People versus the State

Earlier today there was a hearing at the Tis Hazari court in Delhi, where Judge Kamini Lau sat on a petition reviewing the conditions under which Bhim Army chief Chandrasekhar Azad had been given bail on January 15. Below, a clip from the proceedings:

The above is a sample; the hearing itself, as reflected in live updates by the LiveLaw Twitter account (here is the full thread), is surreal. Basically, the police had no grounds to arrest him; the state has no case to make against him; but despite that, the police, the state, want him kept in jail (the PP was making a plea for revoking the bail, remember) or at the least, kept out of Delhi and not allowed to engage in any political activity there for the duration of the polls.

Think about that for a moment. About a state that incarcerates a citizen without due cause, simply because it does not suit the ruling dispensation to have a hugely followed leader taking part in an election campaign. As Judge Law points out during the hearing, the only thing Azad did that the police can prove is that he arrived at a public meeting and held up a copy of the Constitution.

Judge Lau has relaxed the original bail conditions, and permitted Azad to visit, to stay in, Delhi whenever he wants and for whatever purpose; the only proviso being that the DCP is kept informed. And sadly, that is the one silver lining in the dark clouds overhead — it is all downhill from here.

Another day, another BJP bigot. “You are deshdrohis,” says BJP’s Karnataka MLA Renukacharya. “You sit in mosques and issue fatwas. You don’t pray but collect weapons inside mosques. Is this why you need mosques?”

Read that in tandem with the news that mosques in the Hassan area of Karnataka have been receiving threatening letters questioning their loyalty and asking them to convert to Hinduism.

Idiots being idiots, right? No point getting fussed? A few days earlier, Karnataka BJP MLA Arvind Limbavalli tweeted a video of shantytowns in North Bengaluru that, he claimed, harboured thousands of illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

Just another example of the nonsense that, thanks to social media, BJP lawmakers and their amplifiers spread in order to keep the base happy. Only, there are consequences. On January 20, the BBMP razed the settlements to the ground, leaving thousands homeless.

“Bangladeshis have set up sheds next to Mantri Espa Apartment in Kariyammana Agrahara and other places in Bellandur ward. They have converted these areas into slums. This office received oral complaints that this has vitiated the environment. There is a need to evacuate the residents of the sheds. To ensure no untoward incident takes place, we are requesting police protection,” the assistant executive engineer of Marathahalli Subdivision wrote to the police inspector of Marathahalli station.”

Read that carefully. An assistant executive engineer — which is about as low as you can get on the hierarchical chart — writes to the police. He asserts that Bangladeshis have set up sheds. He asserts that the residents need to be evacuated. And all this is on the basis of oral complaints — of which, of course, there is no record.

The BBMP Commissioner B H Anil Kumar had no clue; on being made aware of the damage — after the demolition was complete — he says the demolition was unauthorised, and action will be taken against the engineer responsible.

What action? Suspension? Dismissal? How does any of that make up for the sufferings of the people who, already eking out a living on the extreme edge of poverty, have had their shelters, their belongings, destroyed? And while on that, who will question the role of the police? What action will anyone take against the MLA whose allegation started all this?

Because, see, it appears that I can give an “oral complaint” to a junior engineer in a municipal corporation that residents, say you for example, adjoining my land are illegal, and you will find your dwelling razed while you watch. Can’t happen to us, right? Because we are privileged; we live in housing societies…? Says who? What guarantee does anyone have any more?

And to add a sorry coda to a sordid story: Those evicted are Indian citizens with proper identification, and have nothing to do with Bangladesh.

Which brings us to Uttar Pradesh and its police force. Which, having arrested over 1000 protestors in the wake of the ongoing anti-CAA protests, is now struggling to make those arrests stand up in court. Across UP, while granting bail to some of those arrested, judges have said the photos the police submitted in evidence show no evidence of culpability, that the police have not been able to produce the videos they claimed they had.

And now the same police, which is unable to justify charges filed against protestors earlier, have charged the women, who have mounted a Shaheen Bagh-style protest at Lucknow’s Ghanta Ghar, with – wait for it – rioting. (A story on the protest itself, here)

I don’t get why it is not possible to file cases against the police on the grounds of wrongful arrest (and defamation of character, come to think of it. You call me a rioter, then go into court and say oops, and that is it — there are no consequences? No recompense for those people who were put in jail on false charges — and even now, are merely out on bail, with their cases yet to be finally decided?

Still sticking with UP, Scroll’s ace reporter Supriya Sharma (who you really should be following) has a story on the ‘friends of UP Police’ – which is the Ajay Singh Bisht-ruled state’s backdoor entry for thugs into the police ranks.

Basically, you join the Hindu Yuva Vahini, the thuggish private army founded by Bisht back in 2002 and which, since then, has earned itself an unsavoury reputation even by UP standards for general mayhem. This in turn gets you accreditation as a ‘police mitr’. And this allows you to beat up peaceful protestors under the guise of helping the police.

