The end of the Black Death pandemic, in the mid-fourteenth century, left Eastern and Western Europe heading in opposite directions. Where shortages of labour contributed to the decline of serfdom in the west, they led in the east to its growth. These contrasting outcomes are explained by politics in economic historian E D Domar’s influential hypothesis (1969), developed by others since. The west being politically fragmented, nobles competed to hire scarce labour, whereas increased centralisation of authority in the east delivered a captive workforce to the elite.
How state power and people’s rights emerge from a crisis reverberates far into the future.
- On December 10, International Human Rights Day, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi led a Hindu ceremony of rituals to lay the foundation stone of a new house of parliament (permitted by the supreme court despite imposing a stay on its construction), protesting farmers at Delhi’s Tikri border displayed pictures of more than 20 political prisoners booked under the UAPA. The Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta-Ugrahan), the largest of the 32 organisations protesting at Delhi’s border, condemned the growing authoritarianism of the government and its unilateral imposition of new farm laws, the same with labour rights and Kashmir. The government and its supporting chorus in the media have gone from casting the protesters as Khalistanis to isolating certain groups in an attempt to drive a wedge between different organisations of farmers. Attempts continue, in parallel, to turn public opinion against them. Union minister Raosaheb Danve even spotted machinations by China and Pakistan, saying the farmers were being “incited” into protest just as the anti-CAA protesters had been earlier. Days previously, Amit Malviya, head of the BJP’s IT cell, became the first person in the country to be flagged by Twitter for posting manipulated images, again in connection with the farmers’ protests. Malviya happens to be among the proponents of the “Khalistani and maoist” links theory.
The protesters were undeterred. “Urban naxal is an excuse to prosecute people,” N K Jeet, a protesting lawyer, told The Indian Express (December 10). “History was made at Shaheen Bagh, and it is an inspiration to us in our fight. We had protested all over Punjab in solidarity with Shaheen Bagh,” said Neelam, a protester at the Singhu border, speaking to Arfa Khanum (The Wire, December 4). The BKU (Ugrahan) asserted on December 11 that the release of jailed activists and intellectuals was part of their charter of demands from the outset and would remain. At a press conference on December 12, the coordination committee of the farmers’ unions called out the government’s attempts to divide them and weaken the ongoing protest.
- The BJP’s overlay of dismal anniversaries on prominent dates becomes dense in this season. As we reported previously, Constitution Day passed amid the beating, water cannoning, tear-gassing and arrest of farmers. Ambedkar’s death anniversary, on December 6, is forever yoked to the destruction of the Babri mosque. His birth anniversary was marked this year by the arrest of Anand Teltumbde, our foremost living scholar of Ambedkar (and the father of his great-granddaughters). Human Rights Day was also the day the CAA cleared the lok sabha last year. It is sometimes spoken of as the first of India’s Nuremberg Laws against Muslims; however, the discredit rightly belongs to the abrogation of Article 370—its first anniversary celebrated lavishly by Modi with the foundation stone-laying ceremony of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. Encoded in the messaging all the way are broad winks, not-so-secret handshakes and piercing dog whistles.
- On December 11, the first anniversary of the CAA’s passage into law, a fresh agitation against it was launched by 18 organisations in Assam. The All Assam Students Union has declared it is time to issue a “rono hungkar” (battle cry). December 12 last year was when Akhil Gogoi became the first victim of the new UAPA. He remains in jail. The hearing of his case at the Gauhati high court on December 8 was stopped due to poor internet connectivity. An artists’ collective who had painted a mural of him alleged on November 19 that they were forced to erase it by the police. Not so, said M P Gupta, commissioner of police, Guwahati. “We advised the artists against damaging public property…[They] must have realised their mistake after our advice and then, removed it themselves.” A likely story. More graffiti and murals for Gogoi’s release flooded the streets the next day, reports Newsclick (November 21). Not just in Guwahati, The Times of India (December 5) adds, but Udalguri as well.
- Anwar of Madhya Pradesh is just one of the unknown number of little-known people detained for months since the anti-CAA protests. Arrested on July 2 for a WhatsApp post where he had written, “You shot bullets in Delhi, we turned all of MP into a Shaheen Bagh,” on November 26 Anwar was granted bail on peculiar terms by the Indore bench of the MP high court. He is to attend monthly counselling with a social worker named by the court, and goes back to prison should this worker write a “disconcerting” report.
- The UP government isn’t done with Kafeel Khan. On December 12, it petitioned the supreme court against the Allahabad high court’s decision of September 1 to quash proceedings against him in a case based on the national security act. The UP government’s case concerns a public speech allegedly given by Khan against the CAA. The petition also mentions that he has a “criminal past”. In an interview given to The Leaflet (December 13), he speaks of the more than 500 days that he spent in jail after being framed by the Adityanath government, how it took the judiciary nine months to realise he had nothing to do with the case, and of judges who kept recusing themselves from hearing the matter. This would not have happened, he adds, if he were a Dr Kafeel Mishra, not Khan: “I have full faith in the judiciary, but there should be measures to […] penalise those authorities who misuse their powers.”
