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Highlights of January 2024


Developments in Russia and Ukraine

The Russia-Ukraine war continues without any resolution. Here are some of the latest developments:

First, in the most recent development, a large Russian military transport plane crashed in the Belgorod region near the border with Ukraine, killing everyone onboard. The plane had been carrying 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war who were to be exchanged for Russian service personnel. Russia accused Ukrainian forces in the nearby Kharkiv region of launching two missiles that struck the aircraft. While Ukraine did not comment directly on the accusations, the country’s military intelligence agency hinted at what could have been a tragic mistake, saying that Russia had not informed it that prisoners would be flown to Belgorod’s airport.

Second, Russia has been conducting hypersonic and cruise missile attacks on not just the war frontlines, but also in central and southern parts of Ukraine, targeted at its defence infrastructure (unlike last year, when the target was the power infrastructure of Ukraine).

Third, even as a little headway is made in the war, another major military scam was unearthed in Ukraine – the last one was stifled by the government after a quick change in the Defence Ministry. The SBU Security Unit of Ukraine exposed the scam, which showed how Ukrainian officials looted $40 million for purchase of arms in a mass procurement fraud, with no arms being provided. While endemic corruption has plagued the country for a long time, this fraud comes amidst allegations that the government is also trying to stifle Opposition and independent media, labelling anyone who opposes the government as a Russian agent.

Amidst these developments, the overall situation in the war continues to be bleak, with no rapprochement or negotiation in sight. While the internal situation in Russia continues to deteriorate – with rising crime rates and public opinion against the war – it has not made much impact on the Russian calculus. From the perspective of Ukraine, while arms continue to flow from the West, the country has thoroughly failed in taking back its territories and continues to receive a battering. From the perspective of the West, it would appear that the prolongation of the war suits the US, as its defence industry flourishes and the war has successfully managed to weaken Russia and limit its power to the Eurasian theatre, thereby diluting its presence in the Middle east. Overall, this war has become a new status quo which no party is willing to break.

Developments in Science and Technology

The growth of Artificial Intelligence (AI) continues unabated, even as regulators continue to issue warnings about the unforeseen implications of this technology. One such implication that has recently come to light is the deceptive ability of AI systems to be benign during testing but behave differently once deployed. Attempts to remove this two-faced behaviour can make the systems better at hiding it. These deceptive abilities of AI systems have recently been exposed and are still being investigated.

Even as this comes to the fore, another pathbreaking development has taken place in the form of brain implants pioneered by Neuralink – a technology company run by Elon Musk. The wireless brain implant contains chips and electrodes which are meant to register thoughts related to movement. Recently, the first human surgery with such brain implant in a human being was successfully performed. This surgery marks a new moment in human-computer interface.

Thus, a person may type on a computer or a phone or any digital device and control that device simply by thinking about it. This telepathic technology certainly resembles the world of science fiction and imagination, and yet it is here, has been approved by US regulators and now portends endless possibilities. For it will not simply enable a human-computer one-to-one interface, but thanks to the networked nature of technology, powered by AI systems, the reach of such interface will be wider. This technology claims to address physical and cognitive disabilities among humans, enhance memory and other cognitive abilities and treat neurological disorders, among other things.

It takes privacy to a whole new level, raising questions like, who will control data gleaned from the brain and how this can be misused. Also, how will it impact the future of wars, governance and society when it will become possible for humans to remotely control any networked system. Once the technology becomes scalable and falls into common hands, how unpredictable it will become is another question. Finally, and most importantly, what reverse effect this will have on human psychology is also of concern; for, it raises questions about whether humans are controlling the technology or will it eventually become the other way round.

Politics Before 2024 General Elections: Changes in Bihar and Jharkhand

The politics of eastern states has undergone a significant change in recent times. In Bihar, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of Janata Dal (United), who appears to have mastered the art of switching political alliances, has yet again switched back to the BJP, with no reasonable justification other than the desire for staying in power. He has now formed a new government in Bihar along with the BJP and has been sworn in as the Chief Minister again. The fact that he came back to the BJP, after vowing never to join it again, shows the extent to which he takes the electorate for granted. Equally surprising is the readiness with which the BJP embraced Mr. Kumar – even though Home Minister Amit Shah had famously declared that the doors of the BJP are closed to Mr. Kumar forever.

