On 6 April 2015, at a joint conference that was held in Delhi and consisted of chief ministers and chief justices from across India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged the audience to rethink the role of “five-star activists” in the country. Addressing the gathering, he began by elaborating on the powers of the judiciary, and highlighted its ability to “see things” even when “the truth between perception and reality” is “difficult to find.” Modi then went on to deliver the punch line: “At some point we will have to consider whether five star activists are driving our judiciary today or not. Isn’t there an attempt to spread a fear in order to attempt to drive the judiciary?” Three days later, on 9 April, the Union Home Ministry decided to revoke Greenpeace’s permission to receive foreign funds by suspending its license for six months and freezing all its accounts, alleging that it had “prejudicially affected the country’s public and economic interests.” It is important to read this intervention in conjunction with the prime minister’s damning remark about activists last month. By framing the Home Ministry’s fiat and Modi’s brittle comment within the government’s general discourse, we can get a sense of this dispensation’s outlook towards two critical issues: dissent and activism.
The contrast in the language used by Narendra Modi at various fora and his chosen mode of dialogue among different stakeholders—the elite and the subaltern—is revealing of his thoughts about the two divergent groups and those who represent them. The corporate sector in India—even those sections of it that are allegedly the most corrupt—always seems to escape being the target of the prime minister’s verbal acidity. The criticism of its predatory and fraudulent business practices comes couched in vague generalities. The name calling, as and when it is resorted to, is usually preserved for activists and organisations like Greenpeace. More recently of course, it has also been extended to journalists, with a comment by the Minister of State of External Affairs, General VK Singh, which described the media as “presstitutes,” a thinly veiled insinuation that left little to the imagination.
Modi’s scornful dismissal of activists at a gathering of legal luminaries has confirmed what many already suspected—that he has an innate suspicion of grass roots activism. Since taking charge, the government, which Modi runs as a tight ship, has made no bones about its hostility to activists. The relentless persecution of Priya Pillai, an activist from Greenpeace, in January, and of the organisation itself now, bears testimony to what already resembles a witch hunt of people perceived as inimical to the government’s economic policies. The re-promulgation of an ordinance to push through the land bill despite resistance from both farmers and activists, and most recently the Supreme Court is another visible instance of such suspicion at work.
It is of course paradoxical, to say the least, that the man who hurled the “five-star activist” insult was seen not too long ago wearing a suit that reportedly cost Rs 11 lakhs with the words “Narendra Damodardas Modi” monogrammed in pinstripes during a meeting with US president Barack Obama. Is this not the act of a five-star politician? In this regard, it is also worth mentioning that the political outfit to which Modi belongs, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, often hosts its conclaves in plush hotels and not outdoors under shamianas where all and sundry can join the gathering, adopting a fairly five-star approach itself. Then there is the small matter of hypocrisy—the simple fact that even as the prime minister scorns five-star activism for hurting the country, his governmental ideology is nothing short of making India a five-star country, populated by an endless array of smart cities and the like.
The problem is that our political class has no sense of the complexities that frame activism or interventions in political and social spheres. Name calling is, after all, a signifier of an immature mind. It may be relevant in this context to turn to a different scene and think about the Marathi film Court directed by Chaitanya Tamhane. A courtroom drama, the plot of the film is constructed around Narayan Kamble, an elderly social activist, who tours among working-class communities with his troupe across Mumbai. The film follows the arrest of Kamble, who is accused of inciting a sewage worker with his songs, thereby prompting the worker to kill himself. In the courtroom Kamble is defended by Vinay Vora against the public prosecutor, Nutan.