Corona Epidemic and the Shrinking Democratic Space

May 2, 2020

 

By Gopal Mishra

Indian voters gave a decisive mandate in favor of the incumbent Narendra Modi-led BharatiyaJanta Party (B.J.P) in 2019. This victory was significant in many respects; no party had come to power with an absolute majority after 1984.

The B.J.P’s coming to power in the background of an economic crisis and failure to keep promises made to the people during the 2014 election, with increased vote share and more seats, was not expected by most political observers.

Many of them had expected Modi to return to power with a thin majority. Much water has flown between May 2019 to the present-day country-wide lockdown to tackle the corona epidemic. Needless to say, the hurricane of events has swept us so violently and suddenly that we are unable to fathom the significance of the flow of events.

It can be considered uncharitable to say that the corona epidemic and the countrywide lockdown has come as a golden opportunity to the Modi government to boost its waning political prowess. This also provides the government an opportunity to wash its hand from the economic mess it has created by blaming it on corona epidemic. But the most important fact is that it has given the opportunity to unleash unprecedented political oppression and economic exploitation and further its ambition of turning the country into an authoritarian regime at least or a full-fledged fascist regime.

 

Nobody can probably predict the outcome of the corona epidemic and the lockdown with certainty; but post-lockdown and post-epidemic, India will certainly witness a further shrinking of the democratic space and an absolute concentration of political power in the hands of a coterie. The developments in the country during a month of lockdown- the first phase- indicates that an already weak foundation of democracy in our country is going to take a further beating in the coming days.

The Modi government in its second term made a gigantic stride towards fulfilling the agenda of its mentor, the Rashtriya SwayamSewak Sangh(R.S.S). The government locked down Kashmir and abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution, which gave special powers to the state. The state of Jammu-Kashmir was bifurcated and its statehood was snatched. Now, Jammu and Kashmir is a union territory with an Assembly and Ladakh is a union territory without an Assembly.

The government did not consult any political party of the state before taking this decision. The entire state was locked down, internet and phone were shut down, political leaders, activists, three ex-chief ministers, and all other oppositional forces were arrested, they were kept in jail and their whereabouts were kept a secret. The entire state came under the jackboot of the armed forces and the security personnel. Newspapers were not published for months, and such a lockdown did not happen even during the most violent decade of the 1990s in Kashmir.

This brazen act of the Indian government, of trampling autonomy of Jammu-Kashmir and locking down the whole population by diktat, was no doubt shameful, but the role of the judiciary and the so-called fourth pillar of democracy, the media, in undermining the democratic aspirations of people touched a new low. Most of the media with honorable exceptions, chose to become a tool for the establishment and a public relation department of the Home Ministry.

Instead of questioning the government about its high-handedness and the suppression of the Kashmiri people, it joined the government and the ruling party in the centre to praise them for their ‘decisive’ policy, for maintaining ‘normalcy’ and for ‘integrating’ Jammu-Kashmir more closely with the rest of the country.

It would have been commonsensical to ask if everything in Kashmir was normal, what was the need for deploying more than seven million security personnel in the valley and if the government’s decision to scrap Article 370 enjoyed popular support, why such large-scale arrests were made. No such questions were raised and only the jingoistic celebration outside Kashmir, over scrapping of the Article 370 was reported.

Anuradha Bhasin, editor of the Kashmir Times approached Supreme court to give direction to the authorities in Kashmir to ensure that the clampdown on the media is removed and their freedom be restored in the valley. The highest court of the land refused to pass an order and asked the petitioner to wait for normalcy to return. The role of the President of the Press Council of India was abominable to say the least. Instead of defending the freedom of the press, he made himself a party in the case and argued that the cause of ‘national interest’ demands suspension of freedom of press in the valley.

 

It is noteworthy that the Chief Justice of India – who was, just one and half years ago, among the three senior-most judges who had held a press conference to denounce interference of the executive in the judiciary and expressed alarm about the ensuing danger to democracy- sat on the judgment. It is the same, though now ex-Chief Justice of India, who was nominated to the Rajya Sabha after his retirement. This makes it clear how the judiciary is compromised and has become a cog in the executive machinery of the Indian state during the Modi regime.

