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Modi Government’s Growing Use of the Iron Fist

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The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Modi Government’s Growing Use of the Iron Fist

The BJP is trying to intimidate critics by accusing them of tax evasion or charging them with sedition.

Modi Government’s Growing Use of the Iron Fist

In this May 30, 2020 photo, Indian migrant workers and their children look out from the window of their train in Prayagraj, India as they return to their villages due to the lockdown, which has forced them out of cities.

Credit: AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh

Over 600 people, including leading activists, lawyers, and intellectuals, have lashed out at the Narendra Modi government’s “intimidatory tactics” “to silence every critic” of its policies and actions. They issued a statement last week in support of human rights activist Harsh Mander, hours after his home and office, including the children’s homes he runs in New Delhi, were raided by officials of the Enforcement Directorate, a government agency that fights financial crime.

A staunch critic of the Modi government, Mander has been highlighting the plight of migrant laborers, who bore the brunt of Modi’s harsh lockdowns to contain the spread of COVID-19 infections.

The raids on Mander’s premises in the capital followed close on the heels of similar raids on Bollywood actor Sonu Sood. Sood had come to the aid of thousands of stranded migrant laborers and had helped them return home to their villages during the lockdown. His effort had left the government fuming since it laid bare the colossal failure of the government’s response to the pandemic and its insensitively implemented lockdown strategy.

Authorities not only raided the homes and offices of Sood and Mander but also have accused them of tax evasion.

In its seven years in power, the Modi government has been intent on projecting an image of self-sufficiency, of promoting inclusiveness (“sabka saath sabka vikaas“) and bringing “achche din” (prosperity) to the country. And anyone or any group that has ripped apart that claim and exposed the lies, be they activists, media portals, journalists, actors, or students, have had to face the BJP government’s iron fist of criminal charges, income tax raids, indefinite incarceration, and other forms of intimidation.

The goal of such intimidation is not just to silence these critics but to send out a warning to others of what lies in store for them should they not fall in line with the government.

Outraged by these coercive tactics, the signatories of the statement said that the raids on Harsh Mander were “part of a continuing chain of abuse of state institutions to threaten, intimidate and try to silence every critic of the present government. The Constitution of India and the law of the land shall prevail, exposing these intimidatory tactics exactly for what they are – an abuse of state institutions to try and curtail all our rights.”

Undaunted by the raids that extended over four days, Sood tweeted that he was “busy attending to a few guests” (meaning the tax officials who raided his home), and hence was unable to help the public. He has resumed his public service since.

A fortnight ago, online news portals Newslaundry and NewsClick were subjected to tax raids too, which were labelled “surveys.” The two websites, which are among the few non-conformists in India’s generally pliant media landscape, have relentlessly exposed the communal agenda of the Modi government. They have also highlighted the government’s mismanagement of the deadly COVID-19 second wave.

The BJP-led government has been working on a two-pronged strategy of polarizing society along religious lines to trigger communal hate on the one hand and create an environment of fear on the other. It is striking fear in the hearts of not just members of India’s religious minorities but also among critics who are speaking out against its divisive agenda.

It has engaged in jingoism too, which has served as a useful tool to ostracize its critics as “anti-nationals” and to book them under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Students like Umar Khalid, who questioned the controversial citizenship laws, and activists challenging the abuse of the rights of tribals have been charged under the UAPA. It is one year since Khalid was booked on the specious charges  of sedition and even though nothing has been proved till date, he continues to languish in Delhi’s Tihar jail awaiting a bail hearing.

It is a year since the Modi government pushed through the contentious farm laws in Parliament. These laws do away with the minimum support price assured by the government hitherto for crops. It will leave farmers vulnerable to exploitation by corporate entities.

The Modi government has used force to muzzle opposition to these farm laws. Despite its multiple attempts to crush the protests, thousands of farmers have been camping along the Delhi border for nearly a year now, demanding a total repeal of the laws. Till date, 700 farmers have died protesting, several among them in police action.

Modi has not hesitated to use state machinery to silence critics and stamp out dissenting voices. Significantly, while his government has failed to take action against people like BJP politician Kapil Mishra, who fanned the flames of communal hatred and violence in Delhi, which led to the North East Delhi riots in 2020, it labelled as “anti-national” all those women participating in peaceful sit-in protests in Shaheen Bagh in the capital.

It is striking that despite Modi’s persistent attempts at projecting an all-is-well image of India, the international community has noted with concern the shrinking space for democratic rights and freedom in the country. During Modi’s recent visit to the U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris urged the Indian prime minister to defend democracy and “protect” and “strengthen democracies.” We must strengthen “democratic principles and institutions within our respective countries,” she said.

As long as the BJP government enjoys a numerical majority in parliament and state legislatures and keeps winning elections, it is doubtful whether it will initiate a much-needed course correction.