IN JUST OVER six months in Government, Union Home Minister Amit Shah has remade the ministry in his own image. Sterner than ever in dealing with issues of national security, the ministry and the agencies under it have settled the long-running political and ideological clash over privileging identity, particularly in the Kashmir Valley, by getting Parliament’s assent to scrap Article 370. They have also changed the citizenship law to provide shelter to Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Parsis who face persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
Speaking in Parliament on the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), Shah emphasised that its special status under Article 370 was creating doubts about the state’s relations with India. “We are rectifying a historical blunder,” Shah said. Parliament’s approval achieved a core and longstanding political agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that had always opposed the Article on the ground that it promoted separatism and created a separate class of citizens compared to the rest of India. In the process of making Article 370 a dead letter, the Narendra Modi regime concretised relations with a growing constituency drawn to the party by its nationalist agenda.
Shah said, in both Parliament and public meetings he addressed after getting the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill passed, that a government which fails to protect “its people” was guilty of dereliction of duty. According to him, political parties that do not care for persecuted people from the three countries and, instead, put the needs of illegal entrants into the country above those of its own citizens for political gain, were guilty of criminal neglect. “The provisions of this bill will help lakhs of persecuted people. After Partition, it was our vision that the minorities in these three countries should live with their rights intact and be able to practise their religion freely,” Shah said, adding, “After several decades, we have realised that whether it is Afghanistan or Pakistan or Bangladesh, the minorities were not protected and they were not given their legal rights.”
Shah informed the House that there had been a 20 per cent decline in the number of minorities in these countries. “Where have they gone? Either they have been killed or they were forced to change their religion or have come to India as refugees. They ought to have been given legal rights but this did not happen,” the Home Minister said, even as he blamed the Congress for not keeping the promise it had made after Partition.
To those not leading mobs of hooligans, one thing is clear: a fundamental and ideological remaking of India is underway. Narendra Modi and Amit Shah are establishing a cultural and civilisational state
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The opposition’s argument that the new Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) is discriminatory is far from the truth for several reasons. First, the new law has nothing to do with Indian citizens, including Muslims. It simply aims to facilitate the citizenship process for religious minorities from specific countries where Muslims are in a majority. Second, illegal Muslim migrants from these countries are economic immigrants who could only be granted work permits. Third, the law allows Muslims from the three countries mentioned to apply for Indian citizenship. But that would be governed by the procedures stipulated for all the others. Specious logic and emotive gas-lighting, however, have dominated the narrative from rabble-rousers of different ideological persuasions.
The amendment of the citizenship law saw the BJP’s rivals provoking the Muslim community to undertake violent protests in pockets dominated by the community. Prime Minister Modi stepped in on December 22nd to thwart their efforts by launching a frontal attack on those inflaming passions with “lies and rumours”. Addressing a big rally at the capital’s Ramlila Maidan, Modi said that the CAA’s key objective is to fulfil a promise that Mahatma Gandhi and other leaders had made to the religious minorities of these countries. In his address, the Prime Minister attacked those providing “ideological” support to the violent crowds, clearly indicating the Government’s resolve not to yield to the political intransigence of the left-wing and liberal elite.
To those not leading mobs of hooligans against the Government’s recent decisions, one thing is clear: a fundamental and ideological remaking of India is underway. Modi and Shah, who grew up admiring Veer Savarkar and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, are well on their way to establishing a cultural and civilisational state. In a signed article in a New Delhi newspaper last year, Modi wrote: ‘[Sardar Patel] worked with astonishing speed to dismantle the history of imperialism and create the geography of unity in the spirit of nationalism. He saved India from balkanisation and integrated the weakest limbs into the national framework.’
This was the unfinished work of the last seven decades. When Independence dawned on August 15th, 1947, India was not the country seen on contemporary maps. What gained independence was British India, and not Bharat as understood in recent history. A big chunk of territory spread over the subcontinent constituted over 500 princely states which, in theory, were eligible for freedom once the British quit India. While most states understood the impracticality of declaring independence, there were a number of significant holdouts. Kashmir, Hyderabad and Junagadh were the three most important ones. Sardar Patel’s role in integrating these states cannot be overstated.
Of these, Kashmir gave the most trouble. Strangely, the fate of Hyderabad was also tied to it, something that remains unappreciated more than 70 years later.
The story of how the last ruler of Kashmir, Maharaja Hari Singh, dithered is well known. He only asked for India’s military help when raiders from Pakistan were on the outskirts of Srinagar, threatening its airfield. On October 26th, 1947, Mehr Chand Mahajan, the Prime Minister of Kashmir came to Delhi seeking India’s help. The situation was desperate and according to historical documents, he told Jawaharlal Nehru that he had been instructed to seek help from India, failing which he would go to Muhammad Ali Jinnah and negotiate. An angry Nehru told him, “Mahajan, go away.” Later, Mahajan recalled that just as he was about to get up and leave, Sardar Patel whispered in his ear, “Of course, Mahajan, you are not going to Pakistan.” The next day, Indian troops landed in Srinagar, a step that Patel, along with Louis Mountbatten, was instrumental in taking.
