When the State expresses outrage

I had about four minutes on air Wednesday night on the BBC, discussing the arrests of five activists in India. But the 15 minutes or so before that, discussing the story over the telephone with the producer in London, were more interesting. He was collecting the background of the case and seemed astonished that such a thing could happen. This is because the world, and even those in the global media, assume that India is a normal, functioning democracy with the rule of law. There is no such thing of course, as this recent story so nicely illustrates. 

The first thing that takes people aback when they try to understand the case is the background of these “enemies of the State”. They include a 77-year-old-poet and a lawyer in her 50s who takes up the cases of the poor and the marginalised. They also include people whom the State has wronged in the past. They include an activist and writer who has been previously accused of being a communications chief for a terror group — an allegation that later proved to be false — and another activist and writer who was accused previously of being the treasurer of a terror group — again, an allegation that was proved to be false.

So what was the present case against them, the producer asked. I said we did not know because this had not been made clear. How could that be possible, he wanted to know. Didn’t the police have an obligation towards the accused? People can be randomly picked up and jailed here without being told why, I said, to his puzzlement and, perhaps, disbelief.

The allegation in this particular case appeared to be their instigating violence at a meeting held late last year; five other civil society members had been arrested in the same case in June. However, three of the five arrested were not at the meeting. Of the two who were present, one did not speak. The one who did speak, said nothing exceptionable. Indeed, two retired judges were the organisers of the event.

Illustration by Binay Sinha
So then what about the news of an attempted assassination of the prime minister, he asked. I said that it seemed to be a kite flown by the media because the police had not presented this particular piece of evidence in court in that earlier case. He asked: Does it happen often that such inflammatory “evidence” is discussed in the media and not denied by the government? All the time, I said. Was the State held to account for this? Never, I said, and indeed, name-calling and demonisation of individuals and groups was the primary method that one generated public hatred against them. The media uses terms such as “terrorist”, “separatist”, “Maoist” etc. quite casually and these days even “secularist” has joined this category as a term of despise.

Our conversation then turned to the Supreme Court. I said it should not have required the highest court of the land to intervene in a matter as routine as bail. He said he was puzzled by this as well and wondered why this was the case. I said it was because the justice system has collapsed in India. The lower judiciary will not resist the State and rubber-stamp anything that was presented to it. Not that the Supreme Court was some guarantor of rights, and it was also riven internally, but it was seen as the last resort.

He asked if the court's observations in this case, particularly dissent being the safety valve of democracy’s pressure cooker, were reassuring. I said I found them anodyne and banal. The present chief justice was especially fond of sending down such pronouncements that didn’t really affect anything. 

He asked what I meant by that. I said that it was almost impossible to express dissent in India publicly. Police permission had to be sought (and was never given) for any public demonstration that was seen as troublesome. I gave an example. We wanted to have a discussion on the Rohingya issue, with Ram Guha as the speaker, at the Bangalore Town Hall a few months ago. It was denied.

On the problem of expressing dissent, I also explained, to his horror, that Indians are jailed for drawing cartoons, and could spend months behind bars for forwarding something on Facebook. This regularly happened.

I did not tell him the following but I think it will interest the reader. On Tuesday, in Delhi, I met Umar Khalid (the young man from Jawaharlal Nehru University who was attacked earlier this month by two men with a firearm). I asked him if he had received police protection. To my astonishment and horror, he said he had not. He had been asking for it repeatedly. This is a man whose attackers have confessed of their own volition, to hating and wanting to bring harm to Khalid; “giving an Independence Day gift to the nation” is how the attackers put it. 

What better illustration can there be of the fact that dissent is not tolerated in India and violent opposition to it is encouraged?

The last thing that my interlocutor wanted to know was about the media. I said to him that India’s media, particularly the television media, could not be relied upon to be independent. The government is one of the largest advertisers in South Asia, with a budget of about 150 million pounds, and its distribution of the largesse is quite discretionary. One of India’s largest newspapers — Rajasthan Patrika — went to court after the state government discontinued advertising in it because of what it was publishing. It was a pleasure for me, therefore, to speak to the BBC.

This then is the background to the recent outrage by the State. It is not abnormal, and it is, in fact, routine. This is exactly how dysfunctional India is. The outside world, taken in by our constant insistence that we are the “world’s largest democracy” etc., has been conned into believing that we are a normal rule-of-law State. Of course, we are not.

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