Mr. Kumar has a history of switching alliances. In 2017, he betrayed the mandate of 2015, and in 2022, he betrayed the mandate of 2020. In 2020, JD(U) won the election in alliance with the BJP. Two years later, he broke off with the BJP and formed a new government with the RJD and the Congress in Bihar. In 2023, he has now made another U-turn and has come back into the BJP fold, just ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

There might be several reasons for this, but they all boil down to the desire of Mr. Kumar to stay in power, regardless of who he allies with. He has also realized that the INDIA alliance – which disappointed him by not appointing him as its convener and choosing Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge instead – is on a weak footing. Further, he has probably come to see that the caste census which his government had so famously conducted in Bihar did not make any significant political impact. Even though these antics of switching sides will severely dent the reputation of Mr. Kumar and he might stand to be a big loser in such developments, he has assured his place in power for now.

On the part of BJP, the reasoning was also based on pure politics. The following reasons can be assessed:

First, the BJP realizes that this switching of alliances would further weaken the reputation of Mr. Kumar – a desirable outcome for the BJP in the long run, as it would help to break the dominance of a significant regional party.

Second, the BJP is always on the lookout to ensure that regional caste-based mobilization does not dent the national agenda, as was sought to be done by the caste census conducted in Bihar. By coopting Mr. Kumar, the BJP has considerably defanged his plot of caste-based mobilization.

Third, the BJP also realized the short-term, electoral dividends of being with Mr. Kumar, as he commands significant popularity among non-Yadav Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The BJP assessed that the JD(U) – with around 15% vote base in Bihar – could disintegrate post-Nitish Kumar era, and if the BJP did not keep the party close, the RJD would be in a pole position to takeover a large portion of the vote-base of JD(U), leading to the dominance of another corrupt and debased regional player that the central government has painstakingly settled. Such a scenario would have been politically suicidal for the BJP.

Fourth, the BJP assessed that the political outcomes arising out of separation from the JD(U) would be more diminished in the present scenario, as compared to the advantages of coming together. When the JD(U) exited the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in 2022, the NDA lost 17 MPs. Ground surveys indicated huge loss for both BJP and JD(U), indicating that the former may win only 24 seats.

Finally, the BJP has assessed that the latest U-turn by Mr. Kumar would substantially harm the Opposition-led INDIA alliance. It must be remembered that the BJP, under Mr. Modi, is much less complacent than the earlier BJP under Atal Bihari Vajpayee or LK Advani. Under Vajpayee government, when the BJP-led NDA lost the 2004 general election, the defeat was baffling for the BJP, as economy was doing well, and other parameters were also fine. However, the inability to influence political equations at the state level through politics severely harmed the party, which only superficially focused on economy and other feel-good positive factors. The BJP has now realized – such is the state of Indian politics and electorate – that merely harping on feel-good factors or talking about development will be of no use without the use of political sharpness.

Predictably, after the developments in Bihar, the fall of Mr. Hemant Soren – chief of Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) and former Chief Minister of the state – came as no surprise. For nearly a year, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) had been investigating Mr. Soren due to his implication in corruption scams. When the ED intensified its attempts recently, Mr. Soren initially went missing and there were speculations that his wife might take over as the Chief Minister of Jharkhand. However, he resurfaced soon after and resigned in order to deal with the ED inquiry. The government is still being run by JMM-Congress-RJD alliance, but with Champai Soren as the new Chief Minister, after the latter won the floor test in the state assembly.

Over the years, under Mr. Hemant Soren since 2019, Jharkhand has been in news for many wrong reasons, most notably the rampant forceful conversions being done by Christian missionaries on a large scale in the state. Mr. Soren has been an ardent admirer of these missionaries. During the COVID19 crisis and later in 2021, he ostensibly lauded them for their contributions towards education, particularly for tribals and the downtrodden in the state. Then, Mr. Soren had claimed that “If we look at the level of education and work done in the academic sphere in the state, the missionaries have contributed more than 50 per cent. There was tremendous cooperation for tribals, backwards, minorities and poor in the missionary schools” (Pandey, 2022).

