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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 41, New Delhi, Sept 25, 2021

A Coup against Indian Democracy | M R Narayan Swamy

Saturday 25 September 2021

BOOK REVIEW

by M.R. Narayan Swamy

The Silent Coup: A History of India’s Deep State

by Josy Joseph

Context/Westland

August 2021

Pages: 306; Rs 699

https://amzn.to/3j89Csx

India’s democracy faces a grave threat: from within. The very non-military security agencies meant to protect it are tearing it apart, creating fake narratives to justify their brutal onslaught. Award winning journalist Josy Joseph does a clinical examination of the deepening rot, answering in part why the US think tank Freedom House has downgraded India’s status from ‘Free’ to ‘Partly Free’.

Many military officers, spies, police officers, tax men and others are inspiring professionals, the author says. Sadly, there is a dangerously unprofessional part of the security set-up willing to blindly obey the political executive. Most of the shadowy agencies stay out of the spotlight but coerce the rest of the government as well as the judiciary into actions favourable to the ruling regime. They raid, eavesdrop, torture, kill, malign, intellectually torture and turn ordinarily good people into monsters.

Citing example after example, the book asserts that the security agencies routinely fail but their mistakes are overlooked. Their crimes are usually pardoned, even if it involves cold-blooded murder. Their industry of informants is opaque, mostly unverified and often bogus. “Create a fake terrorist and arrest him, ruin his life and show him off to the public as a success of the war on terror. This model, of creating a fake incident or a fake terrorist, is among the dirty secrets of the Indian security establishment.”

One problem is the deep-rooted and systematic anti-Muslim biases. Indian security establishment members are often brought up on falsehood about Islam, half-baked analyses and an environment hostile to Muslims. Both the security agencies and mainstream media float in fake information and toxic levels of Islamophobia. In India’s war on terror, illegal custody is the order of the day. Most victims are from the vulnerable sections.

All this and much more happen because there is almost no external accountability and minimal formal audit of the quality of information and analysis of the secretive world of intelligence. Thus, the agencies believe their own falsehoods, amplify their biases and justify their mistakes. Many arms of the state police, meant to tackle organized crime and terrorism, have become mere killer squads, staging “encounters” based on false claims.

Take for example Dr S. Malini, who was a celebrated narco-analyst until her sacking by the Karnataka government on grounds of “security risk”. By then, she had done over 1,000 narco, about 3,000 lie detection and 1,500 brain mapping tests. No autopsy was done to assess how many innocents’ lives she ruined.

A comprehensive, multi-level accountability and audit, and firm oversight by Parliament and state legislatures (like in most democracies) is the way forward to rein in the Indian security establishment, Joseph says. “Corrective measures are urgently needed if future generations are to know what it means to live in a democratic state.” Failure will eat into India’s great pride: its democracy and apolitical military.

On the Mumbai terror attack, the security establishment got multiple warnings but didn’t act on time. While the US intelligence was to blame for not revealing everything it knew, the fact is the Mumbai Police Commissioner had 26 intelligence alerts from various agencies. Such is the rot that no one was punished for the blunder that cost 166 lives.

The book says an unholy nexus between the fringe elements of the Hindu Right and the unprofessional parts of the security establishment has taken deep roots. Even after the bomb blasts in Malegaon and Modasa, a fake narrative was put out to blame Islamic hardliners! After two explosions in Jama Masjid complex in Old Delhi in 2006, the RAW intercepted a suspicious call to Indore. But the IB didn’t investigate the call. Joseph says the reticence of the now ruling BJP to fully commit itself to peaceful, democratic means and to shed or discipline its fringe elements will cost both it and Indian democracy dearly.

Kashmir is another sorry story. While New Delhi has repeatedly squandered opportunities to achieve lasting peace, failing ordinary Kashmiris both Hindus and Muslims, the secret compounds of the interrogation centres have tarnished the credentials of Indian democracy while feeding the ranks of militancy. In the process, the average Kashmiri away has been pushed away from the idea of India.

The blunders extended beyond India’s borders. The bloody nose the Indian military – poorly fed by intelligence agencies – suffered in Sri Lanka prove “that a security establishment without biases and dark corners and with deep understanding of the situation on the ground is critical for a democracy.”

Poor quality and unprofessional conduct of security agencies derail the system. India has lost 34,000 police personnel, mostly while fighting insurgencies of all kinds; it has the world’s highest number of war widows at over 25,000. Ironically, for the 25,000 staff the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has, the Indian Intelligence Bureau, the largest agency of a country more than four times the size of Pakistan, has only about 20,000 personnel.

After the 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane to Afghanistan, the security establishment drifted further into undemocratic postures, the book says. “Instead of finding the real enemies of the nation, Indian agencies hunted down those who were accessible; instead of searching for terrorists, it appears they rounded up innocents. Instead of improving intelligence gathering and analysis, it seems they faked more intelligence.” Suspects Nepal handed over to India disappeared.

While the deterioration began a long time ago, the book accuses the Modi government of depending on fake news and suppressing dissent to whip up nationalist frenzy. An “encounter culture” was unleashed in Gujarat earlier to create a narrative of terror threat and whip up Islamophobia. “Large sections of the state police forces as well as federal investigation and intelligence agencies are now fully deployed in the service of the political executive.”

Joseph warns: “Among the many challenges to India’s democracy, the rise of its security establishment is the least examined. These sections began to play a powerful role in shaping public debates and political positions, threatening the very edifice of democracy… (The) dark forces within our agencies need to be reined in.”
This is a chillingly powerful book, the like of which is rarely seen. Everyone who feels for India, in particular from the security forces, the judicial system and political activists, must read it.

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