The Adani crisis dominated headlines last week, so the release of Siddique Kappan barely made the news. After more than two years in jail the release of this journalist from Kerela deserves more attention. It is shameful that in a democratic country someone should be imprisoned this long without being charged with a crime, leave alone convicted of one. And yet, ever since a law made for terrorists was tweaked by the Modi government, it has been used regularly to keep people who are not terrorists in jail indefinitely. Among the activists, student leaders and journalists who have spent months and years in jail without being convicted of a crime is the JNU student leader Umar Khalid. He has been in prison since 2020 without trial.
What is very worrying is that the misuse of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and the equally draconian Prevention of Money Laundering Act is now so normal that it attracts little media attention. It is these two laws under which Kappan has been jailed since October 2020. He was arrested on the way to Hathras because the Uttar Pradesh government was keen to prevent journalists from reporting on the horrific gangrape, murder and hasty cremation of a Dalit teenager. The girl’s upper-caste rapists broke her back while trying to strangle her with her own dupatta, but she lived long enough to identify the men who did this to her. When her broken body was brought to her village after she died in hospital, the police cremated it in the dead of night without last rites or dignity.
It was this story that Kappan was going to Hathras to investigate. He never got there. He was arrested on suspicion that he was travelling with jihadists from the Popular Front of India (PFI). At the time of Kappan’s arrest the PFI had not been banned and even if his travelling companions were jihadists, he himself was a bona fide journalist. As he said when he was released last week, ‘Journalism is not a crime.’
It is because of the Modi government’s reckless use of anti-terrorism laws to arrest people who are not terrorists, that international democracy watchdogs now put India in the category of partial democracies. It is ironical and inexplicable that the Modi government continues to misuse anti-terrorism laws because not since Indira Gandhi has an Indian prime minister been as conscious of world opinion as Narendra Modi.
This year India’s leadership of the G20 has given him the chance to use it to project himself as someone who is going to set not just India’s agenda but the agenda of the world. One of the posters advertising the G20 summit has a picture of our Prime Minister with the message that India’s ambitions are bigger than its temporary leadership of the G20. Has Modi forgotten that most major countries in the G20 are democracies who respect India for her democratic values?
Modi is deeply sensitive to criticism in the western media but appears to have not discovered that if journalists, dissidents, and students spend months in jail without trial, he will inevitably be seen as an autocrat. When he is called an autocrat his army of spokesmen and supporters are deployed on social media to rave and rant about western plots against India. Would it not be simpler for democratic norms to be followed by the Modi government so that our democracy does not keep being downgraded? Dissidence is brutally crushed only in countries that have no pretensions to being the ‘mother of democracy’. So why is this not more obvious?
Our criminal justice system is rightly criticized for moving so slowly that alleged murderers, rapists, and terrorists spend years in jail awaiting trial. It is estimated that more than 80% of prisoners in Indian jails are those who remain untried and this undertrial population has grown since the UAPA was amended in 2019 to widen the definition of terrorism. The amendment enables the government to decide who a terrorist is and then evade the need to prove this in court for as long as it feels like. This is how the process of justice itself becomes the punishment. Does this sound democratic?
India has earned the respect of the democratic world because we have managed somehow to keep the light of democracy shining through times of great trouble and turmoil. Modi has personally declared that India is the ‘mother of democracy’ although it is to Greece to whom this honour really belongs. So, does he really want history to remember him as the Prime Minister on whose watch democracy was diminished by branding dissidents as terrorists and locking them up for long periods?
Siddique Kappan should not have had to spend two years in jail. Umar Khalid should not be kept in jail without the government proving in court its charge that he was the ‘mastermind’ of the Delhi riots. The question I ask myself as I write these words is whether either of these two men would have suffered such long periods of imprisonment if they had been Hindu and not Muslim? I know the answer, but I ask the question because it is something you should all be thinking about as India steps into what Modi’s spokesmen like to call our Amrit Kaal. In this celebration of our seventy-fifth year of Independence, we must cherish our greatest asset. Democracy.