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In a long-contested border region with Pakistan, India's Prime Minister has tilted the balance of power, left Muslims' future uncertain - and electrified his political base

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Saturday, August 17, 2019 – Page A14

KATRA, INDIA -- Late one morning in this holy town in northern India, several dozen men held high the country's tricolour flag, chanting as they marched down the narrow streets, past vendors selling puffed rice for offerings and images of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

They had come to mark the country's 73rd Independence Day on Thursday, a cohort of middle-aged men with triumph on their faces as they walked through the religious centre in Jammu and Kashmir.

But theirs was no normal celebration, and this was no ordinary Independence Day.

"Kashmir is ours! All of Kashmir is ours!" they cried. Their voices echoed up the narrow street, which opened to a view of the cloud-draped Trikuta hills that Hindu pilgrims climb to worship at the Vaishno Devi temple, the second-busiest religious shrine in India.

"Victory for Mother India!" the men shouted in unison. "Brother Narendra Modi, our pride!"

Less than two weeks earlier, Mr. Modi, a leader steeped from childhood in a potent ideology of Hindu nationalism, had at a stroke redrawn the national map of India, ending the special status that had provided a measure of autonomy to a contested region with 12.5 million people who live between the Himalayas, the Karakoram Range and the Indus valley.

His government stripped the national constitution of the provisions that had allowed Jammu and Kashmir its own flag, its own constitution and its own laws, placing it directly under New Delhi's control.

Hours before the announcement, technicians cut phones and internet while troops fanned out, imposing a broad curfew.

His unilateral move - bifurcating the area into Jammu and Kashmir on one side, and on the other, Ladakh, an area to which both India and China lay claim - has prompted the United Nations Security Council to meet to discuss the region for the first time in decades.

The Kashmir decision, hailed by the public as unifying the country, stands among the most consequential decisions of Mr. Modi's rule, and cements him as an ideological leader who, fresh off an election win that further augmented his power, is prepared to pursue a Hindu nationalist agenda. In doing so, he is remaking the country in pursuit of objectives that have for decades been the dream of the country's far right wing.

Mr. Modi has said he intends to bring new development and new peace to Kashmir, making the region, which has witnessed two wars and a 30-year insurgency that has left 47,000 dead, into a fragile drafting board for the India he envisions.

At the same time, he risks provoking new forms of conflict, with India's nuclear-armed neighbours and with its own minority peoples.

By the end of this week, the curfew had been lifted in Jammu, where Hindus form the largest group and the former state's flag was nowhere to be seen. But Muslimdominated Kashmir remained in a state of lockdown, with armed soldiers patrolling empty streets, past intersections blocked with coils of razor wire and homes where residents took refuge without any form of electronic communication.

In Katra, a place Mr. Modi has visited twice as Prime Minister, the curfew was never imposed in the first place.

Trains continued to deliver the faithful, Hindus who make up 80 per cent of India's population and who have found in Mr. Modi a powerful ally. In a poll released this week, Indians ranked him the country's best prime minister of all time, eclipsing even the Nehru and Gandhi dynasty.

Observers and former colleagues say Mr. Modi sees himself restoring Hindu greatness and relegating to history centuries of slavery under the Muslim Mughals and the British.

"Thursday marked Jammu and Kashmir's first Independence Day," beamed Katra hotel owner Rakesh Sharma. Nearby, photo studios give life-size cut-outs of Mr. Modi more prominence than backdrops with the Hindu deities that draw crowds here.

Critics, however, have taken a much dimmer view of Mr. Modi's sudden move in Kashmir, and what it shows about his intentions for his second term.

"There's more to come," said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a journalist and author who has written a lengthy biography of Mr. Modi, as well as a history of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the rightist group that the Prime Minister first joined at the age of 8. "He definitely is going to pursue the Hindu nationalist agenda to the limits."

Mr. Modi regularly salts his talk with references to "one nation," saying this week after the Kashmir decision that "the spirit of 'One Nation, One Constitution' has become a reality and India is proud of that."

But in doing so, Mr. Mukhopadhyay said, he has transformed India's slogan of "unity in diversity" into "unity in oneness."

Early each morning, a group of men gathers on the manicured lawn of Pushp Vihar Sector 5 Park in New Delhi to exercise before the heat of the day. Often, they assemble by 5 a.m., a show of discipline in keeping with the rigours of the group they belong to: the RSS, a sprawling nationalist volunteer group founded in 1925 that possesses the features of a religious order, debate club and army cadet program.

At Push Vihar park, the men gather for yoga, wrestling, boxing, sports and discussion. "We talk about Indian culture, nationalism and how each and every citizen has to be patriotic and give something to the country," says Surender Singh Rawat, who heads the morning gatherings here.

