Rogue Policemen and a Series of Bizarre Incidents

Rogue Policemen and a Series of Bizarre Incidents

We have heard about cops giving the jitters to culprits. However, in the western Indian city of Pune, something quite the opposite occurred last week when cops fled a crime scene at the sight of knife-wielding robbers.

A couple of policemen who were called to nab four burglars robbing apartments in the Aundh neighborhood, allegedly ran away when they saw the miscreants coming out of the building with knives and rods in their hands.

Surveillance cameras fitted outside the building recorded the entire episode.

“The event occurred around 3 a.m. on December 28. After being informed by the locals, two police constables were sent from the nearest police station Chaturshringi,” said an officer at Khadki police Division, Pune, Maharashtra.

The four men hit the society’s watchman Govind Hiraman Yadav to get into the complex. They then looted a television set, a silver chain, and cash from five locked flats.

The Pune police have ordered an inquiry against constables Anil Awaghade and Santosh Gore for their unprofessional behavior.

This is not the first time that such bizarre incidents involving the police have taken place.

Recently, Kaushlendra Pratap Singh, station head officer at Bithoor police station, Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, was in the news for using a stolen car that had been recovered by the police. The car was stolen two years ago from a car wash center at Barra, another neighborhood in Kanpur.

The mess-up came to light when the car owner Omendra Soni got a call from an auto service center on Dec 30 asking for feedback on the service taken a few days ago. A startled Soni later discovered that his stolen car was in possession of the Bithoor police and Singh had been using it for a while.

Details on how and when the stolen car reached Singh are unclear as officials at the Bithoor police station refused to speak about the incident.

Police accountability in India has been questioned quite often. Alongside charges of corruption, the country’s policing system has been leveled with charges of discriminatory action towards economically vulnerable groups and religious minorities. The force has also been criticized for its inability to deliver services and failure to develop a functional relationship with citizens.

Last week, a police constable in Uttarakhand state in Northern India allegedly ran over and killed a shop owner after the latter asked him to pay for a cigarette he had bought. The constable, who was accompanied by two other men, got into a brawl with Gaurav Rohella (28), the cigarette seller, outside his shop at Bajpur, Udham Singh Nagar district.

“We have arrested all the three accused, including the police constable Praveen Kumar and are investigating the matter,” said Deepshikha Agarwal, circle officer, Bajpur.

“The incident occurred at around 10.30 p.m. on Dec 30. Complainants told us that Kumar and the other two accused arrived at the spot in Kumar’s brother-in-law’s car. They got into an argument after Rohella charged them for leaving the shop without paying for the bought cigarettes. Soon after, Kumar got into the car and ran over Rohella.”

Rohella was initially taken to the Community Health Center at Bajpur but was referred to a hospital at Haldwani, around 48 kilometers from Bajpur, where he succumbed to his injuries, said Agarwal.

The Lokniti team at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), in 2018, had surveyed 15,562 respondents across 22 states on their perceptions about policing. It found that only 24 percent of Indians trusted the police highly, compared to 54 percent of people who trusted the army.

The Status of Policing in India Report 2018 also found that 14 percent of the respondents were highly fearful of the police and 30 percent somewhat fearful of it. 29 percent of the surveyed women said they were afraid of sexual harassment by the police.

In July 2020, the death of father-son duo P Jayaraj and Bennicks in police custody had taken the entire nation by storm. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has filed a charge sheet against nine Tamil Nadu police officers for allegedly illegally picking up the two men and torturing them all night – until their clothes were soaked in blood and both were left near-dead. The men died at a local hospital.

(Edited by Anindita Ghosh and Uttaran Dasgupta)



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Human Rights Group: Delhi Police Violated Human Rights

Human Rights Group: Delhi Police Violated Human Rights

NEW DELHI — Indian authorities are not investigating the “grave human rights violations” allegedly committed by the police during February riots in New Delhi, human rights group Amnesty International India claimed.

“Delhi police personnel were complicit and an active participant in the violence,” Amnesty said in an investigative briefing released Aug. 28.

The organization’s investigation is based on conversations with 50 riots survivors, eyewitnesses, lawyers, doctors, human rights activists and retired police officers, as well as several videos of the violence.

