The RSS Project

While the RSS was for all practical purposes the volunteer offshoot of the Hindu Mahasabha, the founders wanted the two to be seen as separate entities. Unlike the Mahasabha, which became by the 1930s a full-fledged political party claiming to speak on behalf of Hindus, the former had a longer-term aim. The RSS calculated that ‘only when a large number of Hindu youths in the country’ – three percent at the lower count – ‘were sufficiently trained in military tactics to bring about a revolution in India could it afford to challenge the government’. A sensational inside account from 1940 claimed that the purpose of training young men for three years – by making them attend Officer’s Training Camps (OTCs) – was to introduce the smartest among them ‘into various departments of Government, such as the army, navy, postal, telegraph, railway and administrative services in order that there may be no difficulty in capturing control over the administrative departments in India when the time comes’

From Vajpayee: Ascent of the Hindu Right, 1924
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The views in briefs

Very nice — in a ‘can you really fool all the people all the time’ sort of way. Modi is an SPG protectee (in fact, he is the only person covered by the SPG). His life is under constant threat — at least, that is what he says during his campaigns. There is a Khalistani terrorist wandering about the country, and all the king’s asses haven’t been able to locate him. No protective unit worth its FN P90 submachine gun will allow a protectee to go wandering about in areas that have not been thoroughly vetted and secured in advance. Or, simply put, there is no such thing as a “surprise visit” by a top-level protectee — it just won’t be permitted.

This would be laughable, if it weren’t frightening — frightening, as an indicator of how the BJP has figured out, correctly, that its core constituency is so very easy to fool. And how it deploys its army of jobless ministers, compromised media, and paid ‘influencers’ to spread the propaganda far and wide. Like, so:

***

YESTERDAY was Ram Navami. And the “celebrations” involved thugs wearing saffron markers of identity fishing for trouble outside various mosques and Muslim territories across the land: Surat. Mathura. The Dargah Haji Abdulreham Malang Shah mosque, Maharashtra. Jalgaon, Maharashtra. Mumbai, and one more. Gujarat. Jahangirpuri, New Delhi. Khargone, Madhya Pradesh. Kishanganj, Bihar; and Bihar Sharif, Bihar, where a library with over 4500 books was set ablaze. Bulldozers figured in a Ram Navami procession. Hyderabad, where a ‘Tiger’ whose hate speech forced even the BJP to suspend him led a procession, took an oath to convert India into a Hindu Rashtra, and rubbed it all in by including Nathuram Godse in the iconography. (While on iconography, here you go: Ram, shaded in size by Modi and Shah) And in many other places across the land, including in West Bengal.

So here’s a thought: Maybe we need to build more mosques rather than temples since the regime and its stormtroopers believe that no Hindu festival is complete unless it is “celebrated” with acts of vandalism outside Muslim places of worship.

It’s not just the saffron brigade, though. There is a fish shop a 10-minute stroll away from where I live. Despite the ease of ordering online via Fresh to Home and similar outlets, I prefer to get my fish from this shop. I know everyone there; no matter how busy they are, we take turns to get tea from the neighboring outlet; over tea we catch up on news and gossip — everything from how the fishers of Tamil Nadu and Kerala are doing, to the impending elections in Karnataka, to whatever else happens to come up.

This easy camaraderie has unlooked-for advantages. The other day, I was picking out white pomfret while waiting for the usual cup of tea. The guy who cleans the fish caught my eye and discreetly shook his head in a ‘don’t buy’ gesture. Later on, over tea, I asked him why. Not fresh, he said; not good for you. He didn’t seem to have any such qualms when another customer picked out half a dozen of the same fish and asked for them to be cleaned.

Anyway, so I walked over yesterday morning — and found the shop shut. The five men who staff the shop — all Hindus, by the way — were sitting on the step, smoking. Shut today, one of them said. Whyfor? BBMP diktat that no non-veg shops should be open on Ram Navami.

I live in a quiet, secluded neighborhood; I’ve seen such edicts ignored before, without any fuss being made. So what changed now, I asked. I was told that they had opened their shop as usual at 4.30 AM (which is when they take delivery of fresh fish trucked in from the two states to the south). Around six, a group from an apartment complex diagonally across the road had come over and told them to shut down if they didn’t want trouble. Just regular folks, my fisher friends told me, but they were aggressive, they took pictures, they stood there till the shutters were downed.

While walking back home, fish-less, memory threw up something I had read sometime during the Covid lockdown. Here is the passage in full (not from memory; I looked it up):

It doesn’t matter if Trump or Erdogan is brought down tomorrow, or if Nigel Farage had never become a leader of public opinion. The millions of people fired up by their message will still be there, and will still be ready to act on the orders of a similar figure. And unfortunately, as we experienced in Turkey in a very destructive way, even if you are determined to stay away from the world of politics, the minions will find you, even in your personal space, armed with their own set of values and ready to hunt down anybody who doesn’t resemble themselves. It is better to acknowledge — and sooner rather than later — that this is not merely something imposed on societies by their often absurd leaders, or limited to digital covert operations by the Kremlin; it also arises from the grassroots. The malady of our times won’t be restricted to the corridors of power in Washington or Westminster. The horrifying ethics that have risen to the upper echelons of politics will trickle down and multiply, come to your town and even penetrate your gated community. It is a new zeitgeist in the making. This is a historic trend, and it is turning the banality of evil into the evil of banality. For though it appears in different guise in every country, it is time to recognise that what is happening affects us all.

