It is not uncommon for colonial governments to enact sedition laws with the purpose of stifling dissent; it is, following independence, for democratic governments to be enforcing them to quell critics. It is also exactly what the Modi government and party encourages in India.
And it is what landed a 26-year old mother and her daughter’s teacher in jail. All for a play critical of Mr. Modi’s Citizenship Amendment Act and the government’s plans for a National Register of Citizens, the NRC on which he has been caught modifying the truth. These have stoked fear among India’s Muslims in that they may be required to produce documents to prove citizenship — an impossible task in a poor country where few register births, or have any other documents like passports or drivers licenses.
What did the play do? Not much. An elderly woman is told that Narendra Modi wants Muslims to produce documents to prove citizenship. The woman responds that her family has been in India for generations, and she would have to dig up the graves of her ancestors to produce those documents, adding that a boy who used to sell tea (reference to Modi) is now demanding them. “I will ask him for his documents,” she continues, “and if he can’t show them to me, I’ll beat him with my sandal.”
The play was streamed on Facebook by a parent and quickly went viral. One of Mr. Modi’s ardent supporters, a certain Neelesh Rakshal, chanced upon it and promptly registered a complaint with the police “for abusing the prime minister and also for spreading hatred,” To most citizens of western democracies, the charge would appear ludicrous. For example, President Trump is lampooned much more severely and fairly regularly on ofthisandthat.org in the Porcupine’s Quill satire column.
But then it was just before Valentine’s Day and Mr. Rakshal, the greatly offended self-proclaimed social activist, expected garlands of marigolds for his idol.
Nazbunnisa, the 26-year old mother is not sure how she came to be jailed. She said, she simply heard her daughter rehearse her part at home. She also says she never even went to the play. A domestic worker, she has few resources at her disposal.
Farida Begum the 52-year old teacher suffers from high blood pressure, and fears what the future holds for her family. Her husband, Mirza Baig, is also greatly concerned about how his wife’s time in jail will affect the marriage prospects of their daughter. He says what has been been done “is not right.”
The complaint also named the school management and the president of the school, who the police have not been able to find. So they told the court at the preliminary hearing.
Dr. Thouseef Madikeri, the school’s CEO, says, “We do not know for what reason sedition charges have been invoked against the school. It is beyond the imagination of any reasonable person. We will fight it in court.”
India is full of travesty these days, but should the courts dismiss the complaint, Mr. Neelesh Rakshal could face a lawsuit for defamation, at the very least. He would most certainly in the US, where he could also be liable for damages and legal fees running into six figures.
Karnataka is not the only state where Muslims are being abused. The city of Kanpur in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, has a large community of Muslims that is under constant abuse by police, but this year has seen the brutality having fatal consequences.
Such is life for poor minorities in Modi’s India.