The Delhi police force has denied any wrongdoing and did not respond to a Zenger News request for comment about the Amnesty report.

President Donald Trump was in New Delhi as part of his first state visit to India when violence roiled the northeastern parts of India’s capital, in which 53 people — mostly Muslim, India’s largest religious minority — were killed.

A parking lot in Northeast Delhi which was burnt down during the riots. An intelligence bureau staffer Ankit Sharma was killed near this parking lot on March 16, 2020. (Courtesy: Sadiq Naqvi)

Amnesty’s report documents a timeline of alleged violations by Delhi police, starting from the pan-Indian protests against a new citizenship law in late December 2019. It claims to have found a “disturbing pattern of grave human rights violations committed by the Delhi police during the riots.”

“Six months on, there has not been even a single investigation into the role of the Delhi police,” said Avinash Kumar, executive director of Amnesty International India.

During the six days of rioting, a video surfaced of police personnel kicking five men and forcing them to sing India’s national anthem. One of them, known as Faizan, later died of his injuries.

Amnesty said the video was among those analyzed by its crisis evidence laboratory, and the team interviewed Faizan’s mother. After the incident, Faizan was detained by the police for close to 36 hours without any charge. He was handed over to his mother at 1 a.m. on Feb. 26 after his condition had deteriorated.

Mohammad Rafiq, a 27-year-old tailor, was also among the five men who can be seen being assaulted in the video.

Mohammad Rafiq shows his injuries on March 14, 2020. (Courtesy: Sadiq Naqvi)

He said the group was kept in police lockup until late on the night of Feb. 25. Rafiq had been picked up by the police when he had stepped out to look for his mother on Feb. 24.

“The policemen first dragged me to the government-run clinic in the area and beat me up,” he said. “Four people were already lying on the ground there. I lost all hope and thought, ‘I won’t survive this.’”

The police took them to the local hospital for first aid and then moved them to the lockup at the police station.

“We asked them to release us,” Rafiq said. “But they said the situation outside the police station was bad.”

“The ruthless treatment of the heavily injured men by the Delhi police officers violates the international human rights standard,” Amnesty said in its statement.

The police force has said previously its investigations were fair.

“Delhi police would like to assure you that it is has the capability and the resolve to bring all those responsible for the riots to justice – and nothing bears out this intention more than the fact that over 750 cases have been registered and more than 1,500 persons have already been arrested in connection with the riots,” Eish Singhal, a Delhi police spokesperson, wrote in a statement on Aug. 7.

In another response on June 26, Singhal had written that more than 400 First Information Reports, or official written complaints, have been registered from the minority community.

“No discrimination has been made on grounds of community, caste or color,” he said.

Tall iron gates come up in neighborhoods of Northeast Delhi after the riots on March 13, 2020. (Courtesy: Sadiq Naqvi)

Violence in northeast Delhi followed two months of protests against the new citizenship law. The law, passed by the Indian parliament in December 2019, fast-tracks the citizenship process for non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In New Delhi, one such protest in the northeastern parts of the city had snowballed into riots.

Kapil Mishra, a local leader from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, had threatened to forcibly remove the protesters. Amnesty said the police did not act against Mishra, even when his speech was immediately followed by large-scale violence.

Delhi police and Mishra did not respond to the allegation. 

“Amnesty International is bereft of any credibility,” said Sudhanshu Mittal, a senior party leader.

“The leadership of Amnesty, the Aakar Patels and Ashwini Kumars have a long history of being anti-Modi,” he said, referring to the former and present chief.

Wall writing calls for a Hindu country in Northeast Delhi on March 14, 2020. (Courtesy: Sadiq Naqvi)

“Sometime back, media was full of stories about a senior police officer writing to his juniors about a large number of complaints received from Hindus alleging bias in the investigations by the police,” Mittal said. “How is it that Amnesty has not chosen to look into any complaint which the Hindus have made against the Delhi police?”

But victims of the violence agree with Amnesty’s report.

“Had the police acted properly we would not have faced this situation,” said Babu Khan, whose two sons, Amir Khan, 30, and Asim Ali, 19, were waylaid by a mob, killed and thrown into a drain on Feb. 26.