Quoted from How To Lose A Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship by Eve Temelkuran

Hindus vandalizing places of worship belonging to other religions to “celebrate” the birthday of a god they have weaponized. And Muslims are stopped from praying inside their own homes and, worse, fined for doing so.

See what Temelkuran meant by the evil of banality?

“The evil that men do lives after them…”, a half-decent poet once wrote. And that is the crux of this problem: around the world, authoritarians are facing a blowback; several have been forced to flee, while others are facing escalating protests. But it no longer matters whether they are in power or not — the evil they have seeded in society has taken deep root.

Meanwhile, we (myself included) sit on the stoop sipping our tea and smoking our cigarettes. While on which, check this out: a flashback to a time when people with standing, with a voice, used that voice, that influence, to speak out against evil:

PostScript: Arvind Kejriwal keeps upping the ante, with his speeches in the ongoing session of the Delhi assembly. Here is his latest salvo via a Twitter thread:

The allegations are specific; they are — by virtue of being made in the Assembly — part of official records. And noticeably, the government machinery has carefully refrained from responding to the specifics.

On the whole, it is good that Kejriwal is keeping the pressure on the government, more specifically on Modi, despite all the attempts at distraction. But there is also a smart calculus at work here.

Thus far, Rahul Gandhi’s USP — and the point his supporters keep making — is that he is the only one brave enough to directly take on Modi (and the RSS). Kejriwal is now usurping that mantle, and it is a politically shrewd move. He had avoided the Congress last year and earlier this year; he was carefully silent during the Bharat Jodo Yatra; when RG was sentenced by the courts and promptly disbarred from the legislature, he jumped off the fence onto RG’s side — and now he is gradually positioning himself as the alternate RG, with the added advantage that there is no bar on his contesting elections, unlike in the case of the Congress leader.

The views in briefs

Update, March 23, 4 PM: I haven’t studied law, but my first reaction on hearing that Rahul Gandhi has been found guilty, by a Gujarat court, of criminal defamation for this speech was: something smells.

Gautam Bhatia, on the other hand, knows the law, and practices it. And his reaction was:

Makes sense to me. And it is not just Gautam — I spoke to a couple of other lawyers I know and both said the same thing: This judgment will be thrown out on appeal. Meanwhile, The Wire looks at an oddity — the case was filed in 2019, and Gandhi’s first appearance in court was in 2021. And yet, the complainant kept asking for postponements (delaying tactics are usually employed by the defendant), suggesting that timing is crucial. (The Wire has a timeline, and analysis, here)

Begs the question: Why? Former Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad of the BJP — who hasn’t had much to do or say after he was put out to pasture by Modi and Shah — likely let the cat out of the bag when he referred to Gandhi’s membership of the Lok Sabha, and said that was for the Speaker to decide. An added benefit (for the ruling party) is that Gandhi’s conviction could effectively bar him from contesting the 2024 elections, since his sentence is for two years.

I doubt that even this government, which believes it can get away with any act no matter how egregious, will suspend or revoke Gandhi’s status as a member of Parliament — but you never can tell; Prasad’s words indicate that the thought has certainly been mooted at the higher reaches of the party.

Update, March 24: I was wrong. This government is stupid enough to revoke Rahul Gandhi’s membership of the Lok Sabha. It did just that today. Vinasha kaale, as they say…

(The original post continues below):

The BJP’s real gain lies elsewhere: For the next few days, expect TV channels and their loudmouth anchors to hammer away at Gandhi in the name of “debate”, and to conflate this judgment with his recent speech on democracy in India, tarring it with the same ‘defamation’ brush.

Here’s what I wish, though — I wish Gandhi hadn’t asked for bail on the grounds of appealing the judgment (which has been granted, for 30 days). I wish he had just gone to jail, instead. With that one act, he would have irrevocably claimed pole position on the national political chessboard, and in the process triggered an avalanche of opposition and protests, not just from within the Indian polity but also internationally.

But, afsos — opportunity missed, so it is now a wait-and-watch situation. Meanwhile, I am reminded of a joke the late Rahat Indori-saab was fond of recounting. The way he tells it (I am translating, and paraphrasing from the original Hindi), he once said in public that the government is a thief (sarkar chor hai). He was summoned to the police station and asked what the hell.

Indori-saab pointed out that he had only said the government is a thief, he hadn’t specifically said which government is a thief. To which the senior police official responded: Do you take us for fools? Don’t we know it is our government that is the thief?

Below, the post written earlier today:

Democracy dies of a thousand cuts

Look, first of all, this is our problem (erosion of democratic institutions under Modi); it is an internal problem and it is India’s problem and the solution is going to come from inside, it is not going to come from outside. However, the scale of democracy in India means that democracy in India is a global public good. It impacts way further than our boundaries. If Indian democracy collapses, in my view, democracy on the planet suffers a very serious, possibly fatal blow. So, it is important for you too. It is not just important for us. We will deal with our problem, but you must be aware that this problem is going to play out on a global scale.

Rahul Gandhi at Chatham House

Read the above quote, from Rahul Gandhi’s recent interaction at London’s Chatham House, carefully. Then read it again with a red marker in hand, to underline the bits you find false and or objectionable. And when/if you do use your red highlighter, send me the annotation, please? Because for the life of me, I can’t see what the ruling party and its sock puppets in the media (prime example here) are banging on about.

Is democracy in trouble in India? You bet your ass. What we have today is a psephocracy — a term Ashis Nandy is partial to, and one that authors Debashish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane use in their book To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism to refer to a political system where elections are the be-all and end-all of democracy.