Thuggery is, today, the shortest and most direct route to political prominence. Bisht rode the muscle of the HYV to power; now we hear that Tejinder Bagga, who once openly admitted to assaulting a senior Supreme Court lawyer in his chambers, has been given a ticket to contest the Delhi elections. Modi likes him – but then he would, wouldn’t he?

Enough bad news, now for some worse news: The International Monetary Fund, which had earlier revised India’s growth rate to 4.8%, has revised downwards its estimate of global growth, and said “the growth markdown largely reflects a downward revision to India’s projection, where domestic demand has slowed more sharply than expected amid stress in the nonbank financial sector and a decline in credit growth.”

Which is to say, the IMF has said India’s economic slowdown is so bad, it is dragging the rest of the world down with it. (In a face, meet palm outcome, Modi cheerleaders on social media are arguing that this shows India’s importance in the world.)

It’s worth noting – and mentioning, since “What does IMF know?” is the tenor of the pushback – that the IMF makes its projections based on data it receives from the governments themselves. In other words, it is GoI data that is showing the Indian economy in such a parlous state as to drag down the world economy with it.

Apropos, there’s a budget coming up. And India’s best option, given the intensifying economic slowdown, is to quit worrying about the fiscal deficit and focus on pushing growth. Only, it can’t – because the GoI has been cooking the books; its real fiscal deficit is much higher than its projections, and it really has little or no room to push the envelope on stimulus at the expense of deficit. Nikita Kwatra of Livemint lays out the problem:.

As India’s economic slowdown has intensified, so has the debate on whether the government should stick to fiscal consolidation or run a higher deficit to push growth in the upcoming budget, due on 1 February.

However, data on revenue available so far suggests that the government has very little fiscal space for any significant growth stimulus. If the government’s off-budget liabilities (or withheld payments) are taken into account, the central government’s real fiscal deficit could end up being as high as 5.5% of gross domestic product (GDP) in the current fiscal year, a Mint analysis of public accounts suggests.

Elsewhere, the World Economic Forum has placed India at a low 76th, out of 82 countries, on its Social Mobility Index.

Measuring countries across five key dimensions distributed over 10 pillars health; education (access, quality and equity); technology; work (opportunities, wages, conditions); and protections and institutions (social protection and inclusive institutions) shows that fair wages, social protection and lifelong learning are the biggest drags on social mobility globally.

Basically, you need upward social mobility to ensure continuing economic growth. And judged by that yardstick, India ranks, you know…

The Indian Railways announced that various items of Keralite cuisine would be taken off the menu on long-distance trains running through the state, and would be replaced with various north Indian foods. None of the replacement food items are popular with Malayalis; the only foreseeable outcome of the move would have been that travellers would buy their preferred food outside and carry it onto the train with them — thus depriving the Railways in that sector of revenues it would otherwise earn. And then, last evening, the IRCTC announced that the food items would be restored.

In context of all that is going on, this might seem like a little enough thing; just a Mallu fussing because he can’t have his pazham pori and porotta. But think about it for a moment: there is a whole bloated bureaucracy out there making up these stupid rules, and printing them up and distributing them, and then in the face of the inevitable outcry walking the original decision back, reverting to the status quo ante, printing that up, distributing…

What was that Modi promise of 2014 again? “Less government, more governance”? Here it is, in action.

Now for some odds and ends:

  • In response to an RTI request, the Ministry of Home Affairs says it has no information about any “tukde tukde gang”. And yet the Home Minister of the country alleges that aforesaid “gang” is responsible for violence in Delhi and should be “punished”; that the Congress is leading this gang; that Arvind Kejriwal is shielding this “gang”; that somehow Akhilesh Yadav is responsible… The Home Minister of the country. Who swore an oath on the Constitution to protect the Constitution and to abide by the rule of law. Who is directly responsible for internal peace and security. Gaslighting in the name of a fictitious “gang” and calling for “punishment” — in other words, both justifying and enabling the violence unleashed by police in various parts of the country. How do you sink lower than this?
  • The Director General of Police, Jammu and Kashmir, has come out in support of the ‘deradicalisation camps’ mooted earlier by Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat in course of his Raisina Dialogues speech. The trial balloon Rawat floated is now starting to really soar.
  • Former Indian diplomat MK Bhadrakumar points out that India’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy – a pillar of Narendra Modi’s foreign policy – is crumbling, in context of recent anti-CAA statements by both Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh.
  • Jakob Lidenthal, the German exchange student who was expelled from the country for taking part in one of the early anti-CAA protests, talks at length on his interactions with Indian authorities, and his view on the injustice of it all.
  • In Bangalore, the Azadi slogan has been transcreated in Kannada, and sounds just as compelling as the Hindi version. Listen.
  • Farah Farooqi, writing for Caravan magazine, places the Shaheen Bagh protests in context of the locality. Worth reading to get a sense of the place, and the people, and to understand the source of the power that has enabled them, in defiance of the state, to keep this protest going for well over a month now.

