Hello, everyone! Welcome to this edition of Notes from South Asia. You can find the previous edition here. Today, we will cover the Indian National Congress’s (INC’s) failure in three state elections in India, The 1027 counter offensive against Myanmar army and justice for victims of caste atrocities in Nepal (Indian courts should learn from our small neighbour).
Plus, a culture story of India’s syncretic culture.
Assembly elections involve direct elections to the legislative assembly of an Indian state. Elections to five states were held in November and the votes for four were counted and results declared on 3rd Dec and the fifth, Mizoram on 4th Dec. Mizoram was delayed by a day because people of Mizoram were Christians and demanded that votes be not counted on Sunday (being church day). Election Commission agreed to delay the vote counting by day.
As you may know, INC is the main national level opposition party in India. In many states, regional parties hold sway so that INC is not necessarily among the main players. However, in the states that went to polls (that is, elections) in November, INC was in power in two (three were won but one was lost in a coup in 2020), and the opposition in the other three. The BJP was in power in one (the one they got by coup, Madhya Pradesh) and had an ally in government in one (Mizoram). The fifth state, the southern state of Telengana had a regional party called Bharat Rashtra Samiti (BRS) in power. The party’s original name was Telengana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) and it was then renamed to BRS once the party leader K. Chandrashekhara Rao started nursing national level ambitions.
In the November elections, BJP returned to power in Madhya Pradesh, which it had earlier won by coup after INC won the elections. In Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, INC lost power and BJP won enough seats to form the government. In Telengana, anti-incumbency brought down the BRS government and brought the main opposition, INC to power. In Mizoram, the BJP ally fell thanks to anti-incumbency and instead another state-level party, Zoram People’s Movement (ZPM) won (they might form an alliance with BJP too since that is what states in the North East of India do).
Now that you have the long and perhaps rather involved context, let us get to the analysis. I will just share Asim Ali’s (political researcher) piece for the Hindu: Nationally dominant, with a strategy that clicks because I agree with most of it.
The BJP’s victories in these State elections, as in previous elections north of the Vindhyas, owe themselves to two principal factors. First, a dominant (and in some respects unchallenged) ideological agenda, represented by the expansive rubric of Hindu nationalism. Second, a trusted and charismatic national leadership (chiefly Prime Minister Narendra Modi) which is highly adept at constantly reimagining and activating this ideological agenda through super-charged electoral campaigns. In much of the Hindi belt, the BJP now possesses a core ideological vote bank that ensures a forbidding structural advantage to the party in any election. In Rajasthan, for example, survey evidence (Axis India Today) suggests three times as many upper castes voted for the BJP as the Congress. The traditional divisions between Brahmins, Rajputs and Baniyas that had long characterised State politics seemed to have disappeared. More importantly, voters from the Other Backward Classes now represent the most critical support base of the party in the vast majority of the ‘Hindi belt’ States. Consider the leads commanded by the BJP against the Congress among OBC voters as in exit poll evidence (Axis India Today): 26%-point lead among the OBCs in Rajasthan, 24%-point lead in Madhya Pradesh, and a 13%-point lead in Chhattisgarh.
At least among certain upwardly mobile and dominant OBCs, support for the BJP now remains resilient and insulated through many contingent factors. Consider some of these factors: the two incumbent Chief Ministers belonging to OBC castes and often emphasising their identity; Rajasthan expanding the OBC quota and announcing caste census; the popularity of Mr. Baghel among farming OBC communities such as Kurmis and Sahus.
The charismatic leadership of Mr. Modi, who took a significant political risk fronting all three elections, remains crucial in melding this expanded support base of the party and smoothening out divisions among them through evoking a populist personality-based appeal. Mr. Modi also remains a singularly powerful force perhaps when facing an incumbent Opposition leader, electorally mobilising all the various constituencies harbouring latent feelings of anti-incumbency. Mr. Modi’s personal popularity has been perhaps a decisive factor in ensuring that no incumbent Congress Chief Minister of a large State has come back to power in the entirety of the Modi era (the last time was perhaps Tarun Gogoi in the Assam election in 2011).
One thing to note is that in both Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, voters were generally satisfied with the INC government and liked the CM. Still, they voted for Modi and BJP (some voters gave Modi as reason for the vote too; many gave satisfaction with central government, i.e. federal government, as the reason for BJP vote).
Why did INC fail?
First, the old guard of the Congress in North India (exemplified by Kamal Nath perfectly) is now perhaps a decade past its expiry date. They prevent the party from propounding a real progressive agenda and developing a State-level leadership that can embody progressive ideas. Since the old guard is resolutely status quoist, this not only harms the party by stanching intra-party competition and the emergence of a young leadership but they also veto the taking up of new ideas such as the caste census. The caste census agenda was virtually put into pause by the Congress in three State elections (even in Madhya Pradesh, where the CSDS NDTV survey evidence indicated a clear plurality of voters agreeing with the plank).
