Modi and Amit Shah are still gung-ho about their projects amid coronavirus crisis

Here’s the slew of actions the prime minister and his lieutenant have taken in the past few months.

ByVrinda Gopinath
Modi and Amit Shah are still gung-ho about their projects amid coronavirus crisis
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There has been a flurry of murmurs over the past few weeks about the relevance and indisposition of Home Minister Amit Shah, famously known as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s powerful aide and deputy, what with the anointment of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh as head of the all-important Group of Ministers on tackling the Covid-19 pandemic, with Shah only as a member. Many of the other GoMs tackling the financial, transport and other aspects of Covid-19 were also headed by Shah’s junior ministers. Then there was the dispatch of National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, and not Shah, to tackle the recalcitrant leadership of the Tabligi Jamaat in Delhi on packing off its delegates when reports of infected Covid-19 members housed in its headquarters emerged. Ever since the outbreak of Covid-19, the irrepressible Shah has not addressed a single press conference, nor has he made any official declarations.

Of course, as the speculation mounted, Shah began to appear in photo-ops with Modi. In all this swirl about Shah’s influence, the home minister and the prime minister have been doing what they do best: overseeing the administration that is cracking the whip on protesting students and academics and arresting them under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act; rounding up women and men who were holding peaceful sit-ins against the Citizenship Amendment Act and linking them to the North East Delhi riots of February 2020, also under UAPA; expanding the surveillance of citizens through Aarogya Setu, an app to ostensibly track Covid-19 patients launched by Modi.

Let’s look at the slew of actions taken by Messrs Modi and Shah in the last few months:

Aarogya Setu app

Modi launched the Covid-19 contact tracing app on April 2 with great fanfare, hailing it as a “game changer”, but remember how Modi and Shah turned the straightforward Aadhar biometric card, which was created to ensure a fair and accurate welfare delivery system for the poor, into a compulsory card for all essentials, from bank accounts to mobile registration? Similarly, Covid-19 contact tracing through the app is not voluntary anymore but has been made mandatory, by a new order of the home ministry, for all government, PSU and private corporation employees.

After building up Aarogya Setu as a crucial tool for citizens’ health and safety, which was precluded with a razzmatazz high-pitched endorsement campaign by Bollywood stars like Ajay Devgan and cricket heroes like Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli, the app is now mandatory – with many companies such as those in home delivery and courier business following suit with a bit of a nudge from the government. As media reports reveal, the government is determined that citizens download the app – with security guards at pharmacies allowing people to enter only if they have downloaded the app, and other intimidating tactics.

Not surprisingly, data privacy experts have raised the red flag, warning users of data breaches and future snooping. While it may sound harmless that an app can track movements of Covid-19 patients and help in contact tracing, as has been revealed, the app’s user agreement states that if legally required, the data can be used in the future for purposes other than pandemic control. While its privacy policy says personal information will not be shared by third parties, it says the data can be shared with as many government agencies as required. And with no data protection laws, there’s no recourse for privacy violations. With the Modi-Shah duo’s persuasive approach, the app has hit 50 million subscribers within a fortnight, breaking world records in downloading an app. The mining of data from the app as well as Aadhar can only alarm data protectionists.

Arrest of students, academics and CAA protestors

The last few days have seen the Delhi police make sweeping arrests of students, protesters and academics on various charges. First came the arrest of two Jamia Millia Islamia students, Meeran Haider and Safoora Zargar, under the UAPA which is normally reserved for terrorist activities. They have been accused of “hate speeches” that led to the riots in North East Delhi in February this year. It’s a spectacularly bogus accusation. Six others were also arrested but released on bail. The students are still in prison, and Zargar, who is pregnant, is in solitary confinement. Her family fears for her health and wellbeing. All this even as Delhi’s prisons have released more than 4,000 undertrials in view of the Covid 19 pandemic, for fear of overcrowding in prisons.

Other students who have been booked by the Delhi police under UAPA for mobilising anti-government protests against the CAA include JNU’s Umar Khalid, and the charges against them include making provocative speeches and blocking traffic, procuring acid bottles and firearms. The FIR claims that the communal violence was a “premeditated conspiracy” on the part of the accused.

On the other hand, the Delhi police have been characteristically lethargic in booking BJP ministers and leaders who made vitriolic communal statements, beginning with Shah himself in the runup to the Delhi Assembly election and including Union minister Anurag Thakur and senior party leaders Paresh Verma and Kapil Mishra.

Meanwhile, the Delhi police also marched into the home of AISA’s Delhi president Kawalpreet Kaur and confiscated her cellphone without any official order. The police also booked former JNU student Sharjeel Imam under the UAPA alleging that his speeches promoted enmity among people that led to the Delhi riots.

Gulifsha, 28, a student activist and one of the coordinators of the women-led dharna against the CAA in Seelampur-Jafrabad in North East Delhi, has been languishing in Tihar Jail for several weeks. She too has been arrested under the UAPA.

The home ministry’s crackdown has included activist and scholar Anand Teltumbde, the grandson-in-law of BR Ambedkar, who was arrested on the iconic freedom fighter’s birth anniversary. Teltumbde had been asked by the Supreme Court to surrender before the NIA in connection with the Elgar Parishad case. The court had also asked civil rights activist Gautam Navlakha to do the same. Today, both are in prison waiting for their cases to come up in court.

Silence of the courts

In all these arrests, the courts have played along with the Delhi police, saying the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown disallows them to ask for weekly reports from the police and to monitor the cases stringently, while dismissing pleas by the students and the activists. The FIRs have listed vague conspiracies that might or might not have instigated the riots, yet the Special Cell of the Delhi police have used the UAPA which allows a person to be remanded in police custody for 30 days, instead of 15 days under ordinary criminal law. Also, the police have 180 days to file a chargesheet under the UAPA as against 90 days under ordinary criminal law. Eminent artists, filmmakers, and citizens have issued a statement against the witch-hunt by the Delhi police and asked for their immediate release.

As for Teltumbde and Navlakha, the Supreme Court asked them to surrender to the NIA in March this year, despite the pandemic and there being no prima facie case linking them to the Bhima Koregaon violence case. Ten other activists had been picked up, from academics to scholars, in August-September 2018, and accused of being associated with Maoist groups and of instigating violence in Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra. Additional charges include their involvement in “anti-national” activities, including a plot to assassinate Modi. The court agreed that custodial interrogation of all of them was necessary for the investigation to proceed.

Special cell of the Delhi police

A special mention must be made of two officers of the Delhi police, under the singular charge of Amit Shah’s home ministry, who head the two Special Investigation Teams that are probing the students and activists charged with the North East Delhi riots. They are deputy commissioners of police Rajesh Deo and Joy Tirkey.

Deo was pulled from poll duty during the Delhi election by the Election Commission after he told the media that the gunman who had fired at Shaheen Bagh was an Aam Aadmi Party member – a claim that turned out to be false. The commission accused him of making “political insinuations” that had “consequences for a free and fair poll”.

Tirkey was the officer who was quick to name nine persons in the JNU campus attack case in January, including JNUSU president Aishe Ghosh, who had sustained head injuries, accusing them of leading the mob, even though the masked intruders who had vandalised the campus were widely believed to be affiliated with the RSS student wing, the ABVP. The JNU attack investigation is still going on, though there has not been much progress.

MPLADS and the irrelevance of MPs

On April 8, Modi, through an order, suspended the MPLADS for two years, until 2022, for “managing the health and adverse impact of Covid-19 on the nation” and instead placed these funds at the disposal of the finance ministry. In one stroke, Modi not only centralised all funds for disbursement to himself – each MP gets Rs five crore annually for development work – he has also hijacked the resources MPs had for local intervention in situations of natural calamities, or in times of a health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. Each MP could sanction upto Rs one crore from his MPLADS fund for his constituency for Covid-19 preparations and aid – like purchase of medical equipment for government hospitals and dispensaries, ventilators, protective gear and suchlike for health workers – but now they have nothing. Modi has simply taken away the lifeline between the MP and his constituents and given the powers of disbursement to himself and the central government.

PM Cares fund

In an arbitrary move, Modi set up his own PM Cares fund to collect contributions from private donors despite the fact that PM’s Relief Fund already exists and has been used by the government for decades in times of calamities and natural disasters. Of course, Modi appointed himself chairperson of the new public charitable trust, and appointed trustees from his own cabinet – Shah, Rajnath Singh, Nirmala Sitharaman, among others (not mentioned) – with no one from any other political party. The fund will be audited by independent auditors and not the government-appointed CAG, and is open to foreign donors as it has been exempted from FCRA regulations. All this, even as there is Rs 3,800 crores lying unused in the PM’s Relief Fund.

Modi has also asked corporations to donate their CSR allocations to his fund, thus throttling NGOs, which he had been gunning for and which have no contributions coming in. According to reports, in less than two weeks, private companies have pledged Rs 22,000 crore to the PM Cares fund. Donors from rushing in to exhibit their undying support to Modi – from industrialists and movie stars to ministries like the Railways, which has pledged Rs 151, to even the Supreme Court. Government employees have been forced to donate a day’s salary every month for a year to the fund. Though the government circular said it was “voluntary”, the deductions were made directly from salaries and those unwilling to donate were asked to submit their refusal in writing. As if they would dare to do so. One day per month is 12 days of pay a year, amounting to 40 percent of a month’s salary. As RTI activist Saket Gokhale tweeted:

Modi’s fund collected Rs 6,500 crore within a week – the total to date is yet to be published. There is no information forthcoming as yet on the beneficiaries of Modi’s fund.

Central Vista

As if to exhibit his unfettered power and authority, Modi is steamrolling ahead with the extravagant and outrageously expensive Central Vista project, which is estimated to cost Rs 20,000 crore and will give him an emperor’s stamp on the capital’s landscape. There has been public outrage over this exorbitant spending at a time when the focus should be on reviving the economy wrecked by Covid-19.

The complaints about the inhumanity of the project seem to fall on deaf ears, and the construction of a new parliament building has got the necessary government approval. The environment ministry has given the nod after it was approved by its expert appraisal committee last week. However, none of the non-government members of the committee were present at the meeting.

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