Republic of Unfreedom

NDTV and Bastar incidents display the undemocratic instincts of India’s politicians and public officials.

Written by Ramachandra Guha | Updated: November 14, 2016 12:06 am
ndtv india ban, ndtv ban, ndtv pathankot attacks, chhattisgarh murder, nandini sundar, nandini sundar du professor, nandini sundar, india news, indian express DU Professor Nandini Sundar. (Source: YouTube screen grab)

This has been a bad month for Indian democracy. First, there was the one-day ban on NDTV India imposed by the government of India. This sparked much protest; bowing to the pressure, the government seems to have stayed the ban — whether for the moment or for ever, it is not clear. Just when Indian democrats began to breathe easier, however, news came that the Chhattisgarh police had booked a group of writers and activists for murder, among them India’s finest anthropologist, Nandini Sundar, a respected professor at Delhi University with a wide and deserved international reputation.

Freedom of expression has long been in peril in our country. Writers have had their books banned, artists their exhibitions vandalised, film-makers their films censored. But what happened recently in Chhattisgarh marks a new low. The group, of which Sundar was a part, had visited the strife-torn region of Bastar, and prepared a report on the deteriorating human rights situation in the state. This was their real crime, that so enraged the Chhattisgarh police that they filed a charge of murder!

Bastar is a part of India that has long interested me. I wrote a biography of Verrier Elwin, the great chronicler of Adivasi life and culture, who did his best work in Bastar. Elwin argued passionately in defence of tribal rights in land and forests. He hoped that Independent India would respect and protect tribal rights; instead, successive governments have treated them with contempt and condescension. The expropriation of tribal lands and forests has led to deep discontent, adroitly exploited by the Maoists, who in recent decades have made major strides in Adivasi areas, not least in Bastar.

A democratic state should have fought Maoism by redressing the many wrongs it had committed against the tribals. Instead, the Chhattisgarh government promoted a vigilante army named Salwa Judum, provoking a savage war, in which the violence of the Maoist was met by the equally brutal violence of the state-sponsored Judum. The tribals were caught in between, vilified by one side and victimised by the other. In this ongoing civil war, dozens of villages have been burnt, hundreds of Adivasis killed, and close to a hundred thousand people displaced.

In 2006, a group of independent citizens, which included Sundar and myself, visited Bastar. Afterwards, we filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court. In its judgement of July 2011, the court ordered the disbandment of Salwa Judum. The Supreme Court said it was “aghast at the blindness to constitutional limitations of the state of Chhattisgarh, and some of its advocates, in claiming that anyone who questions the inhumanity that is rampant in many parts of that state ought necessarily to be treated as Maoists, or their sympathisers, and yet in the same breath also claim that it needs the. sanction, under our Constitution, to perpetrate its policies of ruthless violence.” Judges Sudarshan Reddy and S.S. Nijjar remarked that “lawless violence, in response to violence by the Maoist/Naxalite insurgency, has not, and will not, solve the problems, and instead it will only perpetuate the cycles of more violence”.

Sadly, while the Supreme Court can pass strictures it cannot ensure that its orders are followed on the ground. The brutal, barbaric civil war in Bastar continues. The Maoists fetishise and glorify violence, which is why this writer detests them. Tragically, a government sworn to uphold the Constitution has emulated the Maoists in showing an utter contempt for the rule of law and for basic democratic values. Bastar is a war zone, where ordinary citizens fear not just the Maoists but the Chhattisgarh police as well.

Chhattisgarh has had a series of freedom-hating police officers, each more vicious and vindictive than the last. The inspector general now in charge of Bastar was reported by The Hindu as saying, “We don’t need any interference or guidance, Bastar knows to handle its own problems. We don’t like any kind of interference”. In pursuance of this policy, the Chhattisgarh police have arrested several journalists on trumped-up charges, and hounded several others out of the region. Most recently, they have filed this FIR charging Sundar and several of her colleagues with murder. I have read the FIR, whose wording and precise recollection of names of people the witness had never met, make it clear that it was doctored and/or coerced.

