Shouting fire in a crowded theatre

Time was, and that not too long ago, when there was media consensus about the facts relating to any particular story. What differed was the interpretation, the analysis. The average reader, therefore, could by reading a couple of accounts in different sections of the media get a broad understanding of the facts; he could then form his own opinions, or subscribe to the one that suited his own individual bias.

That time is long gone; we no longer even have consensus on what the basic facts are. And over the past 24 hours, nothing illustrates this problem as much as the story of AAP councillor Tahir Hussain.

Anubha Bhonsle, executive editor of CNN-IBN, in course of real time reporting from the ground, tweeted out this story:

Journalist and author Rahul Pandita, who was with Bhonsle at the time, also posted a similar story on his timeline:

The story then grew wings, with various media houses suggesting, citing Sharma’s father among others, that Hussain was likely responsible for the Intelligence Bureau officer Ankit Sharma’s gruesome murder. Other stories said vast quantities of petrol bombs were found on the roof of the councillor’s house. But in parallel to these narratives, there was this:

I have no personal knowledge of any of the above, nor have I an opinion about this one way or the other — expect that the riots that ripped apart the national capital over a three-day period need to be investigated with the full force and capability of the state, that every single person who is determined to have played a role in it, whether as instigator, or perpetrator, or abettor, needs to be punished to the fullest extent of the law.

That said, here is the inexplicable part: the story above hinges on one simple question. Was Hussain present at his home at the time in question, or was he not?

That should be easy enough to establish without all this back and forth. Those speaking in Hussain’s defence mention the name and designation of the officer who, they say, rescued the councillor when his home was under attack, and took him to safety.

How difficult could it be to ask DCP (North-East) Delhi Ved Prakash Surya to confirm or deny that he rescued Hussain from a rioting mob? One phone call, one question, one answer — is that too much to ask?

Bhonsle’s original post was at 8:54 PM last night — and the back and forth is still going on as I write this. Worse, it has metastasised on social media, with the usual suspects led by BJP IT Cell head Amit Malaviya making hay over this ‘evidence’ of Muslim perfidy — the kind of narrative that, over time, embeds in the collective consciousness and fuels the ‘righteous anger’ of those who seek to exculpate their own role in the violence.

There, in that one tweet by the BJP’s chief propagandist, is the lurking menace. In Malaviya’s hands, an unproved allegation has morphed, in the space of 240 characters, into a dangerous “iceberg”.

Surely a simple phone call will settle the issue? Surely it is the duty of the media to make the call, to verify the facts? Surely Bhonsle and Pandita, both of whom as journalists have the access and ability to make that call, could have done so? As could any of those who are speaking out in defence of the councillor?

Surely now, more than ever, the media’s allegiance should be to verifiable facts?

Elsewhere, this, from one of the most senior members of the media:

Radical Islam? On what basis does Sardesai frame this ‘versus’ narrative? And, what is worse, how does the Shaheen Bagh protest become a “trigger” for violence, for the killing of, at last count, over 27 people; for the property destroyed, the livelihoods lost, the immense pain and misery that has resulted?

Just what will it take to make members of the media — including the seniors, who should be setting the example — understand that words, the tools with which we all earn our daily bread, have meaning, and that their misuse has consequences?

What will it take for all of us whose words have reach and influence to think before we speak?

Anatomy of a pogrom

They say the toll thus far is 13 24, as of 6.30 PM this evening. They whisper that the actual toll is much higher. Maybe we will know in time what the actual human cost is or, as has happened many times before in the course of state-sponsored pogroms, maybe we never will.

Never mind parsing the numbers, though — even one life sacrificed at the altar of the cold-blooded political calculations of those who rule us (rule, not govern, because there is zero sign of governance) and of the unthinking, unfettered hate of their bigoted base would have been one too many.

That hate manifested in scenes such as this, playing out on the streets of the national capital:

Or this incident, one among the many dozens over the past three days that we will never be able to live down:

Call it by its right name — this is a pogrom, not a “riot”. Ashutosh Varshney, who has written the book on the subject, lays it out in a thread in which the money quote is this:

The cap is made to measure. It fits, perfectly. The events in Delhi over the past three days is no “riot” but a systematic campaign of elimination targeting the Muslim community. That it was planned to this end is painfully evident from the reports flooding in — including, but not limited to, this video of stones being brought in by the truckload the night before the violence began:

The Indian Express has a chilling timeline-driven narrative of thugs preparing for the attacks under the unseeing eye of the police. It goes on to document the deliberate targeting of Muslim homes and shops for violence, for arson.

As late as 9.30 last night, with Section 144 and shoot at sight orders in force, a Muslim settlement was torched by a mob acting with impunity. Police were present; they said they were “unable to interfere“.

An 85-year-old woman was burnt to death in her home. A mosque in Ashok Nagar was vandalised and torched, as were homes in the vicinity (See embedded clip earlier in this post), and a Hanuman flag planted atop its dome. 24 hours after the incident, the flag still remains in place. And a clip that has since been verified damns the police as active, willing participants in the mayhem:

The police even colluded with rioters to ensure that ambulances bearing victims were not allowed to enter the Al Hind hospital, as testified to by many including Dr Harjit Singh Bhatti. A 14-year-old boy with a gunshot wound was among those who were denied timely treatment. A doctor’s brother was among those who died while awaiting the treatment that the rioters and police refused them.

It took lawyer Suroor Mander’s midnight knock on the door of the Delhi High Court to produce a court order (the full text) asking that police provide protection to the ambulances. This clip is worth highlighting:

“Highest constitutional functionary move in Z+ security. This is the time to reach out and show that this security is for everyone,” Justice D S Muralidhar said in the matter on Al Hind hospital moved by Suroor Mander. “We can’t let another 1984 scenario happen in this city; not under the watch of this court.”

Serving and retired IPS officers pointed to the Delhi police force’s inexperience in dealing with riots — an experience that starts right at the top.

Inexperience might — might — explain why the police did not take preventive measures in time despite the signs of impending riots being painfully evident (Remember how stones were trucked in on the night before the rioting began). But it does not explain why the police participated in the stone-throwing, why it joined rioters in ‘Jai Shri Ram’ chants, why it shielded the rioters, why it indulged in actions such as in the clips above. Or the one below:

Inexperience certainly does not explain the visual below of a policeman in full gear directing rioters who are gathering stones:

Members of a Hindu mob, armed with crude weapons, begged the police to let them attack Muslims. “Give us permission, that’s all you need to do,’’ one mob leader said. “You just stand by and watch. We will make sure you don’t get hurt. We’ll settle the score.’’ Then he used a slur to refer to Muslims.

That reported quote from a New York Times story is telling. Which protestor, if he did not know for sure that the police was on his side, would actually go up to a cop — while armed — and ask for permission to attack Muslims, or anyone for that matter? Any cop worth his uniform and pay check would have immediately arrested the whole sorry lot and thrown them behind bars.

In the heart of Delhi, late night on February 25 while the Home Minister and the state chief minister and the Commissioner of Police were “appealing for peace” and “monitoring the situation”, and while Section 144 was in force, newly-elected BJP MLA Abhay Varma marched through the violence-addled Mangal Bazaar area of Lakshmi Vihar at the head of a band of supporters who chanted ‘goli maro saalon ko‘ (Shoot the bastards, in case it needs translation). Shoot at sight orders were in force at the time, for what that is worth.

