On the sidelines of the G-7 summit in Germany recently, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi struck a chord with the liberal world by selling the country’s democratic values and recalling the dark emergency days of 1975, when then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had trampled the rights of citizens. He described the period of emergency that lasted for over 21 months, as a black spot in the vibrant history of India’s democracy.
But by contrast to the positions he expressed at the summit, coinciding with these pronouncements, political hate in his country broke new grounds with the arrest of noted civil rights activist Teesta Setalvad and fact-checker Muhammad Zubair. Ironically, Zubair was not arrested for spreading rumours, but for spreading facts.
On June 24, the Supreme Court of India dismissed the petition filed by Zakia Jafri, who had been fighting to get justice for her late husband Ehsan Jafri. Ehsan Jafri, who was a Member of Parliament from Gujarat was amongst the 68 people who were killed at Gulberg Society when communal riots broke out in Gujarat in 2002. Zakia in the Supreme Court had challenged the clean chit given by the Special Investigation Team (SIT) to then Chief Minister Modi and 63 others for their role during the Gujarat riots. The court dismissed Jafri’s petition terming it as “devoid of merits” and passed strictures on activist Setalvad.
Anyway, it was a forgone conclusion that the court will hardly give assent to any such petition seeking filing of the case against the serving prime minister. In India, there has been a convention not to oblige any petitions against the serving prime minister in a clear division of labour and to allow the prime minister to work without any fear and pressure.
Modi’s critic Setalvad Sreekumar arrested
A day later, Gujarat Police filed an FIR against human rights activist Setalvad, who has been fighting for justice for the victims of the Gujarat riots. Coincidently it was during the same time when Home Minister Amit Shah gave an interview to news agency ANI, in which he alleged that Setalvad and her NGO had been spreading a false narrative against Modi and the BJP and had kept the communal pot boiling to tarnish Modi’s image globally.
In less than 24 hours, police read the 453-page judgement and its anti-Terrorism Squad travelled from Gujarat to Mumbai to arrest Setalvad. Gujarat’s former Director-General of Police RB Sreekumar, who is also a staunch critic of Modi, was also arrested.
Setalvad was punished because she was fighting for justice. “The judgement is like a bolt of the Indian judiciary, where the person who is seeking justice is being punished,” said human rights activist Shabnam Hashmi. Hashmi also said that the judiciary which was the only institution where one could go and seek relief has also been compromised.
India – a flawed democracy or semi fascist state?
The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in its Democratic Index global ranking has put India in 46th position and has put India under the category of “flawed democracy.”
“The Indian government’s failure to crack down on the persecution of religious and other minorities by Hindu nationalists continues to weigh on the country’s democracy score, which has declined significantly in recent years, “as per the EIUs 2021 Democracy Index.
“The world might be looking at us as a flawed democracy, but the reality is that we have become a semi-fascist state,” added Hashmi.
The activist also added that the Emergency was probably a better situation than what it is today. “Then (in 1975) people knew that Emergency is in place and they stood united against it. But now people are supporting the narrative that is being built,” she told TFT–NayaDaur.
Setalvad is the latest entry to this list, which has been getting longer post-2014 and comprises tribal rights and peace activists, environment activists and students who have been critical of the government and its policies – from octogenarian Father Stan Swamy who died in jail to student activist Umar Khalid who has been waiting for bail for the past one and half years. The list also has several journalists who have faced the axe and some continue to languish behind bars for doing their jobs.
Nupur Sharma enjoys political immunity, while Zubair in police custody
Ironically, while the fact-checker Zubair has been booked and is in police custody, BJP’s former spokesperson Nupur Sharma, who has been booked for similar charges, is yet to record her statement in front of the police. In May, Sharma made offensive remarks against the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), which had not only hurt the religious sentiments of the Muslims across the world, but had also brought diplomatic embarrassment to India, forcing the Indian government to tell the Islamic countries that this official spokesperson was just a fringe political element.
Such has been the mockery of the law-and-order situation that retired Supreme Court judge, Justice Deepak Gupta also raised questions on the role of the police. In an interview with a website, Mishra said, “If she (Nupur Sharma) could say that which had a much bigger propensity to incite violence, but she is not arrested and Zubair is. Then some questions do arise on the fairness of the police.”
The arrest of Zubair is another feather on this government’s hat that has been pushing the journalists to the wall. Anyone who asks difficult questions to the government and questions its style of working faces the brunt and Zubair is the recent entry to the list.
“Anyone who can expose the government and comes in the way of its agenda of polarisation is beyond the tolerance. Zubair is the recent entry and his arrest is a message for others,” said a senior journalist.
Earlier this week seven Delhi-based media associations including Press Club of India, Editors Guild of India, Press Association, Indian Women’s Press Corps, Delhi Union of Journalists, Digipub News India Foundation and the Working News Cameramen’s Association passed a resolution against Zubair’s arrest and reminded Modi about the G-7 resolution on freedom of speech which Modi had signed on to in Germany a fortnight ago.
As the government continues to target media and civil society, the masses including opposition parties remain mere spectators, giving the ruling party enough space to continue with its atrocities and keep the masses diverted from larger issues.
“Modi began with a combination of promise of inclusive development and intense cultural nationalism. He assumed both of them would go together to provide a sustainable model of majoritarian politics.
However, it is now beyond doubt that aggressive nationalism and anti-minority related violence hampers the economy beyond repair. Communalism is now more of a compulsion than an ideological position of the current regime. Creating everyday theatrics around militant imageries of Muslims is the only thing the regime is able to think of as a way of dealing with economic crisis” said Dr Ajay Gudavarthy of the Center for Political Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.
“Modi`s way of addressing the crisis is silence. He wishes to come across as above the everyday bickering and project himself as the moral anchor of the society. It is as part of this that he plans his frequent trips abroad and also offers his rather generous hugs to global leaders, including those from the Middle East and the Arab world,” he added.