Over the last two weeks, two incidents have dominated the discourse in Indian media. One concerns controversial BBC documentary indicting PM Modi of Gujrat riots of 2002. The second concerns Hindenburg report on an Indian tycoon whose wealth has meteorically risen over the last few years defying all logic.
Reaction in India’s political and media space has been on the expected lines. People have taken positions depending upon their political loyalties and personal preferences. Entire public domain resembles a psychological or propaganda warzone.
Under these conditions, I am not sure how an attempt to place a sane perspective in public domain shall go down.
The timing of BBC documentary after two decades of a forgettable incident certainly arouses suspicion. It has reopened wounds that had healed over time. Given the track record of BBC, and certain forces in the Western world, especially those known for supporting Pak linked organised crime networks, it would be fair to suspect that the documentary is not driven by noble professional intentions. It has attempted to drive social and political wedge in India and undermine credibility of its institutions, including the apex court. But at the same time, I do not endorse panic bans. Ideally, our institutions and credibility should have been strong enough to prevent something like this. Simultaneously, a strong Supreme Court of India could have hauled up BBC to deter such psychological warfare.
While it will be disaster for political dissidents in India to seek solace in such malicious propaganda by a media institution whose sections have always been under influence of Islamic organised crime networks, it will not serve our interests if we ignore deficiencies in our own institutions. Ideally, the twin attacks must inspire our stakeholders to come together to address our deficiencies in this direction. However, it looks improbable at this stage.
Over the last few decades or since independence, India has been facing a pernicious psychological warfare from sections of Western media and even their state establishments. They have always sought to put India on the same pedestal, or at times even lower than, as the Pakistani state controlled by a notoriously criminal Army. The objective appears undermining and scuttling rise of a powerful democracy. This is not to say that we do not have strong pockets of support in these states. Unfortunately, most Western democracies themselves have been divided. It is influence of slush funds and lobbying as well as larger organised-crime networks on some of the Western democratic institutions that is worrying.
From the turn of 21st Century, there had been noticeable abatement of hostility from the Western states. This is largely due to protests in these states over increasing disclosures of Pakistani involvement in terrorism and organised crime in their territory in the wake of 9/11 attacks. However, the situation is far from satisfactory. Simultaneously, the world has increasingly witnessed a difference in the quality of Indian and Pakistani diaspora. The latter has dominated prisons and ranks of organised crime, whereas the former have been gainfully contributing almost everywhere to economic and technological empowerment of host nations.
Over the last many centuries, Islamic identity has been frequently abused not only by hardy marauders but even neo converts to Islam to unleash violence, terrorism, extortion and crime against so-called non-Muslims. Near complete exodus of non-Muslims from Kashmir or prior to that complete cleansing of Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan have been cited as examples of violent parochialism inbuilt in Islamic practices on the subcontinent. These have been backed by pernicious propaganda to paint Hindus negatively all over the world. Indian state remained a moot spectator not only to what has continued to happen against non-Muslims in Pakistan but also in most Muslim majority areas of independent India.
It was extension of same tendency when 59 Hindu pilgrims were burned alive in a train in Godhra on Feb 27, 2002 without any provocation. The perpetrators had the audacity to do so even in an overwhelmingly Hindu majority state where a Hindu nationalist Government was in power. It would be insane to claim that the Government of the day had colluded in a pre-planned gruesome killing of these train passengers, as state police had failed to detect and prevent.
This was not an isolated incident. Terror attacks from Mumbai (1993) and Surat (1993), besides violence in the Kasmir Valley (since late 1980s), had built a momentum of their own. A strong clandestine infrastructure of Islamist terrorism and organised crime networks had come up in different countries as well as in different parts of India, including the economically important and peaceful state of Gujrat. Innocent civilians were regularly killed in such attacks. It is no surprise that India had remained the second most impacted state by terrorism as per Global Terrorism index (GTI) since 2001.
The Godhra train carnage had outraged people in the state. Tempers were running high as Indian state had appeared incapable of protecting Hindus from violence in name of Islam. Ideally, the Indian state should have acted promptly and arrested all the culprits involved in this mass murder and launched a massive hunt for such Islamic terrorism and crime networks in the state and beyond. Probably our institutions were not strong enough to do so.
The media reports stated that the then Gujrat Government had sought reinforcement of security forces from neighbouring states and Government of India. Bureaucratic procedures and political considerations appear to have delayed the process. These gave opportunity to malignant sections of society to take law into their own hands. Whatever happened was a shameful chapter in history of India. It was one of the rare episodes in independent India where spontaneous gangs of thugs came up killing scores of innocent people. But it would be unfair to assume that Muslims alone were killed in this so-called retaliatory violence. Against 790 Muslim killed, 254 Hindus were also killed. However, none of the Western or even secular media at home have ever highlighted this fact. Would 250+ Hindus have been killed if the entire state machinery was partisan and 90% Hindu population of the state were communal?