Talk of how Narendra Modi and his bully-boys have pushed us into end times for democracy in this country, and the inevitable counter is ‘Look, elections… world’s largest ever… robust democracy…” When you hear that next time, remember that the most enduring definition of democracy is “elections government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Remember the term psephocracy. And note that this Saturday, Modi will be making his seventh visit to Karnataka this year, which is the next state to go to polls.

Go back to Gandhi’s words quoted above. He says this is our problem to solve. It is precisely that — by first recognizing there is a problem; then by using the basic tool of democracy — the vote — to solve it. (I’m not even remotely suggesting that we all vote for Rahul Gandhi, mind.)

He also says that the collapse of democracy in India can have a global impact, and therefore other countries should take note. This is also true — as true as saying that the collapse of any one of the major economies of the world can have an impact on the global economy as a whole.

So again, what is the right-wing noise machine going on about?

In any other age, we would notice — and question — the cognitive dissonance of the ruling party. Which, ever since Gandhi appeared for that unscripted interaction — a feat beyond the power of the prime minister — has been vociferously demanding that he apologize. And, more to the point, creating a ruckus in Parliament and ensuring that no discussion of any kind is possible — during, what is worse, the Budget Session. As good a way as any of proving that Gandhi spoke nothing but the truth.

Every leading light of the BJP has “condemned” Gandhi’s statement, twisting his words around to suggest that he had, on foreign soil, asked foreign powers to intercede in India’s affairs. That is exactly what he did not do — remember, he says this is our problem to solve.

Every member of what is increasingly becoming a Cabinet of Trolls spoke vociferously in Parliament, demanding that Gandhi apologize — and when Rahul Gandhi wrote to Speaker of the Lok Sabha Om Birla pointing this out and asking for the right to respond (he shouldn’t, in a functioning democracy, even have had to ask), Parliament was adjourned that day, thanks to a BJP-created ruckus, without even the formality of question hour.

QED –as cartoonist Satish Acharya showed with just one panel. And then there is this:

What democracy is this where duly elected representatives of 18 political parties are stopped, by the armed might of the state, from giving a petition to the Enforcement Directorate? (And while on this, the regime is trying to unring a bell that is peeling loud and clear — every other day brings a fresh story detailing some part of Adani’s shenanigans and, earlier today, Hindenburg tweeted that another major story will drop any time now).

But back to the main point: The BJP sees its tactic of refusing to allow the legislature to function as a win-win game. If Gandhi apologizes just to end the logjam (I sincerely hope he does no such thing), the BJP has “proved” that Gandhi was wrong and democracy is in no peril. If he does not apologise, the BJP gets to filibuster this session till its use-by date — and avoids discussion on not only the budget, but also on Adani’s shenanigans and Modi’s cosy connection to the industrialist, the OROP mess the government has landed itself in because it has no money to pay the full arrears, and other issues of import.

If, in the process, the legislature — which is estimated to cost the public exchequer Rs 2.5 lakh every minute when in session, and where the real business of democracy is conducted via discussion and debate — is neutered, who gives a flying fish?

Much of the analysis of this brouhaha suggests that the BJP has overplayed its hand and given Gandhi the relevance that he desperately needs. It has — by design, not by accident. With the 2024 general elections fast approaching, Modi and the BJP have one recurring nightmare — that the party will be forced into a fractured contest; that it will have to fight an Uddhav in Maharashtra, a Stalin in Tamil Nadu, a Nitish Kumar-Lalu Yadav combine in Bihar, and so on. That is the kind of contest the BJP cannot handle, because it has little or no grasp of state-based issues, no plank other than its nebulously defined notions of Hindutva.

What the party needs, therefore, is to convert the coming general elections into a personality contest — ‘Vishwaguru’ Modi versus ‘Pappu’ Rahul. That is the battle they can win, thanks to a captive media that will religiously puff up Modi’s credentials and trash Gandhi (as Arnab Goswami, for instance, does here).

An aside on Opposition unity: Earlier this week, Arvind Kejriwal invited the chief ministers of seven non-BJP-ruled states (excluding the Congress) for a dinner meeting to discuss the possibility of forging a national anti-BJP alliance. Not a single invitee showed up. It is easy to guess why — no major leader trusts Kejriwal, who is seen as a convenient spoiler for the BJP. And later the same week, he called Modi his “brother”, said he was tired of fighting with the Centre and wants to work with the Modi-Shah combine. This from the man who wants to lead an anti-BJP alliance — a man who self-confessedly has no stomach for a fight?

But to return to the point about the media’s relentless puffery of Modi: News agency ANI got the ball rolling when it claimed that the deputy leader of the Nobel Peace Prize committee had named Modi as a strong contender. Making up a fictitious quote is a sackable offense — or was, in any decently-run media organization.

You can’t use ‘ANI’ and ‘decently-run’ in the same sentence, though. Caravan magazine had, back in the day, devoted a cover of its issue to the agency and detailed how it carries water for Modi and his motley crew. And just last month, the Belgian NGO EU DisinfoLab had produced a damning indictment of ANI, citing with examples how the purported news agency had made a habit of quoting non-existent sources.

No surprise then that ANI made up a conversation. And in today’s times, no surprise either that the story of Modi’s supposed pole position in the Nobel Peace Prize stakes was picked up and carried by all mainstream media, including even pink papers like Business Standard.

