Monday, 21 October 2019

The Sky As a Shelter

By Gautam Chintamani
Updated: October 3, 2019 12:21 pm

Rajnath Singh rose from a swayamsevak in the RSS to the cheif minister of Uttar pradesh, and also served as a cabinet minister in the Vajpayee government. Jailed during the Emergency, Singh was the president of the BJP’s youth wing, the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha. A two-team president of the BJP, Singh ensured the elevation of narendra Modi as the party’s prime ministeial candidate and delivered BJP’s biggest-ever electoral victory in 2014. since then, as india’s home minister, he has ushered in a new phase in the country’s security, where both internal and external threats have been minimized.

 

When Rajnath Singh took over as the home minister of India, the general approach of the ministry was to try and cope rather than get on top of things. The ‘will cope’ attitude had invariably become the standard way of handling things largely because of the lag between intention and action. Under Singh, the MHA shifted gears to ‘resolve’ things as opposed to ‘managing’ them. This has been the approach of the Modi government across various ministries. Since 2014, the government has initiated new measures and schemes, tweaked the already existing ones and streamlined delivery mechanisms.

The Change in the overall approach towards internal and external security concerns of India, initiated by the government, were visible in a number of cases through 2017-18. As a policy the government has given security forces a free hand to engage with the enemy, be it within the geographical border or beyond, as long as protocol is followed. Singh told the forces in Kashmir to not be the first to engage, but if it came to action to not count their bullets while retaliating. Compared to the corresponding period of the previous year, there was a 45 per cent decrease in cross-border infiltration from Pakistan over a six-month period. The message had gone across that response was going to be swift and unforgiving and that India would no longer be pushed around.

The MHA constantly reviewed the ground situation to ensure that any tactic to weed out insurgency or threat to national security was not cast in stone. An ever-evolving approach made changing tactics and adapting to progressing scenarios a way of life for security forces. Attempts were still under way to thwart the progress the paramilitary forces were making. In April 2017, in the deadliest Naxalite-Maoist attack in seven years, 300 insurgents ambushed a ninety-nine-member strong CRPF battalion that left twenty-six jawans dead. This was the largest ambush since the 2010 Dantewada attack. The battalion, entrusted with the task of providing security to a road construction project, was patrolling an interior road. Three or four sections of the battalion, which had nearly 1000 personnel, were separated from each other by about 600 to 700 metres. The Naxals took away the radio sets of the CRPF so they would not be able to call for help and a second team walked right into the ambush as they had not heard from their colleagues at the scheduled time.

As he paid homage to the martyrs in Chhattisgarh, Singh said that the cold-blooded killing of the CRPF personnel would not deter either development work or anti-insurgency operations. Taking stock of the situation, Singh briefed the prime minister upon his return to Delhi and later called a meeting to initiate an overhaul of the operations in Bastar. The attack called for a revision of the standard operating procedure. In addition to a redeployment of forces, special operations under the command of COBRA (Commando Battalion for Resolute Action), the CRPF’s elite jungle warfare unit, were going to be a part of the operations. Singh asked the forces to go on an ‘all-out offensive’ towards which end the government mad strategic changes. The CRPF’s central zone was shifted to the capital of Chhattisgarh from Kolkata. In addition to nearly 40,000 boots on the ground, there were also thirty-six flying assets of different categories operating from Bhilai, which was nearly 300 kilometers from Sukma and Bastar. Travelling that big a distance before they could be deployed to conduct any operation defeated their purpose. As such, the technical command centre of the unmanned aerial vehicles was shifted to Baster, the Naxal hotbed in the state, to provide the security forces enhance aerial surveillance to conduct anti-Maoist operations. The MHA also sanctioned the expansion of the base to hold at least 300 UAVs to provide technical intelligence and information to the troops.

In a review meeting with the district magistrates and superintendents of police of the thirty-five districts that bore the brunt of left-wing extremism, Rajnath Singh outlined to government’s strategy, ‘SAMADHAN’, to tackle the issue¬¬¬—a mix of smart leadership, aggressive strategy, motivation and training, actionable intelligence, dashboard-based key result areas and key performance indicators, harnessing technology, action plan for each theatre and no access to financing. Singh also pushed for the fulfillment of the development projects under the additional central assistance (ACA), which furthered the previous integrated action plan (IAP) with a focus on expediting the construction of roads under the Road Requirement Plan (RRP-I). Between 2014 and 2017, roads covering a distance of nearly 15054 kilometers were constructed in the most difficult areas, efforts were made to enhance skill development with the sanction of nine ITIs and fourteen skill development centres. There was also a concentrated effort to boost education infrastructure in Bijapur and Sukama by starting two Kendriya Vidyalays along with three Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas (JNV), a school for gifted students. The government also approved a Rs 200-crore upgradation of the Jagdalpur Medical College as a centre of excellence.