The coordinated assaults across multiple locations had one significant feature in common — they were at their most virulent in the areas where the BJP had won seats in the recent assembly elections. Which is to say, where the party had numerical strength — which, in practical terms, means they were reasonably sure, particularly given the backing of the police, that there would be no real organised resistance. See the map below:

Also clear is that the first part of their mission is in a good way to being accomplished, as this video of the Muslims of Mustafabad leaving the area with their belongings shows. The second mission — clearing Jafrabad of the Shaheen Bagh-style protest that had taken root there, which was the thrust of Kapil Mishra’s infamous speech — was also accomplished, with not a little help from the police.

It is equally clear that the BJP-led thugs were aware of the illegality, the criminality, of their actions. Thus the systematic assaults on journalists who, at considerable risk to life and limb, covered the riots. One was shot; four others were brutally assaulted; rioters checked the religion of journalists they caught before assaulting them.

Ayush Tiwari of Newslaundry posted a contemporaneous account on Twitter. TOI photojournalist Anindya Chattopadhyay has a chilling first-person account, which starts with the rioter who offered to put a tilak on his forehead to ensure his safety as he headed into the midst of the riots.

“We were not allowed to shoot or record any of what was happening,” writes Runjhun Sharma of CNN-News18, adding that she and other journalists were told “Don’t take your phones out of your pockets, just enjoy the view.”

And here, with horrifying detail, is Ismat Ara, of FirstPost:

‘I was scared they would catch me for being a journalist, molest me for being a girl, lynch me for being a Muslim’

Rioters — and the brain-dead apologists that infest social media — argued that Hindus were retaliating for the killing of their own. “What about Rahul Solanki?”, several asked on my timeline. It is an age-old tactic of the Hindutva terrorists — instigate violence, then claim that it was a spontaneous reaction to the other side’s violence.

Well, what about Rahul Solanki? His father Hari Singh Solanki, sitting in the hospital beside the body of the son who died when he stepped out of his home to buy groceries, blamed Kapil Mishra — not the Muslims — and demanded that action be taken against the BJP “leader”.

“Kapil Mishra set Delhi on fire and then hid in his home. Our children paying the price, getting killed” — Hari Singh Solanki, father of the murdered Rahul.

A mob burned down a shop belonging to a Hindu that was being run by a Muslim. Here is what a trader, also a Hindu, from the area had to say about the incident, about who was responsible, about the role of the police. Also read what the Hindus of Ashok Nagar had to say about the mosque that was destroyed in their area. Elsewhere, a Sikh — a Supreme Court lawyer, no less — asks members of his faith to form peace committees, to set up langars for the victims. Hindus sheltered 25 Muslim families all through yesterday and today, until the police could rescue them and take them to a nearby hospital. And then there was this:

There is humanity still in our minds and our hearts, despite the BJP’s best efforts to stamp out all vestiges.

At the end of the Delhi election campaign, Amit Shah said hate speech maybe — maybe — cost his party. And yet, just yesterday, BJP Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh Jairam Thakur says only those who chant ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ have the right to remain in India.

While BJP leaders continued to pour fuel onto the raging flames, while the PM after three days of rioting contented himself with a word salad about the “immense warmth” — presumably emanating from a burning city — with which India had greeted Trump, and an anodyne appeal for peace; while politicians either went missing in action or busied themselves with photo-ops (like Arvind Kejriwal’s dharna at Raj Ghat, or his visit to victims in various hospitals, or his statement of a “positive meeting” with Amit Shah), or actively turned against those seeking help (as Kejriwal himself did when, late night last night, he had water cannons sweep his street clear of protestors even as thugs owing allegiance to his own party unleashed violence on the protestors at Jafrabad), it was left to the people to step up, to speak out.

There was a joint Hindu-Muslim peace march in the Brij Puri area; elsewhere people formed a human chain to ensure that schoolchildren could return home in safety. Hindus went around reassuring their Muslim neighbours that they were not alone; gurudwaras opened their doors to Muslims who were fleeing from their torched homes and the Jathedar of the Akhal Takht has asked all gurudwaras in the capital to offer all possible help to victims..

On the fringes of the cataclysm the BJP has visited on the national capital, this also happened: In Bihar the government voted unanimously in favour of an anti-NRC resolution. 70 MLAs belong to Nitish Kumar’s JD(U); the next largest group in the ruling coalition is the BJP with 54 MLAs. All of whom voted in favour of the anti-NRC resolution.

The next major election is in Bihar, in October this year, and this vote is a clear indication that even the local BJP leaders are aware of — wary of — the public sentiment, which has been gathering a head of steam thanks largely to the efforts of Kanhaiya Kumar who, as I write this, is into the 26th day of his 30-day road trip across the state and drawing enormous crowds.

The rally will culminate in Patna in five days with a public meeting demanding that the state government block the NPR/NRC; this resolution is likely an attempt to take the wind out of Kumar’s sails. From what I’ve been seeing, and from the clips of his speeches I’ve been following on his timeline, I suspect though that it is not going to be that easy — the Patna rally, unless I’ve totally misread the signs, is going to be a clear indication to the ruling dispensation that there is a right side and a wrong side to this argument, and that the people will be unforgiving of those who pick the wrong side. But we’ll see…

Elsewhere, the Supreme Court — which a wag on Twitter renamed the Supine Court recently — has yet again postponed a hearing it had scheduled in the issue of the Shaheen Bagh protests, saying “Let everything cool down first”.

Remember that when the SC was approached to intervene following the December 15 violence at JMI, its response was that it would listen to such pleas after the violence had stopped — analogous to a fire brigade responding to a four-alarm fire by saying it would wait for the flames to die down before responding.

And it is worth saying, in so many words, that the SC’s serial abdications of responsibility in cases ranging from the lockdown of Kashmir to the state-sponsored violence in JMI is a major contributing factor to why we are where we are today.

It is left, then, to the lower courts to stand up for what is right. A Division Bench comprising Justice Muralidhar and Justice Talwant Singh of the Delhi High Court heard a Harsh Mander plea into the ongoing violence in the national capital, and it was quite something (Read the blow by blow account by LiveLaw via the link).

In a cringe-worthy performance, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said he had not seen the video of the Kapil Mishra hate speech that was the proximate cause of the hearing (Begs the question: If the SG hadn’t seen the video that was central to the case before he appeared in court to respond to the petition, how incompetent is he?). He asked what the urgency was, and suggested that the hearing be postponed.

Judge Muralidhar wasn’t having any of it — after first castigating the SG, the judge ordered the video to be played in court, then asked the SG and the officer representing the police, Deputy Commissioner Rajesh Deo, to watch it, read the transcript, and respond after a break. Read the proceedings — here is a minute by minute account on Scroll, as does Live Law; it is a handy reminder of how judges function when they remember that they are there to protect the Constitution, the rule of law.

In late-breaking news just as I was writing this:

And in response to that, the Solicitor General of India, no less, argues that this might not be the best time to be filing FIRs against those BJP leaders. Painful as it is, try and wrap your head around that argument from the lawyer representing the government of India.

“They beat me till they broke me. I begged them and they beat me some more, viciously. They made communally charged slurs and took (BJP leader) Kapil Mishra’s name. I don’t remember much. I just hoped my children were safe. I can’t bear to look at my photograph, my legs shiver with pain.”