On the last day of February 1976 P Rajan, a student of what was then Regional Engineering College, Calicut, was participating in an inter-collegiate cultural festival. That year, REC won second prize in the drama competition, which traditionally brings the three-day event to a close; we — the Malabar Christian College group of which I was a part — won the first prize.

We celebrated hard, that night. And in the early hours of March 1, we hitched a ride on the REC college bus, which dropped us off in front of our college. Rajan and the rest of the REC boys continued on to their college — and he had barely entered his hostel room when police picked him up, on the suspicion that he was complicit in a Naxal attack on a police station.

He was tortured by the police; he died under the prolonged torture; his body has never been recovered. His father, Eechara Warrier, went from pillar to post to receive news of his son; the story of that search was turned into a national award-winning movie by cinematographer/director Shaji Karun. (You can see the movie in full here).

The news that Rajan had been killed was what turned me — and hundreds of young students like me — into hardcore, driven political activists who worked unremittingly towards the single goal of ending Congress rule. In North India, the anti-Congress movement had big-name leaders: Jayaprakash Narayan was the totem; the likes of AB Vajpayee, LK Advani, George Fernandes etc were the stars who drew crowds in their thousands and around whom the anti-Congress sentiment coalesced.

Kerala did not have any such big names, we did not have star politicians to pull the resistance together. But we had the students — the story of Rajan, which spread out from Calicut to the rest of the state, was the fuel that kept the fires of resistance burning white-hot; students who went door to door campaigning, and turned the crowds out when the political stars from up North came visiting…

Ningal enne Communist aaki — You Made me a Communist — is a movie written and directed by Thoppil Bhasi, based on his play of the same name, and it shows how the quotidian injustices of agrarian life turns a regular guy into a violent, hardcore communist. Ningal enne political aaki, you made me political, would be the name for a story on a generation, my generation, of young Keralite students who walked out of their classrooms and out onto the streets.

I was reminded of all this while reading Annie Zaidi’s lovely, topical essay on how she first developed political inclinations. You should read it.

And, if you feel up to it, head to the comments section and tell me this: What, if any, was the trigger that first turned you political?

Leave of absence

I have a small medical emergency to tend to, that will keep me away today and tomorrow. Will be back the day after.

Will leave you with something to think about. Read this from Scroll. I just did — and then flipped through history to see what happened to predominantly student/citizen-led protests both in India and elsewhere.

The past is always instructive about the future. Think for instance of the Nav Nirman Movement in Gujarat, 1973-1974 (in which, ironically, Modi was involved). And of the Bihar students movement, 1974.

When I get back, will link you up with similar movements around the world, connect them up, and think about where this current movement can lead, and how.

Be well, all. Will leave you with some eye-catching material, and a related thought:

When a protest movement begins to draw on local cultural tropes is when the roots of the protest go down deep into those sections of society that are otherwise on the sidelines. And this is happening, across the country, with increasing frequency. It’s a thought worth holding on to.

