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Negotiating with Undeclared Emergency in India

Last month, Hyderabad police registered a case against Prof. Kancha Ilaiah for writing an article in a Telugu daily, entitled ‘Is God not a democrat’? The article questioned inequality in society and discussed the concept of god. For this, the professor was accused of insulting the sentiments of a religious community and charged with the promotion of enmity between different religious groups under section 153 (A) and 295 (A) of Indian Penal Code.

This is an example of hundreds of incidents that take place in different parts of the country revealing the absurd level to which a law in India be interpreted and applied to target an individual or civil society organization (CSO) holding  a dissimilar view on an issue or advocating a different narrative of history and society.

Last week, Prof.  Mahesh Chandra Guru of Mysore University was charged for insulting Prime Minister Modi, Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani and god Rama on two different occasions. The professor was arrested when he appeared before a Mysore district court in the second case when his bail application was rejected and he was sent to jail.

Though the previous governments have not been admirers of civil liberties in any way, the present administration seems to have a condescending view of them. According to US based democracy advocacy group Freedom House’s 2015 report, after the 2014 elections, at least 18 people were arrested and questioned for anti-Modi posts on online forums such as Twitter and Facebook.

Arundhati Roy has rightly said that one is unable to say things that Dr. Ambedkar could say in 1936 as one risks being put into jail.  It is apparent that there is an atmosphere of fear, where journalists, writers, artists, intellectuals feel defenseless and dispensable, leading to engaging in what Human Rights Watch terms ‘self-censorship.

At the same time, the government is not secretive about its resolve to suffocate and persecute the CSOs  that oppose its ideology, policies or actions. The suspension and cancellation of the license of Sabrang Trust and Lawyers Collective to receive foreign funding is in line with the series of actions against those CSOs that  the government considers opposed to it. Earlier, organizations like INSAF, People’s Watch and Greenpeace  have also experienced similar actions based on deliberate misinterpretation of vague terms such as ‘political activity’ and ‘public interest’ under the Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act, 2010.

It is ironic that while the Prime Minister goes around the world soliciting foreign funding for country’s economic development, his home ministry ensures that select civil society organizations are prevented from receiving foreign funding which is critical to assisting millions of Indians in pursuing their legal, cultural and social development. Besides, as the UN repertoire on human rights noted, the ability to access foreign funding is vital to human rights work and is an integral part of the right to freedom of association.

Apart from a direct attack on individuals and organizations, a more sinister ‘hunt’ (social) movement of  conformity by coercion  is in operation under  the broad banner of Hindutva with scores of its regional organizational varieties mushrooming in the country. The Hindu right-wing organizations are using what the peace activist Scilla Elworthy describes as political and physical violence to intimidate, and emotional and mental violence to undermine. One of such organizations have allegedly killed writers and intellectuals such as Dr Dabholkar, Dr Panasare and Prof Kalburgi for holding views on religion that displeased certain Hindu fanatics.

The present administration has forced withdrawal of some history books and is busy rewriting history in other parts where it can. Meanwhile a process is on to saffronise education as indicated by the union minister of education’s veiled statement that saffronisation of education would take place as (if) it is good for the country

The challenge before the civil society today is to confront this saffron mindset that seeks to replace secular values embedded in Indian history, culture and constitution. This might be easier when there are alliances across movements and groups and sharing of experiences of constructive and non-violent methods to assert democratic rights by engaging and organizing people through education. In the words of investigative journalist Will Potter, like sunlight, education is an activist’s best weapon.


Pushkar Raj is a Melbourne based writer. He has taught political science in Delhi University and was the National General Secretary of People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).
Edited by Manisha

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