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India was asked to choose between society and economy in 2014. Now they have neither

Illustration by Peali Dezine
Illustration by Peali Dezine

India has jackboot laws, a state prepared to stomp all over you, and citizens who don’t often realise how easily they can be crushed under both.

Back in 2014, a noted author and commentator had put forward the position that he was willing to make a trade-off between society and the economy, and support Narendra Modi because he would do good things for the economy, even if his party might provoke or preside over negative trends in society. In the event, it has not proved much of a trade-off because the promised economic pay-off (remember the talk of double-digit growth) has not materialised while shockwaves reverberate across the country following the arrests of people who look more like middle-class sympathisers of the marginalised than violent revolutionaries bent on overthrowing the state.

Unless the police produce credible evidence, the arrests will mark a disturbing step in the establishing of a “security state” that has an openly partisan view of law and order. This, even as the air has been fouled by a new ugliness: Abusive trolls, pressure on the media, hateful references to minorities (Muslims can go to Pakistan, or ramzade and haramzade) and the rest. Vigilantes can roam the highways, lynching people or making a business out of cow protection, and go scot free; indeed, a minister recently garlanded those arraigned on a lynching charge. Meanwhile, fundamental freedoms are trampled upon in the name of love jihad.

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What is notable is the transformation of a political party whose leaders were jailed during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule of 1975-77, into one where today it is hard to hear any voice arguing for civil liberties, for tolerance of differences, and for restraints on the state. Mr Govindacharya, ideologically no advocate of individual freedoms, is an unexpected exception in the wake of the arrests.

Meanwhile, what of the economy that was supposed to provide us with compensatory benefits? The promise of “good days” (achhe din) implied faster economic growth, but any hope of that was vaporised by demonetisation, which unsettled so much and so many in return for precious little. Farmers and small businessmen are unhappy, and possibly traders too, while “Make in India” and exports have gone nowhere. Those who thought the rupee would climb during Mr Modi’s rule from Rs 60 to Rs 40 as a mark of economic strength see it has moved the other way to rs 70 (though that is no bad thing).

The arrests themselves show up Maharashtra’s once competent police as malignant variants of the bumbling Keystone cops. An arrest warrant can’t be produced when demanded. First Information Reports don’t have the name of the person being arrested. Reputed citizens who are to witness a raid, to make sure the cops don’t plant evidence, turn out to be people brought in by the cops themselves.

It’s not just the police. A public prosecutor arguing for custody puts forward outlandish arguments that are not related to the documents produced. And a magistrate who can’t read the language of the documents placed before him passes orders regardless. The media too is implicated, for TV channels hammer out conspiracy theories based on police leaks that sound like fiction. In an environment of general intolerance, a case involving an actress who winked during a song had to go all the way to the Supreme Court. Rahul Gandhi had better be careful.

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Of a piece with current trends is the tendency to criminalise civil action. Anyone who divorces using triple talaq is in danger of going to jail, though how that would help the injured wife is a mystery. Punjab under Congress rule wants to imitate Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, and terrorist tax laws still exist, while internet shutdowns are far more in India than in any other country. The truth is that India has jackboot laws legislated by all parties, a state prepared to stomp all over you, and citizens who don’t often realise how easily they can be crushed under both. Only if awareness grows, and we get some homegrown Thomas Paines, can there be hope of some reverse swing.

By Special Arrangement with Business Standard.