India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends a meeting with US President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo during the G20 Osaka Summit in Osaka on June 28, 2019. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) — AFP or licensors

BJP is using Covid-19 as a weapon to crackdown against democratic dissent

The silence of the media and the opposition further encourages the BJP government's antics.
Published May 19, 2020

Crisis tests the character of a nation and its government and brings out the true temperament of the party in power.

When the Indian government decided to get serious about facing the challenge of Covid-19 and imposed nationwide lockdown on March 24 to contain the spread of disease, citizens cutting across religious and ideological divides welcomed this step as an attempt in the right direction.

However, contrary to popular perception, the lockdown was not only about containing the spread of the virus. New Delhi used this emergency situation to further entrench its core majoritarian political agenda by crushing dissent to its controversial citizenship legislation.

Newspapers have been reporting that since February this year to until the middle of April, at least 800 Muslims have been arrested in the country. Out of these, 60 were detained after the lockdown began on March 24.

The latest to be arrested is Asif Iqbal Tanha, a student of the Delhi-based Jamia Millia Islamia University that has been an epicentre of the protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

Tanha was part of the Jamia Coordination Committee (JCC) that was on the forefront of organising students' resistance against the CAA and is accused of rioting.

The crackdown against students and activists started quite early in the first phase of the nationwide lockdown with the arrests of Meeran Haider and Safoora Zargar under India's stringent Unlawful Activities and Prevention Act (UAPA), a law that treats arrested individuals as terror accused and makes it almost impossible to get a bail. Another student leader and activist Umar Khalid faces similar charges.

Zargar is a young research scholar from Jamia. Part of the JCC, she actively organised peaceful protests in the campus and outside. When she was arrested in the second week of April she was three months pregnant and was denied the basic fundamental right to a hearing in the magistrate court and with a lawyer present.

Media reports say that relatives of detained individuals had not even been provided with copies of the first information report or FIR that the police had filed.

The police dragnet also reached leftist student leader Kanwaljit Kaur, whose phone was confiscated during a police raid at her home. Kaur was very vocal in her opposition of the CAA.

Delhi minority commission chief Zafarul Islam Khan deplored the "random arrests" and sent a notice to the police commissioner, stating that the police was arresting young Muslim boys by the dozens every single day even during the lockdown.

Days later, Delhi police charged Khan for sedition over what it called his "provocative" comment on social media "to cause disharmony and create rift in the society".

The controversial citizenship law that came into existence in December last year defines Indian citizenship in terms of religion. It allows religious minorities from neighbouring Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan to apply for Indian citizenship, but totally excludes Muslims. The legislation is part of the BJP government’s proposed plan to bring in a National Register for Citizens (NRC), which aims at preparing a register of 'genuine' citizens of India. Muslims fear that if their name does not show in the NRC, they will be declared stateless as opposed to everyone else, who will be able to get protection under the CAA if their names are missing from the NRC list.

The legislation stirred nationwide protests with people in different parts of the country and students in different campuses came out on the street.

Delhi became the epicentre of the protests with the Jamia leading a vocal resistance and police used high-handedness in the campus to crush the dissent.

For the first time, Muslim women, from students to professionals to stay at home moms, came out on the streets and staged one of the longest sit in protests in Delhi's Shaheen Bagh area. This mobilisation inspired similar resistance in other parts of the country pushing the BJP government into a corner.

The galvanisation of the public against the CAA became a defining moment of resistance against the Modi government which has never faced this kind of open defiance against its controversial political programme. Instead of reaching out to the protesters and addressing the concerns of Muslims and concerned citizens of India, the government in fact tried to polarise the debate and create a situation where democratic dissent was portrayed as anti-national activity.

The counter-protests backed by the government led to violence in Delhi in the last week of February, with Muslims bearing the brunt of the attack. At least 53 people lost their lives with a majority of them from the Muslim community. Muslims also suffered substantial losses in property.

People here hold a local BJP leader responsible for provoking the violence but he has not been arrested. Most of the detained are Muslims.

Despite the measures that the government had taken up against the anti-CAA protestors, dissent only intensified further. When the lockdown was announced on March 24, the agitation was at its peak.

Forgetting political differences, all came together to endorse the measures the government had taken to extricate the country from the danger of the coronavirus.

But the BJP was in no mood to reach out to the disgruntled constituency even at the time of a grave national crisis. It saw in this lockdown an opportunity to get even with those who challenged its majoritarian agenda.

Taking advantage of the lockdown, the Modi government is trying to muzzle democratic rights and civil liberties. It sees in the crisis an opportunity to expand its authoritarian power.

The silence of the media and the opposition further encourages the government's antics.

Only a few civil society groups in India are raising their voice against this renewed assault on the democratic rights of the people. Social activist Harsh Mander says the government is "cynically using the crisis of the pandemic to kill all dissent and create an alternative mythology — that the movement against amending India’s citizenship laws was violent and seditious. If it is not halted in its tracks, both democracy and the fight against the pandemic, would be critically weakened".