What resulted was the inevitable national embarrassment — and here I am presuming that we are even capable of feeling embarrassed anymore, a presumption that is repeatedly belied by contemporary events — when Asle Toje, the deputy head of the Nobel prize committee, put out a video unequivocally denying both his quote and Modi’s supposed candidacy. (Note that despite the denial, the original ANI story remains on the agency’s website, and is one of the first results that you get if you google Modi and Nobel.)

That Toje had to do it off his own bat is the most crucial part of this fiasco. I’ve been a reporter and editor for 33 years now and counting and in this time, I have been part of, and even headed, various newsrooms in both print and digital. From this experience, I know two things:

The Nobel committee never, ever, talks up any single candidate for any of the prizes it awards annually and two, if such a quote had surfaced during my time working under Nikhil Lakshman, the editor I learned the craft from, he would have instantly deputed someone to call up Toje and ask him (a) to authenticate his quote and add context and nuance and (b) to provide the names of the other candidates in contention.

That every single media house swallowed the ANI fabrication whole; that not a single one of them felt the need to cross-check with the source, is precisely what is wrong with the media today — it has forgotten its prime role of speaking truth to power, and has shown itself to be ready, able and all too willing to pucker up at the sight of a powerful behind.

Indian democracy in action

There has been simmering discontent over the government’s revisions to the pension rules, and a growing demand for the reinstatement of the old pension scheme (OPS). The government has now issued an order to all government officials at all levels to refrain from going on or supporting a strike planned for this coming Tuesday to press the demand. The democratic right of the aggrieved to protest? You must be joking. (NB: In France, also this week, union leaders called for widespread strikes and protests against the pension plan President Emmanuel Macron has pushed through. Thus far, no sign of Macron and his government outlawing such protests — but then, Modi/Shah can get away with much more than Macron can.)

Elsewhere, the Delhi police has till date filed 100 FIRs, and arrested six individuals. The charge: plastering the capital city’s walls with ‘Modi hatao, desh bachao’ slogans. Since when, in a democracy, was political sloganeering — vocally, or through the medium of posters — an indictable offense?

In Secunderabad, where ward elections are due, the Secunderabad Cantonment Board deleted 35,000 voters for allegedly squatting on defense land. The alleged squatters claim they have all relevant documents to show they are bona fide. Point is, where is due process? It is of course purely coincidental that those voters who have been suddenly disenfranchised belong to the backward classes and the Muslim community.

In Karnataka, actor Chetan Kumar has been arrested and sent to custody for 14 days for a tweet. This one:

So much for free speech, the cornerstone of any democracy. This reminds me that in this “largest and oldest democracy in the world” (Hardeep Singh Puri said that recently; size is a function of population, but “oldest”?) it is time to do a round-up of the kind of speeches and actions that are permissible.

Hate, in words and actions

“I have closed down 6000 madrasas,” Himanta Biswa Sharma tells an election rally in Belagavi, in northern Karnataka. He promises that if the BJP wins the upcoming election, the party will shut down all madrasas in the state.

Interesting career, Sharma’s. Up until July 2015, the BJP was hammering away at Sharma’s alleged involvement in a water supply scam. The party even published a booklet detailing the scam. A month later, in August, Sharma went to New Delhi to meet the then BJP president Amit Shah, to express his desire to “work under the leadership of Narendra Modi”. He joined the BJP — and promptly joined the party.

The ploy of taking a dive into the purifying waters of the BJP did not quite work. In April 2016, Shah was still banging on about the charges against Sharma, and asserting that all charges would be probed.

Sharma got the message — he wasn’t being sufficiently saffron. And so he stepped up his hate in incremental stages (He is the guy who once asked Rahul Gandhi if he had any proof that he was Rajiv Gandhi’s son) to the point where he is now the designated hate-monger not merely in Assam, but also on the campaign trail, having in the process upstaged the likes of Adityanath.

He kicked off 2023 with a sudden “crackdown” against child marriage. In the face of allegations that this move was intended to target the Muslim community, he told the state assembly that the proportion of Muslims arrested to Hindus was 55:45. He made no bones about the fact that Muslims were the primary target but, as he told the Opposition on the floor of the Assembly, “because you politicize everything, I told the Dibrugarh SP to pick up some of our people as well.”

“Our people,” do note.

This is the Sharma who is now one of the BJP’s leading campaigners in Karnataka, particularly in those parts of the state that have been intensely communalised. So much so that at a rally in Belagavi prior to the Assam CM’s tour de farce, BJP MLA Basanagouda Patil Yatnal said that when his party comes to power in the state, it will “emulate Sharma’s example”.

In Karnataka (as also in Kerala and Tamil Nadu) the BJP’s gameplan has been to establish a bridgehead along the coast, and use that as a staging point to spread their politics of hate inland. Belagavi is thus one of the key battlegrounds in this inward move; Amit Shah and Narendra Modi have already held big rallies in the district, and we are still at least a month away from the formal announcement of elections in the state. (This Deccan Herald piece is worth reading for an overview of how hate is being fanned in the region).

Another key battleground is Shivamogga, BS Yediyurappa’s citadel. The BJP hopes that the veteran leader, who has formally quit electoral politics and whom Modi is now fawning over (see previous post) will sweep the region for the party — but a little hate can’t hurt. Besides, the party needs to keep its young “workers” occupied — and so reports have been coming in of random acts of thuggery. Thus, just this week, a group of Bajrang Dal “workers” barged into a club to stop a ladies’ party.

