Mumbai: It was anybody’s guess that the Narendra Modi-led government would be intolerant of critical voices. Anyone pointing to the government’s shortfalls ought to have been branded anti-government. But the past years saw a decided shift from the “anti- government” perspective to one where anyone critiquing the government was called “anti-national”. And it is not just the usual activists or rationalists who were contemptuously derided of being “anti-national” – farmers, lawyers, journalists, comedians, everyone has joined the rank.
Here is a list – in all probability, an incomplete one – of those that the government has openly expressed its scorn against.
The ‘Khalistani’ kisan andolan
On November 5, last year, more than 200 farmers’ unions from across 22 states announced a nationwide road blockade in protest against the three farm laws that the Modi government had introduced. The laws – The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act and The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act – were hurriedly introduced through an ordinance route and passed without a physical vote and debate, attracting criticism from all quarters, more so from the farming communities.
Several talks between farmers’ union representatives and the Centre have failed. On January 26, when the government refused to relent, some protesters decided to enter the national capital – albeit with the Delhi Police’s permission. Among such protesters, some took the protest to the Red Fort.
A tractor parade was organised and hundreds of farmers from across Punjab and other states actively participated in the rally. The protest soon went awry and violence broke out. The agitation that had continued for over three months was soon being looked at as “violent congregation” plotting to destabilise the country.
A young protester, Navreet Singh, who was a part of the tractor parade, died at the protest site. While the Delhi Police have claimed that Navreet died after a tractor overturned, witnesses at the scene, however, have claimed Navreet had been shot at before he lost control of the vehicle. The post mortem report has concluded that “cause of death is shock and haemorrhage as a result of ante-mortem head injury”. The family has contested this report.
Several prominent people involved with and supporting the agitation have been slapped with notices from the National Investigation Agency (NIA). The protesters were branded “Khalistani” – a Sikh separatist movement, and over 25 criminal cases were filed against protesting farmers. The agency has alleged that ‘Sikhs for Justice’ – a banned organisation under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) along with other Khalistani groups, including Babbar Khalsa International, Khalistan Tiger Force and Khalistan Zindabad Force – “conspired” to create an atmosphere of fear and lawlessness to cause disaffection among people and incited them to rise in rebellion against the Indian government.
The protesters are accused of collecting funds for on-ground campaigns and propaganda against the Union government, including staging demonstrations outside Indian missions overseas, like in the US, the UK, Canada and Germany.
The protest has also triggered mass criminalisation of several young labour rights and climate change activists. Nodeep Kaur, a 23-year-old Dalit activist from Haryana, has been in jail since January 12. As soon as the farmers’ protest gained momentum, Nodeep, convinced that the new farm laws were anti-farmer, had joined the protest led by Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan, a local labour rights organisation. As a part of the Sangathan, Nodeep along with 2,000 other protesters had pitched a tent on the highway at Singhu, at a chowk located between the Kundli Industrial Area and settlement of mostly migrant workers.
Her participation led to three FIRs against her – for rioting, attempt to murder, obstructing public servants, voluntarily causing hurt among other sections. Nodeep, a daughter of landless labourers and vocal activists, has accused the police and jail officials of violence, including sexual assault. Her bail application has been rejected in the lower court, and her family is now approaching the Punjab and Haryana high court.
The ‘seditious’ journalists
The ruling government compartmentalises journalism in India into only two categories – one which explicitly supports the Modi-led government and others, who are “anti-national” – a word loosely used to describe anyone even a tad critical of the current dispensation. And anyone considered anti-national is only dealt with the harshest laws of the land.
Most journalists, facing legal action have been booked under sedition, defamation and promoting enmity between communities. While several scribes have been pushed behind bars, many others have had to seek the court’s intervention.
As per a latest report titled Behind Bars: Arrests and Detentions of Journalists in India 2010-2020, published by Free Speech Collective, a sharp rise has been recorded in “criminal cases lodged against journalists in India for their work in the recent years. Majority of these cases were registered in BJP-ruled states, among them Uttar Pradesh was ever-willing to implicate journalists.”
In the last decade, the report further states, at least 154 journalists were either arrested, detained, interrogated or served show cause notices for their professional work and notably more than 40% of these instances were in 2020. At least three journalists were killed due to their work in 2020. Out of three, two belonged to Uttar Pradesh and the third killing took place in Tamil Nadu.
Reporters covering farmers’ protests on the ground were booked and arrested; editors too were not spared. An independent journalist, Mandeep Punia, who was out reporting at Singhu border for The Caravan magazine, was dragged through barricades and arrested by Delhi Police. Punia has accused the police of assaulting him and of arresting him vengefully without any grounds for arrest. Punia’s arrest also exposed the hostile atmosphere under which reporters have been reporting in the country.