They talk, too, about Mr. Modi, a leader who immersed himself in the RSS from his primary school days, and whose ascension has made these gatherings much more popular.

"There's a boom," Mr. Rawat says. More people have come, too, after the Kashmir decision, aligning themselves with a foundational ideology of a popular prime minister.

Mr. Modi has at times distanced himself from the RSS. But his "vision for India is the vision of the RSS," said Yashwant Sinha, a former high-ranking official in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who served as a finance and foreign minister two decades ago. "Which is basically Hindu ascendance within the country."

An early leader of the RSS, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, sought to define the group's vision in Bunch of Thoughts, a book that prescribes a rejuvenation of the "Hindu nation" as a curative to Western permissiveness.

Mr. Golwalkar lists Muslims, Christians

and Communists as "internal threats," describing Muslims as a menace whose communities amount to "miniature Pakistans" inside India's borders. Last year, the RSS released a new edition that elides some of the book's sharpest rhetoric. It still describes Islam as intolerant and "capable of horrific genocide.

Mr. Modi himself has been accused of bias against Muslims. As a boy watching war between India and Pakistan in 1965, he was "voluble on how all Pakistanis should be decimated," a hometown acquaintance told biographer Andy Marino.

The darkest stain on Mr. Modi's political career came in 2002, when he was chief minister of Gujarat state during race riots between Hindus and Muslims that left roughly 1,000 dead, and raised questions about whether Mr. Modi had done enough to prevent the slaughter of Muslims.

Mr. Modi has said the 2002 violence left him "shaken to the core," and, in late July of this year, bowed before a copy of the constitution before saying "there should be no discrimination over caste or religion."

Yet, his tenure as Prime Minister has been marked by a rash of mob lynchings, an outbreak of violence in which people suspected of illegally slaughtering cows have been dragged by their beards and forced to chant praise to Hindu gods before being killed. Indian officials do not gather hate crime statistics, but data journalists in the country say roughly 90 per cent of such crimes in the past decade have taken place since Mr. Modi came to power.

Mr. Modi has condemned vigilantism, saying "mob lynching is a crime, no matter the motive."

But vulnerable groups - Muslims and members of lower castes alike - are under such threat that extraordinary efforts are under way to respond.

Since July 26, Mehmood Pracha, an accomplished corporate lawyer, has trained 15,000 people in how to apply for gun ownership, guiding them through the process of filling out forms. It is all perfectly legal - and, to many in India, shocking.

Mr. Pracha would prefer his students not to actually arm themselves. But he hopes the impression of a populace seeking firepower dispels their image of vulnerability. And he feels compelled to act.

In his view, fault for the lynchings lies squarely at the feet of the Modi government, which he accuses of weakening protections for the country's weakest members. "That is the soul of our constitution, which they are hell-bent upon destroying," he said.

Mr. Modi swept into power in 2014 with promises to tackle corruption, light a fire under the economy and inaugurate a new era of job growth.

His economic record, however, has been mixed. Though the national GDP has surged, India last year fell from fifth to seventh place among the world's largest economies. Car sales in July plunged 31 per cent. Unemployment is the worst it has been in 45 years.

Officials have said a new way of measuring jobs makes proper historical comparison impossible, but there is reason to doubt official statistics. Mr. Modi's own former long-standing economic adviser has publicly accused the government of dramatically inflating growth.

Where Mr. Modi has unquestionably succeeded, however, is in redirecting the course of the country, and his role in it - and, critics say, in using his nationalist agenda to distract from economic woes.

Observers, critics and former colleagues say the second-term list of priorities for Mr. Modi is likely to include issues that have been core to the RSS for decades: the construction of a Hindu temple on the site of a Muslim mosque at Ayodhya (a potential religious flashpoint that has already given rise to deadly riots) as well as the creation of a uniform civil code (doing away with special legal provisions for religious groups); and perhaps even limiting births (in a country where Muslim families fall under suspicion of having many children).

Mr. Modi himself hinted at the latter in an Independence Day speech this week, referring to the "consequences of the uncontrolled population growth" and calling it "an act of patriotism" to have few children.

Such a proposal might stir a revolt elsewhere. But Mr. Modi has skillfully woven his political persona with the Hindu character of the country, making him "the embodiment" of the nationalist spirit he has helped to curry, said Mr. Sinha, the former BJP minister who quit the party last year and has now become an outspoken critic.

"Modi is India," he said. "It gives him enormous powers."

Mr. Sinha worries that "we are moving in the direction of single-party rule for many years to come."

