Dr. Iqtidar Cheema warns BJP-aligned Punjabi CM Badal “is wife to the central government of India”
Punjab, India: Oct. 31, 2015 — This is the second of a two-part interview with Dr. Iqtidar Cheema, an international relations expert based in the United Kingdom, about the growing unrest in Punjab, India and the role of state-led violence by Indian security forces against peaceful protesters. [Read or watch part one here: Punjab Unrest “Very Compatible and Comparable Circumstances With 1984,” Suggests Analyst.]
Pieter Friedrich (PF): You’ve also called out what you said was the “authoritarian regime of Narendra Modi and his coalition partner, which is the Badal government of Punjab” for using violence to suppress peaceful dissent. Now, what is the connection between this central government, ruled by Modi at the moment, and this state government, ruled by Badal? How closely are they aligned? And, especially, the police forces — now, Punjab has its own state police force…
Dr. Iqtidar Cheema (IC): Yes…
PF: But India has a national Indian Police Service which, my understanding is, provides all of the commanding officers for the state police forces. So, is there autonomy for these police forces? And, again, also, what are the connections between the central government and state government?
IC: Well, it’s very clear that the police are operationally controlled by the state, but, obviously, that is answerable to the Centre as well. That is the police and policing Centre/State connection. But, more than that, we should focus on Parkash Singh Badal and BJP’s alliance. I think Parkash Singh Badal is very much closely associated politically with the BJP government, and we know that they have a political coalition with the BJP government, so they are on the same page.
On the second hand, in the way Parkash Singh Badal and his government have supported RSS — Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — which is a very close subsidiary, I would say, of the BJP, who are right-wingers…
PF: Yes, it’s parent group, you could even call the RSS.
IC: Yes, of course. So, they are very much associated with the Badal government, and we have seen a lot of promotion of RSS and their activities in Punjab very much supported by the government of Parkash Singh Badal. We have also seen, recently, that when it comes to giving up on the issues of Punjab, whether it’s the right of the water to Punjab or anything else, Parkash Singh Badal has completely said yes to whatever BJP government has dictated.
We see in the local newspapers sometimes in Punjab that they are referred to as “husband and wife,” where people would say that Parkash Singh Badal and his government is wife to the central government of India. So whatever, as per very, very Oriental, South Asian way, whatever husband dictates, wife says “yes” to it, and becomes very complacent, and endorses whatever her husband is saying. So that is the situation.
PF: So, on that note, it sounds like the state government of Punjab is basically enslaved to the central government out of New Delhi.
PF: And I’m getting people writing to me. I’m having some Sikh people who’ve written to me and mentioned worries and concerns that what’s called “President’s Rule” might be established in Punjab if the violence continues to escalate, if the unrest continues to grow. What is President’s Rule? This is something that’s been used before, isn’t it?
IC: Yes, well, I think there was a lack of sincerity from the BJP towards Punjab government and Parkash Singh Badal will learn a lesson now. I wrote another article on the Gurdaspur incident where I clearly identified that, although Parkash Singh Badal has given up his role as the real elected representative of the people of Punjab and he has tried to be in the good books of the BJP, but we should understand the people of BJP and their style of politics. They are very vicious towards the Sikhs and towards the Punjabis. Whether it’s Parkash Singh Badal or whoever, they will use it and they will win it. They will use the leadership and, obviously, they will win it.
And I think the time has come for them to bring down Parkash Singh Badal. Because, previously it was hinted after the Gurdaspur attack, that Badal was blaming it on the central government for the incident and they were blaming Punjab government. So, they are trying to corner logic, or a reason, where the Centre can intervene in Punjab and can abolish the Punjab government.
PF: And that’s what this President’s Rule is, is when the Central Government steps in and dissolves the state government.
IC: Yes. Yes, and it abolishes the state government or elected government.
PF: Which doesn’t sound very democratic.
IC: Well, it is not democratic, but bear in mind, elected government does not mean a democratic government. I mean, democracy is a very vague term in South Asia and in India when you look at the essence of democracy, and when you understand all the democratic processes, and all the concept of democracy. So, this elected government, which I wouldn’t say is a democratic government because of the way they are elected and the way the whole election process is influenced by various ways, I don’t think so there is a state of democracy there.
