Haiti’s former President, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who headed the Caribbean country for 14 years, was known to be a ruthless ruler. His tenure was rife with paranoia, probably stemming from the fact that he was a voodoo physician who harboured deep superstitions.
His fear and paranoia garnered greater notoriety over time, and one of the most popular stories recounts how he sent bodyguards and security forces – the dreaded “Tonton Macoutes”(Haitian saying for “bogeyman”)-- to surround the house of a political rival who was reportedly hiding arms and ammunition. The Tontons sprayed the house with machine gun bullets, and after the deed was done, they reportedly found an old black dog howling outside. Under the belief that his political rival could change himself into a black dog, Papa Doc reportedly ordered that all black dogs in Haiti be shot.
Paranoia is a dangerous trait for any leader to have. Unreasonable or ill-founded paranoia leads to acts that any reasonable, rational human being would scoff at. Our country was lucky enough to have founding fathers who to an admirable degree sought to rely on the reasonableness and rationality of Indians, which is why even as one of the youngest countries to gain her independence, India led the world in rational, scientific thought by giving to itself and its citizens universal adult franchise and establishing a secular, democratic, republic.
Today, however, we are witnessing actions and comments by politicians and their network of online warriors that specifically seek to stoke paranoia to curtail basic democratic rights through catchwords like “conspiracy” and “sedition” and “defaming the country”. This paranoia, like superstition, is built on grounds that have no basis in evidence and can hardly be said to meet the standards of law that a responsible democracy relies on.
Take the example of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Assam, who while referring to the “toolkit” shared by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, claimed that there was a conspiracy to defame Indian tea. To believe that there is an international conspiracy against India and its “tea”, merely because public figures have drawn attention to the government’s approach towards protestors and the dissidents, rivals any superstition. Unless there is some tangible or clear evidence that back up these claims, it is hard to believe that a responsible government would take action against its own citizens on such a flimsy basis.
However, this is exactly what appears to have happened with Disha Ravi, an environmental activist from Bangalore. If you believe the police and the BJP’s spokespersons, she is alleged to have committed seditious acts by editing a toolkit that sought to highlight the issue of the farmers’ protest. Their argument appears to be that all these actors aim to “defame India” through their tweets, and that Disha Ravi from Bangalore is a Khalistani sympathiser. If we are to believe the BJP that this was a “conspiracy”, I assume that we are also expected to believe that the “conspirators” were smart enough to make a “toolkit” to defame India, but not smart enough to not share it on Twitter.
While paranoia, by itself, is a dangerous trait for a government, one could possibly understand it if it was universally applied. However, this does not appear to be the case. Take the impressive report by Newslaundry on Kapil Mishra’s “Hindu Ecosytem” and the toolkits used therein. The report finds that Kapil Mishra leads a network of more than 20,000 people who are working in a clearly defined and organised manner to create and spread communal hatred. The ecosystem is efficient and shares Twitter links with an intent to create “Twitter storms” backed by fake news and detailed instructions on how to best amplify their message which aims to spread fear and animosity amongst Indian communities. The report also says that videos on the Telegram group feature Union minister Prakash Javadekar and MP Manoj Tiwari promoting the RSS mouthpiece Panchjanya and a user using the name of UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.
Given that we have not seen any distancing by BJP leaders from the story about Kapil Mishra’s ecosystem, there is quite clearly a different approach by this government for the “toolkit” edited by Disha Ravi and Greta Thunberg. While Disha Ravi was arrested from Bangalore by the Delhi police for the toolkit, Kapil Mishra’s ecosystem is allowed to promote and encourage hate and fake news. I would argue that only one of these toolkits defames India, and it is not the one that was shared by someone who has been applauded by the United Nations for her efforts on climate change.
Furthermore, if the criterion is “defaming” India, few have done more harm to India’s reputation than the present government. Whether it is the manner in which it has dealt with the farmers’ protests and passed laws in an undemocratic fashion or the manner in which it has imprisoned journalists and activists (including “notoriously dangerous” octogenarians) on UAPA charges, an act that is typically reserved for terrorists and not for human rights activists or journalists. Another act that I found extremely defamatory to India was the sharing and promoting of M.S. Gowalkar, a proud Nazi sympathiser, by he ministry of culture. All of these acts have invited international criticism and admonishment from a number of respected journalists, politicians and international human rights organizations. It is thus, no surprise that India was mentioned in the same breath as Myanmar last week, a country that has a history of military rule and undemocratic coups.
The more one sees and thinks rationally about the state of our country, the clearer it becomes that neither a conspiracy to defame India nor sedition are at play. Instead, all that we are getting to witness is a heady cocktail of paranoia and malice that has gripped a government which finds itself on the backfoot against the mounting criticism against it. As a dog lover, I urge you to please hide all the black dogs.
(The author is a former Congress MP. Views expressed are personal, and do not necessarily reflect those of Outlook Magazine)