By Suhit K Sen:
Nine Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have written to the European Union’s (EU) highest official on foreign affairs and security policy, Federica Mogherini, to cancel all agreements with India till all the activists arrested in connection with the violence at Bhima Koregaon have been released. The letter, scathingly denunciatory in tone and content, was written on 12 September.
It points out that all the people held — those earlier arrested now lodged in prison and undergoing trial and those held at dawn on 28 August now under house arrest — have been charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The letter describes this piece of legislation as ‘one of the most barbaric laws, copied from the colonial law book’. It also details the plight of Professor GN Saibaba, a man with severe disabilities, who has been convicted for doing ‘nothing but defend the rights of the Adivasis and Dalit people with words’ and suggests that the conditions attending his incarceration are not only discriminatory, but could well amount to ill-treatment, perhaps even torture.
The letter goes on to pose the following question in light of responses provided by the EU executive in response to questions posed in the European Parliament: “How can the European Commission have contacts and agreements with a government that defends that there are first and second class humans, indiscriminately kills the Adivasis, Dalits and religious minorities’ population and imprisons human rights activists?”
It concludes: “We urge for the cancellation of all the agreements with the Indian government until the human rights activists are released and the hunt against the Adivasi peoples, Dalits, religious minorities population and Kashmiri, Manipuri people is stopped”.
This incident raises several important questions: Some about the right of countries to ‘interfere’ in the sovereign rights of elected governments to conduct their affairs; some about the international image of the current regime in the global community; and still others about the character of a government prepared to use all the resources at its command to stifle dissent and repress marginal sections of the population. In this piece, we shall be concerned with examining a related but separate political question, without attempting to judge the validity of the action taken by the nine MEPs.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spent considerable time and energy on trying to promote his image and that of his government among leaders of developed nations that still have liberal democratic institutions and values. He has been to the US five times; Germany four times; France thrice; Japan, South Africa and the United Kingdom twice each; and Australia, Brazil, Canada, the Republic of Ireland, the Netherlands, South Korea, Spain and Sweden once each. This is not meant by way of criticism either for his frequent absences or for the expenses incurred on these visits.
It is meant to point to the heavy itinerary that Modi has taken on. It would not be unfair to hypothesise that this anxiety to engage with the leaders of what we could roughly call the western world stems from the perception of him in precisely those quarters as unfit for office in a democracy because of his record as Gujarat chief minister during the unchecked post-Godhra violence against Muslim citizens. We all know that during his tenure as chief minister, he was repeatedly denied a visa to travel to the US.
Modi, as we know, later successfully reinvented himself as a champion of development; it was on the basis of that reinvention to a significant extent that he became the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial candidate. And, again, it was his new image, sedulously cultivated, that helped set forth the ‘Modi wave’ and helped his party win a single-party majority in the Lok Sabha in 2014.
But then the responsibility to deliver the promised fruits of development rested on his shoulders alone, especially given his style of unilateral functioning which marginalises all other leaders, including ‘senior’ members of his Cabinet: He carries about him, as many observers have noted, whether in a critical or adulatory tone, a presidential aura. If in these circumstances, Modi was to deliver, it was absolutely critical for him to transform his image in the west, both among the political class and within the entrepreneurial class, which would deliver the investment that was needed to promote development.
The problem, as soon became apparent, was that Modi, and his party and government decided to adopt a two-pronged strategy: On the one hand, they proclaimed to the public their commitment not just to development, but also to good, transparent governance (the much-hyped su-raj); on the other, to keep its core political constituency mobilised and to gain further political support, they decided to pursue their established ideological agenda — Hindutva, with all the trappings of exclusivism, majoritarianism and the marginalisation of groups seen to be inimical to the basic values of Hindutva. Principal among them, obviously, was the Muslim ‘community’, but the Christians — the other major denominational minority — and the Dalits were not far behind.
Thus, the draconian laws not just against cow slaughter, but also the possession and consumption of beef, followed by the vigilante actions that came to be known as ‘cow/beef lynching’, encouraged or winked at by the authorities in BJP-ruled states, with the nominally tacit backing of the Central government and the top leadership of the party. Thus also the spate of statements issued by ‘responsible’ leaders, including ministers both in the Central government and in several state governments, that sought to denigrate the minorities and Dalits (one only has to recall the Bihar Assembly election campaign), undermine their confidence in the system and create among them a palpable sense of fear.
Unfortunately, all this has been noted in several western countries. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has, for instance, been severely critical of the Modi regime in successive annual reports (see, for instance). Several international bodies, including human rights organisations, have noted India’s drift away from policies of inclusion and tolerance. One report has noted: “In 2016, a global index of human rights and social and religious freedoms by Pew Research Center placed India among the worst 10 of the world’s 198 countries when judged for ‘social hostilities’).”
The knee-jerk reaction to such criticism would be to descry them as motivated; in fact, that is precisely what often happens.
The point, however, is that it does not help Modi, or the present regime, achieve the objective of sanitising his image in western or other democratic capitals and countries. The MEP letter will surely not herald a change of policy on the part of the EU, but it is a slap on the face of the current regime, not just because it highlights the attacks on Dalits, minorities and others, but also because it shines a light on the direction in which India seems to be headed. The crucial signposts on that road are the further breakdown of the rule of law in the country and the present regime’s active involvement in bringing that about.
The big lesson that Modi and his regime need to learn that you can either subvert the system or work on development. You don’t need to have a degree in law and economics to figure out that broken machinery for the enforcement of the rule of law and sharpening social cleavages that lead to violent outbursts are not exactly what encourages investors, domestic or foreign, to put their money into ‘making’ in India. And, of course, that the world is always watching.