Back in 1998, in course of covering the national elections of that year, I ended up in Baramati. The object was to find out why Sharad Pawar has such a hold on that constituency that he does not even campaign, and yet in every single election anyone who opposes him loses his deposit.
Pawar is known to reach Baramati late night on the penultimate day of campaigning. On the last day, he drives to a few select areas where he holds public meetings; just before campaigning officially ends, he holds a large meeting in Baramati town.
I spent three days traveling around Baramati, talking to people, trying to find out the reasons behind his political success. And very early in the morning of the last day, I went to Pawar’s home hoping to get time to ask him a couple of questions. Talk of early birds and worms — he had just finished breakfast and was about to drive to his first meeting; he told me to get in the car, and to travel with him through the day, and ask whatever I liked.
The entire transcript would fill a decent-sized book — Pawar was in a loquacious mood that day. The interview that was finally published is sizeable enough and covers a wide area of politics.
Among the many themes he spoke to that day one, in particular, has resonated a lot in recent times as serial unrests roiled educational institutions ranging from the FTII to JNU, Delhi University, AMU, Hyderabad, and most recently Benaras Hindu University. Here is that portion, in full:
The BJP should never be allowed to rule, it is too dangerous. For instance, Advani was a minister during the Janata government — and in his short tenure, he managed to fill his ministry with RSS people, and that gave us a headache when we came back to power.
The BJP and the RSS practice the politics of infiltration. I’ll give you an example. Before the fall of the Babri Masjid, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and I were negotiating with the Babri Masjid Action Committee and the Ram Janambhoomi people, for three days we had intense negotiations. We reached a stage where, in one more day or maybe two, we could have come to an agreement. But at that time, the senior RSS person involved in the discussions said he had to leave for three days.
I asked him why, I argued with him, told him nothing could be more important, but he was adamant. So finally I asked him where he was going, and he said Hyderabad, to attend the seminar of the Indian History Congress. I was quite shocked that he thought a seminar was more important than this.
That is when he explained. The IHC controls the way Indian history is written and studied, it approves syllabus and textbooks, it has total control. And the key weapon of the RSS is education, its goal is to rewrite Indian history to suit its agenda. In fact, the RSS is already doing it — the portrayal of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj as anti-Muslim is only one example, they talk of how Afzal Khan tried to trick him and how Shivaji killed Afzal Khan, that is the story the kids read about, but conveniently, no one mentions that Shivaji’s chief army commander was a Muslim, that he personally constructed three mosques for Muslims… one of my candidates in the state is a direct descendant of Shivaji Maharaj, and his family still pays money for the upkeep of these mosques, but this is never mentioned. Shivaji maintained that all communities and religions should live in harmony, but look how that is being distorted today!
Sorry, but how does all this tie up with the IHC?
To be a member, you have to do post-graduation, and Masters, in Indian history. So over the years, the RSS has been systematically selecting students, instructing them to study history, and getting them into the IHC. At last count the RSS-oriented students are 46 percent of the society. Another five percent and the RSS will control it, and then it will write Indian history to suit its own ends. That body is like that, it plans ahead, and works systematically to achieve its goals. In fact, I must say that though the RSS and the BJP are my political enemies, I admire this quality in them, they plan for the future and they work steadily towards a goal.
Pawar said that in 1998. Contemporary events show how prescient he was. Which brings me to BHU and its VC, the self-avowed RSS pracharak Girish Chander Tripathi. In the wake of the recent unrest he has given interviews to a wide variety of media houses. Three deserve special mention.
#1. In an interview to the Indian Express, he attempts to shift the blame onto everyone but himself; and raises the usual bogeys of ‘anti-nationals’ and ‘outside elements’ that is common to every single unrest across our educational institutions. On several occasions, he flat out lied, or deflected, or obfuscated. I annotated the interview to highlight the more egregious of such instances and appended comments to each. Here it is.
#2. This interview on the Bharat Samachar channel is a case study of everything that is going wrong with journalism today. It violates every single principle of good journalism; it manages the seemingly impossible feat of actually shifting the viewer’s sympathies to the VC merely by the way the interviewer, Brajesh Mishra, frames what, to stretch the meaning of the word a little, purport to be “questions”. No self-respecting editor would allow this to be aired; the tragedy is that Mishra is editor-in-chief of the concerned channel. My sympathies are with the young journalists who are part of his newsroom and learning from their senior’s example.
