Among the terrible legacies of the Narendra Modi government’s first two years are its double standards in weighing evidence against activists, students and others opposed to its points of view.
NOW that we have had two years of the Narendra Modi government, it is only natural to look back at what has changed. So we are being treated to numerous assessments of the performance thus far, which obviously vary according to the political and other predilections of the assessors.
On the economic front, whichever way you slice it, it is clear that very little has changed for the better. Investment rates are still down, unemployment has increased and rural real wages are falling, and material insecurities of important groups such as farmers and informal workers are actually increasing. In response to this, critics are being told that the government “needs more time”. But improvement on these indicators would require a change of economic policy direction, which seems unlikely. The itinerant Prime Minister makes much of the relatively high national income growth rate in India, but takes little note of the fact that this is translating into even less “trickle down” than the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government could manage. The majority of the population facing worsening conditions can only wonder at these remarkable gross domestic product (GDP) numbers.
Meanwhile, there is disarray in the social sectors, with declines in Central government spending creating havoc in many of the “flagship” programmes of the previous government. As these programmes have been downplayed and starved of funds, State governments have been scrambling, often unsuccessfully, simply to maintain past levels of expenditure, with no question of providing much-needed funds for nutrition, health, education. The MGNREGA is legally a demand-driven scheme whose expenditure cannot be capped, but there has been a constant fight for its funds at every level, with Chief Ministers writing letters to the Central Ministry concerned demanding funds, and even the Supreme Court having to step in to force the Centre to pay the previous year’s dues. Surprisingly, the much-vaunted new initiatives of the government, such as the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and the Make in India and Smart Cities programmes, have also been given this miserly treatment—characterised by more publicity than true action and inadequate public funds to make a real difference.
In terms of the effects of this government on civil society, there is much room for disquiet if not anguish. It is evident that unpleasant, divisive and dangerous social tendencies have flourished and grown, encouraged by the action, both implicit and explicit, and inaction of the ruling party at the Centre and the members of its various fraternal organisations in the Sangh Parivar. It is now open season for vigilante violence and intimidation of the most appalling kind, to punish people suspected of carrying or keeping beef, attack young women for what the beholder feels is inappropriate dressing or unacceptably flamboyant behaviour, write or forward pieces that are disagreed with, and so on. The open or tacit encouragement (not to say involvement) of these appalling events by important members of the Sangh Parivar has been made worse by the studied silence of those who matter at the top, who tend to be so garrulous on less important matters.
Targeting institutions & individualsBut one aspect that has got less public attention, though its consequences may be just as damaging for the future, is how the Central government has chosen to play with institutions, rules and procedures for its partisan ends. It is not just that the ruling party has sought to settle political scores and suppress dissent —that is a common practice in India, unfortunately. It is also how easily the institutions themselves and the people who operate in them have allowed themselves to be swayed and bent in ways that are bound to reduce public trust. This in turn can lead to alienation and distrust among the people, which will be hard to overcome not just for this government but for all future governments and democratic structures.
This is brought out clearly in two recent cases of contrasting nature, in which arms of the state that affect ordinary people in various ways were used.
The first relates to the use of the immigration counters at airports to prevent movement of those who have been criticising the actions of the state. Last year, the Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai was prevented from boarding a flight to London to speak at the United Kingdom’s Parliament on the human rights and environmental concerns relating to the actions of mining companies in Odisha and elsewhere. The Central government persisted with its tough line on this, arguing that any criticism of investment in India was “anti-national” and even persecuting Greenpeace in various ways to prevent its functioning. It took a Delhi High Court judgment to reverse the ban on Priya’s foreign travel, with the court pointing out to the government that it could not suppress dissent in this undemocratic manner and ordering that her name be removed from all such watch lists. (Incidentally, Rajiv Shakdher, the judge who gave this ruling, has since been transferred to the Madras High Court, a move that is bound to raise both questions and eyebrows.)