They took Kapil Mishra’s name, says the victim of the gruesome assault that is captured in the lead photo of this post. Kapil Mishra, banned twice for hate speech during the Delhi campaign. Kapil Mishra, who made the hate speech the SG and DCP haven’t had time to listen to yet. Kapil Mishra, against whom the SG is in no hurry to instruct that an FIR be filed. And again, the SG got spanked by the judge:

“You showed alacrity in registering FIRs for damages to property and arson. Why aren’t you registering it for these speeches? Don’t you even want to acknowledge the presence of a crime? Just register FIRs!”

Worth pointing out here that despite a full-scale pogrom in the national capital for three days and counting, the police has not seen fit to take one single individual into preventive custody. Unlike, say, in Kashmir where hundreds remain in custody, some under the draconian PSA, despite there having been no trouble of any kind in the lead-up to the abrogation of Article 370.

Also, in context, work mentioning that the Supreme Court collegium has recommended the transfer of the widely respected Justice Muralidhar, provoking a protest by lawyers.

It is ironic, meanwhile, that the rioting, the mayhem and all these stories on the fringes happened precisely when dozens of crores of rupees were pumped into a spectacle that was supposed to showcase the bonhomie between the world’s largest and oldest democracies.

It is typical of Modi that he skipped the press conference at the end of Donald Trump’s tour, leaving it to the US president to take questions on the CAA.

It is symptomatic of the ineptitude of this government’s foreign outreach that all that effort and money went into an event that produced nothing in the way of a substantive trade deal, or in fact a deal of any kind whatsoever.

And while on irony, the expensive spectacle staged by Modi and his minions not only failed to attract positive notice within the country and around the world, global media — both print and television — focussed on the riots that were tearing the capital apart (and more than one commentator pointed to the tone deaf nature of Trump’s statement that the US and India were committed to fight global Islamic terror, at the precise moment, and in the precise place, where Muslims were being targeted for annihilation).

Sections of the Indian media desperately kept the focus on Trump at the Taj, and Melania attending “happiness school”, and what the menu was at the Rashtrapathi Bhavan reception (more irony: the star was biriyani, the very dish the Shaheen Bagh protestors have been demonised for eating), global media was unsparing. Chris Hayles of MSNBC in fact pointed to the fact that Trump was silent about the riots:

And that comment was a gentle prelude to Hayes’ show last night, where he tore into the two leaders. Watch:

The POTUS press conference didn’t go that well, and an incident also served up a reminder of why Modi refuses to meet the press (and also makes you wish that India had the kind of media the US still has, despite Trump’s best efforts). Here:

It is easy enough for the likes of Piyush Goyal, on behalf of the government, to call publishers and editors and browbeat them into tamping down on negative comment about Modi and his minions. It is not for want of trying, though — yesterday, the government pressured Hotstar and Disney India into deleting a John Oliver segment on Modi, that had aired on the eve of Trump’s visit. The outcome? On YouTube, the video has over 5.3 million views at the time of writing this.

I’ll leave you with Oliver’s famous last words here:

It is incredibly depressing to see India heading in this direction…. Because India, the home of this enduring symbol of love (the Taj Mahal) frankly deserves more than this temporary symbol of hate (Modi).

PostScript: Events are happening at too great a pace just now to make sense of; I’ll leave this round-up here, as a document of the major events of the past 48 hours, and write around it later, once things have simmered down somewhat and there is room for meditation, for thinking it all through.

Credit: The lead image, emblematic of everything that is wrong with India today, was shot by Praveen Khan of Indian Express. And below, a little reminder of our times, for our times.

Binders full of women

Liberty Leading The People, painting by Eugene Delacroix exhibited at the Louvre

Why women? Why are they protesting (when they should be at home cooking and cleaning and looking after their children)?

You’ve heard that question, in its many variants, since the anti-CAA protests erupted in mid-December 2019. So have I — most lately last evening, when a few of us were discussing contemporaneous events.

Part of the discussion was triggered by a post I had written yesterday about the Woman in Red who became a totem of the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, and of Marianne the young drummer girl who triggered the march on Versailles that proved to be seminal in the French Revolution. And the talk veered, as such talks inevitably do these days, to Shaheen Bagh.

It only occurred to me gradually that the question stems not from genuine curiosity, but from a puzzled bafflement — a sense that authority, which knows how to use brute force against the dissenting male, is stymied when confronted by a defiant, determined woman. Remember these moments?:

The thing that baffles me about the “Why women?” question is the tone of irritated wonder, as if this were something new and strange. The small group I was with last evening was mostly young, all but two still in college; it was supposed to be an informal chat about narrative writing but it became about the protests, and “Why women?”

I wondered at the time whether this was one of the signs of an age where information is so plentiful that we consume everything but retain nothing. Women leading protests is not only a phenomenon as old as protests themselves, more often than not it is the participation of women that has tipped the scales (again, this is an essay for another day).

So, as aide memoire, here she is, the woman protestor, in all her avtaars: Defiant, determined, gentle, fierce, tearful, joyful, proud, implacable…


Emmeline Pankhurst being arrested outside Buckingham Palace, January 1914, during the suffragette protests. Emmeline Goulden, as she then was, attended a protest event when she was 14, and became a frontline campaigner for women’s rights. She later married Dr Pankhurst.
French suffragettes burning election posters, May 1935, as part of protests demanding the right to vote.
Rosa Louise McCauley Parks, who on December 1, 1955 refused to vacate her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in an act of civil disobedience that was seminal in the civil rights movement

In 1967, Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as an official, numbered contestant. Race official Jock Semple (in black) tackled her when he realised she was a woman; Switzer’s boyfriend shoved Semple to the ground and ran interference so Kathrine could complete her run. Women were officially allowed to run the Boston five years later, in 1972.
Women in Black (website) was founded in 1991 as a worldwide movement opposed to war, militarism, and all forms of violence. This unnamed protestor was part of a WiB anti-fascism demonstration in Novi Sad, Serbia, in December 2005
Police personnel detaining a Tibetan woman participating in the Tibetan Women’s Uprising Day in front of the Chinese Embassy in Delhi, March 12, 2008.
2013 was a particularly fraught period in Bulgarian history. In the first quarter, protests against the Boyko Borisov government broke out over excessive water and electricity bills. In May of that year, the successor Plamen Vasilev Oresharski government faced protests over a whole laundry list of causes, institutionalised government corruption being the main one. In November, students of Bulgaria’s Sofia University first staged an ‘Occupy’ of the campus, then took to the streets protesting rising poverty and unemployment. In one of the iconic images from that time, a girl student tearfully begs police officers to refrain from using force against her fellow students.
A kneeling woman holds up a feather in the face of police gearing up to break an anti-fracking protest in New Brunswick, October 2013. Read more about the protest here.
The Gezi Park protests in Turkey produced lots of iconic moments, such as the Woman in Red I’d referred to in my post yesterday. Here is another one — an unnamed woman, arms spread wide, taking the full brunt of a water cannon blast on herself.
Also from Istanbul’s Taksim Square, 2013, this image of a woman protestor flashing the V sign against the backdrop of clashes between rioters and the police.
December 2014: An unidentified woman dances in front of riot police during a mass protest against the forced eviction of a building in Istanbul
The victory sign, high and proud in the face of adversity, appears again — this time at Tahrir Square during the Egyptian Revolution. Worth remembering that the revolution against the Hosni Mubarak government began in January of 2011 when in the space of a week, two men set themselves on fire protesting issues that were rooted in poverty, rising prices, and institutionalised corruption.
In September 2016 the Charlotte, North Carolina police shot and killed 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott at an apartment complex near the University of North Carolina, sparking protests that rapidly turned into riots as the police attempted to use force to repress the initial protest. Here a woman, hand bloody from a beating, confronts a police officer in full riot gear.
July 2016: Protests erupted in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, following the fatal shooting of Anton Sterling. Ieshia Evans, one of the protestors, walked up to police in full riot gear and allowed herself to be arrested; resulting in a striking image that went viral as an illustration of the real power of the powerless.
Paris has its dadis, too. June 2016: There she stands, alone and unafraid, confronting riot police during a protest in Paris against proposed reforms that were seen as anti-labour.
A lone granny squats on the road, blocking riot police to keep them from moving on protestors during the anti-government demonstrations in Seoul, South Korea, April 2015
September 2016: A young girl facing down a riot policeman during pro-democracy protests in Santiago, Chile
February 14, 2018: A lone gunman opened fire within the campus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 and injuring a couple of dozen others. The resulting ‘March for Our Lives’ protest saw this impassioned speech by student Emma Gonzalez, equal parts grief and unbridled fury, where she called BS on everyone from the President and the FBI and NRA on down.

