with greater hope. As it is the Modi Government, to the satisfaction of the US State Department, has distanced itself further from the Non-Aligned Movement. India may be influenced to an extent by the US hostility towards Iran. The Indian diaspora in the US favours such a flexibility in India’s foreign policy.

Modi also got his due in the grand bargain. He left Houston as a victorious knight with more ammunition for the poll campaigns in Maharashtra and Gujarat. The images of his being with Trump radiate power. Modi, consecr-ated by America, has an enhanced stature. The stamp of phoren approval, be it for a book or for a bottle of wine, impresses Indians.

Modi ensured that Trump does not waver in his approval of the scrapping of the Article 370 and is not pushed by the American media and the human rights activists to show concern for the besieged Kashmiris. America’s support on Kashmir means a diplomatic setback to Pakistan.

Trump’s references to Islamic terrorism emboldened Modi to attack Pakistan without naming it. Trump, listening to the simultaneous translation of Modi’s speech, raised no eyebrows, though he later said that he had no prior information that Modi would be making that “aggressive” statement. Modi has tried to ensure that Trump does not correct his tilt towards India because of a reassessment of the strategic importance of Pakistan in the context of the Afghanistan situation.

Trump’s remarks against the illegal immi-grants implied that the Modi Government is fully justified in its campaign to weed out illegal immigrants in Assam which has robbed thousands of their citizenship.

So, apart from projecting his personal power and India’s strengths, Modi promoted some foreign policy objectives. The critics may quibble about the rally that cost millions of dollars but then the money came from the sponsors and from the NRIs and not the Indian tax-payers.

The Hollywood Hindus could not have skipped a Modi event. Many others joined them to enjoy a grand spectacle. Am-Indians, who work very hard during the week, spent Sunday watching Indian classical dances and two top political performers. Good time was had by all!

The author is a senior journalist and writer who worked in India and abroad (notably Britain) in several major newspapers. Now retired, he is a freelancer.

‘Kashmiris have shown amazing Resilience

Kashmiris have shown amazing Resilience in the face of Brutality and Blackout

Women’s Voice: Fact Finding Report on Kashmir
(September 17-21, 2019)

[

Readers kindly note: To protect the identity of the people we met, all names in the Report have been changed. We have not named the villages we visited for the very same reason.—Team members

]

These are lines by Comrade Abdul Sattar Ranjoor. We held these as a beacon during our four-day sojourn in a locked and shuttered land called Kashmir.

Spring buds will flower 

Nightingales’ pain will abate

Lovers wounds will start healing

Sickness will leave the ailing 

Heart’s longing of Ranjoor will be fulfilled 

When the poorest will rule

Wearing the crown of glory. 

(Ranjoor was killed in 1990)

A team of five women visited Kashmir from September 17 to 21, 2019. We wanted to see with our own eyes how this 43-day lockdown had affected the people, particularly women and children.

The team consisted of Annie Raja, Kawaljit Kaur, Pankhuri Zaheer from National Federation Indian Women, Poonam Kaushik from Pragatisheel Mahila Sangathan and Syeda Hameed from Muslim Women’s Forum.

Besides spending time in Srinagar, we visited several villages in the districts of Shopian, Pulwama and Bandipora. We went to hospitals, schools, homes, marketplaces, spoke to people in the rural as well as urban areas, to men,women, youth and children. This Report is our chashmdeed gawahi  (eyewitness account) of ordinary people who have lived for 43 days under an iron siege.

Shops closed, hotels closed, schools, colleges, institutes and universities closed, streets deserted was the first visual impact as we drove out from the airport. To us it seemed a punitive mahaul that blocked breathing freely.

The picture of Kashmir that rises before our eyes is not the populist image: shikara, houseboat, lotus, Dal Lake. It is that of women, a Zubeida, a Shamima, a Khurshida standing at the door of their homes, waiting. Waiting and waiting for their 14, 15, 17, 19-year-old sons. Their last glimpse is embedded in each heart, they dare not give up hope but they know it will be a long wait before they see their tortured bodies or their corpses—if they do. ‘We have been caged’—these words we heard everywhere. Doctors, teachers, students, workers asked us, “What would you do in Delhi if internet services were cut off for 5 minutes?” We had no answer.

