May 17, 2020

Authoritarianism Reinforced

THE Covid-19 pandemic has intensified and reinforced the authoritarian set-up which had been ushered in by the Modi government. The authoritarian trend had begun with the Modi government being installed in office in May 2014. It got consolidated with its return to power in May 2019. Now one year hence, the extraordinary situation created by the Covid pandemic has been fully utilised to strengthen the authoritarian regime. 

Even before the virus hit India with full force, the government was pre-occupied with suppressing the anti-CAA/NRC protests. After the lockdown was imposed, the attacks on democratic rights, the use of draconian laws and the targeting of the minority community, the media and opposition voices have increased manifold. 

What is happening in Delhi, under Amit Shah’s home ministry, provides an instructive and grim lesson. First of all, the Delhi police have rounded up several Muslim youth for the communal violence in north-east Delhi and put them in jail without their having any legal recourse.  At the same time, no action has been taken against identified instigators of the violence, starting with BJP leader Kapil Mishra. More insidiously, the police have targeted anti-CAA student protestors, who had nothing to do with the north-east Delhi violence.  Among those arrested is Safoora Zargar, a 27 year-old M.Phil student of Jamia University. She has been arrested under sections of the UAPA and lodged in jail even though she is pregnant.  Others arrested include former students and researchers from Jamia and JNU.

Those who expressed opposition to the anti-Muslim campaign on the coronavirus are also subjected to draconian laws.  The chairman of the Delhi Minorities Commission, Zafarul Islam Khan, has been charged with sedition (section 124A of the IPC) for a tweet, which is not to the liking of the BJP.

The UAPA has also been used to arrest prominent intellectuals and activists like Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha, on false charges of instigating violence in the Bhima Koregaon case. When prisoners are being released to relieve congestion in jails, there is no such consideration for political and social activists. 

The use of the sedition clause, which had become widespread even before the pandemic has become rampant now. Political workers, social activists, journalists – no one is spared. 

The taming of the media has been one of the goals of the authoritarian regime.  Just hours before the lockdown was announced, the prime minister held a meeting with media owners and editors, who were told to put out positive stories and not to counter negativism and rumors.  Following this directive, the gagging of the media has been extended to filing of FIRs against editors (as in the case of the chief editor of The Wire) and the charge of sedition against the editor of a Gujarati news portal, Daval Patel.  His “crime” was that he carried a report stating that the Gujarat chief minister Rupani could be changed  for mishandling the Covid virus pandemic in the state. Last month two journalists were booked under the UAPA in Kashmir.

Any criticism of the way the lockdown has been implemented is also a taboo.  Two activists in Golaghat district in Assam were arrested for exposing a rice scam under the PDS.  They have been arrested on a two year-old unrelated case and sent to jail.

The Modi brand of authoritarianism seeks to dismantle all independent institutions and checks and balances. The most alarming success in this regard concerns the higher judiciary. More and more, the judiciary is becoming supine and acquiescing with the executive’s demands.  The recent Supreme Court judgement on the denial of 4G technology in Jammu & Kashmir is an example.  With the Supreme Court itself unwilling to stand up for the fundamental rights of citizens, the Modi government is able to wrap its atrocious policies in a cloak of legality.

The pandemic has brought to the fore another vicious aspect of authoritarianism – the dismantling of the federal principle existing in the constitution and instituting an overcentralised-bureaucratic system of rule. The centre has gone about systematically violating all the remnants of states’ rights and to bring the states to heel on the basis of diktats and financial bankruptcy. After the five publicised video conferencing with chief ministers, Prime Minister Modi has refused to respond to the repeated requests of the chief ministers to offer a financial package to the states, which would include payment of dues to them and also increasing the borrowing limits on easier terms. The centre wants the states to be at its mercy.  Even on the question of tackling the pandemic, which is a health issue and clearly a state subject, the centre has ridden roughshod over the states in an unconstitutional manner utilising the Disaster Management Act.

The inhuman manner in which the authoritarian regime has dealt with the question of the lives of millions of migrant labourers, the way in which the centre has encouraged some state governments to pass ordinances to dismantle labour laws, the institution of an opaque and unaccountable surveillance regime and the hounding of “undesirable” elements – all presage dangerous days ahead for the Indian people.

From past experience, we know that none of these anti-democratic and anti-people measures will be rolled back after the Covid pandemic is over. It is the nature of authoritarian regimes to appropriate and build upon such contingent measures. The demagogy of Modi in his recent address of making the 21st century an Indian century and building a self-reliant Bharat is opposite to the reality where one of the country’s major public sector oil companies, the BPCL, is poised to be sold to a foreign company and India is reduced to being a subordinate ally of America.

The task before all those who want to stop the Hindutva authoritarian chariot from enslaving the country is clear. They have to wage an uncompromising struggle against the onslaught on people’s livelihoods, their democratic rights, federalism and secular-democracy. This portends a wave of ‘seditious’ revolts erupting after the Covid crisis.

(May 13, 2020)