- Asif Iqbal Tanha was granted custody parole by a sessions court in Delhi on November 27, to sit his BA (Hons) Persian supplementary exams, scheduled for December 4, 5 and 7. The state appealed to the high court against this decision. On December 3, the court directed the police to take Tanha to a guest house for the duration of his exams. The state wasn’t a loser, having succeeded in keeping the young man in a state of uncertainty and distraction until the last minute. He is now back in jail, where he has been since May 19.
- P Sainath, writing in The Wire (December 9), calls attention to the fine print of the new farm laws, specifically protection from legal proceedings guaranteed to anyone working at any level of the government, “or anyone else”, in the exercise of their powers under these laws. What this does in effect is to withdraw the right to legal remedies from farmers. The new land laws of Kashmir, introduced on the anniversary of the state’s accession to India in 1948, work in the same manner. Imposed, like the farm laws, without consulting ground-level stakeholders, they make it possible for low-level government functionaries to decide what is or isn’t agricultural land, while creating several avenues for corporate houses to take over both industrial and farm land. Large-scale evictions of gujjar and bakarwal communities from the forests have been reported in the past week.
- In a sinister echo of the Davinder Singh episode from the anti-CAA protests, when the DSP was found escorting militants to Delhi (in a replay of the 2001 attack on parliament), on December 7 the special cell of Delhi police claimed to have foiled a new terror attack by arresting three men from Kashmir and two from Punjab. The Kashmiris are: Shabir Ahmed Gojri, who drives a tipper and makes a pilgrimage every year to Ajmer Sharif, according to his family; Reyaz Ahmed Rather, a youngster on his first trip to Delhi where he had gone to purchase some welding material; and Muhamad Ayoub Pathan, sent to Delhi by his family. The Delhi police claimed there had been an encounter and exchange of gunfire before the arrests. Right-wing media supply the mood music, playing up information from “intelligence sources” to insinuate that the farmers’ movement has been “infiltrated” by anti-national forces.
- Staying with Kashmir, Akash Hassan’s article in The Intercept (December 6) details the continuing harassment of journalists in the region, with repeated summons to Cargo (an infamous site associated with torture), the beatings, abuse, surveillance, seizure of phones and electronic data, threats of UAPA charges, the filing of police complaints against more than 200 users of social media platforms since August this year: “At times I write a long post and at the end, I delete it and cry. My phone haunts me,” says Ahmed, a journalist. The Wire (December 12) covers the story of three journalists in Kashmir attacked physically and on social media by Sandeep Chaudhary, an IPS officer with a past record of misbehaving with journalists.
- On December 4, Stan Swamy received a straw, sipper and warm clothes, an event hailed by Sabrang as “an early Christmas miracle”. An excellent article in The Shillong Times (December 5) details Swamy’s career as an activist, his efforts to bring the adivasi communities of Jharkhand under the protection of the Fifth Schedule, for the implementation of the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, and of the supreme court’s Samatha judgement.
- On December 3 (incidentally, International Day for Persons with Disabilities), Sahba Husain sent a new pair of spectacles to Gautam Navlakha at the Taloja jail. His spectacles were stolen on November 27 but she did not learn of this till three days later, as he was made to wait his turn to speak to her on the phone. With the same casual cruelty, jail authorities refused delivery of the new glasses, a fact she discovered whilst tracking the package on December 7. Husain revealed to The Quint that she had earlier sent him slippers when the straps on his gave way, and clothes; all these packages were also returned. Nearly blind without his glasses and under acute stress, Navlakha’s blood pressure shot up. Hearing a case filed on behalf of Ramesh Gaichor and Sagar Gorkhe, on December 8 the Bombay high court slammed the authorities at the Taloja jail, saying it was “high time to conduct workshops” for them and that the bench “held humanity to be of the utmost importance” everything else being subsequent.
A minor point, perhaps: we are speaking here of people who have been held in failing health as captives of the state for months and years, and who still await the start of judicial proceedings in the case against them. Gorkhe and Gaichor’s petition, argued by Mihir Desai, states that the Pune NIA court has jurisdiction in their case, not the one in Mumbai, and that the Mumbai sessions court failed to take cognisance of their claim to being coerced to name specific people during their interrogation. The NIA’s lawyer sought time to make his submission and the hearing was adjourned to December 21.
- On December 15 is the next hearing of Varavara Rao’s bail application. Priya Ramani reported (December 9) that he is beginning to write poems again. Since the court allowed each family member 15 minutes with him, 15 of them are taking it in turns to spend time at his bedside. Away from the cruel neglect at Taloja jail, his spirits are reviving. (Also watch this short video from Karwan e Mohabbat, December 9.) Ramani writes of Khalid Saifi, the businessman under arrest since June 8, whose seven-year-old daughter Mariam, usually “a princess”, burst into tears on her birthday this year and would not be consoled. And of Sudha Bharadwaj, who was once offered the position of judge in the Chhattisgarh high court but is now in jail, booked under 10 sections of the IPC and USPA.
- An application for 45-day parole to G N Saibaba was rejected for a second time, the rejection letter served in Marathi to his spouse, Vasantha Kumari. Saibaba remains weak from his 10-day protest fast of early November, which has left him with a stomach ailment and blood in his stool. The jail authorities promised to give him IV support for three days, says Vasantha Kumari, but he received only one bottle two days after ending his fast.