#3. Here is Ravish Kumar showing how it’s done. Repeatedly, the VC attempts to run out the clock, speaking to everything but the question that is asked of him; as often, Ravish calmly pulls him back to the question, points to his inconsistencies, and pushes for a response that speaks to the facts, not the VC’s self-serving agenda.
By way of context, here is an account of the spark that lit the fire:
“When the student was molested last evening at 6, she shouted for help but the guards sitting there did not come forward or chase the bike. She went and complained to her warden and the chief proctor but they began shaming her.
“They asked her why she was out so late. They told students that the hostel curfew timings will be shifted from 7 pm to 6 pm,” she added. The incident sparked a furore in the girls’ hostels, with students coming out to protest against the lack of safety on campus.
Here is what the victim said in her FIR (emphasis mine):
“I was passing by Bharat Kala Bhawan at 6.20 pm. I was wearing salwar suit. Suddenly, two motorcycle-borne youth came and inserted their hands inside my suit. They then sped away. Due to fading light, I could not recognize the registration numbers,” the complaint reads. She reveals how desperate pleas by her and her friends before the BHU guards to recognize the men despite sharing their description invoked scornful remarks. “While I was almost unconscious and weeping, my friends, approached guards but their reaction was strange. They made sarcastic remarks on why we move outside after 6pm.
This even as the incident took place hardly 10 metres away from where the guards stood,” the complaint adds.
To the VC’s comment, in the Indian Express interview cited as #1 here, that you cannot run a university by listening to every single girl, here is what the girls are actually asking for:
“Our demands are simple. We want to feel safe on the campus. University authorities should ensure this,” said Akansha Sahay, a BHU student.
“Lighting is not proper. There are no CCTV cameras, not even in the college. You can come and check,” Akansha said, adding, “We want proper lighting inside the BHU campus, installation of CCTV cameras, gender sensitisation of male students and staff and officials working on the campus. That’s it. We are not demanding anything more.”
“We are yet to come to terms with the way police beat up the girl students at the Mahila Maha Vidyalaya (MMV). The policemen used choice expletives as they caned the girls and stamped on those who had fallen to the ground,” said Pratima Gond, who is the warden of the Pragya Kunj hostel.
She herself received head injuries while saving her wards from the police canes.
Substantiating Pratima Gond’s version, warden Patience Phillip, who looks after the Swasti Kunj, Kirti Kunj and Kundan Devi hostels located at MMV, said, “Somebody communicated to the girls picketing the BHU main gate that vice-chancellor G C Tripathi was coming to MMV to talk to them. A large number of students rushed to the spot but the VC did not go there. He refused to talk to the girls in front of the media and objected to live-streaming of his talk with the protestors.”
According to Pratima Gond, when it became clear that the vice-chancellor would not come to MMV, the girls tried to return to main gate. But by then violence had erupted on campus and police started using force on protestors between the BHU main gate and the hostel road.
In the melee, the MMV girls ran back to their college premises and tried to close the gate. “The protesting boys broke the gate but did not enter the MMV college premises,” recalled the warden.
But policemen entered the MMV premises after dispersing the boys and started caning the girls, she added.
One girl got trapped at the broken gate and was brutally beaten up by the policemen. Pratima Gond said she tried to save the girl she was also caned.
What strikes you about the affair is how it repeats the exact same mistakes that led to unrest in other college campuses — and how the accretion of mistakes, easily avoidable at every stage, exacerbate the situation.
The guards could have intervened, but didn’t. Had they responded to the girl’s alarm, the focus would have been on trying to track the culprits, and would not have blown up into a larger unrest.
When the matter was brought to the attention of the proctor, he could have responded with sensitivity, hauled up the errant guards, gone with the girl to the police station to register a formal complaint and seek action, and ensured that she had access to good post-trauma counseling.
Instead, he brushed it off as ‘eve teasing’, just one of those things that happen on vast campuses. Today he has resigned ‘owning moral responsibility’ — significantly, this action comes after the VC returned from a meeting with the HRD Ministry in Delhi. What he owns, though, is actual responsibility, not merely the pro forma ‘moral’ variety which is nothing more or less than a human sacrifice designed to save the VC from the fallout.
The VC could have defused the situation by coming out to meet the girls as soon as he was alerted to the issue. In the first instance, he could have taken steps to ensure that those responsible for not informing him of the incident for a whole six hours were reprimanded and the internal processes strengthened; he could have heard the girls out and promised redress; he could have rectified the proctor’s error and gotten the cops involved; he could have ensured that the girl had access to good counseling.
