Analysis

Media, Democracy and Democratic Institutions: Challenges of our Times

Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal, Executive Editor, Kashmir TImes, delivered the 40th J.P Memorial lecture on March 23, 2020. The prestigious memorial lecture marks the day Emergency was lifted in India. In her lecture, she gives a panoramic view of the events that have occurred since the Modi regime took charge in 2014 and after they were voted back to power in 2019. She discusses with clinical precision the method behind the seemingly chaotic and unconnected strands of various parts of the Modi government’s actions and points out that they were all part of a systematic and continuous assault on the Constitution and Indian democracy, and were oriented to systemically enervate in the first phase (2014-19) and thereafter dismantle and demolish democratic institutions thereby demolishing the constitutional structures of governance in India.

Anuradha Bhasin, Executive Editor of Kashmir Times
(Screenshot of 40th JP Memorial lecture, delivered online)

In this excerpt, she also dwells on the media in Kashmir and the Modi government’s attempts to erode media freedom.

The complete text of the lecture is available here:

The video of the online lecture is available here

The excerpt:

Unlike Indira Gandhi’s imposition of Emergency in 1975, BJP’s mode of operation since 2014 is subtle but systemic. The groundwork was prepared during the first tenure of this government from 2014 by keeping structures on which constitutional democracy functions alive but undermined and compromised. This ensured institutional decay that resulted in disappearance of all levels and hierarchies of accountability. Post 2019, the BJP under Narendra Modi, is making even more far-reaching changes to India’s constitutional order, to increase its own authority and also convert India into a Hindu state that is essentially authoritarian in nature.

A new India is thus being created where the nation and the nationhood is being imagined as a homogenised entity, united by a sense of nationalism in which differences and dissent have no place, in which the only bonafide citizen is the upper caste Hindu and the rest can be reduced to second-rate citizens, robbed of citizenship and even purged of existence. Laws and policies like National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act are being weaponized against the minorities particularly the Muslims, any challenge to them is branded anti-national and both the legal machinery and a band of patronized vigilantes are let loose on those who oppose these laws that militate against the secular ethos of the country and the foundational basis of the constitution – secularism and egalitarianism.

While Muslims are the main targets, the Dalits are a forgotten lot. The dilution of reservations for marginalised people and amendments in SC/ST atrocities Act are examples of calculated and premeditated complacency towards the principles of social justice enshrined in the Constitution. Any progress made by the oppressed classes in the last seven decades since independence has already been retarded despite laws and policies to make them equal citizens in the true sense. They are now being pushed back to the very margins from where they had taken feeble baby steps. The Dalits comprise over 16 percent of India’s population. Other Backward Communities are 40 percent and Muslims 14-15 percent.


The idea of new India also eliminates the poor. When pandemic hit the shores of India, the hasty lockdown pushed the poor labour class to the wall – jobless, scared and hungry – with the government washing its hands off the matter. Many among the lakhs who embarked on the long journey back to their homes – barefeet, thirsty and hungry –was nothing but state sponsored cruelty of monumental proportions. A similar replay of what the migrant labour force went through – though in a different form – is at play with the farm laws that have brought farmers on the roads since over three months. Not only are their demands not being heard, they are being demonised as foreign agents and labelled as terrorists. The new India, projected as ‘strong’ and ‘united’ is being envisioned not by inclusion but exclusion of its people.

This India forbids transparency and completely clamps down on the right to ask questions or to dissent. While institutions of accountability have literally caved in under pressure, the Right to Information Act has undergone severe dilutions, virtually making it redundant, the Prime Minister’s office is above scrutiny and at best it puts up the cosmetic attempt of turning down RTI applications on technical grounds or the simple rationale that “it is a waste of time”. For instance, a separate fund for the pandemic was set up a year ago called PM Cares Fund, over and above the Prime Minister Relief Fund. But the functioning of the Fund remains as secretive as the electoral bonds story. It received millions of rupees as donation but neither does the government put the data out in the public domain nor does it respond to RTIs on the question.

