Communalism

U.P.: Dog-whistle politics

Print edition : April 10, 2020

Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. His government has passed an ordinance that sanctions claim of damages from protesters. Photo: Nand Kumar/PTI

A billboard installed by the authorities displaying pictures, names and addresses of people accused of vandalism during protests in December against the CAA, in Lucknow on March 9. Photo: AFP

A protest against the CAA and the NRC near the Ghantaghar in Lucknow on January 20. Photo: PTI

The Yogi Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh has resorted to naming and shaming activists in the State in order to further its plan to delegitimise dissent.

In a blatant display of oppressive state propaganda, the Yogi Adityanath-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Uttar Pradesh has put up 100 posters at busy intersections in the capital Lucknow which contain the photographs and addresses of 60 people who were served recovery notices for allegedly indulging in violence during the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protests. They include civil society activists and members of the Muslim community; many of them had nothing to do with the protests, which the government cites as the provocation for its extralegal move. In fact, the protests came up spontaneously in different parts of the country, including Uttar Pradesh, in December last year in the wake of the CAA. In the police excesses that followed, the State witnessed the detention of 1,640 persons, including minors, and the registration of 450 cases, 27 of these under the Gangster Act.

Rajeev Yadav of Rihai Manch, which has collated data on police excesses, stated that at least 23 people had been killed in these incidents. Samajwadi Party (S.P.) president and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav also asserted that almost all the deaths were from police bullets and that by putting up these posters, the Uttar Pradesh administration and the police had demonised the very victims of violence.

The posters played a role in defining the “enemy of the State” as a “Muslim” or anyone who opposed the government’s policies. It further sought to implant this “enemy of the State” impression in the minds of the public which would pass them daily on the streets, on their way to work or school. This fulfilled the dual purpose of strengthening the mobilisation of hatred against the “enemy” by the many Hindutva-oriented outfits of the Sangh Parivar on the one hand and the setting up of a public mechanism to intimidate those opposing the CAA on the other. The chain impact of all this, argued many activists of the Sangh Parivar, would also influence many with anti-CAA positions to withdraw their support to the protesters for fear of getting penalised and humiliated like them.

Extralegal move

The blatant extralegal nature of this government operation was highlighted at various levels from Day One. Several legal experts, politicians and former bureaucrats pointed out that there was no law or rule in Indian criminal procedures or State laws supporting this kind of action. The momentum of this debate resulted in the suo motu cognisance of the matter by the Allahabad High Court.

On March 8, Chief Justice Govind Mathur and Justice Ramesh Sinha convened a special hearing and ordered the Yogi Adityanath government to take the posters down. But the State government persisted with its plans and refused to comply with the court order. It not only appealed against the High Court dictum in the Supreme Court but also issued an ordinance invoking the Gangster Act against those who were portrayed in the posters.

Sources in the State bureaucracy revealed that several plans were frenetically being advanced to overcome the High Court order immediately after it came out. The Gangster Act was finally identified as the most potent instrument. However, doubts still persist in the bureaucracy whether this move would stand up to legal scrutiny. Indications are that the Chief Minister has personally directed the Legal and Home departments to continue efforts to rustle up a proper legal defence for its adventurist exercise.

Even as these efforts are on, the ordeal of those named and shamed in the posters continues. By prominently exhibiting the details of these individuals, the government has not only painted them as criminals but also exposed them to danger. Hindutva vigilantes and desperadoes among them could well take the government exercise as a signal to take the law into their own hands and “punish” those seen in the posters. On one poster, under Hazratganj thana, those showcased include activist Sadaf Jafar, retired Indian Police Service officer S.R. Darapuri, Shia cleric Maulana Saif Abbas, human rights defender Mohammed Shoaib, theatre personality Deepak Kabir and several ordinary Muslim men. The State claims Rs.64, 37, 637 collectively as damages from 28 of them.

In Muzaffarnagar, notices were sent to 53 Muslims for a recovery of Rs.23.41 lakh. “When a person is social or political, they find the courage to fight injustice. But these are ordinary non-political people and are easily scared,” Usman Ahmad of the Rashtriya Lok Dal told Frontline. Apparently, on December 20, 2019, a day of Jumma, or Friday, prayer, the Muslims of Meenakshi Chowk, a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood, had gathered for prayers. It was only after BJP Member of Parliament Sanjeev Balyan visited the local police station and demanded action that the police targeted the area and blamed its people for rioting.