At the national level, Mr. Soren has been a vocal critic of the Centre on issues concerning missionaries. He has attacked the central government on the arrest of Stan Swamy – a Roman Catholic Jesuit priest, a Naxal sympathizer and a famous Leftist intellectual and activist – on terror charges by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in 2020 in connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence case.

The level of admiration of Mr. Soren for Christianity has been such that all laws and restrictions to regulate conversions have been diluted. Previously, according to Jharkhand BJP general secretary, “permission to convert someone to a different religion had to be obtained from the District Magistrate. However, no one is now abiding by the law. Conversion to Christianity is now taking place under the protection of the state. Complaints are no longer investigated by the police administration. Previously, religious conversion occurred in secret in remote areas, but it is now occurring publicly in towns such as Jamshedpur. The missionaries do not fear anyone now” (Pandey, 2022). Besides this, there have also been systematic attacks on Hindus in the state.

Gyanvapi Mosque Survey

The report of a survey conducted by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) – on the directions of a district court in Varanasi in 2023 – has finally been released. The released report confirms the presence of a Hindu temple over which the Gyanvapi Mosque was built. The report says that “Based on scientific studies/survey carried out, study of architectural remains, exposed features and artefacts, inscriptions, art and sculptures, it can be said that there existed a Hindu temple prior to the construction of the existing structure.”

The report also notes that “The Arabic-Persian inscription found inside a room mentions that the mosque was built in the 20th regnal year of Aurangzeb (1667-77). Hence, the pre-existing structure appears to have been destroyed in the 17th century, during the reign of Aurangzeb and part of it was modified and reused in the existing structure.” The report further notes that “This is also brought out by the biography of Emperor Aurangzeb, Maasir-i-Alamgiri, which mentions that Aurangzeb issued orders to the governors of all provinces to demolish the schools and temples of the infidels…On September 2, 1669; it was reported that, according to the Emperor’s command his officers had demolished the temple of Vishwanath at Kashi.”

The following were the key findings of the survey:

First, the report talks about “Existing architectural remains, decorated mouldings, on the walls, karna-ratha and pratiratha of central chamber, a large decorated entrance gate, with Torana on the eastern wall of the western chamber, a small entrance with mutilated image of lalatabimba, birds and animals carved for decoration in and outside suggest that the western wall is remaining part of a Hindu temple.”

Second, the survey uncovered fragments of what appear to be damaged statues of Hindu deities, including those of Hanuman, Ganesha, Nandi, Shivalinga, Vishnu and Krishna. Several yonipattas – the base of a Shivling – were discovered during the survey, and a Shivlinga with its bottom part missing was also found. Swastik and Trident (trishul) marks were also found on the structure.

Third, the report notes that several inscriptions were noticed on the existing and pre-existing structures, with a total of 34 inscriptions recorded during the survey and 32 estampages taken. They include inscriptions in Devanagari, Grantha, Telugu and Kannada scripts. These inscriptions were found on stones of the pre-existing temple which were reused in the construction/maintenance of the existing structure, that is, the mosque.

Fourth, a pillar decorated with bells, niches for keeping lamps, and bearing an inscription of Samvat 1669 was reused in cellar N2, as per the report.

Fifth, the report points out that three names of deities such as Janardhana, Rudra, and Umesvara were also found in the inscriptions discovered. Further, the reports notes that “Terms such as Maha-muktimandapa mentioned in three inscriptions are of great significance.”

Sixth, the pillars and pilasters used in the existing structure were taken, with a little modification, from the pre-existing structure. The report notes that “For their reuse, in the existing structure, Vyala figures carved on either side of lotus medallion were mutilated and after removing the stone mass from the corners that space was decorated with floral design.”

Sixth, the report also stated that all other objects recorded during the scientific survey were also noted. These included inscriptions, sculptures, coins, architectural fragments, pottery, and objects of terracotta, stone, metal, and glass.

In the aftermath of the report, on January 24th, the Varanasi district administration had taken possession of the southern cellar of the Gyanvapi mosque complex. This was following a Varanasi District Court order of January 17th, through which it appointed the district magistrate of Varanasi as the receiver of the cellar, also called ‘Vyasji ka tehkhana.’ Subsequently, in yet another significant order, the Varanasi District Court, allowed the commencement of puja in the southern cellar or Vyasji ka tehkhana of the Gyanvapi mosque. This tehkhana faces the Nandi statue placed inside the Kashi Vishwanath complex near the sanctum sanctorum. The Vyas family had been conducting prayers and other rituals inside the tehkhana for more than 200 years, but the practice was stopped in December 1993, on the orders of Mulayam Sigh Yadav government in the wake of Babri Masjid demolition.