This list could go on but I’ll stop here, with a bonus link I found on Huffington Post that rounds up ‘60 stunning pictures‘ of women in protests around the world.

Meanwhile, back in the here and now, Delhi police has filed an 800-page chargesheet in connection with the December 15 violence at Jamia Milia Islamia University, when rioters had set fire to buses and private vehicles. 17 people have thus far been arrested in this connection.

Not a single one of those arrested is a student. And yet:

Remember the spate of videos that mysteriously leaked the other day, purporting to show that the students had indulged in violence, and the police had entered the university campus as a result? (The police are reportedly now trying to figure out how they leaked. It is problematic for them on two counts: One, it is hard, actionable evidence of unprovoked brutality that damaged property worth over two crore; more importantly, it totally demolishes the concerted, coordinated efforts over time to paint the protestors of Jamia as destructive rioters). Remember the India Today ‘expose’ of rioting students? Remember the breathless, condemnatory reporting that appeared in Times of India, Mirror Now, Republic, Times Now, DNA, Zee, Aaj Tak and other outlets, all unquestioningly toeing the official line handed to them, never mind if in the process they were criminally slandering a university and its students?

Remember the manufactured consensus that while the police action was bad, so sorry, what to do, they were only doing their duty and the students deserved it? (The media’s role is laid out in this Alt News fact-check).

Remember the police denying that they had fired on the students, and then back-tracking after an internal investigation revealed that shots had in fact been fired? Remember how, during the Delhi election campaign, BJP leaders had repeatedly demonised the JMI students, with Kapil Mishra slyly equating them with Kasab, of 26/11 infamy? Remember Nirmala Sitharaman accusing Sonia Gandhi of “shedding crocodile tears” on behalf of the brutalised students? Remember Amit Shah saying in one breath that the “police did not go after students”, and in the very next breath saying “Don’t you think that the police should take action? Police have to take action because that is their duty and the right thing for them to do.” Remember Shah justifying the police action on the grounds that students pelted stones?

Remember the Supreme Court — the CJI, no less — in a remarkable example of circular logic refusing to hear an urgent petition against the state-sponsored violence on the grounds that “the rioting must first stop”?

Remember how, less than 24 hours later, several police officers from the area had been mysteriously transferred? It turns out that the Special Investigation Team, in the wake of the outing of compelling videographic evidence, has asked for the duty roster of policemen who were stationed in the area that night.

Here is the thing — the police acted as they did because they had a sense of impunity, the surety that there would be no consequences. Such an assurance had to come from the highest echelons of the police — and they, in turn, would never have passed such orders without the nod of the ministry they report to. Which, in case it needs reminding, is the MHA, under Amit Shah.

Now cracks have begun appearing in the official version, and these cracks are widening by the day. The SIT says it will be questioning those policemen who were on duty at the time, and hint at the possibility that FIRs could be filed against them. If that happens, and admittedly that is a big if considering what is at stake, then low-level cops will crack, and talk about the orders they received. This whole sorry chapter isn’t over yet, not by a long way.

In other news, senior advocates Sanjay Hegde and Sadhana Ramachandran, on the directions of the Supreme Court, visited Shaheen Bagh for initial discussions with the protestors intended to find a solution to the blockade, now into its third month. They were welcomed with a standing ovation.

I was following the events live across various social media channels, and the moment that stood out for me was when the interlocutors suggested that the media be asked to leave, to which the response was “We are fighting for freedom, and we will not allow anyone’s freedom to be taken away.”

I began this post musing on women leading protests, and why male authority figures find it bewildering. I’ll circle back to it on this note: Though there are literally dozens of SB-style protests around the country (Frontline has an extended essay on this; here is a story of how, thanks to police brutality in Chennai, another Shaheen Bagh has sprung up there and, by way of thumbing their collective nose at the police action on Valentine’s Day, played host to a wedding), the original Shaheen Bagh has become a persistent, annoying burr under the skin of the government as evidenced by the continued efforts to demonise it.

TimesNow ran a breathless, high-decibel ‘Big Story‘ on how Teesta Setalvad — another woman activist, another red rag for a patriarchal government and its propaganda wings — had been “coaching” Shaheen Bagh protestors on how to talk to the SC-appointed mediators. Um — so? How exactly is it a problem for protestors — lay protestors, unused to the ways of courts and lawyers — to take advice?

Elsewhere, Facebook users took to circulating what they claimed are images of condoms found in the gutters of Shaheen Bagh — reminiscent of the BJP MLA who claimed “that daily 50,000 pieces of bones, 3,000 used condoms, 500 used abortion injections, 10,000 cigarette “pieces”, among other things, are found at JNU, where girls and boys dance naked at cultural programmes.”

In passing, why does right wing propaganda, particularly where women are part of the protests, depend so much on sexual innuendo? Meanwhile in UP, yet another BJP MLA has been accused of serial rape.

PS: I am off this blog till late Sunday evening — a workshop, and a couple of other commitments, therefore.

The woman in red and other stories

With all that we have going on right here in India, a protest in Gezi Park, in Istanbul, seems remote, unconnected — until you begin to read more deeply and start mapping parallels between the happenings in Turkey and what is unfolding in India. I’ve been meaning to write a longish essay drawing on those parallels and underlining the lessons Gezi Park has for us here, but that will need to wait till I am done with the workshops I have to conduct later this week.

(For a quick primer, here is the Wiki entry and a timeline. If you want to go deeper, two books make a good starting point: Under the Shadow by Kaya Genç and Twitter and Teargas by Zeynep Tufekci.)

Gezi Park is on my mind today because of unfolding events over the past 24 hours. Yesterday, in Istanbul, the court sprang a surprise when — despite all indications during the prolonged hearing of the case — it acquitted businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala and eight others.

In 2015, an Istanbul court had struck a blow for the rights of the citizen when it acquitted dozens of people who had been arrested for their participation in the 2013 protests in Turkey. The court ruled that the people were merely exercising their right of freedom of assembly.

Kavala was arrested in October 2017 (15 others, including a journalist and an actor, were arrested around the same time) for his involvement in the same events. While the government’s lawyers obfuscated and initially refused to elaborate on the charges, media outlets close to the Recep Tayyip Erdogan government ran stories accusing him of being “a business tycoon with a shady background”; of “having contacts” with a group of terrorists; of being behind the Gezi Park protests and “transferring significant amounts of funds to certain places.” Does any of this have a familiar ring?

