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'Government wants to turn us into goats and sheep'

Last updated on: February 18, 2021 14:58 IST
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'Silencing citizens has become a major institutional process under this regime.'
'The anti-Indian argument is a bogey -- meant to silence independent thinking people in India and turn us into goats and sheep.'

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi addressing the inauguration of various projects in Kochi, February 14, 2021. Photograph: Press Information Bureau

The Narendra Damodardas Modi-led government is planning to launch a programme to identify online activities deemed to work against the 'sovereignty of the nation', inviting people to register as 'cyber volunteers' in a move that has fuelled civil rights groups' fears of online vigilantism.

Civil rights activists and social media users have voiced their concerns over the government's attempts at clamping down on critical posts.

"Luckily, there are still many people, especially youngsters, who are fired with the spirit underlying the Preamble to the Constitution of India -- to create a country which is marked by liberty, fraternity and equality," People's Union for Civil Liberties National General Secretary and human rights lawyer Dr V Suresh tells Syed Firdaus Ashraf/ in the concluding segment of a revealing interview.


What about social media where many people post anti-India statements?

Social media posts? Frankly, how many people read them and take action?

Anyway, India, as a country is bigger than what social posts can achieve. The Supreme Court has often reminded the rulers -- your shoulders are broad and your strength immense; it cannot be shaken by the views of a small set of people.

A truly empowered government will learn to shrug away comments and not be threatened by comments, however stupid, irrational or unacceptable it may be in terms of language, content or expression.

It is because of the real aim behind this plan, this move. is very sinister.

Do you feel with this move we are drifting away from the Constitution?

Many commentators have been pointing out how the Constitution is becoming redundant. The present government is breaking the Constitution, brick by brick.

They are making the Constitution a dead letter book.

It is useful to remember that way back in 2010, the Supreme Court struck down a group called Salwa Judum (a pro-government outfit to take on Naxalites in Chhattisgarh).

The Salwa Judum also followed the same concept of having volunteers who will help the police put down Maoists.

The Supreme Court of India said only those authorised and those accountable in law can take action.

You cannot create a new extra-judicial police force by merely calling them as volunteers.

You can collect and gather people to do socially relevant work, like helping old poor people get old age pension. There is no problem in that.

You gather young people to do civic work; there is no problem in that.

But when you use volunteers to monitor other citizens, with the idea of taking police action against them, that is dangerous.

Though the government says that this programme is meant to help give voice to women who are harassed by eve-teasers and cannot lodge complaint or those who are afraid to express harassment for fear of counter attack, when scrutinised, these reasons don't stand up.

The real reason is to use citizens to spy on other citizens.

When you look at it from this prism, the entire exercise is objectionable.

You cannot see this as an isolated example.

This is a part of the process and systematically they are going by issue after issue and demolishing the edifice of Constitutional rights.

This is an extremely dangerous indication that silencing citizens has become a major institutional process under this regime.

Earlier, the law was an instrument of change; today the law is the weapon to criminalise free speech, democratic activity.

Are there any parallels to this in other democracies, where such a thing has happened?

Many countries.

This is a copybook of what happened in Germany in the 1930s.

This is what they did in Mussolini's Italy.

In the United States, they did the same thing in 1950s when television was just introduced. It was called McCarthyism.

They launched a pogrom against anybody questioning the government.

The effect of McCarthyism in the US prevailed for 30 years and still has not gone away.

The same thing happened in the United Kingdom and it has happened in many other liberal countries.

What happens to human rights and the future of liberal democracy then?

When the Constitution becomes a dead letter, what is left of human rights?


They are almost close to destroying the edifice of the Constitution, reducing it to a dead letter.

There is only black ink on paper.

There is no life and spirit in it.

Look at what happened to Sidhique Kappen, the journalist who was arrested in Uttar Pradesh who has still not been released from jail even after four months; or for that matter the comedian Munawar Faruqui, who did not even perform an act but still was arrested and kept in jail for a month; Or Nodeep Kaur who is still in custody after more than a month with allegations that she was sexually assaulted in custody.

