Photo: Narendra Modi / Flickr
Photo: Narendra Modi / Flickr

Caging the canary

Raids and arrests in India exhibit intolerance of dissent.

Of all the reactions to the arrests of left-leaning intellectuals, writers and activists in India last week, perhaps the most ironic was the tweet from Palaniappan Chidambaram, the former home minister in the Congress government. The Harvard-educated lawyer, who has also been India's finance minister, apparently discovered his inner faux-Voltaire and said: "I will strongly disagree with those who hold extreme left or extreme right views, but I will defend his right to hold that view. That is the essence of freedom. Anyone holding extreme views is punishable only if he indulges in violence or incites violence or aids and abets violence in support of his ideology."

Voltaire is supposed to have said, "I don't agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it." I say faux-Voltaire because nobody quite knows who said that first, but the thought has been ascribed to Voltaire, because it sounds like something Voltaire would have said.

Attacking norms using Congress laws

Be that as it may, what Chidambaram said was, of course, noble, and what any liberal democrat ought to say. The irony lies in the kind of laws Chidambaram put in place when he was the home minister (from 2008 to 2012), and the sort of people the home ministry arrested during his time in government. Arun Ferreira, one of those arrested in the simultaneous raids across India on 28 August was previously arrested in 2007 and charged with 11 offences, acquitted of all charges, and released four years later. Ferreira, who has written a poignant yet scathing memoir of his time in prison, Colours of the Cage: A prison memoir, then became a lawyer. Now it is possible that the state thinks that Ferreira is up to no good (because he represents victims of human-rights abuses) and believes that since his release he may have done something other than writing a book and speaking out against injustice but the flimsy nature of the case presented by the police would embarrass most B-grade crime writers, and delight only someone like the Bollywood film director Kundan Shah, who could have made a sequel to his remarkable satire, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. Levity apart, the fact remains that Vijay Mallya is right on that narrow point, that Indian jails aren't comfortable for anyone, and incarceration means freedom is taken away, even if it is for only a few days. Even if the prisoner is released for lack of evidence, there is no compensation for the time lost, the life lived on terms decided by others.

Chidambaram does have a case to answer. It was during his leadership that the home ministry strengthened laws such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), which has been slapped on those arrested last week. While the Prevention of Terrorism Act was revoked in 2004, the UAPA was amended to include most of its controversial provisions, and tightened twice during Chidambaram's time at the home ministry. Then, in 2010, the Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act (FCRA) was made more sweeping, to prevent foreign contributions to organisations which may finance "activity detrimental to the national interest". The catch-all term severely handicapped many non-government organisations (NGOs) reliant on international support, making it harder for them to raise resources abroad. Even if the intent of the law was to promote transparency, the fact is that most foreign foundations demand significant transparency from recipients in any case because of firm anti-corruption laws in their home states. The effect was to intimidate NGOs and narrow their activities, since Indian philanthropists tend to contribute to activities which are purely developmental in nature, such as health, education and disaster relief, and not anything that may be deemed political, such as empowering Dalits, women, or Adivasis.

The laws then do owe their origin to the Congress rule, like much else in India, given that Congress has ruled India for 55 of the 71 years since Independence in 1947. What this means is that those who care for civil liberties in India cannot realistically rely on the parliamentary opposition, (currently the Congress is the single largest opposition party), to champion them at all times. It makes the job of independent-minded journalists, human-rights activists, lawyers, academics and others that much harder.

This does not, of course, absolve the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is currently in power and has been a ruling party for a total of ten years, of its own acts and complicity. The party has minutely examined the wherewithal at its disposal, and deployed it against political targets, accompanied by a loud chorus that includes its vast army of paid and unpaid supporters on social media, influential supporters from the world of media and culture, and cabinet ministers themselves.

The American philosopher John Rawls had urged that governments should be careful about the kind of laws they create, in particular those that deal with civil liberties, because some day they will be out of power, and others – sometimes fundamentally opposed to their interests – would come in power. Those in power will then have access to the same laws, and they will use those. Few law makers think of such consequences; they rely on norms. But the genius of the BJP is that it is attacking the norms by using the laws already at its disposal, making Congress's criticism sound hollow.

'Enemies of the people'

The norm they are attacking most assiduously is what Justice D Y Chandrachud alluded to on 29 August in his obiter dicta remark during the Supreme Court hearing on a petition filed on behalf of the activists, when he said, "dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If you don't allow the safety valve, the pressure cooker will burst."

