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It’s important to keep asking questions...

Anand Sahay is a senior journalist based in Delhi.
Published : Nov 21, 2016, 1:48 am IST
Updated : Nov 21, 2016, 6:57 am IST

We are not yet at the base camp of fascism, but that destination is not so dimmed in the mist.

Kashmiri villagers run for cover from tear gas shells and pellets fired at them by Indian police during a protest near the funeral of Rayees Ahmad Dar, a suspected militant of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in Kakpora village south of Srinagar. (Photo: AP)
 Kashmiri villagers run for cover from tear gas shells and pellets fired at them by Indian police during a protest near the funeral of Rayees Ahmad Dar, a suspected militant of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in Kakpora village south of Srinagar. (Photo: AP)

I found myself in Kashmir last week, along with friends, speaking to scores of young people, many of them well-educated young professionals — lawyers, doctors, teachers, journalists. There’s no way to know, but some among them may have been associated with stone-pelting in order to vent their anger, or as a conscious decision to register a political sentiment which is emblematic of the times.

Since dialogue has become a dirty word in New Delhi, the Kashmiris have been engaging in ferocious monologue. It’s another matter we think they will come to their senses sooner or later and the strategy seems to be to let them stew. The consequences can be unpleasant of course. But just listen to the snatches of one conversation:

“You call us secessionists. Military force is unleashed against us. We are being blinded. Pellet-guns are being used even against children. We are anti-national. Today Ghulam Nabi Azad (a former chief minister of J&K) was called anti-national. This happened in the Indian Parliament. And he is the Leader of the Opposition. Thank you, Indian democracy.”

So cynical was the tone, the speaker may as well have added “Good-bye, Indian democracy!” It was shaming to hear.

“Anti-national” has suddenly become the new normal. It can be said of anybody, anywhere, any time. The expression seems to have lost its original meaning. Now it simply means, anyone who differs with me is an “anti-national” (provided BJP is on my side).

It’s a curse word sanctioned by frequent usage by high functionaries of the ruling establishment. It’s as though our political popes have set up an invisible court which punishes without trial and barks out as punishment that curt, accusative, word with an ominous ring.

Why ominous? Because if you are “anti-national”, you can be hit by any roadside goon, no questions asked. A dog is given a bad name and then beaten. This is a sure way to descend into the stairwell of darkness, but the bailiffs of the invisible court beam with righteous pride.

Today is their day. Awarding certificates has become their right. Only they have earned the moral sanction to guard the nation.

This is exactly as the Pakistan Army thinks of itself as it sends its opponents to the dungeons delineated in Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes. We are not yet at the base camp of fascism, but that destination is not so dimmed in the mist.

The media has fallen in line. Prominent television stations have been intimidated and the others are doing the needful. The newspapers have held out on the whole, but just about. They tread with caution. They spill out the propaganda on their front pages, and ask few questions.

An even better technique is to unfailingly show the government’s opponents in poor light and ask no questions of government policy or its execution.

The top judges are still standing up to the poisoned darts being shot at them, but no one knows for how long. Parliament can be our best hope yet, but our representatives have still to demonstrate that they are capable of innovating. Walkouts are not the only way to show challenge to untrammelled authority. In fact, in India that has become an exhausted channel, an unthinking one that leaves people unimpressed.

Before they leave the chamber in disgust, our elected representatives are expected to put up a fight by offering painstaking resistance and careful arguments so that the time of the House is not seen as going waste.

Carefully picking out questions to ask is a necessary aspect of life in Parliament to keep the executive on its toes. In our own day, when “anti-national” is being raised to the level of a phonetic meme of the far right to cover its tracks for failing to live up to its many promises to ordinary people, it is important to ask the rulers if they have been scrupulous about observing the sanctity of institutions and respecting their delineated boundaries.

Two “surgical strikes” have been carried out lately. One concerns the Army. That expression was officially used — and publicised — to describe a cross-LoC raid in late September against tin-sheds in PoK where terrorists gather before they are transported into Indian territory by their Pakistani handlers.

The other relates to the Reserve Bank of India, the custodian of monetary activity in the country, in the context of the government’s decision to declare certain high denomination currency notes useless.

This was not officially described as a “surgical strike” against black money, but leading lights of the ruling party have used that description liberally in an effort to impress voters.

In both cases, there can arise reasonable doubt that the domains of the institution of the Army and that of the RBI were encroached upon by the government, and they were not asked to or permitted to supply their professional input in decision-making — that they were railroaded and bulldozed.

Was the Army asked if “surgical strike” was the appropriate expression for its raid on the night of September 28? It is necessary to know because the flashy and exalted use of that high-profile term in the present context can only have had a specific pre-election purpose.

In short, the Army was dragged into a political manoeuvre; the executive obliged it to acquiesce in the patently false use of that military description with a precise meaning.

The implication is that politics was made to breach the professional preserve of the Army and the top boys caved in. This is an eerie sign of system erosion. A satisfactory explanation of what transpired is owed to Parliament.

In the case of demonetisation, the other “surgical strike”, the implementation has been so shockingly shabby as to suggest that it was not thought through at all and was a pre-election gambit of doubtful public worth.

In that event, questions may be raised if the professional view of the RBI was sought, or whether the monetary authority was simply asked to sign on the dotted line in disregard of the rules of the game.

Both questions concern the preserving of institutional integrity within the system. In the case of both, the disgraceful epithet of “anti-national” has been hurled at individuals for either pointing out shortcomings raising doubts. Parliament, the shop-floor of democracy, has a right to be informed.

Tags: kashmir, bjp, pakistan army