The image of Amit Shah as a hawkish, no-nonsense internal security minister was cast 11 years ago, long before he moved out of his office in the BJP party headquarters, on 6 Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Marg into Room No 104, in New Delhi’s North Block on June 1 this year. It was the evening of July 26, 2008, and 21 bombs had gone off in Ahmedabad, in the city’s buses, hospitals and public places. In the space of four hours, the blasts had killed 58 people and injured over 200 others.
At around 6.30 pm, as panic-stricken citizens reeled in shock, state home minister Amit Shah came on TV channels and assured the people that he would bring the culprits to book. Later that night, Shah, then Gujarat’s youngest home minister at 43, reiterated the pledge to his boss, Chief Minister Narendra Modi.
The next few days were hectic, spent in meetings with state police and Intelligence Bureau officials. Twenty days later, there was a breakthrough. One of the agencies reported the arrest of a suspect, a maulvi from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh. He was flown to Ahmedabad in a state government aircraft sent from Gujarat.
Image: Pankaj Nangia
His interrogation unravelled a terrorist cell headed by Riyaz and Yasin Bhatkal of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). The Bhatkals had set up a terrorist outfit called the Indian Mujahideen (IM), which had carried out a wave of bombings across India, in Lucknow, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Jaipur and Delhi in 2008.
Intelligence tip-offs from the Gujarat police led Delhi police to Batla House which led to the eponymous encounter where two alleged IM terrorists, said to be involved in the Delhi bombings, were gunned down.
Shah’s ascent as Union home minister comes after a five-year interlude as BJP president where he reshaped the party into an election-winning juggernaut scoring victories in over a dozen state elections and historic majorities in two consecutive Lok Sabha elections.
In his first Lok Sabha contest in 2019, Shah won the Gandhinagar seat with a margin of 570,000 votes.
The buzz is that former health minister JP Nadda will replace Shah in the party, but only as ‘working’ president. Shah will continue to call the shots in the party from his North Block office.
Amit Shah and PM Modi wave to BJP workers after the LS poll victory (Image: Pankaj Nangia)
The Modi government’s first term did not have a No 2. The second term now has a clear second in command and possible heir apparent. Viral memes on social media that began doing the rounds soon after Shah’s portfolio was announced showed a grim-faced leader oozing toughness, promising to settle scores.
Rarely has an Indian politician’s arrival in office been greeted with such trepidation.
As home minister, Shah is all-powerful. He heads India’s entire internal security apparatus, controls a million-strong central armed police and paramilitary force, oversees the Intelligence Bureau, the National Investigation Agency and over two dozen departments that manage relations between the Centre and the states, guide the modernisation of the police forces, keeps tabs on foreigners and promotes official language Hindi.
He also joins Prime Minister Modi as part of the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC) which selects candidates to all top government posts. Shah began his first day at work on June 1 by paying homage to martyrs at the police memorial in Delhi.
Image: Pankaj Nangia
He held meetings with governors from J&K, the Northeast, West Bengal and Kerala. This was followed by meetings with key bureaucrats, the Union home secretary, the Intelligence Bureau chief and the National Security Advisor.
“We got clear signals of a much tougher approach on internal security,” says an official who met Shah. Another IAS officer recalls how LK Advani too began his tenure as home minister in 1998 with a similar hardline approach but it did not translate into action.
“But things will be different now, given Shah’s track record,” the official says. The reference is to the period after 2002 when Shah was Gujarat home minister. He was embroiled in controversies around a series of police encounters, particularly the 2005 killing of gangster Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife Kausar bi.
The case was pursued by the then UPA government, which the BJP believes was part of a plan to thwart Modi’s emergence as a prime ministerial candidate. Shah was even incarcerated for three months in Sabarmati Jail in 2010.
His party sees this as evidence that he was made the fall guy in the case. The authorities even tried pressuring Shah into implicating Modi but he refused to budge, all the while assuaging the fears of the anxious chief minister. Shah’s bail came in 2010-end, and was conditional on him staying out of Gujarat. In retrospect, the two-year externment from his home state was a blessing in disguise.