The very logic of accountability in this ‘New India’ has been subverted. The executive’s functioning remains hidden from public gaze but the citizen is transparent before the state. As if Aadhaar cards and biometrics were not enough to encroach on the privacy of individuals, the Modi government has adopted a policy of maintaining surveillance through coercing social media giants to snoop on the unsuspecting public and share their data and conversations.

The state goes beyond the usual eavesdropping. The case of Rona Wilson who was framed on basis of flimsy evidence that entered his computer through a malware, shows us that the state can use an individual’s gadgets and cyber accounts, weaponize it against him or her by planting evidence to keep him or her out of circulation. While laws have been suitably tweaked and invoked, particularly the UAPA which gives the state and its agencies sweeping powers to proclaim anyone a terrorist to be imprisoned without bail, hundreds of activists, intellectuals, journalists, researchers and students who dared to criticize the government or engage in democratic peaceful protest are today languishing in jail or facing charges under UAPA, sedition and sundry such laws. Thousands of ordinary people including Muslims, Dalits and now farmers have been similarly consigned to the four walls of some dark and dingy prisons. The state comes down with all its brutality. Even an 83-year-old suffering from Parkinson’s Disease is denied bail, even a sipper.
Why should a government – a powerful government – be at war with its people? The hallmark of a totalitarian government is that it is paranoid of its public. It is paranoid because it knows that peoples’ power is a challenge to its authority. Informed citizens are an even bigger challenge. It thus rules by becoming intolerant to dissent, keeps citizens both uniformed and disinformed and exercises complete surveillance over them. In all these respects, the present Indian govt does not disappoint you.

Additionally, it disempowers the people politically and economically. The 2015 demonetisation – a virtual financial coup against the Indian Republic had already broken the back of India’s economy. Demonetisation ruined the informal sector, caused immense misery to the poor and failed in curbing corruption, terrorism and black money – the goals that the government professed to achieve by robbing people of their own money. GST has delivered a blow to the small and medium sector enterprises, cut into the revenues of states and undermined the federal spirit of the country, making states dependent on the Centre’s mercy. Economic policies were further reshaped to similar effect during the Covid-19 pandemic. A recent Oxfam report pointed out that the wealth of the country’s billionaires increased by an estimated 35 per cent during the lockdown, while 84 per cent of households suffered varying degrees of income loss, and 1.7 lakh people lost their jobs every hour in April 2020 alone. It also said income increases for India’s top 100 billionaires since March 2020, when the lockdown was enforced, was enough to give each of the 138 million poorest people a cheque for Rs 94,045. While India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, was declared the fourth richest man in the world during this period, the total number of people living in poverty could have increased by between 200 million and 500 million. Prices of essential commodities including petrol are sky high due to excessive taxations, impacting the poor and the middle classes immensely but the ultra-rich are not just getting tax exemptions, they are also getting loan waivers. This model of governance is designed to sharpen the disparities and keep the teeming millions impoverished, disempowered and consequently more controlled.

Ignorance and disempowerment provide a thriving ground for xenophobia and communalism which gets official patronage. Sample, the evident police bias in the 2020 Delhi riots which left 53 dead, mostly Muslims. Hundreds of those arrested in subsequent months were Muslims and students, many of whom were peacefully protesting but the likes of Kapil Mishra and Anurag Thakur who were caught on video perpetuating hate and advocating violence were treated with kids gloves. Since 2014, we are witnessing deepening of the communal bias of the state in policies and in dealing with hate speeches targeting minorities and vigilantism. The state’s sanction is far more brazen. From promoting street lynchings we have moved to criminalizing those who dissent or are different. From reducing Gandhi and vilifying Nehru, we have moved on to hero-worship of Godse and Savarkar. From intolerance unleashed by trolls and hooligans on streets against people who are different or think differently, new laws are being brought in or amendments made to existing ones to give a legal shape to these actions as the vision of a nation run by the guiding principles of Hindutva ideology is rolled out. From cow slaughter bans, we are graduating to legal bans on inter-faith marriages and matters of the heart, literally so.

