Offence is the best form of defence, goes the old adage. The Narendra Modi and Amit Shah-led government applies this adage very seriously.
In 2018, there was a violent attack on Dalits in Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra. Mass protests followed, some of which also turned violent. The situation was a political hot potato, particularly since individuals allied with Hindutva forces were accused of inciting the violence. These included ‘Sambhaji’ Bhide, a former RSS worker admired by no less than Prime Minister Modi. Another one was a former BJP corporator from Pune, Milind Ekbote. This happened while Maharashtra had a BJP government.
To go after these Hindutva forces would have been politically difficult. To not go after them would have meant being on the defensive. Why be defensive when you can be on the offensive? When in doubt, always blame “Maoists”. Far-Left activists from all over India have been blamed for ‘inciting’ the Bhima Koregaon violence. One prisoner is a 79-year-old poet, Varavara Rao, who is not being given bail even after contracting Covid in jail. The prosecution is the persecution. And there is no end to it. Branded ‘Maoist sympathisers’ or ‘supporters’, they continue to be arrested — the latest is Delhi University professor Hany Babu.
This is what India has come to: poets and professors and activists are being put in jail on what are widely considered to be trumped up charges to shield the violent edge of Hindutva violence.
The same pattern is seen in the case of citizenship protests. Modi and Amit Shah seem very unhappy that some Indians had the gall to come out on streets against the “chronology” laws that could strip many Indians of their citizenship. They are now being hunted like someone killing mosquitoes with one of those bug zapper rackets.
Not even Sikh men merely serving food to anti-CAA protesters or putting up langar are being spared. From terrorism to dacoity, all kinds of charges are being drawn to use prosecution as an opportunity for persecution. A good doctor in Uttar Pradesh, Kafeel Khan, is in jail because he dared to speak against the Home Minister of India in the context of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). His bail hearings keep getting deferred again and again. The process is the punishment, because even an executive-minded judiciary may find it difficult to convict people for merely exercising their constitutional rights of free speech and protest.
The Modi government did the same in Kashmir after it unilaterally made drastic constitutional changes to the status of Jammu and Kashmir on 5 August 2019. Top leaders such as Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah spent months in house arrest, and many continue to be under house arrest or in prison, including former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti. All of this just to make sure there are no voices protesting the constitutional changes.
‘Humko feedback nahin mila’
Indira Gandhi did not lose the post-Emergency Lok Sabha election in 1977 because she put political opponents in jail, subverted democracy, suspended constitutional rights or censored the press. In fact, the people actually cheered her for making the trains run on time (Modi can’t even do that). All accounts of the Emergency will tell you that public opinion turned against Indira Gandhi because of Sanjay Gandhi’s maniacal programme to forcibly sterilise young men and reduce population growth.
We need to ask how and why a populist Indira Gandhi government reached the point where it started altering people’s bodies against their wishes. For one, it reached that point because the people who could have told her it was a terrible thing to do — the opposition and the media — had both been silenced. Khushwant Singh famously asked her when she lost the election, ‘What happened?’ And she replied, “Humko feedback nahin mila.” (We didn’t get the feedback.)
This is how authoritarian governments fall. To his credit, Narendra Modi is remarkably sharp in identifying where public opinion is turning, or could turn, against him. He eats humble pie and goes back on ideas that could make him lose votes, whether it is a law to make land acquisition easier or the refusal to put cash in the hands of farmers.
All is well when dissent is in jail
And yet, it has to be noted that the list of political prisoners in India is growing at an alarming rate. The idea, much like during Indira Gandhi’s time, is to muzzle the voice of the naysayers. This is how the Modi narrative can succeed, because it ensures that any narrative against him is not heard on India’s smartphones and streets. This is how the BJP can produce a false consensus that he is the only option Indians have when they go to vote.
The deeper we get into the Modi era, the greater the sense of ‘anti-incumbency’ — and hence, the greater the government’s desperation. India’s economy was brought to a halt even before the Covid pandemic struck. When even data fudging can’t hide economic stagnation, then it is not enough to deflect attention by using Hindutva and creating a threat for Muslims with detention camps and CAA-NRC. When China calls Modi’s 56-inch bluff, he needs to silence his critics to prevent his voters from saying goodbye to him. This is what Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and China’s Xi Jinping also do. It’s a form of government popularly called dictatorship.
Indians have decided that putting civil rights activist Anand Teltumbde or Dr Kafeel Khan or peasant leader and RTI activist Akhil Gogoi in jail is a non-issue. When the personal liberty of Congress leaders is taken away, such as that of Saifuddin Soz or Ajay Kumar Lallu or P. Chidambaram, even the Congress party doesn’t go beyond token tweet-protest.
The populist leader as a prisoner of his own propaganda
This silence can only embolden the Modi government and its impunity. Today, it doesn’t matter to us that the Prime Minister of India collects Covid relief donations in a private fund. It doesn’t matter to us that an immense amount of money is going to be spent in rebuilding New Delhi to satisfy megalomaniacal urges at a time of great economic distress. This is how Indira Gandhi was led to believe that forcibly sterilising young men wasn’t a problem.
The BJP looks very closely at myriad surveys, social media sentiment and so on. And Modi clearly has a great sense of the people’s pulse. However, muzzling dissent results in a social atmosphere where people become afraid of speaking the truth even in anonymous surveys. Social media is silenced with the growing threat of FIRs and prison.
The news media has anyway been bought over through carrot and stick. The shrinking space for dissent could result in a situation where the populist leader, hurtling from one failure to another, may not even be able to see his failures. He becomes a prisoner of his own propaganda. Humko feedback nahin mila, as Indira Gandhi said, happens when nobody has the courage left to speak truth to power. And those who do are put in jail.
Chilling effects on free speech
There’s absolutely no government critic among opposition parties, media, NGOs, activists or even the general public today who is not afraid of government retribution. This has produced a chilling effect on free speech in India: everyone is self-censoring. This is not the freedom our founders fought for.
We are already heading towards a situation where no one will be left to dissent. And nobody seems to be alarmed by it. The descent could be very fast. When Covid-19 is contained and economic distress becomes the main story, Modi will be more desperate than he has ever been. When the equivalent of forced sterilisation happens again, Indians will regret not having spoken up against Modi when he was busy putting political opponents in jail. Democracy needs naysayers.
The author is contributing editor, ThePrint. Views are personal.