With the puja being resumed in the southern cellar, the Muslim side – represented by the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee that runs the mosque – had approached the Allahabad High Court seeking an interim stay on the puja being conducted inside the cellar of the mosque. However, the High Court declined to give a stay.

Even as further developments are awaited in the wake of the release of the ASI survey report, the recent developments have reignited the debate over the reclaiming of Hindu temples.

Bharat Ratna For Karpoori Thakur: Cremating the Politics of Social Justice

The central government has conferred Bharat Ratna on late Bihar Chief Minister, Karpoori Thakur, coinciding uncannily with the timing of the Pran Pratishtha ceremony of the Ram Mandir. The legacy of Karpoori Thakur – born in a backward caste – has been associated with championing Other Backward Classes (OBC) reservation in India during the 1970s, when Mandal Commission report was first initiated, but later shelved by the Indira Gandhi government. Thakur implemented 26% OBC reservation in Bihar in 1978 and was also one of the first leaders to initiate the debate on the sub-categorization of OBCs, so that the more marginalized among them could get the benefits of reservation. He even carved out a space for Muslims in his reservation nexus. In his time, he was considered as a Leftist, and a great enemy of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Hindutva politics. He is credited with breaking the upper caste monopoly in Bihar on which the vote bank of BJP had traditionally relied.

Back in the day, the Jana Sangh – parent organization of the BJP – had withdrawn support from the Thakur administration in Bihar over the reservation issue in 1978, and RSS and BJP had vociferously opposed him. When Mandal Commission (which had rejected the idea of sub-categorization of OBCs as the basis for reservation) was finally implemented in 1990, BJP leader, LK Advani, had famously taken out a rath yatra to oppose it and mobilize the country in the name of Shri Ram. The BJP-RSS combine was aware that any success of backward class mobilization by the likes of Mandal proteges – Lalu Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav – would spell a major blow to the social and political structure of the country. An alternative was needed, which would have the power to draw away the backward classes from the compelling politics of reservation and social justice. This power was the name of Ram. Thus, began the Mandal versus Mandir (Mandal-Kamandal) debate which has since polarized the Hindi heartland.

The rath yatra led by Advani to counter social justice politics in the name of Ram was successful. It has, over the years, systematically drawn away the backward classes and Dalits from the social justice plank, and made them embrace a larger, nationalistic Hindutva identity. Under Modi government, this phenomenon reached its heights. Modi was successful in using OBC politics – showing a sympathy for social justice and reservation issues, even as he fought vociferously against the Bihar caste census – to draw the OBCs away from it. In the process, the whole social justice politics has taken a severe beating under this government.

It may be, therefore, no coincidence that the Modi government has decided to honour the arch-rival of Hindutva, the late Mr. Thakur, when the very same Ram Mandir is now being consecrated. That these developments – Mandir and Mandal – should symbolically coincide yet again after thirty-four years, is no mere fluke. Indeed, in the light of the history of Mandal-Mandir conflict, the honour comes across more as a final burial and cremation of Mandal politics than anything else. By honouring Thakur – whose ideology BJP has, in practice, diluted systematically, even to the point of opposing caste census recently – the Modi government has shown that there are no longer any contradictions between Hindutva and social justice.

The message given out is also that Hindutva and nationalism take precedence over caste politics, and that self-proclaimed warriors of social justice no longer have any past leaders or ideology to appropriate. Finally, the Modi government – it was the first government to act on it – has taken the lead in initiating the sub-categorization of OBCs (an idea championed by late Thakur), which it sees as an important policy plank. For, subcategorization would ensure that those not deserving of reservation are systematically removed from appropriating reservation benefits at the cost of those who genuinely need it. Not only will this make the reservation regime more transparent, but also perhaps dilute it over time. In honouring Mr. Thakur symbolically, the government is also ensuring that its implementation of subcategorization eventually does not face ideological opposition.