 

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The B.J.P led government also passed a bill on the ‘triple talaq’ issue which criminalizes the Muslim male for abandoning his wife by uttering ‘talaq’ thrice and this act has the provision of 3 years of imprisonment for doing so. There are some important aspects of the act, namely, it has criminalized a matter of civil dispute and the act is silent about the plight of the abandoned wife whose husband would be sent to jail. Once the erring male is sent to jail there is no hope for woman to get any compensation from the families of her in-laws.

It is also a fact that the abandoned wife is not entitled to any economic compensation from the state. While the government takes credit for empowering Muslim women, it has nothing to offer to non-Muslim women abandoned by their husbands without a divorce.
The amendment in the Right to Information Act undermined the autonomy of the information commissioner.

The amendment in N.I.A Act gave the agency power to declare any person to be a terrorist and penalize him/her under Section 20 of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Apart from giving arbitrary powers to the investigating agency to name and punish any individual as a terrorist, the Act also tramples the rights of the states. It is worth mentioning that the government was able to pass all these bills in both houses despite being a minority in the Rajya Sabha.

There was, of course, no agitation against these communal and anti-democratic laws from most of the opposition parties and the only opposition came from the civil society. As expected, a good portion of the mainstream media became cheerleaders for the establishment and more than a willing partner of the communal brigade to spread hatred and Islamophobia. The Supreme Court judgment on the Ayodhya Dispute cleared the obstructions in the construction of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya.

This is the most shameful judgment delivered by the apex court of the land.The judgment did not upheld the claim of the Ram Janmbhoomi Movement that the Babri Masjid was built on the ruins of the Hindu temple and that it was built by destroying the Hindu temple. The court agreed that desecration of the Babri Masjid by the frenzied Hindu mob on 6th December, 1992 was illegal.

Despite these observations, it concluded that the disputed site in Ayodhya be given to the government for construction of the Ram temple and as a ‘consolation prize’ given to the Muslims, the central government was asked to give 6 acres of land to the Wakf board in Ayodhya or in any other place to construct a mosque. If the matter was so simple as thecourt made us believe, there would have been no conflict in Ayodhya as the Hindu party had offered to provide land to the Muslims at an alternative place for construction of the mosque several times before also.

We can see that the verdict was anything but justice; it legitimized the destruction of the Babri mosque in 1992, it repudiated the main plank of the Ram Janmbhoomi Movement but handed the disputed site to the protagonist of the movement. The verdict was a rude shock to all the people who sought justice, and Muslim the community in particular. The mainstream media congratulated the Modi government for peaceful solution of the Ayodhya dispute and some heaped praise on the government for paving the way for the construction of Ram Mandir.

With few exceptions, nobody questioned the apex court’s decision. A sizeable section felt relief as this judgment supposedly drew a curtain over the bloody dispute. The national party in opposition now, which held the reigns of power at the time of the destruction of Babri Masjid in 1992 and had pledged to rebuild the mosque, welcomed the court’s decision. Most of the other political parties also followed suit. With this verdict, the Sangh Parivar almost fulfilled its age-old agenda of constructing the Ram Mandir, abrogation of the Article 370 and moving towards adoption of a uniform civil code.

 

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However, even before the celebrations could begin properly, it be noted that the Sangh supremo urged his cadre not to give much importance to the Ayodhya verdict.

He advised them to concentrate on the issue of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). During a previous parliamentary election, the President of the B.J.P, Amit Shah vowed to throw out all the ‘intruders’ andthe ‘outsiders’ from every corner of the country by preparing the NRC. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court-monitored exercise, carried out in Assam for preparing the NRC gave a rude shock to the BJP and the Sangh Pariwar as the final list of the NRC excluded several millions of Bengali Hindus.

