The Authoritarian Turn in India

February 13, 2013

By Sanhati Collective

India appears to be heading towards a period of undeclared emergency. The ruling Congress party, unnerved by the popular anger against its neo-liberal policies and all pervasive corruption, and fearing an electoral debacle is violently lurching to the right to take up the communal and parochial agenda of the opposition BJP. This has been strongly manifested by the events of the past few days in New Delhi. On 6th February, the Delhi police actively colluded with hooligans from the BJP’s students wing ABVP to brutally assault and abuse students and teachers of Delhi University protesting against the visit of the Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi to a Delhi University college.

Three days later, on 9th February, the central government has quietly executed Mohammad Afzal Guru, accused in the 2001 parliament attack case, who had been sentenced to death after a trial process which was nothing but a deliberate victimization of a Kashmiri Muslim. Over the past few years, civil rights activists, progressive lawyers and academic-activists have documented in great detail the gross injustice inherent in Afzal Guru’s indictment. In brief, he was denied a fair trail, there was not an iota of evidence linking him to any terrorist organization, he was not involved in any killing and the Supreme Court rejected his confessions because it was found to be extracted by torture. As Nandita Haksar put it, “these facts should shame us as citizens of the world’s largest democracy”.

What is truly shameful is that political parties from across the spectrum, running from the right-wing BJP to the parliamentary Left CPI(M) have implicitly or explicitly supported the hanging of Afzal Guru. But civil liberties and human rights organizations, and democratic-minded citizens have raised their voice against this injustice. On 9th February, when various organizations and activists of Delhi, together with a large number of Kashmiri students from Delhi universities and colleges, had converged at Jantar Mantar to protest against Afzal Guru’s hanging, they were attacked by Bajrang Dal goons in the full view, and with the active connivance, of the police. The protesters were beaten up and heckled, senior human rights activist Gautam Navlakha was assaulted, and the Kashmiri students, including many women, were specifically targeted for verbal and physical abuse. The police did not make a single move to stop these atrocities, instead, they went ahead and lathicharged the protesters, finally detaining many of them and putting them in the police lockup. It was only in the late afternoon, when many people at converged at the police stations where the protesters were being held, that they were released. The events at Delhi happened in the backdrop of various draconian measures by the government, including firing by security forces on protestors, killing three people, including a 13 year old boy, clamping of curfew and shutting of all mobile and internet connections in Kashmir, and the morning detention in Delhi of Prof. SAR Geelani, who had been also sentenced to death in the parliament attack case, but was later acquitted of all charges and of journalist Iftikar Geelani, whose guilt appears to be that he is the son-in-law of Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. They were released later with the warning that they would be kept under virtual house arrest.

The repressive measures by the central government are being reflected by the moves of various state governments. On 8th February, Dandapani Mohanty, well-known peoples’ movement activist from Odisha, who had previously acted as a mediator between the CPI(Maoist) and the Odisha government, was kidnapped by plainclothes police personnel from his kitchen, and later charged with 15 criminal cases and also with the UAPA. A few months back, his son Sangram Mohanty had also been arrested under fabricated charges. The Odisha government is hell-bent on suppressing all peoples’ voices in the states as demonstrated by the brutal police action on the villagers resisting the POSCO project in coastal Jagatsinhpur district on 3rd February. The police are still occupying Gobindapur village and terrorizing the villagers even as Abhay Sahu, chairman of the POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti is on an indefinite hunger strike.

The West Bengal government of the Trinamool Congress is also following the same path of suppressing all voices of dissent in the state. On 8th February, it has been learnt that under a new government directive even to book a public hall for a political meeting, permission has to be obtained from the police headquarters. Over the last one year or so, open meetings in public spaces have effectively been banned as permission has to be obtained from the police headquarters. Only meetings by the ruling TMC, or other large parties, have taken place. The Metro channel, the site of huge protest meetings during the Left Front regime, is available only for meetings of the ruling party or organizations associated with it, and all dissenting organizations have effectively been barred from it. Now it appears that the ban is being attempted to be extended to public halls too, which is going to effectively prevent any small dissenting organization from holding even an indoor meeting.

This complete clampdown on all democratic dissent in the country is ominous. It is happening in the backdrop of the imposition of neo-liberal policies, price rise, evictions and land-grabbing, and the strengthening of right wing forces. It is important to emphasize that all the political parties that are currently engaged in competitive majoritarian communalism have no difference when it comes to championing and implementing anti-people economic policies.

The interaction of majoritarian communalism and the logic of electoral politics is giving rise to steady drift of the whole political spectrum in India to the right. Thus, we are heading towards a situation where the ruling Congress party, fearing an electoral debacle in the coming state and parliamentary elections, is increasingly going to take up a rightist agenda to combat the BJP, which is set to put forward Narendra Modi as their prime ministerial candidate. Together with it, all state governments are also clamping down on all dissent and resistance against their policies. Unless these moves can be unitedly resisted by all popular forces, democracy is in grave peril in India.
For more details on the Afzal Guru case see:

[1] “A Perfect Day for Democracy“, by Arundhati Roy, The Hindu, 10 February, 2013.
[2] “Satyameva Jayate: On the Impending Executing of Afzal Guru“, by Shuddhabrata Sengupta, Kafila, 22 Nov, 2012.
[3] “Why Afzal Must Not be Hanged“, by Nandita Haksar, Countercurrents, 27 May, 2010.
[4] 13 December : A Reader, Edited by Arundhati Roy, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2007.
[5] Framing Geelani, Hanging Afzal : Patriotism in the Time of Terror, by Nandita Haksar, Promilla & Co. Publishers, New Delhi, 2007.
[6] “India’s Shame“, by Arundhati Roy, The Guardian, 14 December, 2006.
[7] Interview with Afzal Guru in jail, Kashmir Newz, 19 February, 2006.