The timing of this attack on one of India’s most admired scholars (a winner of the Infosys Prize) may not be accidental. Last month, Sundar published The Burning Forest, a deeply moving and richly researched book on the civil war in Bastar. This book, which by no means exonerates the Maoists, shines a sharp spotlight on the errors and crimes of the Chhattisgarh state government, its consistent and sometimes gross violations of the law, its utter contempt for the Constitution and for the Supreme Court. The FIR initiated by the police is a malicious act of revenge.

This act by a rogue police force brings shame on Indian democracy. As I write, the state and Central governments have stayed silent. Do they condone it? One hopes not. For foisting false murder charges on independent (and utterly non-violent) citizens is characteristic of police states like Putin’s Russia or Xi Jinping’s China. I do not credit the Chhattisgarh government with a deep understanding of democratic principles. But surely some ministers in the Central government must understand the damage such arbitrary and vengeful behaviour does to the image of their party, the Union government, and the nation itself.

NDTV India is a prominent channel based in New Delhi. Professor Sundar has a high international standing. If they can be subject to such treatment, one shudders to think of the fate of writers, journalists, scholars and artists who work away from the glare of the national media. And of the fate of ordinary citizens too. Physical attacks on journalists in remote parts of India, often encouraged by the state and/or powerful politicians, are now increasingly common. The everyday harassment, by the police and paramilitary, of ordinary citizens in conflict-zones such as Bastar, Kashmir and Manipur is very nearly ubiquitous.

I have increasingly come to think of India as an “elections-only democracy”. Elections are free and fair; but once a party (any party) wins power, it considers itself immune from criticism or fair appraisal for the next five years. The NDTV and Bastar incidents display afresh how profoundly undemocratic are the instincts of Indian politicians and public officials.

Ramchandra Guha’s most recent book is ‘Democrats and Dissenters’