Around the same time, at least in three BJP-ruled states, FIRs were registered against India Today journalist Rajdeep Sardesai; National Herald’s senior consulting editor Mrinal Pande; Qaumi Awaz editor Zafar Agha; The Caravan magazine’s editor and founder Paresh Nath; The Caravan editor Anant Nath and its executive editor Vinod K. Jose; and one unnamed person for sharing “unverified” news during the farmers’ tractor rally in Delhi on January 26.
A separate FIR was registered against The Wire’s editor Siddharth Varadarajan and reporter Ismat Ara following an article by Ara focusing on the different aspects of Navreet Singh’s death at the tractor parade on January 26. Ara’s article had focused on claims by the family and had raised questions over the police’s claims. The FIR against Varadarajan and Ara has been registered under Sections 153B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national-integration) and 505(2) (statements conducing to public mischief) of the Indian Penal Code.
Siddique Kappan, the Delhi correspondent for the Azhimukham news portal, was arrested from Mathura on October 6, while on his way to Hathras, where the sexual violence perpetrated on a 19-year-old Dalit woman by four ‘upper’ caste men had caused her death.
The UP Police accused him of being involved with Popular Front of India. His family claimed otherwise. He was booked under UAPA and several sections of the IPC and Information Technology Act. He was later named in the Hathras ‘conspiracy’ case. Kappan continues to languish in jail.
Aasif Sultan, a journalist with the monthly magazine Kashmir Narrator who wrote an article on the popular militant commander Burhan Wani, whose death set off a wave of anti-government demonstrations in Kashmir in July 2016, was arrested on August 31, 2018, on charges of providing logistical support to a banned militant organisation. He has been in jail ever since.
Several similar arrests, detentions and FIR registrations have happened across different states.
On the morning of February 9, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) descended at the residence of Prabir Purkayastha and Githa Hariharan and kept them in confinement for close to four days as the ED sleuths continued with their “search” in their house. Prabir Purakayastha, a renowned scientist, runs the news website.
The ED accused that the organisation has received an investment of Rs 30 crore from three US-based companies, which the organisation has denied. Since it began operations in 2009, NewsClick has been in the forefront covering peoples’ movements. In the recent months, the news website has been meticulously reporting on farmers’ agitation, the migrant workers’ crisis and the harsh impact of the national lockdown on people among others.
The universities’ ‘tukde tukde’ gang
The term “tukde tukde” or a divisive gang, popularised during the 2016 Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) sedition row, has stuck on, and many critical – mainly left leaning – voices emerging from university spaces have been branded as a part of the divisive gang. The criminalisation of students from premier institutes began right after the Modi government took over in 2014. But it reached its peak last year during the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) protest in which several university students had participated.
In December 2019, when the anti-CAA protest had gained momentum in Delhi, several university students from across different states had gathered in large numbers giving birth to protest sites at different places. The Delhi Police was the first to clamp down upon Jamia Millia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University and JNU.
On the night of December 15, 2019, in a concerted effort, the Delhi Police had violently attacked students inside college campuses and in the following months, several PhD and research scholars were arrested across different universities. Many of them including student activists Meeran Haider, Asif Iqbal Tanha, Umar Khalid, Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, Sharjeel Imam among others continue to be incarcerated in different prisons across India.
Students from universities in Delhi aren’t the only one that the current dispensation detests. The anti-CAA clampdown had also entered school spaces. Young students, as young as 11- and 12-year-old, were subjected to a harrowing police interrogation in a school at Bidar in Karnataka for participating in a school play, expressing the Muslim community’s insecurities and concerns about the impending CAA and NRC laws. The school teacher and a parent of a student were even charged under sedition and sent to prison for several days.
Karnataka state police particularly targeted students across different platforms for their political stands. Amulya Leona, a 19-year-old undergraduate student, spent 110 days in jail for saying “Pakistan Zindabad” and Ardra Narayanan had spent over a month in jail for holding a “Free Kashmir” placard at one of the protests.
The recent in the long list of young students becoming the state’s target is 21-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi. Her alleged crime: helping to “create” and share an online “protest toolkit” that outlined how to support the mass protests by farmers in the country. The young woman was arrested by Delhi Police from Bengaluru for allegedly editing a ‘toolkit’ shared by Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg. The charges include sedition, criminal conspiracy, spreading disaffection against the Indian state, and promoting enmity.