To increase local representation in CRPF’s combat layout in the bastar area, the MHA formed a ‘Bastariya Battalion’—consisting of 534 tribal youth, including 189 women, from the most ‘highly Naxal-infested’ districts of Chhattisgarh: Bijapur, Dantewada, Narayanpur and Sukma—in April 2017. Arising from the CEPF’s civic action programme that was designed to win hearts, the Bastariya Battalion recruits came from deep within the jungles of Bastar and were trained for a year in drills, physical and unarmed combat training, the handling of weapons and also in survival techniques in the jungle, which included living off the land, casualty evacuation and jungle warfare exercises and tactics.

On 21 May 2018, Singh, along with Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh, was present  the passing–out parade of Battalion 241 of the CRPF, the first-ever Bastariya Battalion, in Ambikapur, Rajnath Singh told the media that the decision to raise a local battalion was a well-thought-out one. The recruits were trained knowing that there could be a conflict in their minds as the Maoists they had to fight could be from their own villages, and even people they grew up with. As a result a considerable amount of time was spent in telling them that there was no ‘enemy’ but that people had to be brought back to the right path.

Besides the development push and strengthening of operations, there was another factor the led to a decrease in Naxalite-Maoist attacks towards the end of 2017-ageing leadership and the lack of an effective second-rung. The average age of the leadership in the central committee, the apex decision-making body of the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist), was in the mid-fifties. In the last week of December 2017, fifty-five-year-old Ginugu Narsimha Reddy, known as ‘Jampanna’, a much-celebrated member of the central committee, surrendered along with his wife, Hinge Anitha, thirty-seven, a district committee member of the CPI (Maoist)’s Kalahandi-Kandhamal-Boudh-Nayagarh divisional committee. After spending thirty-three years as a Maoist, Reddy, who carried a reward of Rs 25 lakh, chose to give give up the extremist ideology after differences with the party. The year 2016 reflected a decline of 53 per cent in the number of violent incidents and a nearly 72 per cent decrease in deaths caused by left-wing extremism when compared to the previous year. The trend continued and in 2017 there was a further decline by 25.6 per cent. Over a four-year period, from 2014 to 2018, fifty-eight districts, thirty accounted for nearly 90 per cent of cases of left-wing extremist violence.

All this while the MHA was in consultation with the stated, continuously reviewing the affected districts to keep resources in sync with the changed on ground. In 2018, the MHA added eight districts to the security-related expenditure (SRE) scheme, but the biggest indicator of the transformation was the exclusion of forty-four districts from the list. During the 2018 ‘Vijay Diwas’ celebrations that mark India’s military victory over Pakistan on 16 December 1971 during the war for the liberation of Bangladesh, Singh informed members of the media that the number of districts affected by left-wing extremism had gone down from ninety to just twelve. Although Singh was satisfied with what the security agencies had achieved, not being able to wipe out the Naxal-Maoist menace completely remained one of his unfulfilled dreams.

The Modi government’s decision to come down heavily on the routes that fuelled the financial component of terror organizations as well as the ones suspected of funneling money for such outfits played a major role in checking Naxalite-Maoist insurgencies and also terror activities in Kashmir. There had been concerted efforts from various governments in India to regulate the acceptance and utilization of foreign contribution or foreign hospitality. In 2010, the UPA government had updated the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) towards this end. Under the Act’s terms, civil society groups could receive funds from abroad—whether from governments or private foundations and individuals—only if they were granted the right by the India government, and such permission could be denied if the activities were found to be against national interest.

