Negotiating an Undeclared Emergency
Last month, Hyderabad police registered a case against Prof. Kancha Ilaiah for writing an article in a Telugu daily titled ‘Is God not a democrat?’. The article questioned inequality in society and discussed the concept of god. For doing so the professor was reproached for insulting the sentiments of a community, and charged for promoting enmity between different religious groups under section 153 (A) and 295 (A) of the Indian Penal Code.
This is one example among hundreds of incidents that take place in different parts of the country, revealing the absurdity of how laws in India are interpreted and applied to target an individual or civil society organization (CSO) with dissimilar views on an issue or advocate a different narrative of history and society.
Last week, Prof. Mahesh Chandra, Guru of Mysore University, was charged for insulting Prime Minister Modi, Human Resource Development Minister, Smriti Irani and god Rama on two different occasions. The professor was arrested when he appeared before a Mysore District Court in the second case when his bail application was rejected and he was sent to jail (Hindustan Times, 21 June, 2016).
Though previous governments have not been admirers of civil liberties in any ways, the present administration seems to have a condescending view of them. According to US-based democracy & advocacy group, Freedom House’s 2015 report, at least 18 people were arrested and questioned for anti-Modi posts on forums such as Twitter and Facebook after the 2014 elections.
Arundhati Roy has rightly said that one is unable to say things that Dr. Ambedkar could say in 1936 as one risks being put into jail (Janta ka reporter, 31 May 2016). It is apparent that there is an atmosphere of fear where journalists, writers, artists, and intellectuals feel defenseless and dispensable, engaging in what Human Rights Watch terms ‘self-censorship’ (Human Rights Watch Report release press statement, 24 May, 2016).
At the same time, the government is not secretive about its resolve to suffocate and persecute the CSOs that oppose its ideology, policies or actions. The suspension and cancellation of licenses of Sabrang Trust and Lawyers Collective to receive foreign funding is in line with the series of actions against those CSOs that the government considers opposed to it. Earlier, organizations like INSAF, People’s Watch and Greenpeace have also experienced similar actions based on deliberate misinterpretation of vague terms such as ‘political activity’ and ‘public interest’ under the Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act, 2010.
It is ironic that while the Prime Minister goes around the world soliciting foreign funding for the country’s economic development, his Home Ministry ensures that select CSOs are prevented from receiving foreign funding which play a critical role in assisting millions of Indians to pursue their legal, cultural and social development. Besides, as the UN repertoire on human rights noted, the ability to access foreign funding is vital to human rights work and is an integral part of the right to freedom of association (The Wire, 17 June 2016).
Apart from a direct attack on individuals and organizations, a more sinister ‘hunt’ or social movement for conformity by coercion is in operation under the broad banner of Hindutava with scores of its regional organizational varieties mushrooming in the country. The Hindu right organizations are using what the peace activist Scilla Elworthy describes as political and physical violence to intimidate, and emotional and mental violence to undermine. Members of such organizations have allegedly killed writers and intellectuals such as Dr Dabholkar, Dr Panasare and Prof Kalburgi for holding views on religion that displeased certain Hindu fanatics (The Indian Express, 22 June 2016).
The present administration has forced the withdrawal of some history books (Wendy Doniger’s, The Hindus: An Alternative History) and is busy rewriting history in other parts where it can (Christophe Jaffrelot, The Indian Express, 7 June 2016). Meanwhile, a process to saffronise education is underway, as indicated by the Union Minister of Education’s veiled statement that saffronisation of education would take place as it is good for the country (The Indian Express, 20 June, 2016). It is a blinkered understanding of contemporary history and politics; talibanisation and islamisation of education in Afghanistan and Pakistan have not done any good to those countries.
The challenge before civil society today is to confront this saffron mindset which is attempting to replace the secular values embedded in Indian history, culture and constitution. This might be easier when there are alliances across movements and groups, and experiences of constructive and non-violent methods to assert democratic rights are shared by engaging with and organizing people through education. In the words of investigative journalist Will Potter, like sunlight education is an activist’s best weapon. (Will Potter, Ted.com).
Pushkar Raj is a Melbourne based writer. Earlier he taught political science in Delhi University and was the National General Secretary of People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). @pushkarraaj
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