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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 35, New Delhi, August 15, 2020

Letter to the Readers - Mainstream’s Lockdown Edition 21, Aug 15 2020

Friday 14 August 2020

As we celebrate today our 74th Independence day our first thoughts go back to our valiant freedom fighters — but for whose superhuman sacrifices we would not have been able to enjoy the fruits of freedom. Eight months ago, in December 2019, it was written in these columns:

“ … there is no gainsaying that with his second victory at the hustings Modi with his Sancho Panza is in a highly defiant mood and has carried on his task of a total overhaul of the country. The de-monetisation of November 2016 played havoc with the economy the consequences of which one is still being forced to bear. After the May 2019 electoral victory the Modi-Shah duo first sought to break the backbone of the people of Kashmir by withdrawing the special status of the region for which purpose the constitution’s articles 370 and 35A were revoked – the whole idea being a direct assault on the people of that Muslim–majority area of the thereby exposing the naked face of the present BJP government’s anti-Muslim approach. This was accompanied by turning the territory into a zone of Indian occupation, completely reversing this country’s ethos thereby earning the world’s opprobrium with all major political leaders in detention and the people of the region gagged into silence. At the same time, the state of Jammu and Kashmir was transformed into two union territories – those of Jammu and Kashmir and of Ladakh. This kind of arbitrary action was a direct assault on democratic functioning. To take shelter behind the brute majority in Parliament to justify such a step will not wash in the long run since the Modi dispensation’ autocratic behaviour cannot be concealed before the public at large.

“then on the eve of the International Human Rights Day on December 10, the Lok Sabha was made to pass the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2019, one of the most arbitrary and discriminatory legislations in the annals of post-independence India. …. This legislation alters the basic terms of Indian citizenship and is violative of the core structure and spirit of the country’s Constitution as it effectively excludes and marginalizes the country’s largest religious minority, the Muslim community. This a blatant majoritarian attack on the Muslims in particular, something rarely seen in the country’s post-independence history. The Union Home Minister has lately betrayed his abysmal ignorance of history by seeking to shift the entire blame for this on the Congress, by charging the latter for having partitioned the country on a religious basis. As has been mentioned in a publication ‘this is a brazen and mischievous lie’ having no connection with our actual history which clearly ‘records none other than Savarkar of the Hindu Mahasabha, worshipped by the BJP as its ideological political pioneer, as the original exponent of the flawed and disastrous two-nation theory that eventually led to the traumatic tragedy of Partition’.”

Independence, like democracy and peace, is indivisible. If freedom in any part of the world is imperilled, it cannot be secure elsewhere. Hence, what is imperative is that the situation must be brought under control forthwith by revoking all strong-arm measures and resuming the political dialogue.

Indeed, a grim scenario stares us in the face on our 74th independence day.

India today has whittled away many of its prized freedoms and gains of the long freedom movement which fought hard for civil and democratic rights. We were a rare country in the Third World that provided for basic political rights, trade union rights, academic freedom, freedom of expression, freedom of religion and guiding ideals of equality, secularism besides providing universal adult franchise to all. Of course, there was no golden age of freedom, there was corruption, abuse of power, and the system had all sorts of shortcomings. However, since its landslide electoral victory of 2014 (repeated again in 2019) the Modi Government, laden with Hindutva ideals, has jettisoned many of the past achievements. Hindu nationalists, who took no part in India’s freedom movement and whose communal ideology mirrors that of the ’Muslim League’, now peddle their parochial Hindutva movement as the ’freedom movement’, and they are masters at propaganda. Since the independence they have attacked our Constitution which guarantees equality before the law for all citizens, preferring a majoritarian and discriminatory vision. Their authoritarian ideas have filled the air in our country. Sure, there are no tanks on the streets, there is no declaration of emergency, but they have erected the love for a ’strongman’ whose government has ’managed’ abuse of powers. Laws to finance election campaigns were modified surreptitiously making the ruling party incredibly rich as the main beneficiary of over 90 per cent of the funds. India had a constitutional body, the Union Public Services Commission, which was responsible for the recruitment of a non-partisan bureaucracy via competitive exams, but the Government has created a parallel system to bypass the UPSC by introducing a direct lateral-entry system of people from the corporate sector’s so-called talented individuals. This has led to the slow capture of state institutions. In 2018, the government issued a directive to public universities to implement Central Civil Services Rules for their employees, i.e treating them like civil servants who cannot criticise the government; the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Education briefed university administrators to disallow "research in irrelevant areas" and stick to ’national priorities’.

India is now ranked 142 on the World Press Freedom Index. We have seen pressure to get media houses to push out editors unfriendly to the Government, agencies like the CBI or the ED have gone after certain TV networks on grounds of money laundering. Many journalists have lost jobs or faced repeated intimidation via the use of defamation laws or criminal complaints. But most disturbing is the use of private militia or mobs of supporters close to the ruling party to threaten & intimidate journalists, writers, teachers or private citizens in a targeted manner. Often the police has not taken any action against such mobs. In the latest incident of its kind on August 11, three reporters investigating stories on the anti-Muslim violence in northeast Delhi were surrounded by a mob and physically assaulted.

