On December 22, India reached a crossroad in its tortured journey towards nationhood. For the first time in more than five years – and 17 years, if we count his time as chief minister of Gujarat – Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a step back from a policy that he had previously committed himself to.
On that day, in the middle of a one-hour-and-37-minute speech at Ramlila Maidan in Delhi, he declared that it had never been his government’s intention to create a pan-Indian National Register of Citizens (NRC) on the Assam model. In fact, he claimed that his government had never discussed a nationwide NRC at all.
The NRC, he claimed, was the brainchild not of the Bharatiya Janata Party but of the Congress, for it was born out of Rajiv Gandhi’s 1985 Assam Accord. It was the Congress’s subsequent failure to implement it that made the Supreme Court issue a directive in 2012 to create the NRC forthwith. The BJP had only obeyed the court’s directive. So the blame for the entire exercise lay with the Congress not having lived up to its 1985 promise. There would be no similar exercise, he promised, in any other state.
He also pointed out that the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA) was intended to give citizenship only to non-Muslim refugees who were already in India. He did not say what he would do for Hindus and others who were persecuted in the three countries mentioned – Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan – in the future.
He went on to reassure Muslims that no Muslim born on Indian soil needed to fear the CAA in the slightest, because it was intended to benefit victims of religious persecution in neighbouring countries. His government had never said that it would turn away anyone who sought refuge from persecution in any of these countries. The purpose of the CAA was simply to sniff out migrants who had entered India surreptitiously in search of work, or for any other nefarious purpose.
Was Modi’s assurance on an all-India NRC a pullback from an over-extended position – a tacit admission that the forces of democratic pluralism were too strong for his party to resist if it wished to retain people’s trust? There was enough reason to hope that it was.
By December 22, Modi had realised that he was facing the beginnings of a nationwide rebellion against the CAA and NRC. The governments of 10 states in “heartland” India – Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Bihar, Bengal, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Kerala – had already announced that they would not implement the NRC and the CAA. The BJP was about to lose Jharkhand. A 12th state, Andhra Pradesh, had joined the other 11 and even in Karnataka’s Bengaluru, the crown jewel of the state has seen students coming out to oppose the government’s move.
In addition, the entire Northeast up in arms. So Modi had only Uttar Pradesh and six other states – Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Karnataka, Goa and Gujarat – behind him. His home minister, Amit Shah, had thundered in response that the states’ opposition was irrelevant because “citizenship is a central subject in the constitution”. But both of them knew that with Article 356 of the constitution virtually a dead letter after the Bommai judgment of 1994, and administration in the hands of the states, there was little they could do.
The BJP’s setback in Jharkhand – after those it had suffered in Maharashtra, and to a lesser extent in Haryana – had shown that the party’s post-election honeymoon period was almost over. So using the launch of his campaign for the Delhi state assembly elections as an occasion for beating a tactical retreat seemed like the logical thing to do.
… And the harsh reality
It is only when we examine the audience that had collected at the Ramlila grounds on December 22, and parse Modi’s 97-minute speech closely and relate it to what has been happening since then, that we realise what Modi had declared was not a tactical retreat but an open war upon Indian democracy.
The most noticeable feature of the crowd that had assembled was the absence of women. Among the 78-80 persons seated in the first seven rows of one of the enclosures captured by the camera, only five were women. Another view, of about 60 persons in the right one-third of the front enclosures, clearly showed only four women. A third, aimed at what was seemingly a VIP enclosure directly in front to the dais, showed 14 well-dressed women in a crowd of 83. There were small clusters of women visible in a few other pockets as well, but all in all, the men present outnumbered the women by ten to one, if not more.
The men had a curious sameness about them. All but a very few were young and fit. Most sported moustaches, and wore orange caps, scarves, shirts or shawls. And against a lone tricolour planted directly in front of the dais, there was a forest of the BJP’s lotus flags waving in the field and obscuring the cameras’ views.
The relative absence of women, a total absence of children, the sameness of the men and the ubiquity of flags were a dead giveaway: This was not a spontaneous gathering to hear a popular national leader, let alone a popular prime minister. This was a hand-picked gathering brought to the Ramlila ground, as a BJP leader admitted to India Today, in 3,000 hired buses. The audience make up also strongly suggested that these were members of RSS shakhas from far-flung places in, and beyond, Delhi.
Ostensibly, they had been brought to kick off a Delhi election campaign, but Modi used the occasion for a very different, specific purpose. What this could be had been revealed in an expansive moment in February 2018, by the RSS sarsanghchlalak Mohan Bhagwat. Bhagwat had boasted that “his organisation could assemble its cadres to fight much faster than the Indian army could in a situation of war…The Sangh will prepare military personnel within three days, something the army would do in 6-7 months. This is our capability. Swayamsewaks will be ready to take on the front if the country faces such a situation and constitution permits us to do so.”
Bhagwat was talking about an external enemy, but Modi’s message to the assembled shakhas was that the threat was internal. All but the last part of his speech was designed to advise them that their time had come. The Sangh parivar needed them to come to the aid of the police in suppressing dissent, and restoring order in the nation. If they did not respond, then all that the BJP had done for the people of India, and for Hindutva, would be in vain.
