– The Daily Fix – In Kashmir, ‘public order’ has become a handy excuse to block the flow of public discourse

The latest instance is an ‘open FIR’ criminalising criticism of a recent high court judgment.

Ipsita Chakravarty

Srinagar – Jammu & Kashmir – India, 11 June 2020. In Kashmir, another police complaint, another public gag order. On 07 June, the Jammu and Kashmir police lodged an “open FIR” against social media criticism of a judgment passed by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court on 28 May.

The court ruling had upheld the incarceration of Kashmir Bar Council President Mian Qayoom under the Public Safety Act, a preventive detention law, on the grounds that there was no evidence to show he had “shunned his separatist ideology”.

The 76-year-old lawyer had been detained last year because his ideology had been deemed a threat to public order. As they filed an FIR criminalising criticism of his continued detention, the police cited the “threat of disharmony in the general public” once again.

Since the Centre stripped Jammu and Kashmir of autonomy and split the former state into two Union Territories on 05 August, “public order” has become a powerful reason to block the flow of public discourse in Kashmir.

It has been used to paralyse the local press and intimidate reporters in the Valley.

Last week, the Jammu and Kashmir government issued a vaguely worded statement about a new “media policy” that will “raise alarm against any attempt to use media to vitiate public peace, sovereignty and integrity of the country”.

The crackdown on the news media has been extended to social media, which has also been under the security scanner for some years now. Blanket social media and internet bans have been replaced by more direct police action.

Back in February the Kashmir cyber police had filed yet another FIR against the “misuse of social media” and the use of virtual protection networks, which allow users to mask their location while browsing the internet.

Offenders could be booked under anti-terror laws such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

Like the current complaint, it was an “open FIR”. Nobody is named; the police have the licence to fill in the names of the accused as and when it sees fit.

The open FIR in February had triggered a spree of arrests, including that of a 17-year-old booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

The new FIR now looms over any would-be social media critic. Lawyers in Kashmir have already been summoned by the police to explain their social media comments on the high court judgment.

Never mind that the use of anti-terror laws against social media posts is disproportionate to the alleged offences. Never mind that open-ended FIRs against crimes not yet committed go against legal common sense.

As the Jammu and Kashmir Police piles up the paperwork and fills up jails, it must ask itself whether these actions meet its own stated aims.

Does it really believe that preventing free debate on a judicial order will shore up the credibility of the judiciary as an institution?

Does it really believe choking off channels of information and expression will preserve public order in the long run? – The Daily Fix – Centre tried to charge migrants to go home. Now it is resorting to embarrassing damage control

The BJP’s claims of paying for 85% of the fare and of only Congress states charging workers are untrue.

Rohan Venkataramakrishnan

New Delhi – India, 05 May 2020. Everything about the Indian government’s policy towards the country’s large, vulnerable population of migrant workers has been a mess.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three-week lockdown was announced with just four hours’ notice, with no thought for their needs, leading to a mass exodus of people setting off for their home villages on foot and cycle.

The government’s response was to ask the police to beat them into staying at home, forcing migrants into desperate measures like traveling in a cement mixer.

States ended up forcing them into shelters that were often unsanitary, with horrific facilities and insufficient food. The Centre refused to provide cheap food-grains to the states, which would have helped universalise India’s food ration system and allow migrants didn’t need ration cards for the states they were stranded in.

When movement of workers was finally announced, it was clear that the government saw them as labour resources, not human beings and citizens with desires, since they were only permitted to move to go to work, and not go home.

And now, five weeks after the lock-down, with the government finally permitting movement for a limited set of stranded migrants, it wants to charge them money to do so.

Special trains and buses were organised for the movement of those stranded, but the Indian Railways made it very clear in a May 2 order that the tickets would be printed and handed to state governments, which would then collect the ticket fare from the passengers and hand this to the Railways.

This naturally turned into a political controversy, since it seemed heartless for the Indian state, after all it had put migrants through, coupled with the fact that in almost all cases they had been left without wages and often with unpaid arrears, to charge them for a journey home.

Congress President Sonia Gandhi said that the party would collect funds to pay for all the migrants, a move echoed by other parties like the Rashtriya Janata Dal, prompting a day of political squabbling, with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party forced into damage control.

