Assault on civil liberties

Subverting the right to life

Print edition : October 25, 2019

A Kashmiri waits to meet his son at Agra Central Jail on September 20. Kashmiri families are travelling long distances to meet relatives being detained in Agra. Photo: Altaf Qadri/AP

Home Minister Amit Shah welcomes Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of the BJP's Central Election Committee meeting, in New Delhi on September 29. Photo: PTI

Congress leader P. Chidambaram being produced before a CBI court, in New Delhi on August 22. Photo: PTI

Ramachandra Guha. Photo: S. RAMESH KURUP

Shyam Benegal. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Aparna Sen. Photo: PTI

The student who has accused Swami Chinmayanand of raping her being brought to court to record her statement, in Shahjahanpur on September 16. Photo: PTI

Numerous developments since the return of the Modi-led government illustrate the steady erosion of civil liberties and the unfettered march of the Sangh Parivar against the spirit of the Constitution.

ON the morning of October 2, the Uttar Pradesh Assembly started a 36-hour marathon special session with the professed objective of marking the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi in a unique manner. The session, in the words of Speaker Hriday Narayan Dixit, was convened with the objective of upholding the ideals and values represented by the Father of the Nation. Among the matters that were to be considered were the progress of the country’s most populous State in achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and in ensuring sustainable development.

There was much speechifying at the session about Mahatma Gandhi’s commitment to the cause of civil liberties and social justice, including by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. But the context in which the session was held as well as a number of developments in its run-up and immediate aftermath made the event ludicrous, distressing political spectacle.

In essence, the event and the developments around it turned out to be a symbol of the devious and duplicitous political practice mounted by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership for a considerable period of time, which has acquired greater momentum right from the early days of the second term of the Narendra Modi-led government.

This two-faced political practice revolves around paying lip service to grand and noble ideas and leaders while serially exterminating civil liberties and systematically dismantling constitutional institutions. The October 2 spectacle in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly and its context exemplified the operational dynamics of this double-faced political machine.

Consider this. Barely hours before the session in which BJP leaders, including Yogi Adityanath, held forth on social justice, equitable development and civil society aspirations, party president and Union Home Minister Amit Shah stated in unmistakable terms that the Muslim community would be discriminated against when the government moves ahead with the nationwide implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) and implements the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Making no effort to conceal the sectarianism, Shah held forth on the issue in Kolkata, stating: “I would like to put it on record that the BJP has no intention of targeting refugees, which is why we are going to bring the CAB followed by the NRC. This will ensure that refugees belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Parsi and Christian religions get their citizenship and continue to stay in India without fear.”

There is no reference to refugees belonging to the Muslim community, and Shah’s associates in the BJP as well as other outfits in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar assert that the omission was intentional.

Two days after the October 2 session, a first information report (FIR) was lodged at Muzaffarpur in Bihar against a number of celebrities, including film-makers Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Shyam Benegal, Mani Ratnam and Aparna Sen, as well as the historian Ramachandra Guha, for the “crime” of writing an open letter to Prime Minister Modi to register concerns over growing incidents of lynching and to state that the chant of “Jai Shriram” that had been raised in many of these incidents had become a kind of war cry.

The FIR, filed at the instance of Sangh Parivar supporter Sudhir Kumar Ojha, accused the celebrities of “tarnishing the image of the country and undermining the impressive performance of the Prime Minister”. It was also stated that the letter signed by the celebrities was tantamount to “supporting secessionist tendencies”.

Speaking to Frontline on both Shah’s speech and the FIR against celebrities, a number of BJP legislators who participated in the special session were of the view that “the sharp messaging” [from these two developments] was clear and was hitting the “right targets forcefully”. They added: “Those who need to be put in their place are being put in the corner.”

These BJP MLAs share the opinion that the return of the Modi-led BJP government with a resounding majority has set in motion Hindutva reverberations across the entire spectrum of society, encompassing all instruments of governance and facets of social life.

“These reverberations are buttressed by the sense of authority that Modiji and Shahji exude from their political and individual personalities. You can see that leaders of every institution are impacted by this authority and bow to it in reverence. It is the same authority that came into play in the forceful abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir followed by the iron-fisted control over the situation in the Kashmir Valley,” Satya Prakash Agarwal, the MLA from Meerut Cantonment, told Frontline.