But, still, it’s an elected government, and the BJP clearly understands that Parkash Singh Badal has become so unpopular in Punjab that there is no point for them to keep a good alliance with him, I think now they would try to impose President’s Rule or Governor’s Rule in Punjab, abolish the Badal government, and then they will try to play a card where they will sympathize with the people of Punjab. Because we have seen these moves recently. A couple of the Sikh political prisoners are being released by the Central Government of India, which is led by BJP, and RSS is already very manipulative in Punjab and has expanded its activities.
So, BJP would like to take over Punjab directly, properly now, rather than to use an ally in Punjab. They will try to win the sympathies of the people of Punjab by giving them the message, “Look, you had a Sikh leader who couldn’t deliver for you, who couldn’t safeguard your rights. He was your oppressor. So we are the ones who have given you this freedom and liberty to come out of his clutches, and now you should stand with us and not by your dummy Sikh leader.” So that is the new game which is going to be on, maybe, in the days to come.
PF: So this game, this card that you anticipate they will play, is to portray the Badal government, the Punjab government, as a police state, as we’ve been talking, and portray themselves, the Central Government, the BJP government, as liberators, as freeing them from oppression. But, now, this violence of state repression, is this even isolated to Punjab? Is that accurate to view Punjab alone as a police state or are there other issues that are more broad throughout India and that the BJP itself is guilty of engaging in oppression?
IC: Well, Pieter, as we have substantial evidence from the various groups like Human Rights Watch reports, we have United States’ Council on Religious Freedom reports, we have State Department reports, and independent research suggests that it’s not limited to one state of India. Minorities are seeing an ever increasing violence against them in India after the government of BJP was established, and it is not curtailed to Punjab alone. We have seen recent examples where a Muslim was dragged from his home and was tortured to death because there was a rumor that he consumed beef.
PF: And this is now known as the “Dadri lynching.”
IC: Yeah, the Dadri lynching. And in the same way, we have seen that the Dalits are under attack. When we had a briefing at the United States Congress, where I was there as an expert witness, I had another gentleman who is called Dr. Christopher Joshua, who is a Ph.D from University of Edinburgh and is a wonderful researcher. He brought with him a substantial evidence of violence against the Christians, and he cited about 272 cases of violence against the Christians during the first year of the rule of BJP. It includes burning the churches, attacking the churches, and a lot of hate speech against the minorities. And there are similar concerns amongst Dalits. Now, we have also seen that, during the government of BJP, there was a controversial Ghar Wapsi scheme to convert the minorities — religious minorities of India — to Hinduism.
IC: So, there is obviously an increasing violence, not curtailed to Punjab alone, but other parts of the world. And we also see that there is a long struggle in the seven sister states of the North-East. North-East, I think, because it’s very isolated from the main India, people don’t report things from North-East. But the state atrocities in the North have further strengthened, and we have seen violence against Assamese and Assami Muslims, also, during the BJP rule.
So, overall, minorities, obviously they were never safe in India, even in the Congress rule, but when it comes to BJP rule, they are trying to establish “Ram Raj” in India. And they have given this slogan. Even Congress has given “Ram Raj” slogan in the past. But I don’t know how you are going to create…
PF: “Ram Raj” — what is this? This is like a Hindu nation?
IC: Yeah, a Hindu nation. Everything goes by Manusmriti, according to the Hindu code of polity, and everyone has to live in a Hindu state. Well, do it! Why don’t you declare India a Hindu state? There are so many states who have declared their religion. Why are you camouflaging? Tell the world, “We will be a Hindu state,” and people would understand it. Why are you keeping the word “secular” in your constitution?
PF: Instead, it seems to be walking two sides of the road, straddling the fence…
IC: Yeah, and recently you must have seen their demands within the BJP that the word “secular” should be deleted from the Indian Constitution. I think that would be very appropriate. Indian Constitution should be declared a Hindu Constitution, India should be declared a Hindu state, because this is how India is behaving at the moment by increasing a lot of violence against the minorities.
PF: So you think we should call a spade “a spade” and be honest about it. Now, you mentioned this Ghar Wapsi, this reconversion of religious minorities to Hinduism that’s being sponsored by the BJP and by RSS outlets. Now, this kind of exposes their ideology and even their future goals.
As you mentioned, this United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has talked about the BJP and RSS having this ideology of Hindutva, this goal of turning India into a all-Hindu nation where nobody is allowed to be a non-Hindu. In legislative form, this seems to be taking some manifestation recently in the introduction in Parliament of a bill that would actually ban conversion, religious conversion, without permission of the government. Have you heard about this bill?