Another way of maintaining stringent hold over the public is by manipulating and destroying the education system in its endeavour to ‘catch ‘em young’. The BJP government is tirelessly labouring to Hindutvise curriculum, schools and campuses. So fervent is the zeal that propelled by a tearing hurry, the state used the occasion of pandemic to begin ruthless alterations in the CBSE books, mid-session, in the name of curtailing syllabus and offering relaxation to the students. Partition is out of Social Science textbooks, peoples’ struggles against feudal practices have been purged, Nehru is dwarfed and superimposed with the likes of Deendayal Upadhya, Planning Commission has been taken over by Niti Ayog, India’s relations with neighbours have been squeezed and Indo-Israel relations added to the shelf; and extra pages on Modi’s style of governance have been added. Scientific temperament is taking a beating. Ancient scientific wisdom and cow science are raised to the same pedestal as Physics and Chemistry, if not over and above it. Universities are being controlled by loyalists, students are criminalised for learning to become free thinkers and for their activism; and independent thinkers and academicians are being shown the door. Pratap Bhanu Mehta case reveals that even prestigious private universities are unable to escape this phenomenon. The evident goal is to perpetuate ignorance.

There is chaos in what is happening. But there is method in this madness. The transition from democracy to Hindutva is extremely systemic. Under Modi 1, by damaging all layers of accountability, the very foundation of democracy was shaken. Everything from elections, judiciary and media started losing sanctity. The loss gradually began to be normalized. Under Modi 2, it becomes easier to bring down the rest far more easily, brazenly and speedily and make way for a new India, that excludes more than half the India and one that we cannot even recognize.

Where does Kashmir fit in this new emerging India?

Right from the days of accession, democracy in Jammu and Kashmir has been observed in breach and New Delhi’s control has been absolute through puppet regimes, deposition and arrests of leaders and sham elections (barring few exceptions). Election is not the only thumb-rule of democracy. Civil liberties in Kashmir have been violated for long. In response to insurgency, laws like AFSPA have been added that crush peoples’ freedoms and their human rights even further. In addition to this, a state law like Public Safety Act ensures that people are kept out of circulation. Custodial torture, disappearances, staged encounters and even sexual violence is common. Protests have been bulleted and pelleted, even passersby have not been spared. The most inhuman tactics of warfare like use of chili powder, PAVA shells, tear-gas shells aimed at houses or peoples’ bodies are used in the name of non-lethal weapons.
In this backdrop, the political and geographical fate of the people of Jammu and Kashmir was decided on August 5, 2019 by a simple Presidential order and a resolution while they were cocooned in their homes with curfew or restrictions on the streets. Far from consulting the people, a majoritarian government imprisoned its citizens in jails or their homes and arrogated the right of the state legislative assembly to take a decision on changes to the special status on the Parliament where the ruling party enjoys a brute majority.

The very legality of the move of de-operationalising Article 370, re-orientation of Jammu and Kashmir State, its demotion by division and creation of two separate Union Territories is questionable. The State’s accession was contingent on a constitutionally enshrined recognition of its political identity. The manner in which this has been done raises questions of constitutional, moral and democratic propriety. The Indian Parliament was not empowered to either amend or delete the provision. For this, the approval of the J&K State’s Constituent Assembly which was dissolved in 1957 was necessary. In its absence, any concurrence of the State government is always subject to the elected assembly’s final approval. When the State is under governor’s rule or president’s rule, neither can accord that concurrence. Modification powers were, however, used to transfer the right of decision making to Governor and from Governor to the parliament where the BJP enjoys brute majority.