None of this is particularly radical, nor expensive, nor does any of it require any specialized knowledge — it is how any human being in a position of authority, with emphasis on the word human, would respond in such a situation. Instead, he vacillated; he refused to meet the girls in the open, saying he would only meet a select few in camera in his chambers. He continued to dally through the next morning. It was only when the protests threatened to impact on his image in light of the PM’s ongoing tour of the area that he took action — and that action took the form not of finally meeting the girls and attempting to defuse the situation, but of getting the cops onto campus to lathi-charge the students. (The police, to add insult to gratuitous injury, have since filed FIRs against over 1000 of the protesting students, as I pointed out in my previous WTFJH episode).
The Education Ministry, which wants to install 207-feet high flagpoles in Central universities to inculcate patriotism at an estimated cost of over Rs 20 crore not counting annual maintenance stays markedly silent over the issue — when, despite all that has happened, a firm statement of intent to investigate this case and punish all those — at every level — found culpable could have done so much to allay the girls’ anger.
(Incidentally, the Education Minister was once gheraoed on this same campus — the reason why is yet another instance of administrative incompetence and total unconcern. It also forms part of a pattern: when confronted with something that is not right, first deny; when confronted with evidence, obfuscate.)
At every single stage, the administration failed to react with empathy, with sensitivity, with grace; instead, it delayed, denied, deflected.
Varanasi Commissioner Nitin Gokarn on Tuesday said that the preliminary investigation has revealed that the administration of the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) did not respond sensitively to complaint of a student.
Gokarn, in his report to Chief Secretary Rajiv Kumar, said the university did not handle the situation on the campus on time. Had the administration addressed the complaint in a sensitive manner and handled the situation on time, the violence would have been avoided, Gokarn said.
And thus, a situation that could have been redressed, its fallout contained, within an hour of its occurrence has snowballed into an agitation that has spread to other universities (where girls face similar issues, by the way), and it has moved all the way to the national capital, where the BJP’s youth wing, the ABVP, joined in the protest (So much for the contention by both the VC and the chief minister that the protest is politically motivated).
This is not the first instance, merely the latest example, of what happens when political appointees, not qualified educationalists, are pushed into top positions at our universities. The RSS, through such appointments, hopes to spread its ideology among the young; as results of recent campus elections in JNU, Hyderabad, DU and other institutions show, the pushing of an ideology through intimidation allied to incompetence is resulting in a backlash. And still they don’t learn.
By way of postscript: The police investigation is yet to begin. Meanwhile, GC Tripathi, the VC whose tenure has been characterized by one flashpoint after another, ends his term on November 27. On his way out, one act — typically, in flagrant violation of the rules — remains on his agenda: he seeks to push the appointment of one OP Upadhyay as Medical Superintendent of Sir Sunderlal Hospital, which comes under BHU. Upadhyay has been accused of sexual harassment and was once actually convicted of that offense in a magistrate’s court in Fiji.
#2.P Chidambaram is fond of saying that the best, most far-sighted, progressive Indian budget ever was the one Yashwant Sinha wrote for the Chandrasekhar government in 1991, and never got to present because Rajiv Gandhi yanked the rug out. One of the WTF moments when Modi announced his Cabinet back in 2014 lay in how people with experience and administrative talent, Sinha foremost among them, were sidelined, resulting in a criminal waste of talent. I was reminded of all this while reading Sinha’s latest oped — a masterly, surgical dissection of the state of the Indian economy. The sting, quite literally, is in the tail:
Economies are destroyed more easily than they are built. It took almost four years of painstaking and hard work in the late nineties and early 2000 to revive a sagging economy we had inherited in 1998. Nobody has a magic wand to revive the economy overnight. Steps taken now will take their own time to produce results. So, a revival by the time of the next Lok Sabha election appears highly unlikely. A hard landing appears inevitable. Bluff and bluster is fine for the hustings, it evaporates in the face of reality.
The prime minister claims that he has seen poverty from close quarters. His finance minister is working over-time to make sure that all Indians also see it from equally close quarters.
