“There is something wrong with your luggage.”
“Oh, wait, no, the luggage is alright, we actually came to arrest you.”
“By we, we mean not us, but the Assam Police.”
This travesty of due process of law occurred at Delhi airport on Thursday, when Congress leader Pawan Khera was made to de-board Indigo flight number 6E 204 from Delhi to Raipur around 11.45 am. Congress media in-charge Khera was on his way to Raipur to attend the party’s plenary session. He was accompanied by other Congress leaders.
Initially, the ground staff made it appear as if there was something amiss with Khera’s luggage and asked him to identify a piece of baggage. Khera insisted that he did not have any checked-in baggage. However, eventually, he stepped out of the plane. The subterfuge by Delhi Police led to Khera’s arrest by Assam Police at the airport terminal later. This was before Congress leaders prevented Khera from being taken away by the police and demanded they show an arrest warrant.
What was Khera being accused of? Evidently, he had made some ‘derogatory’ comments on PM Narendra Modi. Specifically, he had asked if PM Modi’s name was Damodardas Modi or Gautamdas Modi, in jest, during a media briefing. He had immediately said sorry for the confusion.
Apparently, this was not enough for those listening in carefully to every word being spoken ‘against’ the PM. For all intents and purposes, Khera was de-planed and arrested for this ‘grave’ crime. “I was asked to deplane as if I was a terrorist. It can happen to anyone tomorrow,” Pawan Khera said to NDTV after being freed from police lock-up.
If this does not make the hair on your hand stand up, not much else could.
Arresting the media in-charge of the largest opposition party for something he uttered in jest, and then apologised for soon after — points to an ominous scenario for our nation’s democracy.
This is part of a pattern.
Arrests of journalist Siddique Kappan and activist Sharjeel Imam, demonisation of TV personality Ravish Kumar — the examples abound. Clearly, this government does not take criticism well, if at all. Even light-hearted comments are blown out of proportion and made to appear so sinister that it is impossible to reason with the powers-that-be.
Such incidents are expected in an autocracy or dictatorship. Countries that come to mind are North Korea and Iran. But this, happening in India, in 2023? What is really going on?
If PM Modi has taken umbrage to Khera’s comments on his father, he should recall how many times he himself made remarks like ‘jersey cow’ against erstwhile Congress president Sonia Gandhi and ‘hybrid child’ against her son Congress leader Rahul Gandhi.
In 2012, he crossed many boundaries of decency and propriety by calling the late Sunanda Pushkar ‘Rs 50 crore ki girlfriend’. Pushkar, in an interview to Headlines Today, had said Modi’s remarks against her were deplorable. Addressing a rally in Himachal Pradesh’s Mandi district in October 2012, Modi had asked the crowd: “Have you ever heard of a (Rs) 50 crore girlfriend (of Tharoor)?” He was making a reference to allegations against Congress’ Shashi Tharoor negotiating a sweat equity for Pushkar for the Kochi IPL team in 2010. Following this, Tharoor had to quit as the minister of state for external affairs. Asked if she expected an apology from Modi, Pushkar had said, “I don’t expect him to apologise. When he did not apologise to people of Gujarat for the mass murders in his state, how can he apologise to a person for a statement, which you say, he is used to making?”
Unfortunately, Sunanda Pushkar is not with us anymore and so we will never know if PM Modi would have apologised to her. What is still in the realm of feasibility, though, is a correction of his image of this hyper-sensitive politician who spearheads decisions to arrest, detain, censure people who make any remark considered in the slightest to be offensive.
All this hearkens back to 1975 and the imposition of the Emergency. Does India really want a repeat of the dark days of the Emergency?
While Gen Z and Millennials may not know much about it, the older population of India still shudders to think about the 21-month period from 1975 to 1977, when the then President of India, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, had announced a state of emergency across the country on the recommendation of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The Emergency remained in effect from June 25, 1975 to March 21, 1977.
A particularly ignoble chapter in India’s history, this period was marked by government crackdown on civil liberties, stifling of dissent and unchecked state incarceration. Human rights violations were frequent and press freedom had been reduced to a repressive extent.
In 2018, in a biting indictment of the Emergency, deceased senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley compared it with Adolf Hitler’s dictatorial regime in Germany. He also accused former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who took the decision to impose Emergency, of transforming India into a “dynastic democracy”.
In 1975, one of the justifications provided for the imposition of the Emergency was that the Opposition was in cahoots with a ‘foreign power’ and that there was ‘foreign interference’ in the political affairs of India with a view to destabilise the nation. Many senior leaders of the RSS were arrested during this period and over the years, BJP leaders have repeatedly called attention to this phase in their public interactions.
Given the current crackdown on dissent, it would be a great irony if the party that once so vociferously opposed the Emergency is seen trying to heap tyranny on its own people and condone acts which remind them of that dark chapter in our nation’s history.
This is preventable, entirely unnecessary and supremely damaging — if only those in power would realise it on time.