Undeterred by such censure, the government meted out similar treatment to Gladson Dungdung, the tribal rights activist and general secretary of the Jharkhand Human Rights Movement. He was offloaded from a flight to the U.K. where he was to speak at a seminar at the University of Sussex on environmental justice. Once again, this activity was deemed “anti-national” and it was falsely claimed that his passport had to be impounded. (Indeed, his passport had been revoked a few years earlier and reinstated subsequently as the government had no valid legal case for impounding it.)
Contrast the experience of these people, whose only crime has been to fight for the rights of citizens as recognised by the Constitution, with the experience of liquor/luxury travel baron Vijay Mallya. He was able to leave the country several days after it was known that the public sector banks would seek repayment of thousands of crores of loans he had defaulted on, and also well after the Enforcement Directorate had issued notices to him.
The machinery that is so prompt and effective in oppressing ordinary citizens and preventing their travel apparently does not have the software and database at immigration counters to track a big fish like Mallya. It was obvious to everyone that Mallya was allowed to go and that all the angry noises made publicly thereafter were just an attempt to hoodwink the nation. The subsequent half-hearted attempts to ensure his return are rightly being seen cynically by the Indian people, as the record of U.K.’s approvals of Indian requests for extradition is dismal and it is unlikely that the government can secure his return without a settlement in which he states his conditions.
That the Home Ministry has become an arm of the ruling party and extreme elements within it is evident in another set of contrasting experiences. In February this year, some students of Jawaharlal Nehru University, where I teach, were targeted by the media and by the state on the basis of what are known to be doctored and morphed videos that purported to be showing them shouting “anti-national” slogans. These were played repeatedly on several national news channels, accompanied by incendiary commentary, to the point that public outrage was created against the students and the university. Three students were jailed and arrest warrants were issued against several others. One student was badly beaten up inside the court premises on two occasions as police watched; faculty and students inside the courtroom were also threatened, pushed and physically attacked. Thereafter, some of these students have received death threats and other students have been thrown out of rented accommodation and insulted in public places.
All this continuing violence is based on evidence that is now known to be doctored by mischievously and maliciously altering and editing audio and video tracks so as to make some students appear guilty. Never mind that the offence itself—shouting slogans against the state—has never been found to be seditious in the courts of India. The point is that the students so accused were not actually guilty of even that. Yet, those who doctored those videos (which was apparently a very sophisticated job, requiring high-tech laboratory facilities) and those who knowingly displayed those videos in an incendiary manner were actually guilty of multiple crimes under the Indian Penal Code.
Yet, the Government of India has not bothered to ask a single question about this issue of making and then showing clearly false videos, and even the media have downplayed the case that has been lodged against two news channels in this regard by the Delhi government. Why has the Central government been so unwilling to recognise, much less take action, against such clearly criminal behaviour by those who manipulated this videographic “evidence”? Perhaps because the Home Minister himself eagerly took up the issue immediately to declare the students guilty and even accused them of having links with Hafiz Saeed! Yet, ignoring this has grave consequences for the future, which can come back to this government and the ruling party as well.
By contrast, no such lassitude has been displayed in the case of the journalist Pushp Sharma. He had written an article in Milli Gazette, quoting a reply to a Right to Information query, which suggested that despite getting Muslim applicants for the job of yoga instructors, no Muslims had been hired “as per government policy”.
It is now argued that this RTI reply is a forged one and on that basis Pushp Sharma has been arrested. This is despite the fact that this “forgery” has not been probed and that the basic question of whether Muslim yoga instructors have been actually hired or not is easy to prove or disprove. The article is unquestionably embarrassing for the government, but to claim, as the Delhi Police (who are under the Central Home Ministry) has done, that this article is aimed at “spreading communal hatred” is both bizarre and unfair. Clearly, the writer’s attempt was to point to such communal discrimination on the part of the government.
So the government is arresting some who seek to bring out possible injustice by arguing that the evidence is forged and jailing others who are not guilty of anything on the basis of forged evidence, and ignoring all the pointers to that particular forgery. These contradictions would be amusing if they did not have such terrible effects. But among the terrible legacies of this government’s first two years, these blatant double standards will also have negative repercussions.http://www.frontline.in/columns/Jayati_Ghosh/tales-of-contrast/article8644648.ece