In 2008, a report submitted to the Maharashtra state home department had listed concrete evidence of nearly fifty-six NGOs that were raising funds and conducting recruitment for Naxalites. In a report published in Daily News & Analysis in March 2008, a senior officer from the state intelligence department who had sent the report shared how NGOs based out of Mumbai, Pune and Nagpur, working under the umbrella of the Tactical United Front (TUF) and the All India People’s Resistance Forum (AIPRF)—a conglomerate of groups sympathizing with the Naxal cause—were channeling funds through various conduits. They were also instrumental in brainwashing new recruits, primarily locals and tribals from Gadchiroli, Chandrapur, Bhandara and Yavatmal districts. By 2013, the UPA government had identified 128 such organizations working under various pretexts for Naxals in sixteen Indian states, including even relatively unaffected areas, which highlighted the spread of left-wing insurgency. According to an internal report prepared by the Intelligence Bureau, these bodies were active even in states such as Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh that have seen little or no Naxal-related violence. In 2013, the NIA  unearthed ten cases related to funding of terrorist groups. Investigations revealed how almost Rs 600 crore had been pumped in for terror operations through donations and relief funds collected over a period of two years. The NIA followed the money trail to discover how the Jammu and Kashmir Affectees Relief Fund Trust (JKART), an organization founded in the early 1990s to provide health care, food and shelter to Kashmiri families displaced by the conflict, single-handedly diverted nearly Rs 95 crore to Pakistan-based militant groups, Chiefly the Hizbul Mujahideen.

Unlike the previous dispensation, the Modi government tackled the issue of foreign funding of NGOs for suspected antinational activities head-on. In September 2015, much to the chagrin of international bodies that termed the government’s crackdown aggressive, the MHA cancelled the registration of Greenpeace India. Five months before the cancellation, the MHA suspended the organization’s licence , giving it a 180-day notice to reply to charges of attempting to ‘delay and place illegal obstructions of India’s energy plans’, ‘ campaigning, protesting and lobbying against government of India’s policies’, and also playing an anti-nuclear ‘full page colour advertisement’. The notice also cited ‘talks’ with the Aam Aadmi Party. Although there was much chest-beating about the manner in which the MHA had cracked down on NGOs, it wasn’t long before the question of why some NGOs would be reluctant to declare details about funds received from overseas sources and how they were utilized in India came up.

In its investigation, the MHA found over 1000 NGOs that were using foreign funds in clear violation of various provisions of FCRA, 2010. In May 2017, the MHA asked NGOs to file their missing annual returns pertaining to financial year 2010-11 to 2014-15. Organizations and NGOs that received foreign funding but had failed to file annual returns included educational institutions as well. Once the stipulated one month was over, it served a show-cause notice to 5922 NGOs to explain why their FCRA registration may not be cancelled and asked over 2000 NGOs to validate their FCRA-designated bank accounts. Through the year the MHA gave several opportunities to defaulting NGOs, but a large number of these organizations did not adhere to the stipulated rules and, by the end o 2017, the MHA cancelled the licences of 4842 such organizations and NGOs. In April 2018, the MHA informed the Parliament that the government had cancelled licences of over 14,000 NGOs/associations over a four-year period from 2014 to 2018.

Nearly every major people’s movement showed links to certain elements taking advantage of disaffection through various social media platforms to fuel violent agitation. In some cases, the Twitter handles pushing the agenda originated from outside the country. With 20,000 active FCRA-registered organizations receiving foreign currencies worth Rs 18,065 crore to execute various social, cultural, economic, educational and religious activities in a single financial year, 2016-17, the security implications were scary. The clampdown had international ramifications as well. Following an audit that had been under way since 2011, the Government of Canada revoked the ‘charity’ status of two NGOs—Islamic Services of Canada and Canadian Islamic Trust Foundation—for possibly funding Pakistani militants. The money collected in Canada was being remitted to the Relief Organization of Kashmiri Muslims (ROKM) that the Canada Revenue Agency discovered was the charitable arm of Jamaat-e-Islami. By mid-2018, the MHA put in place an ‘Online Analytical Tool’ to monitor flow and utilization of authorized foreign contributions received by various organizations. The portal integrated the bank accounts of the FCRA-registered entities through the public financial management system and provided real-time update of transaction. Allowing government departments to conduct big data mining of foreign funds, their actual use in the country and allowed evidence-based decisions to enforce FCRA compliance…

