INDIA’S descent into totalitarianism is acquiring chilling new dimensions by the day.
On Thursday, the police filed charges of sedition and other offences against 49 eminent personalities for writing an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in which they demanded an end to the lynching of Muslims, Dalits and other minorities in the country. Such incidents, often captured in harrowing videos, are occurring with frightening regularity, particularly in BJP-ruled states.
The letter, whose signatories included filmmakers Shyam Benegal, Mani Ratnam and Aparna Sen, called for the perpetrators to be meted out “exemplary punishment … surely and swiftly”, and described ‘Jai Shri Ram’ as having been reduced to a “provocative war cry”.
The individual who filed the petition before a chief judicial magistrate was quoted as saying that the celebrities had “tarnished the image of the country and undermined the impressive performance of the prime minister”.
On the contrary, the letter is an exception to what appears to be the success of the Modi government’s supremacist ideology in extinguishing, or at least silencing, India’s collective conscience.
Aside from sedition, the FIR also includes charges of public nuisance, hurting religious feelings, and insulting with the intent to provoke breach of peace.
It is the mark of a society hurtling towards a dystopian nightmare when an appeal for humanity and compassion can be so grotesquely perverted.
Since it came to power at the centre five years ago, the BJP has embarked upon an organised and relentless campaign to not only quash dissent in the public discourse but to vilify such dissent as being ‘unpatriotic’.
In 2015, more than 40 writers, including a niece of Jawaharlal Nehru — often described as the architect of Indian secularism — returned top national awards to protest the climate of intolerance beginning to take hold in the country.
Attacks on journalists and progressive thinkers critical of the Hindu far right spiked; several of them, such as newspaper editor Gauri Lankesh, were murdered.
Today, much of the Indian print and broadcast media has become a cheerleader for the BJP and a mouthpiece for official propaganda, putting a positive spin on some stories, and relegating others to obscurity.
The government and its allies in big business have used their budgets strategically to reward compliance and punish critical coverage; some high-profile sackings of recalcitrant editors have also served to reinforce the point.
As an Indian columnist recently observed about local media outlets: “How can they question the system when they are the system?”
This craven surrender was perhaps never better illustrated than when India-held Kashmir was stripped of its special autonomy two months ago.
The triumphalism that coursed through the media landscape, with barely a murmur of dissent — above all, the total media blackout in the beleaguered territory — leaves no doubt that the world’s biggest democracy is no longer worthy of that distinction.
CNIC and taxes
THE government gave an important concession to the trader community on Friday, while simultaneously telling all industrial and commercial consumers of power and gas connections to get themselves registered for income tax by Oct 15. Presumably, there will be tough action after that date, though the FBR chairman, who made the announcement, did not specify what steps are being contemplated. For the trader community, the government relaxed a part of its documentation requirements, telling the traders that all CNICs submitted for tax purposes would be “deemed to have been reported in good faith by the supplier”. This means that if the supplier has provided an incorrect CNIC, the action will not be a punishable offence. This was an important sticking point in the ongoing documentation drive, since manufacturers and suppliers of goods say they have no way of knowing whether the CNIC shown to them by the buyer belongs to a third party or not. Without this knowledge, they cannot complete the transaction under the existing rules, and supply chains of industry along with distribution networks have suffered enormous disruption. But another important condition remains in place, which is the one that requires all payments to be made into a bank account that is in the name of the person whose CNIC has been submitted for tax purposes.
Clearly, an aggressive game of give-and-take between the government and the business community is now in full swing, particularly where the traders, who are at the heart of the documentation drive, are concerned. Those unregistered manufacturers who have been availing industrial or commercial category utility rates but have not registered for tax purposes now face “an aggressive campaign” from Oct 15 onwards, as per the announcement of the FBR, and traders have been offered a carrot in the withdrawal of the punishable offence clause in the Sales Tax Act. This is smart policy handling and the FBR deserves its round of credit for structuring its efforts in this manner. But the struggle ahead is a particularly difficult one, and pressure to relax conditions will mount further. The government must decide clearly how far it is committed to this course of action, and then stick to it. Going down this path, which will bring its fair share of confrontation, and then relenting under pressure, does more harm than good when it comes to the admirable goal of documentation.
ACCORDING to the WHO, approximately 15pc of Pakistan’s population consists of persons with disabilities. For such a large group, PWD are severely overlooked and underrepresented in every aspect of life, including politics and lawmaking. Until the passage of the 18th Amendment, there was only one law that spoke to the rights of PWD: the Disabled Persons (Employment and Rehabilitation) Ordinance of 1981, which ensured employment for them. Since devolution, however, Balochistan, and Sindh have passed their own laws concerning PWD. Glaringly, Punjab and KP have not followed suit. Last year, the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2018, was tabled by the human rights ministry, but it is yet to be presented to the National Assembly.
Advocacy groups such as the Potohar Mental Health Association have pointed out certain flaws in the law. First, they feel the definition of ‘disabled’ is outdated, since it is not aligned with the UN Convention of Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Second, even though all PWD face some level of stigma, women with disabilities bear the brunt, and the language in the bill is not inclusive towards them. Third, the allocation of funds is unclear. Fourth, unlike other marginalised groups, PWD do not have representative seats at the National Assembly, which is against the UNCRPD, and this bill does not mention political representation for them. Lastly, despite being assigned special CNICs, the process of attaining them at Nadra offices is long and cumbersome, while ‘proving’ their disability is perceived as discriminatory. While keeping these issues in mind, the passing of the new law will nevertheless be a welcome step in making Pakistan a more equitable society, safeguarding the rights of PWD and ensuring a life of dignity for them. If passed, it can also be adopted by the Punjab and KP assemblies with amendments. It is important to remember that PWD do not need sympathy or charity, but are deserving of their due rights as citizens of the state.