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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 45, New Delhi, October 24, 2020

LETTER TO THE READERS - Mainstream, October 24, 2020

Saturday 24 October 2020

Unbridled exercise of power comes at a price and we are witnessing it every day within and outside the government.

With the overwhelming dominance of ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the Centre and its governments in many States and a large footprint across India, there is a new political culture of concentrated power and its misuse at play. The government of Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister in 2014 and later again in 2019 no longer relies on support from regional political parties. On the one hand, the Office of the Prime Minister in the past six years has become the power-centre of the government’s many arms and on the other power within the BJP has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of of the Prime Minister and Home Minister and former party boss Mr Amit Shah. All State-level election campaigns are fought in the name of PM Modi as a brand name. We saw how the 2017 elections in UP was fought by the Prime minister as the main face and then suddenly an untalked of candidate for Chief Minister was foisted on the people after the election. A Capture of the State is underway. Chosen people in good books of the ruling party are being appointed everywhere. Companies or NGOs run by the party men or circles around it or people from the RSS mother-ship are beneficiaries of contracts and funding.

There are growing signs of breakdown of past conventions, in the practice of federalism and increasing indications of unitary state power being flaunted. We saw how demonetisation was unilaterally decided by the Prime Minister with no prior consultation with States. Similarly, it seems that the national lockdown was decided with limited consultation with States. We have been witnessing a tug of war when the State governments are seeking their financial dues from the GST and the Central government is telling them to go seek loans. This is quite unprecedented.

In 2013 the outgoing Congress party-led government enacted the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act creating an independent anti-graft ombudsman’s office. In fact the BJP had made much hue and cry for it, but now despite being in power for six years it has forgotten all about Lokpal and any oversight on government.

There is evidence every day of lack of accountability in government and increasing political interference and open use of the police and government agencies for personal protection or political gain. The opponents and critics are being arm-twisted either by party-controlled extra-legal forces — trolls or militias that threaten and intimidate and otherwise by official legal entities like State police or Central agencies.

The authoritarian ways of the Central Government in all its jurisdictions and certain BJP run State Governments that work in tandem seem to know no end. Here are some latest examples: The ED’s recent six-hour interrogation of Farooq Abdullah, the former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. Only recently Abdullah had been released from detention after a period of 12 months. The offices of the 66-year-old daily newspaper Kashmir Times were sealed by the estate’s department in Srinagar. Anuradha Bhasin the editor of Kashmir Times was locked out of her office, 15 days after eviction from her home. She finally obtained a stay order on Oct 19, from the District Commissioner but valid only till October 30.

Deepika Singh Rajawat, the lawyer practising at the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, who had represented the case of the eight-year-old who was raped and murdered in Kathua in Kashmir in 2018, alerted the police to the threat to her life from a mob of alleged Hindutva zealots on the midnight of October 20, 2020.

The state government of Uttar Pradesh is in a race to outcompete all in its brazen misuse of powers against all critics and to protect those close to the government. We saw that in the context of the anti-CAA protests, and more recently in the context of the Hathras rape case.

Moradabad police has registered a case and have served notice of arrest on Aziz Qureshi, the former Governor of UP, Uttarakhand and Mizoram for an anti-CAA protest.
There are very little restrictions in India on the arbitrary exercise of authority. This is happening increasingly at both central and state levels. Police and other enforcement agencies are involved here.

A clear misuse of Central agencies to override Opposition-run State governments has been underway now for the past several years. Last few years have seen systematic use of Central agencies CBI, NCB, ED in various places to intimidate opponents or to also create media spectacles, the latest being the Sushant Singh Rajput case to override the Bombay Police. Recently the Bombay Police started a probe on the fudging of Television Rating Points (TRPs) by certain TV networks politically close to the Central Government. Soon after a police complaint was lodged in BJP ruled Uttar Pradesh, regarding the same case and the UP Government then sought the transfer of this case to the CBI, and this was accorded within 24 hours.

Central agencies or State Police have been routinely used to arrest people from other States across jurisdictions. We have seen this in the Bhima Koregaon case. Maharashtra authorities under the former BJP-led State Government used the case to jail critics of the government from different States but, they did not pursue investigations that implicated Hindutva Right-Wing leaders for inciting the violence.

Inter-State arrest procedure must follow rules and protocols.

Instances of police of one State seeking to arrest or conduct searches and investigation in another State or Union Territory must inform the local police. This was the accepted procedure as per police manuals in the past for such actions. But these rules are being flouted routinely now. It’s a sign of the new times we are in.

Toxic air and Massive health impact

The State of Global Air 2020 report was released this week reminding us of the dramatic levels of air pollution in South Asia. India features in the top 10 list of countries with the highest exposure to PM2.5 levels, higher than the World Health Organisation (WHO) benchmarks. The health impact is absolutely dramatic with hundreds of thousands of deaths annually, much higher than what we have officially seen in the Covid 19 pandemic so far. Environmental considerations figure very low in the political considerations of our rulers. It is absolutely essential that citizens take note of the gravity of the situation.

Tribute:

James Randi, the Canadian American magician devoted much of his career to debunking all things paranormal — from spoon bending to faith healing — died October 20. He was 92. He had helped found in 1976, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and sought support from Issac Asimov and Carl Sagan. He influenced Rationalists in South Asia like Abraham Kovoor and Basava Premanand.

We pay our tribute to James Randi

October 24, 2020 – The Editor

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