A cut-outs of India's PM Narendra Modi at a rally on 21 Dec 2021 in Allahabad, India. Image: Ritesh Shukla/ Getty

Exposing The Façade of Modi’s India


Amid India’s self-aggrandizing portrayal as the world’s largest electoral democracy, the South Asian nation faces one of its pivotal moments since its liberation from the British empire in 1947. Though the country has maintained a steady track in achieving economic dividends, there’s a troubling trend of increasing communal polarization, caste and gender violence, economic inequality, and restrictions on freedom of speech and religion. While India has weathered political shifts in the past, the current trajectory is particularly concerning, notably the clampdown on social movements advocating for equality and social justice.

This turn to illiberalism and authoritarianism has coincided with the ascendance of Hindutva right-wing politics, spearheaded by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which has brought about a palpable shift in the nation’s political landscape, amplifying tensions and raising profound questions about the future direction of Indian society.

India continues to perform poorly in development indicators demonstrating increasing inequality gap and welfare standards. For example, in 2022, India fell to the bottom of the Global Hunger Index, ranking 107 out of 121 countries, worse than its neighboring Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. The Global Slavery Index further showed that the country had some eight million people living in modern slavery in 2018. Today, while the country is slated to be a rising economy of the Global South, it is one of the most unequal countries, with rising income and wealth disparities as per the World Inequality Report.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves toward his supporters during a roadshow in Varanasi, India. Image: Reuters

Beneath the façade

Social anthropologist Alpa Shah’s new book The Incarcerations seeks to capture the multifaceted complexities of Modi’s India, unraveling aspects that lie beneath the façade of economic growth and the country’s rise as a global power. Shah specifically brings forth decades of critical contributions of the individuals accused in the Bhima Koregoan case (BK-16) by offering an alternate perspective to the story of India.

In The Incarcerations, Shah contextualizes the rampant rise of Hindu nationalism by arguing how the current regime has structurally stifled and silenced the group of Indian intellectuals, critical media, activists, and civil society organizations that have been working for years to showcase the rising inequality, fascism, and authoritarianism. Her book “shines a global light on the brutality of authoritarianism that is hidden not only in the far corners of the world’s largest democracy but that at any time could knock down anyone’s door in the country,” Shah underscores.

In the words of Nobel winner Annie Ernaux, to fill silence writing was her response to “avenge people”, echoing a similar approach, Shah’s documentation of the BK-16 is a bold attempt of ‘solidarity’ against ‘unjust’ incarcerations by filling the void. The manner in which she presents the narrative around the 16 activists accused of instigating riots and waging war against the Indian state encompasses the larger story of the falling credentials of the ‘mother’ of democracy and rising authoritarianism in India.

“For the authoritarianism on the rise in India has relied on the slow, patient and organized takeover of vast areas of culture, society, institutions and a pact with capital, through electoral democracy itself…,” she writes.

The Kenyan-born professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics, Shah builds a strong case to expose state crackdown on dissent, providing shocking revelations and anecdotes of cyber warfare and annotating how the BK-16 story reflects the plight of three main minorities of India— Adivasis, Dalits, and Muslims. The book traces the inspiring journey of grassroots activist Sudha Bharadwaj and many others, who began striving for civil liberties and social justice. The daughter of acclaimed economist Krishna Bharadwaj, who left behind a promising career in Silicon Valley, a PhD in neuroscience from the University of South California, and postdoctoral research at Stanford University. 

‘The People’s Lawyer’

Shah traces Bharadwaj’s journey of how she started a new career as a lawyer in pursuit of justice for the marginalized Adivasis community of Chhattisgarh. The author stresses that the passion embodied by  Bharadwaj and her colleagues/comrades who are fighting for civil liberties and democratic justice transcended and attracted a whole new generation of women lawyers and academics in India: “I haven’t earned money, I’ve earned people,” Sudha would retrospectively explain herself to her daughter, Maysha (p.124).

While fighting against the mining corporation and State nexus, activist Bharadwaj even took on none other than PM Modi’s favorite Adani, in Hasdeo Aranya forests in the Eastern part of the province of Chhattisgarh. At Janhit, the activist helped indigenous peoples, also classified as Tribal (Adivasi) under the Indian Constitution, to work together with the Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (Resistance Committee to Save Hasdeo Aranya) in their legal fight against the Parsa mining project.

The mining project, which reportedly has been given a green signal, will be chopping down a vast forest with over 200,000 trees spread across 841 hectares which is a migratory corridor for elephants. The biggest opposition to this corporate project has come from the villagers and environmental activists who have been confronting Adani’s coal mining pursuit.

