Posted by: John Elliott | September 28, 2018

Coincidence of Supreme Court, RSS and BJP interests on key issues

Supreme court Aadhar verdict helps to soften BJP election image

RSS leader endorses gay sex after Supreme Court de-criminalisation

Supreme Court starts Ayodhya temple hearings next  month

As election season approaches, there appears to be a strange coincidence between the liberal decisions of the Supreme Court, the interests of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata government, and policy pronouncements from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the umbrella organisation that embraces the BJP and holds extreme views on India being a Hindu nation.

The court’s restricted authentication this week of India’s Aadhaar biometric identity scheme softens the government’s intrusive image, while the court’s decriminalisation of homosexuality earlier this month has been echoed with an endorsement by Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the RSS.

There was also Bhagwat’s talk ten days ago about a new moderate approach by the RSS that helps moderate the BJP’s hardline Hinduvta image, possibly increasing its appeal to voters and to potential coalition partners after the general election.

And yesterday the supreme court decided to start long-delayed hearings on the famed Ayodhya temple dispute at the end of next  month, which will please RSS activists on whom the BJP relies for support in election campaigns.

There is no evidence to suggest that these events are co-ordinated but, coming shortly before important state assembly elections and a few months before next spring’s general election, they are worth noting. Ahead of the retirement on October 2 of the chief justice, Dipak Misra, the supreme court has taken key liberal judgements on other issues in the last few days including decriminalisation of adultery and allowing access by women of all ages to the important Sabarimala Hindu temple.

Aadhaar authenticated

For liberal rights campaigners, India’s Aadhaar biometric identification number system violates human rights and allows an authoritarian government and others to invade personal privacy. For its supporters, Aadhaar is a successful bid to bring some semblance of order to the country’s shambolic public records and to provide individual identities that protect the poor against intimidation and extortion by corrupt bureaucrats.

Sample-Aadhar-CardI-nsertThe supreme court neatly straddled that divide this week (Sept 26) when, by a majority of four to one, a five-judge bench ruled that Aadhaar (left) is constitutionally valid and could be mandatory for tax registration and returns and for obtaining welfare payments, but restricted its use elsewhere.

Launched in 2009, this is now the world’s largest and most ambitious digital identity scheme with enrolments by a total of 1.2bn, almost all India’s population.

Many commentators have seen the majority judgement as a blow for Narendra Modi’s BJP government because it stops businesses such as banks and mobile phone operators requiring a customer’s 12-digit Aadhar number. In addition, investigative agencies must in future obtain a warrant before accessing Aadhar information.

Seen in a broader context however, the judgement is one of a series of events that help the image of government in the run-up to key state assembly elections before the end of this year and a general election next spring.

Modi and the broad Hindu nationalist movement is being widely criticised for its authoritarian approach to human rights, privacy and freedom of expression, and for allowing its most extreme activists to indulge in violence and even killings associated with issues such as cow slaughter and beef eating.

Some softening of the image must therefore be welcome and the supreme court’s Aadhaar judgement has removed one plank of the political opposition to the government on grounds of personal privacy. (There is of course nothing to stop the BJP government, if it is returned to office next year with a sufficiently large majority, introducing laws that make bank accounts, mobile phones and other services dependent on having an Aadhar card.)

RSS and its image

Another easing of the BJP’s image came last week in an unprecedented three days of public lectures with questions and answers by Mohan Bhagwat (below), the head of the RSS. Bhagwatsaid that the idea of Hindutva was not achievable without acceptance of Muslims and other minorities. He condemned lynch mobs and gangs who have pursued people, usually Muslims, transporting cows to slaughter and others accused of having beef in their homes.

Bhagwat, chief of the Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, gestures as he prays during a conclave on the outskirts of Pune“Hindu Rashtra [nation] doesn’t mean there’s no place for Muslims. If we don’t accept Muslims, it’s not Hindutva. Hindutva is Indianness and inclusivity,” he asserted to the amazement no doubt of RSS members as well as critics. “Hindutva binds us together and our vision of Hindutva is not to oppose or demean anyone”.

