iNDICA NEWS BUREAU
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s government has become undemocratic and anti-people, destroying democratic institutions including the judiciary, and is coming down with a heavy hand on any criticism of its behavior, leading jurists, civil rights activists, journalists and students have said.
Participating in discussions on the second and last day of the two-day virtual conference Reclaiming India, panelists said the only way to combat the Modi government’s authoritarian conduct would be to strengthen the institutions, including the judiciary, and create South Asian solidarity.
The conference was organized by Global India Progressive Alliance, Hindus for Human Rights, India Civil Watch International, Indian American Muslim Council, and Students Against Hindutva Ideology.
Speaking on “Independent Judiciary Under threat”, activist-lawyer Prashant Bhushan
came down heavily against the Modi government.
“This government has singularly tried to subvert the independence of the judiciary, firstly, by not making the appointment of independent judges and getting independent judges transferred,” Bhushan said.
“This government is using post-retirement jobs to subvert the independence of the judiciary and, worst of all, it is using agencies to blackmail judges…. If the judiciary has to be saved, this government must go.”
Bhushan said whenever “something unsavory” about the Indian judiciary was exposed, the court would see it as a threat to its independence.
“They say that the mere exposure of unsavory goings on within the judiciary is a threat to their independence. Independence from the government doesn’t mean independence from accountability,” he said.
Indira Jaising, former additional solicitor general of India and, like Bhushan, an Indian Supreme Court lawyer, said: “Criminal procedure has been eroded and become a
plaything in the hands of [Modi’s] government.”
Power in the legal profession was now “emanating from the executive, and the judges know this,” she said.
Jaising said “partisan politics” had entered the court through lawyers.
“Courtrooms are used as a forum to advocate that a few of us are anti-nationals,” Jaising said, blaming politicization of the lawyers.
“A necessary condition for the collapse of the judiciary is the collapse of the Bar. But I also feel that the Bar has collapsed,” she said. “The question is, how do we break through this breakdown of the Bar and return to the value of reclaiming India?”
Condemning the arrests of activists under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA, which allows extended detention without indictment) on charges of conspiracy in violence in Delhi that killed 50 people, two-third of them Muslims, in February, Jaising said protesting the Citizenship (Amendment) Act did not amount to a “conspiracy to undermine the sovereignty and integrity of India.”
The sedition laws were being misused against “anybody who criticizes the government, the prime minister, and the chief minister… Once you are accused under [UAPA], the police can make any kind of absurd story against you,” she said.
The Supreme Court should strike down this law, “but, unfortunately, they are not doing this duty,” Bhushan said.
Former Indian Vice President Hamid Ansari said the mass protests by Muslim women against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh had been “unique in more than one sense. One, that it was all women; two, it was spontaneous; and three, the majority, but not the totality, of participants were Muslim women.”
Journalist Arfa Khanum Sherwani said: “I would classify the Shaheen Bagh movement as a feminist movement because I saw for the first time women who had never been to any political protest or site, making the journey from their kitchens to the protest site within 24 hours.”
Ansari said the way the government responded to the anti-CAA protests by attacking campuses showed that the police was “more politicized” than earlier, the media was “communalized to the core”, and the bureaucrats were “literally airing their views” in support of the government’s autocratic and ideological response.
Ansari especially gave a shoutout to youth leader Umar Khalid, who was arrested last month under the UAPA.
“[Umar has] resonated with millions of other youths, Muslim or not, because you cannot really… categorize and bracket him to just his Muslimness. He has also become a youth icon,” Ansari said.
Khalid is on record saying that he is an atheist.
Bilkis Dadi from Shaheen Bagh, who was recently featured in Time magazine among the 100 most influential people in 2020, made a video appearance.
“We are not begging the government to give us alms. We are only asking for equal rights. Modi is also my son. If I didn’t give birth to him, my sister did. Women have achieved [in these protests] what men were not able to do,” the senior citizen said.
Human rights activist Teesta Setalvad said the Modi government’s behavior was a “manifestation of unbridled abuse of power.
“The political agenda is both narrow and vendetta driven, archaic laws such as sedition laws are being applied. First comes the branding of an individual as anti-national and then comes the incarceration. The penal codes are not being followed. The number of journalists arrested is unprecedented,” she said.
She said there was a need to build a large South Asia coalition, including civil rights organizations from neighboring countries, to fight fascism.
Congress party’s member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor said: “I am glad that the organizers of the Reclaiming India conference have chosen to focus on some of the most important issues confronting India’s democracy, and pluralism today. It is time to reaffirm the idea of India enshrined in our Constitution. This requires a conscious effort to defend the besieged institutions of civic nationalism to restore their autonomy and ensure their effectiveness. It also requires us to look to an idea of India that is comprehensive, embraces all experiences and refuses to see the past through the prism of any one faith.”