A formal criminal indictment was filed only in March 2019, two years after Kavala’s arrest and incarceration in a maximum security prison, It accused Kavala and the other the defendants of being the “masterminds” behind the Gezi Park protests, of “attempting to overthrow the government through violence”, of being agents of philanthropist George Soros — long story short, a kitchen sink of charges long on rhetoric and short on indictable offences backed by hard evidence. Does that have a familiar ring to it?

Yesterday, the court sprang a surprise when, in a judgement that went against the grain of the lengthy proceedings (during which defence attorneys were routinely hindered, including right at the end when they weren’t given the time they sought to respond to the prosecution’s closing statement), it ordered the release of Kavala and eight other co-accused.

The echoes of the applause greeting the verdict had barely died down, however, when Kavala was re-arrested on charges of involvement in a failed 2016 coup. He had spent over two years in jail on charges that couldn’t stand up in court despite the best efforts of the government; he spent a few minutes breathing free air before he was returned to the Silivri maximum security prison on the outskirts of Istanbul. Does that sound familiar?

The Erdogan government in Turkey is the closest modern parallel to events unfolding in India, and for that reason is worth following closely for the many lessons to be learned. One starting point (besides the two books mentioned earlier) is this podcast, where Amit Varma and Pranay Kotasthane discuss the phenomenon of protests in modern-day networked societies and the ways various authoritarian governments are adapting to deal with them. Below, a short reading list of stories from Gezi Park:

Tufecki, whose book I’d mentioned earlier, wrote this urgent, breathless blogpost from the thick of the protests, a post in which the incoherence arising from writing in the moment with limited connectivity is balanced by the knife-sharp immediacy of her observations.

What is most noticeable is that just as in India, there is a proximate cause for the Gezi Park protests (the threat of demolition of the park, a rare space in central Istanbul with trees and space for people to walk about), but that single cause has since grown to encompass a laundry list of grievances against the brutal Erdogan regime. Also worth noting is the self-policing by the protestors, who are aware of the risk of third-party violence tainting their peaceful struggle:

In fact, even the slightest scuffle is in the park calmed down immediately.  I observed this first-hand when a visiting youngster, about 14 or 15, tried to pick a fight with an older man claiming that he had looked at his girlfriend the wrong way. Dozens of people immediately intervened, calmed the youngster, took him away, helped his girlfriend, asked her if she was okay, and generally made sure it was all calm again. “Not here, no fighting, not here” is heard as soon as any tensions arise. People are very proactive. This is not a let-and-let-live space in those regards (though it is in many others).

Turkish author Elif Shafak writes of the smiles, the laughter, the pervasive sense of joy that marks the protests in defiance of teargas:

The most retweeted messages are those with jests and puns and wordplay—and graffiti. On a wall in hasty letters: “The rich kids have better gas masks, we are jealous.” Nearby in an alley is writing that says: “Revolutionary Gays Everywhere.” One graffiti complains: “I could not find a slogan yet” while another one says cheerfully, “Welcome to the first traditional gas festival.”

….

The protests have coined a term. In a live TV interview the prime minister called the demonstrators “çapulcu,” which means “looter” or “marauder” in Turkish. The social media was quick to pick up the word and redefine it as “someone who fights for his/her individual rights.” In the blink of an eye a neologism was formed, half Turkish, half English. The Turkish noun was transformed into an English verb. Now Wikipedia has a new entry: “Chapulling.”

The next day, all over the Internet there were messages using the new word: “I will be chapulling today,” or “Everyday we are chapulling,” or “Tomorrow I shall chapul again.”

Author Elif Batuman atmospheric, ‘been there’ piece for the New Yorker is rich in detail and insight about Istanbul’s penchant for protesting, even if most of those protests turn out to be futile. And then there is this bit about the joy the protestors display, despite the risks, the threats and even the actuality of violent counter-measures:

On my street, spirits seem to be high. Someone is playing “Bella, Ciao” on a boom-box, and I can hear cheering and clapping. But every now and then the spring breeze carries a high, whistling, screaming sound, and the faint smell of pepper gas.

While on teargas, pepper spray et al, this piece from the Guardian about how it became big business is worth reading. For background on Erdogan, and Turkey’s descent into unbridled authoritarianism, there is this 2012 piece by Dexter Filkins for the New Yorker.

Author Claire Berlinski, who was there, wrote this richly detailed account that will remind you of scenes we have been seeing and hearing about from protest sites across India:

And it was glorious — a huge innocent carnival, filled with improbable (I would have hitherto thought impossible) scenes of nationalist Turks mingling amiably with nationalist Kurds, the latter dancing to some strange ghastly species of techno-Halay, the former pumping their fists in the air and chanting their eternal allegiance to something very nationalist, I’m sure. Balloons lit with candles sailed over the sky; hawkers sold every species of Gezi souvenir, and the only smell of pepper in the air came from the grilled meatballs served in hunks of fresh bread and sprinkled with chilli powder….

And then there is Ceyda Sungur, an academic attached to the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, University of Istanbul. Her day job made her more aware than most of the long-term costs of the planned razing of 100s of trees in Gezi Park; she walked out of the university and, unwittingly, into the history and iconography of contemporary protests when this happened. (Also read this account from The Guardian). Here she is (Image courtesy imgur.com):

When I first saw this image, by some odd association of ideas I remembered Marianne, the 13-year-old who at around 7 AM on October 5, 1789 went to the market place at the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, picked up a drum and began thumping out a marching beat, thus setting in motion a chain of events that we now know as the October March, a seminal moment in the history of the French Revolution. (While on this, the pivotal role of women in protests throughout history is the subject for an essay for another day).

Here is what Sungur has become to Gezi Park, and to the history of protests:

One final thought about Istanbul, about Gezi Park — the protests began on May 28, 2013. There has been no resolution yet; the protests continue with undiluted vigour. Keep that in mind when you ask yourself how long the anti-CAA protests can — must — go on. The short answer is, for as long as it takes.

Shifting to our own shores, here are a few stories you should read:

Shruti Rajagopalan‘s take-no-prisoners column for Livemint calls out the Supreme Court for its utter disregard for habeas corpus, in light of a recent speech by Justice DY Chandrachud (full text) affirming the individual’s right to dissent. The nut graf:

He (Chandrachud) invoked the word “liberty” 16 times and “freedom” 14 times. Last week, after six months of detention, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, two former chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir, were charged under its Public Safety Act (PSA), a law that allows detention without trial for up to two years. Worse still, hundreds of others are waiting for their day in court for the ruling on their detention. Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, who expressed enlightened ideas on liberty in his lecture, belongs to a court (with 32 other learned justices) that has not set aside the time to hear habeas corpus cases of hundreds of Indians detained in Kashmir. This apparent contradiction requires further examination.

A Reuters report underlines the risk of the increasing use, by Indian police forces, of facial recognition software to identify and potentially harass those taking part in protests. Back in December, Indian Express had broken the story of how the technology, court-sanctioned for use to help police identify missing children, was now being used to create a database of alleged “rabble-rousers and miscreants”. Express had earlier last year run an explainer on the AFRS system that provides background and context.