This made the Hindu population of Assam and West Bengal who had come as refugee from East Pakistan/Bangladesh restive and since they were the core voters of the party, the saffron camp decided to amend the country’s citizenship act in a way which ensures the inclusion of Hindu refugees from the NRC list while excluding Muslim migrants from Bangladesh who have been staying in the country for generations.

Apart from this pragmatic consideration, there was an ideological aspect involved. The ideology of Hindutva is founded on the false premise that India belongs exclusively to Hindus for whom India is not only the motherland/fatherland (Pitribhumi) but also the sacred land (Punyabhumi) and hence India is the natural homeland of the Hindus. Driven by such an ideology, the Citizens Amendment Bill was introduced in the Parliament and it was passed in both the houses with just a 9-hours debate. The Act has the provision of granting citizenship to Hindu, Buddhist, Jains, Sikhs, Christians and Parsis of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who came to India before 31st December 2014.

In short, all the non-Muslims of these countries can become a citizen of this country as they are victims of religious persecution in their respective countries. This act will be remembered as the most heinous misdeed of this government because it not only linked citizenship with religion in a country whose constitution declares it as secular, but also because it leads to ‘otherization’ of the 200 million-strong Muslim population of the country, who have lived for here for generations and are an inseparable part of its social fabric.

But the government was confident that there would not be any big protest against this act because no political party can afford to be branded as anti–Hindu by opposing a bill which has been supposedly brought to grant citizenship to the hapless minority communities facing religious persecution in general and Hindus in particular in the three Muslim countries.

The embedded media was busy spreading hatred against the minority community and praising Modi and Amit Shah for their decisive role in passing the bill to facilitate citizenship to the Hindu minorities. It was said that the government has done justice to Hindus that was long overdue to them and those opposing the bill were painted as anti-Hindu and pro-Muslim. The opposition’s contention that they are not opposed to granting citizenship to the Hindus, but are opposing the denial of the same to the Muslims, does not cut much ice with the common man belonging to the majority community.

Assured of the public support and with an expectation to reap rich electoral dividends, the Home Minister Amit Shah took to the floor of the Parliament with his characteristic arrogance, to dwell on the ‘chronology’ of CAA, NPR (National Population Register) and NRC. He minced no words in explaining that the CAA is a prelude to denying citizenship to the ‘intruder’ Muslims and through the inclusion of only the non-Muslim refugees, NPR is a prelude to the NRC. This chronology representing the nefarious design of the government was well known in the political circles but Amit Shah made it crystal clear to all who wanted to see.

 

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The opposition parties lack vision, courage and any concrete program to fight against these divisive and communal politics of the government. The main national opposition party, the Indian National Congress was yet to recover from the shock it received in the parliamentary elections and is not in any shape to challenge the government. Moreover, it is not ready to give up its opportunistic soft-Hindutva line and hence, has confined its opposition to press conferences and Twitter.

Few mainstream regional parties opposed the government and took to the streets. India’s battered Muslim community who have been at the receiving end for too long and whose back had been pushed against the wall during the Modi regime, realize that this is a‘do or die’ moment for the community.

They have also come to the bitter conclusion that no political party is going to stand for them and they have to fight their battle for survival on their own. The government was assured that the Hindus would not hit the street and Muslims would not dare to do so. To some extent both of these assumptions were proved to be wrong. Young college and university students took a lead in the protest against the communal laws.

Despite the brutality of police on the young students (both male and female in significant numbers) at Jamia Milia and Aligarh Muslim University, the latter’s spirited resistance spread the anti CAA and the anti-NRC movement throughout the country.

Meanwhile, the UP police under the thuggish leadership of Yogi Adityanath killed 17 protestors on 19th December last year, seeking to drown the spirit of the anti-CAA movement with the blood of the protestors. Other BJP-ruled states also contributedin perpetuating police-led violence but could not deter the protestors.

Despite the desperate attempts of the government to communalize the protest movement and paint it as anti –Hindu and anti-India, it could not succeed. The Muslim community was encouraged by the support they received from the Hindu community, giving them strength to defy arrest, intimidation, violence and vilification. Following police barbarity on the students of Jamia Milia, the women of Shaheen Bagh, Okhla and Batla House started indefinite sit-in protest at Shaheen Bagh which lasted till the beginning of countrywide lock-down.

