Essay

Modi & dissent

Print edition :

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP national president Amit Shah at the concluding session of the National Executive Committee meeting of the party at the Civic Centre in New Delhi on May 17. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

The state has turned a libeller with intimidation as its weapon, inspiring mobs and using them as its tools. To what depths will Narendra Modi and Amit Shah not stoop in 2019 when the prize is the Prime Minister’s job? By A.G. Noorani

Nisar main teri galyon ke, ai watan, ke jahan

Chali hai rasm ke ko’i na sar uthake chale,

Jo ko’i chahne-wala tawaf ko nikle

Nazar churae chale, jism-o-jan bachake chale;

Hai ahl-i-dil ke liye ab ye nazm-e-bast-o-kushad,

Ke sang o khisht muqaiyad hain aur sag azad.

Bane hain ahl-e-havas mudda’i bhi, munsif bhi:

Kise vakil Karen, kis-se munsifi chahen?...

Yun-hi hamesha ulajhti-rahi hai zulm se khalq,

Na unki rasm na’i hai, na apni rit na’i;

Yun-hi hamesha khila’e hain ham-ne ag men phul,

Na unki har na’i hai, na apni jit na’i....

Ye char din i khuda’i to ko’i bat nahin.

Jo tujh-se ‘ahd-e-wafa ustuwar rakhte hain

‘ilaj-e-gardish-e-lail-o-nahar rakhte hai.

 

O how I love your streets, my land of birth!

Where no one may now walk with head held high;

And those who venture out,

At the risk of life and limb, 

Must keep their eyes to the ground.

New rules, new regulations have been laid down:

Dogs are free to roam,

But stones are locked away

No excuse do the oppressors need,

For they’re now both judge and prosecutor

But man has always fought oppression

The oppressor’s ways haven’t changed

Nor the ways of those who fight back

Our flowers have always bloomed through fire

Oppression never wins, and we never lose.

The oppressor rides high today

Playing God for a few days

But those who keep the faith,

Can deal with fortune’s ups and downs

 

 

THIS poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, which his friend Khalid Hasan translated so feelingly, accurately sums up the atmosphere in India today.

There was a time when the Supreme Court sharply exhorted the state to protect the citizen’s right to express himself freely. The film Ore Oru Gramathile concerned the policy of reservation. The government of Tamil Nadu defended a ban on the film on the ground that it would provoke hostile crowds. The court said: “We are amused yet troubled by the stand taken by the State government with regard to the film which has received the National Award. We want to put the anguished question, what good is the protection of freedom of expression if the state does not take care or protect it? If the film is unobjectionable and cannot constitutionally be restricted under Article 19(2), freedom of expression cannot be suppressed on account of threat of demonstration and processions or act of violence. That would be tantamount to negation of the rule of law and a surrender to blackmail and intimidation. It is the duty of the state to protect the freedom of expression since it is a liberty guaranteed against the state. The state cannot plead its inability to handle the hostile audience problem. It is its obligatory duty to protect the freedom of expression.... Freedom of expression, which is legitimate and constitutionally protected, cannot be held to ransom by an intolerant group of people” (S. Rangarajan vs P. Jagjivan Ram & Ors (1989) 2SCC 574 at 598).

The state now does not pretend to be a protector of the citizen’s rights and freedoms. It has turned a libeller with intimidation as its weapon, inspiring mobs and using them as its tools. In a media interview published on December 9, 1998, the veteran film star Dilip Kumar remarked, apropos of Shiv Sainiks’ attacks on December 4 on the cinema house screening Fire: “How can you appeal to the government when Chief Minister Manohar Joshi is himself encouraging threats of violence... by congratulating the miscreants”? On December 12, Shiv Sainiks in their underwear surrounded his house and hurled abuses. The obscenity of such behaviour arouses no censure from the pretentious custodians of morality; some, indeed, approved of it.

No sooner had Narendra Modi become Prime Minister than he pursued a three-pronged policy—ensure erasure of the national consensus, marginalisation of Muslims and suppression of dissent—through a variety of means. Ravish Kumar records: “Post 2014, the political winds began to change course. Criticism of the government began to be equated with criticism of the nation. A factory called the ‘IT Cell’ was set up and many varieties of fear were manufactured inside its basement. The trolls of the IT Cell mounted fierce attacks on anyone who dared to ask questions. They were called many things, from anti-nation and anti-religion to even pimps of the opposition parties. Many journalists were cast in the mould of an opposition. They were called anti-Modi. Even serving Ministers began to attack reporters. The IT Cell rapidly transformed media into ‘godi media’—lapdog media. Many anchors and journalists crept into the laps of power and began chanting the Modi Chalisa.