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First Published on: November 14, 2016 12:05 am
  1. R
    Ross Mallick
    Nov 14, 2016 at 7:28 pm
    How true. When I suggested in Indian Express comments section that the Marichjhapi macre of Dalits be subject to a government investigation, the dislikes outnumbered likes by 3 to I. If the middle and upper cl readers of the paper think this way how will the Indian people ever be reconciled with each other! A government investigation would have been de rigour in a civilized democracy!
    Reply
    1. K
      Keerthana
      Nov 14, 2016 at 6:54 am
      Ramacra Guha is NDTVs favourite child. The hindi version of the channel was banned for a particular reason. During the 26/11 attacks this channel aired LIVE news of terrorists d up in the Taj, ping on important information to the handlers in stan. All channels followed suit. Later the I and B Ministry banned such telecasts. Despite this ban, NDTV repeated the same in the Pathankot attacks, ping on valuable info to terrorists there. Hence the ban. This man is a leftist and he has muddled notions of secularism. Secularism for his kind means hindu-bashing, defending terrorists and supporting Maoist activities. Such people are not going to take us anywhere. In fact, they have the loudest voices and are much-sought-after by print and electronic channels in India. What freedom are they talking about? This happens only in India because they find an audience here.
      Reply
      1. M
        Mugdha
        Nov 14, 2016 at 12:55 am
        Sir, I think it's more due to strong political mandate and single party ruling in Union and states that brought sense of uncontrolled authoritarianism and led to such move.
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        1. M
          MyTake
          Nov 14, 2016 at 7:28 am
          If Ramn Chandra GUHA having problem with freedom of expression then Indian is on right track.
          Reply
          1. S
            SubbuI
            Nov 14, 2016 at 6:12 am
            NALAYAK NMODI VOWED TO FINISH MOISTS IRRESPECTIVE OF THE THEIR GENUINE DAMANDS AND OPPOSITON TO HIM IRRESPECTIVE OF HIS THUNDERING BERS.THIS DICTATOR SAYS SAVA SAU CRORE JANATHA IS WITH HIM.YOU ASK QUESTION YOU ARE BED ANTI NATONAL.IF YOU STILL ASK QUESTIONS THEN YOU ARE TERRORIST. MAOISTS TOOK ARMS TO DEFEND THEM AND AGAINST SALVON BADUN SPONSERED BY CORRUPT POLITICIONSlt;br/gt;EVEN HITLER SAID ALL GERMANS ARE WITH HIM AND HE WILL CONQUER THE WORLD.WE SAW WHAT HAD HAPPENED? It doesn't appear good that what ever is happening in our country in recent 3-4 months.
            Reply
            1. V
              Vish
              Nov 14, 2016 at 2:13 pm
              This fool still stuck with "freedom of expression". Thank Bhagwan, he's not singing intolerance raag.
              Reply
              1. K
                K SHESHU
                Nov 14, 2016 at 3:53 pm
                Valuable thoughts. Freedom is in danger as well as expression us in danger
                Reply
                1. Z
                  zizek
                  Nov 14, 2016 at 2:27 am
                  Mr. Guha, as much as I like your books, I don't know how could you write such a nonsensical article.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;You are complaining about the FIR that the police has filed against Sundar. So, do you think that you scholars are above the law and you can't be sued and prosecuted and if found guilty, sent to jail? Come out of the Platonic cave of yours into the desert of real.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;Moreover, whatever you have said about Nandini sundar is your personal opinion and surely the law doesn't work according to your likes and dislikes. Another thing, you say that she is very brave and good human being, it doesn't imply that she will not commit a murder. You just have to look at Stanford Prison experiment, where normal healthy citizens turned evil once they were given freedom. So, again, go revise them.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;Personally, I feel that Nandini Sundar is guilty. Look also at who her husband is. The commie Siddharth Bhadwarajan. And anyone can become violent by reading Mao.
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                  1. A
                    Anil
                    Nov 14, 2016 at 8:01 pm
                    These 'liberals' will not dare open their mouth, even if there is extreme intolerance by the leftist governments, because they know they will get eliminated. This is what is happening in Kerala now - where the CPM govt's brutality against the opposition has increased phenomenally and there is absolutely NO law and order. Even the policemen are being threatened, by the CPM cadres.
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                    1. A
                      Anil Tandale
                      Nov 14, 2016 at 4:12 am
                      Was there any restraint on the freedom against any scribe to go to the homes of the injured and deceased in the railway coach at Godhra and Akshardham? Whether any scribe ever wrote about their plight? The enormous freedom enjo from 2002 to 2014 by pro-Jihadi, pro-Maoists journos was limitless to condemn Modi for ensuring riot-free state of Gujarat after 2002. None writes about hundreds of riots and encounters in UP fearing to upset the cause of secularism. One way freedom against ancient India, Hindus, Indian soldiers has been exploited to the hilt. The corrupt were shamelessly shielded for decades. Looteras from Lutyens are feeling orphaned.
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                      1. G
                        G V
                        Nov 14, 2016 at 6:36 am
                        It is true that Freedom of expression has taken a hit in last 10 years. More so in recent time. Neither it was protected by rule of MMS. It is curbed more under this NDA regime. Worst scenario was in Emergency, though.
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                        1. A
                          Arun Maheshwari
                          Nov 14, 2016 at 4:29 am
                          I do not know the facts so cannot comment on the matter but if the government is falsely accusing somebody, the best way to handle it is going to the court and not write articles, especially articles without any facts and just opinions and emotions.
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                            Arun Murthy
                            Nov 14, 2016 at 8:12 am
                            Guha thinks readers are s. He doesn't delve into why NDTV was banned for a day. Regarding the other lefties, Guha just shows his brotherhood.
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                            1. B
                              Babu Gupta
                              Nov 14, 2016 at 3:41 pm
                              Comrade Mr. Guhalt;br/gt;Freedom of speech is unrestricted in communists strong holds like Kerala since all opponents are eliminated there.
