Of all the laughable – and they are laughable – charges levelled by the Indian government against Kannan Gopinathan, the most preposterous is the one that says he failed to apply in time for a prime ministerial award on innovation in public administration. “I think I’ll be the only officer in history who has been chargesheeted for not applying for an award,” he said this week.

Gopinathan, who resigned in August 2019 from the elite Indian Administrative Service to protest against the crackdown in Kashmir, was a respected, capable officer who had been graded 9.5 out of 10 in his latest appraisal and achieved fame for anonymously – a colleague revealed his identity – volunteering at relief camps during a 2018 flood in Kerala.

Among the other accusations against Gopinathan, who was the district collector of Daman and Diu: a delay in laying underground cables, not submitting a tour report after the Kerala floods and a vague charge of “insurbodination”.

The government is clutching at straws in its desire for vengeance against Gopinathan, who released the chargesheet – emailed to him after a colleague asked for his address, to which he said he did not own a house – and his response on Twitter.

As the economy tanks further and more distractions are required for Narendra Modi’s nationalist base, his government is increasingly emboldened to rachet up the war against dissent. The same week as the attempt to punish Gopinathan unfolded, further actions of Modi’s government made it amply clear that vendetta clumsy or thorough – is a cornerstone of the prime minister’s politics and policies.

The government revoked the Overseas Citizenship status of writer Aatish Taseer, who in May wrote a cover story for Time magazine on Modi headlined “Divider in chief”. The fig leaf for the revocation was that his father – who never married his mother, the pro-Modi columnist Tavleen Singh – was a Pakistani, which he was supposed to have declared. Singh pointed out that none of this was an issue until her son wrote what he did.

Once Modi’s mind is made up, neither law nor common sense can deter him; democratic tolerance of opposing views is not a consideration. In May, Modi had this to say of Taseer’s Time story: “Time magazine is foreign. The writer has also said he comes from a Pakistani political family. That is enough for his credibility.”

As is now routine in action against those perceived to be opposed to the prime minister or the government, the facts are easily discarded, manipulated and attempts to point out otherwise are futile. Once the process of retaliation has begun, there is no rollback or mitigation.

Ashok Lavasa – an election commissioner who dissented five times against his colleagues’ decision to clear Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah of violating campaign law during parliamentary elections – similarly faces a government inquiry that appears to be little more than an angry, awkward attempt to dig up dirt against him.

The vigilance officers of 11 state-owned companies were ordered to “verify your records for any evidence regarding involvement in any decision making concerning or exercise of influence, in any form exercised by Shri Ashok Lavasa in securing any benefits to these companies/ associated companies for eg in the form of award of contracts/arbitration awards; placing of supply/commercial orders; entering into MoUs/commercial agreement and other financial accruals etc,” the Indian Express reported. Lavasa’s wife, sister and son are also being probed by the income-tax department.

Gujarat model

None of this should not be surprising. Modi followed a similar approach when he was chief minister of Gujarat, relentlessly pursuing any official or anyone else opposed to him or his government. The prime minister’s politics of vendetta are characterised by a long memory and meticulous retribution: no slight is forgotten, and no reprisal is considered too petty or disproportionate to perceived anti-Modi opinion or action.

So, police officers who stood against rioters in 2002 found their careers gradually taken apart in promotions withheld, adverse assessment reports, suspensions on dubious or spurious grounds or postings to obscure corners of India. One of them, Sanjiv Bhat – who alleged that Modi as chief minister ordered the police to stand aside during the 2002 riots – was this year sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of being involved in a custodial death in a country where police torture, overwhelmingly, goes unpunished. Indeed, the latest available national crime records reveal 100 custodial deaths in 2017 but no convictions.

Journalists who criticised Modi then are starved of access now. Lawyers and activists who worked with riot victims then face arrest or are tangled in a mess of inquiries, and judges who ruled against 2002 rioters over the years find their career paths blocked.

Home Minister Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: AFP

In September 2019, chief justice of the 75-judge Madras High Court, Vijaya Tahilramani, resigned after she was transferred to the four-judge Meghalaya High Court. In 2017, Tahilramani upheld the conviction and life sentences handed out of 11 suspects in 2002 murders and a gang-rape and set aside the acquitals of rioters, policemen and doctors.

The appointment or transfer of High Court and Supreme Court judges is made by a collegium, a collection of peers, but the collegium’s decisions are increasingly made in secret at the instance of“confidential” government notes opposing its choice. This week, after two such notes, the collegium rescinded its decision to appoint Justice Akil Qureshi as chief justice of the Madhya Pradesh High Court and sent him instead to the far smaller Tripura high court. In 2010, Justice Qureshi ordered Home Minister Shah remanded to police custody for his alleged involvement in an extra-judicial killing.

Modi’s politics of retribution and reprisal is made easier by his widespread co-option of once relatively independent institutions, the media and the judiciary. As the power of watchdogs dwindles, the government finds it easier to conduct vendattas, borne on flimsy or non-existent transgressions. In most cases, the punishment proposed and pursued begins with what should be the last resort: arrest and jail time.

The Lawyer’s Collective case

Consider, for instance,the case against the Lawyer’s Collective, a nonprofit run by former additional solicitor general Indira Jaisingh and her husband Anand Grover, both lawyers with “an exceptional profile of public service, probity and personal and professional integrity as lawyers and as human rights defenders”, as a statement issued in June 2019 by a slew of international organisations put it. Jaisingh and Grover face criminal charges for supposed foreign-exchange law violations.

Grover, for whom arrest has been sought, is not in custody only because the Bombay High Court intervened. The Central Bureau of Investigation, displaying a zeal that it rarely has in far more serious crimes – such as its silence after the 2014 discharge of Shah in a murder case –
has now requested the Supreme Court to set aside the High Court order.

As I write this, the Supreme Court has listed the hearing for November 14. It must decide if the charges – even if true – against the Lawyer’s Collective are grounds for arrest. These accusations include buying air tickets and organising a charity dinner. Modi’s vendettas may appear to descend into farce, but they are deadly serious for those who are his targets. Expect more of them.