It became a source of inspiration, struggle and resolve not to allow rulers to destroy the social fabric and the secular ethos of the country and a clear warning to the government that it had crossed all limits, which thecommon masses would not tolerate. Taking inspiration from Shaheen Bagh protests, hundreds of Shaheen Bagh flourished in different parts of the country.

The ruling party used every ploy to paint the movement with a communal color. Activists were denounced as traitors, Pakistani agents, jihadi and urban Naxals, but all these insinuations failed to deter the protestors. The B.J.P and mercenaries of the Sangh Parivar tried to mobilize the Hindus against anti-CAA, anti -NRC and anti-NPR protest movements.

The result of the assembly election in Delhi proved that these attempts did not give any significant advantage to the BJP and Kejriwal retained Delhi with around 90 per cent seats and improved margins. The R.S.S and the B.J.P with the active collaboration of Delhi police, organized anti-Muslim riots in the north-east Delhi between 23rd and 26th February which claimed 53 lives.

The Delhi police either remained mute spectator to the mindless violence, arson, plunder and killing or sided with the rioters for three days. The real purpose behind engineering violence in Delhi was to send message to the Muslims that they would be subjected to communal pogrom if they do not end their agitation against CAA, NPR and NRC. Protestors were either removed forcibly from the sit-in demonstration sites by the police or they ended protest in apprehension of communal violence.

Protests in other parts of Delhi including Shaheen Bagh continued and the same was true for other protests sites in the country. These protest movements against CAA, NPR and NRC with their spontaneous character and faith in the ‘democratic, secular, liberal and egalitarian’ credential of the Indian State and its constitution, achieved three important victories, namely, it galvanized peoples’ movement, forcing Modi to announce that NRC is not on the agenda of his government and finally it indirectly pushed several state governments to pass a resolution against CAA-NRC-NPR in their respective assemblies.

 

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Corona epidemic came to the rescue of Modi at a crucial time when the peoples’ movement had almost succeeded in cornering the government. The first case of Corona was reported on 31st January.

Instead of taking measures to contain the spread of the virus through scanning and isolating people coming from abroad, the government was busy organizing ‘Namaste Trump’ program, spreading hatred and crushing protest movements, engineering communal pogrom in Delhi and toppling the Congress-led government in Madhya Pradesh.

The health ministry declared that there is no medical emergency in the country due to corona as late as 13th March. Just after seven days of this assurance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced one-day Janta curfew to be observed on 22nd March and on 24th March, a nationwide lockdown was announced for three weeks.

This was followed by extending the lockdown till 3rd May. It is still to be seen whether the gains of the lockdown would exceed the pain it has and it will inflict, but already, the success of the lockdown is being served on our plates by the pliant media and the spineless bureaucracy.

Recently, the B.J.P’s IT cell claimed that without the lockdown, the number of positive cases would have reached 8 lakh 28 thousand and it also said that the number is derived from the study conducted by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). The Secretary of Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and the official spokesperson, Luv Agarwal, appointed to speak on behalf of the central government, denied any study conducted by the ICMR but he later retracted his statement and endorsed the claim made by B.J.P’s IT cell.

Considering the low number of positive cases of corona and less number of deaths in comparison to America and other European countries, a trend to attribute the supposed ‘success’ to the lockdown was seen.

However, it misses three crucial points: only 6 per cent of the Indian population is in the above – 65 years age group, but this is much higher in the Western countries mentioned above. Second, the mortality rate among the 60-plus patients of corona is much higher than in the younger population. The percentage of testing is abysmally low in India, only 170 people out of a million are being tested.

But during the crisis, the first casualty is our faculty of reason. It is unlikely that all these facts and reason would put a stop to the ‘Modi-chant’ among the middle class and the over-fed upper-middle class for whom Modi is the savior of the nation who is capable of taking strong decisions.

It is important to note that whatever challenges the Modi government was facing before the lockdown would be wiped out by propagating that Modi saved India from the epidemic. This is bound to happen, whether the death toll is great or less.