Reading List 19/01/2020

  • Uttar Pradesh, about which a longer blogpost needs writing, continues to shock with its arrogant unconcern for either law, or human rights, or even public opinion. One of the many lies — that protestors had fired on cops, leading to retaliatory firing that led to deaths — has been steadily unravelling. Meanwhile a women’s protest at the Clock Tower in Lucknow — which began a couple of days ago with just a handful of women, and which has grown in size ever since — was raided last evening, and the police carried away food and blankets. “Do not spread rumours,” a police statement today says,. “The blankets were seized after due process”. What “due process” allows people to confiscate blankets and food from people peacefully protesting is left to your imagination. Reports also say that water cannons were used on the women protestors. But as always happens in times of crisis, it is the Sikh community that brings a shaft of light to the darkness. This time, by turning up with blankets and food to replace what the police had robbed.
  • Uttar Pradesh, again, showing how intolerance is done. Danseuse Manjari Chaturvedi, who has taken her innovative Sufi-Kathak dance form all over the world, was halted in mid-performance at a UP government function in Lucknow. She was told ‘qawwali nahi chalegi yahan‘.
  • A majority Christian village in Karnataka decided to put up a statue to Jesus. The RSS led a rally opposing it. It turns out that the local Hindus not only have no problem with the proposed statue, they are willing to oppose the RSS if they again bring outsiders to protest.
  • A member of the Niti Aayog wants to know why Kashmiris are fussed about the denial of internet facilities. There is no e-commerce there anyway, he says; Kashmiris do nothing but watch porn. The man is, among other things, a scientist, ex-DRDO.
  • Mukul Kesavan writes of the icons ranging from Ambedkar to Savitribai Phule who have been resurrected by the anti-CAA protestors. But no Gandhi, he points out. “Gandhi’s relative unimportance in the CAA-NRC protests has several reasons. For one, he has been so completely appropriated by the Indian State since his death that he has been reduced to a piety.”
  • Raj Shekhar Sen traces contemporary events to what he calls a “crisis of masculinity” that fuels the Hindutva agenda.
  • JNUSU president Aishe Ghosh says what is happening in the country is nothing short of an attempt by Modi to colonise his own country.
  • Josy Joseph, who from the time he was a colleague at Rediff has made a speciality of the internal security beat, has the most nuanced, readable piece yet on Davinder Singh, the J&K cop arrested while ferrying wanted militants towards Delhi. Militancy, Josy writes, is a multi-faceted business; Davinder is merely a symptom, a manifestation, of a much larger malaise. Alongside the piece, watch this video where Davinder reportedly told the arresting officers not to interfere because it would spoil a plan. The whole thing smells to high heaven — which, come to think of it, explains why the NIA has taken over the investigation, as the surest means of putting a lid on it.
  • On February 27, 2018, my colleague Arati Kumar-Rao and I were at the Wagah Border to receive Paul Salopek, the two-time Pulitzer-winner who was due to enter India on this leg of his Out of Eden Walk. What struck us most forcibly was the incessant traffic of lorries and trucks, speaking to the flourishing cross-border trade between the two countries. While Arati went in to the checkpoint to receive Paul, I whiled away the time at a tea-shop where Sunny, the owner, regaled me with stories of this trade. The tea-shop was just a working base for him; his real occupation was trading in dried fruits which, he said, came from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The goods would be dropped off at the Pakistan side of the checkpost; his people would then pass them through Customs, and his lorries would load up on the India side, and transport the goods to wholesale merchants in Amritsar and elsewhere. Remember, this flourishing trade was happening at the same time border tensions had peaked. Not any more, though — Suhasini Haidar reports that thousands of families have been hit by the trade freeze at the Wagah-Attari border. It’s just another dot that, when connected up, presents a picture of the large-scale economic distress roiling the country. In that connection, and in tandem with my post earlier this morning about Kashmir, read also this piece by Salman Anees Sos on the economic catastrophe that has hit the state.
  • Author Chetan Bhagat, who at times has been pilloried for statements in support of the current regime, has a nicely weighted piece in Times of India about why the whole CAA/NRC/NPR exercise should be shelved immediately.
  • Remember Muhammed bin Tughlaq, whose mis-governance masterstrokes has earned him notoriety in history? The man is a genius compared to Modi’s government — which, recently, panicked as onion prices shot up and public anger rose, bought 35,000 tons of onions from Turkey and Egypt, found that the market has no demand for the bland variants from those countries, and is now trying to sell them off at less than half the purchase price.
  • In context of the recent kerfuffle over Jeff Bezos, Amazon, and the GoI’s apparent issues with “predatory pricing”, read this piece by columnist and podcaster Amit Varma where he argues that the problem is actually with a predatory state.

The sound of silence

I woke up this morning and, while still beneath the covers, reached for my phone. I checked mail, messages, WhatsApp, and Signal to see if anything had come in while I was asleep that would impact my day: someone I needed to meet, someplace I needed to be at. I then rapidly scrolled through my Twitter timeline to see if anything major had broken during the night.

I made myself a cup of coffee, came to my workdesk, fired up my laptop, and opened the ‘Morning News’ bookmarks folder, within which I collect the sites I need to check to get a broad overview of what’s happening in the world.

It’s my daily routine, and on the rare days when my internet provider stuffs up, or I am traveling in some remote area where the connection is splotchy, not being able to do any or all of this leaves me uncomfortable; I am aware of a nagging sense of unease.

Think for a moment about Kashmir, where all of those things I take for granted — the ability to check messages, to keep myself updated on happenings in my country and around the world, to check my bank balance and plan my finances, to work, to read for profit and for pleasure — have all been shut down since August 5 last year.

Executive Editor of Kashmir Times Anuradha Bhasin had approached the Supreme Court challenging the shut-down and seeking immediate lifting of the restrictions on communications. That was on August 10. It took the Supreme Court six months to hear the case — and when it did, it declared that the shut-down was “unconstitutional”. (The judgment is here for those interested).

So what would you expect the Supreme Court, the ultimate defender of the Constitution, to do in the case of an act it deems unconstitutional? Order that restrictions be lifted? What the court in effect did was tell the government, what you did was wrong, so you review it and do what you think is right.

Leaving it to the government to review its own unconstitutional act was never going to end well, was it? It didn’t.

I’m no lawyer (and if there is one thing I’ve learned in three-plus decades as a journalist, it is to not write about things I am not qualified to understand). But we now — if we are outside Kashmir, that is — have access to lawyers who are on social media; that access has meant that media houses are able to tap into them for informed commentary.

