Principles be damned, whose side are you on? This seems to be the ruling philosophy of our public life. We all talk about principles, we invoke norms, we cite rules — but only after choosing whom to support. Rarely do we allow our judgement about who is right or wrong to be touched by the principles, norms or rules we extoll. No wonder, no one takes any proclamation of principles seriously.
As someone who is a stickler for procedures, I have often been at the receiving end of this sorry side of our public life. No one is willing to entertain a suspicion that I might have said something because it is right, correct or fair. It is not just our political life, which is especially charged at this moment. I have faced the same reaction in academia, government institutions as well as social movements. If you object to a proposal by a “friend” just because it is a poor proposal, you are sure to risk your friendship. If you support something right done or said by someone from the other camp, tongues start wagging — zaroor kuchh setting hai! That is what happened when I spoke up against hoisting of religious flag inside the Red Fort on 26 January, or against lynching of a Dalit Sikh man at Singhu border by some Nihangs. My visit to the family of a BJP worker who died at Lakhimpur Kheri is still held up as a proof of lack of loyalty to the cause.
So I was prepared for the usual reactions when I tweeted welcoming the Punjab and Haryana High Court order staying the arrest of BJP member Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga until 6 July. My tweet simply said: “The order should be welcomed, no matter what our opinion about the person. Sending police to arrest someone on a tweet is not done. Be it Jignesh Mevani or Rana couple, Alka Lamba or Disha Ravi, it is unethical and illegal to use police to torment political opponents.” You can check my timeline for the replies I received. The usual trolling was joined by AAP supporters, no less vicious than BJP ones — who assumed that I was taking out khundak (grudge) against Arvind Kejriwal. (As and when I support something the AAP does, it is read as a sign of a wish to come back.)
Looking beyond the personal antics
Many critics made valid points: that what happened to Bagga was nothing compared to what BJP governments have done to their critics, that the courts were far from consistent in protecting other victims in his position. Some of them assumed that I had forgotten Bagga’s past, especially his leading a physical assault on my friend Prashant Bhushan. Some of them insisted that given his low-grade trolling, the Punjab police had good reasons to give him its famous dose.
Without doubt, Tajinder Singh Bagga is what in polite English you’d call a ‘disagreeable’ character. The thesaurus offers you less polite options to choose from: rude, nasty, obnoxious, repugnant, disgusting. Worse, we don’t even know if this public persona is his real self. All we know is his reel self on social media. All we know is that he has made a political career and business out of attacking — physically and verbally — those targeted by the BJP. We just know him as yet another cardboard character — straight from a cartoon strip — that has arrived in our public life to meet the ever-rising demand for hatred, contrived and real.
How do you deal with someone like him? Ideally, he should be ignored. Stop feeding people like him with negative attention and they perish. Or, you could turn him into a meme, as satirist @roflGandhi has done, much to my delight. Or you could refute him — an ineffective and unwise option, to my mind — through fact-checking or counter-trolling. But can you set the police after him? That is the operational question in this instance.
Just consider the facts of the case. In March this year, Bagga wrote a nasty tweet, since deleted, in response to Arvind Kejriwal’s speech in Delhi assembly questioning the BJP’s promotion of the movie The Kashmir Files: “When 10 lakh ***** are born, one Kejriwal takes birth”. Disgustingly provocative the post certainly was. But would you say it is “criminal intimidation” or “promoting enmity between communities”? These are the charges under which the Punjab police, following a complaint from a local AAP functionary, booked Bagga. He dodged police summons to come to Punjab for “questioning”, a euphemism for mental and physical torture. The Punjab police, ever so focused on this one FIR, landed in Delhi to arrest him.
The drama that followed, involving Punjab, Delhi, and Haryana police, can only be called a farce worse than Bagga’s antics. The National Commission on Minorities, conspicuously silent on bulldozing of Muslim-owned houses and shops, was peeved at Bagga not being allowed to tie his turban. When the court opened at midnight for him, India’s criminal justice system looked like a joke. The Punjab and Haryana High Court order was a welcome end to this prolonged and pathetic public spectacle.
Noticing a nation-wide trend
This drama is being played all over the country, in what Shekhar Gupta calls Mutually Assured Detention. While the BJP leads in targeting its critics with the help of agencies, mainstream media and social media, the opposition-led governments have also taken a leaf out of the BJP’s book. They, too, use the standard recipe: file a frivolous complaint, slap draconian charges in the FIR, use the police to go after the target and teach them a lesson. The job is done before the case ever comes up for trial in a court of law.
That is why I cite the case of Jignesh Mevani. Now, it seems ridiculous to compare Mevani’s fight for justice and his courage of conviction with Baggas of the world. My point here is to remind us that the insidious trick used by the BJP in Mevani’s case is not different from that used by the AAP in the case of Bagga. Now that the AAP controls a police force for the first time (Punjab’s), it is happy to misuse it exactly as other governments. They have also targeted Kumar Vishwas and Alka Lamba on similar trumped up charges.
The Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government in Maharashtra is no different, as the recent case of MP Navneet Rana and her MLA-husband Ravi Rana demonstrates. Their proposed gimmick of reading Hanuman Chalisa outside the private residence of the Chief Minister could at the most call for preventive detention. But arrest under charges of sedition and spreading hatred between communities is plainly ridiculous. Such vindictive actions cast a shadow on other cases — the one against TV anchor Aman Chopra, for example — where the charge of spreading enmity between communities appear to be serious and worthy of a criminal trial.
Hence my plea to all those who are concerned about the endangered constitutional fiction called the Rule of Law: can we stick to principles, irrespective of the persons involved? Or am I whistling in the dark?
Yogendra Yadav is among the founders of Jai Kisan Andolan and Swaraj India. He tweets @_YogendraYadav.
(Edited by Prashant)