Interview with Aakar Patel: The mob is BJP and Modi’s lasting legacy
BJP leaders can say all the right things but then they will allow the mob to intervene and force exactly the opposite. BJP has outsourced violence to the mob, says Aakar Patel about the Modi years
Author, activist and columnist Aakar Patel is known for his clinical critique of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and performance of the Government headed by him. His book ‘Price of the Modi Years’ released in December 2021 is a searing but businesslike report card on BJP Government at the Centre. In a freewheeling chat with Naheed Ataulla, Patel, who is back as the chair of Amnesty India, recounts his tryst with the Modi government:
Your book ‘Price of the Modi Years’ has been on top of the charts for several weeks. What kind of feedback has the book received?
Non-fiction books don’t sell in our country. Hence, the numbers by themselves don’t mean much. But I think it has received positive reviews and the satisfaction comes from the fact that I wrote it.
I thought the period we are living through must be documented. Various parts of the polity, the economy, foreign policy, national security, judiciary, civil society and many things have been transformed since 2014. I thought as a writer it is an obligation to record this change. That I was able to do this is satisfying.
There is a fairly sharp division of people in the polity today, people who support the government and what is done by it, no matter whether what is being done is seen as positive or negative;and those who oppose it. From the view point of his supporters, they hate Modi.
It was therefore important that documentation be done to show what has happened to India post 2014 portrayed in a neutral way without getting into an argument. The book adheres to this kind of balance.
What has been the reaction of Modi supporters, bureaucrats and the trolls, and in Gujarat?
The government no longer looks at data anymore. The government’s own data on employment, GDP growth rate post-January 2018- the government has stopped talking of numbers that it itself puts out. To expect that the government will respond to a book documenting its performance would have been foolish and I didn’t expect it.
Your book clinically examines the ‘Modi years’. You have compiled meticulously information available in the public domain. But has anything been contradicted so far?
When your performance is benchmarked against the data that you yourself have put out, it’s difficult to criticize. I did not expect the government to engage with the book and I am not surprised that they have not. The same is the case with the Right Wing, which I prefer to call the Hindutva groups. If you refuse to accept the facts that are put out by the government itself, it’s not possible to have a constructive discussion.
Would you say that the pandemic and the economic disaster have dented Modi’s image in a way?
It would not be appropriate to say that the problems India has faced post-March 2020, in terms of economy, are purely due to the pandemic. But on the other hand, it is also true to say that Modi’s handling of the pandemic has been in some ways different from countries in South Asia, none of whom went into an economic recession. Reason: We had an unplanned lockdown which was fairly harsh. Effects of which were felt over a long period of time.
How do you explain the adulation for him in Gujarat--despite the phoney Gujarat Model as you expose-- among the youth and in rural areas?
Adulation comes in large part from his majoritarianism and the world ganging up against minorities. It has been proven popular in politics for a long time. It is not easy for somebody from the outside as a writer to look at Modi and those who support him to see what are the objective positive things he is liked for. His language against minorities, what the government of India and states have done in terms of law and policies since 2014 appear to be popular. There is enough documentation however even before my book was published on the 12 years of Modi in Gujarat and the economic growth of that state.
Have the publishers faced any heat from the Government?
I don’t think long form books make any difference to the government. Non-fiction does not affect the government. What the government cares about is what is written on Twitter.
If you were to add one more chapter to the book, what would you have written?
I don’t think I have left anything out. After 10 years are over in 2024, I doubt whether chapters will change and if I were to add anything in 2024, it will be an update of where things are.
What are you writing next?
I am writing a book on protests which will be published in the next couple of months. The book will be on how to protest, why to protest, what are the laws in India that one should protest against because as a democracy we tend to stop our participation at voting.
But there are other aspects to democracy such as engaging with law that citizens should know about. I am looking at theoretical possibilities of what citizens can do, particularly in the face of a government like this.
What made you accept the assignment from Amnesty and how was it like working in India for them?
I had been retired for four to five years when I was asked whether I wanted to do this job. I found it interesting. I thought we are going through a period in history which is important for human rights to be defended and stood up for. I had a most satisfying time with the organisation and I am back now as the Chair, Amnesty India again. We moved the Supreme Court last week to de-freeze our bank accounts.
