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Mainstream, VOL LX No 33, 34 New Delhi, August 6, August 13, 2022 [Independence Day Special]

Is Our Democracy Dying? | Papri Sri Raman

Saturday 13 August 2022, by Papri Sri Raman

BOOK REVIEW

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

Context-Westland
2021
Rs 454
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9390679532
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-9390679539

I WAS TALKING to a journalist friend across a 5G spectrum 2000 km away, asking her to pick up the July issue of the Caravan magazine that features the Rise and Fall of the NIA. She said, ‘I am really scared. Fall does not mean it does not exist’.

The subject had come up in the context of an interview she had done sometime in 1999 with a policeman called K Mohandas, who had arrested and disarmed LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran twice in Tamil Nadu. Mohandas was the Director General of Police, ‘MGR’s eyes and ears’ and had also written a book, now not available, except in the Parliament library. In that interview he had described how the Union government in India, the IB and RAW, were training the militants, under supervision of Indira Gandhi’s policy-makers, the then foreign secretary and home secretary, and several others, and how the Centre literary occupied Tamil Nadu territory and ran camps where the State and its government had no say. Some years later, my friend had also spoken to K Madhavan, who had been joint director of the Central Bureau of Investigation and had said the Centre was responsible for the LTTE mess. So like the US and the Osama story, we had concluded. [The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was a militant group in Sri Lanka and M G Ramachandran was chief minister of Tamil Nadu.

The NIA is just one head of the medusa sitting at the heart of the subcontinent’s system. What had struck me in the story was the chilling account of the murder of the RSS pracharak Sunil Joshi who had been ready to turn state witness and the subversion of Rohini Salian. To think that we now have a member of our august Parliament who can get an inconvenient colleague bumped off, let alone plant motorcycles filled with bombs in busy markets is mindboggling for any ordinary citizen in a thriving democracy.

Of course, we who have worked in Tamil Nadu, knew from our professional beginnings how the media was manipulated, how encounters were managed, how the political rhetoric between the AIADM and DMK went and how the IB, RAW, CBI were all players in the control game. This is Tamil Nadu in the south where the story of security agency subversions are not fully documented yet.

When Josy Joseph’s book came my way, I simply could not resist getting an overview of all the so-called democratically set-up institutions (through Acts of Parliament, Presidential Ordinances and other legally sanctioned ways like ATSs and court set up SITs — anti-terror squads and special investigation teams) engaged in skulduggery of various kinds, including encounters.

In Punjab, Joseph writes about Jaswant Singh Khalra, ‘general secretary of the Akali Dal’s human rights wing, who began an intrepid documentation of the secret cremations in Amritsar district. According to the law, the police are required to carry out the last rites of a body when there is no one to claim it. In Punjab, this was used to cover up criminal activities.’

From Punjab, a simmering hotspot in India’s north, one little story of transgression: ‘On 30 October 1993, when a body was brought in for post-mortem, the doctor noticed that the man was still breathing, in spite of a bullet injury to his head. When he drew the police officers’ attention to it, they took the man away and soon returned with his corpse.’

Don’t vomit when you read this, we have heard often that the police is an inherited agency from British rule; don’t tell yourself, but man it is 75 years now. Khalra in a press release said that, ‘based on firewood-purchase registers, (his team) they had identified 400 illegal cremations in Patti, 700 at Tarn Taran and about 2,000 at Durgiana Mandir cremation ground between June 1984 to end-1994.’ While I am left slightly shocked by the numbers, I am not surprised that Khalra was killed by one or several state machineries involved in anti-terror ops in Punjab. What is very depressing is that such accoladed officers like K P S Gill and Julio Ribeiro knew what was going on in Punjab and approved of it.

While the IC-814 hijack is a shameful event in the chronicle of Indian anti-terrorism policy, Joseph says: ‘...at least seventeen people who had been picked up from Nepal around the time of the hijacking and handed over to the IB, had gone missing.’ Many of them were Kashmiris in Nepal. Since the book is a history of the Indian ‘deep state’, Joseph begins with Kashmir soon after 1947, and says that’s where and when the rot started.

Joseph, a security issues writer, specialises in covering the army, navy, air force, and the coast guard; investigation agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Enforcement Directorate (ED), Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), Customs, Income Tax Department; and intelligence agencies such as the Intelligence Bureau (IB), Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), the intelligence arms of other agencies; State police forces and the paramilitary forces. There are about fourmillion members in the non-military security establishment distributed across the country — from State police to tax collectors, he says.

