The far-right's hateful campaign against a large section of Indian society has put many lives at risk, causing mental trauma, and at times, physical violence.
NEW DELHI – On August 13, India's prominent student leader Umar Khalid survived an assassination attempt in India's capital, New Delhi. A tall, burly man grabbed Khalid from behind, pointing a gun at him. Khalid resisted the assault. The attacker's gun jammed, forcing him to leave Khalid unhurt.
The incident was yet another gruesome manifestation of how critics of the ruling BJP have become vulnerable to assassinations, mob lynchings and constant abuse on social media.
Ever since the BJP leader Narendra Modi was sworn in as the country's prime minister in 2014, India's social activists, journalists, public intellectuals and student leaders, who spoke against Modi's policies, began to feel unsafe.
The government found allies in several TV news channels and numerous social media users, who went after anyone critical of the government.
Several prominent journalists, members of civil society, student unions and public intellectuals, who criticised the government for turning a blind eye to rising incidents of violence against minorities, or held Modi accountable for misgovernance and ailing economy, have been labelled anti-nationals, urban naxals (a reference to radical Communists) and members of the tukde tukde gang (loosely translated: those who want to break India split India into pieces).
The campaign of hate has had real life consequences – the assassination attempt on Khalid and the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh are just two of the most jarring incidents. Lankesh, editor and publisher of the Kannada-language weekly Lankesh Patrike, and a fierce critic of right-wing ideology, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen outside her house.
Soon after Lankesh's cold blooded murder, Nikhil Dadich, a garments manufacturer from Prime Minister Modi's home state Gujarat, tweeted in Hindi that “it took the death of a bitch to die a dog’s death for the pups to howl in the same tune.” Modi follows Dadich on Twitter.
Unlike Lankesh, Khalid was lucky enough to emerge physically unhurt but the murder attempt has left a deep psychological wound. He doesn’t step out of the house alone anymore. Even when he does, it’s to attend political programs and not for regular things like meeting friends for a movie.
If Khalid gets late on his way back home, his family calls to find out why. One has to text him before calling because Khalid has stopped taking calls from unknown numbers.
He applied for police protection three times but hasn’t been provided protection. At a recent public event, a lot of people approached Khalid for selfies. The presence of so many people close to him made him wary; he feared that someone in the crowd might be carrying a knife or a gun.
“An incident can occur once in a year. But you have to be on your toes all 365 days of the year,” Khalid told me at his home in Zakir Nagar, a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood at the edge of New Delhi.
It's not just students like Khalid who’ve come under attack for their dissenting views. Civil society activists too have had to bear the full wrath of the government.
In late August this year, human rights activists Sudha Bhardwaj, Arun Fereira, Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves and Gautam Navlakha were arrested by the Pune police, for being part of a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The police claimed that these activists wrote emails and letters to acquire weapons from Nepal in order to execute a “Rajiv Gandhi-type incident” on Narendra Modi – a reference to the assassination of the former prime minister, who was killed by a suicide bomber in 1991.
Each of these activists has in the past been critical of the government or have worked with those who live on the margins of society.
Bhardwaj, a lawyer, has worked as an activist against land acquisition in Chattisgarh, a state ruled by the BJP party. Navlakha, secretary of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), has written about human rights abuses in Jammu and Kashmir state.
On the night of their arrests, Republic TV, an English-language news channel aired a debate titled “#IndiavsMaoists: Activists or Urban Naxals”. The show was anchored by the channel’s editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami, a rambunctious journalist who has built his reputation on showering hostility on those who disagree with his pro-government views.
In his introduction, he said “a group of fake activists and fake intellectuals were exploiting our democracy for terrorism”.
The BJP too echoed his sentiment. GVL Narasimha Rao, a spokesman for the party, told TRT World that these “so-called civil society activists” were a threat to national security and that their “over and covert” support to Maoists had to be dealt with according to law.
Goswami added that there was no difference between these activists and members of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based terrorist organisation.
Zee News, a Hindi-language news channel, said that these activists “supplied oxygen to Naxalism”. Both Republic TV and Zee TV are owned by BJP members of Parliament, Rajeev Chandrashekhar and Subhash Chandra, respectively.
Human rights activists and students are not the only ones who’ve been subjected to this treatment. Swami Agnivesh, a prominent Hindu leader, also came under attack for speaking critically of the Modi regime.
On July 17, a mob carrying black flags, raised slogans against him and then beat him up, tearing his clothes apart, in a remote district in Jharkhand state.
Agnivesh told TRT World that for a month after, he suffered severe muscle pain in his lower abdomen and ribs.
“For the first few weeks, I couldn’t go anywhere,” Agnivesh added. “I had problems sleeping and even turning in bed was very, very difficult.”
Exactly a month later, on August 17, Agnivesh was heckled and attacked outside BJP party headquarters in New Delhi, where he had gone to offer condolences on the death of former BJP leader and prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
The crowd chanted slogans, pushed him around and tried to take off his turban. What agonised him the most, he said, was that “hundreds of BJP and RSS workers passed by me and they were laughing and enjoying [the sight].”
Agnivesh said that neither the police in Delhi nor in Jharkhand have taken action on his complaints. Like Umar Khalid, he too doesn’t step out of his house alone. He now avoids attending events dominated by “Hindu nationalist forces”. He has also stopped giving interviews to pro-Modi RepublicTV and Times Now news channels because, he said, they deliberately twist his words.
In Agnivesh’s opinion, he got attacked because he works with marginalised sections of society and because he has not shied away from criticising Modi directly.
In 2014, Prime Minister Modi claimed that the elephant-headed Lord Ganesha was proof that plastic surgery existed in India in ancient times. Agnivesh said it was “unbecoming of the Prime Minister to spread such blind faith” among people.
A striking feature of the government’s clampdown on dissent in India, is its timing. On August 29, a day after civil society activists were arrested and the issue dominated news headlines, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) released its findings on Modi's audacious yet deeply controversial decision to demonetise Indian currency in 2016.
Modi argued the move will help the government seize black money. The central bank’s report said that 99.3 percent of the currency notes in circulation came back into the banking system, which implies the government failed to weed out black money from the financial system, puncturing Modi's claims.
Critics of the government have pointed out that the arrest of civil society activists was a diversionary tactic to distract people from the central bank's findings.
“This is a witch hunt and an attempt to divert attention from the failures of the current government, questions that are being raised about demonetisation, the Rafale deal, and right wing extremism,” the historian Ramachandra Guha told a TV news channel.
Despite Modi's strongarm tactics on dissenting voices and total collapse of freedom in India's mainstream media, a slow yet significant youth movement is growing against Modi-led BJP.
Umar Khalid, who survived an assasination attempt, said that university students across India now work in coordination with each other. If one campus comes under attack, he said, the others stand up for it.
“This movement and unity has come about in a very organic way and now, it needs to be strengthened. Otherwise, it will fizzle out.”