Prem Shankar Jha

India: A Future in Peril

The BJP government has swiftly hacked away at all the reflections of democracy in an India it claims to cherish.

India: A Future in Peril

The Modi 2.0 government has further cemented policies which threaten to disintegrate the Indian union. Photo: Reuters


This month, the Sangh Parivar has been in celebration mode. The occasion has been its stocktaking of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s achievements during the first 100 days of his second term in office.

The Parivar is convinced that, with his characteristic decisiveness, Modi has set India firmly on the road to greatness. The prime minister is anything but bashful about his achievements: “In the first hundred days we have given a clear picture of what is to come in the next five years,” he said at a Mahana Desh (‘great India’) function at Nashik.

He has “solved” the Kashmir problem, is getting rid of illegal immigrants in Assam and plans to “cleanse” the rest of India of  “these termites,” as his Home Minister Amit Shah called them. And he will make India a $5 trillion economy by 2025.

In reality, these first 100 days have been a catastrophe.

Far from building a Mahana Desh, the policy initiatives that the government has taken can, if not reversed very soon, lead to turmoil, insurrection, repression and, just possibly, the disintegration of the Indian union.

All the three strands of policy that the government is weaving together – the reading down of Article 370 and the dissolution of the statehood of Jammu and Kashmir; the bid to create a National Register of Citizens in Assam; and the systematic abuse of the law enforcement agencies, the police and a complaisant judiciary, to destroy every existing or potential focus of opposition in the country, are leading to this end.

Nowhere is the gap between what it is professing and what it is doing, more glaring than in its policy on Kashmir.

“We had promised that we would make fresh attempts to resolve the issues affecting Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh…We have to once again build a paradise…I can happily say today that the country is working towards fulfilling those dreams,” Modi declaimed at Nashik.

He said this at a time when Amit Shah had just announced  that the lockdown of Kashmir would continue for another 25 days,  had turned the Centaur Hotel, built beside the Dal Lake by Air India in a bygone age of peace, into a prison to house virtually the entire political leadership of Kashmir, and when his government had been forced to postpone indefinitely a global convention of investors scheduled for October, that was to turn Kashmir into an earthly paradise, because no one was coming.

So, how, prime minister, did you intend to “hug each Kashmiri” and turn Kashmir “into the earthly paradise it once was”?

A Kashmiri woman walks past a bus used as a road block by jawans in Srinagar, on August 11. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui


By robbing Kashmiris of their voice, by destroying their capacity to communicate and fraternise, by treating them as a farmer treats his cattle?

These are admittedly strong words, but I am compelled to use them because no others fit the description of what the government has done to Kashmiris in the valley. Like chimpanzees, our nearest genetic cousins, we humans  are a necessarily gregarious species. Like them, we live in groups. And like them we constantly reassert our essential nature by communicating ceaselessly with each other.

Modi’s government has robbed Kashmiri’s of this defining capability, and in so doing, it  has robbed them of their humanity. This is something that, like any other human community, no Kashmiri will be able to bear for long, or ever forget.

The debate in India about Kashmir has been side-tracked into a controversy over the extent to which the government has robbed the Kashmiris of their freedom. This has allowed the government to swamp the media with its version of facts,  and simultaneously accuse those who disagree with it, of being anti-national and, unbelievably, pro-Pakistan.

Civil society has responded by presenting steadily mounting anecdotal evidence of empty schools, shuttered shops, early morning raids on peoples’ homes and summary arrests of young boys; of panic attacks among ordinary youth living in constant fear, and of the sick being denied essential medical care.

But horrifying as all this is, it is dwarfed by the cardinal sin of robbing Kashmiris of their status as human beings.

By doing this, Modi has broken the most fundamental link that binds Kashmir to India, their humanity and ours. If his government  persists in this folly, it will achieve what was, till just the other day, considered inconceivable: it will unite every single Kashmiri in a growing determination to break free of India, no matter what it costs and how long it takes.

This government’s second major policy thrust is also one that is leading the country towards a situation that it will not be able to handle.

This is its determination to expel all illegal immigrants from India. It is no one’s case that a country should turn a blind eye to illegal immigration from other countries. Equally, no one will deny that Assam has seen a massive inflow of immigrants, not only from Bangladesh, but also Bengal and Nepal, during the past 70 years. This was tolerated by successive Congress regimes till it triggered a revolt that only prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s sagacity prevented from becoming unmanageable.

Activists of the Hindu Yuba-Chattra Parishad burn copies of NRC list, in Guwahati on Saturday, August 31. Photo: PTI


But the key issue that has bedevilled all governments faced with this problem cannot be solved by the NRC.

