Pratap Bhanu Mehta

The arrest of journalist Mohammed Zubair in Delhi is pettiness, vengeance and repression let loose on a society once aspiring to be free. It is also a distillation of the way in which the Narendra Modi government draws energy from a thorough contempt for liberty, decency, constitutional values, and the opinion of the international community.

The arrest comes just as the PM was singing paeans to Indian democracy in Munich, milking the Emergency way past its political expiry date and signing protocols on free speech. It is a reminder to the world that with this regime, you have to vigilantly watch what it does and not be duped by what it says.

Let us look at the larger political and institutional context of this story. The outfit that Mohammed Zubair helped run, Alt News, did sterling service for India’s democracy, holding onto the now elusive idea that facts might matter. His courage has been an inspiration. He brought to our attention the fact that Nupur Sharma, a high office-bearer of the ruling BJP, had engaged in a speech about Prophet Mohammed that could only be considered vile. There were communal riots in the wake of that speech and international condemnation of India. This column had argued that what made Nupur Sharma’s speech dangerous was that it expressed the sentiments of the ruling party (‘Beware of half victories’, IE, June 8). She should have been politically punished. But liberals should have resisted calling for her arrest and using FIRs because, in the long run, such moves only serve to weaken the free speech regime, and it makes the protection of free speech open to competitive communal mobilisation.

Zubair’s arrest sends several messages. First, it is pure revenge, through and through. It was a matter of time before the Modi government unleashed a politics of revenge in the wake of its international humiliation. Second, the purpose is to keep the free speech debate hostage to communal politics. That he has been allegedly arrested for a 2018 tweet, which used a trope about a hotel from an old Hindi film, might make this case seem farcical. Surely, you might say, this case cannot be serious? But the purpose is to create a narrative of victimhood that our free speech regime allows Hindu gods to be mocked but not the Prophet. The farcical nature of the charge is designed to play on that card.

It might be pointed out that many purveyors of hate speech in the ruling party, even those who have directly incited violence, roam free. The government is selective in who it targets using Section 153 of the IPC. But this selectivity has its political functions. It underscores the point that the majority can act with impunity. Ministers can incite violence without consequence, but how dare a Zubair raise his voice? These arrests give wind to the fantasy of majoritarian impunity and privilege. Finally, it is common knowledge that Zubair’s crime was not mocking Hindu gods. It was to stand steadfast on one thing that makes this government tremble with fear and rage — facts. Perhaps Zubair will be lucky and a judge with an iota of professional competence will see through the farce of his arrest. But the signal is clear.

This arrest has to be seen as part of the larger pattern of arbitrariness and repression: ED and CBI raids, whenever political convenient, the use of UAPA charges against innocent students, the communally targeted bulldozing of properties, the control over the media, the use of vigilante violence, and the complete decimation of all independent institutions. PM Modi rightly and vehemently objects to the Emergency. But it almost seems as if his charge is that, as bad as the Emergency was, it was not done right: It did not have the kind of insidiousness, communal charge, slow torture that this regime aspires to.

But this repression of liberty is aided by wider complicity. This column had once used the phrase judicial barbarism (‘Lordships and masters,’ IE November 18, 2020) to describe the conduct of India’s highest court. Now, in retrospect, the term judicial was superfluous in that description. It still suggested some deference to judicial form, some procedure, some fig leaf of a rule by law, if not rule of law. But the conduct of the Supreme Court over the last few days has only underscored the fact that in many cases, calling its proceedings judicial is to cut it too much slack. The Court may have had its reasons to decide the Zakia Jafri case the way it did. But to unleash the might of the state on the petitioners who have been fighting an almost lone legal battle to get justice to the victims of the Gujarat riots; to convict them without a trial is a new and chilling precedent. Even if one grants, for argument’s sake, mistakes on the petitioner’s part, what the Court is licensing is nothing but revenge against those seeking justice.

Then there is the farce being played out over the Maharashtra Assembly, where the Court has just committed full-blown murder of the Tenth Schedule and the anti-defection law. It has muddied the Speaker’s powers; it has in effect given the BJP what it wanted — more time to horse trade. But what links the cases — Zubair, the Gujarat petitioners, and the Maharashtra Assembly episode – is a complete inversion of justice. Facts are crimes, seeking justice is a sin and democracy is best served by judicial arbitrariness.

But these cases are not likely to evoke much public response. Amongst the well-meaning people, there is still a tendency to see these cases as exceptional, the deviations that scar but do not challenge the basic constitutional scheme. We will go through the motions as if our institutions still provide a conduit for constitutional argument and justice. If we are lucky, an occasional brave judge might give a Zubair relief and we can all go through our lives with a clean conscience, even as the system collapses around us.

But more ominously, there will be celebrations of this state impunity, there will be cheering for communalism, and triumphal assertions that liberals are worse than tyrants. The Emergency in 1975 was repressive, but it did not dull our intellects, eviscerate our conscience, or extinguish our fighting spirit. The Supreme Court accused activists of keeping the pot boiling. For once, the Court, like the government, knows what it is talking about: boiling. Between them, they have burnt democracy, liberty and secular political values to death. All that remains is the burnt embers, emitting the stench of tyranny. Zubair is the latest victim. There will be countless more.

The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express
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