WhatsApp University

“The IT Cell is not simply the unit of a particular party. It is a mentality which has formed among a large section of society. I call that entire set, the collective of people who share that mentality, the ‘IT Cell’. This IT Cell has transformed a large section of the citizenry into trolls. Many people find this idea of the mentality of the IT Cell a joke, but this is a fully realised human resource which works extensively from the metropolises to far-flung areas of India. Many of the news channels which work in today’s India are an extension of this IT Cell.

“This IT Cell has its own laboratory: the WhatsApp University. The amount of history that this WhatsApp University has tried to teach in three years would not have been taught in the seventy years since Independence by all historians together. The only difference is that the history taught in the WhatsApp University is fake and poisonous.”

An atmosphere of fear has been created by a calculated policy of spread of hate. A Prime Minister is the nation’s chief educator. What he espouses acquires wings. Soon after Moraji Desai became Prime Minister, at least two books on auto-urine therapy hit the shelves of bookshops in Mumbai. Interest in this fascinating branch of medical science evaporated as soon as its famed practitioner demitted office. Modi is more practical and more focussed. He honed the skills he had developed as a pracharak of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, practised them freely as Chief Minister of Gujarat and is now deploying them with ardour and determination as India’s Prime Minister. He abhors accountability, detests press conferences and instructs the press on good behaviour.

The tactic deployed is too clever by half: condemn sin, reward the sinner. On November 17, 2016, speaking at the golden jubilee celebration of the Press Council of India, which has now acquired a pliant chairman, Modi sang praises to press freedom while exhorting the press to behave itself. “Like a mother who tells her children not to eat too much.” This is Modiji’s style of communicating an unpleasant message. Hindustan Times’ report noted: “The PM’s remarks come in the wake of the government ordering a private television channel, NDTV India, to go off-the-air for a day on the grounds that it had telecast strategically sensitive details while covering the attack on the Pathankot airbase earlier this year”—around 10 months after the telecast!

Information & Broadcasting Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu supported the Prime Minister’s remark on self-regulation but added meaningfully that if the media were to err “then there has to be a mechanism”. We have been warned. Never before did we hear one after another such hilarious claims about the Vedic era. It began in 2014 with Modi’s claim in Mumbai that plastic surgery was in vogue then. The latest is from Uttar Pradesh’s Deputy Chief Minister Dinesh Sharma, who said: “Sitaji was born from a pitcher. There must have been a project [to create a] test-tube baby at that time” (The Telegraph, June 2, 2018).

NDTV rendered a service by telecasting a programme on May 25 with two fearless journalists, Ravish Kumar, senior executive editor of NDTV India and winner of many awards, and Rana Ayyub, former editor with Tehelka. Rana Ayyub published her book Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up herself. It is an account of an eight-month-long undercover investigation by her into the Gujarat riots, fake encounters and the murder of State Home Minister Haren Pandya. It brings to the fore startling revelations. Posing as Maithili Tyagi, a film-maker from the American Film Institute Conservatory, Rana Ayyub met bureaucrats and top cops in Gujarat who held pivotal positions in the State between 2001 and 2010. The transcripts of the sting operation reveal the complicity of the state and its officials in crimes against humanity. The book tells you the hushed truth of the State in the words of those who developed amnesia while speaking before commissions of inquiry but held nothing back in the secretly taped videos that form the basis of Rana Ayyub’s remarkable book.

It has a foreword by a former judge of the Supreme Court, Justice (retd) B.N. Srikrishna, dated April 11, 2016, which concludes: “Kudos to her and her brave assay in investigative journalism, the need for which seems to increase with increasing dishonesty, chicanery and political machinations.”

Ravish Kumar, senior executive editor at NDTV, addressing a group of journalists at the Press Club of India in New Delhi on April 3.   -  Saumya Khandelwal/REUTERS

Ravish Kumar’s book The Free Voice (Speaking Tiger, New Delhi) holds a mirror to the media; it describes in clinical detail the anatomy of fear and prescribes a recipe for the cure. Both journalists were subjected systematically to an organised campaign of abuse and intimidation. Rana Ayyub’s reportage touched Amit Shah, Modi’s hatchet man and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) president. It was a vile campaign, sexist and appallingly coarse; Ravish Kumar describes what he went through.

