The Anshu Prakash 'Assault' Case Could Become the Spark That Sets Fire to India’s Fragile Democracy

The attack on Anshu Prakash has given the Modi government a sword of Damocles to hang over Kejriwal’s head. Given its relentless efforts to paralyse the AAP government, there's no telling how this opportunity will be used.

Delhi Chief Secretary Anshu Prakash leads a candlelight march from Delhi Secretariat to Rajghat over the recent assault on him by AAP MLAs in New Delhi. Credit: PTI

The alleged assault on Anshu Prakash, the chief secretary of Delhi, by some angry MLAs of the Aam Admi Party (AAP) at the home of chief minister Arvind Kejriwal on February 19, has become the latest battleground in the long drawn out war between the Narendra Modi-led BJP government that rules India and the Kejriwal-led AAP government that rules Delhi.

The conflict between the haves and have-nots

Two weeks after that sorry episode, an uneasy calm prevails. Prakash attended a cabinet meeting on the state budget on February 26, with a polite, but unnecessary reminder that there should be no repeat of what happened a week earlier. And state government officials who had earlier considered going on strike but compromised by holding a candlelight protest for five minutes every day till the government gave a written apology to the chief secretary, are carrying on their work on the basis of written instruction alone.

This situation cannot continue indefinitely. Prakash’s FIR has accused the government of a premeditated conspiracy involving the entire party, to assault and humiliate him. This has given the Modi government a sword of Damocles to hang over Kejriwal’s head. Given its relentless efforts during the past three years to paralyse, discredit and humiliate the AAP government, there is no telling when he will use it.

Were he to do so, it could become the spark that sets fire to India’s fragile democracy. For Delhi is not a run-of-the-mill state and AAP is not a run-of-the-mill party. AAP is the first political party to be born that has made the transition from appeals based on caste, creed and ethnicity, to appeals based upon class solidarity.

By the same token, while Delhi NCT is a relatively small state, it is today what most of India will become tomorrow — an urbanised, industrialised state with a large, unorganised, and therefore extremely insecure, small industry and services sector. These are the conditions in which class politics was born in 19th century Europe. AAP therefore represents not only the poor of Delhi but the have-nots of the future, industrialised, Indian state.

As Europe’s experience has shown, for democracy to survive the conflict between the haves and have-nots must be resolved through mutual respect and compromise. But in India the political and economic developments of the past three decades have made this more and more difficult. AAP’s attempt to harness class power to democratic change therefore needs to succeed. If it is crushed, change will eventually come , but it will be violent.

The crisis caused by the events of February 19 must therefore be diffused. But for that it is essential to first understand exactly what happened.

Anshu’s FIR

Prakash has claimed in his FIR that he was virtually forced to come to the chief minister’s house at midnight on February 19, to “discuss with Chief Minister & Deputy Chief Minister the issue of difficulty in release of certain TV Advertisement relating to completion of three years of current government in Delhi”, and then in effect gheraoed by 11 MLAs or unidentified persons, berated for delaying the release of the AAP government;s publicity celebrating its third year of government, shouted at, abused, threatened with wrongful confinement for the entire night and finally manhandled and beaten up without provocation by two MLAs .

He was able to get out of the room and get to his car with difficulty. Prakash concluded his charge sheet by stating: “ I request you to take action as per law as the assault was premeditated and in conspiracy of all present with intention to criminally intimidate, cause hurt with motive to deter me from discharge of my lawful duty and compel me to follow unlawful directions. None of the persons present in the room made any effort to save me”.

AAP’s version of events

If half of what Prakash has alleged is true then it would create a cast iron case for the use of article 356 of the constitution to dismiss the government. But AAP’s version of what happened that night is so completely different that it needs to be reported in full:

Kejriwal had fixed the meeting not to discuss advertisements but to discuss how to mitigate the hardship being inflicted upon 2.5 lakh families by glitches in the linking of their ration cards to their Aadhar cards. This had been made mandatory in January but, like demonetisation and the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), was badly bungled in practice.

