New Delhi: In a dramatic ratcheting up of its political rhetoric on the situation in Kashmir – now in the 23rd day of an unprecedented lockdown – the Modi government on Wednesday indirectly accused the country’s Muslims of backing Pakistan against India.
On Wednesday, Union information and broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar held a press conference to attack former Congress president Rahul Gandhi for giving Pakistan a “handle” to target India at the United Nations over the situation in Kashmir by having made comments critical of government policy.
“Rahul Gandhi said that things in Jammu and Kashmir were going wrong, there were reports of people dying in J&K. You were wrong, Rahul Gandhi. Things are fine in J&K, there is no violence as you imagined. People haven’t died. Pakistan used his remarks. The Pakistani application to the UN mentions remarks made by Rahul Gandhi. The application states that acts of violence have been acknowledged by mainstream party leaders such as Rahul Gandhi,” Javadekar added.
While attacking Gandhi, Javadekar also made a communal dig at Indian Muslims, using “Wayanad” – Gandhi’s Lok Sabha constituency in Kerala – as a dog whistle.
He said that Gandhi had made critical remarks about Kashmir because of “vote bank” politics and wondered whether his “mindset” was a result of his election from a new constituency. Gandhi contested from both his traditional seat Amethi, from where he lost to Smriti Irani, and Wayanad, a seat which he won with a huge margin.
“Wayanad se jeete toh soch bhi badli,” Javadekar said. When reporters asked him what he meant by it, he said his comments were not on the constituency but its representative.
However, the minister did not clarify how becoming a representative of Wayanad would compel Gandhi to give a “handle” to Pakistan against India.
Did the BJP minister mean to say that Amethi and Wayanad were different when it came to having a view of Kashmir? Or did he mean that people of north-India’s Amethi were more patriotic than those in south India’s Wayanad?
The minister refused to clarify any of these doubts when reporters prodded him over his remark.
However, his allegation that the MP of Muslim-majority Wayanad was driven by “vote bank politics” to give Pakistan a “handle” against India at the UN was as clear a statement as any that the BJP believes Muslim citizens favour Pakistan over India.
Javadekar’s communal jibe is not the first from the BJP’s stable. At an election speech at Wardha, Maharashtra, Prime Minister Narendra Modihad also made a sarcastic reference to the fact that Muslims are in a majority in Wayanad.
At the Wardha rally, Modi openly sought votes on the basis of religion. While criticising the Congress for falsely propagating the idea of “Hindu Terror”, the prime minister questioned Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest from Kerala’s Wayanad. “The Hindu community is aware now. It is evident from the fact that [Rahul Gandhi] has to contest a seat where the minority is majority,” he had said.
On back foot, Congress targets Pakistan
The irony is that Javadekar’s fusillade against Rahul Gandhi and Muslim Indians followed a statement by the Congress earlier on Wednesday strongly criticising Pakistan for its “pack of lies” and “disinformation” on Kashmir.
The Congress’s comments on Pakistan were prompted by the name of Rahul Gandhi being “mischievously dragged” into that country’s petition to the United Nations on the current situation in Jammu and Kashmir.
A quote by Rahul Gandhi about “people dying” in Kashmir figures in a letter Pakistani minister Shireen Mazari wrote to 18 UN special rapporteurs on August 27 drawing attention to “human rights violations by the State of India” in Jammu and Kashmir.
On Wednesday morning, Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala said that his party has come across reports that cited Gandhi’s name in an “alleged petition moved by the Pakistani government to the United Nations”, and that his name was being brought in by the Imran Khan-led government to “justify the pack of lies and deliberate misinformation being spread by Pakistan.”
“Let no one in the world be in doubt that Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh were, are and shall always remain an integral part of India. No amount of diabolical deception by Pakistan shall change this irrevocable truth,” the Congress leader said, while reiterating his party’s position on Kashmir.
He then went on to ask Pakistan whether it was ready to answer questions on human rights violations in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan. He also sought an explanation for the “designed persecution of over 70 million Mohajirs and killing of over 25,000 by Pakistani forces.”
“The entire world witnessed the horrific murder of 128 innocents on 13th July, 2018 during an election rally by Balochistan Awami Movement. The gross abuse of human rights of Pashtun people in the tribal regions by Pakistani Army as also the systematic persecution and prosecution of Ahmadiyya Religious community is yet to be answered by Pakistan,” the party statement said.
