Cover Story

Rise of the police state

Print edition : November 25, 2016

Police officers and Special Task Force soldiers stand beside the bodies of the activists of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India who were said to have escaped from the high-security jail in Bhopal, and later got killed in an encounter at Acharpura village on the outskirts of Bhopal on October 31. Photo: RAJ PATIDAR/REUTERS

Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking at the inauguration of the digital exhibition "Uniting India: Sardar Patel", on the occasion of Rashtriya Ekta Diwas in New Delhi on October 31. Photo: PTI

From Madhya Pradesh to Delhi to Jharkhand to Chhattisgarh, agencies of the BJP governments have literally been on the rampage. The fake encounters, the oppression of people fighting for their rights, and the curbs imposed on the media bring back memories of the Emergency days.

“EVERY generation must keep reflecting on the Emergency period in an unbiased manner so that no future political leader can even wish to commit the same sin.” This was one of the points stressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Ram Nath Goenka (RNG) journalism awards function in New Delhi on November 2. He also spoke about other issues concerning the media, particularly on the need to maintain credibility in journalism. It was the kind of performance that should have won him hands down an award for the most ironic political speech if there was ever such a category of awards.

The timing for bestowing such an award would also have been perfect since the months of October and November have been characterised by unparalleled violations of human and democratic rights by not only the Modi government but also a number of State governments headed by his associates in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). From Delhi to Madhya Pradesh to Chhattisgarh to Jharkhand, agencies of the BJP governments have literally been on the rampage. The abuse of power and the administrative machinery took many forms. From fake encounters to oppression of people fighting for their rights to ill treatment of a deceased military veteran’s family to a ban on a leading television channel, such incidents brought back memories of the Emergency days. While almost all these incidents were attributed to BJP governments, a security-level collaboration between the Andhra Pradesh government, in which the BJP is a minor partner of the ruling Telugu Desam Party (TDP), and the Odisha government, led by the Biju Janata Dal, resulted in a massive strike on left-wing extremists (LWE), once again giving rise to suspicions that questionable methods of assault were employed.

Every one of the incidents that unfolded over a wide geographical area covering a cross section of India laid bare a ghastly mix of machinations by the political leadership and premeditated excesses by security agencies resulting in fundamental violations of human and democratic rights. Evidently, a social and political climate resembling the Emergency period was engulfing large parts of the country, and the government and the party led by Modi were playing a pivotal role in creating and spreading such an atmosphere.

In fact, even as Modi was waxing eloquent at the RNG awards function about the need to be watchful about the “sins” of the Emergency, which included curbs on the freedom of expression and detention of opposition political leaders on flimsy grounds, the Delhi Police, which is under the control of the Central government, manhandled and detained the son and other members of the family of an Army veteran who had committed suicide after squarely blaming the Government of India for not fulfilling the promises it had made to ex-servicemen, especially the one relating to the one rank, one pension (OROP) demand. What was the crime of the veteran’s family? They had expressed readiness to meet Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodiya, and Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi. These leaders, who visited the family to offer condolences, were also manhandled and detained. This led to protests in different parts of Delhi.

The Delhi Police and the BJP leadership, including senior Ministers and spokespersons, sought to justify the assault on the political leaders by saying that a possible meeting between the veteran’s family members and the opposition leaders would have disrupted the normal functioning of the hospital where the veteran’s body was kept. The fallacious argument of the Delhi Police was a leaf out of the Emergency book.

Ban on NDTV

Even as the controversy surrounding the veteran’s suicide was raging, the Modi government continued with its malefic spirit. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting banned the television channel NDTV India for a day (November 9), charging it with irresponsible coverage of the anti-terrorist operations at Pathankot, Punjab, in January 2016. The government’s action was based on Rule 6(1) of the Programme Code introduced by the Modi government in 2015. The new code states that “no programme should be carried in the cable services which contains live coverage of any anti-terrorist operation by security forces, wherein media coverage shall be restricted to periodic briefings by an officer designated by the appropriate Government, till such operation concludes”. NDTV contended that other channels had also covered the incident in a similar manner and that it was being singled out. The Editors Guild of India termed the Ministry’s action “unprecedented” and as “a direct violation of the freedom of the media and therefore the citizens of India and amounts to harsh censorship imposed by the government reminiscent of the Emergency”. It also demanded that the order be “immediately rescinded”. But the appeal by a premier body of journalists had no effect on the Modi government.

These transgressions of the Delhi Police and the Information and Broadcasting Ministry were, however, overshadowed by the killing of eight Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) activists on the morning of October 31 in an encounter near Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh. The reverberations of the killing acquired different pitches and resonances as various aspects of the police operation came under closer scrutiny both by the media and by political and security observers. In the immediate aftermath of the killing, the Madhya Pradesh government and its police went on a publicity overdrive claiming great victory on Islamist terrorists who had not only broken out from a jail after killing a security guard but were planning to effect major militant strikes in different parts of the country.

These claims were questioned in various fora. Some of the questions raised were, How were the State intelligence agencies, who had no clue of the jailbreak, so sure about the future terrorist plans of the SIMI activists and how was it possible for the “terrorists” to get access to new clothes and shoes but not weapons? These questions acquired serious traction when a video of the encounter emerged showing unarmed persons being shot savagely and above the waist in violation of security norms. By the first week of November, more evidence of the premeditated nature of the killing emerged, including an audio recording of a police wireless transmission (see separate story on Bhopal killings). All this upset the Madhya Pradesh government’s early pitch about a great victory against anti-national forces. So much so that the State government was forced to institute a judicial inquiry into the killings and postpone a ceremony to honour the policemen involved in the encounter.