While on that, what baffles me is not that the Bajrang Dal has managed to rope in jobless young idiots by the thousands — it is that they can’t seem to make up their tiny minds. They barge into mixed-sex parties because that is against Indian culture, and they barge into ladies’ only parties because that too is against Indian culture. Reminds you of American journalist and satirist HL Mencken, who once defined puritanism as the “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

Among the more bizarre incidents I came across this week is this one: A bunch of Muslim youth, protesting certain communal statements of BJP leader KS Eeshwarappa in Shivamogga, recited the azaan near the premises of the District Collector’s office. Hindu groups landed up to sprinkle cow urine on the premises to purify it. What to say?

The instances listed above are culled from Karnataka alone; elsewhere across the country, hate is being industrialized at a rapid pace. But the what, how and why is grist for another post, another day. For now, I’ll end this with a link to the most recent US State Department Report on Human Rights. The summary graf relating to India is damning:

Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful and arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by the government or its agents; torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by police and prison officials; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners or detainees; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on freedom of expression and media, including violence or threats of violence, unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, and enforcement of or threat to enforce criminal libel laws to limit expression; restrictions on internet freedom; interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on freedom of movement and on the right to leave the country; refoulement of refugees; serious government corruption; harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence, including domestic and intimate partner violence, sexual violence, workplace violence, child, early, and forced marriage, femicide, and other forms of such violence; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of national/racial/ethnic and minority groups based on religious affiliation, social status or sexual orientation; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons; and existence of forced and compulsory labor.

A lack of accountability for official misconduct persisted at all levels of government, contributing to widespread impunity. Lax enforcement, a shortage of trained police officers, and an overburdened and underresourced court system contributed to a low number of convictions.

Terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir, northeastern states, and Maoist terrorism-affected areas committed serious abuses, including killings and torture of armed forces personnel, police, government officials, and civilians; kidnapping; and recruitment and use of child soldiers.

US State Department Report on Human Rights

The interesting bit here is the “dog that did not bark at midnight”.

The usual practice when organizations put out such reports is to attack them on the grounds that (a) the data is incorrect; (b) the conclusions are erroneous; and (c) the report is part of an international conspiracy — likely funded by George Soros — to malign India.

This time, though, as far as I can see, not a yip out of MEA S Jaishankar and the other motormouths who are usually deployed to drown out the negative report. Understandable — this is not some global NGO you can taint with Soros and “international conspiracy”; this is the US State Department, no less. And with China cozying up to Russia in recent days, the last thing the regime needs is to piss off the United States.

Tailpiece: This is for your listening pleasure (I’m using the word “pleasure” in a very loose sense. Because why should I be the only one to suffer?

Where the ‘truth’ lies

The women protestors of Shaheen Bagh get Rs 500 per day. The rate per protestor is fixed. The Congress party is distributing money to the protestors. The dress code says those taking part in anti-CAA protests in Mumbai have to wear a hijab. JNUSU president Aishe Ghosh has been faking her head injury. (While on that, check out the replies to this tweet to see how deep, and wide, the rot spreads). Oh, and her supposedly broken hand? The sling changes from left to right depending on the position of the camera. Jihadis — read, Muslims — who almost burned down Mangalore city the other day have now placed a live bomb in Mangalore airport. “Sickulars” are silent about the Kali image vandalised in Kolkata. Former JNU students including Kanhaiyya Kumar celebrated the killing of 70 CRPF soldiers in 2010. A Muslim abused minor girls, for which he was stripped and thrashed. Indira Gandhi’s father in law was ‘Yunus Khan’.

All of this is from just one fake news-busting website, Alt News. Almost all of them from the last 48 hours. Several of them either originating from, or heavily amplified by, people with official links to the BJP and fellow organisations. There is even more from within that time frame — I stopped because I was tired.

“Repetition makes things seem more plausible,” says Lynn Hasher, a psychologist at the University of Toronto whose research team first noticed the effect in the 1970s. “And the effect is likely more powerful when people are tired or distracted by other information.”

The illusory truth effect, they call it, and it is the subject of considerable scientific research. And it is not a particularly new phenomenon, right? Repeat a lie often enough and it will be perceived to be true — that was one of the pillars of the Nazi propaganda machine.

I believed, though, that I had assiduously worked towards building a certain immunity. That a rational, cognitive human being, aware of the risk and therefore prone to cross-check everything, was inoculated from the dangers of propaganda. A BBC report on the phenomenon even seemed to bear me out.

What Fazio and colleagues actually found, is that the biggest influence on whether a statement was judged to be true was… whether it actually was true. The repetition effect couldn’t mask the truth. With or without repetition, people were still more likely to believe the actual facts as opposed to the lies.

This shows something fundamental about how we update our beliefs – repetition has a power to make things sound more true, even when we know differently, but it doesn’t over-ride that knowledge.

All of which is to say, if my ear is connected to my brain, then I’ll know a lie when I hear it.

Yesterday, a little something happened that made me go back and do a little more reading on the phenomenon. I stumbled on this pre-print (a scientific study that has not yet been validated by peer review) of a study led by Ghent University.

The study examines the three aspects of cognition that influence how people make judgements about something they come across: (1) Intelligence; (2) The human need to avoid ambiguity and to decide, one way or the other; and, (3) The individual’s cognitive approach, which takes into account that some of us think in rapid, intuitive fashion while others take a slower, more deeply analytical approach.

The paper I linked to above goes into the methodology, sample size, the nature of the experiments conducted, all of that (and if you have the time, I’d suggest you read it, because differentiating between the real and the fake has become the biggest challenge of this “age of information”).

