The fabled “toolkit” is back on TV and once again, it’s being credited to a “foreign hand”. The word became familiar across Indian media and social media after a tweet by teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg in support of protesting farmers in February this year. In its second coming, it has returned in relation to the recent border clash between the states of Assam and Mizoram.
On August 2, Times Now anchored by Madhavdas Gopalakrishnan. “Another ‘tukde-tukde’ toolkit unearthed,” the text on the screen screamed. Times Now helpfully supplied viewers with previous examples of “tukde-tukde” toolkits: “kisan andolan anarchy”, referring to the farmer protests against some hastily passed farm laws; the Bhima-Koregaon violence in Maharashtra; and stone-pelting in Kashmir.
The channel also cited the citizenship law protests, which Gopalakrishnan said were “funded by anti-India elements in west Asia” while berating the “Lutyens cabal” for holding prime minister Narendra Modi responsible for the unrest that followed the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act.
“As much as the lobby may want to deny it, there is little doubt that most of the fires that are erupting across India today actually have some role of a foreign hand in it,” Gopalakrishnan declared. “...We will reveal how another ‘tukde’ toolkit has been uncovered. We will expose how a vicious online hate campaign has been incited in the Northeast that has been launched by paid bots to fan mistrust between Assamese and Mizos.”
The evidence? That 43,300 tweets with the hashtag #ShameOnAssam originated from outside India, mainly the United States, while only 23,000 tweets with the hashtag originated in India. K-pop fans were also singled out for “plotting a Twitter storm” with a tweet – “Is there a problem with supporting our land & being a k-pop fan” – mentioned among examples of “extremely provocative tweets”.
The anchor then went on to address his boss, Rahul Shivshankar, saying “This very clearly shows how there is a foreign hand with these bots and handles outside of Indian territory talking about what is very clearly an internal dispute within India.”
Shivshankar then told viewers that their show was based on reports prepared by the central government that had been accessed by reporter Megha Prasad. A fantastic conversation followed between Gopalakrishnan, Shivshankar and Prasad, where they said “there are people outside India who are trying to bring a bad name to India” and blamed it on “paid bots”.
Shivshankar said, “This is very crucial because for months altogether, we are being told that the polarisers are sitting within government, that the individuals who are actually fomenting inter-religious, inter-caste, inter-state violence are those that are sitting in government.” He seemed to be suppressing a smile while saying this. To me as a viewer, it looked like the smug face of a man who had neatly excluded from mention the individuals sitting in television studios fomenting inter-religious, inter-caste and inter-state violence, and being paid handsomely for it.
Shivshankar then went on to talk about the “active sowing of seeds of hate through paid sponsored intervention to make people see each other as enemies and attack each other” – a phenomenon unknown to Times Now and its paymasters. Then, in a leap of the imagination that would do a C-grade Bollywood movie proud, he went on to link K-pop fans to China and Pakistan to the Mizoram-Assam border dispute.
The rest of the show carried on in this vein, with a quote in Hindi from law minister Kiren Rijiju saying that there are many foreign elements fanning the trouble between Mizoram and Assam. A short “debate” followed without anyone from Northeast India, let alone Mizoram or Assam, on the panel.
It is owing to low-quality shows such as this that I largely stopped watching television news several years ago.
The “foreign hand” has been a recurring feature of Indian politics since the time Indira Gandhi was prime minister. In her time, there was actually good reason to worry about such a “foreign hand” at work in Northeast India, because events of world-historical significance were afoot in the wider region: the Bangladesh War of 1971, the creation of Bangladesh, and the reorganisation of Northeast India within a fortnight of the end of the war, which saw the establishment of the states of Manipur and Tripura, and the formation of the state of Meghalaya and union territories of Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. The details, including the difference in nomenclature – “establishment” for two of the states and “formation” for the rest – is beyond the scope of this article.
However, suffice it to say that Northeast India as we know it now came into existence in 1972, with a further addition to the map following the annexation of Sikkim, which was then an independent kingdom, to India in 1975. The creation of at least three of those states, from Nagaland in 1963 to Mizoram in 1987, marked the culmination of complex, violent processes of political accommodation with powerful insurgent movements that sought independence from India. Events of such scale do involve power plays between countries.
