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What kind of nation interrogates children for sedition?

February 07, 2020 09:43 IST
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'Teaching lessons is the objective behind every school.'
'For the moment, a state seems intent to teach a lesson -- that students of Classes 4, 5 and 6 can wage war against the mighty Indian nation,' says Krishna Prasad.

Children being interrogated by the police in Bidar. Photograph: Kind courtesy Twitter

IMAGE: Children being interrogated by the police in Bidar. Photograph: Kind courtesy Twitter

As a pictorial representation of the perverse inhumanity that the land of Buddha and Gandhi has embraced as its key performance indicator since 2014, it is difficult to beat the two images that emerged out of Karnataka's northern-most city, Bidar, in the week following the 70th year of the founding of the Republic.

In the first picture, two boys, barely four feet tall, sit alternately crouching and cowering in fear before two XL policemen, one carrying a questionnaire, the other a clipboard. A third policeman, video camera in hand, languidly records their 'interrogation'. Behind, a lady cop is planted to keep child rights activists at bay.

In the second picture, an authority-figure stands where an affectionate teacher would, in a classroom of boys in skull caps and girls in hijab. Here, too, a chappal-clad cop captures their confessions for posterity, as if Nirav Modi and Lalit Modi, Mehul Choksi and Vijay Mallya have suddenly surrendered and shrunk themselves into school benches.

The lens is the lathi: Anything the kids say can be held against them, or their parents, or their school -- or their community.

The cause of such conspicuous savagery in a BJP-ruled state: An 'inflammatory' dialogue in a play staged by children aged between 9 and 12, at the Shaheen primary and high school, which pierced through the otherwise impregnable 56-inch armour of the mighty Pradhan Sevak. Or, at least the fragile ego of one of his jobless defenders.

A 26-year-old domestic help, no less, the widowed mother of the Class 6 girl who, during the course of the play, said that if anyone asks for papers to prove citizenship 'usko joote maaro', has been arrested -- for 'tutoring' her daughter. As has the school headmistress, 52, who oversaw the grand production on January 21.

The girl's slippers have been seized as 'evidence' -- the hand that waved them has been spared. Stupidity is clever enough sometimes to realise that it has its limits.

The school society president and an Urdu 'journalist' who put up a clip of the play on Facebook have been charged under five sections of the Indian Penal Code: 124A (sedition); 153A (promoting, attempting to promote disharmony); section 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of peace); 505 (2) (statements creating enmity or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes); and 34 (common intent).

Three years ago, Narendra Damodardas Modi said: 'You are free to criticise me. Constructive criticism makes our democracy stronger and is vital.' Two years ago, he reiterated: 'I want this government to be criticised. Criticism makes democracy strong.'

In 2020, the Karnataka police, which acted on a complaint by an ABVP activist, appears to be treating the honourable PM's words (and democracy) as a joke.

The joke plays on in loop: The police have turned up five times at the school to question over 80 students, most of whom had nothing to do with the play.

Among the searching questions they have asked: Did the school coerce them into making statements against the prime minister?

What role did teachers play in organising the play?

Was the script changed to accommodate the 'insulting' dialogues?

Where did they practise?

Why was a flag used?

Children being interrogated by the police in Bidar. Photograph: Kind courtesy Twitter

IMAGE: Children being interrogated by the police in Bidar. Photograph: Kind courtesy Twitter

Having cracked the puzzle to the satisfaction of their political masters in Bangalore, 700 km away, the police in Bidar seem to be hunting for the jigsaw pieces that will fit the 'national' imagination. And, as they always do till the fat lady (or a bored boy, or hungry girl) sings what they would like to hear, they have now 'intensified' the probe.

The single mother, already a week in jail, has been consigned to another week in it by a judge who returned from weekend leave. A neighbour is taking care of her 11-year-old daughter.

Each day, students take turns to pray for the sedition case against the school to be lifted.

Each day, they could well be praying for Karnataka to return to its senses.

For, a standout aspect of the abomination in Bidar is the coolness with which the land of Basava has absorbed this outrage.

Not a single major Kannada newspaper has felt the need to aggressively report the misreading or misuse of the sedition law, or editorially comment on it. Only a couple of them have even deigned to publish the CCTV grabs.

Opposition politicians who adroitly tweet in multiple languages were silent for a week till Rizwan Arshad, a newly elected Congress MLA from Bangalore, took the trouble. Asaduddin Owaisi of the Majlis has jumped in.

What should have been a straight forward humanitarian case has been turned into a 'Muslim issue' with all its attendant baggage.