Broadly, though, the findings can be summed up thus: The illusory truth effect is universal. It does not depend on the individual’s cognitive style — which is to say, we are all, all of us, likely to believe repeated information, regardless of how intelligent, how deliberative, we believe ourselves to be.

Thus:

I don’t know why I believed this, when I saw it, but I did. And I, a Keralite born and bred, was outraged. My state has been doing well, thus far, in its collective response to bigotry — we don’t need this, was my first thought.

Acting on the thought, I retweeted a mention of this with copy to the Kerala chief minister, asking that he look into it, and also asking Keralites on my TL to retweet and add to the public pressure. Because, see, this is just wrong, right?

I really should have known better. After all, Shobha Karandlaje’s propensity for gaslighting is no secret — in fact, on one occasion, a rumour she floated as fact, which got picked up and amplified by India Today’s Shiv Aroor, was so egregious I ended up writing a long post on this phenomenon – which, I just realised, is still relevant. Because exactly the same thing happened here.

Karandlaje put out something — which, incidentally, has got 8,400 likes and over 6000 retweets at the time of writing this, thus amplifying the “news” far and wide. With Karandlaje giving it legitimacy, Kerala-based BJP/RSS activists began retransmitting the “news” (which is interesting enough in itself — the local Hindutva outfits in Kerala are so tired of getting their backsides kicked that they now outsource bigotry to neighbouring states, wait for these rumours to gather steam, and then pick it up quoting the outside source). Mainstream media outlets picked up the story and carried it with insinuating headlines. You have to read to the end of the story linked here to realise that it is a he-said, she-said story, not based on fact but on rumour.

It was only later, prompted by the ‘wait a minute’ voice in my mind, that I made a few calls to people (including a cousin who is very active politically and plugged into the state network), who made a few calls to other people, and I finally got an inkling of where the truth lies:

In the Cherukunnu colony of Valanchery in Kerala’s Malappuram district, there is a perennial water crisis thanks to non-functional water pipelines that have not been attended to for over six months. People share water sourced however they can.

One Muslim family in a predominantly Dalit locality has a government-supplied borewell for agricultural use. The family has been diverting some of that water for domestic use, and also sharing this diverted water with seven or eight neighbouring families.

On January 11, the BJP organised a pro-CAA rally in the area, and a handful of young men from the colony, all Dalits, participated. A week later, word went around that the Muslim family, upset over the participation in the pro-CAA rally, had stopped supplying water to those households.

The rumour spread thanks to the assiduous efforts of the state BJP/RSS machinery; it got kicked upstairs to Karandlaje who then weaponised it, and from her it moved into mainstream media.

Meanwhile, the BJP through the medium of Seva Bharati (an RSS social service wing) began supplying water to the affected families, with a lot of fanfare, furthering the victimhood narrative.

What, as nearly as I have been able to make out from my conversations, was this: the state electricity department sent a notice to the Muslim family asking that they desist from using for domestic consumption water from a borewell meant only for agricultural purposes.

On receipt of the notice, the family reached out to their neighbours, to inform them that they would from here on be able to provide only two buckets of water per day.

Like all good lies, the one Karandlaje and others spread rested on tiny grains of truth. (1) A Muslim family had been helping neighbouring Dalit families during a time of water crisis. (2) Some young men from those families had taken part in an anti-CAA rally. (3) A couple of Islamic organisations — which, like every other political outfit, is prone to fish in troubled waters — had talked to the Muslim family about their neighbours’ participation in a pro-CAA rally. (4) The water supply had been curtailed.

Put together in a particular way, though, the story changes; it becomes one of a particular community using any and all means in its power — including denying something as basic as drinking water, OMG! — to those who support the CAA.

There is a coda to this story: The Kerala police have filed an FIR against Karandlaje under IPC Section 153 (A) which relates to promoting enmity between various groups. Karandlaje, backed by BJP leaders including IT cell chief Amit Malviya, are using this to play victim. Meanwhile:

Speaking to Indianexpress.com, he (Kuttipuram sub-inspector Aravindan) said, “We looked into it. What she (Sobha Karandlaje) has alleged is not true. The people in Cherukunnu colony would get water from a borewell as part of a drinking water project of the panchayat. However, the motor was burnt, so water couldn’t be supplied through it for the past one year. Another borewell was installed in the house of a Muslim family, from which the locals had been taking water. That borewell was originally supplied by the Krishi Bhavan through the KSEB, and was to be used strictly for irrigation purposes. So when KSEB opposed supply of water for other uses, the family stopped it.”

“This is what has happened. The episode has no connection to the CAA protests. Following the incident, the district collector, panchayat president and the taluk officer visited the spot and promised to arrange funds to get the old borewell functioning again,” the Sub-Inspector added.

If this seems like a long post about nothing very much, it is. And it isn’t. In and of itself, the incident is minor. But the relative innocuousness of the incident is the point — it is a classic illustration of (a) how widespread the propaganda effort is; (b) how the right wing machinery uses any and all opportunities to sow discord and create enmity; and, (c), just how hard you have to work to get to the true facts — while, in the interim, a hundred other such false stories pop up in several different areas.

