Foot In Mouth Or Straws In The Wind ?

Over these last seven years we have become used to our saffron eminences and their intellectually challenged acolytes spouting all kinds of asinine nonsense: Einstein discovered gravity, Darwin was wrong because no one witnessed an ape turning into homo sapiens, Chandragupta defeated Alexander, India invented plastic surgery and in-vitro fertilisation procedures, Haldighati was a victory for Maharana Pratap, cow urine cures Covid, India achieved independence in 2014 and not in 1947. If these statements did not educate us they at least added a little levity to our despondent existence. But two recent statements, equally bizarre, may give us cause for concern. They come close on the heels of Justice (R) Arun Mishra, Chairman of the NHRC (National Human Rights Commission) who is unable to control his admiration for the Prime Minister even at international fora,  organising a debate on the subject “Are human rights a stumbling block in fighting evils like terrorism and naxalism ?” In legal parlance, this was the ultimate “leading question”. We thought that things couldn’t possibly get worse, but we were quickly proved wrong.

Mr. Ajit Doval, the National Security Advisor and India’s third most powerful person, told IPS probationers at a passing out function that the new frontier of war was civil society, it was the ” fourth generation” of warfare, that it can be suborned, manipulated, subverted and divided to “hurt the interests of a nation”, and that the police are “there to see that the land is fully protected.” He went on to further expound on his doctrine of democracy (I am paraphrasing here): that the electoral process is not paramount, what is important are the laws made by lawmakers and the police must enforce them ruthlessly.

The other declaration, even more alarming, was by the Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat who opined that it was a “good thing ” that the public of Jammu and Kashmir was now ready to lynch terrorists. He did not see the necessity of making a distinction between suspected, hybrid and genuine terrorists. Presumably, the good citizens of J+K would make this judgment themselves just before they strung up these individuals on the nearest lamp-post. He also seemed to forget that there are laws in place to deal with terrorists, and that lynching is not yet an approved form of justice.

These statements fall into a different category from the Kangana Ranaut and Satyendra Singh ones and have to be taken more seriously because they have been made by the two senior-most officers of our most important uniformed forces- the police and the army. These two gentlemen are acknowledged to be very close to the ruling dispensation and never speak out of turn. They are also good weather vanes. That is why the two statements need to be taken seriously and condemned unequivocally.

The import of Mr. Doval’s exhortation goes far beyond a few dozen IPS probationers: it is an attack on civil society, a warning to the govt’s critics and an incitement to the police to target dissidents and liberals. I do not know whether his choice of words was deliberate or just unfortunately random, but to term civil society as a frontier of war is shocking, it equates citizens with an “enemy”. And to elevate any peaceful confrontation between a government and its citizens to a “fourth-generation warfare” is an astounding militarisation of dissidence. It is also a very innovative doctrine: most military strategists will tell you that the new generation of warfare consists of cyber, asymmetrical or algorithmic war. For Mr. Doval to add “civil society” to this list would be inviting ridicule. But somehow I don’t think he was being facetious or stupid; he appears to have chosen his words carefully, and his messaging is deliberate.

For me, this is confirmed by Gen Rawat’s statement, which, shorn of its uniformed origin, is nothing but an incitement to vigilantism and mob violence. That the senior-most defence officer in the country can say this publicly is condemnable but no longer surprising, for new furrows of illegality are being carved out every day in this country these days.

Both prescriptions are in direct contradiction with, and a violation of,  our Constitution and the law of the land. They criminalise freedom of speech, the right to disagree with the govt., the right to protest peacefully. As Aruna Roy points out in a recent article, Mr. Doval is short-circuiting the democratic social and developmental safeguards assured us by the Constitution, and is maliciously painting civil society as a force which is undermining development and nationalism. Moreover, it is clear that he is referring to the “other” civil society which protests the govt’s excesses, and not the one represented by the Kapil Mishras, Kangana Ranauts, and Swami Narsinghanands, all supporters and purveyors of hate and intolerance.

In fact, one would have expected these two senior functionaries of the govt. to have done just the opposite of what they did. Given the manner in which most police forces in the states- not excluding opposition ruled states- have run amock of late, using UAPA and sedition laws with gay abandon, arresting anyone who writes against the govt. on trumped-up charges, defying court orders, being selective in their policing, the correct counsel to the IPS probationers should have been one which enjoined on them to work within the limits of the Constitution, abide by the judgments of the courts, respect the rights of citizens and the values of our democratic traditions and history, treat everyone equitably. General Rawat could have redeemed his rapidly shrinking reputation by denouncing vigilantism, reminding his audience that the sovereign right to violence belongs only to the state, and that too only after a due process of law is followed.

By branding civil society as internal enemies of the state, however, the two have now given a license to the police and other coercive agencies to be even more ruthless and brutal in their treatment of those members of society who incur the govt’s wrath and displeasure, including journalists, human rights activists, students, writers, liberal intellectuals, workers, farmers, artists. This is no longer just a dog whistle, it is sounding the bugles for a new war on the most fundamental of democratic values- the right to disagree. Disagreement is the bulwark of democracy- to crush it is to crush democracy itself.

It is difficult to explain why Messers Doval and Rawat have decided to open another front at this time, considering their dismal performance on all other fronts- Kashmir, the Naga Peace Accord, Afghanistan, Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh, Nepal, CAA, Pegasus, to name just a few. Moreover, the BJP ruled undisputed over social media till just about a couple of years ago, successfully drowning out the voice of civil society. So why now? My guess is that, as repeated failures of the government in all areas of governance pile up, a significant backlash is building up among the public. The hold and influence of the sold-out mainstream media is also diminishing, with independent portals and Youtube channels garnering huge viewership running into millions. The results of the recent by-elections seem to bear this out. Crucial elections in five states are due in just a few months. It is therefore time for desperate measures to instill more fear among members of the civil society, to fire up the vigilantes, and to convey the desired signals to the police. This will be the new template in the coming days. The barometer is falling and the wind is picking up.

It’s an ill wind that blows no good.

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