Despite all efforts, the situation in the Valley continued to remain tense from mid-2016 till early 2017 due to what was being called the Burhan aftermath. Sthone pelting, prominent feature of protests from 2008 onwards, had attained a whole new dimension by 2016-17 when over 2690 stone-pelting incidents were reported across various districts, with Baramulla alone witnessing 492 incidents followed by Srinagar and Kupwara with 339 each. While journalists and other experienced observers felt there was a difference between the protests of 1990s and those 2010- the former had a strong anti-India under current, the latter, despite featuring anti-India slogans like aazadi, was specifically directed at the security forces in the context of brutal Killings of innocent boys- local commentators were of the opinion that the street protests were spontaneous gatherings and warned that if such maanifestation of outrage was suppressed by force it could merge with the larger separatist movements. An investigation conducted by India Today in March 2017 revealed these so-called spontaneous protests as planned events organized by people based out of the Valley where each stone-pelter was paid anywhere between Rs 5000 and 7000 a month. The masterminds used the Internet to organize stone-pelting across various locations and gave specific instructions to target JK police personnel, army jawans, MLAs and government vehicles.

In July 2016, the Army moved an entire brigade into south Kashmir as a part of Operation Calm Down that commenced in September to put an end to the protests that had gone on for nearly three months. With over 4000 additional troop deployed under Operation Clam Down to clear militants, the MHA had issued direct instructions to minimal force. There were reports of nearly 100 militants also crossing into south Kashmir since the unrest broke and the Army had fanned out in all the four districts of south Kashmir- Pulwama, Shopian, Anantnag and Kulgam. After a few instances of the Army facing stone-pelting the MHA got the local police to rent out armoured jeeps to the Army to help in the combing operations. The CRPF and the state police also assisted the MHA in clearing the roadblocks the protesters had put up by felling trees, electric poles and placing the huge boulders and burnt vehicles.

The government’s attempt to check the inflow of foreign funding of NGOs also led to the NIA claiming that the hardline Syed Ali Shah Geelani faction of the ALL Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) was involved in running hawala networks to finance the Hizbul Mujahideen and militant groups in Jammu and Kashmir. A charge sheet filed by the NIA in January 2018 in the terror-funding case that named the Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafz Mohammed Saeed and Hizbul Mujahindeen chief Syed Salahuddin pointed to links between them and the top leadership of several Kashmiri separatist groups that are part of the All Party Hurriyat Conference. The ISI had not only used Wani’s encounter to ignite rebellion across the state by supplying money to the tune of nearly Rs 800 crore to Kashmir separatist leaders, but also patronized stone-pelters by releasing a song titled ‘Sangbaaz’ or stone-pelters with lyrics that went,’You can gouge out our eyes, but you cannot snatch our drem’.

Between July 2017 and May 2018, the government of India undertook a massive to deliver what could probably be the final body blow to terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir. After months of planning and research, the MHA, along with the country’s top security establishment, came up with a list of as many as 258 militants belonging to different terror groups like LeT, JeM, HM and Al-Badr to flushed out as part of an operation to establish lasting peace in the Valley. The list included 130 local and 128 foreign terrorists who were identified after a secret district-wise survey that also earmarked prime locations of terrorist activities as well as hideouts. The operation included the Indian Army, CRPF,the BSF, the IB and Jammu and Kashmir Police and was initiated by the MHA with the singular aim of not stopping until there was complete peace. Although some media outlets shared a few details of the mission that had come to be referred as ‘Operation All Out’, the top-secret mission shifted gears after suspected LeT operatives attacked Amarnath pilgrims in July 2017, killing eight civilians and stone-pelting incidents, the Central government decided  to suspend operations in May 2018, which also coincided with Ramzan, but a later review made extending the ceasefire beyond Ramzan untenable. As of December 2018,238 terrorists had been killed in 587 incidents that also saw eighty-six security personnel lay down their lives in the course of duty.

During a tow-day visit to the state in June 2018, Rajnath Singh sanctioned Rs 14.30 crore for block-level sports in Jammu and Kashmir to enable the youth in the state to participate in the Union sports ministry’s ‘Khelo India’ scheme along with the rest of the country. When Singh revisited the state a month later, he assessed the security situation and found it conducive enough to go ahead with the decision to conduct the first-ever local-body elections in over a decade and panchayat election that were last held in 2011. Singh’s decision was epoch-making as it would not only ensure the long-overdue restoration of democracy at grass-roots level in the state, but also push the average Kashmiri to participate in making decision that would impact them directly.

