March 21, 2016

India: not just institutions which are in the cross hairs, the citizen and her republic are also the targets (Editorial, EPW, 19 March 2016)

Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 51, Issue No. 12, 19 Mar, 2016


...And Then They Came for Me!

It is not just institutions which are in the cross hairs, the citizen and her republic are also the targets.

For some time now, it has been evident even to those who had reposed faith in the moderating power of prime ministership on the politics that Narendra Modi represented that there has been no such effect. The main focus of the government (much to the dismay of the cheerleading “captains of industry” as well as the aspiring middle classes) has been on what the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) calls “cultural nationalism” and what the people of India know as a violent implementation of Hindu majoritarianism.

There has been a sustained strategy to fill the governing positions of institutions with not just those aligned ideologically and politically with the government in power, which is normal practice in most democracies, but with incompetent people who will hollow out the substance of these institutions. The list of institutions targeted thus is now well known. Even institutions whose functional autonomy is crucial to the checks and balances of a parliamentary democracy have been targeted for “capture,” like with the infamous attempt to undercut the Reserve Bank of India’s autonomy through the budget proposals last March.

There has been a parallel track to this attack on institutions. It is the attack on individuals. An Aamir Khan here, an Amartya Sen there, some time on Gulzar, someplace on U R Ananthamurthy; this list has been longer than ever. This has been the favourite strategy of the Hindutva forces even from the time of the previous National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government: of attacking individuals to the point where their life and liberty is threatened and they are coerced into silence. One never really knows when an M F Husain could become a Graham Staines. Thus the chilling effect of such targeting of individuals.

In its second reincarnation, the NDA government led by Narendra Modi has sat majestically inactive over a similar targeting of individuals by sundry forces whose only common thread is a shrill Hindu majoritarian nationalism inspired by the RSS. However, there is a far more insidious aspect to this targeting of individuals under the benign gaze of Prime Minister Modi: apart from celebrities it is now anonymous citizens who are targeted for going about the business of daily life.

A Mohammad Akhlaq is lynched for the food he eats. A university teacher, Vivek Kumar, invited to give a lecture at Gawalior, is attacked for the views he espouses. A poet and scientist Gauhar Raza is branded anti-national for reciting a poem. A dean of student welfare in a university, R Mahalakshmi, is attacked for doing the routine work of allowing student gatherings. A teacher, Nivedita Menon, is attacked for speaking about Kashmir and the North East at a teach-in. Dalit teachers are branded anti-national, just like Dalit students were earlier. Journalists reporting news are heckled, or worse arrested and questioned by the police, as happened recently with a journalist who reported that Muslims were not appointed for the Government of India-organised “World Yoga Day” as part of government policy. It was, after all, a minister of Modi’s cabinet who termed journalists as “Presstitutes” and continues to use that term.

These are just the better-known names who have come to prominence because they happen to get media, and social media, attention. The list itself is endless.

This targeting of citizens living their daily life has preceded the election of the present NDA government and has become the hallmark of how Hindutva forces and other socially reactionary right wing groups have forced their agendas on society. The murders of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M M Kalburgi, or the self-announced “death of the writer” by Perumal Murugan or the suicide of Rohith Vemula just go to show that the branding of a people as anti-national (or against a community) can lead to tragic, horrific consequences. What is new in the present dispensation is that the pillars of the state—the executive (union ministers), the judiciary (lawyers and judges), the media (national television)—are not standing up to defend the citizen and her fundamental rights; rather they are leading the lynch mobs.

The citizen has only the protection of her fundamental rights, ensured by the legitimacy and might of the state. The fundamental rights are not being denied in words, but by the state’s continued refusal to uphold them and by foisting false cases, by lawyers beating up defendants and by judges equating political opinions to viruses, by television news anchors broadcasting doctored videos and false news, these rights are denied very effectively. If teachers and students at one of India’s premier universities cannot speak their mind without fear of litigation and violence, both by the state as well as sundry political groups of the Hindutva stable, the message being sent out to the citizens is that their only protection is acquiescence with the Hindu majoritarian agenda, not the Constitution of India.

The defence of the people thus attacked—whether it is Rohith Vemula, Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya, S A R Geelani, Gauhar Raza, R Mahalakshmi, Nivedita Menon, or the many, many others who always get left out in such lists—is not just the defence of these individuals. It is a defence of the very idea of citizenship guaranteed by the fundamental rights of the Constitution of India. The defence of the citizen is the defence of our republic.
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