Last month’s editorial focused on how India, often billed as the world’s largest democracy, was marching towards an authoritarian police state. It was argued that while the formal institutions of democracy such as the constitution, the courts and the legislature remain, their content is being systematically hollowed out to make them mere shells without substance.
Now the march is quickening to a canter. The surest evidence of this march to authoritarianism is the subversion of legal procedures to manufacture crimes based on mere thoughts or opinions as Orwell prophesied in his dystopian novel 1984. This is what the Delhi police is doing in its effort to construct a web of conspiracy in the case of the Delhi riots earlier this year. Mainstream political figures belonging to opposition political parties as well as well-known academics who happen to write or speak against government policies are being dragged into the case being mounted by the police on the basis of innuendo and hearsay. Meanwhile, the BJP politicians who openly incited the violence and the goons brought into Delhi from neighboring states to mount physical assaults on minorities have been studiously ignored. It is hardly any secret that the entire case is being orchestrated by the union home ministry that controls the Delhi police. It scarcely matters that the police “investigation” is biased and the legal basis of their case is flimsy or non-existent and may eventually be thrown out by the court. The objective of the government and the police is to create a climate of fear by the threat of prosecution and arrest to curb democratic and constitutional rights, particularly the right of free speech to criticize government policies and actions. Many scores of students, intellectuals and activists have been arrested under draconian laws such as UAPA, that routinely deny the right to bail, for exercising their right to peaceful and non-violent protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act or other discriminatory laws. These people in the prime of their lives may spend years in overcrowded and dangerous jails before they appear in any court, their lives dented and their careers blighted. The process itself, not the outcome, is the punishment. Clearly it is meant as a severe deterrent to anyone who disagrees with the government not to open their mouth. The loud and clear message is: do not dare to voice your views even on encrypted social media like WhatsApp lest you suffer the same fate as Khalid Saifi or Devangana Kalita.
A decade ago, one could have expected the higher courts to step in to prevent such outrageous erosions of basic rights and halt the march to authoritarian rule. Sadly, this is not the case at present. As noted last month, the Supreme Court itself has become a virtual doormat of the executive. Urgent petitions, even those relating to fundamental rights like habeas corpus, are routinely kept pending for long periods of time or denied. In a recent seminal lecture, retired Justice A P Shah, former chief justice of the Delhi High Court, highlighting the failures of the Supreme Court observed: “The most stark representation of the Court’s decline can be seen in its failure to perform as a counter-majoritarian Court. I emphasize counter-majoritarianism because it is important to recognize the role of the Court in protecting the interests of minorities. A democracy derives its legitimacy from representing the will of the majority. But this legitimacy comes at a cost, which is invariably borne by minority groups, and especially those that are unpopular or victims of deep prejudice and who cannot influence the legislature in any way. This power to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority is the basis of judicial review powers that allow Courts to strike down laws for violating the Constitution.”
The legislative arena is no different. The acolytes of the BJP regime who occupy positions of Speaker or Deputy Speaker in legislative chambers like the Rajya Sabha and are supposed to be constitutionally neutral are anything but, acting merely as enablers of government. This was highlighted most vividly in the “passage” of the controversial Farm Bills that in the midst of a considerable amount of pandemonium were declared passed by voice vote. The rules of the House unambiguously assert that if any member asks for a division, i.e. for the vote to be recorded, the Speaker/Deputy Speaker must allow that to take place. But the Deputy Speaker blithely ignored the vociferous demands of several opposition members for a division. The BJP does not have a majority in the Rajya Sabha and depends on various allied parties to get bills passed. In this case, however, it is claimed that these allies wanted to refer these bills to parliamentary committees before they came to a vote, which is what the opposition also wanted. But the authoritarian regime would not brook any delay and resorted to an undemocratic brute force and possibly illegal method instead to get its way.
A corollary to authoritarian rule is the role played by the media that can greatly favor the regime in power. In this instance also, evidence points to the godi (lapdog) media facilitating the position of the regime as reported by the Wire news portal on September 27. Protests by farmers against the Farm bills have been widespread throughout India, in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and UP, among others. Farmers have resorted to militant demonstrations stopping rail and road traffic in several states. But the entire spectrum of Indian TV channels with just one exception, NDTV, has avoided mentioning the farmers agitations lest it embarrass the government and focused instead on the sensationalist stories of Bollywood actors and narcotic drugs.
Rampant authoritarian measures are also being used to curb the rights of workers, many of which were won after decades of struggle. This is happening in BJP ruled states such as UP where the most elementary laws like the eight-hour working day have been brushed aside on the grounds that businesses need to recoup the losses they have suffered in the coronavirus pandemic by making workers work longer hours. For daring to criticize these or other similar repressive laws in the media, journalists as well as concerned citizens face harassment by the police and even imprisonment as has already occurred in UP.
The culmination of the majoritarian impulse in India, viz. the advent of Hindu rashtra, will undoubtedly accelerate the transition to a fully fledged police state. The noxious mix of majoritarianism and authoritarianism, as amply displayed in the fascist European states of the last century, has to constantly manufacture scapegoats, whether religious minorities such as the Jews in Germany or political opponents like socialists and communists, who can be blamed for the nation’s failures. In present-day India, it is the minority Muslims and Christians along with those dubbed “anti-national” by the BJP/RSS ideologues who perform the same function as the Jews in 1930s Germany. Last December Modi’s chief sidekick Amit Shah threatened to throw these “termites” out of the country. Whether he can carry out his threat will depend on the vitality of the democratic movement in the country and its ability to counter the slide to authoritarian rule.