When it came to Kashmir, nearly every single expert mentioned ‘Kashmiriyat’, ‘Insaniyat and ‘Jamhooriyat’ or the social consciousness and cultural values of the Kashmiri people, humanitarianism and democracy. The government’s decision to try Jamhooriyat  with the same gusto as Kashmiriyat and Insaniyat gave an entire  generation of Kashmiris the power  to be masters of their own destiny for the first time. The elections were held in nine phases between October and December 2018 and paved the way for the duly constituted local bodies receiving central grants to the tune nearly Rs 4335 crore from the Fourteenth Finance Commission. Despite the two main political parties of the state, the NC and the PDP, calling for a boycott of the elections on the grounds of the Central government’s stand on Article 35A, which grants special privileges to residents of Jammu and Kashmir, the elections saw people turn up and elect representatives who would be directly responsible for the implementation of subjects under the 73rd  Amendment of the Constitution of India, such as the primary health centres, primary schools, Anganwadi centres, etc. The polls gave the panchayats the power to generate their own funds, including building permission fee, taxes on entertainment, advertisement, hoardings, various kinds of businesses     and profession. They also made the local representatives responsible for the implementation of national schemes and supplemented their coffers by both central and state government funds for MGNERGA, PMAY, ICDS, Mid-Day Meal, etc., schemes. The local body elections increased the financial powers of a standard panchayat enfold from Rs 10,000 to Rs1 lakh, gave block councils Rs 250,000 instead of Rs 25,000 and also made the chief executive councilors the chairman of all tourism development authorities.

These were more than mere indicators of power trickling down. By making the grass-roots play a role in revenue generation, Rajnath Singh brought the concern for safety to the doorsteps of each and every home across towns and villages of Jammu and Kashmir and made the common folk initiators of the peace process.

If the confronted its internal security threats with an iron hand, it also demonstrated a tough stance while addressing external issues. The country adopted a mix of diplomacy, soft power and tough posturing to change its image across global platforms. In his maiden speech at the United Nation General Assembly in 2014, Modi chose to shun playing to the gallery. Instead of the traditional approach of simply reiterating India’s commitment to peace and the United Nations’ endeavours across the globe or calling for reforms in the UN’s Security Council, thus underlining India’s claim for a permanent seat, Modi used the platform to set out the agenda of India that he envisioned. The first tool he used to make India a global trailblazer was to call for an International Day of Yoga. Modi’s offer to let yoga lead a shift in the world’s consciousness was testimony to India’s out-of-the box thinking in diplomay and foreign policy. Also, for the first time in the history of the United Nations, 177 member states decided to co-sponsor a resolution, thus ensuring it was adopted without a vote.

Keeping the spread of yoga in mind and the increased interest in Indian medicinal systems, the MHA included yoga-based programmes in the list of permissible activities under the tourist visa. Besides soft power such as yoga and culture, the Modi government—through the visits of the prime minister himself and senior cabinet ministers such as Rajnath Singh and Sushma Swaraj—laid the foundation of new working relationships with most countries of the Middle East that were previously driven either by economic compulsion or a general resentment towards Pakistan.

In August 2015, Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit, the  United Arab Emirates (UAE) in over three decades after Indira Gandhi in 1981. In the course of the historic visit, the UAE assured increasing trade between the two nations by 60 per cent, announced an initial allocation of US$ 2 billion for investments in infrastructure projects in India along with a promise to invest US$ 75 BILLION IN India’s plans for rapid expansion, while allocating 55,000 sq. m. of land for the contruction of the first traditional Hindu stone temple in the Middle East. During his visit to Bahrain in October 2016, Rajnath Singh met King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. In the course of his interactions with the interior minister, Lt-General Shaikh Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa, as the two countries reaffirmed their strong stance against all forms of terroris, Singh repeated what he had said during his visit to Pakistan: a terrorist in one country cannot be glorifed as freedom fighters by another.

Singh’s visit assumed greater importance as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), of which both Pakistan and Bahrain were members, had backed Pakistan on the Kashmir issue and had also asked India to cease ‘atrocities’ in the Valley. Singh was expected to not only address this prickly issue but also nurture an environment that would garner support for India’s stand vis-à-vis Kashmir by pointing to Pakistan’s role in waging a proxy war against India through cross-border terrorism. In his meeting with both King Hamad and the interior minister, Singh conveyed Pakistan’s refusal to given up terrorism as an instrument of state policy and, as a result, India’s reluctance to take at face value any assurances that Pakistan provided in this regard. Singh signed a number of MoUs whereby both India and Bahrain would combat international terrorism, transnational organized crime and human trafficking as well as trafficking in illicit drugs and narcotics, and also fight money laundering.

