Sedition charges

October 06, 2019

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INDIA’S descent into totalitarianism is acquiring chilling new dimensions by the day.

On Thursday, the police filed charges of sedition and other offences against 49 eminent personalities for writing an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in which they demanded an end to the lynching of Muslims, Dalits and other minorities in the country. Such incidents, often captured in harrowing videos, are occurring with frightening regularity, particularly in BJP-ruled states.

The letter, whose signatories included filmmakers Shyam Benegal, Mani Ratnam and Aparna Sen, called for the perpetrators to be meted out “exemplary punishment … surely and swiftly”, and described ‘Jai Shri Ram’ as having been reduced to a “provocative war cry”.

The individual who filed the petition before a chief judicial magistrate was quoted as saying that the celebrities had “tarnished the image of the country and undermined the impressive performance of the prime minister”.

On the contrary, the letter is an exception to what appears to be the success of the Modi government’s supremacist ideology in extinguishing, or at least silencing, India’s collective conscience.

Aside from sedition, the FIR also includes charges of public nuisance, hurting religious feelings, and insulting with the intent to provoke breach of peace.

It is the mark of a society hurtling towards a dystopian nightmare when an appeal for humanity and compassion can be so grotesquely perverted.

Since it came to power at the centre five years ago, the BJP has embarked upon an organised and relentless campaign to not only quash dissent in the public discourse but to vilify such dissent as being ‘unpatriotic’.

In 2015, more than 40 writers, including a niece of Jawaharlal Nehru — often described as the architect of Indian secularism — returned top national awards to protest the climate of intolerance beginning to take hold in the country.

Attacks on journalists and progressive thinkers critical of the Hindu far right spiked; several of them, such as newspaper editor Gauri Lankesh, were murdered.

Today, much of the Indian print and broadcast media has become a cheerleader for the BJP and a mouthpiece for official propaganda, putting a positive spin on some stories, and relegating others to obscurity.

The government and its allies in big business have used their budgets strategically to reward compliance and punish critical coverage; some high-profile sackings of recalcitrant editors have also served to reinforce the point.

As an Indian columnist recently observed about local media outlets: “How can they question the system when they are the system?”

This craven surrender was perhaps never better illustrated than when India-held Kashmir was stripped of its special autonomy two months ago.

The triumphalism that coursed through the media landscape, with barely a murmur of dissent — above all, the total media blackout in the beleaguered territory — leaves no doubt that the world’s biggest democracy is no longer worthy of that distinction.

Published in Dawn, October 6th, 2019