Babu Khan outside his residence in Mustafabad in Northeast Delhi on March 13, 2020. (Courtesy: Sadiq Naqvi)

Amnesty also claims the police selectively targeted anti-citizenship law protestors. A lawyer who is representing many accused of rioting said the situation was grim.

“Not only are victims being attacked, but also lawyers are being threatened and journalists are being assaulted,” said Mahmood Pracha, whom Delhi police have accused of forging documents and instigating a man to depose falsely.  

Delhi Police’s Special Cell, its anti-terror wing, is probing the riot. Under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act of 1967, police have arrested several students, activists and politicians who were protesting against the new law.

Amnesty has demanded a prompt investigation into all allegations of human rights violations by the police.

“This ongoing state-sponsored impunity sends the message that the law enforcement officials can commit grave human rights violations and evade accountability,” Amnesty’s Kumar said.

(Edited by Siddharthya Roy and Natalie Gross.)



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India Beckons Foreign Artists ‘Home’

India Beckons Foreign Artists ‘Home’

CHENNAI—India has always held a certain mystique for people from Western countries. While for many the fascination may be fleeting, for a few performing artists who have made India their home, it is now an enduring affair.

Here are some of their stories:

Marie Elangovan

Marie Elangovan, who is French-Canadian, was a student of religious studies in Montreal when she stumbled upon a Bharatnatyam video at her university library. That was when she decided to learn the art form in the place of its birth, the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India.

“The performer in the video, clad in a red sari, dancing in the backdrop of a temple, left me spellbound,” said Elangovan. “I fell in love with the art form.”

Unable to find a full-time teacher in Montreal, she realized that she had to come to India if she wanted to learn the dance.

“I felt at home in India right from the beginning,” said Elangovan. “I had to make some adjustments, but they added color to my life.”

Some of the adjustments she made included not sitting in parks by herself, and meeting but not greeting strangers like she would in Canada. However, it was all worth it, she said, because she got to learn Bharatanatyam — which is what drew her to India in the first place.

Elangovan ended up marrying Elangovan Govindarajan, the son of her Bharatanatyam teacher, K. J. Govindarajan, further enhancing her assimilation into her adopted culture.

Sharon Lowen

Sharon Lowen, a U.S. citizen from Detroit, came to India in 1973 on a Fulbright scholarship to study Manipuri dance, a classical form from northeast India, under the tutelage of Guru Singhajit Singh.  She also learned Odissi, a dance form from the eastern state of Odisha, from guru Kelucharan Mohapatra.

“Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra said I learned faster than anybody else,” she said.

Lowen settled down in India in the 1980s, though she maintains close ties with the United States and will be voting in the upcoming elections there.

Lowen said that it has been easy for her to thrive in India because she is accepted as a performer in a country where a classical dancer has to be exceptional to pass muster.

“I decided to stay on in India because here I was doing something worthwhile,” she said. “ I was learning about Indian languages and creating good work.”

While Lowen did not know any Indian language when she  arrived, she did not let that hinder her growth. She would ask people to translate poetry for her and then read more about [the poets] to understand the nuances of their work.

Sonali Mishra

Sonali Mishra poses for a photo in Bhubaneshwar, India in August 2019. (Courtesy: Srikant Panda)

Odissi dancer Sonali Mishra is of Indian ancestry, but she was born and raised in the United States. She moved to India permanently in 2011 after marrying into an Indian family.

Her decision was also triggered by her love for India and her comfort level with its culture. Mishra had visited India often to learn Odissi, before she got married.

“I moved here because I got married, but dance made it easier to take that decision because I was familiar with the culture and context of life here,” said Mishra.

She said that since she married into an Odiya family, she is no longer considered a foreigner in the eyes of the people in her dance class. But that comes with added responsibilities, she said..

“The label of a foreigner or American ceased to exist,” said Mishra. “As a dancer, I had to work harder to raise my standard to that of the level of dancers in India.”

Just like Lowen, Mishra feels at home in India as well as in the United States.

Christopher Guruswamy

Christopher Guruswamy, a Chennai-based Bharatnatyam dancer who grew up in Australia, said that he did not think he would end up living  in Chennai after his training at the premier dance institute—Kalakshetra—ended.

“I came to India only to go to Kalakshetra; I did not plan to stay on after that,” said Guruswamy.

