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How Indian democracy is marching into authoritarianism, under the garb of pluralism and diversity



Almost every other day now, the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs seems to issue a statement condemning some international body or the other that criticises the unjust actions of the Indian state. The latest of these are the arrests of activist Teesta Setalvad and journalist Mohammed Zubair.

Arindam Bagchi puts forth the usual bromides: India “strongly objects…”, India “rejects…”, India is a pluralistic, diverse society committed to rights. (Many of these statements come up if you do a Google search for India + Bagchi + rejects).

These statements harmonise quite beautifully with the platitudes about the importance of free speech, Gandhian values, the robust nature of Indian democracy, and the like, that are routinely uttered by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his frequent international jaunts.

Back home, though, Indian authorities routinely violate the basic constitutional rights of citizens, arresting journalists, activists, opposition leaders, and ordinary citizens on ludicrous charges and then conjuring up absurd reasons to keep them incarcerated.

Whether it is the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Enforcement Directorate or the police in Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled states, there is now not even a half-hearted attempt by these institutions to pretend to be autonomous any more. In effect, they serve to put into action the orders of the BJP, at hand to quash anyone who is considered a threat – or just a mere annoyance.

The arrests of Setalvad and Zubair are another move in the long endgame of settling scores that Modi and Shah set in motion a while ago. Their goal was not hard to discern: it was to get even with every individual that they considered to have been responsible for Modi’s political exile in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots of 2002 and Shah’s incarceration in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case.

Having grabbed the Indian mainstream media by the scruff of its neck soon after 2014, Modi and Shah, through various proxies, quite quickly rendered ineffectual a whole host of Indian celebrity television journalists, all of whom figure prominently in the Hindutva imagination as Congress sympathisers given their apparent support for liberal and secular values.

The next target has been the whistleblowers and human rights activists who sought to hold Modi and Shah accountable for the Gujarat model of communalisation-conflict-and carnage. Former Gujarat police officers Sanjiv Bhatt and RB Sreekumar, and Setalvad are now all in jail, while journalist Rana Ayyub has been relentlessly harassed and on occasion prevented from leaving the country.

The Setalvad and Zubair arrests are also a significant step on the part of the BJP towards completely dominating the flow of information, a crucial aspect of what activist-politician Yogendra Yadav recently described as the modality of total politics. In this model, there is no space for an independent or autonomous media, nor for any consensus about truth norms, nor, indeed, for inconvenient facts.

In German political and legal theorist Carl Schimitt’s argument about political theology as the governing principle of modern political order, all power ultimately flows from the sovereign.

It follows, then, that all truth is also determined by the sovereign as are the criteria for what counts as truth. Control of the arenas where truths are contested – which necessarily include legacy and new media, given their centrality to present-day life – accordingly become essential to the exercise of modern political sovereignty.

The immediate provocation for Zubair’s arrrest may have been payback for highlighting the comments made by BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma about Islam; remarks that resulted in considerable international embarrassment for the Modi government.

The larger purpose, though, is to signal that the BJP will now not brook anyone or any organisation that questions its version of the truth, whether that concerns the scores of destroyed temples that allegedly lie submerged beneath mosques, the grand successes of the Tughlaqesque folly of demonetisation or India’s valiant response to China’s incursions into national territory.

The retribution meted out to social media organisations such as Twitter and Facebook over the last few years by the Indian government for occasionally daring to hold Hindutva voices and BJP officials accountable for spreading fake news or engaging in abusive behaviour reflects the same imperative. So does the exhaustively documented program of the BJP to implement a revisionist, Hindu nationalist account of Indian history at every level of the national educational system and even in universities abroad through its Hindutva affiliates in the US and elsewhere.

Questioning the BJP’s version of any event, past or present – and of Modi’s grand proclamations about India’s future under his stewardship – is now blasphemy of the same order as “hurting religious sentiments”.

Finally, the act of arresting Setalvad and Zubair, covered avidly by television channels, is pure totalitarian theatre.

Like his kindred authoritarian spirit, former US President Donald Trump, Modi has an intuitive sense of the histrionic. Like Trump, Modi is given to elaborate bouts of self-pity, often reducing himself to tears in front of an audience at the memory of his own struggles. Like many a strongman, Modi meets several criteria that Peter York, author of Dictator Style: Lifestyles of the World’s Most Colorful Despots, describes in this article, whether it involves wearing ostentatious brands on his person or destroying historical monuments to replace them with buildings that many consider to be monstrosities.

Central to the aesthetics of authoritarianism is the public disciplining and humiliation of enemies. The Income Tax department’s needling of actor Sonu Sood, the repeated summoning of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi by the Enforcement Directorate, the made-for-television arrests of Modi critics fall within this category. But in the Indian context they are be cloaked in the language of democracy, constitutionality and rule of law.

India’s refutations of international criticism bring to mind the efforts of the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s information minister, Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahaf, who boldly claimed on television that there were no American tanks in Baghdad, even as said non-existent tanks could be seen rolling in the background.

In much the same manner, there is no censorship in India, no violations of minority rights, no unconstitutional arrests, and no quashing of religious freedom. India just needs to be a little more convincing in letting the world know.

Rohit Chopra is an Associate Professor of Communication at Santa Clara University and the author most recently of The Gita for a Global World: Ethical Action in an Age of Flux.





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