The Modi Government in its second term has been unrelenting in finger-pointing at the so-called anti-national enemy, arm twisting liberal elites and critics within the country, and sidelining religious or ethnic minorities. In Kashmir, many mainstream politicians have been detained over the past year. The recently released political figures in Kashmir point out that all have had to face constant pressure to either quit politics or that they would not speak out against the government when released. We mentioned in an editorial the recent media policy in Kashmir which has censorship with a Capital C written all over it. Writers and intellectuals have been constantly made scapegoats of the establishment. Universities that were once bastions of debate have lost much of that space. Several Delhi University teachers have been summoned or interrogated by the police and are being bullied by the rightwing media as being behind the Delhi riots of Feb 2020 or connected with the Bhima Koregaon Case in Maharashtra or cases in Chhattisgarh. According to The Indian Express, the Assam Police has filed a case against a teacher of Assam University Anindya Sen on August 8 following a complaint regarding hurt religious sentiments from a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad – the student wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Two stand up comedians have faced flak recently: one is Kenny Sebastian who critiqued the government ban on Chinese Apps; he has become the target of the Hindutva trolls on the internet; Agrima Joshua, another comedian, is facing the music on charges of insulting ’Shivaji’. Targeting of environmental groups happened recently when the Delhi Police blocked the websites of several environmental groups who wanted a debate about the heavy dilution of environmental impact assessment rules that can be potentially devastating since we are a country that has failed us ever since the Bhopal industrial tragedy. We are continually witnessing a rise in loss of urban water bodies, wetlands and the water table is declining, but the Government continues to be on a stubborn course to ignore the environmental question while promoting urbanisation as a panacea. This is a road to disaster. Thousands of hectares of ’protected’ forest-lands have been handed over to Industry or for national infrastructure projects. It is clear the ruling elites care two hoots for our environment. The environmental question is clearly linked to our collective health and must become an integral part of broader concerns of all social and political movements.

We express alarm at the violence in Bengaluru city on August 11, triggered apparently due to a Facebook post regarding Prophet Mohammed. Mob violence is not acceptable and this is no way to protest, no matter what the provocation. Everyone who participated in the Bangalore riots must face the law. This incident must not be communalised.

We are pleased to note that Kamala Harris, a United States Senator from California since 2017, has just been nominated as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate for the 2020 election. It is truly commendable that despite racism in the American society a child born of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father can rise to heights in mainstream politics. In India, there is routine discrimination by ordinary Indians against African students living in India and against migrants from Kashmir or the North East, and low representation of minorities and even naturalised Indian citizens are mistreated and name called by major politicians, not just by the communalists of the Far-Right.

There has been a dangerous oil spill in the coastal waters of Mauritius, the Japanese-owned freighter but Panamanian-flagged Wakashio ran aground July 25, 2020 and on August 6, it cracked up and spilt close to 1000 tons of heavy bunker fuel into the waters of the Indian Ocean. India which has long had close ties with Mauritius should have immediately offered help to contain the pollution.

The Stolen Election in Belarus:

We have just witnessed a massively rigged election in the former Soviet republic of Belarus, where the hugely unpopular President in power for the past 26 years was hurriedly declared a winner on August 9 with some 80% votes. The opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who had dared to stand against Lukashenko, had a mass social support; she rejected the election results and complained to the election commission. Thousands come out to protest against the staged electoral victory of Lukashenko. Police and paramilitary forces have been used to quell the protests. The internet has been blocked for the past days in a row and some 6000 people were detained. Now strikes have broken out in public sector factories opposing the detentions. On August 9 Tikhanovskaya went incommunicado and was forced by the authorities to leave for Lithuania. Under duress, she was made to record an apology on video before leaving. We stand with the people of Belarus and hope they will see the end of the Lukashenko dictatorship. People of Belarus need solidarity from all democrats.

By the way, according to The Guardian (in London), the opposition leader Tikhanovskaya was one of the “Chernobyl children”, affected by the radioactive fallout of the 1986 nuclear disaster in neighbouring Ukraine and whom Irish families hosted for respite and recuperation when she was 12 years old. This is a wonderful story of solidarity by concerned Europeans who helped in their own way. Such bonds are long-lasting and help build a humanist world.

Tributes

We pay homage to Ilina Sen — who passed away in Kolkata on August 9. We offer our condolences to her husband, Dr Binayak Sen, to her two daughters and to her friends across India. Ilina had a lifelong association with the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, People’s Union for Civil Liberties and many feminist circles, public health movements and trade unions. She was also a former President of the Indian Association of Women’s Studies. Adieu Ilina, we will miss you.

We remember Agha Ashraf Ali, the jovial and well-known educationist from Kashmir who passed away in Srinagar. Salaams to Agha Saheb.

Rahat Indori, the noted Urdu poet and lyricist, passed away in Indore on August 11. He will be widely remembered.

We also offer our tributes to Dr. Chinmoy Banerjee who passed away in Canada on July 29, 2020. Chin, as he was known, was a former teacher at the Simon Fraser University. He had been part of many organisations of the South Asian Diaspora from Indian People’s Association of North America (IPANA) in the mid-1970s to the Canadian Farmworkers Union in 1980 among others. He will be fondly remembered.

August 15, The Editor

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