Across all villages of the four districts, people’s experiences were the same.They all spoke of lights, which had to be turned off around 8 pm after Maghreb prayers. In Bandipora, we saw a young girl who made the mistake of keeping a lamp lit to read for her exam on the chance that her school may open soon. Armymen, angered by this breach of ‘curfew’, jumped the wall to barge in. Father and son, the only males in the house, were taken away for questioning. ‘What questions?’, no one dared ask. The two have been detained since then. ‘We insist that men should go indoors after 6 pm. Man or boy seen after dusk is a huge risk. If absolutely necessary, we women go outside.’ These words were spoken by Zarina from a village near Bandipora district headquarters. ‘In a reflex action, my four year old places a finger on her lips when she hears a dog bark after dusk. Barking dogs mean an imminent visit by Army. I can’t switch on the phone for light so I can take my little girl to the toilet. Light shows from far and if that happens our men pay with their
lives.’

The living are inadvertently tortured by the dead. ‘People die without warning or mourning. How will I inform my sisters about their mother’s death?’ Ghulam Ahmed’s voice was choked. ‘They are in Traal, in Pattan. I had to perform her soyem without her children.’ The story was the same wherever we went. People had no means of reaching out to loved ones. Fortythree days were like the silence of death.

Public transportation was zero. People who had private cars took them out only for essential chores. Women stood on roadsides, flagging cars and bikes for rides. People stopped and helped out; helplessness of both sides was their unspoken bond. ‘I was on my bike going towards Awantipora. A woman flagged me. My bike lurched on a speed breaker. She was thrown off. I took her to the nearby hospital. She went into a coma. I am a poor man. How could I pay for her treatment? How and who could I inform?’ These daily events were recounted wherever we went.

At a Lalla Ded Women’s Hospital in Srinagar several young women doctors express-ed their absolute frustration at the hurdles that had been placed in their way since the abrogation of Article 370. “There are cases where women cannot come in time for deliveries. There are very few ambulances, the few that are running are stopped at pickets on the way. The result? There are several cases of overdue deliveries that produce babies with birth deformities. It is a life-long affliction, living death for parents.” Conversely, we were told that several  women are delivering babies prematurely due to the stress and khauf (fear) in the present condition. “It feels like the government is strangling us and then sadistically asking us to speak at the same time,” a young woman doctor said as she clutched her throat to show how she felt.

A senior doctor from Bandipora Hospital told us that people come from Kulgam, Kupwara, and other districts. Mental disorders, heart attacks today there are more cases than he could ever recall. For emergencies junior doctors desperately look for seniors; there is no way of reaching them on phone. If they are out of the premises, they run on the streets shouting, asking, searching in sheer desperation. One orthopaedic doctor from SKIMS was stopped at the Army-imposed blockade while he was going for duty. He was held for seven days. Safia in Shopian had cancer surgery. ‘I desperately need a check up in case it has recurred. Baji, I can’t reach my doctor. The only way is to go to the city, but how do I get there? And if I do, will he be there?’Ayushman Bharat, an internet-based scheme, cannot be availed by doctors and patients.

Women in villages stood before us with vacant eyes. ‘How do we know where they are? Our boys who were taken away, snatched away from our homes. Our men go to the police station, they are asked to go to the headquarters. They beg rides from travellers and some manage to get there. On the board are names of ‘stone- pelters’ who have been lodged in different jails, Agra, Jodhpur, Ambedkar, Jhajjar. A man standing by adds, ‘Baji we are crushed. Only a few of us who can beg and borrow, go hundreds of miles only to be pushed around by hostile jail guards in completely unfamiliar cities.’

At Gurdwaras we met women who said they have always felt secure in Kashmir. ‘Molestation of women in rest of India, about which we read, is unheard of in Kashmir.’ Young women complained they were harassed by Army, including removal of their niqab.

‘Army pounces on young boys; it seems they hate their very sight. When fathers go to rescue their children they are made to deposit money, anywhere between 20,000 to 60,000.’ So palpable is their hatred for Kashmiri youth that when there is the dreaded knock on the door of a home, an old man is sent to open it. ‘We hope and pray they will spare a buzurg. But their slaps land on all faces, regardless whether they are old or young, or even the very young. In any case, Baji, we keep our doors lightly latched so they open easily withone kick.’ The irony of these simply spoken words!