This was not a new, much less a suddenly concocted , problem. That the linking of ration cards under the National Food Security Act to Aadhaar cards has been creating problems for workers on the margins of society had been known for some time. Sex workers in Mumbai and other cities had complained as far back as in 2016 that they were unable to buy food on their ration cards any more because the shopkeepers wanted to see their Aadhaar cards.

On March 8, last year, a month after the Modi government made the linking mandatory, the Delhi Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyan (DRRAA) had filed a public interest litigation in the Delhi high court against linking food rations to Aadhaar. The network, which consists of around 30 non-profit organisations working on food-related issues, had petitioned the court to strike down the notification. The court had appointed a commissioner to examine the issue on the ground.

Prakash was aware of the problem because Kejriwal had taken him around earlier to several locations where rations had been withheld. According to Kejriwal, the two had planned to meet later to discuss how to remove the roadblocks but a spate of marriages and other engagements had made finding a common free evening difficult. So Kejriwal had suggested meeting late at night after all such functions were over. The meeting called for midnight emerged out of these constraints. Contrary to reports in some papers, therefore, Prakash had not come two hours late to a meeting scheduled for 10 pm.

The meeting, however, went wrong from the very start. In all, 11 MLAs were waiting to meet the chief secretary when he arrived, and within minutes they found in Prakash a convenient lightning rod to vent their anger. Prakash, understandably, resented this and asked Kejriwal for permission to leave. Kejriwal admonished the MLAs to restrain themselves and apparently asked the chief secretary to give them five minutes, since they had come a long way to meet him. Prakash agreed but the MLAs began venting their anger on him once more. At that point Prakash told them that he was not answerable to them, but only to the Lieutenant Governor. According to someone who was present in the room, that was when the scuffle began.

Amanatullah Khan (left) and Prakash Jarwal, who stand accused of assaulting Prakash. Credit: Facebook

The fact that Prakash was manhandled was confirmed by the medical report, which noted that he had a swelling and scratches around his head. But it could not have lasted long because Prakash was able maintain decorum and again ask Kejriwal for permission to leave the room before heading for his car. CCTV footage showed that from the moment he entered till the moment he left, he had been in the compound of the CM’s house for just over seven minutes. The longest that he could have been in the meeting room was therefore not much more than five minutes.

On leaving 6, Flagstaff Road, Prakash immediately phoned the Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal. Despite it being well past midnight, Baijal immediately picked up the phone and asked Prakash to come to Raj Niwas straightaway. He also called the chief of police who arrived promptly. There followed an hour of discussion, after which Prakash went home without filing an FIR.

Prakash again did not register an FIR immediately the next morning, but went straight to the secretariat, where he called the heads of the various associations of Delhi civil servants to his office and related   what had happened the previous night. AAP interlocutors suspect that he did so to instigate a strike, but he may have done this only to nip the growing turmoil in the secretariat, as the news of the previous night’s events began to spread. Only then did he file his report on what had happened.

‘Political suicide’ 

Comparing the two versions of this unsavoury episode one finds only three points of complete disagreement between them. The first is on the subject that Prakash had been summoned to discuss. Here the complete absence of any reference to the ration card issue in his FIR smacks of prevarication. Had the delay in releasing advertisements commemorating the completion of AAP’s three years in power been the sole cause of the meeting Kejriwal would not have had 11 MLAs waiting to meet the chief secretary when he arrived.

The MLAs too would have had no reason to come on their own because while the delay might have affected the image of the party as a whole by denying knowledge of its achievements to the people, it could in no way harm the image of individual MPs. A discussion of advertisements alone could not therefore have generated the anger among the MLAs that led to the scuffle.

The second difference – the evasiveness of AAP spokespersons on whether the chief secretary was actually beaten or not – is easier to understand: with Prakash Jarwal and Amanatullah Khan already in jail on the charge of assaulting a government official during the discharge of his official duties, even the most oblique admission could have helped to convict them and sentence them to years in prison.

