The Prime Minister inadvertently confirmed last week that if his government appears to be scared of its own shadow, the paranoia comes from him. He made two speeches in Parliament and in both he held forth against ‘professional protesters’ and said that the ‘pure’ protest of the farmers was being polluted by the appearance of this kind of ‘parasite’. In his Rajya Sabha speech he sneered at what he described as a new kind of FDI. He said this acronym now means Foreign Destructive Ideology.
His paranoia has left me puzzled. I began my career in Indian journalism when Indira Gandhi was prime minister. And can confirm that even in the Emergency, when she suspended democracy and fundamental rights, she was not as powerful as Narendra Modi is today. She became deeply unpopular and despite jailing more than 100,000 people continued to face protests from political parties who carried on their work by going underground. Most newspapers accepted censorship with shameful servility. But the ones that did not, like this one, continued to challenge her through the period of censorship. When her son, Sanjay, began his campaigns to compulsorily sterilise men, and to make poverty disappear from sight by throwing people living in Delhi slums outside the city’s boundaries, ordinary people began to protest publicly. In villages in Haryana, women took to thrashing officials who came to sterilise their men. When the election came in 1977, Mrs Gandhi and her son failed to win their own seats.
Today, the situation could not be more different. A recent poll in India Today says that the Prime Minister is as popular as he has ever been and would win a full majority for his party if an election was held. Most people polled said they were perfectly happy with the way in which he has handled the pandemic and the economy. He faces no threat from the Opposition, either in Parliament or in the streets, and the media is more docile than ever with our most powerful TV channels and Hindi newspapers openly on his side. What is he afraid of?
Why do we see this attack on social media platforms and digital news portals? Last week, a diminutive digital platform called NewsClick was raided by the Enforcement Directorate, making it more famous than it was before. And, Twitter has been reprimanded publicly for not taking down all the accounts that the Government of India ordered it to. There has been a huge jump in the past year in the complaints filed by the Indian Government against Twitter, and the Law Minister has issued a stern warning. ‘Don’t spread hatred, violence, fake news… follow the Indian Constitution and laws, we will be very strict about this.’
The attacks on people who have come to be known as ‘urban Naxals’ began much earlier. They have been rotting in jails for years and now we learn from an American digital forensic company that the ‘evidence’ that sent Rona Wilson to jail was malware planted in his computer just before he was arrested. Some of these ‘urban Naxals’ are in their eighties and have been in jail for months on charges that seem vague and dodgy. The good news that came last week was that comedian Munawar Faruqui has been released on bail after an intervention by the Supreme Court. But, he spent six weeks in jail for jokes that he had not yet cracked. He was arrested at the behest of the son of a BJP leader and his story has brought the Modi government some really bad international publicity.
When the Prime Minister himself is paranoid it stands to reason that his ministers and supporters will go further to launch their own campaigns to ferret out ‘anti-nationals’ and ‘urban Naxals’. This has been going on for a while. It began with the attacks on JNU students and then on Muslims who protested against the changes in the citizenship law. But the outrage is selective. During the Delhi elections last year, one of Modi’s ministers riled up a public rally by getting his audience to chant with him that ‘traitors to India’ should be shot. He has not so far been charged with incitement to violence or spreading hate.
When a government shows signs of paranoia, it has dangerous consequences. We are beginning to see this happen. Political activists are tossed into jail these days under stringent preventive detention laws and recently we saw journalists and an MP charged with ‘sedition’. What is going on? Does the Prime Minister truly believe that the only way he can govern India is by crushing all dissent under the jackboot? Does he not see that if Twitter is to be reprimanded for allowing offensive tweets, the first accounts that it should close are those that belong to people ‘proud to be followed’ by him. He only needs to check some of the tweets that the BJP’s troll army posts against Muslims to know that they are masters of spreading ‘hatred, violence and fake news’.
Why should the most powerful prime minister in Indian parliamentary history need to behave as if he is under an existential threat from shadowy foes? Why should dissent be treated as sedition? Why should protesters need to be categorised and labelled? It would have been better if the Prime Minister had not himself made clear that he approves of this kind of repression.