If there is no God, said Voltaire, it would be necessary to invent Him. The Narendra Modi government seems to have taken a cue from the great French philosopher regarding the opposition: it is determined to create opposition to itself. The government’s reaction to a student group at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, exemplifies the ardent desire to make potent enemies out of nobodies.
IIT-Madras’ decision to derecognize the Ambedkar Periyar Student Circle (APSC) on its campus was grossly improper, for the group was not involved in any criminal or disruptive activity; this was also the reason that the authorities revoked the de-recognition order after a few days. But the entire episode has exposed the vulnerabilities, phobias, and manias of the ruling dispensation in New Delhi.
The manner in which the affair started raises a great many questions about the attitude of Narendra Modi’s ministers. The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) got an anonymous letter, complaining about the APSC spreading “hatred” against the Prime Minister and questioning such government policies as the ban on cow slaughter. The MHRD, scarcely known for efficiency, was prompt in response; the promptness, however, resulted in the violation of the Fundamental Right to assemble. The Ministry wrote to the IIT Director with the “request that comments of the institute may please be sent to this Ministry at an early date.” The “request” was taken as a command, and the needful was done.
That a small group of students in one of the thousands of institutions of higher education making uncharitable remarks about Modi and his government’s policies could swing a Union Ministry into action speaks volumes about the Bharatiya Janata Party’s intolerance towards any dissent, however insignificant it might be. Modi is in control of the situation; he not only has a very comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha but also considerable hold in the party. So, why should he or his advisers worry about the influence of a small group opposed to him?
In fact, till a few days ago, nobody outside IIT-M was even aware of the existence of the APSC; today, it has emerged as a body that successfully took on the might of the Modi regime. Its members appear on national television to say all kinds of things.
This is not unlike the controversy surrounding the de-boarding of Greenpeace member Priya Pillai at the Delhi airport. Had she been allowed to go to London to meet a subcommittee of the British MPs, there would have been no news—certainly not in national dailies and news channels. By stopping her going there, the unknown activist became a national celebrity—and the issue became international. Her views, and those of her ilk, were aired prominently all over the place. The de-boarding exercise was a comprehensive failure: it was bad in law, as evident from the adverse reactions the government had to face from courts; it was bad in principle as it violated the Fundamental Right to express one’s views; and it was self-defeating, for the strong-arm tactic could not stop Pillai expressing her views. Worse, the sledgehammer approach bestowed a verisimilitude of veracity upon the patently discredited views of activists.
It needs to be mentioned that these activists had played a big role in undermining the Congress-led UPA government, which ultimately led to its defeat last year. These professional revolutionaries, the most prominent among them having coalesced in Sonia Gandhi’s circus called National Advisory Council, along with their quixotic ideas, were thoroughly rejected by the electorate. It was expected of Modi to leave the detritus of the Nehruvian consensus behind and move ahead. But, alas, he did not see the detritus fit only to be consigned to the dustbin of history; instead he saw the material good enough to be used to rebuild the nation, especially if it was used with his efficiency. Hence the continuity in economic policy and other areas.
What is even more unfortunate is the fact that the Modi government also sees merit in the legal and institutional framework of the ancien regime—the same disregard for freedom of expression, the same propensity to use and abuse the state machinery to further the political agenda. So, his government determinedly argued in the Supreme Court in favor of the draconian Section 66A.
I would like to believe that the Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy is not so petty as to stifle the voice of a small students’ group or silence an insignificant activist. What seems more likely is that he is surrounded by friends, advisers, and courtiers who are always eager to exhibit their loyalty to him. Modi may find another Voltaire quote helpful: “May God defend me from my friends: I can defend myself from my enemies.”