Boys, as young as 14 or 15, are taken away, tortured, some for as long as 45 days. Their papers are taken away, families not informed. Old FIRs are not closed. Phones are snatched; collect it from the Army camp, they are told. No one in his senses ever went back, even for a slightly expensive phone. A woman recounted how they came for her 22-year-old son. But since his hand was in plaster they took away her 14-year-old instead. In another village we heard that two men were brutally beaten. No reason. One returned, after 20-days, broken in body and spirit. The other is still in custody. One estimate given to us was 13,000 boys lifted during this lockdown. They don’t even spare our rations. During random checking of houses which occurs at all odd hours of the night, the Army persons come in and throw out the family. A young man, working as SPO, told us: ‘We keep a sizeable amount of rice, pulses, edible oil in reserve. Kerosene is mixed in the ration bins, sometimes that, sometimes koyla.

Tehmina from Anantnag recently urged her husband, ‘Let us have another child. If our Faiz gets killed at least we will have one more to call our own.’ Abdul Haleem was silent. He could see the dead body of his little boy lying on his hands even as she spoke these words. “Yeh sun kar, meri ruh kaanp gayi,” he tells us.

A thirty-year-old lawyer from Karna was found dead in his rented accommodation. He was intensely depressed. Condolence notice was issued by the Bar Association. Immediately after that he was taken into custody. Why? We spoke to a JK policeman. All of them have been divested of their guns and handed dandas. ‘How do you feel, losing your guns?’ ‘Both good and bad,’ came the reply. ‘Why?’ Good because we were always afraid of them being snatched away. Bad because we have no means now to defend ourselves in a shootout. One woman security guard said, ‘Indian Government wants to make this a Palestine. This will be fought by us, the Kashmiris.’ One young professional told us, ‘We want freedom. We don’t want India, we don’t want Pakistan. We will pay any price for this. Ye Kashmiri khoon hai. Koi bhi qurbani denge.

Everywhere we went there were two inexorable sentiments. First, desire for Azadi; they want nothing of either India or Pakistan. The humiliation and torture they have suffered for 70 years has reached a point of no return. Abrogation of 370, some say, has snapped the last tie they had with India. Even those people, who always stood with the Indian state, have been rejected by the government ‘So, what is the worth in their eyes, of us, ordinary Kashmiris?’ Since all their leaders have
been placed under the PSA or are under house arrest, the common people have become their own leaders. Their suffering is untold, so is their patience. The second, was the mothers’ anguished cries (who had seen many children’s corpses with wounds from torture) asking for immediate stop to this brutalisation of innocents. Their children’s lives should not be snuffed out by guns and jackboots.

As we report our experiences and observa-tions of our stay in Kashmir, we end with two conclusions. That the Kashmiri people have in the last 50 days shown an amazing amount of resilience in the face of brutality and blackout by the Indian Government and the Army. The incidents that were recounted to us sent shivers down our spines and this report only summar-ises some of them. We salute the courage and resoluteness of the Kashmiri people. Secondly, we reiterate that nothing about the situation is normal. All those claiming that the situation is slowly returning to normalcy are making false claims based on distorted facts. Poets speak for humankind. We began our report with lines from the Kashmiri poet Ranjoor. We end with lines from Hindi poet Dushyant. Both indicate the way forward for Kashmir:

Ho gayi hai peerh parbat si pighalni chahiye

Iss Himalaya se koi Ganga nikalni chahiye

We demand:

1. FOR NORMALCY: Withdraw the Army and Paramilitary forces with immediate effect.

2. FOR CONFIDENCE BUILDING: Immediately Cancel all cases/ FIRs and Release all those, especially the youth, who are under custody and in jail since the Abrogation of Article 370.

3. FOR ENSURING JUSTICE: Conduct inquiry on the widespread violence and tortures unleashed by the Army and other security personnel.

4. COMPENSATION to all those families whose loved ones lost lives because of non-availability of transportation and absence ofcommunication.

In addition:

• Immediately restore all communication lines in Kashmir including internet and mobile networks.

• Restore Articles 370 and 35 A.

• All future decisions about the political future of Jammu and Kashmir must be taken through a process of dialogue with the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

• All Army personnel must be removed from the civilian areas ofJammu and Kashmir.

• A time-bound inquiry committee must be constituted to look into the excesses committed by the Army.

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