India’s problems in Kashmir did not end there. It was obvious that some solution other than war was essential. Contrary to all later historical interpolation, India handed Kashmir to Pakistan on a platter, an offer that was summarily rejected. On November 1st, 1947, Mountbatten flew to Lahore and discussed the issue of Hyderabad, Kashmir and Junagadh with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan and later, with Jinnah. The formula was simple: plebiscite in a state where the ruler and the majority of his subjects belonged to the same community. Pakistan rejected it. Mountbatten noted, ‘Mr Jinnah then went on to say that he could not accept a formula if it was so drafted as to include Hyderabad, since he pointed out that Hyderabad did not wish to accede to either Dominion and he could not be a party to coercing them to accession.’
In making this proposal to Pakistan, Mountbatten had the backing of both Nehru and Patel. Much ink has been spilled over the surmise that had matters been left to Patel, he would have gladly given Kashmir to Pakistan. This is a simplification of a complex situation in a very complicated time. India had been partitioned along religious lines. At the core lay the issue of creating a strong centralised state, something held essential for India’s future by the country’s leadership, notably both Nehru and Patel.
Jinnah and the Muslim League did not agree with that. Seen from that perspective, the difference between Nehru and Patel lay in the approach to that goal. But once Prime Minister, Nehru decided that Kashmir was to be a part of India, Patel—who was both Nehru’s comrade for long and a nationalist to his core—organised the legal and administrative measures required for Kashmir’s accession to India.
Here again, he has been blamed for the mess of Article 370. Historical records, again, point in a different direction. If anything, despite his misgivings about the provisions of the Article, he backed it. The story of how Sheikh Abdullah tried hard to make changes to the Article that would have exacerbated political problems for the Central government in Kashmir is itself fascinating. The details of how the Article was drafted are only known sketchily. The deliberations in the Constituent Assembly (CA) are well known but the tug-of-war between Abdullah and N Gopalaswami Ayyangar—the point man for getting the Article passed—is not. Ayyangar ensured key changes in the Article, something Abdullah greatly resented. He even threatened to resign from the CA. It was left to Patel to clear up the mess.
Where does Hyderabad fit in the jigsaw puzzle that was India of the time? Three days after Independence, the constitutional advisor to the Nizam, Sir Walter Monckton, penned a secret note summarising the pros and cons of joining India. Even at this early date, the idea was to hedge for time as the note made it clear. The Nizam was more explicit. In a telegram to Monckton on January 5th, 1948, he clearly hinted that Hyderabad would wait and watch what happened to Kashmir and Junagadh at the United Nations before taking any step vis-à-vis India. He had already ruled out accession to India.
These measures would have tried the patience of any leader and perhaps broken the resolve of any government. Patel, however, was firm. On July 17th, two months before India’s police action in Hyderabad, he said, “Many have asked me the question what is going to happen to Hyderabad. They forget that when I spoke at Junagadh, I said openly that if Hyderabad did not behave properly, it would have to go the way that Junagadh did. Those words still stand and I stand by those words…” By mid-September, it was all over.
Any other Home Minister would have been defeat by the proceedings in Kashmir and Hyderabad. Sardar Patel, in those difficult years, had to contend with much more. Above all, he was a territorial nationalist who believed in securing what justly belonged to India
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Any other Home Minister would have been defeated just by the proceedings in Kashmir and Hyderabad. Patel, in those difficult years, had to contend with much more. Above all, he was a territorial nationalist who believed in securing what justly belonged to India. By 1948, it was clear that Manipur—a Hindu kingdom but with pretensions not very different from Kashmir’s—wanted independence. The Governor of Assam, Sir Akbar Hydari, said as much in his reports to Patel. The Home Minister had just one question: “Isn’t there a brigadier in Shillong?” The potentate was forced to merge Manipur with India.
While his role was limited to India’s internal problems, Sardar Patel showed remarkable prescience in his understanding of the threat posed by China. His letter of November 7th, 1950 to Nehru from Ahmedabad—penned barely a month before he passed away—is a masterpiece of understanding and foresight. From the Tibetan question to the dangers posed by communism to India’s internal security, Patel highlighted the required steps for the country’s safety. Crucially, he mentioned in that letter the need to build an intelligence system to assess the danger from China and have a thorough appreciation of India’s military strength. These, and much else, were ignored. The disaster that befell India in 1962 was littered with plenty of warnings on the way; Patel’s was the first.
After all these decades, Amit Shah is spearheading efforts to fix the broken system.