Detention of ‘barefoot economist’ Jean Dreze reflects poorly on BJP-led governments

Can the ‘Model Code of Conduct’ prevent assembly and meeting of people on vital issues affecting society? And yet that is what Jharkhand administration would like people to believe

Photo courtesy: Twitter
Photo courtesy: Twitter

Suhit K Sen

In election season you’d normally expect governments to act with greater sensitivity for those they claim to ‘serve’– the indigent who do not get to fill their bellies enough to meet any standard of minimum nutrition.

But not really, it would appear. the BJP government in Jharkhand broke up a meeting on food security and detained Jean Dreze, economist and right-to-food activist, and two others who were supposed to address the meeting. They were harassed, made to cool their heels at a police station and allowed to leave only after outrage and public pressure built up on social media.

Why are we not surprised at this kind of draconian and, frankly, not very intelligent way of functioning? We need first to look at the circumstances, before looking at track records. Dreze himself said that permission for the meeting was neither given nor withheld.

Garhwa Superintendent of Police Shivani Tiwari justified the action arguing that the meeting would have violated the model code of conduct. Huh? By that logic no political party can hold election meetings and, in fact, can barely campaign, especially given the fact that the meeting was being organised on a matter of an intensely urgent public issue by an organisation, Dehan, which was not contesting the impending Lok Sabha elections, or contested any other poll earlier.

We shall try to decipher this statement and the government’s motives after looking at BJP governments’ track record. Take the BJP government in Maharashtra. It orchestrated a number of dawn raids on August 29, 2018, and the state police arrested five activists working for the welfare of tribal people in connection with violent riots following a meeting the village of Bhima-Koregaon held on December 31, 2017. Earlier last year, five other activists were arrested in connection with the same riots.

The police claimed, laughably, that these people are ‘urban Naxals’ involved in a war to overthrow the state. A claim also made its way to the mainstream media that some of those arrested were involved in a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It was found to be fabricated.

The unvarnished truth is that the BJP and governments headed by it are instinctively inimical to those who work with and for the most marginalised sections of people.

The Bhima-Koregaon riots and violence were sparked off when rightwing Hindu activists attacked a Dalit gathering. Of the two principal accused, who were charged with instigating the riots one was Sambhaji Bhide, who Modi counts as one of his ‘gurujis’. He was never arrested since the blame and investigation was deflected on to the ‘victims’ – the Dalits. Another accused, Milind Ekbote, was held briefly and released on bail, while most of the ‘urban Naxals’ continue to languish in prison.

Earlier, in 2009, the BJP government in Chhattisgarh had arrested Binayak Sen, eminent physician and tribal rights activist, and incarcerated him for two years before the Supreme Court allowed him bail.

The case has for all practical purposes been dropped because the charge against Sen, that of being an ultra-left subversive, is too bizarre, indeed surreal, to be sustained. Sen, in fact, devised a model of healthcare that was adopted by the government of undivided Madhya Pradesh.

Dreze is lucky in that he is still a free man, though the Jharkhand government has achieved its objective of muzzling him. There are two kinds of reasons for these actions. One is that BJP governments do not want their abysmal track record in relation to the alleviation of poverty and hunger to be exposed. This is partly because such exposure will directly prove that Modi’s overblown rhetoric about dealing with poverty, as opposed to the record of Congress governments, will be exposed as a tangled skein of complete falsehoods.

Another reason is to provide aid and succour to Sangh parivar activists who are determined to keep minorities, Dalits and tribal people in a state of pathological suppression. That, for instance, was clearly the objective in the case of the police action in the case of Sen and the activists accused in connection with the Bhima-Koregaon case. In a less direct sense, this logic applies to the detention of Dreze and two activists.

All this is fuelled by a fundamental ideological frame which valorises first the majority community – the Hindus – and then the Brahmanical order in which Dalits and tribal people are conceived of as second-class citizens, while the minorities are barely seen as rights-bearing citizens at all. The BJP’s push for a Hindu ‘rashtra’ underpins its overweening desire to establish the Brahmanical order.

That is the bad news. The good news is that the potentially disenfranchised have seen through BJP’s rhetoric and the professions of its governments and identified them for what they are – vehicles of majoritarian domination with a bulging bag of smoke and mirrors.

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