But there are other gains that this regime would draw from this lockdown. The abysmal economic condition of the country from before lockdown, can now successfully be attributed to the cost of the nation’s fight against the corona epidemic. The rate of unemployment was highest in the last 45 years during the pre- lockdown period and the growth rate was projected to be less than 5 per cent.

Now, after the lockdown, the ILO predicts a grim situation in the employment scenario and also an apprehension that 400 million informal workers would become more vulnerable and likely to be forced into dire poverty.

But the condition of economic misery of the people is seized by the ruling class to step up exploitation of the working class to an unprecedented, barbaric level. As the country is locked down, there is no possibility of people assembling to protest against the government without being fired upon or imprisoned for a long time.

The Gujarat government introduced 12-hours shift in the factories and the central government is also planning to introduce it and amend the law accordingly. The Gujarat Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI) has asked the government to ban trade union activities for one year.

Meanwhile, Ministry of Home Affairs has issued a circular dated 19th April which says that the workers staying in government shelters and relief camps would not be allowed to leave, instead, they would be tested for coronavirus and if found negative, they would be transported to different workplace as per their skill. These workers have to stay and work in that place and they would not be allowed to leave. This is nothing but an attempt to introduce slave labor and concentration camp.

 

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The Delhi police which had become notorious for being a mute spectator during the ghastly communal pogrom in the city in February this year, has become too active in falsely implicating activists in the communal violence. Most of those arrested were involved in the anti-CAA and anti-NRC protests and linking them with communal violence, is aimed at spreading the lie that communal violence in the city was engineered by protestors and not by the Sanghi foot-soldiers.

Several activists and people from the south-east and north-east Delhi have been arrested and activist Umar Khalid, Meeran Haider and Safoora Zargar have been booked under draconian UAPA Act. The apex court rejected the anticipatory bail petition of Gautam Navlakha, the 65-year-old well-known civil right activist and the 70-years old Anand Teltumbde, a well-known academic and prolific writer and theoretician on Dalit issues, ordering them to surrender before NIA in Bhima-Koregaon case.

The bail application of the celebrated Telugu poet Varavara Rao and academician Shoma Sen on health grounds in view of their advanced age and the danger during the corona epidemic was also rejected. The UP police personnel came to Delhi to serve legal notice to Siddharth Vardarajan, founder of ‘The Wire’.

On 31st March, the central government moved tothe apex court with a plea to restrain media to publish news about the epidemic without verifying with the government sources. The petition was moved ostensibly to protect migrant labor who were being misguided and misinformed by the media reports. The real objective was to restrain media from publishing anything which could cause inconvenienceto the government.

The apex court did not oblige the government but at the same time it advised the media to publish the government’s version.
The lockdown and social distancing will cause social immobility. This will be an obstacle for mobilization of the people, and the lack of it will undermine the effort to protest against government policies.

During the aggravating economic crisis, the capitalist class is likely to save its skin by putting more burden on the shoulder of the working poor. The obliging government would have no qualms in doing so but as the working poor are too vulnerable to bear any extra burden imposed on them, they are bound to protest. The state will become more repressive and it would solicit support from the capitalist class which in turn would put pressure on the political parties in the opposition to support the government or at least remain silent.

The support for the supreme leader is likely to increase among the middle class and he overfed upper-middle class during the crisis as they prefer to trust the leader whom they consider bold, daring and ruthlessly decisive. This is also consistent with their class interest as they are mortally afraid of any movement of the exploited class and are eager to maintain status-quo.

As we discussed earlier,the domination of the executive branch in directing and coercing the legislative and the judiciary, has reached its peak and is only likely to increase. The role of the media has become too scandalous to expect anything more from it than becoming a public relation department of the government.

Even during the epidemic crisis, the Sanghi brigade has not spared any effort to spread hatred against the Muslim community which will lead to further marginalization of the community and communal violence. This is not a coincidence that there is a strong relationship between communal politics and authoritarianism.

Gopal Mishra
23.04.2020

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