Israel-Hamas War

The Israel-Palestine war has inevitably widened, and its regional consequences are visible. Even as Israel has shifted the war tactics from widespread ground assault to targeted attacks with many Hamas and Hezbollah fighters and commanders being killed, the terror outfit is not close to being destroyed – US intelligence reports suggest that around 30% of Hamas fighters have been eliminated and 80% of their underground tunnel network in Gaza remains intact – due to the ingrained sympathy for Hamas among the Palestinians. Israel is also resorting to targeted strikes against terror sites in Syria and Lebanon. In these strikes, Israel is targeting Iranian communications infrastructure in Syria – which acts as Iranian weapons lifeline to its terror proxies in the region.

Regional Chaos

Due to the persistent Israeli attack, the Houthis too jumped into the conflict, thereby turning the Red Sea into a new battlefront. The terror outfit – funded by Iran and controlling major part of Yemen – had already been at war with West-backed Saudi-UAE alliance in Yemen. Just when ceasefire was achieved, the Houthis – in a bid to support Hamas – have directly started threatening the Western-backed maritime navigation system, attacking commercial shipping vessels that transit the Red Sea for trade, and disturbing the international shipping and navigation order. The US and UK have not taken this lightly and have launched a series of airstrikes against the Houthis.

In addition, the US has also started launching airstrikes against Iranian terror proxies in Syria. Turkey – not to be left behind – has used the chaos as an opportunity to target the Kurds in Syria and Iraq. Amid this widening regional warfare, came the ISIS-sponsored attack on Iran on the death anniversary of its late commander – Qassem Soleimani who was assassinated by the US in 2020 – which killed hundreds of Iranian civilians. All of this chaos eventually – likely to have disturbed Iran – prompted Iran to display its muscle power and launch back-to-back airstrikes in Syria, Iraq and Pakistan. In these strikes, Iran claimed to have attacked the Israeli spy office in Iraq, ISIS bases in Syria and Jaish al-Adl (the same Sunni terror outfit which had kidnapped Indian navy officer Kulbhushan Jadhav who is in Pakistani jail) bases in Pakistani Balochistan. All three countries condemned this unprovoked assault on their sovereignty and Pakistan even launched counter strikes in Iranian Sista-Baluchistan.

The Political Dimension

Interestingly, even amidst this widening chaos, Israel appears to have the upper hand, politically. It is notable that none of the major West Asian countries – such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Jordan etc. – have made statements or jumped in to defend Palestine. The Palestinian issue had begun to disinterest them – these countries perceived it as a hurdle to their business – since the last few years. The issue also does not evoke much sympathy among these countries as they have no love for Hamas and Hezbollah, widely known as the proxies of their arch Shia rival, Iran. But the timing of the Hamas massacre of Jews on October 7th, 2023 – just when Saudi Arabia and Israel were on the brink of normalizing their relations – was chosen to ensure that the Palestinian issue does not get sidelined amid the changing geopolitics of West Asia.

The ensuing war forced Saudi Arabia to put the normalization of its ties with Israel on hold. But interestingly, the Sunni Kingdom has taken a moderate stand. In a significant interview to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) recently, the Saudi ambassador to London stated that their country continues to be very much interested in normalizing ties with Israel – after the war has ended (Gritten, 2024). These statements and the behaviour of Arab countries show how the Israel-Palestine issue has come a long way. From refusing to recognize the right of Israel to exist, the Arab countries have lowered the bar to merely wanting a ceasefire and, preferably, an independent Palestine coexisting alongside Israel. Israel, on the other hand, has raised the bar to its advantage – rightly perceiving that the Palestine issue has become irrelevant to the Arab strategic calculus – and refuses to condone a two-state solution anymore, like it initially supported. Even as the war continues, it is business as usual between Israel and Arab world, albeit through backchannels.


Gritten, D. (2024, January 9). BBC. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-67922238

Pandey, R. (2022, March 7). Jharkhand ‘faith healing’ controversy: BJP, VHP say rampant illegal conversions happening under Soren govt. Retrieved from https://www.opindia.com/2022/03/religious-conversion-by-christian-missionaries-hindu-organisations-bjp-slam-hemant-soren-govt-jamshedpurs-changai-sabha/

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