The book sheds light on the activist journey discussing how they were hounded by the state apparatus for their work against corporate exploitation, civil liberties, and social justice. The police actions against them under the Bhima Koregaon case are an apparent attempt to silence the opposition emanating against the Hindu right-wing party, who are aiming for their third consecutive win in upcoming general elections. The book further traces the chilling narrative account of cyberwar and hacking, while elaborating on how these individuals – for the past six years – were structurally framed and subsequently harassed on the charges of instigating a riot in the small town of Bhima Koregaon.

In Maharashtra, in 2018, during a public conference to commemorate the historical battle of Mahars of 1818 in Bhima Koregaon, the town witnessed massive violence allegedly instigated by the right-wing elements but the police blamed the Maoist movement instead. On the morning of 28 August 2018, ten police personnel in plain clothes traveling from the city of Pune barged into Bharadwaj’s house in Faridabad’s Badarpur and arrested her without any “formal warrant” as one of the co-accused in the Bhima Koregaon case. Within 24 hours, the houses of ten other individuals were raided in Hyderabad, Delhi, Ranchi, Mumbai, and Goa.

Among the arrests were rights defenders, professors, lawyers, political commentators, and poets including octogenarians like Jesuit priest Stan Swamy. Alpa Shah offers an overview of systemic disadvantage and ground realities faced by marginalized communities and explains how 83-year-old Swamy and other activists were targeted/incarcerated because of their activism for indigenous peoples’ rights. In 2021, Swamy died in prison exposing the maltreatment faced by political prisoners in India.

Despite his Parkinson’s disease and lumbar spondylosis, the senior citizen was repeatedly denied bail even on health grounds. Authorities stopped the necessary sipper and straw because his condition prevented him from holding a cup in his hand for over 50 days. His situation worsened and he could not eat, write, or walk well due to his condition.

Consequently, he died in custody after contracting COVID-19 on 5 July 2021. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention termed Swamy’s death “utterly preventable”, and its Special Rapporteur Mary Lawlor said his death would “forever remain a stain on India’s human rights record”.

Witnessing the collapse of democracy

Shah has previously conducted an extensive study in Jharkhand for her first book In the Shadow of the State, which offers a critique of how the well-meaning work of environmental activists unintentionally marginalizes the poorest forest-dwelling communities of Jharkhand. Her accessibility to the subject and familiarity with the grassroots activists places her in a position to uniquely retrieve the insightful details about the Bhima Koregaon case. Besides, her specialization on the manifestation of caste hierarchies and looming socio-economic inequality allows her to problematize the institutional compromise and nexus between the state and the capitalists. 

The book tells the publicly unpopular story of these individuals who were preserving the seeds of democracy as fascism began to take root. The book, divided into nine parts, is laced with details of atrocities committed by the security personnel, such as in Jagdalpur Bastar, Maharashtra’s Khairlanji, and Gadchiroli operation. While citing fact-finding reports from prominent human rights groups, Shah goes on to emphasize the plight of minorities, including Adivasis, who have been surviving while continuously enduring rights violations like “torture, gang rapes, and exploitation.”

Regarding 47-year-old activist Rona Wilson’s case, the author argues that the police not only violated the necessary procedure while dealing with digital evidence but they tempered the files and surveilled his computer.  She writes, “Under the BJP Modi-led government, it seems the attacks had reached new levels. Not only were particular activists and their organization branded as anti-national, but a new discourse painted entire democratic organizations as frontal organizations of the ‘Maoists’”.

In the chapter on journalist and democratic rights activist Gautam Navlakha, Shah discusses how Navlakha linked the hidden expenditure of the defense sector, an analysis of the official budget, overlooked by the mainstream media. Shah then goes on to write that his staunch support for Kashmir’s right to self-determination became one of the key reasons for his prosecution. “Incarcerating Gautam was a way to instill fear in anyone,” she writes, “if he can be imprisoned, so can you. No one is exempt?” 

Overall, the painstaking research put in by Shah uniquely places the book in an age of disinformation and xenophobic nationalist jingoism. The book is a great resource, especially for researchers, journalists, and members of civil society interested in India, its democratic processes, and the lacunae in the implementation of these processes. This book fills this gap in the literary study of contemporary India as it is well-researched, and meticulous and highlights the key challenges faced by democracy in its normative pursuit of moral and military greatness.

The Incarcerations: BK-16 and the Search for Democracy in India (2024) is published by HarperCollins Publishers

Umer Beigh

Umer Beigh is a journalist from Indian-administered Kashmir. He is a graduate of the Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace & Conflict Resolution at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. His work has been featured in several international organizations including The Unbiased New, New Frame, Ink Stick Media, Express Tribune among others

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