Waiting for the revolution

Nilanjana Bhowmick on the persecution of dissent in India.

Protestors demand the release of activist Teesta Setalvad after she was arrested from her home by the anti-terrorism wing of the Gujarat police, on a street in Mumbai, India, June 27, 2022.
REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas

On 25 June, social activist Teesta Setalvad, a critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was arrested. A Reuters report revealed that the police had accused her of tutoring witnesses, forging paperwork and fabricating evidence in cases pertaining to the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Setalvad has doggedly pursued justice for the victims and alleged that Narendra Modi, who was then the state’s chief minister, had failed to stop the riots which killed over 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. Mr Modi was absolved by an Indian Supreme Court inquiry in 2012. Setalvad’s arrest came soon after the top court had dismissed another petition questioning his exoneration.

No sooner had those who still care about democracy and freedoms mobilized to protest Setalvad’s arrest, another leading anti-government critic was spirited away.

On 27 June, the Delhi police arrested Mohammed Zubair, the co-founder of a fact-checking website, for hurting religious sentiments in a Twitter post from 2018. He had posted a scene from a freely available 1980s film, a social comedy, on the renaming of a hotel from Honeymoon to Hanuman – after the Hindu monkey god Hanuman. In a different world we would call his arrest farcical. He only got bail after 23 days in jail, during which the police filed multiple new charges against him.

The Nobel-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore, who died before India gained independence, wrote of his hopes for the country – that it would become a place where people would live with dignity and be able to express their opinions, where knowledge would be free and there would be no divisions. He wrote of a future where truth, facts and reason would prevail – a heaven of freedom, a democracy like no other.

And, yes, we have become a democracy like no other – where free speech is frowned upon and freedom is just a word guaranteed on a page in the Constitution.

After the arrests of Zubair and Setalvad, I came across numerous posts in private groups saying more or less the same thing: ‘I have never been this scared before to criticize the government.’

Every morning we wake up to the news of another voice being stifled – another activist arrested, someone’s social media restricted or banned. Each of these events wedges the fear we carry within us a little deeper and we self-censor ourselves some more. We become fenced in.

Setalvad and Zubair have been indefatigable in their pursuit of the truth – and in their dissent. Setalvad represents those who continue to challenge the clean chit given to Modi for the Gujarat riots, and the consequent weaving of a spider-web of hate and intolerance that has engulfed the country and elevated him as the Hindu saviour. Zubair’s has been a steadfast voice against the rising marginalization of the Muslims. He has relentlessly fact-checked a regime that has survived its two mandates in a constant loop of fiction disguised as fact.

Today’s India is far from Tagore’s utopia. Author-activist Arundhati Roy, in an op-ed for Al Jazeera, says it has now ‘transitioned – openly and brazenly – into a criminal, Hindu-fascist enterprise with tremendous popular support’.

Something surely must give. Waiting for it brings both hope and trepidation.