However, a chat he had with the then director of Kalakshetra , Leela Samson, an accomplished Bharatnatyam dancer, led to his decision to stay in Chennai.

“Leela Akka (sister) asked me what I would do in Perth,” said Guruswamy. “She felt I was a good dancer and should pursue it seriously so I extended my stay for a year.”

Guruswamy has now been in Chennai for 15 years.

“I like how Chennai is quieter than other cities,” he said. “When I go to places like Mumbai, I realize how much of a Chennai boy I am.”

Zophia Lichota

Zophia Lichota poses for a photo in New Delhi, India in June 2016. (Courtesy: Joginder Dogra)

While some dancers have stayed permanently in India, others with work commitments have had to leave and then come back whenever they could. Zophia Lichota is one.

Based in Poland, Lichota has been coming to India on a scholarship from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. She felt that if she wanted to train seriously, she had to come to India.

“Indian art forms aren’t taught in Europe the way they are in India,” she said.

After coming to India, she started training in Odissi and Kuchipudi. Earlier, she worked from her home in India so that she could keep up employment and still learn a new dance.

An analyst with a global auditing firm, Lichota plans to take a sabbatical so that she can spend more time in India learning Odissi and Kuchipudi.

“I will use my sabbatical to learn and perform in India,” she said.

(Edited by Siddharthya Roy and Judy Isacoff.)



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Critics Take Aim at India’s Unemployment Benefit for 4 Million Workers

Critics Take Aim at India’s Unemployment Benefit for 4 Million Workers

MUGHALSARAI, India—Some 4 million workers stand to benefit from a recent move by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that recently relaxed eligibility criteria and enhanced payments for those who have lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic.

But the scheme is not without its critics.

The Ministry of Labour and Employment announced on Aug. 20 that workers covered under the Employees’ State Insurance Corporation  scheme will get 50 percent of 90 days’ wages if they have lost or will lose their jobs between March 24 and Dec. 31 this year. This could benefit 4.1 million industrial workers, the government claims. Previously, the wage benefit was marked at 25 percent.

The country went into lockdown on March 25 to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

As per labor laws, businesses with 10 or more employees must register with the ESIC. This allows their employees to get INR 21,000 ($281) a month, or $335 if they are disabled, to avail them of primary or tertiary healthcare benefits.

“We have updated the ESIC database with the latest employee records,” said P. K. Singh, assistant director (general), subregional ESIC office in Pandeypur, Varanasi. “Once we receive a formal notice, we will start releasing funds to the eligible people.

 

“This will help provide relief to the huge number of workers who have been rendered jobless by the pandemic,” he said.

Since Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party was elected in May 2019, the opposition has been attacking it on rising unemployment in the country.

India follows an April-March financial year, and in 2017-18 the country’s unemployment rate soared to a 45-year high of 6.1 percent from 2.2 percent in 2011-12. In April 2019, unemployment rose to 7 percent, increasing to 7.76 percent in February 2020.

The two main reasons cited for this are the government’s decision to demonetize high-value currency notes (INR 500 and INR 1,000) in November 2016 and the introduction of a new indirect tax (the goods and services) in July 2017.

The currency measure severely hit demand in the cash-dependent country, resulting in the withdrawal of 86 percent of the money in circulation. The introduction of the goods and services tax was marred by many teething troubles and affected the small and medium-size enterprises in that are the major employers. When the Covid-19 crisis hit, the economy has not recovered from these twin shocks. The lockdown has resulted in businesses closing and more people losing their jobs.

A migrant family travels inside a tempo stopped by Mumbai Police on the Eastern Express Highway in Mumbai, India on May 21, 2020. They were later provided a state transport bus. (Courtesy: Emmanual Yogini)

The unemployment rate dropped dramatically from 23.5 percent in April to 7.43 percent in July, but there is still a lot of distress.

“Had the Modi-led government taken enough measures to address India’s unemployment problem in time, the country could have avoided the failure of its economic machinery,” said Ashok Singh, president of the Indian National Trade Union Congress in Uttar Pradesh.