Later in the day the BJP and the government attempted to claim that the fault was of the states, and Congress ones in particular, because the Centre was paying for 85% of the fare, and asking the state government to contribute just 15%. It also claimed that Congress states were the only ones charging migrant workers for travel.

All of this is untrue

First, the Centre is not paying 85% of the fare. There is no order to that effect anywhere. Though it is unclear why he spoke about this, Lav Agarwal, the joint secretary, health, told reporters on Monday that the Centre was paying for 85% of the cost, not the fare, while states were paying for 15%.

BJP National General Secretary attempted to explain this.

What is the difference? Indian railway fares are always subsidised to keep ticket prices low.

The Centre wants to claim that paying this subsidy amounts to covering 85% of the cost, while it asked the states to collect the remaining amount, in other words, the full fare including an extra cost for taking fewer passengers because of physical distancing, from the workers.

Remember here that inter-state travel is a Central subject. All of this, from the organisation of travel to the cost, should have been sorted out by the Centre.

Next comes the claim that it only wanted states to pay the full fare, which it calls the remaining 15%, not the migrants. Yet the 02 May order belies that. And it claimed that only Congress states were passing this cost onto to the migrants.

The actual experience of workers taking trains in BJP states makes it clear that this is false. Workers taking a train from Gujarat (a BJP state) to Uttar Pradesh (a BJP state) told the Ahmedabad Mirror that they had to borrow money to be able to pay for the tickets. An Indian Express report from Gujarat reiterates this point.

Some state governments did say that they would cover the fares, but the Express reported that Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan had decided to do this, none of them BJP states.

Clearly, the claims of the BJP and the government were entirely untrue. The Centre had wanted to charge labourers for the return journey. But the amounts would have been a pittance to the Centre, even in Covid-19 times. So why would it possibly have taken such a callous step?

One answer comes from Karnataka, where workers were also being asked to pay for state buses to go home.

“If we provide free transport, everyone will return home, creating problems both in the villages, triggering fear of spread of Covid-19, and here in the city, hampering revival of economic activity, including construction work,” a senior Karnataka official told the Hindu. “As we are charging them, only those who genuinely need to go home will go.”

If this logic is the same that applied to the Centre’s decision on charging train fares, it appears to be yet another instance of utilitarian policy making, thinking of migrant workers as nothing but resources to be saved in the city, even if their desire is to go home.

This has been exposed by the current controversy, and now the BJP is engaging in an ugly, embarrassing effort at backtracking to avoid the political fallout.

Even if it can’t let migrant workers go home, India must treat them justly and humanely

Migrant workers are individuals with rights, not resources to be deployed as the economy is rebooted

Why is India spending money showering petals on hospitals but making workers pay for train tickets? – The Daily Fix: In BJP’s India, children are questioned while ‘goli maro’ minister keeps campaigning

It should be clear that a minister leading chants calling for gun violence at a political rally is a much bigger threat to the peace than a school play.

Rohan Venkataramakrishnan

New Delhi – India, 05 February 2020. This is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s India:

In one part of the country, the police have spent five days interrogating children as young as nine and arrested a parent and a teacher for sedition in connection with a school play that contained one line about hitting people with slippers.

In another, a Union Minister who led chants of “shoot the traitors” continues to campaign for the BJP, even as gunmen actually attacked protesters not long after.

On Tuesday, the Karnataka Police took some children aside at the Shaheen Urdu Medium Primary School in Bidar for the fifth day in a row to be questioned about a school play that the police has declared seditious.

This is because of allegations that some lines in the play, intended to raise awareness about the concerns of Muslims around the discriminatory Citizenship Act amendments, insulted Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Many on social media spread the allegation that the play included a line about beating the prime minister with a slipper, even though many news organisation have debunked this.

Instead, video clips of the play show that one of the children says that anyone who demands documents to prove one’s citizenship should be beaten with chappals.

Double standards

Read that again: the Karnataka Police has been interrogating children, between nine and 12 years old, for five days now about one line in a school play. Two people have been arrested on sedition charges, even though the Supreme Court has repeatedly said the section can be invoked only in cases of an act that leads to public disorder.

