ON 14 July 2015, the Central Bureau of Investigation raided the home and offices of anti-communalism activists, Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand, a week after the Union Home Ministry transferred an ongoing investigation into their finances to the elite agency. The CBI then went on to file a case for criminal conspiracy and illegally receiving foreign funds. It obviously did not matter that for over two years the Gujarat police had been investigating Teesta on the same charges, filed cases and so far, not managed to unearth any violation of law or procedure.
None of this should come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the ‘high regard’ Narendra Modi, his party and government, have for individuals like Teesta Setalvad and her organization, Citizens for Justice and Peace. For daring to persist with filing and pursuing legal cases against a slew of officials and party workers for their ‘alleged’ role in the anti-Muslim carnage of 2002 in Gujarat, Teesta has long been high on the ‘list of favourites’ of the Modi regime. Nevertheless, for the CBI to now classify and castigate her as a ‘threat to national security’, does mark a new low in our record as a tolerant and accommodating democracy.
It is hardly the case that the current regime is unusual in its attitude towards critics and dissidents. Every government, provincial and central, in our brief history as a constitutional Republic, has found it expedient to subvert and sacrifice fundamental rights and due process at the altar of what it perceives as national interest. The Emergency (1975-77) was no doubt the most stark expression of the establishment attitude to fundamental rights and freedoms, but there has never been a period when one or the other part of the country has not been under a de-facto if not de-jure emergency.
And this attitude and behaviour is not restricted only insurgents, challenging the legitimacy of the regime in power. Over the years, we have even seen those who question development projects or policies – be it large dams, nuclear projects, land acquisition for setting up Special Economic Zones, and so on – vilified as anti-national. Remember how former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh berated all those protesting the Kudankulam nuclear project as ‘anti-national’ elements acting at the behest of (unnamed) powers opposed to the development of the country. Unfortunately, the conditions under which successive regimes display some openness and tolerance to dissenting ideas and activities seem to have become more stringent over time.
Even so the rapidity with which the Narendra Modi government has jettisoned its rhetoric of openness and inclusion – sabka saath sabka vikas – is unusual. This is evident in not just the ‘stacking’ of educational and cultural institutions with ideological fellow-travellers, often without regard to qualifications or propriety, but also in the clear signal to all civil society organizations to fall in line. The blanket issuing of notices to all organizations receiving foreign grants, or for that matter grant disbursing entities like the Ford Foundation – whether or not there has been any violation of the FCRA rules, freezing the bank accounts of groups like Green Peace (India) or Citizens for Justice and Peace, and one can go on, provides sufficient indication of the regime’s attitude to dissent.
In part this is because not just the regime but a large section of our elite – in the bureaucracy, media, judiciary, corporates – believes that we as a country and people are far too tolerant, that what we need is a strong dose of discipline administered by an iron hand so as to get on with the business of development. This set – pragmatic and business like – has little patience for ‘wooly headed’ notions like compassion for the weak, tolerance of dissent, or appreciation for diversity and minority rights. All of this feeds into a social acceptance of a ‘majoritarian ethic and project’ and faith in a strong leader unwilling to be ‘held hostage’ to procedural niceties – in short, someone like Narendra Modi.
Likely that Teesta Setalvad and her colleagues are facing the regime’s ire for their obdurate resistance to the official script. Transcending the negatives associated with Gujarat 2002 is central to the project of ‘remaking’/rebranding Narendra Modi. Earlier he had to fight the battle as a state satrap, often against the dispensation in Delhi and in the process suffer reverses as favoured policemen, officials and party colleagues were charged and sometimes convicted. Now is the time to redress the balance. Not only are the charges against party colleagues not being pursued, if not dropped, and convicted colleagues granted bail, those seen as responsible for the ‘dark’ days of 2002-2014 have to pay the price.
Teesta and her colleagues may well not be intimidated by this ham-handed abuse of official authority. It, however, remains to be seen whether we, who claim to be liberal and democratic, will rise to the challenge.