Generally, only positive images of these organisations are painted by the media, just as the judiciary is always made out to be the strongest pillar of democracy. Then what of esteemed lawyers like Ram Jethmalani, judges like Arun Mishra? Officials like Y K Modi and ministers like R K Singh? Joseph makes us wonder. ‘In the seven decades since Independence, millions have suffered at the hands of the police... thousands of undertrials await their turn at justice, many of them youngsters (like Wajid, with who the book begins; like Irshad Jehan; like 12-year-old Azad Khan, from the village of Phoubakchao Maha Leikai in Manipur) who are (killed and) thrown behind bars for dreaming of a better tomorrow.... It is an endless vicious cycle.’

There is a very interesting chapter called the Gujarat Model. One really really frightening story is of the Sohrabuddin Sheikh murder and the irreconcilable truth, again quoting Joseph: ‘...Vanzara was referring to the arrest of the current Union home minister, Amit Shah, on 25 July 2010 for his alleged involvement in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh murder case. Sheikh was killed in a fake encounter on 26 November 2005, admitted the Gujarat government before the Supreme Court, after a probe by the State police established that Sohrabuddin was not a terrorist, and that the Gujarat and Rajasthan State police came together to eliminate him, his wife, Kausar Bi, and, later, his associate Tulsiram Prajapati.’

‘Vanzara (the policeman in charge of operation) and team had then claimed that Sheikh was a LeT operative who was on a mission to Gujarat. The mission, yet again, was to assassinate Chief Minister Narendra Modi. By the time of Sheikh’s killing, the Gujarat police had staged half a dozen encounters, and in all of them, the alleged terrorists were on a mission to assassinate Modi.’

‘The police, with active assistance from other agencies, were working to please the chief minister, boosting his image as someone who is on top of terror threats, and carrying out cold-blooded murders in the process. According to evidence that later emerged, in the form of phone call logs, Amit Shah, then the State home minister, was suddenly in touch with the field officers of the Crime Branch during the encounter. His calls to DSP N.K. Amin began on 22 November around the time Sohrabuddin, his wife, Kausar Bi, and associate Prajapati were kidnapped by the police. Over the next few days, Shah called the relatively junior police officer several times. The calls dry up around 29 November, when Kausar Bi is raped and killed’.

Joseph is telling us, that’s when, in Gujarat 2004-5, that the use of the theme song ‘on a mission to assassinate Modi’ began. Joseph notes, ‘Since returning to Gujarat in 2012, Shah has had a glorious political career. As the country’s home minister today, Shah is in charge of most of the non-military parts of the security establishment, which had once investigated him.’

Joseph then follows the national security trajectory against not only NGOs but songsters, cartoonists, 80 plus priests and poets. Joseph says, ‘twenty-two intelligence arms at the Union level, besides the police at the State level.... All of them have some kind of cyber operations, while some of them, like NTRO, RAW and even IB, have significant capabilities in that area. Arsenal and Citizen Lab revelations, Pegasus etc are all in the stories of an unravelling 21st century democracy.

‘At the heart of democratic India — protecting its borders, watching for subversions, maintaining law and order, investigating crimes and ensuring that the democracy does not slip into chaos — is the security establishment’

We all have the same questions as Joseph: How can these institutions turn rogue?

‘While analysing the reasons for such subversions, a critical question remains inadequately addressed: how can a person or a small coterie of influential people, stationed mostly in a single city, unsettle democratic institutions, intimidate millions into silence across hundreds of thousands of square kilometres, send thousands to jail... bully the media into becoming its propaganda arm, convert the judiciary into a timid institution and silence even the most courageous of civil servants?’

‘The Shah Commission, which enquired into the excesses of the (Indira Gandhi’s) Emergency, said four decades ago: ...the prevailing acts of impropriety and immorality came to be accepted as a concept of a new propriety and a new morality.’

Whither Citizen’s Rights? Whither Democracy? In India @75.

 ‘Retired Supreme Court Justice Madan Lokur argues that the time has come to ‘‘introduce an accountability jurisprudence and equal treatment under the law in respect of officers of the state acting not in good faith.’’

That’s not going to happen anytime. While I am not writing a dirge to a dying democracy, I am getting it at last, what happened to these thousands of citizens in my country through the last seven decades can happen to you and me. It is a given. I can only shake my head and think of Columbia in the 1980s when the country was terrorised by a drug mafia. Or even better — of early 20th Century writer O Henry. He used the term ‘Banana Republic’ in a 1901 short story called, Rouge et Noir, which was published in his 1904 book, Cabbages and Kings.

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