Meanwhile in Delhi, Union Minister Anurag Thakur is back on the campaign trail ahead of Delhi elections on 08 February. Last week, Thakur was prohibited from campaigning for three days by the Election Commission of India for making “undesirable and objectionable statements”.

This action came after he was seen on video at a BJP rally leading a familiar right-wing chant, in which he asked, “What should we do with ‘traitors’?” The crowd roared back, “Shoot the bastards.”

Thakur’s party has repeatedly made it clear that it believes that any opposition to its brand of Hindutva politics is equivalent to treason. In effect, the “traitors” whom BJP supporters want shot are anyone who disagrees with the party.

The context is that the party has been attempting to demonise protesters who have been demonstrating for nearly two months in the capital and around the country against Citizenship Act amendments that many believe will be used to harass Indian Muslims.

Indeed, not long after Thakur’s “shoot them” chant, gunmen attacked peaceful protesters in the capital on three separate occasions. One BJP Member of Parliament, Arjun Singh, defended these gunmen saying, “Our young children, who have been misguided, are resorting to firing in confusion.”

Disturbing discourse

Whatever you think of India’s sedition laws, which have been chronically been misused by governments of all stripes, it should be clear that a Union Minister leading chants calling for gun violence at a political rally is a much bigger threat to the peace than a school play with talk of chappals.

The effects of such actions, the trauma faced by those children, the polarisation of society, are not easy to undo. The BJP knows it is playing with fire, brazenly hoping it will gain power even if it has to scorch the earth to get there.

That Anurag Thakur, whom the Election Commission temporarily banned, received no criticism from within his party and continues to campaign is as clear of a sign of how far the BJP is willing to go in its desire to polarise voters to win elections.

That the abhorrent interrogation of children has not received universal condemnation is another sign of the depths to which the BJP has brought discourse in the country to, at a time when Union Minsiters can call their political opponents “terrorists” (despite the BJP giving a person accused in a conspiracy a party ticket to run for Parliament).

But then, this is the India’s that the BJP has assembled. And with the Delhi elections still a few days away, and many more polls in upcoming months, this discourse is not going to change soon. – The Daily Fix: Why India will find it tough to ensure that Sri Lanka keeps its promises to Tamils

Gotabaya Rajapaksa has made it clear political rights of minority Tamils will not be his focus.

Sruthisagar Yamunan

New Delhi – India, 04 December 2019. Last month, Sri Lanka witnessed a regime change as the Rajapaksa brothers came back to power. While Gotabaya Rajapaksa became the president, his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa has been appointed the prime minister.

Both have faced allegations of ordering war crimes during the last stint in power, when thousands of Tamil civilians were killed by the Sri Lankan military in the final stages of the civil war in 2009.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s first visit abroad was to India last week. He met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi after India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar went to Colombo to personally deliver the invitation.

However, the Sri Lankan president’s comments after his meeting with Modi have raised concerns about how the new regime will handle the question of the country’s Tamil minority. Rajapaksa made it clear in an interview to The Hindu that devolving political rights to the Tamil-dominated areas will not be his priority. Rather, he will focus on the regions’ economic development.

The majoritarian language he deployed to make this point was startling. Full devolution of powers as per the Indo-Sri Lankan accord of 1987 will not be implemented “against the wishes and feeling of the majority [Sinhala] community”, he said.

The comment invited sharp criticism from politicians in Tamil Nadu, who urged the Modi government to ensure the safety and dignity of Tamils in Sri Lanka. Many in the southern Indian state feel that economic development without consummate political rights will lead to a demographic alteration of the Tamil regions, given the difference in prosperity between Tamils and majority Sinhala population.

However, as The Indian Express argued, Modi is in no position to push Sri Lanka on the question of rights for Tamils after what his own government has done in Kashmir.

The Centre removed the special status given to Kashmiris under the Indian Constitution in August and enforced a complete lock down of the region to stop people from protesting. Some of the restrictions on communications continue to date.

In a way, what India has done in Kashmir is to reverse the devolution of some rights agreed to around the time of Independence, when the region acceded to India. Having acted in this manner at home, it will be impossible for the Modi government to demand a higher degree of rights and autonomy for a minority population in another country.