Bhagwat’s remarks counter relentless criticism by Rahul Gandhi, the Congress leader, about the RSS. He accuses the organisation and the BJP of dividing India.

Opinions vary sharply over how much Bhagwat was pursuing that political path or whether he really was declaring a new RSS approach – continuing with the cause of Hindutva but softening it on the minorities and other issues and suggesting that harsh Hinduvta was not in line with modern India. He said that some of the ‘bunch of thoughts” of M.S. Golwalkar, an early leader of the RSS that was formed in 1925, were no longer “pleasurable”. Times change, and “accordingly our thoughts transform”.

That would fit with a surprise break from tradition in June when he hosted Pranab Mukherjee, India’s former president and a senior Congress minister over four decades, to  speak to an RSS youth meeting at the organisation’s Nagpur headquarters.

Critics see it as mere pre-election propaganda, while others believe that Bhagwat is trying to redirect the Sangh Parivar, as the family of organisations that includes the RSS and BJP is known.

The big test will be whether Amit Shah, the tough BJP president, modifies his anti-Muslim rhetoric, which he is currently aiming at Bangladeshi people suspected of being illegal immigrants in the north-eastern state of Assam and elsewhere. The other test will be whether the vigilante mobs modify their tactics, which seems unlikely to happen quickly.

Ayodhya temple in supreme court

Bhagwat also supported the building of a new temple at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh on the site where Hindu activists destroyed the 16th-century Babri Mosque in 1992, and took a new line on gay sex, saying that homosexuals exist and that society needed to change with time.

The Supreme Court yesterday said that on October 29 it would start hearings on whether or not a temple should be built at Ayodhya on the site, which will please RSS activists and give the BJP a plan for its general election campaign, even though a judgement might not come till after the polls.

Gay rights

The court laid the groundwork for Bhagwat’s gay sex line earlier this month when it decriminalised homosexuality on the grounds that it was not banned by the Indian constitution. This was an historic judgement on a subject that successive governments have avoided because of entrenched traditionalist views in virtually all political parties.

Issuing that judgement chief justice Misra, who was implicitly accused in January by four fellow judges of doing the government’s bidding, showed some independence by implicitly criticising Hindu nationalists’ attitudes on Muslims and other issues. “Majoritarian views and popular morality cannot dictate constitutional rights,” he said.

Aadhaar opposition

Misra was one of the judges who ruled this week in favour of Aadhar, with restrictions. When it was launched by the last Congress government in 2009, the scheme faced criticism from human rights activists along with legal opposition. It was designed by a team in the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) led by Nandan Nilekani, a founder of Infosys, one of India’s largest information technology companies.

Nilekani’s stated a-political aim was not to invade privacy but to provide people with a proof of identity that many lack, thus stemming extortion by officials from the central government down to villages. “This enhances access of the common man to public services while reducing the hassle he or she faces,” he said during a lecture on curbing corruption.

Fears have however grown under Modi’s more authoritarian government that it wanted to extend the mandatory use of the card so that it became a owerful surveillance tool of the state.

The Aadhaar system has also been hacked, allegedly allowing unauthorised printing of the cards. Critics point to the risk of personal biometric details being stolen, and suggest that thumb print registration machines in crowded and chaotically run registration centres have been rigged to retain personal information. Officials, or their private sector subcontractors, have demanded bribes to issue the cards, thus blocking access to food rations if cards are not issued.

The judges’ majority verdict however said that the benefits were worth the risks. “We have come to the conclusion that Aadhaar Act is a beneficial legislation which is aimed at empowering millions of people in this country…..At the same time, data protection and data safety is also to be ensured to avoid even the remote possibility of data profiling or data leakage.”

That’s a neat package of measures that soften the Hinduvta image, along with the Ayodhya move that could stir communal passions but will please the RSS and BJP activists.

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