“Actually, the administration is wary of pursuing the cases as they know they are without any substance and they were asking people to sign notes stating they were not involved in the violence,” said an activist, on condition of anonymity.

In Lucknow, 15 boys were picked up from Parivartan Chowk, which is close to a protest site, while they were sleeping at night. They were brutally beaten up in police custody. They were daily-wage labourers working in eateries around the area. Some of them, who hailed from Assam and West Bengal, were branded as Bangladeshis by the administration, thereby justifying their arrest. It is to be noted that Bangladeshi Muslims were being designated as “enemies of the state” under the right-wing regime.

By generalising false claims about the entire Muslim community—that its members destroyed public property, were troublemakers or anti-nationals—the Yogi Adityanath government is trying to exploit pre-existing biases against the minority and further entrench the hatred against them. This trope is not very different from what was done in Germany under Hitler.

Generalising false claims

In fact, posters were the Nazis’ favourite mode of hate propaganda. Posters across Germany depicted Adolf Hitler as an angelic hero and Jews as ugly and reprehensible, which became a precursor to the Final Solution. In a similar pattern, in India, too, the Hindu Rashtra is glorified, and its leaders like Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath are provided cult status while Muslims and their supporters are systematically demonised. These posters are part of the propaganda that extends from rewriting school textbooks to producing films that promoted stereotypes.

Narrating her ordeal once she was arrested, Sadaf Jafar said she felt like a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. She was picked up while making a video of the police turning a blind eye to Sangh Parivar rioters. Thereafter, she was slapped, abused with communal slurs and kicked in the abdomen by a policeman. “It almost felt as if they wanted to kick the womb that begets Muslim children,” she told Frontline. The doctors at the hospital made communal remarks, ignored her bruises and sent her back to custody after alleging that she was doing natak (drama) of feigning illness so she could lie down in the comfort of a hospital.

Sadaf Jafar is known in her family circle as someone who will, no matter the time or place, pick up accident victims and transport them to hospital for treatment. She said it did not matter to the current dispensation whether she was a practising Muslim or not, it simply connected her with her immediate identity of being a Muslim. “I am everything that Yogi and his kind detest. I am a Muslim, a woman, a firm believer in the Constitution and the rule of law and ask uncomfortable questions to the government. They simply cannot tolerate this combination,” she said. She was released on bail after nearly 20 days as the police could not bring anything against her in a court. She said she would challenge the allegations against her in every legal avenue available and not get intimidated by the scare tactics.

S.R. Darapuri, also named in the posters, was picked up by the Uttar Pradesh police on December 20 while he was still under house arrest after he posted on Facebook a photograph of himself holding a placard “Save Citizenship” outside his house.

“At 11 in the morning, the police called me down and took me to a thana. But the arrest was shown from some other place at 7 in the evening. My detention was totally illegal. They said they had arrested 39 people and I was the 40th. They did not give me food or a blanket, and didn’t let me call a lawyer or record my statement. The magistrate also did not listen to me and sent me to 14 days’ judicial custody. Apart from Mohammed Shoaib, who is an advocate, and I, everybody else there was badly beaten. The Muslims were beaten twice. Many of them were picked up randomly from shops, restaurants, streets and homes. The RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] cadre, who were the actual rioters, were all released once somebody called from the BJP office. I saw first-hand the shocking communalisation of the police that has taken place,” he told Frontline. Under the Yogi Adityanath government there was an open communal and autocratic culture that had come to the fore, he added. He was being targeted for raising his voice against fake encounters in the State, which ran into thousands, he said.

“They have nothing [to prove] against me. I have not given a call for any protest. There is nothing on my social media handles wherein I have instigated agitators. In fact, my post condemned the violence of December 19. I was not named in the FIR [first information report] or first statement of the complainant. My name was added subsequently. It is a well-planned operation to terrorise and dishonour me and to shut my mouth as a human rights activist. I am an eyesore for some policemen. I am the vice president of the PUCL [People’s Union for Civil Liberties] in Uttar Pradesh, which had filed a PIL [public interest litigation] petition in the Supreme Court in 2018 asking for an SIT [special investigation team] to be constituted to probe the encounters,” he said.

Police persecution

Police persecution in Uttar Pradesh has become an ongoing and permanent ritual in the past few months as people, especially Muslims, are randomly picked up on a daily basis. For instance, the police detained two people who had come to deliver food to the women sitting on the Ghanta Ghar protest site in Lucknow and took the car in which they came. When the women asked the police what their fault was, they were told to stop videorecording the detention.