In  Saudi Arabia, PM Modi renewed the 2006 information-sharing agreement between the two countries signed by King Abdullah and Manmohan Singh, and signed agreements pertaining to cooperation in exchange of intelligence related to money laundering, crimes and terrorism financing. Both countries further agreed to take action against illegal transfer of money. During her visit, Modi and Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was also the defence minister, decide to intensify bilateral defence cooperation through visits by military personnel and experts, joint military exercises and visits of ships and aircraft and supply of arms and ammunition and their joint development.

Between 2014 and 2018, India signed a series of agreements with the United States of America, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom Australia and Thailand, among others, on exchange of terrorist-screening information, return of illegal migrants, intelligence sharing, cybercrimes, coordination of home land security, checking extremism and radicalization, besides steps to check illegal financial transaction. India also entered into an understanding on capacity building to fight terrorism and police training development activities with Maldives and Afghanistan, besides regular interactions with other Asian countries, including SAARC partners and Japan cemented India’s new approach.

India’s commitment to upholding democratic values was emphasized every time the government interacted on an international platform. During a symposium in Tokyo on Shared Values and Democracy in Asia, the MHA, represented by Kiren Rijiju, underlined India’s devotion to working together with the world to preserve and promote non-conflicting traditions.

The defining moment of how the ‘new’ India responded came in the middle of the Modi government’s term in office during the two-month-long border stand-off between the Indian armed forces and the People’s Liberation Army of China over the construction of a road in Doklam by the Chinese. On 16 June 2017, Chinese troops started extending a road southward of Doklam, a territory that both China and Bhutan claim. India stood by its ally Bhutan and, on 18 June 2017, around 270 Indian troops stopped the Chinese from constructing the road. One of the worst border disputes between India and China in decades, the stand-off attracted international attention. The dispute over whether a small piece of land, only about 34 sq. miles, belonged to China or Butan was seen as pivotal in the growing competition between China and India over the future of Asia. Throughout the confrontation, India refused to blink or give in to the demands of the Chinese, even as the latter termed India’s action a pretext to interfere in and impede the boundary talks between China and Bhutan, accused India of standing in the way of peace and also indicated that it had notified India in advance about its plans to construct a road.

As the Indian army was squaring off against the Chinese troops, Rahul Gandhi, who was then vice-president of the congress, met the Chinese ambassador and said that it was his job to be informed. Although initially the Congress party refused to confirm or deny the meeting, later Rahul Gandhi tweeted, ‘And for the record, I am not the guy sitting on the swing while a thousand Chinese troops had physically entered India,’ a reference to the photo-op between Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Chinese premier’s visit to India in 2014.

China and India had maintained diplomatic communication, throughout, which show that diplomacy could avert military confrontation. Two, and more importantly, the manner in which India dealt with the deadlock by standing firm in the face of China’s relentless provocation showed the world that Beijing’s expansionist ambition is not unstoppable.

India’s restraint in the Doklam stand-off enhanced its profile amongst nations emerging as new powers in the region. With Doklam, India also strengthened partnerships with South and Southeast Asians nations,

especially those who have territorial and maritime disputes with China. On 9 June, a few days before the Doklam crisis erupted, India was invited to become a full-time member of he Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which was being seen as the Asian answer to NARO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation). India becoming a permanent member of the SCO with China and Russia, besides Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, gave the SCO a pan- Asian identity. Also with two of the world’s most populous nations as members, the SCO would effectively be speaking on behalf of harmony of humanity.

On 24-25 August 2017, before the de-escalation of troops in Doklam, Rajnath Singh led the Indian delegation to the SCO summit in Tat, Kyrgyz Republic. In his opening statement, Singh expressed his gratitude to all member-states of the SCO for their support for India’s membership and moved a proposal to organize a joint urban earthquake search and rescue exercise to improve collective preparedness. The visit was of immense bilateral significance and showed India’s growing heft as a power worth engaging with. Singh’s meeting with his Chinese counterpart at the SCO summit was also a precursor to the Modi-Xi Jinping bilateral meet during the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in Beijing from 3 to 5 September.

