In an interview to the Indian Express, published on September 11, Ram Madhav, national general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party, made a startling statement. “Preventive arrests,” he said, “are a part of political activity.” He was responding to a question about Kashmir political leaders being detained or put under house arrest since August 5, when the Centre announced it was revoking special status for Jammu and Kashmir and carving up the state into two Union Territories.
The day the interview was published, N Chandrababu Naidu, his son and several other members of the Telugu Desam Party were put under preventive detention in Andhra Pradesh. The state is currently ruled by Jaganmohan Reddy of the YSR Congress, who is believed to be warm to the BJP even though the party did not formally join the National Democratic Alliance. Naidu was reportedly placed under house arrest and then taken into preventive custody after he marched to Athmakur, from where workers of his party had allegedly been expelled by the YSR Congress. The former Andhra Pradesh chief minister’s incarceration was the latest instalment of a political blood feud between the YSR Congress and the Telugu Desam Party.
Detaining the Opposition is old hat in Andhra Pradesh politics. But these methods have acquired a new currency with the BJP’s actions post August 5. The law and order concerns cited by the party for locking up even those Kashmiri leaders who supported the Indian state have worn thin. What kind of law and order threat was Junaid Mattu, the mayor of Srinagar, who is suffering from a serious illness and has little mass support? Or 81-year-old Farooq Abdullah, once the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, who had long faded into political irrelevance in the Valley? Or even Dogra leaders in Jammu who largely welcomed the Centre’s move but suggested a few modifications?
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Madhav’s recent remarks drop the pretence. Jailing the Opposition is not about public order in an exceptional situation; it has been mainstreamed into the BJP’s politics. In Modi’s New India, the government does not argue or try to persuade. It simply silences dissenting voices. You do not have to oppose the Indian state to be detained, as countless Kashmiri separatist leaders have been for decades. The democratic space has shrunk so much that disagreeing with the government is now outlawed.
Madhav picked a particularly unfortunate example to show preventive detentions were par for the course: National Conference leader Sheikh Abdullah had been jailed for years, he pointed out. Abdullah’s dismissal as prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir and arrest in 1953 is seen as the moment when the compact with Kashmir started to crack. He was arrested by the Nehru administration first, then tossed back into jail under the Indira Gandhi dispensation. From the 1950s into the 1970s, Kashmiri opposition leaders were jailed before every Parliamentary election to make way for the Congress. In 1975, the practice of jailing the Opposition was extended from Kashmir to the rest of the country. It was the Emergency.
Nearly four decades later, the BJP came to power promising to be the antithesis of the Congress. As recently as June, the prime minister invoked the Emergency to tell voters not to take democracy “for granted”. Given the events of the past month, it now seems like a veiled threat. Only the BJP does not claim the disruption of democratic rights is necessary action in a grave and exceptional situation. It projects the suspension of these rights as the triumph of the democratic project.