The impeccable economic analysis aside, a notable aspect of Sinha’s piece is his evisceration of Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. And in this respect, Sinha is not alone. As Swati Chaturvedi argues in a piece in The Wire, there are signs of a growing, orchestrated campaign, spearheaded by usual suspects of the Subramanian Swamy ilk, designed to hold Jaitley responsible for the economic mess the country is in. Sinha, in fact, questions the very installation of Jaitley as FM back in 2014 when he says:
Arun Jaitley is considered to be the best and the brightest in this government. It was a foregone conclusion before the 2014 elections that he would be the finance minister in the new government. His losing his Lok Sabha election from Amritsar was not allowed to come in the way of this appointment. One may recall that in similar circumstances Atal Bihari Vajpayee had refused to appoint Jaswant Singh and Pramod Mahajan, two of his closest colleagues in the party, to his cabinet in 1998. His indispensability was established further when the prime minister rewarded him not only by giving him the finance ministry including the department of disinvestment, but also the ministries of defence and corporate affairs. Four ministries in one go out of which he still retains three. I have handled the ministry of finance and know how much hard work there is in that ministry alone. Finance ministry, in the best of times, calls for the undivided attention of its boss if the job has to be properly done. In challenging times it becomes more than a 24/7 job. Naturally, even a superman like Jaitley could not do justice to the task.
Jaitley’s installation as Modi’s man of all seasons is a puzzle, but only until you consider this: the VHP/RSS combine has a lock on the vernacular media, particularly in the heartland, and can control the narrative through those channels at will. What it lacks is the ability to exert the same sort of influence on the wooly-headed ‘liberal’ members of New Delhi’s media elite, who tend to shy away in reflex revulsion from the blunt-force proselytization, crude majoritarianism and antediluvian notions of the Hindutva fronts. Enter Jaitley, the soiree-hosting, champagne-serving sophisticate who wines, dines and charms the media darlings and serves as the RSS/VHP’s bridge to a world otherwise closed to them. A May 2015 Praveen Dhonti profile of Jaitley for Caravan magazine is worth reading for the light it shines on how the minister operates, and why nothing ever seems to stick to him.
As I was writing this, I noticed on social media that an Economic Times interview with JP Morgan Chase CEO James ‘Jamie’ Dimon. The spurt of jokes about ‘Dimon batting for Demon’ notwithstanding, here is the interview in full; read to know how an organization that works with MNCs across India sees the current situation.
(Another day, I’ll annotate this interview with some facts and official figures but for the moment, just this, because it speaks to the basic premise Dimon sets out at the start of his argument: Little if any of the criticism the government is now facing owes to one quarter’s numbers; the critiques are based on trends that show deceleration across five to six quarters. But that said, do read the interview. That the criticism is fact-based is underscored by this Scroll round-up).
#3. M Rajsekhar of Scroll is one of the very few remaining practitioners of old-fashioned in-depth reporting from the ground. His award-winning Ear to the Ground series, which started in the north-east and has since covered Punjab, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat, deserves far more attention than it has been getting.
His ongoing Gujarat series, which thus far has covered topics ranging from why GST has impacted small and medium outfits, but not the giants, in Surat’s textile industry; how Chinese flooding of the market is impacting the textile business (a theme he had explored earlier in a piece on Jallandhar’s once-flourishing cycle manufacturing industry); and why small-scale industries in Gujarat are shuttering while financial investment booms, is worth reading to understand how various economic policies are playing out on the ground.
Update at 6:05 PM: It remains to be seen what form this will take and how extensive it will be, but this is an interesting development per se:
The Centre is scrambling to contain the situation in Varanasi when Banaras Hindu University re-opens after the short Dussehra break on October 3. Anger over the police attack on the students, particularly the girls, has spread across Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s parliamentary constituency with the opposition, activists and civil society coming together to plan for a major agitation and a shut down as soon as BHU resumes classes.
Sources said that talks are on for a bandh all across Varanasi with the business community and traders associations being contacted. “There will be a big agitation now unless the government takes proper action,” the sources said confirming plans for a bandh and a major agitation in support of the students.
‘Interesting’, on many counts. This is the constituency that put Modi in the Lok Sabha by a whopping margin of over 3.5 lakh votes (the third-placed Congress candidate trailed Modi by over five lakh votes. For it to rise en masse — if it does — sends an unmistakable signal.
Related, with the exception of Hyderabad University, unrests elsewhere have provoked some sympathy in some sections of the host cities, but has never precipitated mass unrest. If Varanasi goes up in arms over the incidents at BHU, it likely will in course of time prove to be a tipping point of sorts; the moment when a dimly felt mass disenchantment with authorities at the Central and state levels coalesces into an organized street protest involving all sectors of society. If you are a party in power, this is the canary in your coalmine, and you really want to pay heed to its message.
A couple of issues relating to the media surfaced during the day and a half that I was away, but I’ll save those for a longer post tomorrow. Be well, all. By way of tailpiece this, as received: