A glass all empty | Business Standard Column

Clipped from: https://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/a-glass-all-empty-121111601571_1.html

On both economic and social fronts, Indians today are worse off than before

Aakar Patel

The Modi era in whose eighth year we are is defined by two central themes. The first comes from an act of commission. This is the drafting of Muslim-specific legislation. The first of the laws came in 2015, after the prime minister advocated against what he called a “pink revolution”, or the meat trade. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) states of Maharashtra and Haryana responded with laws criminalising the possession of beef. On March 3, 2015, came the Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Act, 2015, and on March 17 came the Haryana Gauvansh Sanrakshan and Gausamvardhan Act, 2015.

On May 30 began a spate of lynchings of Muslims. Beef lynching as a category of violence did not exist before this as hate trackers from Hindustan Times and IndiaSpend (later both taken down) showed.

Gujarat’s law, which was tightened in 2017, punishes cow slaughter, which is ostensibly an economic crime, with life in prison. In all the cow and beef laws, the burden of proof is reversed in the legislation, and presumes the individual accused to be guilty. This produced an interesting judgment in Gujarat in 2019, about which I have written here earlier. A Muslim man was accused of serving beef at his daughter’s wedding and the government could not prove that this was so. In that case, the judge said, it was up to the man to prove that the meat consumed was not beef. The sentence was 10 years, and reversed by the High Court, which said it was using “judicial discretion”. Karnataka brought its law in 2020 and this made cattle transport except under prescribed circumstances punishable by five years and a fine of up to Rs 10 lakh. Karnataka’s law, in line with those of the other states, provides immunity to vigilantes if they are deemed to be acting “in good faith”. In 2021, cases against those booked for violence against Muslims were dropped.

In 2018, beginning with the BJP-ruled state of Uttarakhand, India began to take interest in what is called Love Jihad. In a nation defined by its hard adherence to endogamy, the theory is that interfaith marriages are altering demography. There is no data of course, but that is not required when we have belief. Burden of proof again is reversed on to the Muslim and the testimony of an adult woman that she converted of her free volition is insufficient evidence. It is the man and his family who must prove to the satisfaction of the district magistrate who is given the power to conduct an inquiry through the police “with regard to real intention, purpose and cause of that proposed religion conversion”. The law exempts conversions to the “ancestral religion”, meaning conversions to Hinduism are exempt.

After Uttarakhand, similar laws came in Himachal Pradesh (2019), Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh (2020) and Gujarat (2021). India had previously criminalised propagation, which is both a fundamental right and a criminal offence in India. But that was aimed at Christians. The post-2014 phase laws are written to go after India’s Muslims.

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More interestingly, India has criminalised a non-act. In 2017, the Supreme Court invalidated divorces offered through triple talaq. Then in 2019, the government criminalised its pronouncement. Meaning that if a non-Muslim male were to say talaq to his wife three times, their marriage would remain intact and there would be no crime. If a Muslim man were to say it to his wife, their marriage would also remain intact but it would be a crime. The punishment drawn for saying three words resulting in a non-divorce is the same (three years) as rioting with a deadly weapon.

The Citizenship Amendment Act came in 2019, excluding Muslims from a list of those who sought refuge in India before December 30, 2014. It was aimed at the “termites” among us, as described by the home minister. The current agitation in Gujarat’s cities over the banning from public roads of stalls serving eggs and meat (what Indians call “non-veg”) must be seen as a continuum of what has happened since 2014. The BJP chief of the state says this is not a party policy but bigotry is difficult to calibrate. We will continue down this path, which has no particular end. We must consider it successful if what is sought to be achieved is the constant torture of Muslims. It has been successful also in the sense that the rest of the polity — media, judiciary, opposition — has stood aside and allowed it to happen. Civil society alone offers open resistance. Observe here that this fierce Hindu nationalism is aimed inward, at other Indians. It tucks its tail against the real opponent, who cannot even be named.

The second theme of the post-2014 era is the failure of India’s economy. It is an act of omission and of incompetence. Its product is a nation where the labour force participation has gone from 52 per cent before 2014 to 40 per cent today. Meaning that we have shrunk it by a fifth, though more than 120 million additional people have come of working age. Indians today have lower participation in the workforce than Pakistan. And in that lower level of participation, unemployment reached a record high of 6 per cent in 2018 and has not gone under that since. It is not that Indians don’t want to work: MGNREGA outlay first doubled, then tripled and this year demand will be four times what it was in 2014. It’s just that there is no work.

GDP growth began a sequential implosion two years before the pandemic and so the fault was not in our stars. The leading indicators of the economy have been flat (in the case of automobiles and residential properties for 10 years) for so long that it is clear that the middle class has stopped growing. Manufacturing’s share of GDP has fallen from 16 per cent before 2014 to 13 per cent now. GDP per capita has fallen behind Bangladesh. The Reserve Bank of India’s Current Situation Index asks people if they were better off than a year ago. In December 2016, it began to decline. It remained negative after that, except for one month, April 2019, for four and a half years. For 53 months, Indians felt they were worse off than 12 months ago. In June 2021, the index fell to its all-time low. The glass is not half empty, the glass is empty. Unless of course, one is an enthusiast of the first theme, in which case one can say with confidence that the glass is half empty.The writer is chair of Amnesty International India

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