A guide to understanding Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s column ‘There is no emergency’
In an essay replete with sarcasm and vitriol, a senior columnist has taken the Narendra Modi-led BJP government to task over its overamplified protestation that the political situation in the country is normal and not at the threshold of an Emergency-like situation as claimed by opposition parties, and by the government’s and the BJP’s continued insistence that any protest that didn’t suit its interests as inimical to the interests of the country, national, economic, social or defence or whichever suits the bill.
Using the motif of the Emergency since the Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself made a pointed reference at the Ramnath Goenka Journalism Awards hosted by the Indian Express recently, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the paper’s contributing editor, blew holes into the BJP argument that all is well and can never be so well etc (#AchcheDin anyone?), all this without any frontal attack that would have, the writer implies in the column, invited a ban like the one imposed on NDTVIndia for its alleged violations in covering the Pathankot attack. NDTVIndia is said to have been banned for 24 hours on November 9 under a flimsy law, like the government’s favourite sedition charge, for its strident tone against the government particularly its senior executive editor Ravish Kumar.
Ravish Kumar himself tore into the attempts to silence the channel with an acute attack on the attempts to muzzle the media by using two mime artists on his news show on the channel last night, drawing attention to the fact that since NDTV India cannot ask questions, the mime artists may ask them without speech.
Let’s return to Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s essay. This guide is for those who did not understand what Mehta said in his column. He is referring to incidents where democracy and the practice of it have been mocked into suicide.
Mehta takes off with a reference to the Prime Minister’s speech at the awards: “Every generation must keep reflecting on the Emergency period in an unbiased manner so that no future political leader can even wish to commit the same sin.”
He makes a marked distinction that the 1975 Emergency was an open one, he says: “Many are arguing that we are now moving towards an undeclared Emergency that seems equally insidious and far-reaching. The real Emergency will be that we will not even recognise that we are in an Emergency.” The last line refers to the many countless violations of law in the name of cow protection, women’s welfare and what not that have nearly made the ordinary citizen not react to such incidents anymore.
Mehta then adopts the coy note, saying those who accuse the PM and his government and the party they are from of “creating Emergency-like conditions are being unfair to you. How can the signs possibly point to Emergency-like conditions?”
Referring to Congress president DK Barooah’s super-sycophant remark that “India is Indira and Indira is India” in 1975 (yes, somebody did say such shit), Mehta writes, “They say the personality cult of the “Leader” has reached unprecedented proportions. The nation seems like one leader’s ego writ large. The leader can do no wrong. But this cult of leadership cannot possibly be like the Emergency. After all, Our Leader is always right.”
Then Mehta switches to rapid fire mode, with each sentence or a group of sentences highlighting an event or an incident of dissent and its suppression. Pointing to the run-ins with the Delhi government, Congress and the detention of Rahul Gandhi and several AAP leaders including Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, here’s the paragraph, all brackets ours: “There is increasing use of state power to suffocate the opposition (note the arrest of AAP MLAs). Elected governments of non-BJP parties are not being allowed to function, like in Delhi (In Arunachal Pradesh, they effected a complete turnaround, leading to the suicide of Congress leader Kaliko Phul). Routine politics now risks detention (The detention of Rahul Gandhi, Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia over the attempt to meet the family of Ram Kishan Grewal who committed suicide over OROP anomalies). A chief minister and Opposition leaders are denied routine forms of protest (Refer above). All forms of civility break down. Even if the detention was shortlived it sent a signal of what the state intends to do. But this cannot possibly portend an Emergency. Opposition politicking is bad for the country. Only the ruling party’s politicking is good. (Any visit by opposition politicians is an attempt to vitiate the peace, like in the OROP case or in the Akhlaq murder).”