Shah spent time networking with top BJP leaders in Delhi on behalf of his boss, preparing the ground for Modi’s 2014 arrival. Jail and externment hardened Shah as a politician and cemented his relationship with Modi. “The two are now even more close. Their understanding of the Congress’s machinations became near-perfect,” gushes Gujarat BJP spokesman Bharat Pandya.
The tough guy image has followed Shah since Modi appointed him MoS for home after his December 2002 re-election. Close associates say Shah’s nationalist thinking is marked by moderation and practicality.
A lesser known fact is his cultivating police officers from the minority community who played a stellar role in police action against terrorists in Gujarat.
The challenges he now faces as Union home minister are formidable, the biggest of them being the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir which for the past year has been under President’s rule and earlier Governor’s rule.
The first challenge is to peacefully conduct the Amarnath Yatra, between July 1 and August 15. Elections to the 87-member Jammu and Kashmir assembly will only be called after the yatra.
Abrogating Article 370 and Articles 35A, the BJP manifesto promises, are not in the immediate horizon. Under existing law, the government needs to reconvene a new J&K Constituent Assembly and bring them onboard to abrogate Article 370. Solving the Ayodhya tangle and building a Ram mandir will be another big challenge, as will be implementing the National Register of Citizenship in Assam.
He has to persuade the people of Assam and the Northeast to accept the controversial Citizenship Bill, 2018, which allows accepting Hindu, Sikh, Christian and Buddhist refugees from neighbouring countries but not Muslims.
The Valley Conundrum
Shah’s views on J&K are inflexible.
He believes Article 370-which gives autonomy to J&K-needs to go. This, he believes, will happen once the BJP gains a majority in the Rajya Sabha next year and is able to pass legislation to abrogate the special status.
As for Article 35A, which defines the privileges of permanent residents of the state, Shah wants it removed through an executive order. He believes it is bad for the state and the country as it prevents J&K from realising its full development potential. He feels Article 35A’s purpose is the Islamisation of J&K, particularly the Jammu region.
However, among the arguments against the abrogation of Article 35A is the fact that such laws prohibiting outsiders from buying property already exist in other states (Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim, for example).
So why target only J&K? Shah is also contemplating delimitation of assembly seats in J&K to remove the current ‘disparity’ in strength between the Valley and Jammu regions.
“Nation First in the truest sense will mark my approach to all the problems to do with national security,” says Shah, without going into the details of how will he conduct himself.
On the question of the fears of Muslims over his appointment, he insists he is unbiased, “I strictly follow the BJP’s nationalist ideology, which has never discriminated against religious minorities while implementing the developmental agenda.
Those who do not have ulterior designs against the nation need not fear me or the BJP, whichever religion they may belong to.”
To another question, he says, “Even (Hindutva ideologue) Veer Savarkar was fighting minority appeasement, he was not demanding special treatment for Hindus. In that sense, Savarkar was fighting a battle for equal treatment.” Asked why he keeps images of Adi Shankaracharya, Chanakya and Savarkar at home, he says simply, “I get immense inspiration from all three.”
In J&K, Shah maintains that his aim is to stop the Islamisation of the Jammu region which he believes has accelerated over the past 20 years. He is also considering the old RSS proposal of a trifurcation of J&K into Kashmir and Jammu states with Ladakh as a centrally-administered Union territory.
Sangh Parivar ideologues believe this will automatically make Article 370 redundant. Also, for the abrogation strategy to work, Shah’s home ministry will first need to clean up the terror networks in J&K. In fact, this is a pre-requisite to pre-empt the violence following such a step. Says an RSS ideologue, “Trifurcation of J&K is a good proposal if Article 370 has to be left alone.
Even Pakistan, which is facing protests from locals in PoK, separated the Gilgit-Baltistan region recently through a legal ploy in order to prevent the protests from spreading. India can use it as a strategic argument while trifurcating J&K.” But the issue of trifurcation will open India to charges of trying to divide the state along religious lines-Muslim Valley, Hindu Jammu and Buddhist Ladakh.