‘Political patronage to terrorists’
The party also said that Pakistan should first answer why it has extended “political and military patronage” to terrorist organisations like “Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad, Hizbul Mujahedeen, Al-Queda or Taliban and its multiple offshoots”, instead of “raising the fake Kashmir bogey”.
At a time when the BJP has been taking aim at the Congress for its alleged non-serious attitude towards terrorism and India’s security, the party appears to be on the back foot. The strong attack on Pakistan seems to be the Congress’s emergency measure to emphasise its nationalist position.
According to party sources, many leaders think that Rahul Gandhi’s name in Pakistan’s petition is likely to damage the party’s electoral prospects in the upcoming assembly elections. This prompted the need to issue a strong rebuttal.
Only a few days ago, Gandhi had attempted to visit the Kashmir valley to observe whether reports of alleged human rights violations were true or not. After the leaders were denied entry, Gandhi said that it was “clear that things are not normal in Jammu and Kashmir” and indicated that this could be the reason political leaders were either detained or denied entry.
The Congress had also tweeted: “If the situation in Jammu & Kashmir is ‘normal’ as the government claims, why has the delegation of opposition leaders led by Shri @RahulGandhi been sent back from Srinagar airport? What is the Modi government trying to hide?”
Before this, on August 10, the Congress Working Committee stalled its meeting to find a new president for hours to attack the government on such alleged abuses in the Kashmir Valley. Sonia Gandhi was chosen as the interim president, but not before Rahul Gandhi briefed the media about the reported disturbances in Kashmir late that evening.
In the light of Pakistan’s petition, some Congress leaders are of the view that the party’s strong stand against the Centre’s decision to read down Article 370 and bifurcate the state into two Union territories may tilt the political scales in the BJP’s favour.
“We run the risk of getting our optics wrong now. So it was important to clarify our position on Kashmir and emphasise that our criticism is of the government’s authoritarian moves in Kashmir. We never had a doubt that Kashmir is an integral part of India,” said a Congress leader.
Earlier in the day, Rahul Gandhi, too, sought to emphasise his position with a tweet:
I disagree with this Govt. on many issues. But, let me make this absolutely clear: Kashmir is India’s internal issue & there is no room for Pakistan or any other foreign country to interfere in it.
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) August 28, 2019
There is violence in Jammu & Kashmir. There is violence because it is instigated and supported by Pakistan which is known to be the prime supporter of terrorism across the world.
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) August 28, 2019
BJP senses political opportunity
Sensing a political opportunity from the Congress’s discomfiture and internal hand-wringing, the BJP was quick to use these clarifications to further attack the party.
Javadekar said that Gandhi has “shamed the nation”, alleging that his comments on Kashmir were used by Pakistan in its petition. He demanded an apology from the former Congress chief.
“Rahul Gandhi today stated that Kashmir is an internal matter and violence is linked to Pakistan, a complete U-turn, why? Because the nation was enraged, they wanted him to,” Javadekar said.
He accused Gandhi of practising “most irresponsible politics” and said that he has insulted the country by giving Pakistan a “handle” to target India in the United Nations.
Hidden in his statement is a direct accusation that Gandhi – and the Congress – never thought Kashmir is an internal matter. While this may not be true at all – as Congress has always maintained that Kashmir is an Indian province – Javadekar’s message is intended to further cement the BJP’s nationalist credentials.
Congress responds to Javadekar’s jibe
Soon after Javadekar’s press conference, Surjewala told reporters that “the country’s ‘misinformation minister’ Prakash Javadekar has lost his political balance. “It is tragic that Prakash Javadekar is twisting a statement made by Rahul Gandhi which reflected that Indian National Congress and all other parties are united,” he added.
He said that the Congress has always been “in unison” to take on “fake and false propaganda of Pakistan” and that Gandhi has categorically stated that “Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh were, are, and shall always remain an integral part of the Indian Union.”
On violence in Kashmir, Surjewala said that Gandhi believed that the terror groups in Pakistan sponsored militancy in Kashmir.
“Is it not a statement that shows a consolidated, united face of India? The tragic part is the BJP and its misinformation Minister Shri Prakash Javdekar is trying to politicise a stand unitedly taken for Indian by Indian and in favour of the entire country in front of the world community (sic),” he said.
The war of words is likely to continue. With an unsettled Congress and firm BJP, the debate may just turn into an outwitting game to claim the throne of nationalism.