While on the police, hundreds of cases have been filed in dozens of cities across the country against anti-CAA protestors. They all have one thing in common — not a single one of the charges has thus far stood up to judicial scrutiny. Here’s the latest example, from Karnataka where the high court has granted bail to 22 people booked in connection with the December 19, 2009 protests in Mangalore and observed, inter alia, that the police investigation “appears to be mala fide and partisan”. The money quote from the bail order, in a case where the police charged protestors with using stones and weapons to attack them:

The photographs produced by learned SPP-I depict that hardly any member of the crowd were armed with weapons except one of them holding a bottle. In none of these photographs, police station or policemen are seen in the vicinity. On the other hand, photographs produced by the petitioners disclose that the policemen themselves were pelting stones on the crowd“, states the Order

In passing, while we celebrate these instances of protestors being released on bail, keep in mind that getting bail is not vindication — the protestors, who as the judge observes here were sinned against, not sinning, still have to go through the whole process of court appearances, which is exactly the reason the police resort to such tactics.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, who had earlier said the NPR exercise would not be permitted in his state, appears to have changed his mind, and his tune: He now says that there is no harm in NPR. Widespread state-level opposition to the Centre’s rollout of the NPR is the only realistic way Amit Shah’s plans can be stymied; if Maharashtra goes back on its initial objection, it weakens a growing coalition of states willing and ready to face down the central government over the issue.

Related, the UIDAI has — on the basis of an anonymous complaint — asked an auto driver (and reportedly, over a hundred others in one neighbourhood) in Hyderabad to prove his citizenship. This is one of the very real fears the CAA/NPR/NRC has instilled in people — that anyone with a grudge can file an anonymous complaint, which the authorities can then use to harass you. For what it is worth, the UIDAI has via news agency ANI issued a clarification which, in the patented fashion of all such clarifications, puts the onus on the media for having “misrepresented” the facts. Sir Humphrey Appleby said it best: “No, Prime Minister, a clarification is not to make oneself clear. It is to put oneself in the clear.”

In Kashmir, police have resorted to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act to register cases against people using proxy servers to access social media. The move is intended to deter locals from telling the world about what is happening within the sealed off bubble that the state has become, and follows on the heels of a video of ailing Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Geelani making it past the state’s firewalls and onto social media. FIRs have been filed against those who “defied government orders and misused social media platforms,” the police said in a statement without, however, explaining why uploading a factual video is “misuse” whereas the government can claim, in Parliament and on international forums, that normalcy has been restored in the Valley.

Quartz, meanwhile, reports that the government’s internet ban has sparked an exodus of students and businesspersons, particularly start-ups, from the Valley. Also from Kashmir comes the news that panchayat polls, originally scheduled to take place in March, have been postponed. “Home Department, Government of Jammu and Kashmir…has advised the Election Authority to consider deferring of the conduct of polls based on credible inputs from the law enforcement agencies,” the notice read. J&K comes under the central government — which, just a week ago, played tourist guide to yet another group of random European Union officials as part of its ongoing propaganda exercise intended to show that all was well in the Valley. And here we are, citing “security concerns” to explain the government’s inability to hold panchayat elections.

Regular readers will recall that I’ve been saying the much-hyped trade deal (it was supposed to happen during ‘Howdy Modi’, but didn’t) was unlikely to materialise during the upcoming visit of Donald Trump to India. Here is the confirmation.

It will likely happen only after the 2020 Presidential elections in November, we are told. What we are not told is that you don’t know who will become the next President, and what his attitude, and that of his party, will be — so can we just agree that the trade deal will not happen in the foreseeable future? As recently as last night IST, Trump had this to say:

“Well, we can have a trade deal with India, but I’m really saving the big deal for later on,” Trump told reporters as he left the White House for a trip to California. “I don’t know if it will be done before the [US presidential] election. We’re not treated very well by India, but I happen to like Prime Minister Narendra Modi a lot.”

Modi happens to like Trump a lot, too (why, is not so clear), as evidenced by the daily stories of preparations to roll out the red carpet. As for instance:

Ahead of President Trump’s visit, who will arrive in India on February 24 and is expected to visit the Taj Mahal in Agra, the Uttar Pradesh Irrigation Department has released 500 cusecs of water into the Yamuna to improve the condition of the river. The water has been released from the Ganganahar in Bulandshahr to improve the “environmental condition” of the river. Yamuna flows adjacent to the boundary wall of the Taj Mahal.

A “cusec” is a measure of flow (one cubic foot per second). “Released 500 cusecs” means nothing as a measure of volume unless there is a time attached to it — “500 cusecs for one hour”, for instance, would mean 18 lakh cubic feet of water.

But never mind that example of the media lazily regurgitating a bureaucrat’s press note without application of mind, the point is, the government is doing everything it can to create a Potemkin facade ahead of the Trump visit. It’s worth remembering that as recently as the Delhi election campaign UP chief minister Bisht, whose government ordered the release of water to “improve the Yamuna’s condition”, was blaming Kejriwal for the sorry state of the Yamuna. Also from UP, this latest example of a state that has totally, completely failed its citizens:

This government has often, and with justification, been accused of lack of attention to detail. Think demonetisation when, among other things, it turned out that the government had not anticipated the need to recalibrate ATM machines when rolling out new notes of a different size. Or GST, whose provisions are still being “tweaked”. But when it comes to the Trump visit, no detail is too small to escape the government’s notice. How’s this?

Ahmedabad is prepping up to host the POTUS and to ensure that the city is clean, the municipal corporation has now sealed three paan shops at the airport circle. Notices have been pasted outside the shops mentioning that if the shop-owners try to remove the seal, legal action will be taken. The initiative has been taken to make sure that all the roads and walls around the Ahmedabad airport remain spick and span.

Elsewhere in UP, Congress leader and poet Imran Pratapgarhi has been fined Rs 1.04 crore fine for participating in anti-CAA protests. Apparently that is his share of the Rs 13.42 lakh it costs to deploy RAF and PAC personnel at the protest site. Note that this is a magistrate, no less, fining someone for exercising his right to dissent — a fundamental right, as Justice Chandrachud said just the other day. Here is your reminder that it costs the country Rs 1.62 crore per day to provide security cover for Narendra Modi.

Seven sailors have been arrested for passing on information to Pakistan.

And finally, for today, read this Vice investigation into the first known use of deepfakes in an Indian election. And be afraid. Be very afraid, because it is suddenly that much easier to manufacture “proof” against whoever the government wants to destroy (Imagine this tech existing say in 2016, when the government and captive media combined to create the totally false allegation that “Bharat tere tukde honge” slogans were raised by Kanhaiya Kumar and others during the JNU protests of that year. It was easily disproved then; today, the “supporting evidence” will be far more persuasive thanks to tech, and the resulting effort to disprove the allegation that much more difficult.

Brief break

PSA: Over the next two days the blog is on a hiatus of sorts (If something major breaks, I’ll find a way to update), since I have a narrative writing workshop coming up Saturday, and I need to put a lot of material together.

On my way out the door: Yesterday’s post was on the JMI videos and the many inconsistencies/lies in the narrative around it. By way of ensuring the documentation is complete, here are two related fact-checks:

  1. The student with the stone in his hand, used to justify the police action? It was a wallet, not a stone.
  2. The “student with the stone” was the one injured in the Jamia shooting — which is to say, the shooting was justified. Again, no.

And on this issue, read this Newslaundry piece on India Today’s extended half-hour report on the issue to see how the media spins, lies, and obfuscates to promote the official line.

Right, my workshop is Saturday, so longer posts will likely resume after that. In the meantime, will use this to record important events through short link-outs and comments.