This is: what to do with the immigrants who have already got in and built new lives for themselves in your country? In the US, a succession of governments have legalised illegal immigrants after placing various conditions upon them, and till President Trump, none have even thought of denying children born in the US from availing of the same education and employment rights as other Americans.

This was the problem that Indra Gandhi tried to resolve by passing the Illegal Migrant Detection Act in 1983. That had corrected a gross anomaly in the law, by shifting the burden of proof back from the accused to the accuser. It had also placed other strictures to prevent large scale victimisation of this category of immigrants, by limiting the power to accuse to people living within three kilometres of the  accused, and had allowed the latter to prove legality by producing a ration card.

This act was, somewhat surprisingly, struck down by the Supreme Court in 2012 upon the plea of none other than Sarbanand Sonowal, the present BJP chief minister of Assam. In the following year, the court also ordered that the NRC, first compiled in 1951, be updated. Armed with these, the Modi government ordered the NRC to be updated in Assam first.

The method it chose has proved disastrous.

With the 1983 Act struck down, the government fell back upon the Foreigners’ Act of 1946, a British enactment made before India was partitioned, to deal with the flood that the creation of Bangladesh had let loose. The Foreigners’ Act had placed the burden of proof of legality upon the accused. As a result, 33 million Assamese had to furnish one or more documents to prove that they were not illegal residents of the state.

What has followed has been trauma for half or more of the population of the state. The first draft of the NRC in Assam, which came out in 2014, showed that 13 out of  32 million – two out of five persons were not on the list. For these 13 million, the last four years have been pure torture involving anxious, frantic searches for documents that may have got lost or perished, enormous expense and months of anxiety.

The final Register only brought the number down to four million, still one in eight of  Assam’s population.

Last year this was whittled down through appeals to 1.9 million. The stress this long drawn out process has put, particularly on the poor of Assam,  is too frightful to contemplate. It has led to depression and more than a dozen suicides among those who have been left out.

Deporting such a large number of people from India became impossible after Bangladesh flatly refused to have them back. At that point any responsible government would have taken a second look at the law governing the determination of citizenship to see if it could be amended to make the exercise both just and feasible.

But the Modi government’s response has been the exact opposite. Instead of seeking a way back to the 1983 Act, albeit with improvements, the new home minister Amit Shah, apparently decided to extend the updating of the NRC to the rest of India, for one of his very first acts was to direct collectors in all districts of the country to chalk out sites for detention camps to be built in the future.

With this he has let a particularly dangerous cat out of the bag. For while  the BJP may have seized upon the NRC as a way of ridding Assam of a part of its Muslim population, other states have grievances against ethnic minorities from other parts of India.

What will Mr Shah do if the Kannadigas demand an NRC in order evict  people from the northeast who have captured a large share of the jobs in the IT, BPO and other service industries in Bengaluru?

What will he do if the Shiv Sena revives its demand to evict people from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar from Mumbai. Only those with no knowledge of the  history of Europe’s self-destruction in the 20th century could have thought that ethnic cleansing, once started, can be contained.

Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray. Photo: PTI


The two strands of policy-making described above are alarming enough but when they are combined with the third, they make an explosive mix that could easily blow the country apart. This is the Modi government’s brazen disregard for the Rule of Law and citizens’ fundamental rights.

From almost the first day he came to power in 2014, Modi has been systematically gutting all the institutions of democracy – the legislature, the executive and the judiciary, to destroy all possible opposition to the Sangh Parivar. In this he has been no different from Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt before they were thwarted by the army coup that brought Abdul Fattah Sisi to power.

A key element of his government’s strategy has been to exploit the weak points of Indian democracy – especially the ubiquity of corruption – to attack its political opponents. It did this without success to Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party, but met with greater success when it attacked the Trinamool Congress in Bengal and the Congress in Assam where it secured the defection of key ministers to the BJP by threatening them with exposure and prosecution.

To render the AAP government impotent it secured a judgment, from a single judge bench of the Delhi high court, abolishing Delhi’s (and in passing Pondicherry’s), special status as Union Territories with elected governments, that took the Supreme Court three years to reverse.

During its first five years the Modi government also destroyed the limited, but very real independence the CBI had enjoyed earlier. This had been buttressed in 1997 by a Supreme Court order fixing the CBI director’s term at a minimum of two years, and disallowing his transfer without the clearance of a special committee that included the Central Vigilance Commissioner.

Dr Manmohan Singh had further buttressed its independence by giving the power to appoint to a committee consisting of the prime minister, the Chief Justice and the leader of the opposition. Modi trashed both these safeguards and gave the power to appoint to the appointments committee of the cabinet, i.e to himself.