What is one to do? What do you do? How do you process “news” these days? I’d love to hear. And the reason I want to hear from others is that increasingly, all emerging signs point to a ruling party with an increasingly genocidal mindset. “Genocide” sounds harsh? Too much of an exaggeration? Over-reach? Remember that Raphael Lemkin, the Polish lawyer who first coined the word ‘genocide’ from the Greek ‘genos‘ (race, tribe) and the Latin ‘cide‘ (killing), defined the word in his seminal work Axis Rule in Occupied Europe thus (emphasis mine):

Genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be the disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups

In other words, genocide could be a mass killing, but equally result from a death by a thousand social/cultural cuts. And in our country today, the targets are not just the Muslims, but also the Dalits, and other disadvantaged sections. With that in mind, read this:

Now read this entire thread by gay rights activist and columnist Brynn Tannehill. This is where we are now. This is where we are heading. This is why I find myself increasingly reading history. It is also why I’d love to hear from you guys.

Meanwhile, some odds and ends from the last 24 hours:

  • The Union Home Ministry, which had earlier transferred the Davinder Singh case from the J&K police to the NIA, has now transferred the Bhima-Koregaon case also to that agency. The fact that the transfer happened on the same day that NCP chief Sharad Pawar wrote to Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray is purely coincidental, right? There are rules governing such transfers, but yet again the GoI decided to invoke extraordinary powers. This is your reminder that the NIA is also in charge of probing the Pulwama attack (which was eleven months ago and counting); that the CRPF, which lost 40 personnel in that attack, had prepared an inquiry report pointing to large scale intelligence lapses; that the MHA denied there was any intelligence lapse and gave charge of the probe to the NIA; that the NIA is yet to submit a report on the outcome of its probe, or to file an FIR. Ask yourself why every issue, every incident with the potential to cause inconvenience to the GoI lands up with the NIA.
  • The Election Commission has banned former AAP member and current BJP candidate for the Delhi elections from campaigning for the next 48 hours. Because, this. Just one more in the escalating instances (here is a Union minister doing his bit) of gaslighting Shaheen Bagh — because? Because what those women have done, are doing in the face of all odds, is inspiring legions around the country, as this list of Shaheen Bagh-style sit ins indicates. And the spread of the Shaheen Bagh model is deeply problematic for this government — and its ideological parent — because a deeply misogynist power is forced to confront the one group it does not know how to talk to, how to handle: women. Determined, defiant women. Hence Ajay Singh Bisht’s recent diatribe: Where are the men? Because Bisht (and Shah, and Modi, and the rest) would by far rather have to confront a protest led by men; against women — with enraged Dalits backing them to the hilt, and Sikhs increasingly forming a vital third element — the RSS/BJP hierarchy is all at sea. And before leaving this point, here is an example of the determination women are bringing to this seemingly unequal contest: Read the story of Ajmeri Bibi. This is what they don’t get, the group that — ironically, paid to tweet — keeps trying to surface allegations that women protestors are being paid to show up.
  • Columbia Journalism Review had a panel discussion on government funding of newspapers. Quote: “To accept funding from government, no matter the alleged safeguards, puts us at risk of mortal conflict of interest. Whom do we serve then? Need I say it? Follow the money.” Read that in connection with this: an RTI inquiry revealed that between 2014-2018, the GoI spent Rs 5,200 crore on advertising. Meaning that Rs 5,200 crore of public money was used by the government for propaganda, and as an economic carrot/stick to coerce media houses. This is a government so cash-starved that it recently cut Rs 3000 crore from the education budget. Then again, who needs education when you can have propaganda instead?
  • A NewsClick article asks — and attempts to answer — the question: Is Karnataka the next Uttar Pradesh? Not quite yet, but we are taking baby strides in that direction. And that is sort of the point, right? Gujarat was the laboratory where the RSS perfected its playbook. This was then exported to Uttar Pradesh, where Ajay Singh Bisht added his own tweaks to the model. Now Karnataka, the BJP’s sole bridgehead in the south. All of this is exactly why this map, of the BJP’s shrinking political footprint, is so important: The less states under the BJP’s control, the less the area the RSS brand of bigotry will become institutionalised in. In passing, remember that in the Kodagu region the police carried out an ID verification drive the other day for no rhyme or reason? 500 people have been detained as a result, and none of us knows what happens to them next.
  • Among the rules governing our elected representatives, there is one that mandates that all MPs who have won election should, within 90 days, furnish full information about all movable and immovable properties he/she and members of the extended family own. An RTI inquiry reveals that only 40 MPs have complied, while 503 have not. Amit Shah is one of those who have not complied — giving a whole new dimension to “hum kagaz nahin dikhayenge“.
  • Speaking of elected representatives and rules, the Allahabad High Court has granted two days parole to rape-accused Bahujan Samaj Party MP Atul Rai, so he can take oath as an elected representative. That tells you all you need to know about the body that makes laws for the rest of us, and for the state of the country today.
  • A Patna college has banned girl students from wearing the burqa. The ban will not stand up to any legal challenge, but that is kind of the point: in various parts of the country, such actions that leech away at basic freedoms have become routine, the intent being to tire you out fighting each individual instance.
  • The government is preparing a law mandating the linking of Aadhar to the Voter ID. Remember that the Supreme Court has ruled that the linking of Aadhar to other services cannot be mandatory. Remember that the government has repeatedly said, even in court, that linking Aadhar is strictly voluntary; that it is needed only if you want to benefit from the GoI’s welfare schemes, or in the case of banks needing to know their customers for the purpose of giving loans, etc. Yet here we are, on the verge of passing another law that prima facie goes against the SC’s rulings — but the law will come, it will pass, it will be challenged, the courts will delay hearings… you know the drill, right? Remember, this involves one of your most fundamental rights as a citizen: the right to vote.
  • Dr Harjit Bhatti was one of those who responded to the January 5 distress calls from JNU. Remember that goons had stopped ambulances and cars carrying doctors from entering the premises, even vandalising an ambulance while the police stood by and did nothing? Remember that Bhatti and other doctors had gone into the university despite all these hurdles, to help? Okay, so they have now filed a case against him. Do you remember the story of one Dr Kafeel Khan? Here we go again.
  • I’ll leave you with this long piece by Somak Ghoshal, on an increasingly aware younger generation. And with this:

Reading List 19/01/2020

  • Uttar Pradesh, about which a longer blogpost needs writing, continues to shock with its arrogant unconcern for either law, or human rights, or even public opinion. One of the many lies — that protestors had fired on cops, leading to retaliatory firing that led to deaths — has been steadily unravelling. Meanwhile a women’s protest at the Clock Tower in Lucknow — which began a couple of days ago with just a handful of women, and which has grown in size ever since — was raided last evening, and the police carried away food and blankets. “Do not spread rumours,” a police statement today says,. “The blankets were seized after due process”. What “due process” allows people to confiscate blankets and food from people peacefully protesting is left to your imagination. Reports also say that water cannons were used on the women protestors. But as always happens in times of crisis, it is the Sikh community that brings a shaft of light to the darkness. This time, by turning up with blankets and food to replace what the police had robbed.
  • Uttar Pradesh, again, showing how intolerance is done. Danseuse Manjari Chaturvedi, who has taken her innovative Sufi-Kathak dance form all over the world, was halted in mid-performance at a UP government function in Lucknow. She was told ‘qawwali nahi chalegi yahan‘.
  • A majority Christian village in Karnataka decided to put up a statue to Jesus. The RSS led a rally opposing it. It turns out that the local Hindus not only have no problem with the proposed statue, they are willing to oppose the RSS if they again bring outsiders to protest.
  • A member of the Niti Aayog wants to know why Kashmiris are fussed about the denial of internet facilities. There is no e-commerce there anyway, he says; Kashmiris do nothing but watch porn. The man is, among other things, a scientist, ex-DRDO.
  • Mukul Kesavan writes of the icons ranging from Ambedkar to Savitribai Phule who have been resurrected by the anti-CAA protestors. But no Gandhi, he points out. “Gandhi’s relative unimportance in the CAA-NRC protests has several reasons. For one, he has been so completely appropriated by the Indian State since his death that he has been reduced to a piety.”
  • Raj Shekhar Sen traces contemporary events to what he calls a “crisis of masculinity” that fuels the Hindutva agenda.
  • JNUSU president Aishe Ghosh says what is happening in the country is nothing short of an attempt by Modi to colonise his own country.
  • Josy Joseph, who from the time he was a colleague at Rediff has made a speciality of the internal security beat, has the most nuanced, readable piece yet on Davinder Singh, the J&K cop arrested while ferrying wanted militants towards Delhi. Militancy, Josy writes, is a multi-faceted business; Davinder is merely a symptom, a manifestation, of a much larger malaise. Alongside the piece, watch this video where Davinder reportedly told the arresting officers not to interfere because it would spoil a plan. The whole thing smells to high heaven — which, come to think of it, explains why the NIA has taken over the investigation, as the surest means of putting a lid on it.
  • On February 27, 2018, my colleague Arati Kumar-Rao and I were at the Wagah Border to receive Paul Salopek, the two-time Pulitzer-winner who was due to enter India on this leg of his Out of Eden Walk. What struck us most forcibly was the incessant traffic of lorries and trucks, speaking to the flourishing cross-border trade between the two countries. While Arati went in to the checkpoint to receive Paul, I whiled away the time at a tea-shop where Sunny, the owner, regaled me with stories of this trade. The tea-shop was just a working base for him; his real occupation was trading in dried fruits which, he said, came from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The goods would be dropped off at the Pakistan side of the checkpost; his people would then pass them through Customs, and his lorries would load up on the India side, and transport the goods to wholesale merchants in Amritsar and elsewhere. Remember, this flourishing trade was happening at the same time border tensions had peaked. Not any more, though — Suhasini Haidar reports that thousands of families have been hit by the trade freeze at the Wagah-Attari border. It’s just another dot that, when connected up, presents a picture of the large-scale economic distress roiling the country. In that connection, and in tandem with my post earlier this morning about Kashmir, read also this piece by Salman Anees Sos on the economic catastrophe that has hit the state.
  • Author Chetan Bhagat, who at times has been pilloried for statements in support of the current regime, has a nicely weighted piece in Times of India about why the whole CAA/NRC/NPR exercise should be shelved immediately.
  • Remember Muhammed bin Tughlaq, whose mis-governance masterstrokes has earned him notoriety in history? The man is a genius compared to Modi’s government — which, recently, panicked as onion prices shot up and public anger rose, bought 35,000 tons of onions from Turkey and Egypt, found that the market has no demand for the bland variants from those countries, and is now trying to sell them off at less than half the purchase price.
  • In context of the recent kerfuffle over Jeff Bezos, Amazon, and the GoI’s apparent issues with “predatory pricing”, read this piece by columnist and podcaster Amit Varma where he argues that the problem is actually with a predatory state.

Double, double, toil and trouble…

Fire burn, and cauldron bubble

2018 is likely to be one long round of electioneering — besides the north-eastern states, assembly elections are due in Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Rajasthan where the BJP is incumbent, and in Karnataka that the BJP is trying to wrest from the ruling Congress party. And it is all shaping up into the sort of witches’ brew that Shakespeare provided the recipe for.

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