The South Asia Channel

Is the Modi Government a Threat to Civil Liberties?

It has been just over 39 years since Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared the infamous State of Emergency that suspended democracy in the country. Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi shared his thoughts on “one of the darkest periods” in Indian history. He declared it a “day to reaffirm our pledge to safeguard … freedom of speech and expression.” Modi may have hit the right notes, but Indians are watching to see how his new government’s national security strategy will impact civil rights and civil liberties. His government already faces an early challenge.

After just a few weeks in power, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government is engaged in its first public spat over issues of speech and dissent. A recently leaked report written by India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) alleges that Greenpeace and other NGOs operating in the country are puppets of foreign powers that seek to halt development in India by opposing coal and nuclear power plant projects. The document was reportedly the result of an investigation begun by the previous Congress-led government. Some activists and former public officials have denounced the report as an attempt to silence critics, and some individuals are considering legal action against the government. Observers will wonder if the tenor and content of this report is indicative of the way the Modi national security apparatus, expected by critics to favor intimidation and quash dissent, will do business.

Some high-profile members of Modi’s national security team have expressed views that merit attention. One such official is Ajit Kumar Doval, who holds the coveted position of India’s National Security Advisor. Doval is a former Director of India’s IB and police officer with an impressive track record and a reputation as a “superspy.” Prior to his appointment as National Security Advisor, he founded and directed a right-leaning think tank and has produced a sizeable collection of public writings and speeches. His record reveals some causes for concern.

Doval, whose views on national security were recently profiled in Shashank Joshi’s thoughtful piece in The Hindu, has expressed strong views on the link between diversity and internal security. Joshi notes that in a speech to the BJP in June of last year, Doval “bemoaned the tendency to emphasise Indian diversity, rather than unity,” and argued “that the core of national security was not physical security but cultural identity.” He “praised the BJP as being the only political party promoting Indian-ness.” It is possible that Doval was playing to a political crowd’s sympathies, but his words should not be dismissed as exaggeration or opportunistic rhetoric. Doval’s earlier writings also support the notion that he finds in India’s diversity – cultural, political, and intellectual – threats to security.

For example, in a piece on Maoist extremism, Doval has written that “front organizations masquerading as NGOs and think tanks, who skilfully [sic] assist the extremists in exploiting discontent and subvert them to take recourse to the gun must be made accountable. Those who provide them intellectual and ideological space by projecting them as social revolutionaries are as guilty as the gullible people who take to arms.” This argument has parallels to the recent IB report’s view that NGOs that oppose large development projects are anti-national forces. Doval goes on to say that “any illegal police action” and efforts to “frame innocents” must be punished, but does not explain how to draw the line between NGOs whose freedom of speech and association should be protected and those that are mere “front organizations” for violent groups.

Elsewhere, Doval has written that India’s “communal, caste, linguistic and ethnic fault-lines,” along with other internal conflicts, “are sources of its internal vulnerability.” It is one thing to recognize that the “fault-lines” created by diversity can be exploited to promote destabilization. But this need not lead to the conclusion, which Doval expressed in his recent speech, that the key to national security requires forging a common cultural identity. The idea that cultural homogeneity can better guarantee security is a dangerous and powerful one.

And the insistence that there is danger in diversity is an inherently discriminatory appeal that runs counter to India’s liberal founding ethos. It is also not a new idea unique to either Doval or the BJP. Indian national and local governments have often demonstrated illiberal attitudes toward difference and disregard for civil rights and liberties. The recently ousted Congress government, criticized by the BJP for supposedly “appeasing” of minorities, was no great champion of civil liberties. Reports of human rights violations by the Indian Army in Jammu and Kashmir were commonplace, as were police violence and staged “encounters” with alleged criminals. At the state level, governments have banned films and other speech on the dubious grounds that controversial ideas will provoke public unrest.

During its tenure from 1998 to 2004, the Vajpayee-led BJP government enacted the Prevention of Terrorism Act, a law that critics said was misused to suppress political opponents. Narendra Modi’s own tenure as Chief Minister of Gujarat began with a series of Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002 that left thousands dead and injured. The state government’s inability or unwillingness to control violence has created one of India’s enduring controversies of the 2000s. And, of course, the Indira Gandhi-led Emergency that began on June 25, 1975 remains one of the greatest stains on India’s democratic record.

Happily, India’s democratic institutions are more robust than they were in the 1970s, and the country is unlikely to plunge again into a situation that resembles the Emergency. Modi has spoken out in defense of freedom of speech and expression, but the real test will be how his government handles stressful and highly public national security issues in the future. More importantly, national security concerns affect more than just free speech. There will be debates over profiling certain groups, the detention of terrorist suspects, policies on police brutality, and respect for proper criminal procedure during arrests and trials, to name a few.

None of these cautions is meant to suggest that India should not have a robust security apparatus. Long perceived as effete, disorganized, and ineffective in promoting internal security and pursuing counter-terrorism objectives, India has much to gain from a national security team, like Modi’s, that is heralded as competent and tough. And Modi is well situated to implement effective policies, thanks to an overwhelming electoral mandate and substantial public support and enthusiasm.

But he is also a leader who has been criticized for a proclivity for authoritarian decision-making. This is a perception Modi has been eager to dispel, and many believe he will be motivated to pursue policies that promote an inclusive and diversity-friendly image. If the Modi government is to succeed at this task, it will need to demonstrate that the views of influential leaders like Doval will not be transformed into national security policies that jeopardize civil rights and civil liberties. Opposition parties and civil society will play an important role in ensuring that Modi and his government keep their “pledge to safeguard” the values that Indians hold dear.

Prem M. Trivedi, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney, is a lecturer at Georgetown University and a former Fulbright Scholar to India. He holds a J.D. from Harvard Law School.


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