In the last few months, there has been much debate on the current political scenario of the country and whether it amounts to an “Emergency-like situation”. The ranks of those who reject such a comparison include not just those who subscribe to the ruling party’s ideology, but also critics of the current regime.
“We should not talk about what we’re experiencing today as an undeclared Emergency. I lived through the Emergency and it was much worse. There are nasty things going on here, but don’t use false, phony and misleading parallels,” said Ramachandra Guha earlier this month, while answering a question at the first edition of ‘The Wire Dialogues’, where he was in conversation with Karan Thapar.
“If it was an Emergency, you and I wouldn’t be speaking here in Delhi. So let’s not go into hyperbolic comparisons,” added Guha.
Others have noted the fact that, unlike during the Emergency, the entire opposition has not been sent behind bars, nor have scores of political activists been arrested. However, a look at the number of arrests, acts of intimidation and attacks on socio-political activists and voices of dissent – directly by the state apparatus, or with its active support – in just the past two months tells a different story. People might be ‘free to speak’ in Delhi, but for those living outside the national capital, it has become extremely difficult to raise their voice, or for that matter, even crack jokes. A simple survey of reported incidents shows that in the last few months, more than 60 such cases have been reported across the country.
Not concentrated in a region
What is striking is that the attacks on democratic rights are not concentrated in a single region, but spread across the country, permeating across north Indian states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Chhattisgarh to south Indian ones like Tamil Nadu and Telangana and the north eastern states of Assam and Tripura. Journalists, activists, artists and academics comprise the largest portion of those under attack. While the activists and journalists tend to be from small, regional language publications, the academics affected tend to be from English-speaking backgrounds.
Moreover, while attacks on journalists and activists stem from their exposé of corruption in some form or another, academics are targeted for their expression of critical ideas, with the label ‘Maoist’ thrown around quite often. In other words, every day people holding left or liberal political views are repeatedly branded as ‘urban Naxals’ and ‘anti-nationals’.
Here is an indicative list of incidents and a quick analysis of what is going on in different parts of the country.
Take the case of Kunal Kamra, a Mumbai-based stand-up comedian whose work pokes fun of the left, right and centre. He was scheduled to perform on August 11 at MS University in Vadodara, but the event was cancelled after the administration received complaints from a group of former students who claimed that the stand-up comedian was an ‘anti-national’.
Many believe that the recent conviction of young political activist Hardik Patel and two of his colleagues should also be seen in the context of the continued attack on dissident political activists. Apart from Kamra and Patel, Vadgam MLA Jignesh Mevani is also a case in point. He has repeatedly been targeted by both state as well as non-state actors, not just in his home state, but elsewhere as well. Mevani has been barred from holding meetings and addressing rallies. He is also the object of villification by pro-government TV channels.
On July 5, Rajeev Yadav, a Lucknow-based activist and writer received a threat over his mobile. He alleges that Kandharpur police station in-charge Arvind Yadav called him and hurled abuses at him, allegedly threatening him with dire consequences if he wrote anything about police encounters without proof. The caller allegedly threatened to pick him up from his home anytime. It should be noted here that according to figures given by UP to the National Human Rights Commission, 45 persons have been killed in encounters between January 1, 2017 and March 31, 2018. Rajeev Yadav and his organisation ‘Rihai Manch’ have been at the forefront of exposing these encounters and documenting cases filed under the draconian National Security Act.
Similarly, Roop Rekha Verma, the former vice-chancellor of Lucknow University was charged by the UP police and the university administration for the violence that occurred earlier this month. It seems that her only ‘crime’ was to be a staunch critic of the RSS and to have lent her support to the protesting students two days prior to the incident.
In July last year, the UP police arrested eight senior activists, including former IPS officer and advocate of police reforms S.R. Darapuri, when they were trying to hold a previously-scheduled convention in Lucknow against rising cases of atrocities against Dalits. Darapuri has been also been critical of the newly enacted Uttar Pradesh Control of Organised Crime Act (UPCOCA). He says it is a draconian law with provisions harsher than the existing Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 and gives police such powers as have not been granted by any law in the state till now.
The crackdown on protesters and Dalit activists in the wake of the Bharat Bandh on April 2 is another case in point. Three minors were charged with ‘attempt to murder’ and had to languish in a Meerut jail for more than a month. In Meerut alone, 300 Dalits were arrested and 1,000 were named. Here, Dalit leader and founder of Bhim Army Chandrasekhar Azad’s case must also be considered. Despite not being charged, he has been jailed for over a year now.
In Tamil Nadu, actor Mansoor Ali Khan and environmentalist Piyush Manush were arrested for making ‘inflammatory’ speeches against the expansion of Salem airport and the construction of an eight-lane expressway since it would encroach agricultural lands. Khan had said, “We should not let officers take our lands and should be united to oppose them.” He also claimed that if the highway is laid, he would hack eight people. A complaint was made against Khan, who was arrested for making inciting speeches.
Moreover, on July 3, Tamil documentary filmmaker Divya Bharathi’s house was raided by plainclothes policemen. This happened shortly after the release of the trailer for her documentary Orutharun Varela (Nobody Came) on Cyclone Okhi, where she talks about the negligence of the Tamil Nadu state government and the apathy of the Indian Navy towards victims and their families. Last year, Bharathi’s film on the plight of manual scavengers, Kakkoos, also faced similar issues. Bharathi received several rape and death threats following the release of the film and the police, instead of coming to her defence, added to her harassment by disrupting several screenings of the film. Adding to this was the crackdown and brutal killing of 13 people (May 2018) protesting against the Sterlite Copper unit in Thoothukudi, Tamilnadu.
Earlier this month, Kathi Mahesh, a Telugu Dalit film critic was booked by the Telangana police for allegedly making statements “disrespecting” Hindu deities. On July 9, he was “externed” from Hyderabad for six months. This was done after some members of Hindutva organisations including the Bajrang Dal, accused Mahesh, of making “derogatory” and “offensive” comments about the Ramayana during a debate on a local news channel.
Similarly attacks, attempts at intimidation, and the filing of cases against journalists and writers like Narayan Dhar and Priyatosh Das (both Tripura), Sandeep Sharma (Madhya Pradesh), Navin Nischal and Vijay Singh (both Bihar), Rana Ayyub (Mumbai), Ravish Kumar (Delhi), Patricia Mukhim (Shillong), Biplab Mondal, Prajna Saha and Manas Chattopadhyay (all West Bengal), Venu Balakrishnan (Kerala), Kamal Shukla (Chhattisgarh), Tapodhir Bhattacharjee (Assam) provide ample evidence of the fact that freedom of expression today is under attack.
It is important to note that the attacks are not just limited to political activists, but also affect writers, journalists and artists. Even ordinary citizens are not spared and can be charged with sedition. On July 21, a woman named Geeta Pachauri was charged with sedition in Gwalior (Madhya Pradesh) for allegedly raising ‘anti-India’ slogans while she was protesting against the demolition of her house.
Senior journalists John Dayal and Ajoy Bose in an introduction to the 2018 edition of their book (originally Published in 1977) For Reasons Of State: Delhi Under Emergency, make a very pertinent point while concluding their discussion about the Emergency, then and now. “Ultimately, regardless of the similarities and differences between then and now and whether one is worse than the other, the time has come once again to recall the assault on the democratic rights of people more than four decades ago. Because even though no Emergency has been declared today, its presence is palpable – felt by the rich and the poor, in the universities and the factories,” they conclude.