Opinion | A Kafkaesque novel appears to be writing itself in the country4 min read . Updated: 05 Feb 2020, 10:37 PM IST
The full force of a draconian law is being deployed against those who voice other points of view
The Karnataka police have got hold of powerful evidence that in their view might bring down the Indian state—a pair of slippers belonging to a nine-year-old. They have already arrested her mother, 35, because she is supposed to have written lines for a play staged at her daughter’s school in late January, in which a character says that if anyone demands any documents from her, then she (the girl) would hit them with her slippers. Wishing to leave no stone unturned, the police have gone five times to investigate the matter and interrogated the children. Sedition is serious business. Karnataka’s finest won’t take any chances.
The police in Mumbai, too, are taking their cue from their uniformed counterparts elsewhere in India. They have also dangled sedition charges to book more than 50 people who took part in a gay pride march, for proclaiming that they would help realize student activist Sharjeel Imam’s dream of bringing the North-East to a standstill with a strike.
This is how the police is responding today to words—maybe words spoken in anger, maybe in defiance, maybe words that the government thinks have no basis, but mere words. These incidents show how normalized extraordinary investigative overreach has become. It doesn’t seem shocking anymore. In the 1980s, when he was an editor at The Indian Express, Arun Shourie had called exaggerated reactions by the state the equivalent of “swatting the bee with an axe". Neither Imam nor the students are bees that sting or cause pain. None of them has advocated violence or done anything to undermine the sovereignty of India. What they say may annoy, offend or even infuriate some, but that’s all there is to it. Words, the police seem to think, are dangerous.
With actions, the police act differently. Think of the shooting incident at Jamia Millia Islamia, and then near Shaheen Bagh a few days later, and recall the exemplary restraint shown by the Delhi Police, which is under the control of the central government, and not the state, in arresting the potential assassins. No physical counter-attack, not even a roughing up.
The full force of a colonial draconian law is being deployed to intimidate those who voice an alternative point of view. The right thing to do would be to revoke the sedition law. When every act of dissent is called sedition, when anyone can file a case terming behaviour they consider unpatriotic to be seditious, it is the law that becomes ridiculous. The language gets cheapened, the meaning of the word gets diluted so severely that it becomes weaker than a placebo. The Indian republic must be an exceptionally fragile entity if it is vulnerable to lines a character speaks in a children’s play or words an angry student utters.
A Kafkaesque novel is writing itself in India. The reality has become so absurd that the chief minister of a neighbouring state comes to a political rally in the capital, invokes Pakistan several times in less than a minute, and advocates bullets to silence those who in his view can’t be argued with. Another politician from his party, a Union minister of state, rouses a crowd to raise slogans asking for traitors to be shot. Dozens of men march towards a university campus, shouting that same slogan. Three men fire shots in five days. Two of these shooters loudly proclaim they are doing this for Hinduism, and the official condemnation is lost in Delhi’s electoral noise. At a rally, the home minister urges voters to press the button of his party so hard that its current can be felt at the park where thousands of people, mainly women, have been holding a peaceful demonstration.
The central government has the power to act now if it wishes. It doesn’t need to be in power in the state. But if it hasn’t so far, it is probably less out of respect for the human rights of Delhi’s protesters but perhaps more in the hope that the general public would get sufficiently angry with them to accept stern action at some point. To their credit, Shaheen Bagh’s protesters have not risen to the bait. They recite the Preamble of the Constitution when their opponents fire shots, and sing the national anthem while some of their critics can’t even sing Vande Mataram. They unfurl the tricolour while their antagonists seem to prefer saffron flags.
All this also shows the resilience and maturity of Muslim protesters. They are centrists and constitutionalists, not the religious extremists of questionable old stereotypes that they are frequently portrayed as.
The mood is electric and the times are tense. One misstep by someone somewhere, and mass fury could possibly be unleashed. Some fires are subterranean, and wise leaders know how to steer clear of igniting a conflagration. Indian cities are known to be combustible. To believe that a cauldron of social antagonisms can be kept simmering for long without it boiling over is a sign of hubris.
An already struggling economy, one that is now far more integrated with global commerce than in the past, is expected to suffer from a coronavirus-influenced global slowdown. Yet, the government’s priority seems to be matters of faith and identity. To be fair, that’s just as advertised. Those who believed otherwise may need to examine their choices.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at livemint.com/saliltripathi