Consider the modus operandi of Congress Chief Ministers such as Mr. Baghel and Mr. Gehlot. They not just sidelined strong rival leaders (such as Sachin Pilot and T.S. Singh Deo) but also marginalised their State Congress organisation, preferring to operate through bureaucrats and chosen ministerial aides. Their excesses have been enabled by a weakened high Command. The resulting atrophy of the State organisations, however, also means that the party struggles to convert latent satisfaction with the respective Congress Chief Ministers into actual votes for the Congress party on election day. Meanwhile, the Congress lost much of its tribal support base in both the northern Sarguja and the southern Bastar belt of Chhattisgarh (where it had swept in the previous election). This is again a reminder of the perils of not advancing a distinctive ideological agenda.
Let me add to this.
In Chhattisgarh, INC failed to protect Christian Adivasis many of whom decided to vote for other parties this time around to teach INC a lesson. In Rajasthan, the government did not fight against continual caste atrocities with enough ferver. In Madhya Pradesh, Kamal Nath was completely into soft Hindu nationalism.
Plus, the Tribal (Adivasi) votes increased for BJP because BJP’s grass roots militias and organisations have been reaching out to them for years (decades really). They have been given a place in the Hindu myth and stories and community, their fears about losing their culture to Christianity were acknowledged and weaponised, and the result: A very high increase in their vote share for BJP.
Another thing Asim Ali does not mention is how terribly INC treated its coalition partners from the INDIA alliance. Overconfident thanks to the Karnataka results, they pretty much refused to seat share on an equitable basis with the state-relevant coalition parties. Result: vote splitting and vote consolidation behind BJP.
As this piece by Prasenjit Bose (economist/activist) says:
The BJP managed to attract more votes from smaller parties and independents than by denting the Congress’s vote share. For instance, the vote share of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) eroded in Madhya Pradesh by 1.6% points, Rajasthan by 2.3% points, Chhattisgarh by 1.8% points and Telangana by 0.7% points. Similar declines can be seen in the vote share of other smaller parties and independents in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Telangana. This includes the Janta Congress Chhattisgarh (JCC) which had won five seats with a 7.6% vote share in 2018 in alliance with the BSP, but drew a blank in 2023.
INC vote share went down only marginally (less than 1% in each state). But BJP’s vote share increased considerably especially in OBC and Adivasi groups (even Dalits I think though they and Muslims remained committed INC voters).
Working with the rest of the opposition alliance may help INC, says Bose.
The Congress and the other Opposition parties can work on three strategic electoral goals before the Lok Sabha elections in order to prevent a repeat.
First, the Congress must try to consolidate its base in these three heartland States through an effective ideological campaign — not only on government schemes and electoral promises but also on a range of constitutional values that are now at stake. The effort should be to ensure that every section of the electorate that voted for the Congress in 2023 votes for it again in 2024.
Second, the Congress and other Opposition parties in the INDIA formation should finalise their seat sharing arrangements without further delay and formulate a common programme which can provide a progressive, socially just, equitable and substantive alternative to the policies of the present regime. Both the Congress as well as the stronger regional parties in INDIA ought to display a spirit of accommodation and unity of purpose, the absence of which was evident during the recent Assembly poll campaigns.
Finally, serious efforts must be made to further broaden the INDIA coalition by identifying and reaching out to more potential allies. The BSP’s inclusion can certainly add value, given the recent Assembly poll experience. Outreach could also be made to smaller State-level parties for inclusion in State-specific INDIA blocs in order to take on the BJP’s formidable electoral and propaganda machine.
I have very serious doubts that INC and the coalition partners will be able to do what he says. We might lose 2024, and in that case, India will become a dejure Hindu nation post that. The conditions will worsen and I don’t know when we will get back a secure and kind society and government. Perhaps would take a couple of decades if not more.
BJP’s weaponising of central investigative agencies also played a part as per voter surveys. In Chhattisgarh for example, they sent central agency after the Chief Minister and Modi spoke about corruption continuously. That seemed to have made an impression. Many people seem to have thought the INC government corrupt. This when BJP has been involved in many serious corrupt actions involving Adani and Coal in Chhattisgarh, for example.
Any election post 2024 would have it worse. Our institutions, especially the Supreme Court and the Election Commission, are already subservient to BJP. It would not surprise me at all if it becomes naked partisanship post 2024.
Anyways, here we are.
HIndu-Muslim syncretism in pre-Hindu Nationalist/Pre-colonial India
The British sought to categorise us (in census and discourse including histories) based on religion as Hindus and Muslims. But many people especially in North India identified as both and found themselves choosing one or the other group based on impressions about social mobility. That is how we have Rajputs (warrior caste) with two names (one Hindu/one Muslim). But also Hindu underprivileged caste groups who have Muslim dual background.