“Nationalism is used to stifle all thinking (Questioning the “surgical strikes” or the Bhopal extrajudicial killings is anti-national. Just like what Kiren Rijiju said). The cultivation of collective narcissism (remember the monogrammed suit Modi wore when Obama was in Delhi?) to stifle all individuality, the promulgation of uncontested definitions of nationalism (promotion of cow nationalism and cow protection) to pre-empt all debate over genuine national interest, the constant hunt for contrived enemies of the nation (SIMI hunt, terror threat leading to detention of Muslim teenagers), is suffocating thought. But we cannot declare this to be an Emergency since that would require us to think. Social protestors are routinely detained. The articulation of social protest is more difficult. Just ask Jignesh Mevani or Hardik Patel (Both detained and arrested for challenging the might of the Gujarat government under Anandiben Patel, who was quietly dumped soon after). The use of preventive detention to stifle social protest cannot be an Emergency. It is the mere maintenance of order, the time-honoured tactic of the state (Sarcasm for those who didn’t understand it).”
“The covert use of state power to keep the press, particularly television media (read NDTVIndia one-day ban), aligned with the government’s purposes (remember Arnab Goswami’s hectoring for The Nation Wants To Know), has produced something far more insidious than censorship: It has shown how much conformity can be produced without overt censorship (Yes sir, yes sir, Yes Prime Minister). But this cannot possibly be an Emergency. The media, after all, caves in of its own free will. (Sarcasm for those who didn’t understand it)”.
“The effective way in which Indian civil society’s revolt against corruption has been neutralised and made invisible is astounding (Did someone say Jan Lokpal?). Every corruption scam, from Vyapam onwards, is wiped out of the public discussion (remember the many people who had something to do with or were investigating it but all of them died). A simulacrum of virtue and innocence is created by throwing a cloak of invisibility over all vice and scams (Amit Shah’s statement that Modi is the most criticised person after Independence. Surely, the BJP has forgotten its atomic assaults on Nehru most, followed by Manmohan Singh and then Rahul Gandhi). How can it be an Emergency if the objective is to protect the government’s claims to purity and virtue? Academic institutions are threatened if students and faculty exercise their rights (JNU protests, Kanhaiya et al). Governments will often appoint sympathisers. That is their prerogative. But making mediocre appointments with the sole purpose of taming institutions has reached new heights. But this cannot possibly be an Emergency. This is merely producing right thinking. (JNU VC Jagadesh Kumar, IIMC director-general KG Suresh and other luminaries on a long list).”
“The state continues to create a climate where extra-judicial killings are justified (the post-Diwali Bhopal encounter). But, perhaps this is not an Emergency since we are in a permanent war, where the norms of terrorism and those of civilised states become indistinguishable. There are witch hunts in the name of protecting the cow (Una where people got away alive, Dadri where Akhlaq was killed for eating meat that was suspected to be beef). The prime minister warns against vigilante hooliganism. Yet ministers compensate the killers, and drape them in the national flag (Union Tourism and Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma draped the tricolour on the corpse of Ravi Sisodia, an accused in the murder of Mohammed Akhlaq)”. But perhaps this too does not feel like the Emergency. How can crimes committed in the name of the holy cow be compared to the Emergency? (Two Muslims, one a 12-year-old boy, were hanged in Latehar for cattle running, two Muslims were fed cow dung mixture in Faridabad near Delhi). The unfettered use of surveillance cannot be an Emergency (Everybody is being watched, Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal spoke of the tapping of phones of judges). It is only for making citizens more transparent to the government. The critics are wrong. The government does not need to be made more accountable to the people; citizens need to be made more accountable to the government. How is this an Emergency? (Sarcasm etc)”
