Civil society unites against demonization of dissent
By: Manini Chatterjee
Two developments took place on August 28 with no apparent connection. All chief ministers and deputy chief ministers belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party (barring Goa's Manohar Parrikar) gathered at the party's grand headquarters in New Delhi and held a marathon session to review the party's preparedness and chalk out plans on how to win the upcoming assembly elections in a few states and the Lok Sabha elections in 2019.
The prime minister exhorted them to highlight the great work done by his government. The BJP chief, Amit Shah, mindful of the need for polarization as an electoral tactic, asked the chief ministers to highlight the threat of "illegal infiltrators" and underline the BJP's commitment to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill that seeks to provide shelter to Hindu "refugees".
At the end of the meeting, all chief ministers took a " sankalp" (solemn resolve) "to ensure that Narendra Modi returns with a bigger mandate in 2019".
Even as the top brass of the BJP were congratulating one another on the "unprecedented" achievements of the Modi government, something more ominous was unfolding outside on the same day. The Pune police conducted raids on the houses of several prominent human rights activists in different parts of the country and arrested five of them. They included the revolutionary poet, Varavara Rao, in Hyderabad; Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira in Mumbai; the lawyer-activist, Sudha Bharadwaj, in Faridabad on the outskirts of Delhi; and journalist and civil liberties champion, Gautam Navlakha, in New Delhi. The arrests, the Pune police have claimed, were made following the uncovering of a sinister "Maoist" plot to "overthrow" the Modi government and target the prime minister himself.
If the ruling party - the prime minister, 14 chief ministers, five deputy chief ministers, top Union ministers and the organization boss - presented a picture of overweening self-confidence that Tuesday evening, the arrest of activists who have been openly and consistently fighting for the rights of the most oppressed sections of India for decades reflected something else altogether. It showed that beneath the bravura and braggadocio of a government that relentlessly claims to be the best in post-Independence India, there lay a deep insecurity. It was afraid of those who remain unafraid of its power.
Many have speculated that the August 28 arrests were timed to deflect attention from the arrests made by the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad of right-wing Hindutva "cow vigilantes" who were gathering arms and ammunition to carry out attacks in different parts of the state, arrests that have unearthed new linkages between individuals and groups behind the assassination of the journalist, Gauri Lankesh, and the killings of the rationalists, M.M. Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare. The crackdown by the Maharashtra ATS was proving deeply embarrassing for the BJP which had accused the previous UPA regime of concocting charges of "saffron terror."
The arrests of human rights activists may have also been made to take the spotlight away from the Congress's relentless attacks on the Modi government over its lack of transparency on the Rafale defence deal and the Reserve Bank of India's revelations that the demonetization exercise failed to achieve the prime minister's stated goal of unearthing black money.
But while such short-term objectives may have played a role, it would be short-sighted to view the latest offensive on activists merely as a diversionary tactic. The arrests, made in the final year of the Modi government, are part of a generalized assault on all forms of dissent and questioning that has been taking place for the past four years, reflecting an ideological mindset that cannot tolerate multiple voices that make up the cacophony of democracy.
And we have to thank the Pune public prosecutor, Ujjwala Pawar, for giving us the right vocabulary to describe it. On August 29, a day after the arrests, Pawar told the Pune court: "All the accused had together formed the All India United Front, which is nothing but an 'anti-fascist front'. The front was formed entirely to overthrow the government."
The word fascism has been used and abused so often over the decades that many of us forget that it is not merely a pejorative but a description of a very real phenomenon. It has its roots in the Europe of the 1920s and 1930s but can rise in other places, at other times. Just the fact of getting elected to power with a big majority does not make a government democratic. In fact, fascist regimes in the past have often acquired power through electoral majorities. It is the conduct of a government in power - whether it seeks to impose a singular narrative of nation and nationalism, how far it tolerates dissent, how much space it gives to criticism and alternative voices, and how it treats its opponents - that determines whether it is democratic or fascistic.
Most of us who took India's "vibrant" democracy for granted - especially after the reassertion of the right to protest, dissent, and question in the wake of the Emergency experience - have felt a change in the air since the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-backed Modi regime acquired single party majority in 2014.
It is not as though the State in India was a benevolent entity before 2014. It has always had a brutal side. The BJP spokesmen were not the only ones to point out that it was the United Progressive Alliance government of Manmohan Singh that brought in the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and described the Maoists battling uniformed forces in the jungles of Central India as the greatest internal security threat to the country.
But the difference between then and now is that even though the Indian State has been brutal in the past, Indian democracy also provided space for many different - and contradictory - visions and voices to express themselves. Under the Modi regime and guided by the RSS's monolithic view of the world, these spaces have been shrinking steadily. There is little room to negotiate or manoeuvre; minorities are intimidated into silence and second class citizenship; all dissenters are demonized as "anti-national" or - to use the latest epithet - "urban Naxal".
But in spite of this sustained assault on individuals and institutions for the past four years, the RSS-BJP has still not been able to ensure their surrender. This has led to more frustration - and more attempts at repression. But if the aim of last Tuesday's arrests was to instil fear into the hearts of the opponents of the regime, it has, ironically, done just the opposite.
Seldom before has the entire liberal spectrum of India come together as it has done in recent days. While those belonging to the RSS have a singular, unchanging view of the "nation" and its "enemies", the anti-right forces in India offer bewildering diversity. Even within those who think of themselves as "Left", there are raging differences on the nature of the Indian state and how to achieve social justice and economic equality. Similarly, there is a whole range of liberal positions advocated by academics who rarely see eye to eye; just as there is an astonishing variety of causes championed by different groups ranging from environment protection to adivasi rights; peasant movements to health concerns; Dalit assertion to students' grievances.
But activists and concerned citizens of every hue, who would normally be arguing with one another, have been impelled to make common cause against the encroaching powers of an intolerant State. When scholars of the calibre of Romila Thapar and Prabhat Patnaik and activists such as Maja Daruwala, the daughter of India's first field marshal, Sam Manekshaw, move the Supreme Court against the arrest of so-called Maoists, when the country's top lawyers choose to argue the case, when avowedly anti-Left public intellectuals and retired civil servants decry the State's crackdown against dissent, you know that the Pune public prosecutor got it half right. There is a new anti-fascist front in the making - not to wage war against the State, but to ensure that India is still safe for a million mutinies that our Constitution permits and upholds.