It is not easy to tread the path which these two did in the clime of today. He writes: “My days start with the trolls’ abuses and threats and end with the thought that I should be careful for the sake of my job. Not a day has passed in three years during which I have not heard people talking about the possibility that I might lose my job. But fear is also what saves you from rashness. It is that resting place between courage and rashness. That point from where you commit to a course of action. Power knows who should be removed from the path of its onward march and when. It maintains a strict calendar and schedule.”

In his opinion: “Today, most media platforms speak the same language. The society which falls within the ambit of their influence is left with very limited options to seek facts. On almost every news channel, in every programme, false realities are being created on the basis of spurious issues and counterfeit agendas driven by the government and big business. This happens on a daily basis. Power has shifted reality with the aid of the media. For instance, communalism has already been covered with the garb of nationalism.”

The journalist and author Rana Ayyub with her book “Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up” at its launch in Hyderabad on July 2, 2016.   -  K.V.S. Giri

Four senior journalists won note for their tireless, and tiresome, praise of the parivar and Modi. Once he became Prime Minister, all four were rewarded with plum posts. Ravish Kumar cites specific instances of intimidation of and criminal assaults on journalists.

The cases fall into a pattern—the murders of M.M. Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and Gauri Lankesh—dissenters all. “I don’t think it has ever happened anywhere that so many people have publicly justified a murder as vociferously and boldly, and with as much poison, as Gauri’s was. And I was saddened most of all by the fact that the man who had been lovingly given the seat of power by the people of India, that man was a Twitter follower of Nikhil Dadhich, who described Gauri Lankesh, a recently deceased woman, as a ‘bitch’. Dadhich said in a Tweet, ‘Now that a bitch has died a dog’s death, all the puppies are mewling in one voice.’ I was disappointed in our Prime Minister.”

Similar pattern in lynchings

There is a similar pattern in the lynchings of Muslims by mobs: Mohammad Akhlaq, Junaid Khan and Pehlu Khan. “Human bombs” are being prepared and the police remain indifferent and worse.

“As per my count, from 2014 till late 2017, forty-two citizens had either been arrested or had cases filed against them for making objectionable remarks about the Prime Minister or any BJP Chief Minister or leader. The number of Muslims was the highest, but there were Hindus on the list, too, and Sikhs and Christians. Every one of them was a citizen. That is what we need to understand.” The attempt is to marginalise Muslims who cannot be co-opted. “A powerful fear is created over maniacal debates on TV channels. Many news anchors swarm like fearsome attackers all over those who ask questions. The common viewer of TV channels sees this and starts losing confidence. He can see what becomes of those who raise questions. He feels that there is danger in standing apart from the mob. So he stays quiet, and by his silence he becomes a part of the mob. Fear has seeped into people’s consciousness.

“This has had the greatest effect on the minority community. It has begun to keep out of every kind of debate. And the space which has been vacated by the community has been filled up by those maulanas who do represent Muslims, but speak like those very majority institutions in whose communal agendas these maulanas are caught up. These maulanas have made Muslims even more insecure. To the extent that Muslim friends advise me that I should avoid platforms where issues related to their community are being debated. So this is the extent to which they have been made to feel politically irrelevant. Most Muslims now feel that if they were to take to the streets with their demands, the media will see only their beards or their sherwanis, and it will not talk about their issues. This is what the acceptance of one’s status as a second-class citizen means.”

The Parivar does not seek the Muslim vote. It prefers to mobilise Hindus on a platform of hate and thus render the Muslim vote dispensable. No one talks about this vote bank, of course. To the fearless monthly Caravan goes the credit for raising “questions about the death of Judge Brijgopal Harkishan Loya, who had been presiding over the CBI [Central Bureau of Investigation] court in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case in Gujarat, in which BJP president Amit Shah was the prime accused. No statement from the judge’s wife and son had come after this story broke. Was it because of some terror that the family could not say anything? Can people be so afraid that they cease to have faith in everyone? Even in themselves?” He must not be touched as Amit Shah is taboo.

Ravish Kumar describes the doubts and the fear that gripped him when he followed Caravan’s report and aired his pointed question on NDTV India on November 23, 2017.

Ever since he became Prime Minister in May 2014, Modi has been campaigning unrelentingly for the 2019 general election. An unprecedented Rs.4,343-crore budget has been earmarked for publicity by his government; 90 per cent of corporate donations went to the BJP recently (Nissim Mannathukkaren, The Hindu, June 7, 2018).

During the election campaign in Gujarat, on December 9, 2017, Modi uttered a foul slander and imputed a conspiracy to the dinner guests of Mani Shankar Aiyar. He knew it to be false. To what depths will he and Amit Shah not stoop in 2019 when the prize is the Prime Minister’s job?

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