Republic of Spin

Spin — the massaging of facts to make them palatable or, as someone once put it, “the artistic moulding of the unshapely clay of truth” — is not new. David Greenberg, in his book Republic of Spin, traces its origins back to the ancient Greeks (though they called it rhetoric back then).

What is relatively new is that spin is no longer an activity that follows in the wake of facts — it has replaced facts. A case in point is the video that surfaced (linked in my previous post) late Saturday night, of the police action inside Jamia Milia Islamia University on December 15.

Within hours, the Crime Branch released two other clips, widely publicised by various right wing handles, which show incidents from before the police entered the library premises. Here is the first one:

It shows a milling throng leaning over the railing of a balcony, jostling for a better view. It shows the students entering the library. It does not show the stone pelting the post alleges.

A close relative, of hard right persuasion, sent me this clip with similar claims, excoriating me for supporting the JMI students who, he said, were “jihadi thugs”.

Where is the stone pelting? “This clip shows the scene immediately after they threw stones,” said my relative with fact-free conviction. I reminded him of a scene from an old Malayalam movie, where a bunch of conmen flog paintings to the relatives of dead people. In one instance, they tell the son of a dead man that his late father wanted a picture of a horse in a grassy meadow. But when they unwrap the canvas, it turns out to be bare. Where is the grass, asks the son. The horse ate it, says the conman. So where is the horse? Arre, when the grass is gone, what will the horse do there? When the grass grows back, the horse will return.

Which brings up the second clip:

The video shows students rushing into the library seeking shelter. It also shows some students already there. The messaging says it shows riotous students “after damaging public property” rushing to hide from the cops. What is the allegation that these students came here after damaging public property based on?

And all of this is prelude to this third clip:

This clip shows police — some with masked faces — entering the library and beating up students armed only with books.

Pause right there. On December 18, this is what the police said:

An officer of Additional Deputy Commissioner of Police-rank, who is part of the probe into the violence that erupted during protest in and around Jamia Millia Islamia on Sunday, denied that the police entered its library and thrashed students.

“A DCP-rank officer took a video in which it is shown that students were asked to leave the library… they were then taken to a safe place with their bags on their heads so that they would not be hit by stones. Whether the library was ransacked is a matter of investigation. Our force did not enter the library,” the officer said.

So that is lie number one: The police did enter the library. Can we agree that this is now beyond dispute? Can we therefore agree that the police lied?

The exculpatory narrative is that the students damaged public property outside the university, then ran into the campus; the police entered on their heels and beat them up. Take those points in order:

One, the police on December 17 arrested ten people for the violence outside the university that they used to justify their intrusion onto the campus. None of them were students. Also: The police announced a Rs 1 lakh reward for information on those who were party to the violence outside the university on December 15.

In other words, those already arrested — on the basis of evidence, presumably — were not students; as late as February 10, the police was still looking for information on others involved in the rioting. How does that jell with the argument that the students inside the library — none of whom have their faces masked and are, therefore, easily identifiable — were responsible for the violence?

And if they were in fact responsible, as is being claimed not by the police but by propagandists, why have they not been arrested and charged? Why is the police, almost two months after the incident, still looking for information?

Secondly, and crucially, how did the police enter the campus without permission? Here is JMI VC Najma Akthar setting out the issue:

“I object to just one thing. We are with police when they have to look for criminals. But when they are coming to a university, they have to ask us so my proctor goes with them. That’s the only protest. Secondly, our university’s name should not be dragged in because we have nothing to do with it,” Akhtar said.

“If they (police) had asked us, we would not have denied permission. We would have asked our proctor to accompany the officers so that he could help them identify the students and ensure they are not humiliated. My university is closed and we are on vacation. Most of my students have already left the campus. How can we have 20,000 students participating in the protests?”

A contemporaneous account is worth reading for context, one that inter alia talks of police entering a mosque within the campus and beating up students who at the time were offering namaz. Were they chasing rioters? That remains one of the unanswered questions lost in the din.

Give the police the benefit of doubt, however. Say for the sake of argument that they were chasing rioters armed with weapons and stones the CCTV footage was not able to pick up. Then think ahead to the events of January 5, involving the same Delhi police, at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The police report of that incident says that there was a spell of violence earlier that afternoon; that a senior police official had toured the area and assured himself that the situation was under control. Then this:

The second spell of violence started before 6 pm, when members of the JNU Teachers’ Association and some students had gathered at Sabarmati dhaba for a ‘peace march’. According to eyewitnesses, the protest came under stone-pelting by masked men, who then barged into the nearby Sabarmati hostel and ran riot.

At around 6.45, the VC sent a message to the police asking for increased deployment at the main gate — this, while masked and armed thugs (unlike the ‘evidence’ being trotted out about JMI, here the videos clearly show hammers and iron rods in the hands of the marauders) subsequently identified as belonging to the ABVP were running riot inside. The police received numerous calls about the ongoing violence, and therefore were clearly aware of what was happening inside the campus. And then:

“The policemen found a group of 40-50 rioters carrying sticks were vandalising properties in the hostel and assaulting students there. The police used a public address system to warn the mob not to damage property and disperse peacefully. Despite warnings, the mob continued the violence and paid no heed to the police orders,” Arya said.

The Delhi police enter JMI without permission and beat up students who had no visible, demonstrable connection to any violence. One student lost an eye as a result of the police action. The same Delhi police, on actually seeing a group destroying property and assaulting students, is content with asking them to be good boys and girls and stop misbehaving — an appeal the rioters paid no heed to. What is the police supposed to do in such a case?’Stand by and watch’ is the wrong answer.

There is more:

However, despite already having the university authorisation to intervene, as per the FIR, the police force stopped at the gate and waited for an official permission to enter the campus.

What explains this behaviour? The lead paragraph of the story cited above says:

As a mob wielding sticks, iron rods and hammers assaulted students and damaged property on Jawaharlal Nehru University campus on Sunday night, police teams stood outside the gate and entered the campus only at 8pm. The police explained that they were waiting for an official permission from the varsity administration to enter the campus, as required by the law.

Waiting for official permission as required by law. The same police that 20 days earlier entered a university campus with no permission.

Unless the law referred to above was passed after December 15, the police who entered JMI were in clear and flagrant violation, yes? The supposedly exculpatory videos being passed around are therefore worth bupkis, yes?

Further, if permission is not given, the police cannot enter a university campus even if it knows there is violence within. Vide:

At 6.24 pm, after violence had broken out, Vice Chancellor M Jagadesh Kumar messaged at least three top senior police officials. Strangely, instead of asking them to contain the violence quickly, Kumar said, “Considering the volatile situation in JNU campus, I request you to station police at the gates of JNU campus so that they can quickly reach the trouble spot in the campus if a law and order situation arises.” 

“In case a law and order situation arises”, says the VC — while rioting was actually going on within the campus. What qualifies as a law and order situation, then? One more unanswered question.

In any case, the law-abiding Delhi police waited outside the gates, at the VC’s instructions. And then?:

What followed was dozens of men, their faces covered with mufflers, chanting slogans — “Desh ke gaddaro ko, goli maaro saalo ko”, “Naxalwad murdabad’ and “Na Maowad, Na Naxalwan, Sabse Upar Rashtrawad” — not allowing ambulances to reach the campus by puncturing tyres and smashing windows. They did so next to a police barricade and in front of a police detention van, with many of the men chanting slogans of ‘police zindabad’.