IC: Yes, I have heard about the bill, but let’s go to the Hindutva ideology that is being followed by the current BJP and its allies. The ideology itself is not new. It was started in the 1920s, and Savarkar had his book, which is titled Hindutva. It clearly identifies what Hindutva means, and if you look at the title page of Savarkar’s book on Hindutva, it clearly states that the people who live from the Indus to Ganges rivers should all be classified as “Hindus.” Because, in his ideology, Hinduism is not a religion but it is a civilization, so everyone who is born in this wider subcontinent of India is a Hindu.
And, he further goes in his ideology, that the people whose heartlands are outside India or their sacred religious places are outside India, they should either convert to Hinduism or go back. So, if you look at this ideology, it tells you two things. Religions like Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, because their sacred lands are outside India, according to typical Hindutva ideology, they should either convert to Hinduism or leave India. And, because Buddhism, Jains, and the Sikhs are the religions who have sacred places within India, according to Hindutva ideology, they should be classified as Hindus. And this is the line taken by the Indian Constitution. We have Article 25(2)b of the Indian Constitution, which submerges Buddhist and Sikh ideologies in Hinduism.
IC: It doesn’t classify them as different religious entities.
PF: Despite the fact that adherents of both Buddhist and Sikh religions say, “We’re not Hindus.”
IC: Yes, of course, they have clearly said this. And Indian Constitution, till to date, has not recognized the religions of Sikhism and Buddhism, as separate religions. So, that Hindutva ideology was very much taken by the so-called secularists like Nehru, who had tried to submerge the Sikh, and the Buddhist, the Jain identities into Hinduism.
But, now I come to the second thing you are saying, about the conversion laws and anti-conversion laws. India has a set of anti-conversion laws at the level of the state. So, about seven states, as identified in the USCIRF report, have an anti-conversion law. But, as USCIRF has testified in that report of 2015, these states where we find these anti-conversion laws have more violence against the minorities. Because, how anti-conversion laws work, we need to understand that. Although the word “anti” is there, that actually facilitates the process of conversion of minorities into Hinduism.
Because, the way this law is interpreted, if you have to become a Muslim, or a Sikh, or a Buddhist, or a Jain from Hinduism, then you need the consent of the state. Then you need to go through a litigation process because you are converting from Hinduism — or from any other religion — to these faiths. But, if you are to become a Hindu from any other religion, then you don’t need to go through any of the processes. You don’t need any consent because, as the law explains, the Indian law believes everyone was originally Hindu and people are not converting, they are reconverting.
PF: Yes, yes.
IC: It means they were Hindu originally, and they are coming back to their religion, so they don’t need any consent or legal process attached with it. But, when they have to leave Hinduism to go to some other religion, then they have to follow the whole process.
PF: So it’s like the song by The Eagles, “Hotel California”: “You can check in, but you can never leave.” There’s an open door to come into Hinduism legally, but if you want to leave, it’s closed off by the state.
IC: Yes. Plus there are further clauses which explain that, if you are converting to some other religion other than Hinduism, you will lose the right of your guardianship as parents because, as someone from another religion, you couldn’t be the guardian of Hindu kids. Imagine how people will convert to any other religion when they have the fear that they will lose their kids and they will lose their right of guardianship. It is very much an interference in people’s private life through this law. And, if a woman converts to another religion, she may lose all the rights of support which she can receive from her husband.
So, seven Indian states have these black anti-conversion laws.
PF: But now they’re talking about it a national law?
IC: Now, when you take it the national level, you will see that this will further enhance the agenda of Ghar Wapsi, where people will be pushed, where people will be suppressed, where people will be bribed to convert to Hinduism. This legislation will see to that, and it’s not very productive for a country which calls itself the “world’s largest democracy”…
IC: Which presents itself to the world as a multi-religious, multi-ethnic country and society.
PF: And is this the sort of religious liberty or the definition of “religious liberty” that we would expect from a democracy?
IC: Of course not! We see the real democracies like United States, we see a real democracy like the United Kingdom, where the state had a religion, but it had that sense of democracy in it, that the past state religion does not dictate any of the policies. Where we have multi-ethnicity, where we have people from multi-religious backgrounds, but all the religions are respected, all the religions are given the equal rights, all the religions are equally safeguarded.
Rather, I would salute Britain, and U.S., and Canada, and many other countries of the modern world, that they have this very good policy of positive discrimination. Where you have a disadvantaged religious community, they give them more freedom. They safeguard them even more. So that people become productive. People feel themselves to be a very welcomed part of the wider democratic society. But, unfortunately, that’s not the situation in India.