There is an abundance of such commentary on the net, accessible via a simple Google search. Here are just four that I think is worth reading to get a broad understanding:

  • In this piece, constitutional lawyer Gautam Bhatia places the SC judgment of January 10 in context of the court’s actions (and inactions) in a previous case of suspension of basic human rights: the Emergency.
  • Here, Bhatia points out that while the SC judgment does little in the way of providing immediate and total relief, it does lay the groundwork for future legal challenges against the Modi government’s indiscriminate use of the internet shutdown as a weapon to stifle dissent.
  • Manu Sebastian in Live Law questions the SC’s failure to address the “emergency” nature of the case it was hearing, and argues that this failure is hugely problematic.
  • Apar Gupta argues that when it came to choosing between human rights and the government of the day, the SC leaned towards the latter. It is, he says, a ‘statist interpretation’ of the law.
  • Dushyant Dave notes the cautious optimism the SC judgment has led to, and says it is a sign that the rest of India has reconciled itself to the ‘othering’, the ‘orphaning’ of Kashmir. (A point I will come back to later, because that is what led me to write this post in the first place)

There is plenty more in the form of commentary, but the above stories suffice to provide a broad overview of the legal minuses — and a few slender silver linings — of the judgment. But what of the aftermath?

The GoI has partially restored broadband and 2G services in J&K. And you can access 153 websites that the government has “whitelisted”. There are other provisions, restrictions, but focus on just these for now and ask yourself — how does this comply with the SC judgment?

But that is precisely the point: the government’s gameplan is to do as little as possible in seeming compliance, then wait for a legal challenge to emerge. (And given the tardiness of the SC in hearing the original complaint, it is a fair assumption that between them, the GoI and the SC can continue to run out the clock).

There is another clause the GoI has inserted into this partial restoration of the internet: ISPs have been ordered to build firewalls to ensure that the people of Kashmir have no access to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms.

“There are fears that locals will log on to these social media platforms and upload videos recorded in the past five months, posing threat to the current calm in Kashmir,” a senior police officer told The Hindu. “Besides, Pakistan may also use the social media to coordinate with militants.”

“Fears”.

The GoI “fears” that the people of Kashmir might go on social media to upload videographic evidence of what happened in the state during the six-month blackout. So what is it precisely that the GoI fears? That stories such as this — dismissed thus far as coming from “vested interests” — will now come out into the open? That the full extent of the damage — both economic and social — will begin to come out? That the human rights abuses will now get a public airing?

While going through an Evernote folder last night, I came across this story I had saved, of the lengths to which Kashmiris have had to go to access basic communications facilities. And I just went back and checked the list of the 153 websites the government has permitted Kashmiris to access.

If I was in Kashmir now, I’d be totally hamstrung. I can’t access WhatsApp, or Twitter, or any other social media sites — which is the first thing I do every morning. And not a single one of a little over four dozen websites I check each morning for the news appears in that list.

In a piece this morning in The Wire, Siddharth Varadarajan makes the larger point:

Make no mistakes: This firewall is an augury of what the future holds for us all if the Modi-Shah approach to fundamental rights is allowed to prevail. For the first time since the Emergency, the government is arrogating to itself the right to tell citizens what they can and cannot read. Indeed, Modi has gone step beyond Indira Gandhi. She ‘only’ had her censors black out select news items and opinions. Our Dear Leader, on the other hand, has decided that digital news of any kind is to be blacked out from Kashmir.

How are we still silent? How did we remain silent about this gross, continuing injustice all these six months? Why was this egregious and continuing violation of our basic rights not important enough for us to take to the streets en masse? How did we slip into this mindset of thinking of Kashmir as being somehow not a part of India, of thinking that its concerns do not concern us? How did we become okay with what Dushyant, in the piece linked to earlier in this post, called the “orphaning” of Kashmir?

When I began blogging again recently, after a prolonged interval, I had started my first post with a quote from MLK Jr’s seminal “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. I’ll leave you with that same quote, because the thought MLK expressed is, I think, central to our today’s and tomorrows.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

Republic of Spin

“The Titanic had an iceberg problem. It did not have a communications problem.”

I was reminded of that pithy take by political consultant Paul Begala when I woke up to the news that the GoI, stung by the opposition to the CAA, has planned a “fresh multimedia campaign“. From the story:

A top source in the government said a need was felt for a fresh round of publicity because the government has received a lot of bad press due to the nationwide protests against the CAA and the proposed National Register of Citizens, and the attacks on students at two central universities in the capital — Jamia Millia Islamia and Jawaharlal Nehru University. …

Although a name for the campaign has not been finalised yet, one of the suggestions is to call it ‘Har kaam desh ke naam’ (all work in the country’s name).

I also happened to see this: The GoI has apparently brought out a booklet telling the stories of Hindus etc who have come over from Pakistan because of religious persecution. Only, it turns out that at least some of the stories are faked.

‘Fake news’, ‘propaganda’, ‘spin’ — call it what you will, it is big business today. Then Minister for Information and Broadcasting Rajyavardhan Rathore told the Lok Sabha that between 2014, when Modi took over as Prime Minister for his first term, and December 2018, when Rathore was responding to a question, the government had spent over Rs 5,200 crore on advertisements. Another official response gave a different figure.