This is possibly what emboldened Rajapaksa to make the statements that he did right after a meeting with Modi. During the meeting, the Indian prime minister said he was confident that the Sri Lankan government would pursue a process of reconciliation to meet the “aspirations of equality, justice, peace and respect of Tamils”.

Persuading Sri Lanka to devolve rights to the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka is a commitment that successive Indian governments had made. This culminated in the Indo-Sri Lankan accord of 1987. While parties in power may change in India, this should not affect the policy of the government. In its eagerness to keep the Chinese away from Sri Lanka, the Indian government should not ignore its promises to Tamils across the Palk Straits. – The Daily Fix: Through lockdown, BJP wants to un-democratically remote control politics in Kashmir

Imagine if Modi announced demonetisation and then jailed all Opposition leaders and even his allies to prevent criticism.

The Daily Fix – 18 October 2019. More than 70 days after New Delhi decided to unilaterally alter the status of Jammu and Kashmir within the Indian Republic, willfully ignoring the voices of citizens and their representatives, civil liberties remain severely restricted in the erstwhile state.

The Centre has deigned to open up cell phone access for a portion of the population, although many continue to find it difficult to communicate. Prepaid phone connections are still down and no access to the internet.

This came even as Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad was saying that the right to the internet is “non-negotiable”, just days after his own home minister, Amit Shah, said that cutting all phone connections did not amount to trampling on human rights.

New Delhi also continues to prevent any sort of political mobilisation in the Kashmir valley. All of the mainstream political leaders remain under arrest, including politicians who have previously been allied with the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Earlier this week, women protesting the political arrests in the centre of Srinagar were thrown into jail and released only afterthey signed bonds prohibiting them from making any public statements.

The Home Minister has hinted that some political leaders, including former Chief Ministers Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah, will be detained indefinitely under the draconian Public Safety Act. Meanwhile, the Centre has given the go-ahead for Block Development Council elections to take place on 24 October, even as political leaders from all over Kashmir remain behind bars.

Shah explained why all of Kashmir was under lockdown after the Centre decided to unilaterally alter Article 370 and the status of the state within the Indian Union: he did not want any criticism from people who had not wanted the change to happen.

“He asserted that some bold decisions are necessary for people’s benefit, without getting bogged down by the fear of a backlash,” said the Home Ministry.

Politics, not security

If the significance of all of the BJP-run Centre’s actions are not clear, it is worth spelling out: the lockdown in Kashmir is a political manoeuvre, and not based on security considerations.

Of course, there is no doubt that militancy is a danger in the state, in fact, the change to Article 370 will likely drive even more of the youth towards the insurgency. But the Centre has done nothing to explain how it is justified in detaining mainstream politicians, including its own former allies.

The BJP is blatantly attempting to reshape politics in the Valley, but wants to do so without the fear of people actually disagreeing with them.

Even if you accept that there were security imperatives in the initial weeks after the Article 370 change, which itself was done without the consent of the people or their representatives, the continued restrictions on the public and detention of political leaders is nothing more than an attempt at political remote control. This is not democratic.

It is as if after announcing demonetisation or amendments to the Land Acquisition Act, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had jailed all Opposition leaders, and even some of his own allies, just to ensure that there was no criticism of his move.

Reports have repeatedly declared that the BJP wants to use this moment to create a new political class in Kashmir. Modi has literally spoken of building a “Naya Kashmir”. New Delhi wants to decide who comes to power in the Valley, since otherwise it has no chance of winning power there. Anyhow, by turning it into a Union Territory, it can control policy regardless.

The Centre has made no attempt to justify its trampling of civil liberties against an estimation of the security concerns. Simply pointing to Pakistan will not do. Is there any evidence that it has made an effort to consider balancing those rights?

The courts, which are supposed to do this when the government does not, have abdicated their role as well, putting off challenges for later dates.

It is clear that the government does not care for rights and liberties when it comes to Kashmiris, and by extension just about anyone who disagrees with it. It should also drop the pretence that its efforts in the Valley have anything to do with security.

The BJP wants to decide who comes to power in Kashmir and doesn’t care if the people have other thoughts about this. If any politician in the country thinks that the BJP successfully pulling this off in Kashmir means it will stop there, they should think again.