Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh gave a crisp interview to The Hindu about everything that has India in a turmoil at the moment. From the uproar against the 'beef ban' to the escalating crisis in Jammu & Kashmir to the Centre's thorny relationship with NGOs, he spoke about a range of controversial issues.
If some of his responses were tinged with impatience, he largely did what any astute politician would: stay safe on contentious terrain, quote textbook examples of democratic governance to explain the Centre's stance, and deny knowledge of anything that could muddy the waters of his ministerspeak.
It's one thing for Singh to express his views as an individual and quite another to speak on behalf of the ruling government—the two don't necessarily always coincide. Even more troubling for him would be to justify the actions of the party of which he is a member—and the dominant ideologies it identifies with. Since he's all three—an individual, party member and elected politician with a ministerial portfolio—he cannot get away by distancing himself from any of these entities according to his convenience.
What Singh says, therefore, often ends up sounding strikingly different from what's going on in the country or the way some of his party colleagues are reacting in public. We did a reality check of some of his claims and found baffling discrepancies.
On being asked about the protests in Kerala, West Bengal and the northeastern states against the Centre's alleged attempt to ban beef, Singh flatly denied any such move by his government. "There is absolutely no attempt by the government to stop people from eating their food of choice," he said. "We understand the reality that there is cultural diversity in the country, despite this we are one country."
It's not for the first time a government spokesperson has made such an assurance but it hasn't assuaged the protestors. Clearly, there's a gap between the Centre's perception of the situation and the reality of what people are facing should they exercise their choice of dietary habits.
Singh attributed the current wave of public agitation for the right to eat beef to a misunderstanding of a notification passed by the ministry of environment, restricting sale and purchase of cattle for slaughter all over the country. The order is seen as a means to prohibit consumption of beef, especially by Kerala, West Bengal and the states in the Northeast, where the meat is consumed traditionally for community, religious or social reasons.
Even if Singh's interpretation of the order may be correct, the repercussions of beef consumption, whether the act is true or perceived by a mob, has cost lives. A man in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, was hounded out of his home on suspicion of keeping contraband meat and killed in cold blood in 2015. A dairy farmer in Rajasthan faced a similar fate more recently, when his murderers accused him of ferrying cattle for slaughter.
The practical implications of caring for cattle past their agricultural utility are disastrous for poor farmers, already beset with enough troubles. To reduce a nationwide uproar against beef ban to just a question of an individual's right to eat food of their choice is therefore to take away its full complexity. It also smacks of doublespeak from a politician who has been keen on banning beef since 2015 and believes that cows and humans share 80% of the same genes.
Singh's response to the crisis in the valley is consistent with his offer of holding talks with the stakeholders, though vague at its best. He is yet to offer any specific outline of "a permanent solution" to a decades-long problem like Kashmir but from the little that can be gleaned from his answers, he advocates Internet ban as a way to control extremism. Kashmiris have long devised their own plans to sabotage the government's curb on social media, either by using VPNs or having alternative platforms. So that strategy has backfired rather than worked in anyone's favour.
Singh also believes "there are some forces, of our neighbouring country, who are trying to misguide and mislead the youth of Kashmir." While there is more than a grain of truth in his statement, the role of our own army in fomenting discontent among Kashmiri youth cannot be undermined. Although Singh said the "children who have picked up stones are also our children", Major Leetul Gogoi of the Indian Army, who recently gained notoriety for using a 'human shield', didn't seem to feel the same way. Nor did his senior colleagues serving in the establishment.
That's one of the biggest holes in Singh's views on Kashmir: his platitudes are roundly contradicted by the views of the security establishment controlling the lives of the people there.
It's hard to pick out human rights as a separate strand from the interview, since it's pertinent to almost everything Singh speaks about. From its violations in Kashmir to the war to curb left-wing extremism in Maoist areas to demonetisation, it persists through the interaction. But Singh's defence, in the face of uncomfortable question, appears to be curt denial. For example:
Question: It's feared that the surrenders of left-wing extremists were faked by law-enforcement agencies. Answer: he doesn't believe in such allegations.
Demonetisation, which affected the lives of millions across the nation, has brought down terror funding, Singh claimed, based on "authentic information" but declined giving any specific validation.
As for the "controversial" foreign funding received by NGOs, which led the government to cancel thousands of licences, he replied selectively: To the question of BJP and Congress being accused of accepting foreign donations from the UK-based Vedanta in violation of the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act, Singh only clarified that the Aam Aadmi Party hasn't been given a clean chit by the Delhi High Court yet. On whether American Christian NGO Compassion International was asked to reroute its funding through the RSS, Singh denied any knowledge of such tidings. He insisted India has still cordial relations with the NGO and hadn't banned it at all.
India's human rights records were blasted in the Universal Periodic Review conducted by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva earlier this month. The report published after the proceeding had 250 recommendations to India by the other member countries, a worryingly high number even though some of the nations may have expressed the same concerns.
Attorney General Mukul Rohtagi's defence didn't fly in the face of the multiple issues raised: firm domestic laws to address custodial torture, repeal of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, criminalisation of marital rape, abolition of death penalty and the amendment of the FCRA.
India's next chance to respond to the recommendations will come in September—it's not an option to reject any. Hopefully, it will be more articulate and less circumspect than the home minister then.
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