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November 21, 2020

The India my mother knew is becoming unrecognisable

Peshawar

November 21, 2020

While writing a book about my Sikh mother’s displacement from what became Pakistan after Indian independence in 1947, the fathers of the Indian republic have been much in my mind.

Mostly they trained in London’s Inns of Court so, as a barrister myself, I regularly come across their likenesses. Portraits of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the independence leader Mahatma Gandhi line the staircase leading to Inner Temple library. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, another hero of the independence struggle, is honoured with a plaque in Middle Temple.

I wonder what they would make of the increasing alarm I hear from my Indian lawyer friends. Each week, it seems, some new outrage amplifies their anxiety that the rule of law in the country is being eroded.

Questions are being asked about the impartiality of judgments at all levels of the system.

The latest episode involved a decision by the Supreme Court to intervene in the case of Arnab Goswami, a rightwing television news presenter and founder of Republic TV, which is widely seen as supportive of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government. The country’s highest court ordered Mr Goswami — arrested in a suicide case — be released on bail after a lower court refused his petition.

On its own, this decision would not have warranted much attention. But critics noted that the court found time to sit over a holiday recess — while many journalists, lawyers, writers and activists critical of the government have been arrested and still languish in jail, awaiting their hearings.

Away from the headlines, there is a deeper fear that the justice system itself is failing, under the pressure of political abuse and manipulation.

Many Indians revere their constitution, which dexterously balances the rights and aspirations of a hugely diverse population. In its drafting, BR Ambedkar — who was a Dalit, from the lowest caste — kept the minorities and disadvantaged very much in mind. But in Mr Modi’s India, with its rightwing Hindu majority, the protections he crafted seem flimsier than ever.

The Goswani decision was not an isolated case. There are other signs that the Supreme Court is no longer universally regarded as a reliable and impartial defender of constitutional rights. In January 2018, four of the court’s judges themselves raised concerns about administrative interference in the assignment of sensitive cases.

Last year, the court decided a bitter dispute over a contested religious site at Ayodhya, revered by many Hindus as the birthplace of Lord Ram. In December 1992, a mob tore down a 16th-century mosque on the site. But the court accepted the argument that some kind of structure predated the mosque and sanctioned the construction of a Hindu temple there.

Fears that the judgment would be met by rioting were misplaced. Instead, there was resignation from opponents of the decision and celebration from the Hindu right. Increasingly, it feels as though the secular foundations of the republic are being dismantled and that religious minorities, whom the constitution declares equal before the law, are losing their voice.

In 1947, the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir acceded to India as a semi-autonomous state. The constitution protected its special status until August 2019, when Mr Modi’s government revoked it and ordered a clampdown on the region, putting local political leaders under house arrest and closing communications. Meanwhile, nearly 2m mainly Muslims in Assam state have been excluded from a citizens’ register, and in effect declared “irregular foreigners”.

Petitions have been filed with the Supreme Court challenging both the citizenship act and repression in Kashmir — but they are as yet unheard.

My mother, Dip, would have viewed all this with consternation. For 15 years she worked at Amnesty International’s secretariat in London. Last month, the human rights organisation said it had been forced to halt operations in India, blaming “an incessant witch-hunt” by the government. A few weeks ago, I found documents enabling my sister and me to apply for overseas citizenship of India.

For so long we have wanted this — a formal link to the country my mother had proudly watched come into being.

I want to be a part of this great country, but as Mr Modi dubs protesters and critics “anti-national”, I worry that the country he calls “New India” may not want my sort. I hope I am wrong.

The writer is a barrister and the author of ‘The Lost Homestead’

Courtesy: Financial Times