Rs 5,200 crore. Imagine what you could do with that money. When the Statue of Unity was being inaugurated, IndiaSpend had done a piece comparing the cost of the statue with what else the same amount could have been used for:

We could have had two new IITs or AIIMS campuses; or five new IIMs, or five new solar power plants each producing 75 megawatts of power; the amount expended on the statue could have funded, twice over, the schemes the government had grandiosely announced for the relief of farming communities. And when reading this, remember that the cost of the statue is half of what the government says it spent on advertising and publicity.

In a nutshell: We could have done so much with the money; instead we spent the money to say we have done so much.

All of this is why I was reminded of Begala’s words. The government does not have a communication problem; what it has is a bigotry problem; it has a problem of rising, multiplying dissatisfactions across a wide spectrum of society. And the only response it knows is more advertising, more publicity, more propaganda.

Late evening yesterday I saw a Twitter post that, in reference to the GoI’s attempts to browbeat Jeff Bezos into getting his Washington Post to back off on criticism of the government, said India needs its own version of the First Amendment which, in the US, specifically prohibits (among other things) the imposition of any restrictions on the media’s right to speak, report, freely.

India does not have provisions in its Constitution that specifically uphold the freedom of the press; that freedom is implicit in a sub-set of Article 19 of the Constitution which guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression.

Do we need a Constitutional amendment that expressly protects the media’s right to free expression? Is the absence of that law the reason why so much of the media today is suspect, why the credibility of the media is eroding? I’ve been a full-time journalist since 1990, and a freelance journalist for five years before that — and in all that time, I don’t recall an instance where the lack of such a specific law hindered our reporting. And I certainly don’t think that is the reason today’s media is so compromised.

I started with a Begala quote, so it seems appropriate to bring in something the man Begala advised, then US President Bill Clinton, said during his presidential campaign: “It’s the economy, stupid!”

That is what it boils down to — the press is hamstrung financially, and its various egregious acts of commission and omission stems from that simple fact. Couple it with the vast amounts the government is spending on publicity, and what do you get? This. (A small Twitter thread I wrote last night to explain why the media has become an instrument of propaganda).

I’ll leave you with this for the day (I have places to be, things to do) unless something really urgent breaks. And on my way out, here are two little items worth your notice. The first is a thread by journalist M Rajshekhar collating all the protests happening in India across a period of approximately one day:

And the second is a statement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi:

Really? That explains why the PM has, in little over a month, refrained from uttering a single word on the ongoing, widespread protests, on the resulting deaths, on the dozens who have been incarcerated for little or no reason, on his refusal to meet with a single one of those protesting groups, on his almost comical avoidance of going anyplace where he might be forced to confront protests?

This cannot be said too forcefully: The man is a fraud. And a coward.

A death, foretold

THE VALUE of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind.“

Those words have been running through my mind on loop since yesterday. Words that pithily, pitilessly, hold up a mirror to ourselves and to our standing as citizens in “the largest democracy in the world”. We are just a vote, to be sought once in five years and to be ignored in the interregnum. And it is this realization that, finally, has brought people in their millions out on the street – rising prices, falling employment, the inequities of the CAA/NPR/NRC are merely the symptoms of that much larger disease; the disease of a democracy that does not value its most fundamental unit: the citizen.

Vemula, a sentient human being, a dedicated student, a young man with aspirations, has been reduced to a statistic (23rd Dalit suicide in premier institutions), to a documentary (the Death of Merit), to yet another “anniversary” on the grim calendar of blood-spattered memory, read his last letter again, slowly; the final words of a young man so “desperate to start a life” that he ended up ending it.

YESTERDAY was also remarkable for a speech made at the ongoing Raisina Dialogues – the 5th edition of a conference of global thought leaders the MEA, under whose aegis it is organized, says is themed around ‘Navigating the Alpha Century’; a forum that is designed to articulate India’s policy on vital issues, including national securit.

“What we saw in Kashmir, we saw radicalisation happening… These people can still be isolated from radicalisation in a gradual way, but there are people who have been completely radicalised. These people need to be taken out separately and possibly taken to some deradicalization camps. We have deradicalization camps going on in our country.”

That is General Bipin Rawat, inaugural holder of the newly created post of Chief of Defence Staff, telling the world that India has – has, not is planning – its own version of China’s infamous ‘Vocational Education and Training Centers’ in the Xinjiang region.

It is worth noting that the Chinese camps were the outcome of a “people’s war on terror” first announced in 2014; that they are internment camps operated for the purpose of “indoctrinating” Uyghur Muslims since 2017.

Note that shortly before this speech, Rawat spoke of following in the footsteps of America post 9/11.

“We have to bring an end to terrorism and that can only happen the way Americans started after the 9/11 terror attack. They said let’s go on a spree on global war on terror.”