In the same vein, during the first 100 days, the second Modi government has gutted the Right To Information Act by ending  the statutory independence of the Central Information Commissioner through an act of parliament, passed a law making almost any criticism of the government a seditious act. It has also amended the Unlawful Activities  Prevention Act (UAPA) to enable the National Investigating Agency (NIA) to designate almost any individual as a terrorist and put him or her behind bars for two years. Whereas this power previously rested with only the senior most officers of the NIA it has now been given to any agent of the rank of inspector and above.

A view of the Parliament building. Photo: Nimrod Bar/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)


This government is consistently using the vast powers of arrest and detention given to the police, the long delays in the administration of justice and the readiness of lower court judges to remand the accused to judicial custody for as long as the government  desires, to target key members of the opposition drag them before the courts, get complaisant judges to deny them anticipatory bail, sequester their property, and keep them in jail for months at a time – all this in the full glare of the audiovisual media who then beam their disgrace to a billion people around the country .

This has destroyed habeas corpus, the single most fundamental right of a citizen in a democracy, the Right to Freedom until convicted of a crime. Habeas corpus now exists only on paper.

The purpose is not to uphold the law but to shame, defame and discredit and intimidate those who have stood in Hindutva’s way. The government is fully aware that most of these cases will not stand up in court, for the conviction rate in criminal cases of this nature has been a bare half  percent. The government, of course, knows this.

Three out of more than a score of examples stand out: In 2013, Tarun Tejpal, the founder-editor of Tehelka, who was accused of attempted rape, sexual harassment and associated offences, spent seven months in jail before finally securing bail from the Supreme Court.

From the BJP’s point of view Tejpal’s crime was that it was the video-ed sting operations carried out by his reporters that had led to the conviction of a round dozen of the Bajrang Dal assassins who had led the killing of more than three score Muslims in the Naroda Patiya massacre in Ahmedabad in 2002.

Unlike Tejpal, Prannoy and Radhika Roy , founder-owners of NDTV have been out on bail for more then three years on a charge of money laundering, with their property sequestered by the Enforcement Directorate, but not yet brought to trial because the government’s lawyers have obtained 21 adjournments of the case from complaisant judges while they scramble to find evidence against them.

Finally, and most egregiously, former home minister P. Chidambaram has not only been indicted of money laundering on the flimsiest of pretexts, but denied anticipatory bail and sent to Tihar jail by a Delhi high court judge Sunil Gaur, two days before he retired. A mere five days after he retired, the Modi government appointed him chairman of the Prevention of Money Laundering Tribunal.

In this, it was only following a well set precedent. For in 2014, breaking all constitutional norms, Modi had appointed the retiring Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, P. Sathasivam, governor of the state of Kerala.

Three years later he appointed R.K. Raghavan, the chairman of the Supreme Court appointed Special Investigation Team on the Ahmedabad riots who completely exonerated Modi of any dereliction of duty in dealing with the riots, as India’s ambassador to Cyprusonly weeks after he resigned from the SIT.

Justice Gaur also had a long history of having delivered judgements in the lower courts against the Congress party and its newspaper, the National Herald, before he got picked to be the high court judge who would hear Chidambaram’s bail application. Chidambaram has now been behind bars at Tihar jail for a full month

Irshad Khan, 24, holds a picture of his late father Pehlu Khan, 55, in Jaisinghpur, India, June 2, 2017. Irshad survived an attack by cow vigilantes when transporting cattle which left his father dead and friends badly beaten. Photo: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton/Files


Contrast these with the fact that not a single person has been convicted, or even brought to trial yet, for the 72 lynchings of Muslims by so-called gau rakshaks that took place during Modi 1.0.

That many, like Vipin, one of the self confessed killers of Pehlu Khan, have been acquitted because the police deliberately withheld crucial evidence, and that all the members of ‘Abhinav Bharat’ who had been indicted for the Samhjhauta Express bomb blast, have walked free for the same reason, and it becomes undeniable that the rule of law has no place in Modi’s India.

While the BJP may not have actively connived in creating the lawless state that India has become, there can be no doubt that the ideology it has so relentlessly propagated, and Modi’s refusal to condemn the crimes committed in its name, have created oppressive, lawless country that India has become today.

History, not least that of the 20th century,  has shown that countries that lose their moorings in justice, humanity and the rule of law, seldom last long.

Some, like Germany, immolate themselves in a Valhalla-like funeral pyre of war and destruction; others go out in revolution; and still others, like the Soviet Union, simply fall apart.

In India we still have a fourth option — the revival of democracy. But for that the BJP must first realise that its policy of repressing all opposition to it, will not only harm it, but also destroy the nation it claims to cherish.

this article appeared in The Wire

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