PF: Yes, and in these true democracies, we see that freedom of belief, the freedom to think and to think differently, and to dissent, is one of the most precious freedoms. And that all really rolls in together with religious liberty.
PF: So, you live in England. I live in the United States. Obviously, we’re far removed from India. We’re thousands of miles away. Of course, we know a lot of Indians, we talk with a lot of Indians, and we keep aware of these issues. But, living so far away, how do you think that we and other people who are concerned should be responding to these ongoing human rights violations in India?
IC: Well, Pieter, I also think sometimes and people say to me, “You do your work where you work, and when I go home, I start yet another office by writing about these issues, by involving in advocacy about these issues.” It’s not my job. Not my business. I don’t earn anything from it. And sometimes people ask a lot of people like us, “Why do you do it?” I think we are making a change, and we can make a difference, because today’s world is the world of ideas. Today’s world is the world of advocacy.
PF: It’s the information age.
IC: Yes, and that’s the way you can make a difference. And we are making this difference by voicing for the voiceless people. The people who have no voice. The people who have been suppressed. The people who have been the victims of state terrorism. The people who have been victims of genocide. The people who are facing ever increasing repression against them. And they can’t reach to people due to their language barriers, due to their lack of awareness, due to their lack of access to the social media tools.
But this is what we can do, and we have to do it, because I think it’s a moral obligation on us that, since we know all this, we have to communicate effectively, productively, and in a very forward-looking way where we can resolve it. Nobody is against any religion. Nobody is against any typical community. But it’s very important that that very community should also safeguard the interests of other communities in that very subcontinent and elsewhere in the world. And we will keep on voicing against it.
I have seen one thing, because I’m a Muslim, that Muslims at the moment are very proactive to voice against the misrepresentation of their religion…
IC: Where the so-called ISIS — it is Islamic State, so-called — which I think really misrepresents our religion and are involved in a lot of activities which are absolutely non-sensical and which are not endorsed by the religion of Islam. But we will see a lot of Muslims standing against ISIS, confronting them and their ideology. But I don’t see those strong voices from the community of a particular religion to stand up against these people who are aggressors and who may be misrepresenting their faith in a secular and democratic India. So, the moral advice, I hope there will be strong voices from within that community. That will bring a change.
PF: So then, what we can do is we can be a voice for these voiceless people, and we can accept that it’s our duty, our responsibility, our moral obligation to stand up and speak out for people that are being persecuted, and to spread awareness. And that that’s probably how we can be most helpful in this situation is to spread awareness, to continue seeking media attention, and to advocate, especially by going to our elected officials.
For instance, here in the United States, the U.S. government gives about $100 million a year to India. It also gives about $2 billion a year in loans. From my perspective as an American citizen, that’s just unacceptable to be funding a government that sponsors so many atrocities against its citizens. That’s one way in which I, personally, hope to be advocating, is to call for an end to that, and to say that these atrocities, these human rights violations, need to have an international light shone upon them.
IC: Yes, indeed, I think. I’ve been advocating in the U.K. and the U.S. that these are the lands and these are the countries who have been torchbearers of human rights and of civil liberties.
IC: So they shouldn’t forget this past and this marvelous history of these countries. And the commercial benefits shouldn’t really overrule the human rights and these governments’ and these countries’ engagement about civil liberties.
PF: Yes, principle should be placed over profit, every time.
IC: Commercial interests are ok, they’re fine. Every nation should think about the commercial interests.
PF: Well, and they’re valuable, they’re conducive for peace, because as it’s been said, where goods stop crossing borders, troops soon will. It encourages good will to be trading.
IC: Yeah, but I must compliment the United States specifically. In the modern world, we have seen the United States has voiced these concerns, starting from President Obama, who has made a very strong statement while visiting India. We had USCIRF, and we have the United States’ Department of State, who is voicing. Your OFMI is doing excellent work by highlighting these issues. We have the American Sikh Congressional Caucus, the members of which keep on writing to various departments in the United States. So, it is marvelous work, and I must compliment Americans, and I compliment you more than the organization here in Britain, because we don’t find strong voices like American voices in Britain at the moment, unfortunately.
PF: Well, we hope we can inspire imitation, and we hope we can humbly accept that compliment, and not rest on any past accomplishment but continue to press forward, and do it to the glory of God.
PF: So, Dr. Cheema, I want to thank you for your time, and I look forward to speaking with you again.
IC: Pleasure is all mine, Pieter. Keep up the good work.
PF: Thank you, sir.