“The attempts to control the judiciary cannot be an Emergency. After all, the judiciary has become a law unto itself (The threat of judicial accountability, the deliberate blocking of judicial appointments to ensure people with BJP sympathies get the posts). The arbitrary use of the state machinery of law enforcement, from police to CBI, continues (Encounters, CBI raids to intimidate rivals). But this cannot possibly be an Emergency. This is just regular government. The growing use of militarism and military iconography in politics cannot be an Emergency. (Refer to any Amit Shah speech, ideally in the run-up to Bihar Assembly elections, and the constant cutting motion the BJP chief mimicked when referring to the NDA’s opponents there) After all, mere claims to have shown Pakistan its place can excuse all other vice, including inflated claims about what we actually achieved (Remember the Goa BRICS-BIMSTEC meet where Russia and China ignored Modi’s “fight terror” pleas and omitted naming Pakistan in their statement, and the Chinese have stonewalled any Indian move to declare Maulana Masood Azhar a UN wanted terrorist, and the further baseless WhatsApp messages asking Diwali shoppers to ignore Made In China fireworks). Clamping down on those who question government propaganda cannot be an Emergency (The State harassing journalists and social scientist Bela Bhatia in Chhattisgarh). Why call it Emergency, when we can call it treason? (Sarcasm, refer above for the love of the charge of sedition and its cousin, treason)”
“The repression in Kashmir (the Valley has been on the boil for more than a 100 days), the suppression of all information directed against our own citizens, cannot possibly be an Emergency. After all, we are dealing with insurgency and rage. The cult of propaganda reigns supreme. The purpose of propaganda is not the dissemination of information (The troll agenda to make it sound how safe the pellets were compared to bullets, there are many blind Kashmiris now than before July 8 and how the Kashmiri youth got stones to throw at CRPF personnel). It is to render the very distinction between truth and falsehood irrelevant. It is to impugn reputations of those who challenge (Refer VK Singh quote that OROP suicide victim Subedar (retd) Ram Kishan Grewal was attached to the Congress and thus his death was a political ploy). But this cannot possibly be an Emergency since an Emergency would matter only if you cared about the truth.”
Mehta then takes on the BJP habit of blaming similar instances on the previous governments or state governments. “And truth be told, how can any of these be signs of an Emergency? Previous governments have used some of these tactics (everything that went wrong, barring surgical strikes, was also Congress mistake). Many Opposition state governments from Bengal to Tamil Nadu occasionally dip into this playbook (Arrest of cartoonist mocking Mamata Banerjee, Jayalalithaa’s persistence with pursuing defamation suits against any reporting against the TN government). If they did something piecemeal, any government is entitled to do it whole-scale. How can this be an Emergency? The prime minister says one thing in his speeches. He, always after the fact, tries to strike the high note (After the Una flogging of Dalits, Modi said, “Attack me, not my Dalit brothers.” There was no confirmation if his exhortation worked, instead, Jignesh Mevani and his friends escaped upper cast wrath when their march ended in Una). His government and party do something different. They take the low road. This cannot possibly be an Emergency. This only shows a poor helpless prime minister. It shows a prime minister who is strong enough to take on Pakistan (refer surgical strikes, which Pakistan dismissed as routine crossfire, any journalistic or legal examination of it is allegedly seditious). But a prime minister too weak to take on the likes of Mahesh Sharma (the tricolour over Akhlaq’s killer, saying tourists shouldn’t wear skirts, a Ram museum in Ayodhya)? How can this be an Emergency? (Need we repeat it?)”
“And yes, of course, all this is good for the economy (Indices of industrial production have tumbled, inflation is up, Raghuram Rajan has gone). The GDP number looks impressive. But since you cannot question the meaning of the number (The newfangled method to compute it after which despite fall in foreign inflows India is growing, along with a suspense account which is also growing), we won’t know if this Emergency is successful.”
Mehta wraps up with another homily on how democracy doesn’t mean truth should be what the government deems to be truth alone. “Your truth will not permit us to say it feels jolly close to an Emergency.”
Modi had been mildly rebuked at the Ramnath Goenka Awards by the paper’s Chief Editor Raj Kamal Jha who attacked selfie journalists who profess their views without an eye on the facts in an oblique reference to the trolls that serve the BJP and the Sangh Parivar.