“Despite the unemployment rate shooting up in December 2019, the lawmakers didn’t deem it necessary to include a section on unemployment insurance and assistance in the Social Security Code Bill submitted to the parliament the same month,” said K R Shyam Sundar, professor of human resource management at the XLRI -Xavier School of Managementin Jamshedpur.

“The government is always trying to avoid the financial burden of providing unemployment assistance,” said Sundar, an industrial relations expert and columnist.   “And this fiscal mathematics is preventing policymakers from designing, even after the pandemic, a comprehensive unemployment insurance and assistance scheme. Such is the poverty of labor legislation in a neoliberal India.”

In the early 1990s, India moved away from a Soviet-inspired planned economy to a more free-market economy, with mixed results. Despite rapid economic growth, economic inequality is stark.

The top 10 percent of the Indian population holds 77 percent of national wealth, according to an Oxfam report. Many Indians are unable to access health care and 63 million are pushed into poverty because of this every year, the report states.

The government’s unemployment policies have been criticized as political gestures. The relaxation in the ESIC scheme is also being viewed with skepticism.

“The law neglects a large sector of the work force — those employed in organizations with less than 10 people,” said Devesh Tripathi a lawyer from Chandauli in Uttar Pradesh who specializes in the ESIC.

“There is a lack of clarity on how this new ESIC modification will define unemployment,” he said. “Claims of employment will also be difficult to authenticate.”

The scheme allows a worker to declare himself as unemployed. To receive unemployment relief, the insured person should have been employed for at least two years and have contributed to the scheme a minimum of 78 days prior to losing their job.

Critics say that more people could have been brought into the scheme and a greater allowance would have been possible if the government in July 2019 had note allowed the contribution to the scheme to be cut. Employers now contribute 3.25 percent, down from the earlier 4.75 percent, and employees contribute 1.75 percent, down from 0.75 percent, of monthly salaries.

Migrants from Uttar Pradesh rest along the Mumbai Nashik Highway in Mumbai, India on May 21, 2020. (Courtesy: Emmanual Yogini)

Liberalization of the economy has meant a large influx of foreign funds and privatization of major government-owned companies. The United States invested $45.88 billion in India in 2019. The government has also set itself a disinvestment target of INR 21 trillion ($284 billion) in financial year 2020-21.

But this has come at a cost to laborers.

“The public sector is the backbone of a country,” said Ashok Singh. “But the government wants to privatize it. It could have helped solve the unemployment crisis to a great extent.”

Sundar believes the country will face a bigger unemployment problem before long.

“The manufacturing and services sector will introduce technology-related unemployment in a few years,” he said. “The government must prepare a strong social security system.”

(Edited by Siddharthya Roy and Judy Isacoff.)



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India Charges Pakistan-Based Terrorist Suicide Bombing

India Charges Pakistan-Based Terrorist Suicide Bombing

NEW DELHI —Pakistan-based Maulana Masood Azhar, designated a terrorist by the United Nations, has been charged in India for the February 2019 suicide bombing in Pulwama, Kashmir, that left 40 Indian paramilitary personnel dead and brought the two nuclear-armed nations to the brink of war.

A 13,800-page charge sheet against Azhar, his brothers Rauf Asghar and Ammar Alvi, and 16 others has been filed at a special court in Jammu in north India by the National Investigation Agency. The 19 have been charged under various provisions of Indian laws, including the principle counterterrorism law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967,and are also charged with murder. The special court is likely to hear the matter in September.

While Azhar, who is reported to be in Pakistan, and five others continue to be out of India’s reach, seven others have been arrested and six have been killed, the investigation agency said in a statement on Aug. 25 after it filed the charge sheet.

“The investigation has revealed that Pulwama attack was a result of a well-planned criminal conspiracy hatched by the Pakistan-based leadership of terrorist organization Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM),” the agency stated.

After the suicide bombing, the JeM released a video to claim responsibility for the attack in Kashmir, a contested territory between Pakistan and India. The countries have been at war over Kashmir several times since they both became independent from British rule in 1947.

 

Indian investigators now claim to have cracked the timeline of the planning and execution of the Feb. 14, 2019 attack, when a car laden with explosives rammed into a bus carrying Central Reserve Police Force personnel as it made its way to Srinagar in the Kashmir valley.