The men threatened journalists not to click photos or come nearby and also manhandled Swaraj India head Yogendra Yadav. All this while, over 250 policemen looked on without intervening.

Even journalists were not spared:

They also did nothing when scores of ABVP supporters, including a good number of middle-aged men, started harassing journalists, students and ordinary people waiting outside the main gate, hurling abuses and forcing them to chant “Bharat Mata ki Jai”. They even assaulted India Today reporter Ashutosh Mishra as he was reporting live, calling him a “jihadist” and “Naxali”. Rohan Venkataramakrishnan of Scroll was surrounded by a mob as he tried to record a video on his phone, pushed around and hit on the head. He said several policemen were standing only a few metres away, but they didn’t intervene. Siddharth Ravi of the Hindu was gheraoed by masked men outside the campus. Ayush Tiwari of Newslaundry was told to chant “Bharat Mata ki Jai” by two men outside the gate. The very next moment, a policeman approached and told him, “Bhaag yahan se.”  Go away.

All of this happened outside the gates. Accepting that the police did not enter to contain the violence within because they didn’t have written permission, what stopped them from intervening in such clear instances of violence outside the gate?

At every single point in the whole sorry mess, the actions of the police fail even the bare minimum scrutiny. And this is the police force we are expected to believe. While on that, Home Minister Amit Shah (who directly controls the Delhi police force) spoke at an official function yesterday, and this is what he had to say, just hours after the videos of the police brutality in JMI surfaced:

“Despite all the anger and provocation, Delhi Police should remain calm but it should also be ready to deal with the miscreants with firm hands to protect the people.”

Remember this example of the police being “provoked” but still remaining “calm” and protecting the people with “firm hands”?:

Meanwhile facts, like murder, will out. A few more videos have now come out.

While on unanswered questions, here is one more: How did these videos leak, and from where? JMI universities had earlier said the police had taken CCTV footage for their investigations (which, two months later, are still going on). Which means the police, and the HRD ministry that controls them, are the only ones with access. So who leaked? Why? (As I was writing that, I remembered a Sir Humphrey Appleby line from Yes Minister: “The ship of state is the only ship that leaks from the top”).

In context, remember also that on the exact same day, December 15, there was a similar police action in Aligarh Muslim University, resulting in widespread injuries.

All of the above are facts. Now for a segue into supposition/deduction: The protests in the wake of the passing of the CAA caught the home minister by surprise. And — since that is the only method he knows — he responded by unleashing his police force in an orgy of violence, hoping to terrify the protestors into submission. The protests escalated as a result — so he used a tame VC and the uniformed personnel as enablers, but this time relied on the private army that masquerades as the BJP’s student union to indulge in another orgy of violence. Because bullies will be bullies.

In other news, Donald Trump is coming to India. We are building a wall to ensure that no eyesores — you know, poor people living in slums — spoils the schmooze-fest of two of the world’s leading narcissists. It is estimated that Rs 100 crore or more of taxpayer money will be spent on “beautifying” Ahmedabad — in other words, in creating a Potemkin facade of prosperity — for a visit that will last for three hours. And 10,000 policemen will be on duty to ensure that, god forbid, no protestors sneak into the celebrations.

But that is okay, we are told, sometimes you have to spend money in the larger interest — which, in this case, is the Indo-US trade deal all the king’s horses and all the king’s men have been working on for more than two years now. In its desperation to get something out of the visit, India announced its readiness to permit the import of US chicken legs, turkey, blueberries, cherries and various dairy products.

All to no avail. USTR Robert Lighthizer was expected in India this week to sit with Indian officials and iron out the details of a trade deal. He has, however, informed the Indians that he is unable to travel — which basically means the deal is kaput, at least for now. And to make things worse, the US putting India in the list of developed nations means further economic strife. But never mind, we will have a grand event, with lots of pictures of Modi and Trump traveling on a road strewn with Rs 3.7 crore worth of flowers, and…

In other news, after Amit Shah announced the other day at the TimesNow summit that over the next three days he was ready to meet anyone who wanted to discuss CAA and related issues, the dadis of Shaheen Bagh took him at his word and announced they were marching to his residence to seek an audience with him. The march was blocked, and permission was denied. Bonus in this story of the incident is the lead image (which I am using as the cover image for the day) of the dadis blessing the police officer with whom they were trying to negotiate permission. In passing, the Supreme Court begins hearing the government response in the hearings into the Shaheen Bagh protests.

We will shortly get a Ramayana-themed train, yay, with bhajans and everything. We spent Rs 644 crore in four years to promote Sanskrit, also yay, though the story doesn’t say what this promotion consists of, and what the outcomes were. The Modi government wants scientists to research the possibility of creating shampoos, oils and cancer-curing drugs from cow dung, very much yay. Modi himself spent Sunday unveiling another statue, this time in his home constituency.

And since we could use all the distractions we can get to deflect from anything resembling actual news, the always reliable Subramanian Swamy has asked that investigations be reopened into the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi because apparently, it cannot be “fully established” that Godse was the killer, and there is something about an “Italian revolver”, and… oh well.

In good news — or at least, in terms of clutching at straws — Supreme Court Justice JY Chandrachud spoke out against the criminalisation of dissent (The full speech is here, and it is worth reading):

“The blanket labelling of dissent as anti-national or anti-democratic strikes at the heart of our commitment to protect constitutional values and the promotion of deliberative democracy,” he said.

While on justice, earlier today the Supreme Court told the government that it has to give permanent commissions, and command posts if eligible, to women who opt for it. The ruling has retrospective effect.

“The Centre’s submissions that women are physiologically weak are based on a deeply entrenched stereotype that men are dominant and women are basically caretakers. Taking care of family is a woman’s job. This is deeply disturbing,” said the SC.

And because we could all use a laugh just every once in a while:

Update, 7.30 PM: The JMI video leaks are beginning to give the sense that someone’s bright idea boomeranged. If the original idea was to give the cops an out, to excuse their behaviour, the exact opposite is now happening as streams of new videos are being outed and more lies thereby getting exposed. Here is the latest in the series:

Remember that the cops justified breaking the law and entering the campus without permission by saying they were in “hot pursuit” of rioters.

Asked why police had earlier denied entering the library, (Special SP (Crime) Praveer) Ranjan said Delhi Police stood by their position that they “entered the campus in hot pursuit after rioters started going inside the campus and began pelting stones at police”. He said that “there is a video of the Joint CP requesting them to talk”.

So much for that. And my understanding is that this is going to get much worse. Which leads to a thought: When people protest against a government, one of the major tipping points happens when people within the establishment begin siding with the protestors, either overtly or covertly (at some point, I hope to do a longish essay on how various protests in the age of social media and citizen journalism played out). This is now beginning to feel like one of those moments: the leaks are coming from inside the system, not from the protestors.

The state versus the students

December 15, 2019: Police — many of them masked — entered the Old Reading Hall on the first floor of Jamia Milia Islamia university, and this happened.

Ostensibly, the police action was in retaliation for violence by students in course of which buses were burnt. But:

The extended thread, with four videos, is here. The police repeatedly denied that this happened. One student, Minajuddin, lost his eye in this attack — this is his testimony. And the library, after the police action, was in this state:

The media, while reporting on the incident, spoke of “clashes” between police and students. How is it a “clash” when one side is masked and armed, and the other side is armed only with books? Always worth paying attention, when reading news stories, to exculpating language.

Passing mention: The Delhi police, which on that day entered the campus without permission, report directly to Home Minister Amit Shah.