We see this duality persisting even unto 1990s. (Dinesh Narayanan’s work on RSS, The RSS, talks about how The Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh, BJP’s ideological fount, was troubled by a national census that demonstrated the mixed affiliations of Hindus in the 1990s).
But beyond that, even until this past decade, many Hindu groups used to celebrate Muslim festivals and many Muslims had rituals associated with certain Hindu temples. A Karnataka temple, for example, has this tradition of having a verse from the Koran read by a qazi before one of its festivals. (The BJP government tried to create a ruckus about that. Now, there is silence on that front.)
With all that in mind, here is a story from Yoginder Sikand for Himal South Asian magazine: The Hindu devotees of Imam Hussain: A case of cross-veneration
What is particularly striking about the observances of the month of Muharram in India is the prominent participation of Hindus in the rituals. This has been a feature of popular religion for centuries in large parts of India, and continues even today, albeit on a smaller scale. In towns and villages all over the country, Hindus join Muslims in lamenting the death of Hussain, by sponsoring or taking part in lamentation rituals and tazia processions. In Lucknow, seat of the Shia nawabs of Awadh, prominent Hindu noblemen like Raja Tikait Rai and Raja Bilas Rai built Imambaras to house alams, standards representing the Karbala event. The non- Muslim tribal Lambadi community in Andhra Pradesh have their own genre of Muharram lamentation songs in Telugu. Among certain Hindu castes in Rajasthan, the Karbala battle is recounted by staging plays in which the death of Imam Hussain is enacted, after which the women of the village come out in a procession, crying and cursing Yazid for his cruelty. This custom is known as pitna dalna. In large parts of north India, Hindus believe that if barren women slip under an alam moving in a procession they will be blessed with a child.
Perhaps the most intriguing case of Hindu veneration of Imam Hussain is to be found among the small Hussaini Brahmin sect, located mostly in Punjab, also known as Dutts or Mohiyals. Unlike other Brahmin clans, the Hussaini Brahmins have had a long martial tradition, which they trace back to the event of Karbala. They believe that an ancestor named Rahab traveled all the way from Punjab to Arabia and there developed close relations with Imam Hussain. In the battle of Karbala, Rahab fought in the army of the Imam against Yazid. His sons, too, joined him, and most of them were killed. The Imam, seeing Rahab’s love for him, bestowed upon him the title of sultan or king, and told him to go back to India. It is because of this close bond between their ancestor Rahab and Imam Hussain that the Hussaini Brahmins got their name.
This is the world we are losing thanks to injured masculinity and fecklessness.
Please read it if you have the time to spare. There is no paywall.
Army facing setbacks
If you have been following news from Myanmar (or me), you may have noticed that Myanmar army that staged a coup against the civilian government in February 2021 has recently been facing setbacks on the military front.
For a little background, you may need to read this Hindu edit from Dec 1. After, I will share the piece I want to share.
There seems to be a rejuvenation in the hopes for a return to democracy in Myanmar if recent events in the civil war are anything to go by. The Tatmadaw (the junta) has never had a bigger challenge until now since its February 2021 coup that ousted the National League for Democracy-led government. The violence now and reverses suffered by the ruling junta point to a new phase in the war. Ever since the launch of coordinated attacks by the Three Brotherhood Alliance (TBA) in late October, the junta has lost scores of bases and is being stretched thin as its forces have to battle opposition militias, especially in rural areas of the country. The junta sought to overcome the protests following the coup with crackdowns besides detaining NLD leaders in its attempt to reverse the changes in Myanmar’s polity since its controlled democratisation in 2010. But this has only led to the NLD and its allies, which formed a National Unity Government (NUG) in exile, creating rebel militias called the Peoples’ Defense Forces, who along with Karen, Kachin, Chin and Karenni ethnic forces took on the junta even as their political representatives engaged in a dialogue platform for Myanmar’s federal and democratic charter.
The groups within the TBA — the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Arakan Army — besides others had initially retained their ceasefire status with the junta, but have now joined the civil war, weakening the junta’s hold in the northern Shan State and engaging in hostilities in Rakhine State. This, combined with renewed attacks by other NUG allied ethnic armed forces, such as in Chin State neighbouring India, has put the junta in a bind.
1027 attack is the name of the counteroffensive by the TBA.
Now, that you have that context, take a look at the interview that the editors of Himal South Asian conducted of Myanmar researcher Aung Kaung Myat: Interview: Operation 1027 and the growing armed alliance against Myanmar’s junta
Raisa: Just to start off, what is Operation 1027, and who are these armed groups that make up what’s being referred to as the Three Brotherhood Alliance?