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                              1. P
                                Parantap Bhatt
                                Nov 14, 2016 at 5:40 am
                                @zizeklt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;gt;gt;You are complaining about the FIR that the police has filed against Sundar. So, do you think that you scholars are above the law and you can't be sued and prosecuted and if found guilty, sent to jail? Come out of the Platonic cave of yours into the desert of real. lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;He didn't say that she is above law, he is saying she wasn't guilty but framed unnecessarily by police that didn't like criticism. Anyway the police had to stop from taking action as when challenged under court it would have been fairly obvious how they filed a bogus FIR in spite. The wife of the victim also said that she never named anyone. lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;gt;gt;Moreover, whatever you have....your likes and dislikes. lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;You seem mighty informed and yet you don't think that in areas out of limelight, police often takes the law in their hands punishing whoever they think is wrong and then whoever opposes their actions. lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;gt;gt;Another thing, you say that she is very brave .....Stanford Prison experiment, ... go revise them. lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;It is funny that you mention this experiment which established how normal people when given arbitrary power without regulation, tends to act in cruel manner. Or how authority acts as the perpetrator of atrocities on those whom they control. now the question is who is the authority with the power to incarcerate? police or Dr. Nandini Sundar. lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;gt;gt;Personally, I feel that Nandini Sundar....violent by reading Mao. lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;This is the crux of your argument which has no point except to say that her husband is a communist who read a book by Mao. Ad Hominem much? The keyword here is "feel". You feel she is guilty. Facts are not established by how we "feel" about things.
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                                1. P
                                  Parantap Bhatt
                                  Nov 14, 2016 at 5:35 am
                                  gt;gt;You are complaining about the FIR that the police has filed against Sundar. So, do you think that you scholars are above the law and you can't be sued and prosecuted and if found guilty, sent to jail? Come out of the Platonic cave of yours into the desert of real. He didn't say that she is above law, he is saying she wasn't guilty but framed unnecessarily by police that didn't like criticism. Anyway the police had to stop from taking action as when challenged under court it would have been fairly obvious how they filed a bogus FIR in spite. The wife of the victim also said that she never named anyone. gt;gt;Moreover, whatever you have....your likes and dislikes. You seem mighty informed and yet you don't think that in areas out of limelight, police often takes the law in their hands punishing whoever they think is wrong and then whoever opposes their actions. gt;gt;Another thing, you say that she is very brave .....Stanford Prison experiment, ... go revise them. it is funny that you mention this experiment which established how normal people when given arbitrary power without regulation, tends to act in cruel manner. Or how authority acts as the perpetrator of atrocities on those whom they control. now the question is who is the authority with the power to incarcerate? police or Dr. Nandini Sundar. gt;gt;Personally, I feel that Nandini Sundar....violent by reading Mao. This is the crux of your argument which has no point except to say that her husband is a communist who read a book by Mao. Ad Hominem much? The keyword here is "feel". You feel she is guilty. Facts are not established by how we "feel" about things.
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                                  1. J
                                    Jago
                                    Nov 14, 2016 at 6:57 am
                                    Unless we want to go back to pre-independence feudal mind set, this is time to wake up.Otherwise, marginalized communities will keep on living as they have since centuries.
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                                    1. C
                                      Col S
                                      Nov 14, 2016 at 5:29 am
                                      Not freedom of expression but DEMOCRACY has been LONG DEAD as POLITICIANS COLLUDED to LOOT the country.VIP Security[ country faces TERROR THREAT and NATION DIVIDED-- safe netas and insecure people and nation], LIFE TIME pension for LAW MAKERS [ with NO SERVICE or 1 to 5 years],LIFE TIME houses for ex CMs [ for LOOT and MISGOVERNANCE], write off 12000 crore theft of FOODGRAIN in Panjab.Democracy reduced to GOVERNMENT for thieves, rich and privileged. "THEY ARE LAW " and make laws to PER and not govern.Governors and President SIMPLY SIGN.
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                                      1. R
                                        Rohit Shah
                                        Nov 14, 2016 at 6:03 pm
                                        Time to ponder over what Churchill prophesied - India will break sooner or later.
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                                        1. D
                                          DA
                                          Nov 14, 2016 at 9:20 am
                                          How is the author absolutely sure that the charges are without merit? As he himself claims, he has been doing stuff similar to Ms. Sundar. Why then, has _he_ not been slapped with any murder or sedition charges?lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;After looking at what happens in JNU, DU and Stephens, I'd rather trust the police than this gang of "respected scholars" that have only one use for their knowledge and wisdom - the dismember of this country that so many of us love so much.
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                                          1. A
                                            A villager
                                            Nov 14, 2016 at 4:38 am
                                            Moral policing at the best. The support to oppressed people is understood but support to violence by Maoist is typical characteristic of Indian P-secular gangs. Freedom of Expression - where were you when Salman Russdie was not permitted in Jaipur Lit Festival during UPA regime and Taslima was hounded out from W.Bengal.
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