India is now a paranoid ‘Police State’ with conspirators lurking everywhere
Laws have been amended to curtail freedom, empower police and enable the executive to take over judicial power. Detention without trial is now the norm. Onus of proving innocence is on the accused
At least 40 percent of Americans are estimated to own at least one firearm. Many own more. And the US has seen both lone wolves gunning down innocent people, in malls, churches and even in schools. The past few months have seen massive protests across the United States against police killings of unarmed African Americans. Both protestors and White supremacists have flaunted firearms and a few have been killed. Vandalism and arson destroyed police stations and private properties alike. But even as Americans debated on defunding the police and disarming the police, a few cities actually sacked the police force.
But even as America burnt, the police and the Government acted with restraint. People were not arrested indiscriminately or accused of poisoning the minds of the people against the Government. Terrorists and conspirators were not found behind every tree and the police did not open fire at the protestors. In India in contrast, protests are increasingly deemed to be criminal, anti-national acts. Police do not think twice before arresting people for the crime of criticising the Government. Existing laws have been brushed up and provided with more teeth, more draconian power and like a child reacting after receiving a new toy, police seem to have gone berserk with new, surveillance tools. CCTVs are passe. Facial recognition, apps, social registry, data on citizens, access to digital footprints etc. have armed the police like never before.
The state appears paranoid and hysterical as it claims to have zero tolerance against terrorism. Citizens no longer have to commit an act of violence to fall foul of the law. It is enough if the Government suspects citizens of sympathising with rebels or revolutionaries. It is enough if they read Marxist or Maoist literature; enough if they speak in support of political prisoners or help them with money, material or shelter. Thousands of poor villagers languish in prisons for the crime of feeding rebels, some of whom grew up together. But now even lawyers and researchers, journalists and human rights workers interacting with the rebels or writing to them are deemed enemies of the state. (See box: A nation of conspirators). A Police State is defined as a country in which police is used to severely limit people’s freedom. Secret police, surveillance and arbitrary arrests, detention and torture and encounters without following the due process of law are some of the obvious features of the Police State. The approach of the police to crowd control, indiscriminate use of batons and firearms and diabolical and non-partisan investigation are again telltale signs.
The attitude of the Government was made clear on several occasions, both within and outside parliament. Home Minister Amit Shah had famously said in parliament that harbouring a ‘terror theory’ and spread it among the youth was a terrorist activity. “Terrorism is not just fostered by the gun. Terrorism is also the spread of hate and radicalism,” he said and went on to clarify, “ under the garb of ‘social activism’ and ‘ideological movement’, Maoism — especially ‘urban Naxalism’ and violence against common man, villagers and tribals under its pretext — won’t be tolerated at any cost.”
The Government either does not understand the distinction between empathy, sympathy, support and activism or it does not want to make the distinction. It does not believe that journalists, researchers, lawyers and social workers interacting with Maoists, helping them in the law courts or to negotiate their surrender, can be helpful to the state. And hence it has systematically gone about changing the laws and empowering the police with draconian powers.
Although law and order is a state subject, amendments to the NIA Act has empowered the central agency to take over investigation of crimes under Explosives Act, Arms Act, human trafficking and so on. The opposition had protested. With central agencies being misused by the Government and motivated media leaks vitiating investigations and trials, the amendment was malafide and would turn India into a police state, protested Congress MP Manish Tewari. This was also a violation of the federal structure, members said.
The Government has also put the onus of proving their innocence on the citizens and not the state. The maxim of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ has been put on its head. The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) was amended to enable the government to designate an individual as a terrorist. Earlier the Act allowed the government to declare organisations ‘terrorist’ organisation. But amendments enable the Government, and not the courts, to declare anybody a terrorist and seize his personal property.
“The government is taking over a judicial function. I can only be called a terrorist after a court convicts me. It cannot be done on mere suspicion or because the government says so,” complained AIMIM MP Asaduddin Owaisi in the Lok Sabha. But the Government used its brute majority in the Lok Sabha to have its way.
The Government also pushed through amendments in the Right to Information Act (RTI) and effectively buried the progressive legislation. Not only have the Information Commissions been reduced to anextension of the Government, appointment of commissioners have deliberately been delayed to bring the commissions to a standstill. Bodies like the National Human Rights Commission, which conceptually was there to inquire into the Government’s excesses, have also begun to release reports endorsing the excesses.
And as if this was not quite enough, a national social registry, in the works for the last five years, appears to be on the verge of getting operationalised. In a sensational, three-part report Huffington Post India pointed out that the system would automatically track “when a citizen moves between cities, changes jobs, buys new property, when a member of a family is born, dies or gets married and moves to their spouse’s home.”
The report quoted one of the architects of the scheme, Manoranjan Kumar, then the Economic Advisor to the Ministry of Rural Development, voicing his misgivings. Without adequate safeguards and the police and the bureaucracy exhibiting a servile mindset, the registry could well be misused, he felt.
“I wanted the social registry system to take shape because I wanted transparency in the government’s performance on welfare schemes,” Kumar told HuffPost India after his retirement in 2019. “I saw some departments and officials were overstating the achievement data on rural schemes. I believed this would stop, and accurate data on welfare delivery will reflect from the Social Registry.”
But he is now convinced that implementing it would hasten India’s worrying tilt towards a police state. “I saw India was emerging as a police state. Strong police state. And my belief is very simple that for any country to develop, it should allow more freedom and impose less control,” Kumar said.
“Unfortunately, today we have converted all government organisations and semi-government organisations as policing agents,” he said. “Be it the insurance regulation, banking, taxation, or property registration, everybody is seeing from a criminal angle”.
By yet another executive order, the Government authorised 10 agencies to inspect, snoop and retrieve data from computers, phones and metadata from computers, phones and WhatsApp etc. The list includes the Commissioner of Delhi Police besides agencies like CBI, RAW, NIA, CBDT, ED and Revenue Intelligence.
Emergency or no Emergency, India can now officially be hailed as a police state.