By the end of 2018, there were visible signs of the MHA managing to get an upper hand in dealing with issues that only a few years ago seemed an uphill task. Rajnath Singh’s efforts to streamline the functioning of the MHA showed great results. Better inter-agency coordination between the army, paramilitary forces, the states’ police, NIA and IB resulted in success in nearly every single mission undertaken. This coordination was responsible for the favorable outcomes security agencies enjoyed in Jammu & Kashmir, areas infested with left-wing extremism, insurgency in the north-east as well as the missions involving the killing of Lashkar-e-Taiba’s top commander Abu Dujana, the arrest of Rubel Ahmed alias Munir ul Islam and Musharraf Hussain alias Musa of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahidden who had escaped from Bangladesh to Greater Noida, and those of individuals in Hyderabad with links to the Islamic State (IS).

Following months of investigation into the violence that erupted during the celebratory gathering of Dalit and Bahujan groups to mark the 200th year of the Bhima-Koregaon battle, January 2018, the Pune police arrested activists Surendra P. Gadling, Sudhir P. Dhawale, Rona jcob Wilson, Shoma Sen and Mahesh S. Raut under the unlawful Activities Prevention Act. The police claimed that evidence gathered during searches at different locations that led to these arrests indicated links between the five people and the banned outfit CPI (Maoist). Further investigations in August 2018 saw the arrests of more activists, including Mapist ideologue Varavara Rao, Arun Ferreira, Lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj and Gautam Navlakha for their alleged links with Maoists.

The spread of the Naxalite-Moaist ideology in urban centers through sympathizers and front men acquired a frightening dimension following alleged threats against the prime minister in a laptop belonging to Rona Wilson the public relations secretary of the Committee for Release of Political Prisoners (CRPP). In the material recovered, the police claimed that Maoists proposed concrete steps to end the Modi era and plotted t5o kill the prime minister ‘along the lines of another Rajiv Gandhi-type incident’. Rajnath Singh chaired an inter-agency meeting to review the PM’s security arrangements that was attended by senior officials of the Ministry of Home Affairs as well as NSA Ajit Doval, Home Secretary Rajiv Gauba and IB chief Rajiv Jain. He also directed all agencies to beef up the PM’s security in the wake of the assassination threat.

The police crackdown on ‘urban Naxalism’ triggered massive outrage with politician, activists and authors terming it as an attack on democratic rights. Some even likened the detention and raids to the declaration of Emergency. A petition moved before the Supreme Court by historian Romila Thapar, economists Prabhat Patnaik and Devaki Jain, sociology professor Satish Deshpande and humanrights lawyer Maja Daruwala challenged the arrests of Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, Sudha Bharadwaj and Gautamm Navlakha. Represented by a bunch of senior lawyers, including Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Dushyant Dave, Prashant Bhushan, Indira jaising and Vrinda Grover, the petitioners claimed that the government was ‘quelling dissent’. The three-judge SC bench headed by the then Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra directed the Pune police to place them under house arrest as they were ‘professors and lawyers’. The petitioners asked the SC for an independent probe into the arrests but the government, represented by Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, argued that the arrests were made after an extensive investigation. In subsequent hearings, the SC in a 2:1 verdict not only refused the plea seeking the immediate release of the activists but also refused to interface.

Justice D.Y. Chandrachud dissented with the majority view and noted that the arrest of the five accused was an attempt by the state to muzzle dissent and that, short of incitement to violence and subversion of elected government, dissent must be allowed in a democracy. The majority verdict, on the other hand, by CJI Misra and Justice A.M. Khanwilkar said the arrests were not merely because of differences in political views or dissent but that there was prima facie material to show their link with banned Maoists.

India’s internal security improved vastly under Rajnath Singh with no major terror attacks since June 2014. While earlier the news of terror attack was commonplace, since singh assumed charge, terror plans being foiled became a part and parcel of everyday news. One such big breakthrough came about in December 2018 when, after months of investigations, the NIA busted as ISIS-inspired module called Harkat-ul-Harb-e-Islam and arrested ten persons, foiling their attempts to carry out a series of blasts in and around the national capital…

Rajnath Singh also put in place a mix measures such as fencing, increased border posts, making ten-metre-high walls stretching across 190km and hi-tech surveillance system to secure India’s borders on both the western and eastern fronts. Singh inaugurated two pilot projects of smart fencing along the India-Pakistan border in Jammu under the comprehensive lntegrated Border Management System (CIBMS) programme  that he had seen at work in Israel during his 2014 visit.

