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Election Season in a Dangerous Democracy

Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
A farmers’ protest march in New Delhi, India, July 20, 2018

Last Thursday’s morning papers in India settled something that we have been debating for a while. A front-page report about the arrests of five political activists in The Indian Express read, “Those held part of anti-fascist plot to overthrow govt, Pune police tell court.” We should know by now that we are up against a regime that its own police calls fascist. In the India of today, to belong to a minority is a crime. To be murdered is a crime. To be lynched is a crime. To be poor is a crime. To defend the poor is to plot to overthrow the government. 

When the Maharashtra state police conducted simultaneous raids on the homes of several well-known activists, poets, lawyers, and priests across the country, and arrested five people—three high-profile civil rights defenders and two lawyers—on ludicrous charges, with little or no paperwork, the government would have known that it was stirring up outrage. It would have already taken all our reactions into account, including all the protests that have taken place across the country, before it made this move. So why has this happened?

Recent analyses of actual voter data, as well the Lokniti-CSDS-ABP Mood of the Nation survey, have shown that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are losing popularity at an alarming (for them) pace. This means that we are entering dangerous times. There will be ruthless and continuous attempts to divert attention away from the reasons for this loss of popularity, and to fracture the growing solidarity of the opposition. It will be a constant circus from now until the elections in 2019—arrests, assassinations, lynchings, bomb attacks, false flag attacks, riots, pogroms. We have learned to connect the season of elections with the onset of all kinds of violence. Divide and rule, yes. But add to that—divert and rule. From now until the elections, we will not know when, and where, and how the fireball will fall on us, and what the nature of that fireball will be.

So, before I speak about the arrests of the lawyers and activists, let me reiterate a few points that we must not allow our attention to stray from, even while it rains fire, and strange events befall us.

1. It has been a year and almost ten months since November 8, 2016, when Prime Minister Modi appeared on TV and announced his policy of demonetization of 80 percent of the currency in circulation. His own cabinet seemed to have been taken by surprise. Now the Reserve Bank of India has announced that more than 99 percent of the currency was returned to the banking system. The Guardian reported last week that the policy has likely wiped 1 percent from the country’s GDP and cost approximately 1.5 million jobs. Meanwhile, just the printing of new currency has cost the country several thousand crores (a crore being 10 million rupees, equivalent to about $140,000). After demonetization came the Goods and Services Tax—a tax that is structured in ways that have dealt a further body blow to small and medium businesses that were already reeling under demonetization.

While small businesses, traders, and, most of all, the poor have suffered enormously, several corporations close to the BJP have multiplied their wealth several times over. Businessmen like the Kingfisher Airlines and Beer magnate Vijay Mallya and the diamond merchant Nirav Modi have been permitted to decamp with thousands of crores of public money while the government looked away. What kind of accountability can we expect for all of this? None? Zero?

Through all this, as it prepares for the 2019 election, the BJP has emerged as the wealthiest political party in India by far. Outrageously, the recently introduced electoral bonds —promissory notes, that donors can buy and donate anonymously to the political party of their choice—ensure that the sources of the wealth of political parties can remain secret from public scrutiny.

2. We all remember the farce in Mumbai at the “Make in India” event inaugurated by Modi in 2016, at which a huge fire burned down the main stage at the cultural festival. Well, the real bonfire of “Make in India” turned out to be the Rafale fighter plane deal with the French government, which was announced by the prime minister in Paris in April 2015 seemingly without the knowledge of his own defense minister. This is against all known protocol. We know the bare bones: a deal had already been put in place in 2012 under the Congress-led UPA government to buy planes that would be assembled by the public sector company, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. That deal was scrapped by Modi and reconfigured. Hindustan Aeronautics was surgically excised. The Congress Party, as well as several others who have studied the new deal, have alleged corruption on an unimaginable scale and have accused the government of negotiating an “offset contract” for Reliance Defence Limited, a private sector company in India that is deep in debt and has never built a plane in its life.

The opposition has demanded a joint parliamentary committee probe. Can we expect one? Or must we swallow this whole fleet of planes along with everything else and not even gulp?

3. The investigation by the Karnataka state police into the assassination of the journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh has led to several arrests, which have, in turn, led to the unveiling of the activities of several right-wing Hindutva organizations such as the extremist Sanatan Sanstha group. What has emerged is the existence of a shadowy, full-blown terrorist network, with hit lists, hideouts and safe houses, flush with arms, ammunition, and plans to bomb, kill, and poison people.

How many of these groups do we know about? How many are continuing to work in secret? With the assurance that they have the blessings of the powerful, and possibly even the police, what plans do they have in store for us? What false-flag attacks? And what real ones? Where will they occur? Will it be in Kashmir? In Ayodhya? (Where the BJP has promised to build a temple in place of the mosque, the Babri Masjid, which was demolished by participants in a 1992 by mob backed by senior leaders of the BJP.) In Assam? (Where four million people have been excluded by the recently published National Register of Citizens.) At the Kumbh Mela? (A Hindu festival at which almost ten million pilgrims are expected to gather in January 2019.) How easily they could derail everything—everything—with some major, or even minor, attacks that are amplified by the government’s pet media houses. To divert attention from this, the real threat, we have the hue-and-cry over the recent arrests.