Modi devoted the first 30 minutes of his speech to listing the many things he had done for the people of Delhi and the nation’s poor – housing for the poor, a health insurance scheme, the Ujjwala cooking gas scheme. Then he added:
“ We have never asked anyone their caste or creed before granting benefits, then why are the opposition and some persons allied with them, accusing me of doing so!”
With his characteristic disregard for the finer points of truth, he omitted to mention that Delhi has been ruled for the past five years by the Aam Aadmi Party, and that every one of these schemes has already been implemented without consideration of caste or creed – but by the AAP. He also failed to mention that the AAP had already created a cheaper and more efficient network of mobile clinics that had brought medicine to the doorsteps of the poor in Delhi four years before he announced his health scheme last year.
Modi’s real message
All this, however, was only the overture. The true purpose of the rally emerged only halfway into the speech. All of a sudden, Modi became the people’s friend, having a cosy gossip with them: “When we came to power first,” he said with more than a touch of glee, “these people could not believe it. They tried to sabotage me even then, and they thought that I would be rejected in the next election. When the people brought me back with a larger vote the second time, they were struck dumb with amazement. Since that day, they have been looking for ways to create a storm in the country.”
Who are these people? Modi asked in a conspiratorial tone. Then, as if sharing a secret with them, he said: “It is these educated people, who live in cities, who speak English, these urban Naxals. It is they who are instigating attacks upon policemen, and urging mobs to shoot and kill them as they do their duty.”
Then, over the roar of a frenzied audience shouting “Modiji ishaara do, Ham tumhare saath hain (Modiji give us a signal. We are with you),” Modi roared: “To protect the common people of Hindustan, 33,000 policemen have martyred themselves since we gained our freedom. This is the selfless force that these lawless elements, and those who hide behind curtains and direct them, are now stoning and killing.”
Killing? Yes, that is the precise word Modi used on that fateful evening. Nor did he leave any doubt in his listeners’ minds about who the hidden instigators are: “These are of two kinds: those who have never risen above vote bank politics, i.e the entire opposition, and those have profited from this vote bank politics, who think they own the state, who think that the history they write is the correct history, the future they aspire to is India’s future…who used to think that they owned the country. Now that they have been decisively rejected by the people, they have resorted to their old weapon: ‘divide and Rule’!”
Then, as the crowd’s roar grew to a frenzy, came the clincher: “Will you back the police?” The crowd roared, “Yes.”
“Will you honour them?” “Yes”.
“Will you show them respect?” Again the roar, “Yes!”
To swelling cries of “Aadesh, aadesh (Give us the order, give us the order)” from the frenzied young men in saffron caps and shawls before him, Modi said, “To honour their martyrdom we have built a monument to the police in the city. I ask all the people of the 1,700 colonies of Delhi, will you go to the police monument and offer flowers to the martyrs?…Will you respect the police? Will you treat them as your brothers? Will you honour them and give them the respect that is their due?”
To each rhetorical question, he received an enthusiastic assent.
Police as ally and accomplice of RSS
Modi has seldom said or done anything without a preconceived purpose. It is therefore difficult not to draw the conclusion that the main purpose of his speech, and probably the rally as well, was not to personally launch an electoral campaign in a state where the BJP is likely to lose, but to forge an open compact between the police all over the country and 51,335 shakhas of the RSS.
For the police, crowd control is not only a risky but a thankless task. Not only can policemen be injured by a stone or, in extreme situations, a bullet, but they constantly face the risk of being prosecuted for an excessive or inappropriate use of force. Modi’s speech has absolved them in advance from blame for any criminal act they may commit “in pursuit of their duties”.
Policemen can now run after fleeing demonstrators firing their revolvers at them, as TV has captured them doing in Assam. They can smash students’ motorcycles and scooters at leisure, as they were caught doing on camera in Aligarh, in order to put the blame on ‘anti-social elements’. They can enter the homes of people and destroy everything in sight, claiming that they did so in hot pursuit of ‘miscreants’. They can pick up The Hindu’s UP correspondent and question him for hours, throwing vile communal slurs at him, because he is a Kashmiri.
Finally, they can kill demonstrators, as they have done in BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka. It is not accidental that, of the 25 demonstrators that the police have killed across the country since the protests started, 18 have been in UP, or that almost all of those killed have been Muslims.
Few in India will deny that the policing of public protests is a thankless task. Far too many are infiltrated by hoodlums intent upon creating chaos to facilitate theft. But the police are not saints either. A 2010 study of human rights violations by the police showed that 1,224 out of 2,560 ‘encounters’ between the police and alleged criminals that occurred between 1993 and 2010 were ‘fake encounters’, or extra-judicial executions by the police.
But in his speech Modi did not attempt to draw any fine distinctions, and turned student demonstrators into criminals, and the police into saints. The government’s camp followers have been quick to take the hint: within minutes, his pet TV channels, and their anchors, began to portray student demonstrators as destroyers of public property and the police as their victims.
Four days later, in an unprecedented departure from constitutional propriety, General Bipin Rawat – now Modi’s handpicked chief of defence staff – breached the wall that has separated the military from civilian matters and accused unspecified political leaders of encouraging acts of “arson and violence by university and college students”. And the Delhi police has added a new category of persons to those on whom it will use recently acquired automatic facial recognition software in tandem with drones, to identify in crowds: “rabble rousers and miscreants”.
Modi’s government still has more than four years to go. The fight to save religious pluralism, secularism and democracy is just beginning.
Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi-based journalist and writer.