Mumbai-based human rights lawyer Mihir Desai, convener of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties in Maharashtra, said the Modi government had “mastered the use of these [draconian] laws to turn victims into the accused. They are being persecuted and prosecuted. An authoritarian state is being brought in while maintaining a facade of a democratic state. Democratic institutions are being hollowed much more than earlier.”
“The present government is concerned by its international image, and international pressure should be applied to restore democracy and the rule of law in India,” he added.
Congress party leader Salman Soz said the CAA and the National Register for Citizens (NRC) were “wrong” and it was important to criticize them openly.
“If you don’t say it, it may seem like it’s politically the right thing, but actually you’re empowering the other side.”
He conceded that the Congress party had given the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the torchbearer of Hindutva, an “opportunity… Hindutva ideology is here to stay. We have to introspect and see what our role is in the rise of Hindu nationalism.”
He said though the rise of extreme right-wing politics was a global phenomenon, unlike in other countries, India’s institutions had turned out to be “very brittle. They are just incapable of withstanding this tsunami.”
Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Atishi Marlene pointed out that there was no national Opposition to the BJP now.
“As an opposition, we need to think very deeply, that we are not here to raise a voice against BJP, we need to defeat the BJP,” she said.
“We almost shunned and looked down upon a conservative Hindu, middle-class worldview and when we as ‘progressives’ have refused to engage with this world-view we have left this entire worldview for the fascists to take over,” she added.
Journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta said anyone who criticized the Modi government was targeted. The media, he said, have been “systematically bled and financially squeezed.”
Akriti Bhatia, journalist and founder of Peoples’ Association in Grassroots Movement and Associations (PAIGAM), said there was a “need to understand the clear linkage between what used to be an independent media and what used to be free and fair elections.”
US-based Indian author Aatish Taseer, who has been barred from entering India by the Modi Government even though he was born and raised there, shared his experience of being treated as a Pakistani just because his father was one.
“It’s a description of something that’s playing out on a bigger scale in the country right now where people are trying to define themselves against other people,” Taseer said.
N Sai Balaji, former president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union, said students had, as an entity, become the opposition to the government.
Arizona-based Dali activist Ruia Prasad pointed to similarities and differences between the US and the Indian experience.
“In the US, we have seen less violence toward students than [there was against students at] Jamia [Milia Islamia university] or JNU. There also hasn’t been as strong of a political leadership in US student unions compared to India,” she said.
The reason Hindu nationalism was being called out explicitly in name was because there were more Dalit activists in the diaspora than before, she added.
Artiste Nrithya Pillai, who is from the Devadasi lineage, has been a strong voice against casteism and casteist exclusion in the contemporary dance world.
She said the “historical casteist exclusion, which is what the reinvention of Bharatanatyam is based on, has been about excluding people from the hereditary communities.”
She said that most artistes in the state-funded classical arts set-ups were siding with Modi’s Hindu nationalist government and their views.
“I’m not sure if they do it out of political inclination or mere opportunism,” she added.
Ahsan Khan, national president, Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), said India’s opposition parties had a critical duty “in fighting for the rights of the marginalized and the oppressed, as well as opposing religious majoritarian nationalism that is putting India’s unity and integrity at risk.”
Biju Mathew, co-founder of India Civil Watch International, said “a set of fault-lines” were running through liberalism as the right-wing has managed to “outflank all the structures of checks and balances that made the possibility of liberal democracy, by internally producing processes and modes of working that fundamentally upset all the checks and balances within liberal democracy.”
Rya Jetha of Students Against Hindutva Ideology said her organization focused on changing attitudes and behaviors in the diaspora by organizing campus protests and teach-ins, and also briefing Congressional aides and pursuing legislative asks.
“For too long Hindu nationalism has been shrouded as a legitimate part of culture and religion in the diaspora. On college campuses we are working to make an entire generation of Indian-American youth aware and able to critically think about Hindu nationalism so that future generations apologize less and take to the streets more.”
Quoting BR Ambedkar, the 20th-century Dalit leader considered the father of India’s Constitution, professor Roja Singh of Dalit Solidarity Forum said: “Indian democracy is essentially a top dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic.”
Manish Madan, founder of Global Indian Progressive Alliance said: “As progressive Indians we stand for bringing people together towards building progressive communities…. We are glad to have played a modest part in bringing diverse voices together coming from various religious and progressive lenses through this initiative called Reclaiming India.”
Raju Rajagopal, co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights, said Hindutva nationalists had taken over almost all political and religious institutions.
“What is a purely political fascist group is now claiming to speak for all Hindus. With the rare exception of people like the late Swami Agnivesh, it has completely co-opted Hindu faith leaders, who seem nowhere in sight to defend their oft-repeated mouthed, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam [All the world is a family],” Rajagopal said.
Sunita Viswanath, co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights, promised that Reclaiming India event would be back next year.