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But it is the third difference – on the motive that underlay the alleged attack on the chief secretary – that is the most pregnant with meaning. Neither version denies that Prakash was, in effect , manhandled. But while the AAP version gives a clear, and easily confirmed, motive for the anger of the MLAs, for Prakash’s accusation to be credible one has to assume that the Aam Aadmi Party leaders, knowing that the Modi government has been on a never-ending hunt for an excuse to destroy it, had taken a collective decision to commit political suicide and spend a good part of their lives in jail.

This is absurd: as Kejriwal is believed to have remarked, “If I had wanted to get Anshu beaten up, would I have invited him home and got it done in my meeting room?”

This accusation of a premeditated conspiracy casts a different light on what happened after Prakash left the chief minister’s house, and raises several questions. First, why did he not register an FIR straightaway, but telephone the LG instead? Second, was it by chance that the LG was awake well past midnight, and his phone was not on the silent mode? Or was he waiting for a call from Prakash? Third, what was the need for Baijal to summon Delhi’s chief of police to this meeting at such an unearthly hour and, to do so even before Prakash had arrived and given his report? Fourth, why did Prakash not register the FIR first thing the next morning, but spend the entire morning meeting office bearers of the various Delhi state government employees associations, before submitting his FIR in the early afternoon?

There can be perfectly legitimate explanations for these actions, but none for the allegations he makes in the last para of his FIR. For unless the entire ration card story is a concoction, and Kejriwal brought 11 MLAs to his home with the intention of letting them beat Prakash up, there is no way in which his description of the assault as “premeditated and in conspiracy of all present to criminally intimidate, cause hurt with motive to deter me from discharge of my lawful duty and compel me to follow unlawful directions” can be true.

Fall like dominoes

I have not come to this conclusion lightly. I have known Anshu Prakash for 32 years from the time when he was an IAS probationer in Mussoorie, and have known him well. In these years, I have seen him hold many jobs and interact with the public on several occasions, and my respect for him has grown steadily. I therefore find it hard to believe that he drafted the final paragraph of his FIR. Its clumsy, lawyerese, English does not reflect his command of the language. And he, more than anyone else, must know that the distress caused by glitches in the Aadhar-ration card link is real, so all that the AAP government has to do to blow up the accusation of a criminal conspiracy is prove that there are indeed 2.5 lakh, or a similar number, of ration card holders who have not been able to access their subsidised rations because of the Aadhar link.

Since I have not been able to speak to Prakash since this crisis erupted, I have not been able to get his side of the story. But I do not doubt for a moment that he was roughed up and humiliated on the night of February 19. But I also suspect that he was required by his seniors to insert charges that could be used to justify the dismissal of a government elected with the largest vote share in the history of Indian democracy.

If this surmise is correct, then Prakash is in the same unenviable position in which every state and all-India services officer who has served the Kejriwal government has found himself or herself since it came to power. For, in a manner strongly reminiscent of the way he ruled Gujarat in the aftermath of the riots of 2002, Modi has abruptly transferred or thrown trumped up accusations of corruption against every senior officer who has served the state government sincerely. Scores of lower level officers have also been summoned by the CBI, made to wait all day long before being called in, and then warned never to forget that their first loyalty must be to the central government.

To understand what can happen, it is not necessary to understand how it will happen. When Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in June 1914, he triggered a war that consumed 19 million lives in four years, destroyed both the German and Russian monarchies, and cleared the way for the rise of Adolf Hitler.

When Solomon Bandaranaike offered to ban the use of Tamil as a second language to win an election in 1956, he lit a match that sputtered for 27 years before bursting into flame and nearly consuming Sri Lanka. And when Mohamed Bouazizi, a roadside vendor in Tunis set himself on fire in January 2011, he had no intention of starting a conflagration in the Arab world that shows no sign ending.

India may not be the next country where something like this will happen, but it is already on the list.

Prem Shankar Jha is a senior journalist and author of several books.

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