The ‘foreign hand’
A simple question, “Why aren’t we talking about this?! #FarmersProtest” posed by pop superstar Rihanna triggered a solidarity storm on Twitter with several more activists, artists, social media influencers joining her. What was until the beginning of this month a locally organised protest, had soon taken shape of an international crisis with many extending their support for the farmers’ protest along with seeking accountability from the Modi government.
The 32-year-old singer from Barbados, who has over 100 million followers on Twitter, was soon trolled and vicious online attack was unleashed on her. Similar attacks were also made on Greta Thunberg, US vice-president Kamala Harris’ niece Meena Harris among others.
The BJP went overboard with a complaint registered against Thunberg’s protest toolkit for “sedition, overseas conspiracy, and attempt to promote enmity”.
Domestic and international NGOs
Most non-governmental organisations (NGOs) today are fearful of government push backs and even criminal actions against them. The allegations might eventually not be proved against them, but a state clampdown is enough to uproot the organisation for good. This is what happened with the international human rights organisation, Amnesty International India.
On September 29 last year, the organisation was finally forced to shut down in the country following government reprisal. The ED, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the local police had been hounding the organisation for the past years. While shutting its operation in the country, the organisation said, “This is latest in the incessant witch-hunt of human rights organisations by the Government of India over unfounded and motivated allegations.”
The ED’s investigation and freezing of the organisation’s account happened soon after the organisation released its report detailing the ground realities of the riots in the northeast Delhi and the sudden decision of the central government to dilute Article 370 of the Constitution of India, leading to several violations of human rights in Jammu and Kashmir. The organisation’s sudden shut down rendered over 150 employees jobless and early this week the organisation’s property worth Rs 17.66 crore was attached.
An identical attack was initiated against NGO Lawyers Collective and its trustees and founding members – Supreme Court lawyers Indira Jaising and Anand Grover – who have been accused of violating rules under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act. Jaising and Grover have both maintained that the FIR against them was baseless but the government’s attack on them have been relentless.
Both have had to petition the courts several times to ensure that they are not arrested. Jaising and Grover have been the leading legal voices taking tough stand against the current dispensation.
In a very similar fashion, activist Teesta Setalvad too have been targeted over the past several years by several central agencies.
No laughing matter
There has been a growing intolerance against comedians who, through their satires and stage performances, are attempting to hold the government accountable. The government and its supporters, however, have not taken the joke well and have resorted to what it does the best – register cases.
The recent among those targeted is stand-up comedian Munawar Faruqui who was arrested on January 1 for allegedly “poking fun” at Hindu deities. The comedian was arrested only on the basis of claims made by a Hindutva vigilante group. It did not matter that Faruqui had not made any statement that involved Hindu gods.
He was arrested, denied bail in the lower court and the Madhya Pradesh high court. Finally, the Supreme Court had to intervene and Faruqui was released only on February 7. Four others arrested along with him – Sadakat Khan, Edwin Anthony, Prakhar Vyas and Nalin Yadav –however, continue to be in jail.
When comedian Kunal Kamra had allegedly heckled journalist Arnab Goswami on board an IndiGo airline flight from Mumbai to Lucknow, he was grounded by the airline. Air India and SpiceJet too had followed suit. When Kamra and cartoonist Rachita Taneja tweeted on the apex court, a contempt of court proceedings was initiated against them.
In 2017, comedian Tanmay Bhat was booked under Section 500 (defamation) of the IPC and 67 of the IT Act (punishment for publishing or transmitting obscene material in electronic form) for tweeting a meme of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a dog filter on Snapchat. The then BJP government in Maharashtra had immediately swung into action and a case was filed with the cyber cell of the Mumbai Police.
Criminalisation of academics
Spreading the “conspiracy” net in the Delhi riot case, the Delhi Police named eminent academics in the supplementary chargesheet in the case. Renowned economist Jayati Ghosh, Delhi University professor and public intellectual Apoorvanand were among many who were named in the chargesheet for encouraging the protesters as part of a “plan”.
Their names emerged in connection with the alleged role of three students, two from the women’s collective Pinjra Tod – Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal of Jawaharlal Nehru University – and Gulfisha Fatima of Jamia Milia Islamia – in the Jafrabad violence, from where the Delhi riots spread to other parts of northeast Delhi.
In the Elgar Parishad case handled by the NIA, several academics were subjected to sustained interrogation and some even arrested. The NIA arrested Delhi University associate professor of English, Hany Babu M.T, in connection with the Elgar Parishad case on June 28 last year. Around the same time, 51-year-old professor at the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU) K. Satyanarayana, Delhi University associate professor Rakesh Ranjan and Prem Kumar Vijayan, a professor at the English department of Delhi University were questioned for several hours for their alleged role in the Elgar Parishad case.