WhatsApp, it appears, has deleted empathy from the smartphones of the “majority” of Kannadigas.

Children being interrogated by the police in Bidar. Photograph: Kind courtesy Twitter

IMAGE: Children being interrogated by the police in Bidar. Photograph: Kind courtesy Twitter


To understand why the Karnataka police can instantly jump into action in Bidar, look no further than Mangalore in the west. Here, students of a school belonging to RSS leader Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat staged a play in December last enacting the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid. Unlike in Bidar, the Mangalore police are still awaiting 'legal opinion' on filing the chargesheet.

When Bhat was on the verge of arrest earlier in a different case, BJP MP Shobha Karandlaje warned that the state would 'burn' if he was touched.

To understand why the Karnataka police can brazenly strike fear in school kids in Bidar at will, look no further than Mysore in the south. Here, at a protest in early January against ABVP hooliganism at JNU, a girl holding a 'Free Kashmir' poster was booked for sedition. And this, even after the Mumbai police had dealt with a similar case and dismissed it.

The Mysore bar association has barred its member-lawyers from extending legal support to the girl without a squeak.

To understand why the Kannada media can find no story in Bidar, look no further than Mangalore again. Here, on January 20, the discovery of an improvised explosive device at the airport led excitable newspapers to suggest that an 'international gang' was behind it.

'Revenge for CAA,' screamed Vijaya Karnataka, the no 1 Kannada daily edited by a former personal assistant to Pramod Mutalik of the Sri Rama Sena and Bajrang Dal. When it turned out to be a local Hindu from Manipal, no apology, no clarification.

To understand why the Karnataka government can charge a school with sedition in Bidar, look no further than the capital, Bangalore. When the identity of the Mangalore airport 'bomber' was still unclear, the state's Home Minister Basavaraj Bommai could breezily declare that not just the bomber but 'terrorist forces' would be firmly rooted out.

When the 'terrorist' surrendered and said his name was Aditya Rao, he was instantly declared 'mentally disturbed', and acting out of frustration.

To understand why Karnataka suddenly finds it easy to stereotype Bidar's school kids, look no further than Bangalore again.

Here, on January 20, the police in India's so-called hi-tech capital watched on as civic authorities demolished the shacks of 'Bangladeshis', who they found to their dismay were actually Kannadigas from Kolar and Koppal.

Without contrition, Bangalore's Police Commissioner Bhaskara Rao now claims there are 300,000 illegal Bangladeshis in the city.

To understand why the Karnataka police are questioning the school management in Bidar to reveal who was behind the 'plot', look no further than the MP from Bangalore South, Tejasvi Surya. On Christmas eve, the motormouth had labelled those opposing CAA as 'puncture' wallahs.

On January 16, the Bangalore police arrested six Muslims -- a ladies tailor, an electrician, a mechanic, a delivery boy, a shop keeper and a civil contractor -- allegedly for plotting to kill Surya.


Amit Anilchandra Shah's words 'Aap chronology samajh lijiye' have become a cliche, but they are prescient.

The first stint of the BJP in Karnataka 12 years ago was marked by moral policing of pubs and bars, and vigilante attacks on churches, besides, of course, mind-numbing corruption which sent a serving chief minister and half his cabinet to jail.

Then, too, bogus cases were foisted against Muslims for assassination attempts on embedded journalists.

Then, too, there was dog whistling against 'burqas' and 'hijab'.

In the run-up to the assembly election in 2018, the battle cry of the BJP was that Hindus were in danger in Karnataka.

As naturally as night follows day, the coming to power of the B S Yediyurappa government in 2019 has resulted in a cascade of dark rumours and conspiracies in a state labelled as 'Hindutva's laboratory in the south'.

And the Bidar school play is just what the doctors ordered to humiliate and harass a decades-old institution on specious grounds -- and in the process to stereotype and showcase a community to the rest of the state and, indeed, the country.

Over the years, a steady drip-feed of resentment in the north (Idgah maidan in Hubli), centre (Bababudangiri in Chikamagalur), west (conversion, love jihad in Mangalore), and south (Tipu Sultan in Mysore), has normalised hatred.

The collective inertia to the humiliation of the meek and the poor in Bidar shows why Karnataka is the only state in the south to open its doors to revanchist forces, and watch tamely while its thinkers are killed.

Teaching lessons is the objective behind every school. For the moment, a state seems intent to teach a lesson -- that students of Classes 4, 5 and 6 can wage war against the mighty Indian nation. Aided by an unlettered domestic help.

Krishna Prasad, former editor-in-chief, Outlook magazine, is one of India's leading journalists.


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