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Agnes Kharshiing and Amita Sangma, Photo: Northeast Now

The murderous attack on the RTI activists and environmentalists Agnes Karshiing and Amita Sangma and their driver E. Kurbah in Meghalaya is only the latest case of people with power using force to suppress dissent. Most such attacks come from the government but in recent years private bodies have been taking over more and more of them.

The khap panchayats getting young couples hanged for inter-caste marriages has almost become an accepted practice in parts of North India. It has by now gone beyond the North and even in supposedly progressive Kerala a Christian of Dalit origin was allegedly killed for the “sin” of marrying an upper caste woman. Ironically such brutality is called honour killing. Lynching of alleged cow smugglers and killers that began in the Hindi belt has taken new forms in some other regions as the Karbi Anglong incident in Assam shows.

Common to such cases is intolerance of those who are different or those who question the dominant interests. The attack on Agnes Karshiing and companions seems to have come from people with a vested interest in rat hole and other unsustainable forms of coal mining that involve child labour in unhealthy conditions and massive environmental damage.

It has been banned by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) but reportedly continues illegally. Agnes and her companions were attacked when they went to check on it. It seems to have been done by the coal mafia. Most cases of lynching result from fear or hatred of those who are different. By and large its victims are Muslims whom some fundamentalist groups accuse of killing or smuggling cows or transporting beef. They need no proof to take action.

The statements of some criminal elements circulated through the social media are adequate to accuse, judge, condemn and execute the accused. They seem to do it with impunity because they assume that most political leaders will support them or look the other way when people are killed in the name of religion or the cow. Not every leader may garland the perpetrators of lynching as a BJP leader did in Ranchi. But by and large the perpetrators feel that the political class will support them.

Honour killings are meant “to protect the honour” of a community. It is based on unjust traditions of caste, religion or some other form that the dominant leaders identify with the honour of the community. They, therefore, allow no dissent around it because its leaders decide that any questioning of the tradition is unacceptable.

The recent arrest of Gautam Navlakha and other human rights activists is a case of the State’s failure to tolerate dissent. They are lawyers, writers and intellectuals who have been protesting the violation of human rights by the State. They are, therefore, branded urban Naxalites and are arrested.

The police bring their own “witnesses” all the way from Maharashtra to Delhi or Goa to “prove” their case while raiding the premises of these “urban Naxalites”. These persons are not the only ones harassed by the State in the name of national security. Green Peace India has been deprived of its foreign contribution number and is being harassed for the “sin” of questioning the official approach to the environment in many of its development projects.

The Bangalore office of Amnesty International was raided on charges of misusing its funds or the law to ensure its survival. It’s mostly female staff members were kept confined to the office till after 10 pm without communication with the outside world. The Centre for Justice and Peace that has been supporting the victims of the 2002 massacre of the Muslims in Gujarat is being hounded and deprived of its income.

Such “income tax raids” go beyond NGOs to print and digital media houses. The Quint, a digital newspaper that refuses to toe the official line was raided recently by the Enforcement Directorate. The Wire, another e-paper faces defamation charges filed in Gujarat though its editor lives in Delhi where the allegedly defamatory piece was published. He has, therefore, to travel to Ahmedabad for the hearing which continues to be adjourned every now and then.

What it means is that there is “method in this madness”. Those who are thus harassed are individuals with a mind of their own or organisations that uphold the rights of the poor to a life with dignity that is guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution. Dissent from the official line that is the very kernel of democracy is treated as anti-national because such questioning becomes a threat to people in power.

It may be social power of people who control their society through caste and gender based restrictions. It may be economic power of people got through illegal mining or financial and other transactions. It may be political power. All of it is maintained through repression of dissent as the cases given above show. One can expect it to grow worse if the public does not protest against it.

The “method in madness” has been witnessed in many other countries too that lived with fascism in its various forms. That is how Mussolini and Adolf Hitler rose to power. After getting elected democratically they began to hound their opponents, spread myths about Jews and other ethnic communities whom they tried to eliminate and used all the official institutions for this purpose.

Step by step they kept the external forms but destroyed democracy from within. They made use of religion and controlled the media for this purpose. The Emergency was imposed in India by using some clauses of the Constitution. One sees it happening in the USA of today with President Trump spreading myths about refugees, Muslims and fake news and using evangelical revival for his own electoral purposes.

President George W. Bush created the myth of weapons of mass destruction in order to support the armament and petroleum industries of his country by attacking Iraq and bombing a developed country back to the stone age. By and large the general public in Germany and Italy acquiesced in such myths. The majority in the USA may accept such myths but there is also strong opposition to it.

One has to learn from history and see how it repeats itself. The average Indian has enough commitment to his country and to democracy to understand the forces that use common good as a pretext to suppress the democratic forces.

Dr Walter Fernandes is Senior Fellow at North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati. He can be reached at:walter.nesrc@gmail.com

Originally published in North East Now

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