In Modi's India, dissent is dangerous

Nilanjana Bhowmick reports on Modi's crackdown on dissent - from activist arrests to vigilante lynchings.

Protestors attend a protest against what they say is anti-people policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government, in New Delhi
Protestors attend a protest against what they say is anti-people policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government, in New Delhi. Photo: Reuters

On the morning of Tuesday 28 August 2018, India’s democracy took one of its worst hits since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by the divisive, authoritarian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, took office in 2014.

Police in the state of Maharashtra raided the homes of nine activists, known for their work helping the poor and underprivileged, to probe their role in a clash between upper- and lower-caste Hindus in the village of Koregaon Bhima in January. Following the raids, the activists were detained and accused of links with the Maoists rebels that have been waging a people’s war against the Indian government for decades. India considers the Maoists – also known as Naxals from the Naxalbari movement in Bengal – the biggest threat to its internal security.

This was the declaration of all-out war against dissent.

Disturbing questions

The activists, who included eminent human rights lawyers, are all vocal critics of the Modi government. They have worked tirelessly to protect the rights of some of India’s most poor and marginalized, often clashing with the administration. ‘Their arrests raise disturbing questions about whether they are being targeted for their activism,’ Amnesty International and Oxfam India warned in a joint statement.

This is not the first time that the Modi-led government has cracked down on dissent. Earlier in June, another five activists were arrested for their alleged role in the Koregaon Bhima violence and charged with the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and several other sections of the Indian Penal Code.

We can add to this the incessant attacks on independent journalists critical of Modi. In July, Reporters Sans Frontières noted that ‘in the first six months of 2018, at least as many reporters were killed as for the whole of 2017, while hate speech directed toward journalists has increased massively, causing serious concern for their safety’.

A kowtowing media

In Modi’s India, activists and journalists are subjected to regular abuse and harassment on social media, including death threats, by users who are followed by the Indian prime minister. The mainstream media – brought over by Modi’s capitalist cronies – have kowtowed to a rightwing narrative, too. Of late, the BJP’s social media cell have even used high-profile social media users, including Bollywood personalities, to fight its cause. From ‘presstitutes’ to ‘urban Naxals’, the monikers fly around with impunity. The attacks are becoming fast and furious.

Despite the onslaught, the independent media, intellectuals and students – led by activists – have stood up as a unified group to protest. They have mobilized protests online, arranged for demonstrations and marches and in 2017, the ‘Not in My Name’ protests, following the lynching of Muslims in India over beef consumption, led to a global outcry and arm-twisted Modi to break his silence on the lynchings and condemn cow vigilante groups.

Activist crackdown

The crackdown on the activists, however, has a deeper significance as India looks to go to the polls next year, with a much-embattled Modi seeking a second term. But given his list of domestic policy failures – including a disastrous demonetization that steeped poor and middle-class Indians into deep misery for months, failure to create jobs, worsening women’s safety and vigilante attacks against minorities – his strategy for the 2019 elections will be to play the sectarian card, provoking fear of minorities, and fan the flames of Islamophobia.

As the countdown to 2019 begins, the attacks are only going to get sharper and keener.