4. The speed at which educational institutions are being dismantled. The destruction of universities with fine track-records, the elevation of phantom universities that exist only on paper. This is arguably the saddest thing of all. It is happening in several ways. We are watching Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) being taken down before our very eyes. The students as well as the staff are under continuous attack. Several television channels have actively participated in spreading lies and fake videos that have endangered the lives of students, and these have led to an assassination attempt on the young scholar Umar Khalid, who has been mercilessly defamed.

Then you have the falsification of history and the “idiotification” of the syllabus, which will, just in a few years’ time, lead to a kind of cretinism from which we will be unable to recover. Finally, the privatization of education is undoing even the very small good that the policy of reservation (the equivalent of what is called in the US affirmative action) did. We are witnessing the re-Brahminization of education, this time fitted out in corporate clothes. Students from Dalit, Adivasi, and “Other Backward Caste” (OBC; the official government term) backgrounds are once again being pushed out from institutions of learning because they cannot afford the fees. This has begun to happen already. It is completely unacceptable.

5. Some other things we must not look away from: enormous distress in the agricultural sector, increasing numbers of farmers’ suicides, the lynching of Muslims and the relentless attack on Dalits, the public floggings, the arrest of Chandrashekhar Azad, the leader of the Bhim Army (a Bahujan-rights organization), who dared to stand up to attacks by upper castes. The dilution of the legal protections for minority groups enacted in the 1989 Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

Having said this much, I come to the recent arrests.

None of the five people who were arrested last week—Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, and Gautam Navlakha—were present at the Elgar Parishad rally in Pune that took place on December 31, 2017, and was organized by two eminent retired judges, Justice Sawant and Justice Kolse-Patil, or at the rally the following day when approximately 300,000 people, mostly Dalit, gathered to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Bhima–Koregaon victory. (Dalits joined the British to defeat an oppressive Peshwa regime—one of the few victories that Dalits can celebrate with pride.)

This second rally was attacked by Hindutva fanatics, which led to days of unrest. The two main people accused of fomenting this violence are Milind Ekbote and a Hindutva ideologue, Sambhaji Bhide. Both are still at large. Instead, following an FIR (First Information Report) registered by one of their supporters, in June 2018, the Pune police arrested five people: Rona Wilson, a political activist from Delhi; Sudhir Dhawale, a Dalit activist from Mumbai; Shoma Sen, a professor from Nagpur; Mahesh Raut, an activist and former Prime Minister’s Rural Development program fellow; and the lawyer Surendra Gadling. They are accused of plotting violence at the January 1 rally, and also of plotting to kill Prime Minister Modi. They remain in custody, charged under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Fortunately, they are still alive, unlike the nineteen-year-old woman Ishrat Jahan, and Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife Kauser Bi, who were accused of the same crime, but did not live to see a trial because they were shot dead in what the police called “encounters,” claiming self-defense in what are suspected cases of extra-judicial executions (Ishrat Jahan in 2004; the other two in 2006).

The Maharashtra state police say that this recent round of arrests is based on information gleaned from the documents seized from those arrested in June that implicates all the accused in a plot to fund and foment violence at the Elgar Parishad and the Bhima–Koregaon anniversary rallies, as well as in a plot to kill Narendra Modi. Justice Sawant and Justice Kolse-Patil have made public statements that they were the main organizers and sole funders of the Elgar Parishad, with the aim of rallying people against divisive Hindutva forces. Both have taken full responsibility for the event. Yet the police and the government have ignored them completely. The police and government have their reasons.

It has been important for recent governments, both the Congress-led UPA and the BJP, to disguise their attacks on Adivasis, and now, in the case of the BJP, their attack on Dalits, as an attack on “Maoists” or “Naxalites.” This is because all the main political parties do have an eye on those Adivasi and Dalit constituencies as potential vote banks—unlike the Muslim constituency which has almost been erased from electoral arithmetic. By arresting activists and calling them Maoist or Naxalite militants, the government manages to undermine and insult Dalit aspiration by giving it another name while, at the same time, appearing to be sensitive to “Dalit issues.” Today, there are thousands of people in jail across the country, poor and disadvantaged people, fighting for their homes, for their lands, for their dignity—people accused of sedition and worse, languishing without trial in crowded prisons.

The arrests of these ten people—now including three lawyers, and seven well-known activists—also serve to cut off whole populations of vulnerable people from any hope of justice or representation. Because these were their representatives. Years ago, when paramilitary forces and the government-sponsored Adivasi vigilante army known as the Salwa Judum went on a rampage in the mineral-rich forests of Bastar, killing people, raping women, and burning down whole villages, Dr. Binayak Sen, then the general secretary of the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties in the state of Chhattisgarh, spoke up for its victims. When Binayak Sen was jailed, Sudha Bharadwaj, a lawyer and labor union leader who had worked in the area for years, took his place. Professor Saibaba, who campaigned relentlessly against the paramilitary operations in Bastar, stood up for Binayak Sen. When they arrested Saibaba, Rona Wilson stood up for him. Surendra Gadling was Saibaba’s lawyer. When they arrested Rona Wilson and Surendra Gadling, Sudha Bhardwaj, Gautam Navlakha, and the others stood up for them… and so it goes.

The vulnerable are being cordoned off and silenced. The vociferous are being incarcerated. God help us to get our country back.