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Is the Crackdown on Dissent a Sign of Desperation?

On Palestine, the MEA has clarified that India’s actual position is the logical one for an ex-colonial nation-state: that it opposes colonialism in any form.
On Palestine, the MEA has clarified that India’s actual position is the logical one for an ex-colonial nation-state: that it opposes colonialism in any form.

Image Courtesy: PTI

On Sunday, 8 October, students of Aligarh Muslim University marched in a procession on campus expressing support for Palestine. It was reported that they carried placards saying ‘We stand with Palestine’ and similar slogans. The next day, an FIR was lodged against four or five of them (reports vary), mounting charges of creating enmity between groups, disobeying the orders of a public servant and publishing statements containing rumour.

We need to first point to the absurdity of these proceedings before we get to the broader argument. First, expressing support for an occupied land against colonial and sectarian occupiers can hardly be construed as promoting animosity between groups—it implies that there is a large Palestinian population in India matched by a large Israeli contingent, whose mutual enmity will be promoted.

Second, a slogan expressing support for anything can hardly be considered to be spreading rumours. Such a construction flies in the face of simple semantics. Third, there is no information in the public sphere to suggest that an order was passed expressly forbidding such a procession. Any culpability is focused on the students’ failure to take permission to march. In this sense, it was illegal. But if everyone who marches in a procession without first taking police permission was to be prosecuted, persecuted and incarcerated, well, governments would have to embark on a pretty massive prison-expansion programme.

Finally, and this must be the government’s oops moment, the central government has backtracked on its unequivocal support for Israel. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had first tweeted unconditional support for Israel on 7 October. This was followed by an ambiguous and anodyne tweet on 10 October based on the presumption that the ‘people of India stand firmly with Israel at this difficult hour—when in fact, a good many of them do not—and India condemns all forms of terrorism. 

On 12 October, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) executed a neat somersault, saying the government supported the two-state solution and advocated ‘direct negotiations towards establishing a sovereign, independent and viable state of Palestine’, without reference to the prime minister’s tweet.

So much for promoting enmity between groups and ‘publishing’ statements containing rumour. So, how do we comprehend the position taken by Satish Kumar Gautam, BJP’s Aligarh MP, who issued a statement reportedly saying, ‘Prime Minister Narendra Modi has declared India’s support to Israel and every Indian must follow it. I have written to the university administration to take action against the students.’ Should action be taken against him, now that the MEA has laid down the official line or should Modi face action for going against what the ministry spokesperson has described as the government’s ‘long-standing and consistent’ policy?

There are many issues connected to this draconian attempt to silence dissenting voices; in this case the unimpeachable expression of support for an occupied people and nation against whom the Israeli state has been conducting a war for well over half a century, using tactics—economic blockades, demographic engineering assisted by genocide, and the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets on the flimsiest of excuses—which the so-called liberal democracies of the West would describe as illegitimate and deserving of the most condign of punishments had it been deployed by another non-Western nation.

But the United States is the only important player here. As one of the two superpowers, what it says goes. And it’s hardly in a position to say much, given the genocide it committed against Native American autochthons to grab a large part of an entire continent.

Now that the MEA has made a clarification, India returns to a position that is logical for an ex-colonial nation-state: that it opposes colonialism in any form and the violation of the sovereignty of a nation by, in this case, a reverse-engineered nation-state, created to be the thin end of developed-world colonialism in West Asia, at precisely the moment when high imperialism started to go into an irreversible decline.

This does not, however, halt the march of authoritarianism within the country. We have seen a systematic assault on basic constitutional liberties, including notably the freedom of the press to editorialise against the current regime and report news exposing its numerous delinquencies.

It is in this context that the presumption that all citizens must uncritically parrot Modi’s positions, failing which they open themselves up to persecution and harassment, acquires a sinister overtone. That this action came simultaneously with the grant of permission by Delhi Lieutenant-Governor VK Saxena, with the Centre’s clearance, for the prosecution of Arundhati Roy and Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a retired law professor, in respect of speeches on Kashmir delivered in 2010, is telling. As is the fact that permission was denied by the United Progressive Alliance government on the grounds that expressing an opinion doesn’t amount to sedition.

Along with the sweeping subversion of institutions, the weaponisation of draconian laws to target dissenters has been the leitmotif of this regime’s capture of the centre. The invention of characterisations of those in the regime’s crosshairs is also a feature of the times. Thus the constant repetition of the meaningless phrases ‘urban Naxals’, ‘tukd-tukde gang’ and ‘love jihad’ actually cause concrete outcomes like the pieces of legislation already brought into force or on the anvil that place peremptory restrictions on activities that should be protected by the fundamental right to privacy: the right to marry a person of one’s choice or practise a religion one wants to; and, lynching carried out by criminal gangs empowered and given impunity by the regime.

The point, to return to the booking of the students marching to express solidarity with Palestine, is the citizen’s relationship with the state in a democracy. No citizen is obliged to blindly follow positions taken by governments of the day and every citizen has the right to stand up against them. The only qualification is that citizens will not wage war against the state. Instead, the Sangh parivar has a tendency of conflating the nation-state with the regime, and the regime with the Vishwaguru.

Criticism does not qualify as waging war, nor does debate and discussion. It is the job of a vibrant press to hold adversarial positions against all governments, but especially against regimes that undermine basic freedoms behind a veil of opacity. Unfortunately, a large section of the mainstream, corporate media, especially the television channels, have abdicated their responsibilities, to either function as an amplifier of the government and ruling party’s propaganda; or, reduce the role of the press to complete vacuity.

In the light of the spate of intensified attacks against critics of all descriptions in the past few months, it is critical that the Opposition builds on a clearly discernible momentum. The regime and the ruling party could damage constitutional democracy beyond repair.

The author is an independent journalist and writer. The views are personal.

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