But was it not always the case? Be it during the Rajiv Gandhi government or for that matter during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government? Successive rulers of India have resorted to such power.

Many governments have been guilty of using the law in a very brutal way.

I have been part of People's Union for Civil Liberties for the last 30 years.

I got politicised as a student during the Emergency.

I fought the Congress on TADA (Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act) and then the National Democratic Alliance on POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act).

Again, during the United Progressive Alliance government, I campaigned against UAPA (the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act).

As a human rights activist, I am not talking in a partisan way or support any political party. To me, the Indian Constitution is sacrosanct, the basis of all rights and protections. Without the Indian Constitution, our country will turn into a totalitarian State.

Thanks to the principle of rule of law, there is still some space left for us to fight against hate politics, human rights violations, divisiveness and development policies which are detrimental to our ecology and environment.

But what this particular regime has done since they came to power in 2014, which has become worse after 2019, are three things.

1. They have completely saffronised all the key institutions of democracy -- the bureaucracy and technocracy.

The independence of other democratic and Constitutional institutions have been seriously compromised; agencies like the Enforcement Directorate, Central Bureau of Investigation and other central agencies have been used selectively against those seen as opposing the ruling regime.

In many ways they are controlling and directing official agencies. Just see what has happened to Newsclick organisation -- in an unprecedented way, raids are going on for so many days. They do not want any media that critically analyses or reports on their actions.

2. They have used the law as a weapon to systematically crush rights and silence speech. Now it is widespread and this is happening across India.

3. Finally, they have got total stranglehold over the media so you do not get any unbiased information.

In the web series Tandav case, the Supreme Court of India has said that freedom of speech is not absolute. Don't you feel as citizens one must as a rule not post anything on social media which is anti-India?

What is being anti-India?

Today, we have reached a situation where if we talk about atrocities on Dalits, it is dubbed as anti-Indian.

If we talk about air pollution in Delhi or industrial disasters or environmental dangers due to dangerous industries or unscrupulous mining, then such criticism is being dubbed "anti-India".

The reality is that inequality is growing in our country. Industrial families have cornered huge amounts of wealth in India. It has become anti-Indian to question their proximity to the prime minister or home minister or the ruling party.

Caste discrimination, communal hate politics including lynchings, are commonplace -- we need to talk about it, to engage in discussion with other fellow Indians so that we can change this dangerous slide into hatred and intolerance, that we as a country are slipping into.

The reality is that the ruling party at the Centre is building up this fractious, dangerous politics. Shouldn't we as citizens talk about it? Question it? Challenge it?

If the government is coming out with a policy and if I feel it is not good for India, don't I have the right to speak about it?

Should I be only a yes man of whatever the government says?

The government is coming up with a policy to remove environmental protection and they want corporates to do whatever they want in the name of 'wealth creation'.

There is so much proof of industrial disasters taking place because many sections of corporate India were unscrupulous in their business practices and got damaging, discarded technology into the country.

Let's not forget that the worst industrial disaster took place in the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal. Lest this is dismissed as happening in 1984, last year dangerous gas leaked out of the LG Polymers plant in Visakhapatnam. The Supreme Court has often criticised the dangers caused by indiscriminate mining in Goa or Jharkhand or Orissa.

If I have to say, for example, the rubber industry or plastic industry is bad for India, then the government will say I am an enemy of development.

For example, there is the Sterlite plant in Tamil Nadu.

I am saying it is bad for the environment of the state and they will say it is bringing in foreign exchange. In the name of foreign exchange and wealth creation, can we allow environmentally dangerous industries coming into India?

The anti-Indian argument is a bogey -- meant to silence independent thinking people in India and turn us into goats and sheep.

Luckily, there are still many people, especially youngsters, who are fired with the spirit underlying the Preamble to the Constitution of India -- to create a country which is marked by liberty, fraternity and equality. Where social justice are the rallying principles. In which all Indians are free and secure to express themselves without fear.

As Rabindranath Tagore said, 'Into that heaven of freedom, my Lord, let my country awake!'

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