Doubts about the possibility of a larger political conspiracy behind the killing came into focus and formed part of a growing public debate. It was suggested in these public discourses that the killing of the SIMI activists could be part of a conspiracy hatched at the highest levels of the political leadership in the State. The obvious aim of such a conspiracy, it was felt, was to kindle patriotic fervour and Hindutva communalism, which in turn would be added to the political and organisational campaigns that the BJP and its associate organisations in the Sangh Parivar, led by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), would advance in the run-up to the Assembly elections in crucial States such as Uttar Pradesh and Punjab.

While the sequence of events relating to the Bhopal killings included a step back by the Madhya Pradesh government, the BJP governments in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh performed no such tactical retreat. They have been using the police force and the state machinery, including the security apparatus, to suppress people’s protests and legal aid to the tribal people and other marginalised sections of society, especially in cases relating to the expansion of corporate interests in the States. In Jharkhand, four forest dwellers were killed in police firing and more than 50 people were injured at Badkagaon in Hazaribagh district on October 1. Those killed and injured were taking part in an agitation against the moves to facilitate corporate takeover of forest lands where they have been living for decades. The corporate takeover was apparently to help mine coal from these lands. The killings did evoke protest from civil society organisations and some opposition parties, but the Jharkhand government took no heed of the protests.

Mission 2016

The developments that unfolded in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand seem to be patterned on the police state model that is being aggressively advanced in Chhattisgarh over the past 10 months by the Raman Singh government and its police machinery, comprising both the legitimate police forces and vigilante groups. This massive state-sponsored repression in Chhattisgarh, informally termed “Mission 2016”, had its nucleus in the LWE-dominated Bastar region and had distinctive characteristics ( Frontline, April 29, 2016). What “Mission 2016” involves is a strategic suspension of the rule of law, leading to a sociopolitical climate marked by communal intimidation and jingoism supplemented by oppression and suppression of all voices of dissent. In practice, “Mission 2016” marked a vicious and brutal interference in the everyday lives of the people, especially Adivasis, minorities and politically neutral social activists seeking to support the marginalised sections of the population.

The social convulsions caused by this police state model were such that even the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) was forced to take note of it and raise questions about it. But, as in Jharkhand, this had no salutary effect on the perpetrators of the police state. On the contrary, the rank and file of the police state was unleashed on the streets of Chhattisgarh by its leaders to protest against the CBI report. Uniformed men marched through the streets of Jagdalpur, Dantewada, Kondagaon, Bijapur, Sukma, Narayanpur and Kanker and burnt effigies of social activists and political leaders who, according to them, had misled the courts and the CBI (see separate story).

By any yardstick, the advancement of the police state employing legitimate, illegitimate and on-the-border means is founded on the conviction that there will be no retribution within the constitutional framework. Analyses of fake encounter cases at different times between the 1990s and the early 2010s, underscore this point. According to a report of the National Human Rights Commission, half of the 2,560 police encounters reported between 1993 and 2009 were found to be fake. However, action had not been taken against approximately 85 per cent of the perpetrators of the fake encounters. A total of 368 cases were registered against the police in the period from April 2011 to June 2014, and over 250 of these cases are pending investigation. High-profile cases, such as the encounter killing of Ishrat Jahan and three others in Gujarat and the killing of the Maoist leader Kishenji, have not resulted in any concrete action against the perpetrators of these actions.

Hindutva project

Evidently, there is a calibrated advancement of the Hindutva project in Mission 2016 and its nuanced repetitions in other States, which form a sizable segment of the country. The self-professed “Hindutva laboratories” of the Sangh Parivar have assumed political and ideological forms and colours in the enterprises related to power politics and statecraft. It acquired the shape of all-out aggression against Muslims in Gujarat, leading to the deliberate killing of members of the minority community in 2002, while in Odisha it manifested itself as sustained attacks against Christians.

Into the second decade of the 21st century, the “laboratory” came up with the product of neoliberal Hindutva, which brought together Hindutva communalism and a corporate-driven development agenda. Modi emerged as the ultimate individual icon of this agenda in 2014. However, the dismal track record of the Modi government in the period between 2014 and 2016 has prompted Sangh Parivar constituents to advance a “nationalism versus sedition” debate.

In fact, post-May 2016, the second anniversary of the Modi government, this mixture has emerged as the principal concomitant in the advancement of neoliberal Hindutva. The rhetorical campaign seeking to convert attacks by Pakistan-sponsored jehadi terrorists into anti-Muslim feeling in India and the chest-thumping on retaliatory “surgical strikes” in Pakistan are all part of this campaign. The creation and perpetuation of the police state using instruments ranging from fake encounters to suppression of mass movements to gagging of the media to intimidation of the common people is also an important concomitant of this campaign.

Interestingly, along with all this, the Sangh Parivar also advances its doublespeak propaganda. And that is where the constant harping of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar leadership on the Emergency period and its atrocities come in with a special reference to their self-professed role in opposing it. Indeed, Modi’s prize-deserving speech at the RNG award function suits the Sangh Parivar’s style book.