Now connect the dots. The man who heads the defence forces in the country is calling, first, for a ruinous external war (Against who, exactly? The General leaves that unsaid, leaving the identification of the target to our own internal prejudices) – never mind that the model he wishes to emulate has cost the United States an estimated $6.4 trillion and counting, and resulted in the loss of an estimated 480,000 lives.

And as a corollary, he wants to institutionalize the ‘deradicationalization camps’ – a slightly more politically correct phrase for the infamous Nazi concentration camps. Again, the key questions are left unvoiced, and unanswered: Who identifies those in need of such ‘deradicalization? Under what laws? What is the standard of proof that you have been ‘radicalized’?

What does the ‘deradicalization’ program (which, according to the General, already exists) comprise of? Where are these existing camps, when were they founded, who is in those camps now, how were they identified, under whose oversight do these camps run…? (There is scope, and need, for an RTI here).

And one final question: What sort of man has this government elevated to the specially created post of the head of defence services?

Sidelight: Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, now in India on a charm offensive that has included paying floral tribute to Mahatma Gandhi, announcing a $1 billion investment  (while on which, someone should ask about the $3 billion investment announced three years ago), and tweeting maudlin word salads, ran into multiple headwinds.

For starters, his attempts to get a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi hasn’t worked (thus far), for reasons both political and economic. Then, Minister for Commerce Piyush Goyal, using the forum of the Raisina Dialogue, said Bezos’ promised investment was no big deal – a statement that has irked Indian and international investors.

“Until now it used to be a matter of pride to announce such big investments into India,” said the chief executive of an MNC. “But if this is the response companies are going to get from the current dispensation, they will think twice before making or announcing investments here.”

Years of reading headlines announcing investments, and then looking in vain for some sign that the announcement yielded actual results on the ground, have made me dismissive about such announcements. On this, I belong to the ‘Put your money where your mouth is’ school of sceptics. But even so, to hear the minister for commerce diss a major global businessman at a global forum was unusual – until you connect the third dot:

The response was this:

Chauthaiwale is the BJP’s ‘In-Charge, Foreign Affairs Dept’, per his bio. He is point person for the BJP’s attempts to reach out to Indians abroad and to get them to participate in pro-CAA rallies. And basically, he is with this response taking Bezos out behind the woodshed to administer a spanking for the negative coverage Modi and the BJP have been getting in the Washington Post. Just one more instance — adding to the earlier one involving MEA S Jaishankar and US Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, and the recent instance where a BJP lawmaker suggested that Satya Nadella of Microsoft needs to “get educated” in the wake of the CEO’s remarks about the CAA and immigration — that speaks to show how thin-skinned this government is, how intolerant of questioning.

Jeff Bezos should go home tell Washington Post what is his impression about India,” Chauthaiwale told Reuters. “The Washington Post editorial policy is highly biased and agenda driven.”

What astonishes me about these knee-jerk attempts at brow-beating is this: What do they think a win is, in such a situation? ‘See, we ticked him/her off’ — is that it? Does that suffice? Because surely anyone with even half a brain can see that such muscle-flexing never ends well, not when applied against those over whom you have no coercive state instruments to use. I mean, what exactly are you going to do to the Washington Post next — cancel your subscription? Reminds me of the Mark Twain quote: Never pick a fight with a fellow who buys ink by the gallon and paper by the ton.

I’ll leave these thoughts here for now, and come back later in the evening to add a list of links worth reading. (Oh, and you add your links, too).

PostScript: A couple of hours after I’d written of the various comments made about Jeff Bezos, comes this response:

The promise to create one million new jobs over the next five years comes at a time when unemployment in the country has risen to decades-long highs. A CMIE report put unemployment at 7.7% in December 2019; alarmingly, the sharpest uptick is seen in rural unemployment. The Economic and Political Weekly had in December done a deep dive into India’s unemployment situation, which is worth a careful read. And Livemint reports that a government battling a crippling cash crunch is likely to create 16 lakh fewer jobs in 2020. The growing distress is manifest in scenes such as this:

And against all of this, what the government choses to do is pick a fight with someone who holds out the promise of job creation, rather than sitting down with him to work out ways in which the process — assuming there is serious intent behind the announcement — can be speeded up. Ironically, this, at around the same time:

This whole thing reminds me of the Mark Twain quote: “Never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the gallon and paper by the ton.”

Reading List:

  • Adding to the chorus of universal condemnation, Nature magazine has an essay calling on the government to stop the violence in India’s universities and colleges. The bit that stands out: “Many of the government’s supporters are upset that university students, academics and scientists are also opposing the new law. But they must know that freedom of expression is core to a university’s mission; that the ability of citizens to protest peacefully against government policies is a right, not a privilege; and that the state should provide protection for such dissent. Without it, no opposition would be able to present its case to the public — as members of the current government and its supporters did in the years they were out of power.”
  • The Davinder Singh saga continues to throw up questions — as in this piece examining the 2017 encounter on the basis of which he was awarded the President’s Medal.
  • Bhim Army chief Chandrasekhar Azad has finally been granted bail. Some of the conditions attached are appalling; most notably the rider added by Judge Kamini Lau of the Tis Hazari Court that Azad cannot visit Delhi for the next four weeks in light of the upcoming elections. Azad meanwhile was received outside jail by his supporters, and proceeded to the Jor Bagh masjid.
  • Sadaf Jafar, who was recently granted bail, speaks to Outlook magazine about the treatment she endured in jail, and her stories are horrific.
  • Going back to the earlier story involving General Bipin Rawat and the “radicalization camp”, Sanjay Sipahimalani uses the book A Bookshop in Berlin to look at life in Nazi Germany. See if this passage resonates: “On Kristallnacht, Frenkel witnessed Jewish shopfronts being smashed and interiors burnt and looted. “Whoever tried to defend himself or to save his property was manhandled and abused. This time, there were bloody, murderous encounters. Everything took place under the very noses of an uninterested police force.”
  • A story on the wave of protest comics that have appeared in the wake of the anti-CAA protests
  • Time magazine takes an in-depth look at the phenomenon of women fronting the anti-CAA protests
  • IMPORTANT: Official documents contradict the MHA’s claim that Aadhar numbers will not be collected as part of the NPR process.
  • In The Print, freelance journalist Ashutosh Bharadwaj accesses reports filed by the Uttar Pradesh police on the Hindu Yuva Vahini — the private army founded and led by Ajay Singh Bisht, on the back of which he rose to power. It is, to put it mildly, scary. And symptomatic of the rot in India’s biggest state.
  • On Muhammed Ali’s birthday, read this lovely Twitter thread about the boxer’s interaction with Bertrand Russell against the backdrop of Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam war. Also read this post recalling the time the famed boxer came to Madras, as it was then, and met then Chief Minister MG Ramachandran.
  • Via Tushar Gandhi’s Twitter stream, we learn that this government has ordered that images shot by legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson in the wake of Gandhi’s assassination have been removed from Gandhi Smriti. Suparna Sharma has a detailed, timely blogpost on the issue. And these are a selection of the photos:

PS: Here, breaking now, one final sorry postscript to the utterly unnecessary confusion created around the Bezos visit to India.

The thing about bullies — when outed or confronted, they twist themselves into pretzels to back down. How on earth could his statement — made on the stage in course of the Raisina Dialogues, where everyone could see his lips move and the words come out — possibly be “taken out of context”? Alternately, what according to him is the “context” in which he said what he did, and what is the “context” of this about face now?

See you tomorrow.

Reboot, once more

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

Those words are from Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. And they are as relevant for our today as they were when King wrote it, in context of the civil rights movement, in April 1963.

India, today, is caught up in that “inescapable network of mutuality”; we are all in it together, no matter how hard various sections — politicians, pliable media personalities, trolls — try to make this about Muslims, or about a few troublesome students, whatever. And it looks like the message, that this concerns all, has gotten across, as witness the massive turnouts for anti-CAA protests not merely in the metros, but also in the small towns and cities, and even villages, across the country.

I spent a large part of December traveling in Kerala, in Tamil Nadu, in Delhi, and in Bangalore where I now live; I attended protests, hung out with people, engaged in conversations aimed at trying to discover what the common thread was that was bringing people together in numbers that far exceed in size anything I have ever seen before — including at the time of the Emergency, when I was a young student activist.

I wrote two pieces based on my experience. The first, for Rediff, was an impressionistic account of 72 hours spent at various protest sites around New Delhi. The second one, for The Wire, was an attempt to look at how one act of the government triggered a chain reaction that has exposed the multiple fault-lines that till then had lurked just beneath the seemingly placid surface of the country.

I then asked Twitter what I should be writing about next — and the replies serve to illuminate nothing so much as the wide range of questions that people are grappling with.

To write with any clarity, though, you need to start with a clear image in your mind of what is happening, what the implications are, and where all of this is heading to. In these fraught times, that is like being in the midst of a sandstorm and trying to focus on one individual grain of sand.

So I figure on doing it another way. Each day starting tomorrow (I really should have started at least a month ago), I’ll collect and collate the individual dots, the happenings around the country, into a post. And as the dots build up, and begin forming pictures, I’ll write longer pieces about what those pictures are telling us.

I could use some help — it is humanly impossible, given the speed with which events are unfolding, to keep track of everything. So if you see something, read something, hear something you think is worth commenting on, or including in this composite picture, please ping via the comments section.

I’ll leave you with this thought — which in a sense mirrors conclusions I had come to in both my pieces linked above. These are words spoken by Robert F Kennedy, in June 1996, at the University of Cape Town, South Africa; a speech (full text) that has resonated through the ages:

“Each time someone stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, they stand for a tiny ripple of hope and, crossing, each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build the current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and injustice.”

What I hope to chronicle — and occasionally reflect on — in the coming days is the daily manifestations of the “tiny ripple of hope” that, in these fraught times, all of us cling to as to a desperately needed lifeline.

See you here tomorrow.