The people the police have arrested are the canaries in the mine. Through their work and activism, they provide an early warning of a deteriorating situation. By seeking to silence them, the state is trying to violate a norm, the state's warped logic perhaps being that the Constitution does not require there to be dissidents, ergo, going after dissidents is not a bad idea. A similar argument is used to restrict critical NGOs: the NGOs are opposing the government, the government represents the people and the nation, so the NGOs are enemies of the people. Ibsen comes to mind.

It is the nature of democracies that in every political party there are individuals with their own view of what's right and wrong, convinced that they know better than the Constitution, and seeking to bypass its spirit rather than change it through due process. The challenge the BJP poses is that what is dismissed as the fringe – the hotheads who make abusive speeches against minorities; the armed youth who go about looking for people they suspect of trading cows; the foot-soldiers who attempt to block weddings between Hindus and Muslims, or across castes; the thugs who prevent Muslims from praying in open areas while occupying highways with their own religious processions – is actually in charge. It is the tail wagging the dog, and not the other way round. One BJP minister has paid his respects to a man who was accused of murdering a Muslim suspected of having beef in his house. Another minister has garlanded men accused of lynching a Muslim. Other ministers have used language that would be ruled unparliamentary by any speaker of the house who follows the rules.

No political party likes critics and dissenters who present alternative views. But smart politicians listen to the critics and mend their ways to retain popularity and win the next elections. Politicians who are more committed to their sense of imperial grandeur see critics as an affront, and the canary in the mine becomes an irritant for them. Convincing the electorate that the NGOs and civil-society activists are anti-national, unnecessary, unpatriotic and get in the way of national progress becomes such an important priority that the state takes desperate measures, such as preventing an environmental activist from travelling abroad, where she was to speak about the impact of mining on local communities, and making it exceptionally difficult for NGOs to raise money abroad, if they are working in areas where private commercial and economic interests clash with local communities' concerns.

NGOs do have a political role, but it is not to overthrow the government; rather, it is to make it live up to its obligations and to demand greater respect for rights of the underprivileged, demand dignity for the dispossessed, and require that those whose lives are affected most by major economic decisions have a meaningful say in the matter. An example is the work done by NGOs who work with Adivasis to help ensure that they are consulted and their consent obtained freely and without fear – through gram sabhas – before mining companies begin operations in land where the Adivasis lived, undisturbed, for centuries.

It is the same area where Maoists have also operated, finding fertile ground to begin organising the Adivasis and others against the state and the corporations when the Adivasis are ignored, or worse, repressed through violence supported overtly or tacitly by the state. To be sure, the Maoists are not happy-clappy characters who sing songs and live an idyllic life, as shown in the sympathetic portrayal by Arundhati Roy in her reportage from the forests. They have abused rights, conducted show-trials, treated people they determined to be collaborators ruthlessly, and used weaponry that are morally repugnant (such as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs) which are, under the rules of armed conflict, questionable, and depending on their intensity, sometimes illegal. Indeed, the Maoists (the ones with guns, not the ones described as Maoists by pliant voices on social media) have fought and killed India's paramilitary forces, sometimes laid land mines, and the forces have taken out their anger on the communities, continuing the cycle of violence.

But to equate the academics, lawyers, activists and writers with Maoists is as facile a comparison as saying that right-leaning 'nationalist' journalists, who populate India's louder television networks, are gaurakshaks who would lynch anyone they saw near a cow. Those who were arrested have hardly any meaningful influence over violent Maoists. To suggest they do is a travesty of logic; to link them with outlandish conspiracies is simply outrageous.

The development activists who have worked in these areas have included doctors providing healthcare in remote parts that the government does not reach, and who were moved by the plight and became human-rights activists (think Binayak Sen); some were unionists (think Shankar Guha Niyogi); some spread a revolutionary message and are now unwell and in jail (think Kobad Ghandy); some gave up privileges like an American citizenship to work among the Adivasis to protect their rights (think Sudha Bharadwaj, arrested last week); and some have written revolutionary poetry (like the 77-year-old Varavara Rao). They may have read Marx and Lenin, but they also read Gandhi, Ambedkar and Phule, and to argue that they wanted to overthrow the might of the Indian state is an extrapolation so incredible that only someone who gets news from WhatsApp messages would take it at face value.

The struggle to reclaim liberties is always long and never ends. For the moment, besides releasing Sudha Bharadwaj, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, Gautam Navlakha and Varavara Rao, the Indian state should take a hard look at its laws, and remove those that undermine the nation's liberal, democratic rules. No government will have the incentive to do it; it will have to be a concerted struggle for the sake of all Indians, particularly those who are not violent and without a voice.


~ Read our interview with scholar and activist Anand Teltumbde on the state of Indian democracy, after his home was raided by the Indian police on 28 August 2018 along with those of several other activists.

~ More articles on our reading list 'Nationalism, Hindutva and India'.

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