The MHA had been considering the use of high-tech solution for border security since 2012. In 2014, the BSF had submitted a detailed report on the CIBMS  to the MHA There was a meeting between the MHA and the BSF in March 2014 but no decision was taken to implement the system until January 2016. The Pathankot  attack in early 2016 saw the MHA step on the accelerator to implement the CIMBS. A first  of its kind in India, the CIMBS covered a 5.5 km stretches where physical surveillance is not possible either due to inhospitable terrain or riverine borders. It created an invisible electronic barrier on land, water and even in air and underground that helped the BSF to detect and foil infiltration and smuggling bids.

The MHA also decided to launch a similar 60-km-long pilot project in Assam where internal security had already shown sings of improvement since Singh took office. The year 2017 recorded the lowest insurgency  incidents and causalities amongst both civilians and security forces in nearly two decades. The region has seen a 63 per cent reduction in insurgency since 2014 and the lifting of the Armed Forces(Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) from all areas of Meghalaya on 31 march 2018 illustrated the vastly improving security scenario. The AFSPA was also abrogated in eight out of sixteen areas in Arunachal Pradesh. The center also extended the ceasefire with the National Socialist of Nagaland /Reformation.

In a marked departure from before, the MHA interacted with the eight member states of the North Eastern Council for the effective implementation of the central government’s financial packages such as the Rs 3000 crore special scheme to incentivize micro, small and medium enterprises sector in the region and an additional Rs 4500 crore package in 2018 to help focus on specific areas and better delivery of government sponsored schemes.

The MHA also undertook the rollout of the draft National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam to update the register in compliance with the demands of the Assam Accord of 1985. Since Independence till 1971 Assam witnessed large- scale migration from East Pakistan. The migration continued even after the 1971 war for the liberation of Bangladesh. As per the Assam Accord, the NRC needed to the updated to identify and deport illegal migrants in the state. The cut-off date for  inclusionin the NCR was 25 March1971 when the war for the liberation of Bangladesh commenced. Indian citizens, including their children and descendants, who moved to Assam after 24 March 1971, would be eligible for inclusion in the updated NRC only after satisfactory proof of residence in any part of the country (outside Assam) as on 24 March 1971 was provided. Addressing  the fears among various groups in the run-up to the draft NRC publication in Assam, Rajnath Singh assured every individual of justice and humane treatment. The process of updating the NRC was generally peaceful through the SC slammed the MHA in early 2019  for delays as the government sought permission to suspend all activities in view of the impending 2019 general elections.

The NDA lost it’s ally in Assam, the Asom Gana Parishad when the government presented the citizenship (Amendment)Bill 2016 that aimed to provided  citizenship  to those displaced due to religious persecution for being from minority groups in Bangladesh, Pakistan  and Afghanistan after due scrutiny and recommendations of district and state authorities. The government’s decision to provide for persecuted Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian  communities from the neighbouring  countries did not  go down well. Protestors in Assam maintained that all immigrants who entered the country after 1971 should be deported irrespective of their religion. while presenting the bill in parliament, Singh said that these people for whom India was amending its law had no place to go to expect India. He also assured that the bill would not be limited to Assam.The bill was originally introduced in 2016 and tabled in early 2019 after including the recommendation of the joint parliamentary committee.

The MHA also gave financial assistance to 5764 west Pakistan refugees settled in Jammu and Kashmir and facilitated the repatriation of rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Singh’s meeting with the prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina during his visit to Dhaka in 2018 went beyond the trapping of a routine event.  During the meeting , Singh shared New Delhi’s efforts to help. India constructed prefabricated houses in rakhine for honigya returnees and also continued to provide relief materials to help Bangladesh deal with the needs of the refugees in relief camps.

In early 2019, a Mood of the nation poll conducted among 13000 participants voted Rajnath Singh as the best-performing minister in the Narendra Modi government, which summed up both singh and the MHA’s impact on the lives of Indians. During the initial period of his tenure as home minister, Singh, always a man of few words, was often derided for his taciturn approach. Singh’s use of the hindi word ‘ninda’ or censure was ridiculed as the only response he had to act of terror. However, it is under him that the security forces have made India much safer for the average man than ever before.

By Gautam Chintamani

(The article is based on edited excerpts of the article “The Sky as a Shelter” from the book “Rajneeti”, published by Penguin Random House)

 

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