This sense of change has manifested itself across the country in several instances over the past few months and newer illustrations are coming up day after day. Cumulatively, all these amount to a rampant and systematic dilution of the constitutional right ingrained in Article 21, which stipulates that “no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law”.

In fact, the recent amendments to the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), 1967, which have given sweeping powers to government agencies to brand individuals as “terrorists” and take action, are also a marker of the times. A number of these examples of denial of civil liberty are from Jammu and Kashmir itself, but there are several from other States too, including the National Capital Region and Uttar Pradesh itself.

Amid subjugation and submission, driven by the seemingly all-pervasive authority of the executive, especially Modi and Shah, the pillars of democracy and governance considered to be autonomous and independent are also apparently on the track of capitulation. Cases in point include the series of recusals by Supreme Court judges in crucial cases as well as the questionable decisions of the Election Commission of India (ECI) in several instances.

The fact that institutions such as the Supreme Court and the ECI appeared to have turned a blind eye to their responsibilities was a definitive marker of the intensity of the executive onslaught, observers said.

While the Supreme Court is showing no urgency to act against the illegal detention of innocent persons, the Election Commission shows no compunction in advancing the theory that convictions of corruption and the resultant disqualification from electoral offices could be erased in the light of mandates secured in elections.

Among the stark instances of civil liberty denial in the regional terms is the plight of the entire population of Jammu and Kashmir, who have been denied all social rights and conveniences, including that of communications and medical aid, for over two months. The manner in which political leaders from Kashmir have been treated exemplifies the intensity of the human misery in the State.

Kashmir

Ghulam Nabi Azad, a former Chief Minister and former Union Minister, was denied permission thrice to visit his home State, and he had to approach the Supreme Court for permission.

Farooq Abdullah, a three-time Chief Minister, who is also a member of Parliament, has been placed in detention under a draconian law meant for terrorists, which allows the authorities to not produce him before a magistrate for six months. Questioned on this, Shah said the MP was relaxing at home of his own free will.

Other former Chief Ministers and leaders of prominent political parties in Jammu and Kashmir, such as Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, have also been incarcerated. Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader, was kept in custody. His colleagues, including party general secretary Sitaram Yechury, had to seek help from the Supreme Court to bring him to New Delhi for treatment.

Tarigami’s persecution has not ended. He is not being allowed to attend the meeting of his party’s Central Committee, of which he is a member. Tarigami was stopped at the airport as he was proceeding for the meeting.

The assault on leaders of the opposition is not confined to Jammu and Kashmir. Leaders across the country are being targeted in cases, some with substance and many without any merit at all.

A closer inspection of the manner in which senior Congress leader P. Chidambaram has been treated clearly points to vendetta.

Chidambaram, who held the Finance and Home Ministry portfolios during United Progressive Alliance (UPA) rule from 2004 to 2014, was arrested on August 21 in a case of corruption in the Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB) clearance of Rs.305 crore of foreign investment to the INX Media group, in which the main accused are Indrani Mukerjea and Peter Mukerjea.

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate (E.D.) registered a case in 2017, but the FIR against Chidambaram was registered after Indrani Mukerjea gave a statement in February 2018 that they had paid money to Chidambaram’s son, Karti, for the FIPB clearance. No case has been registered against any FIPB official in the said clearance. Chidambaram continues to be in the Tihar jail.

The case against Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) founder Sharad Pawar is also, by all indications, built on rather flimsy grounds.

Even as opposition leaders are becoming targets of what overwhelmingly seem to be cases of vendetta, leaders considered close to the ruling dispensation are seemingly enjoying protection from the processes of law, even in serious cases involving rape accusations.

Mockery of law

Former Union Minister Swami Chinmayanand is a case in point. He was accused of rape by a law student studying in an institution under his control in Shahjahanpur. Despite the accusation, he is recuperating with five-star facilities in a plush hospital room while the student has been charged with attempt at extortion and arrested. Swami Chinmayanand has been charged only with using his position of authority to induce somebody into offering sexual favours.

Evidently, there are different sets of rules for the supporters and opponents of the BJP. Those on the right side of the government are going scot-free while those in the opposing camp are being booked under frivolous charges and harassed.