The investigators claim that JeM operative Mohammad Umar Farooq, a Pakistani who illegally crossed into India in April 2018, planned the attack with three Pakistanis and two Kashmiris. The group was aided by several others who are named in the charge sheet.

Investigators said the car used to carry out the attack was packed with nearly 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of explosives such as calcium ammonium nitrate, RDX, gelatin sticks and aluminium powder. Investigators say the explosives were ready in January 2019, but snowfall prevented the operations until mid-February.

In the video released by JeM claiming responsibility for the attack, one man is seen with at least four guns and grenades, exhorting Kashmiris to join the militant outfit. Investigators say the video was recorded in January 2019.

Azhar formed the JeM in 2000, a year after he was released by Indian authorities in exchange for 155 hostages on board an Indian Airlines plane that had been hijacked to Kandahar, Afghanistan.  The JeM was sanctioned by the UN Security Council in 2001 for its association with Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and Azhar was blacklisted by the Security Council’s ISIL and Al Qaeda sanctions committee and designated a global terrorist in 2019 after a sustained campaign by Indian diplomats.

Azhar and his outfit have been blamed for orchestrating other high-profile attacks on Indian soil, including the 2001 attack on India’s Parliament in New Delhi and the strike on a frontline Indian Air Force base in Pathankot near the border with Pakistan in 2016.

“The JeM emerged very rapidly after the release of Masood Azhar in January 2000,” said Syed Ata Hasnain, a former Indian Army commander in Kashmir and now the chancellor of Central University of Kashmir.

An ambulance waits at the scene of the suicide bombing in Lethpora in Kashmir on February 14, 2019. (Courtesy: Mohammad Tahir)

Two weeks after the attack in February 2019, India claimed to have bombed JeM’s training camp in Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. A day later, as Pakistan retaliated, a dog fight between Indian and Pakistani fighters led to the downing of an Indian jet and the capture of its pilot in Pakistan. India also claimed to have downed a Pakistani F-16 fighter.

As the hostile neighbors came to the brink of war, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo called for restraint, and President Donald Trump said his administration was trying to prevent further escalation.

“They’ve been going at it, and we’ve been involved in trying to have them stop,” Trump said in Hanoi on Feb. 28, 2019. An independence movement has roiled Kashmir since the early 1990s.

In its case against the terrorists, the investigation agency says it has “a lot of digital, forensic, documentary and oral evidence establishing a foolproof case,” and has information not only from Indian agencies, but also from foreign law enforcement agencies.

Experts say the charge sheet is significant, and once it is accepted by the court, it could put further pressure on Pakistan for its alleged inaction against terrorist groups.

“The significance of the charge sheet lies in the weight it carries as a legal document which contains evidence of the terrorist networks in Pakistan conspiring and sponsoring terrorist acts on Indian territory,” said Vivek Katju, a former diplomat who served as secretary in India’s Ministry of External Affairs.

“The organization and its leadership is in Pakistan. It is regrettable that MasoodAzhar, the first accused in the charge sheet continues to find shelter in Pakistan,” said Anurag Srivastava, spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs said while addressing reporters in New Delhi on Aug. 27. “Enough evidence has been shared with Pakistan but it continues to evade responsibility.”

Edited by Siddharthya Roy and Judy Isacoff.



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Leadership Crisis Rocks India’s Main Opposition Party

Leadership Crisis Rocks India’s Main Opposition Party

NEW DELHI—An explosive letter leaked by the Indian Express has set political circles in New Delhi’s power corridors abuzz about the fate of the Indian National Congress—India’s oldest party and the single largest opposition to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

As prominent senior leaders call for a complete restructuring of the party, a burgeoning split between older and younger members has been revealed.

The crisis has been brewing for the past five to six years, said Zoya Hasan, professor emerita at the Centre for Political Studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

“It is an unprecedented crisis in Congress’s history,” she said.

The party has been working without a full-time president since Rahul Gandhi resigned in July 2019, after Modi’s was reelected in a landslide for a second consecutive term three months earlier. Sonia Gandhi, Rahul’s mother who was the president of the party from 1998 to 2017, has been serving as interim president.

The party held a seven-hour meeting on Aug. 24 to try and resolve the leadership crisis. However, a day earlier, a letter was made public from 23 senior leaders, including former chief ministers and former cabinet members, to Sonia Gandhi seeking sweeping changes and acknowledging that the youth of the country had backed Modi.

