A journalist argues that India’s ‘war on terror’ has made its security institutions more nationalistic and chauvinistc and more corrupt
India and Pakistan are both democracies in form, if not in substance. If India enjoys a higher status as a democracy, it’s partly because Pakistan’s all-powerful army is able to undermine democratic institutions at will. But you don’t need the military to subvert a democracy. It can also be done through the non-military arm of the security establishment. These include the police, the intelligence agencies, the Central Bureau of Investigation, the National Investigation Agency, the Anti-Terrorist Squad, and a multitude of other agencies that, although not an integral part of the ‘security establishment’, do share its capacity to inflict pain, such as the Enforcement Directorate, the Income Tax department, and so on.
In his previous book, A Feast of Vultures, Josy Joseph, an award-winning investigating journalist, documented how corruption has hollowed out India’s governance structures. His latest, The Silent Coup, dwells on the degeneration of the security establishment, which, in his telling, has been completely captured by the political executive.
Joseph’s canvas is vast — from the Mumbai train blasts and the 26/11 terror attack to the Kashmir insurgency, turmoil in the Northeast, the Indian Peace-Keeping Force’s debacles in Sri Lanka, and the ‘Gujarat model’ of the war on terror whose central tenet seems to be the perpetual rediscovery of plots to assassinate Narendra Modi. Joseph narrates the story of a young officer from a Military Intelligence (MI) unit who, in August 2015, cooked up an assassination threat to Modi that was subsequently “shown up as a phoney operation.”
So, what prompted the concoction of a fake terror plot? Joseph writes, “…there was no indication that what the young major in the MI unit did was part of any larger conspiracy, nor that there was any political will behind it. However, he was latching on to a powerful new narrative: that the regime’s image and popularity is linked to its tough stand on terrorism.”
The first section of the book revolves around the travails of Wahid, a school teacher in Mumbai. Every time there is a terrorist attack or threat, the police pick up Wahid, along with other Muslims. Why? Joseph offers several reasons: an inability to source, and parse, credible intelligence combined with immense pressure to show results; an ingrained anti-Muslim prejudice, which finds expression both in the disproportionate absence of Muslim officers in investigative and intelligence agencies, and a worldview where “right-wing Hindutva bombers never existed… [but] there were Muslims plotting against the nation everywhere.”
At the end of Part One, as Joseph winds up Wahid’s story, he sets up Part Two of the book with the question, “How did our police and intelligence agencies come to display such utter disrespect for the law, citizens and the state?”
Easy way out
Joseph argues that the increasing sophistication of militancy and terrorism challenges so overwhelmed our security agencies that they took the easy way out by turning into law-breakers themselves.
Emboldened by the certainty that their sins would be forgiven as long as they served the executive rather than the Constitution, their depredations ranged from encounter killings and custodial torture to manufacturing fake narratives and so forth.
In A Feast of Vultures, Joseph saw some hope in the Right to Information (RTI) Act and the judiciary. But it was published in 2016, before the RTI was gutted, and before four Supreme Court judges held an extraordinary press conference. The Silent Coup has no such illusions. It ends on a sombre note — reprising the infamous public meeting of February 2020 where Delhi politician Kapil Mishra, standing next to a police officer, “issued an ultimatum to the police to clear the streets of anti-CAA protesters.” The book’s last lines are both a cryptic reminder and dire prognosis: “The police officer quietly walked out of the frame. Then began the riots.”
The Silent Coup: A History of India’s Deep State; Josy Joseph, Context/ Westland, ₹699.