One of the things the Narendra Modi government is wrongly accused of is turning India into a sort of illiberal nation. The word illiberal means intolerant and supporting restrictions on freedoms of speech and action. I say the government is wrongly accused of it because the facts show that India’s government has never been particularly liberal, even under the Congress.
Civil society groups and non-governmental organisations that have been working on such issues for decades will vouch for what I am saying. The issues like rights of Adivasis, Kashmiris and the people of the northeast have not come into focus recently. They have been with us for decades and it is wrong to assume that it is this government or this prime minister that is the root cause of the problems.
The exploitation of Adivasi land, which is the richest in terms of mineral wealth, began under Nehru and even before him. Some of the nastiest and some of the most heavy-handed action against Adivasis came under the Congress government of Manmohan Singh. All Adivasis are punished for the alleged crimes against a few and the presence of tens of thousands of paramilitary personnel in the Indian heartland is proof of that.
In October 2015, newspapers reported the headline ‘Anti-Maoist operations: Chattisgarh, IAF to carry out retaliation attacks from air’. The story was that the Indian air force would use its Russian made MI-17 helicopters to attack its own citizens from the air. The reports said that the air force carried out “successful exercises” and “three IAF helicopters flew over Bijapur and practised strafing.” Those who are familiar with India will know that there are no parts of it that are totally deserted or unpopulated and so, it would be interesting to see what happened to that area in which our air force was practising bombing and machine gunning.
The point is that this level of violence is not new in that area and the Indian state has suppressed its agitating citizens with machine guns from British times and before. It is not only wrong to assume it began with Modi but it is also misleading because it ignores the real issue. Before Modi and unfortunately after him as well, this is how the Indian state has behaved and will behave with its citizens.
I was in conversation with P Chidambaram a few months ago and he said that India should lift Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts from Kashmir. He is one of our most intelligent politicians and I have great respect for him. However, I wish he had expressed the same sentiment when he was the home minister, because it would have been much more credible. Those who are upset by the current government’s hard position against agitating Kashmiris should also know that it is exactly as hard as the position of previous governments. Only the rhetoric is a little different. The Congress also killed as many, and actually more, but it spoke softly. The BJP uses harsher words, but that is the only real difference.
The Indian state has always operated on priorities that are at variance from the needs and rights of its population. Last year, we spent INR59,000 crore on 36 fighter jets for the Indian air force. This year, we are spending INR50,000 crore on 57 fighter jets for the Indian navy. This is happening in a nation whose Union Health Budget is INR33,000 crore a year (it was cut under Arun Jaitley). Ten thousand Indian children die every week of malnourishment but we cannot afford to spend more money on them and would rather buy more toys for our armed forces.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 12th, 2017.