The rampaging mobs did not spare even some of the high-profile privileged Muslim families who had traditionally enjoyed wider respect and influence in their localities. This was reminiscent of attack on wealthy Hindus in West and East Pakistan before partition. But the scale was much lower. Such failure of police institutions drew immense flak from all concerned including their Hindu friends and civil society groups. There were some gruesome attacks that could have been easily avoided and social cohesion could have been protected. Despite such allegedly state-backed violence against Muslims, vigilante and criminal groups were also able to do the same thing in name of their Muslim identity against Hindu families right under the nose of a "biased" police institution. Efforts were made to use these episodes for political gains. In the process, the larger failure of the state and even pain of ordinary masses - both Muslims and Hindus - never received due attention.
Another unfortunate part of 2002 episode was emergence of a few criminals and rioters as mass heroes and saviours of people. Some of them have joined politics even though a large number of them were indicted and sentenced. But on a positive side, a large number of Muslims have also been in the inner circle of PM Modi.
There is absolutely no justification for any mob-killing of anyone- whether a Muslim or Hindu. It was shameful that our police institutions failed to protect innocent train passengers and subsequently they looked the other way when approached by Muslim civilians for help. Malignant lot in Indian police and security forces have had a long history. Some of them have been suspected of collaborating with organised crime networks linked with Islamist groups and act otherwise only to protect their turf or themselves. But large sections of them definitely protected all people irrespective of their identity. But a credible democracy like India needs absolute levels of impartiality and efficiency from its police institutions.
Political opponents of Shri Modi, who was Chief Minister of Gujrat at that point of time, targeted him individually. As head of the government, he was responsible for collapse of state institutions. But none of the agencies could ever establish his direct role in abetting violence against Muslims. It is pertinent to mention that a different political party had ruled at the centre for 10 years. Rather, it was his resolute handling of the episode that helped near complete elimination of well-entrenched organised crime cartels in Gujrat. No major communal violence ever recurred in that state. People praised him for securing public spaces and eliminating crime. But the damage had already been done.
It was a Catch 22 situation for the Indian state. Enemies waging all out covert war against India seemed to be mocking: “Heads I win; tails you lose”. If the CM had allowed the situation to drift and terrorists to have their sway, he may have been doomed. If he acted decisively, he could still be discredited with charges of excesses.
But people of India gave him a resounding mandate. The Indian state has also been able to significantly fend off sustained covert war from Pakistan, which was eventually exposed globally over its complicity in terrorism and organised crime. Simultaneously, several clandestine cartels are believed to have quietly changed their colour in quest of state patronage, without which they just can't survive. They are suspected of sabotaging any transition to real rule of law for which reforms in political parties and criminal justice system are unavoidable. Indian PM has consistently spoken of these, but such strategic reforms are nowhere on the horizon.
Dysfunctional and subverted institutions have remained a long-term reality in India. These have given rise to powerful forces with strong vested interest in status quo. Most astute politicians have been cautious in dealing with them to avoid risk of public disorder and unmanageable levels of turbulence. But visionary statesmen do find ways and means to address such difficult challenges. A robust security and dynamic criminal justice system is a fundamental necessity for a stronger India.
Simultaneously, corporate sectors all over the world have been battling varying degrees of erosion in integrity and transparency. Only the means and methods have varied. Congressional Research Committee of United States to various Nobel prize winning economists have alleged that mega corporates have rigged the entire regulatory capacity of state even in the West. Ill-effects of unrestrained privatisation or unhealthy nexus between politicians and corporates, to the detriment of collective interests of the communities, is a global reality. However, the entire process is too discreet and sophisticated in the West compared to what we have in India. Democracies need to find an answer to this both for the sake of their credibility and optimal governance efficiency.
If we adhere to the strictest levels of probity and integrity, probably no mega corporate entity anywhere in the world can come clean. Some of the local detractors of PM Modi have been flagging that crony capitalism has been a longstanding reality in India but the scales were never that high and mode never so direct. We all know that crony capitalism and opaque political funding share a symbiotic relationship. Many political and corporate leaders have admitted in private that high levels of integrity and transparency were simply not viable in our ecosystem. This is neither a new nor an isolated phenomenon. With onset of strict anti-graft laws in the West, Indian corporates run the risk of being targeted by their global rivals over such soft underbelly. Sharp decline in stock prices of such entities, directly hits average consumers or investors for no fault of theirs. Govt is duty bound to protect such people for which it needs to build a much broader consensus and understanding among various stakeholders.
I have always maintained that an economy of our size cannot afford so many billionaires. Such sudden rise in wealth of any individual does not appear possible under normal circumstances. Real economic strength of a nation like ours does not rest on number of mega corporates and billionaires. It needs a larger culture of industry, enterprise and innovation where several smaller enterpreneurs rise on the strength of innovation and excellence in multiple niche areas.
Under-performing institutions and deficient criminal justice systems have remained a perennial reality in India. But at the same time, India is the only stable democracy in the entire post-colonial world whose rise is often linked with larger stability and security of this region and beyond. Hence, both BBC and Hindenburg reports do not deserve the kind of attention that they are enjoying. But we shall ignore need for serious reforms in both political parties as well as corporate sector of India, only to our own peril. These reforms are not luxury but critical necessity for optimising our economic strength and external security.
I am also posting a clip of part of a lecture of Jan 2020 during which I had emphasized on centrality of reforms in political parties and private sector.