The Dissenting, Questioning Citizen is Now the Enemy of the State

Whatever the government does is right, and a band of loyal vigilantes will make sure to make sure you never forget it.

What if Greta Thunberg was Indian and had stood up at a public meeting and denounced the government for its hypocrisy on the environment and for persisting in building a big metro car shed at Aarey?

She could have pointed out that it was not just about chopping down over 2,000 old trees, but also destroying the habitat of wild animals and the homesteads of tribal communities who have lived there for generations.

By now, Greta would have been denounced as an anti-national by the nationalist media, called the vilest of names by the trolls and probably also arrested by the government-or at least an income-tax inquiry would have opened against her parents.

An enthusiastic and nationalist lawyer would have filed a case of sedition against her, a willing judge would have happily issued an order to the police to file an FIR.

In present day India, any kind of straying from the officially laid down line can be dangerous. That line is clear — whatever the government does or says is Gospel. In the pecking order of divinity, Narendra Modi is at the very peak, but everyone else within that orbit has to be followed obediently, mindlessly.

Police stand guard outside the Aarey Colony after demonstrators held a protest demanding that the Mumbai Metro Rail Corp Ltd (MMRCL) not cut trees on October 5, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Prashant Waydande

Criticising any action or utterance from the pantheon of Gods is heresy, that has to be met with a stern response. Should you express dissent, it is not just the state that will go after you — there are enough upholders of morality and nationalism to do the needful.

Also read: It’s Aarey vs Metro Rail as Mumbai Continues to Lose Its Green Cover

Within hours of a verdict in the Bombay high court rejecting the petition calling for a halt to the Metro car shed in Aarey, the authorities began their operation of brutally hacking the trees. When some citizens gathered there at midnight to protest, they were rounded up and detained by the police — some of them were college students. Section 144 was imposed in the area, so that it became out of bounds.

A letter to the prime minister by 49 prominent citizens calling for his intervention to ensure that lynching of minorities must be stopped provoked a busybody lawyer in Muzzaffarpur so much that he filed a charge of sedition on the grounds that the signatories had “tarnished the image of the country and undermined the impressive performance of the prime minister.”

For the Modi cultists, that amounts to treason – the judge was pleased to agree and ordered the police to file an FIR.

This is farcical, but frighteningly so. Stupidity with a menacing edge is a dangerous combination — it can destroy lives.

Also read: Eminent Citizens Write to Modi, Kovind on ‘Unacceptable’ Situation in Kashmir

The judge’s order has provoked outrage and the ‘celebrities’ in this list will probably get out of this personally unharmed, but someone not so high profile could find themselves in serious trouble. Any one writing a letter to the prime minister, even if polite in tone and with a reasonable point of view, could be called a traitor and thrown into jail.

Khushboo Chauhan. Photo: Twitter/@RaviTripathi79

The video of Khushboo Chauhan, a CRPF jawan declaring herself to be a “daughter of India” who exhorts people to pierce the chest of Kanhaiya Kumar with the national flag shows how the rhetoric of ‘deshbhakti’ has been internalised and almost institutionalised in recent years. Her video shows her making incendiary statements that would ordinarily land the speaker in jail; a person in uniform would be immediately disciplined.

Instead, she is hailed as a fine example of a true nationalist — the television channel India Today showed the speech with the approving title of ‘Indian First’. The implication is clear.

Her bosses in the CRPF have merely rapped her on the knuckles for making a “brilliant” speech in which she got somewhat carried away. “Some portions should have been avoided,” they said.

Apparently she was making this speech at a debate held by the National Human Rights Commission on ‘Whether Terrorism Could be Tackled Effectively While Observing Human Rights.’

The CRPF just cannot seem to see the irony here, that one of their own is clearly saying that the two are incompatible —“speak out against the nation and you are a terrorist who deserves nothing but brutality.” For the record, Kanhaiya Kumar was not found guilty of any seditious act, but how do these petty details matter?

The constant invocation of the ‘nation’ has radically altered the relationship between the citizen and the state.

The democratic social contract which imposes duties but also grants freedom – to practice religion, to move anywhere and most of all, to express an opinion freely – has been demolished.

It began by slowly chipping away at the edges and when it became clear that the outrage to it was far outweighed by approval and praise, it was accelerated. A large number of people not just welcome the curbing of their freedom to speech – and so many more restrictions – they think it is absolutely necessary.

Also read: Home Ministry Believes in Internet Ban, Mass Detention But Not in Paperwork

The effective imprisonment of seven million people in Kashmir found vocal support among not just the traditional supporters of this establishment but many others too.

The storyline of “bringing them into the national mainstream” was happily swallowed. Forget the complexities of the issue – the notion that freedom can and should be curbed for an overriding national interest – whatever that may be – has now been accepted.

Kashmiri journalists stage a silent protest inside the Kashmir Press Club in Srinagar. Photo: Mudasir Ahmad

The big success of Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and co is not that they have swayed or brainwashed millions of people into thinking that anyone offering a different point of view than the government is against the motherland and therefore treasonous—it is that they have scratched out an impulse that was hidden just under the skin.

Indians crave for order and see those challenging prevailing orthodoxy as heretics. Whether in a family or a community or even in institutions of learning, there is low tolerance against those who speak out or question authority. Not surprisingly, there is a yearning for a strongman who will set right the chaotic house that is India.

Also read: Hindutva Forces in Bengal Target Puja Pandal for Celebrating Communal Harmony

The human rights narrative, for example, has never caught on — governments pay lip service to it, the law and order machinery mouths its own platitudes, but everyone knows it is not practiced in any serious way. And no one seems to care.

Pradeep Sharma, an “encounter specialist’ in the Mumbai police, was hailed as a hero for his role in the death of over 300 criminals. He was sacked in a corruption case, then reinstated and has now been given a ticket by the Shiv Sena for the assembly elections — he will probably get elected.

Journalists, intellectuals, activists — anyone standing up to the officially approved narrative is therefore suspect and should be taught a lesson. The outcry against the sedition case against the 49 letter writers is limited to the much hated liberals; there is no indication that Miss Chauhan will lose her job. She is probably destined for higher things.

The media will criticise the first, hail the second and then ask, “But where is Rahul Gandhi?”

The questioning citizen has become the enemy, an enemy who must be crushed. The government need not go after every malcontent—it has outsourced its job to willing foot-soldiers. These vigilantes are on the prowl — today it is a group of letter writers, tomorrow it could be you.