Indians are at best hazy about human rights and the well-off have never been concerned about the rights of others. Do you agree?
I would say that’s a generalization. If you look at the Bhima Koregaon case of 2016, all of whom are in jail and one died there, they are committed to the cause. I am very happy and proud to stand with such people. The spirit and character they have is what gives life and sustenance to democracies.
Tell us a bit about the work of Amnesty in India and what made the government decide to go after it?
India is not a particularly united space in this sense. The North-East and Kashmir are different from the rest of India. They have different laws. In Kashmir we use shotguns to kill people. It depends on which part of the country we are looking at for Human Rights.
What work was done during your first tenure while helming Amnesty India?
When I was there in my first term of four and half years, we were working on Kashmir, Adivasis and their rights in coal mining areas, undertrials, 1984 riots and justice for them. We had documentation and evidence gathering. The government coming after us was for one of these reasons as it does not like this kind of work to happen.
What is the price that you and your colleagues in Amnesty had to pay so far?
We have not been formally charged yet. There was one ED raid in October 2018 and the government had not followed the due process so we moved the high court and got relief. On the same set of transactions, the CBI once again raided our offices and our accounts were frozen and this time under the Money Laundering Act. Once again, the government had not followed the process and we got partial relief from the court.
We are moving the Supreme Court for comprehensive relief. It is purely malice that the government does not want us to work. In India, if you are working as a human rights activist, you will be questioned. I do expect to resume work soon and also expect that we will continue to have trouble from the government.
How active is the National Human Rights Commission in India?
I don’t know what active means, but they’re not effective. The NHRC sees itself as an extension of the government and the person who heads it, Arun Kumar Mishra, I don’t think can head a body like that. For the most part they focus on the rights of the states to brutalize us, rather than stand up for citizens.
What are the three or five most important aspects of Human Rights violations in India that people in 2022 should be aware of?
There are many problematic laws. Even on the issue of fundamental rights, for example the fundamental right to propagate a religion, the way India behaves in Kashmir where there is no democracy for 33 years and people are picked up with no access to judicial relief, for example.
Karnataka too has brought in an anticonversion law. How do you see this?
Unfortunately, Karnataka is the first Southern state to succumb to what the BJP has done in UP. After 2018 five states passed laws restricting inter-faith marriages. I don’t think Karnataka should have taken it up. It will not stand as parts of the law in Gujarat have been stayed. Having said that, the purpose to bring such a law is to instigate trouble against the minorities and that it has done successfully. Karnataka shamefully has witnessed several episodes of ruling party people and those groups affiliated with BJP stopping prayers and the police has been for the most part supporting the efforts.
What made you a contrarian today because when Babri masjid was demolished in 1992, you had said it did not affect you?
I was not literate then. I was 21 years old. Coming to Mumbai from Surat, considering what happened in Gujarat in 2002 and writing about recent history, one cannot remain unaffected. The last 25 years has pulled India back in many ways because of the rise of the BJP and what it stands for. The next quarter of the century will see us trying to exorcize ourselves of the venom they have injected into our society; but I remain an optimist.
How has the BJP spread the venom?
The BJP has devolved violence down to the mob. Today though the government in Haryana says they have allocated space for prayers for Muslims, mobs can come and stop them. You can have the BJP head of Gujarat C.R. Patel claim that his party has no issues over eggs being cooked in the streets but mobs can stop the sale or the municipality will make some excuse to take them off the street. My point is the BJP has allowed for the violence to evolve.
In such circumstances, what should the Congress be doing?
I have met Congress president Sonia Gandhi and I quite liked her. I think if the Congress stands for the things that it says it does, those of us who want to stand up and fight for the country through writing will do so. It is not easy to think of an alternative for the Congress in the North and West even if the party is weak. They have not been replaced and in states like Gujarat, where the party has been out of power for quarter of a century, the state still remains a one or twoparty polity. We should hope Congress stands by secularism and pluralism.
(This interview was first published in National Herald on Sunday)