ABRAR A MATTOO
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is trying to make the most out of the Covid-19 crisis. The propaganda machinery of the party is using every media possible to bolster the image of Narendra Modi. He is portrayed as the saviour of the nation and protector of human life. He seems to be recovering from the setback of the nation-wide protests against CAA and NRC. The chinks that had developed in his armour due to incompetent governance are being sealed rigorously. The Hindutva agenda has somewhat lost its charm, though there are attempts to paint the pandemic in communal colours, but the backlash from especially foreign countries has kept these attempts in check.
The Narendra Modi regime fancies itself as ensconced in a top niche where it is utterly adored and no one can dare question it. It regards itself as the ultimate authority, led by the supreme leader, or simply, a humble despot. To secure this supremacy, the time cannot be more opportune than this. Covid-19 has opened a window of opportunity through which Modi can appear as the nation’s darling.
The slightest dissent at this time, therefore, is intolerable. The recent wave of arrests and FIRs that have covered such a wide range as Jamia students Meeran Haider and Safoora Zargar, JNU student leader Umar Khalid, Kashmiri journalists Masrat Zahra and Gowhar Geelani, public intellectuals Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha, suggest that a witch-hunt is on. The arrests are sufficient hint of a renewed clampdown on dissenting voices. They are a warning to the whole shebang of dissenters: left-leaning intellectuals, human rights activists, filmmakers, professors, students, journalists, lawyers, the minority communities. They must fear the new-gained nerve of the government. Though it is impossible to put all left-leaning liberals behind bars, a few arrests might all that be needed to intimidate them into silence.
While we have all heard the slogan “Nation first”, the Narendra Modi regime seems to be under the mistaken impression that “Power first” and “Nation first” means the same thing. The regime seems to be so obsessed with power that it has forgotten that India requires governance more than ever in these times of crisis. The blatant attacks on dissent are typical of any authoritative regime, which is driven by the urge to appear supreme on all fronts. The Modi regime has notoriously been intolerant of dissent in the past. Though none of the dissenting voices have proven fatal for the Modi government, they are still perceived to be a grave danger.
There was a time when in a span of only a few days, more than forty novelists, playwrights, and poets returned their Sahitya Academy awards in protest against the rising “intolerance” in the country. The Modi government, on its part, has time and again taken recourse to the legacy of the colonial masters: the Sedition law. The prosecution of Dalit leader Chandrashekhar Azad, the JNU sedition case, arrest of Bhima Koregoan activists are some typical examples. Leave aside the thousands who were booked during the nation-wide anti-CAA protests, Nazbunissa and Fareeda Begum were arrested for sedition over a school play. The draconian sedition law has proven to be a major weapon in the government’s arsenal, whether it be to book Kashmiris for using VPN to access internet, or Assamese citizens writing Facebook posts. In 2019, more than 3,300 farmers were charged with sedition for protesting against land acquisition!
The watchdogs of human rights in India have not been spared either. The raids on the offices of Amnesty India on 25 October 2018 by Enforcement Directorate and on 15 November 2019 by Central Bureau of Investigation are ample warning.
The judiciary, meanwhile, has played along like a faithful friend. The nomination of former Chief Justice of India to the Rajya Sabha shows the rot in the judicial system. In India, the very pursuit of justice is a punishment in itself. The judicial process is a Kafkaesque nightmare.
Apart from such legal and Constitutional modes of harassment, there roam on the streets the vigilantes of Hindutva. Their task is to lynch Muslims and Dalits and dispense mob justice. The assault by goons on the Bhima Koregoan gathering in 2017, on JNU students inside the university campus, and on anti-CAA protestors in Delhi are some examples. In the same trend are the assassination of Guari Lankesh and MM Kulbargi in Karnataka. An attempt on the life of Umar Khalid was made in Delhi. Social media has been used to rally the vigilantes and to threaten the dissenters. An online army of trolls descends wherever it spots a spark of dissent.
The fourth estate, the independent press and media, has been so corrupted and crippled that it serves the regime meekly and unquestioningly. Journalists have been booked, arrested, assaulted, intimidated, and killed. Especially in Kashmir, the frequent and prolonged gag on internet serves to repress both the media and social media. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has said that India has the worst record of prosecuting killers of journalists. In the last five years, 198 attacks on journalists were recorded, of which 36 happened in 2019 alone. Forty journalists lost their lives in these 198 attacks.
The fourth pillar of Indian democracy has never been shakier than it is now. Many media houses are owned by corporate groups and many editors have amassed such wealth that they fear uttering a word against the authorities. Another tool in the hands of the government is suspending advertisements, because print media cannot sustain itself without government advertisements. It’s because of such factors that India has tumbled further down in the global press freedom index to the 140th spot among 180 countries.
The writer is a student of journalism at Cluster University Srinagar.