Former Union minister Kapil Sibal and Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor, both of whom were reportedly among those who signed the letter, did not respond to questions sent by Zenger News.

 

“If 23 senior leaders send a letter to a party’s president asking for complete restructuring, that itself indicates a serious crisis,” said political scientist Sanjay Kumar, who heads the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, a New Delhi-based research institute.

Kumar said the letter laid bare the divide within the party.

“Younger leaders may still support Rahul Gandhi, some loyalists may also like him,” he said. “But events suggest there is a clear divide between the younger and older generations.”

The history of the party sheds some light on the situation it finds itself in today.

The Congress was founded in 1885 in Bombay (now Mumbai), comprising notable Indians and some Englishmen. Allan Octavian Hume, a retired English civil servant and one of the founding members, described it as a “safety valve” that would inform the colonial administration of the grievances of Indians.

Soon, however, the party became the principal organ of the independence movement and was transformed by Mahatma Gandhi into a formidable political force. After India gained independence from British rule in 1947, the Congress, led by Jawaharlal Nehru, was elected to power and continued to rule without interruption until 1977, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi—Rahul Gandhi’s grandmother—was voted out of office.

She had declared a state of emergency in 1975, allowing her to rule by decree. During the 21-month period, the press was gagged and opposition leaders were jailed.

Indira Gandhi was returned to power in 1980 and served as prime minister until 1984, when she was assassinated by her bodyguards recruited by the Sikh separatist Khalistani movement. Her son (and Rahul Gandhi’s father), Rajiv Gandhi took office after his mother’s death until his assassination in 1991.

During Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as prime minister, some reforms were initiated in transforming the country from a Soviet-inspired closed economy to a more liberal one, but the complete liberalization agenda was taken up by Rajiv Gandhi’s successor, Congress party member P.V. Narasimha Rao, who served as prime minister from 1991-1996.

Rahul Gandhi, then-Vice President of the Indian National Congress party participates in a “Sadhbhawana Yatra” in Barpeta district, on December 12, 2015. (Courtesy: Biju Boro)

Rajiv’s wife, Sonia Gandhi, was elected president of the party in 1998, leading the party to electoral victory in 2004. The party remained in power, with economist Manmohan Singh as prime minister until  2014, when his tenure ended after a series of corruption scandals and the election of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

Since then, the Congress party has found it difficult to stage a comeback.

“The opposition has been weakened because the Congress is deeply enmeshed in a leadership crisis,” said Hasan, of the Centre for Political Leadership.

Many believe that the Congress is the only party that can challenge the Bharatiya Janata Party’s hegemony at the national level. The party has an absolute majority of 303 among 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament.

“There can be no serious opposition to the BJP without the Congress,” said Hasan. “The regional parties cannot stand up to it.”

“This has long-term impacts on how democracy will function,” said Kumar.

While Rahul Gandhi’s performance as leader in elections has been patchy, many in the party still seem to support him and his family. At the Aug. 24 meeting of the Congress Working Committee, the party’s decision-making organ, it was decided that Sonia Gandhi would continue as interim president. It also authorized her to make organizational changes.

The election of a new party president is scheduled to take place in six months.

Priyanka Gandhi campaigning for Lok Sabha elections in Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh on April 9, 2019 (Courtesy: Roshan Abbas Naqvi)

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and other parties have often attacked the Congress for perpetuating family rule.

“The media wants a non-Gandhi (leader for the Congress), the BJP wants a non-Gandhi, but the Congress doesn’t want a non-Gandhi,” said Hasan.

The party may be headed to a split when it elects a new leader.

“Eventually, when the party comes to electing a president formally, I think that is the time when Congress would face a bigger crisis,” said Kumar.  “A split is imminent.”

Some of the parties born out of these splits have become regional behemoths.

“They may not help the party win elections, but the Gandhi surname has kept the flock together,” said Kumar.

In the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index released in January, India dropped 10 places, to 51st out of 165 independent states and two territories. The report cited “erosion of civil liberties” in the country as among the main reason for the downturn.

(Edited by Siddharthya Roy and Judy Isacoff.)



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