The law student’s story is an example of how the law-enforcing machinery can make a mockery of the law. This was a case in which the Supreme Court had to intervene after a video of the girl went viral in which she accused Swami Chinmayanand of having raped her for over a year. The girl claimed in the video that she had gone into hiding as she feared for her life.

The girl’s father lodged an FIR saying the “swami” referred to by his daughter was none other than Swami Chinmayanand. He also said that he feared that Swami Chinmayanand had kidnapped his daughter.

The Supreme Court took note immediately and directed the Uttar Pradesh police to rescue the student and produce her before the court. The police soon produced her before the Supreme Court and she recorded her statement, accusing Swami Chinmayanand of rape. She also filed a complaint of rape in Delhi on September 7. The Supreme Court constituted a special investigation team (SIT) and instructed that the case be monitored by a High Court bench.

On September 5, Swami Chinmayanand’s lawyer produced a video in which he claimed that the girl and three of her friends were heard planning to extort Rs.5 crore from Swami Chinmayanand. The Uttar Pradesh Police, which had not filed any case of rape against Swami Chinmayanand, promptly arrested the girl and her friends on charges of extortion and put them in jail.

Swami Chinmayanand is said to be close to Yogi Adityanath. In 2011, there was a similar charge against him in which he was declared guilty by a Sessions Court, but his arrest was stayed by the High Court. The Yogi Adityanath government quietly withdrew the charges against him.

The plight of a Hindi newspaper reporter named Pawan Jaiswal, from Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh, is similar. He was arrested for showing in a video that children were being served only roti and salt as midday meal at school.

The reporter, who asserted that he was merely doing his duty, has been booked under serious charges of criminal conspiracy to defame the government, creating false evidence, obstructing a government servant from carrying out his duty, and cheating. Protests from journalist organisations have not been of much help.

These unmistakable signals of the collapse of the right to liberty of citizens, through sabotage and violation or wilful manipulation of the rule of law and the principles of democracy, have been further accentuated by sporadic protests emanating from the civil services.

Take the example of three Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers who resigned in the span of one month: Kannan Gopinathan and Kashish Mittal from the AGMUT cadre and Sasikanth Senthil from the Karnataka cadre.

Gopinathan and Senthil cited the “trampling of fundamental rights” in Jammu and Kashmir, including the freedom of expression and the abrogation of Article 370, as the reasons for their quitting. Mittal cited his opposition to being transferred to Arunachal Pradesh. Show-cause notices have been issued to all three officers. While Gopinathan has been charged with dereliction of duty, insubordination and dilatory tactics, Senthil is facing corruption charges.

Senior officials in the Department of Personnel and Training told Frontline that the government was mulling strict disciplinary action against all three, including heavy monetary fine by asking them to refund their entire training period expenses, including those incurred, if any, during their foreign study trips. Clearly, voices of dissent are being silenced everywhere.

Speaking to Frontline about the overall situation in the country, Akhilesh Yadav, president of the Samajwadi Party and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, said that doublespeak was always a powerful weapon in the Sangh Parivar’s socio-political armoury, adding that post 2019 Lok Sabha election, there had been a significant change in the Parivar’s approach.

“Earlier, their doublespeak was to cover up some elements of their extremist agenda, and the opposition used to call it the Sangh Parivar’s hidden agenda. Now, the Sangh Parivar feels that there is no need to keep its agenda hidden. All their divisive, sectarian plans are not only out in the open but being pushed aggressively and vociferously,” he said.

However, they still feel the need to appropriate national heroes like Gandhi, Lohia and Ambedkar and make them part of their political and ideological games, according to him.

“Exercises like the farcical special session of the Assembly are aimed at that. Who does not know that the history of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar is a stark testimony of how they have consistently stayed away from and worked against the principles and values represented by Mahatma Gandhi?” he said.

“Even as we are witnessing the lip service these people pay to Gandhiji through such spectacles, the functioning of the BJP governments at present, in the State and at the Centre, underscores how their reprehensible historical track record is being methodically advanced at multiple levels, from spreading mayhem through murderous assaults on large segments of society to systematically dismantling constitutional institutions. We are determined to fight this at all levels and are in the process of rallying a number of democratic forces,” he added.

However, the fact remains that there is no sign of a united opposition to protect democracy even as the march of the political and executive authority as symbolised by the Modi-Shah duo continues apace, posing a serious threat to the very survival of democracy in India.

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