Not only have the people’s special status rights been snatched, they have been divided and granted a status that is much lower than the status of a full-fledged State in this forced integration process. On August 5, politicians from Kashmir, barring those from BJP and some patronized loyalists, were among the thousands illegally detained for several months. The list included three former chief ministers. People including prominent businessmen, lawyers, journalists and activists were picked up from their homes in the dead of the night, illegally detained and then pushed off to jails outside Jammu and Kashmir without informing their families about their whereabouts. They were not just denied visitation rights for the next several months but were also deprived of a change of clothes or medicines. Thousands of others, children included, were detained for a few hours or days, often returned back with torture marks on their bodies. In some South Kashmir villages, men were picked up, humiliated, tortured and their shrieks amplified on loudspeaker. The idea was to instill wide-spread psychological terror by terrorising a few.

“Not a bullet was fired, not a single person has died,” said India’s Home Minister Amit Shah. While the claims were false, it was indeed true that the Valley, despite the oppressive atmosphere did not witness the scale of protests or violence it had become accustomed to in the preceding years. Brutality, however, cannot be measured simply in terms of the blood spilled on the roads or even the half-dead men sent back home from torture chambers. The sheer scale of sense of powerlessness in the face of increased military vigilance in a place that is said to be the most militarised spaces in the world, the massive surveillance, the absolute silence enforced by a stringent communication ban, the disappearance of newspapers, the fact that even the most powerful people of the Valley had been reduced to prisoners, the rumours of massive slayings and enforced disappearances, mostly circulated from within the official circles, were frightening and far more brutal than the lethal weapons. In the name of integration and national interest, civil liberties lay in tatters, people brutalized in unimaginable ways like being deprived of basic amenities – healthcare, communication and essential commodities. That the dominant narrative in mainland India was of celebration over what was happening in Kashmir further added to the sense of psychological terror.

The phenomenon is best explained by psychologist Judith Herman who theorises how repetitive victimization is used to wield psychological power over victims. The ultimate effect of psychological domination convinces the victim that the perpetrator is omnipotent, that resistance is futile, and that life depends upon winning the perpetrator’s indulgence through absolute compliance. This is what may partly explain the prevailing silence in Kashmir. The other reasons may be fatigue, shock and horror of August 5 actions, a clear lack of understanding of exact quantum of their loss, the confusion and emotional chaos emerging from an unfamiliar situation and a conscious strategy to wait for an opportune moment.

The domain of fear and chaos continues to be perpetuated and enlarged and keeps exhibiting itself in amended laws and policies, NIA raids, random arrests, pelleting of Muharram procession and slapping of UAPA on a man and his family for daring to demand the body of his son.

Article 370 revocation and J&K’s downgrading were not the end, they were simply means towards an end which has begun to unfold bit by bit. The move whose foundational basis was stealth, deceit and a complete subversion of democracy and liberty was only a stepping-stone for laying down a roadmap of something which is far more sinister. Unlike the official narrative that this will deliver peace, democracy and development, India’s security interests are hurt and the loss of special status has become a potent weapon to rob the people of J&K of their political, social and economic rights.

Under the new system which converted the erstwhile State into two different Union Territories, New Delhi has fully shed the pretense of imposing puppet governments, who could act as a buffer on certain issues. There is a systemic ongoing process to completely depoliticize Kashmir. Everything is designed to reduce the political power to dimunitive size and place the levers in the hands of the bureaucrats directly controlled by the Centre – imprisoning the entire political brass of Kashmir including the all-time blue-eyed favourites, the degraded status of an assembly which has been kept in abeyance till the Delimitation Commission can carve out newer boundaries not in accordance with accepted norms of population but on basis of how it could give electoral advantage to BJP, the propping up of another unconstitutional layer of governance with the recent DDC elections, in addition to the usual fare of engineering defections and patronizing new political outfits and sharpening the divisive political narratives of Jammu and Kashmir into Jammu versus Kashmir.

Categories: Analysis

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