Says Sushant Sareen, a national security expert, “I don’t think Shah can solve the J&K problem in five years, but he will bring more depth to India’s Kashmir policy which, in turn, will move it in the right direction of solving the problem. Clearly, the namby-pamby approach of the past is over. It has been replaced by a much-needed ruthlessness to deal with the pro-Pak elements in the Valley.”
A former police officer who has worked in J&K adds: “The ground has been prepared by the Modi government with its multiple actions against separatist leaders like Geelani, Yasin Malik and Mirwaiz, sending a signal that India will now deal with only the pro-India elements in the Valley.
But still there are remnants in the J&K system of the support the separatist leaders draw from, due to behind-the-screen indulgences by former Indian governments.
This has to be squeezed out. Shah has to take the tough Kashmir policy to the next level.” The officer suggests that this would mean a stop to actions like allowing relatives to take out funeral processions of slain terrorists (like in Israel where the state conceals the graves of slain terrorists).
Plus, steps have to be taken to strengthen the intelligence network and encourage the moderate Islamic cultural traditions of the Valley.
The Ram temple tangle
The sadhus associated with the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas and various other outfits have started the clamour for the Ram temple to be built in Ayodhya.
One of them, Ram Vilas Vedanti, is already pressing for the transfer of the two-thirds of the 67 acres land around the temple to the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas.
The Nyas is one of the main plaintiffs in the case. This land is apart from the 2.77 acres of disputed land where the Babri Masjid once stood. This 67 acres was acquired by the Narasimha Rao government in 1993 on the condition that it will be released after the judgment comes on whether the disputed land goes to the Hindus or Muslims.
The 2010 Allahabad High Court judgment in the case had ruled that a two-thirds portion of the land be shared by the two Hindu plaintiffs and one-third be given to the Sunni Muslim Waqf Board, but with appeals pending, the UPA government had taken no action.
The Modi government, too, kept quiet till January last when, with the general election in mind, it moved an application in the apex court asking for permission to transfer the land to the Nyas.
Significantly, when spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar had started efforts to resolve the issue through negotiations with the Muslim leadership, Shah and the RSS had opposed it, saying the issue should be solved through the court.
The Ram temple is possibly the one issue where Shah and the Sangh parivar are on one side and Modi on the other.
The prime minister reportedly wants the issue resolved through negotiations in the hope of better Hindu-Muslim ties in the future.
Shah and the RSS, on the other hand, are for a tougher policy on the Ram temple issue since they believe it’s the only way to deal with radical elements in the Muslim community on the issue.
The number of Maoist-affected districts has come down from 126 to 90 in the past five years and the policies of the Modi government and former Union home minister Rajnath Singh played a big role in this.
The Modi government went a step further and started cornering the so-called urban Maoists-Left intellectuals whom the government alleges are working as the ideological brains of the Maoists overground.
One significant security issue on which the Modi government has been uncharacteristically weak-willed is the non-implementation of police reforms recommended by former Border Security Force (BSF) DGP Prakash Singh who went to the Supreme Court to get his plea sanctioned legally.
Singh says the Modi government has done nothing to reform the police system.
He recommends five major reforms immediately, including the strengthening of police infrastructure (in the form of manpower, transport, communication and forensic support), the creation of special police units like Andhra Pradesh’s Greyhounds in every state, a legal mandate for the CBI so that it isn’t a pawn in the hands of politicians, a special all-India law to control organised crime like the MCOCA (Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, 1999) and transferring the subject of police from the state list to the concurrent list of the Constitution to give the Centre some role in moulding the state police.
For sure, with Shah’s arrival, a new chapter in muscular nationalism has begun on India’s internal security turf. But the challenges are also many. The ministry has several unfinished schemes like the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems (CCTNS) and NATGRID or National Intelligence Grid database. These are absolutely critical in tracking the movements of terrorists and sharing intelligence among police forces. Amit Shah clearly has his work cut out for him.