Mr. Modi's agenda has made for potent politics. He enjoys broad support in the country's media, entertainment and corporate sectors. Even politicians from smaller opposition parties have in recent weeks defected to Mr. Modi's BJP.

But he has also courted danger, critics say. Internally, if nationalist impulses foment further violence against minorities, "at some point he may want to get off the tiger and not be able to control it," Mr.

Mukhopadhyay, the biographer, said.

In Kashmir, the threat is more imminent. Observers warn that insurgent activity could return when the curfew lifts, a possibility that places Indian leadership in a delicate situation as it seeks the peace it has promised in Kashmir.

Indian and Pakistani troops have already exchanged fire, with Pakistan reporting three dead soldiers.

Pakistan claims all of Kashmir, and its Prime Minister, Imran Khan, has vowed to "fight until the end" against aggression from India.

"India has sprayed Occupied Kashmir with gasoline and is playing with matches," Mosharraf Zaidi, a Pakistani international affairs analyst, warned on Twitter.

Kashmir has long been a place of deep contrasts: a land of rushing rivers, stunning mountain vistas and bloody violence; a Muslim region in a Hindu country; an agricultural region caught between nuclear powers.

In 1947, at the partition of the British Raj, the royal rulers of Kashmir wavered in choosing between Pakistan and India. They opted for the latter only when raiders from the former pushed deep into Kashmir, arriving on the outskirts of Srinagar, its capital. Even then, Kashmir has accepted only partial Indian rule. New Delhi took control of foreign policy, defence and communications, but Jammu and Kashmir retained the right to its own constitution and the ability to bar outsiders from owning property.

Almost immediately, some in India began to call for abolishment of those provisions, which were "not in the interest of either India or the people of Jammu and Kashmir," said Abha Khanna, media director for the Jammu Kashmir Study Centre, an organization that has dedicated itself in part to providing documentary proof of ancient Indian ownership of Kashmir.

And it has involved formulating a template for integrating minorities into the mainstream definition of what it means to be Indian.

The problem in Kashmir, Ms. Khanna believes, is a fundamentalism that has poisoned the populace. She accuses local leaders, teachers and journalists of occupying a "separatist-terrorist-political nexus" that has spread a "narrative that India does not feel for the people of Kashmir."

The solution, she said, lies primarily in changing people's thoughts, using rhetoric similar to that employed in China amidst a campaign to re-educate Muslims - though she does not advocate the use of force. But "the education system has to incorporate the feel of India," Ms. Khanna said.

In the meantime, the lockdown on Kashmir is unfortunate and unavoidable, she said. She recalled seeing a puppy once whose foot had become infected with maggots. Only painful intervention could remove the rot. "The puppy is going to scream," she said. "But it has to be done to be able to save his foot." In Kashmir, "it is something similar."

Indian authorities aren't keen to have others see what that looks like. Though they have pledged to begin easing the lockdown in coming days, foreign journalists are barred from Kashmir.

Even in Jammu, signs of the government chokehold remain.

Soldiers and heavily armed police stand every few dozen metres on roadsides, some at posts next to mounted rifles pointing at oncoming traffic. Though mobile phone service has been restored, mobile internet remains completely black.

Kashmiris here are hesitant to criticize the government. Muslims in India have been attacked under Mr.

Modi, but "these things take place in every country. In America, sometimes white men attack black men," said Hilam Sanaie, founder of AlHilal International School, an Islamic boarding institution.

Fear nonetheless ripples through the city's Muslim community. With their home now under the control of the central government, there is worry that outsiders will move in, seizing jobs and bringing crime. "They feel that if people come here, our women won't be safe," Mr.Sanaie said.

Naveeda Rehman, a Kashmiri woman in Jammu, speaks darkly about the direction India is taking. "I don't feel like it's a democratic country any more, because we can't ask for what we want," Ms. Rehman said.

And if India is indeed one, "why is only one religion being targeted?" she asked.

"A terrorist is someone who spreads fear," she says. "These days, who is the one spreading terror?"

Associated Graphic

Top: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends celebrations in honour of the country's 73rd Independence Day on Thursday. Above: Members of the rightist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which Mr. Modi joined as a child, take part in a drill in Ahmedabad.


Kashmiri residents leave their house in Srinagar on Wednesday during government-imposed restrictions. Curfew was recently lifted in Jammu, but Muslim-dominated Kashmir has remained in a state of lockdown, with armed soldiers patrolling empty streets and residents taking refuge without electronic communication.


Above: A 14-year-old is tended to in a hospital in Srinagar after being trampled in a stampede when Indian forces opened fire on demonstrators on Aug. 9. Below: Indian paramilitary soldiers patrol Srinagar on Thursday.


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