Aung Kaung Myat: So Operation 1027, it was launched on 27 October, and that’s where they got the name from. And it was launched in Northern Shan state, near the Chinese border. So the primary objective of the operation is to capture the city of Laukkai, which used to be a home of the MNDAA, one of the ethnic armed groups fighting against the military government. The Three Brotherhood Alliance has been formed for many years and there are three armed groups that are in this alliance.
The major armed group that has been fighting is the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, also known as MNDAA. They are from the Kokang ethnic group and other armed groups that are fighting along with them include the Ta’Ang National Liberation Army. This is also another ethnic armed group in Shan state. And we also have the Arakan Army, which is based in the western part of Myanmar, but they sent a few of their fighters to Shan state and they fought together with the two other armed groups. The MNDAA has a long history of struggle in Burma. They were a splinter group which left the Communist Party of Burma. The Communist Party of Burma has been fighting with the military government ever since independence. In 1989, the Communist Party of Burma broke up into two guerrilla ethnic armies and MNDAA is one of them. In the 1990s and 2000s, they had a ceasefire with the government. But in 2009, they began fighting with the military government again. The same can be said about the TNLA. They were formed in the 1960s with a different name, different leadership. But then they had a ceasefire in the 1990s. But it didn’t last long and in 2009 they began fighting. And ever since then, I would say they are gaining their territories slowly and they’ve been gaining a lot of manpower as well. The Arakan Army arguably is the most successful rebel group in terms of manpower and firepower, they represent the ethnic Rakhine group in the western part of Myanmar, near the Bangladesh border. But they sent their fighters to fight along with other rebel groups. And also they like to spread their troops around for strategic reasons because Rakhine state is small and they don’t produce their own food so they spread their troops around.
These are not the only groups that are fighting – these are the groups comprising ethnic minorities. These groups are fighting along with other more recently established armies, which are anti-junta. The difference is that the earlier armed groups come from ethnic minority groups but the newly formed armed groups come from majority communities, mostly made up of young people who were angered by the military coup. Some of the armed groups fighting along with the Brotherhood Alliance include the Burma People’s Liberation Army, the People’s Liberation Army and the Mandalay People’s Defence Force. These groups are fighting along with more established armies. And also there have been continued fighting in Chin state in the west, Karenni or Kayah state in the east and also southeast of Burma with different armed groups. So there have been lots of fighting in recent months, mostly concentrated in Shan state, but there has been fighting in other areas as well.
No paywall. Please read the rest if you have the time and the inclination.
Justice for victims of caste atrocities
You may not be stranger to the idea that the caste system functions not only in India but the rest of South Asia as well. Nepal, until recently a Hindu nation (all with a royal priests from Brahmin groups, a king from Kshatriya group etc), has its own form of it (spread of course varies region to region).
The Kathmandu Post editorial talks about the Dec 5 district court judgement that gave life imprisonment to the perpetrators of caste atrocities from 2020.
Tuesday, December 5, will be a landmark in the annals of Nepal’s social justice history. It was the day when the culprits of hate against humanity were sentenced to life imprisonment. The West Rukum District Court on Tuesday found 24 individuals guilty in the murder of Nabaraj BK and five of his friends in a gruesome case of caste atrocity at Soti village of Chaurjahari Municipality in West Rukum in 2020. In addition, the single bench of Judge Khadga Bahadur KC found two more individuals guilty of caste-based discrimination. Of the 24 getting life sentences, 17 have been convicted for caste-based discrimination. Apart from it being one of the biggest criminal cases in the country so far, with a total of 26 culprits being convicted, it is also a rare instance of a definitive and fairly progressive pronouncement in a case involving social injustice.
The fight for justice in the Soti caste atrocity case has not been easy. With influential leaders backing the culprits to save their constituencies, the case had not just been mired in controversy, but there were fears it would be dismissed altogether. After all, the then Home Minister, Janardan Sharma, had absolved the culprits, potentially his high-caste voters, claiming in Parliament that the Dalits had not been killed as such but had instead died from drowning in the river while being chased by villagers. What's more, the victims’ families had to flee their homes for fear of violence as the case dragged on and the accused had been let out of jail.
The Maoists had notably waged a 10-year war against the Nepali state, with the fight against caste discrimination one of its main agendas. When it came to translating ideology into practice, the Maoists, consumed by the arithmetics of electoral politics, had chosen injustice. Justice, however, was restored, and a sense of closure was offered to the victims’ families on Tuesday, although the murdered young men will never come back, and the kin will forever have to live with the trauma of losing their loved ones.
Coming to power makes you complicit in injustices. Which is why you need to hold not just others but those whom you brought to power to account as well.
That is it for today. Until, next Friday, everyone. Keep yourself safe. Be well. Take care.
May we all have the courage to hold those in power and those with power accountable. Especially when they are our friends, comrades, families, and people whom we backed.