Recent events, however, are not comparable.
So long as India remains a democracy, however diminished, there is a legitimate space for a political opposition, and freedom of speech for citizens. The opposition to the farm bills has come largely from Indian farmers themselves, and been led by farm unions. They are sons and daughters of the Indian soil in a way that Madhavdas and Shivshankar are not. Legitimate political parties including former BJP allies such as the Shiromani Akali Dal have supported those protests. The first public protests against the CAA started in Assam. It was spontaneous and widespread, and led by local student unions and political parties throughout Northeast India. Indeed, even BJP allies in the region had recorded their objections to the new law and sought exemptions. It is far-fetched to link this to a “tukde-tukde” gang with West Asian sponsors. The Bhima Koregaon clash happened in Maharashtra in 2018 over the commemoration of a battle that was fought in 1818, and has been commemorated since 1927 when Dr BR Ambedkar initiated it. Whose hand is being called “foreign” in this context?
The latest episode, the clash between the Assam and Mizoram police, happened with a BJP government in Assam and a government led by a BJP ally in Mizoram. The “fires that erupted”, to use Madhavdas’s words, did not start in any foreign country. The “mistrust between Assamese and Mizos” was fanned by the simple fact that the police forces of these two states fired live bullets from weapons including light machine guns at each other, that six policemen from Assam died in the firing, and that Assam filed an FIR against a Mizo MP while in Mizoram, an FIR was filed against the Assam chief minister. Matters have calmed down somewhat after both sides took steps to withdraw the FIRs.
The incident was a fallout of an old territorial dispute that goes back to the drawing of the borders of the union territory of Mizoram in 1972, but actually trace back to older demarcations of boundaries in British India going back as far as the 1870s when the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation of 1873 brought the legal concept of inner line permit areas into existence. The inner line permit still exists, and Indian citizens who want to visit states of Northeast India, such as Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram, need to apply for it. Manipur is a fresh addition to this list. It has been included specifically because the CAA caused disquiet there. The Meghalaya assembly also passed a unanimous resolution, sparked by protests against CAA, for inclusion in the inner line regime.
The policy-making and handling of the Northeast after 2014, and particularly since 2019, has been like the handling of the economy, and pretty much everything else – a series of disasters. Like much else, it has been marked by bravado, and a penchant for needless meddling with the foundations. It was no “foreign hand” that inflicted demonetisation on the Indian economy. Similarly, the "cabal" that brought back unrest to Northeast India via the National Register of Citizens and Citizenship Amendment Act was the same “nationalist” one that big channels of misinformation so ardently support.
It is ridiculous and laughable to hold up a tweet saying “Is there a problem with supporting our land & being a K-pop fan” as an example of an “extremely provocative tweet”. That this has come from some central government agency, as mentioned by Shivshankar on TV, makes it doubly absurd. Intelligence in intelligence work has clearly become an oxymoron.
It is painfully apparent that the bulk of big media in India now act quite shamelessly as spokespersons for the Bharatiya Janata Party. What is more worrying, however, is that the country’s national security apparatus is also behaving like an extension of one particular political party. The Pegasus incident is an example. A string of cases foisted on journalists and critics by law enforcement agencies misusing charges such as sedition is another. The motivated leaking of half-baked information to friendly news media for BJP’s propaganda purposes is a relatively minor everyday occurrence.
There is a difference between serving the government, the state, and the party in power. The BJP is not the nation, and its interests are not the national interest. A Congress leader from Assam named DK Barooah, now chiefly remembered for his sycophancy, once said, “Indira is India, India is Indira.” Indira Gandhi achieved a great deal, especially in Northeast India and Bangladesh. However, today’s sycophants would do well to note that Indira, despite her achievements, was not India. Modi, whose greatest “achievements” are the abrogation of Article 370, the highly contentious and still inoperable CAA, and the no less contentious Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, is even less so.