Countering these posters, the Congress and the S.P. also put up posters of BJP legislators and Ministers charged with grievous offences, amongst them rape accused Kuldeep Sengar, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, Keshav Prasad Maurya, Radha Mohan Das Agarwal, Muzaffarnagar riots-accused Sangeet Som, Sanjeev Balyan, Umesh Malik, Suresh Rana and Sadhvi Pragya. They asked when a recovery would be made from these people. Congress workers Ashwani Yadav and Sudhanshu Bajpai were arrested for this and reportedly beaten up in custody.

Justifying the harsh measure, the Chief Minister said in the State Assembly that these individuals were more dangerous than the corona virus, which was causing a pandemic across the globe. Talking to Frontline, Sadaf Jafar asked whether by making such statements the Chief Minister intended to throw them to the wolves.

“We are sitting on a ticking time bomb,” she said. By mentioning their addresses all over the city, the state had exposed their family members to the risk of being attacked. Questioning the justification for such an act, Sadaf Jafar asked whether the Mumbai terror attack convict Ajmal Kasab’s parents, too, had been killed for his crime.

To the activists, given the political climate of the country and the spate of mob lynchings which has gone on with impunity ever since the BJP came to power, the risk of being lynched is very real. Student activists Umar Khalid and Kanhaiya Kumar barely managed to escape murderous attacks on them after a section of the television media branded them enemies of the state. In such cases, the regime need not send an assassin, but all the recipients of the media message become potential assassins, doing the bidding of the state. These were not empty polemics but that which enraged the masses against a community and specific individuals and in the end justified whatever befell them, including arrests, murders and lynchings. The hate propaganda was turning India into an aggressive polity with violence as the norm in a way that the authorities could never be held responsible for them, they said.

According to the procedure in law, a crime has to be proven before any punitive measures can be taken. “We are not convicted yet, only accused. First prove our crime, otherwise how is it that you are penalising us?” Sadaf Jafar asked.

On March 8, a Sunday, a bench of the Allahabad High Court comprising Chief Justice Govind Mathur and Justice Ramesh Sinha convened a special hearing and took suo motu cognisance of the posters and ordered the Yogi Adityanath government to take them down. It said that the state action was an “unwarranted interference in privacy of people” and violated Article 21 of the Constitution. The Uttar Pradesh government challenged this order in the Supreme Court. On March 12, a vacation bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justices U.U. Lalit and Aniruddha Bose told the State government that action should be taken against the rioters but as of now there was no law that backed such state action. They did not stay the High Court order but referred the matter to a larger Supreme Court bench.

The ordinance route

The very next day, the Uttar Pradesh Cabinet approved the Uttar Pradesh Recovery of Damage to Public Properties Ordinance, 2020, which sanctioned such state action. Section 19(2) of the ordinance states: “As soon as the order of recovery for damage has been passed the property of the respondent to be attached, the authorities shall be directed to publish the name, address along with photograph with a warning for public at large not to purchase property attached.” According to the ordinance, a claims tribunal will be set up and its decision will be final, which cannot be challenged in any court.

However, the ordinance itself was challenged through a PIL petition in the Allahabad High Court. According to Darapuri, the ordinance cannot be applied to their case with retrospective effect and they would challenge it in a court of law. Meanwhile, given the pending hearing in the Supreme Court, the Allahabad High Court extended the time given to the Uttar Pradesh government to file a compliance report on April 10.

It is an illegal process in its entirety, said Rajeev Yadav. So far, with the exception of a cheque for Rs.5 lakh that community members had handed over to the authorities in Bulandshahr, no recovery of any property across the State had been initiated, he told Frontline. “Compensation is a state responsibility, they cannot pass it on to individuals. This defies common sense and will not hold when challenged in a court of law. They want to crush the protests against the CAA at any cost,” he said.

Despite repressive measures, the CAA protests across Uttar Pradesh showed no signs of dissipating. The government needed effective ways to curb them and influence the attitudes of people towards the CAA and it hoped the posters would help build consensus around delegitimising dissent.

In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote that to achieve its purpose, propaganda must “be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan. As soon as you sacrifice this slogan and try to be many-sided, the effect will piddle away.” The Sangh Parivar has already penetrated most of the Indian media, commands the digital media space, controls and spreads disinformation via social media platforms and effectively uses mass media such as WhatsApp and TikTok. The posters are one more medium that simplifies its task in the propaganda machinery.

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