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Zubair, Teesta, Bhima Koregaon 'Evidence': Why are India’s Institutions Silent?

How much longer before the cloud hanging over India’s democratic record today morphs into a shroud?

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Opinion
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Zubair, Teesta, Bhima Koregaon 'Evidence': Why are India’s Institutions Silent?
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A big tree fell in the forest a few days ago. A news report published on 16 June in WIRED, a renowned tech magazine, highlights the controversial detention of human rights activists in the Bhima Koregaon violence case. It revealed a very disturbing chain of events. The report was about the fabrication of evidence. How that story was treated by all institutions reveals reams about the institutional collapse in India. The noise of crumbling institutions is louder than if an edifice of brick and mortar was to actually come crashing down.

The story, titled Police Linked to Hacking Campaign to Frame Indian Activists, builds on two reports earlier by The Washington Post. Those stories noted how reputed international forensic groups had uncovered the planting of digital documents on the computers of at least two of the 16 (now 15) Bhima Koregaon detainees. It was this very data, pointed out as dubious, that has been used as clinching evidence for their culpability. Without a proper trial, 14 of the 15 surviving accused remain in jail since 2019.

Snapshot
  • A recent report on the Bhima Koregaon case reveals a disturbing chain of events and brings to light the fabrication of evidence and the involvement of the police.

  • Arresting documenter/fact-checking journalist and Alt News’ Mohammad Zubair, who relentlessly exposes fakeries and hate machines, is the latest travesty.

  • Recently, the Gujarat ATS arrested activist Teesta Setalvad within hours of the Supreme Court order in the Zakia Jafri case.

  • If all decisions of India's institutions consistently have just one beneficiary, the State, giving it the ability to use the law as an executive tool for securing political victories, India is actively failing in fulfilling the promise.

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Is India Really a Rules-Based Democracy?

The news report goes on to nail the source of the digital records. So far, forensic labs had only established that there was a much larger pattern: “The hackers had targeted hundreds of activists, journalists, academics, and lawyers with phishing emails and malware since as early as 2012.” Another Forensic institute, Sentinel Labs, had stopped short of identifying any individual or organisation behind the hackers, only saying that the “activity aligns sharply with Indian state interests”.

Now, working with a security analyst at an email provider service, who shared information with WIRED but declined to be identified, Sentinel Labs has learned that three of the victim email accounts compromised by the hackers in 2018 and 2019 had a recovery email address and phone number added as a backup mechanism. For those accounts, which belonged to Rona Wilson, Varavara Rao, and Hany Babu, the latest report reveals that the “addition of a new recovery email and phone number appears to have been intended to allow the hacker to easily regain control of the accounts if their passwords were changed”. The report added, “To the researchers’ surprise, that recovery email on all three accounts included the full name of a police official in Pune who was closely involved in the Bhima Koregaon 16 case.”

The news report also identifies other fingerprints the hackers left, including information gleaned via a leaked database on TrueCaller, clues that tie the recovery mail to Pune city police. The details this story brought to the fore and almost zero attention it has got in any discussion forum within India put to question India’s right to call itself a rules-based democracy.

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The Silence of Institutions Serves Only the State

India has prided itself on its record of an independent judiciary and an evolved network of institutions that safeguard democracy. It has maintained that a human rights commission and a ‘vibrant’ and free press distinguish it from other banana republics that several post-colonial states rapidly turned into. India can remain a democracy only if institutions are responsive to executive overreach and say they believe in weighing in on the side of citizens to make sure that Constitutional promises of a free and fair application of laws are honoured. If all their decisions consistently have just one beneficiary, the State, giving it the ability to use the law as an executive tool for securing political victories, India is actively failing in fulfilling the promise.

So, what have all the institutions concerned done in the light of reports of police being connected with planting evidence? Effectively, nothing. In a case of supreme indifference, the courts, the media, the NHRC, and even opposition parties, have not batted an eyelid.

Coincidentally, barely ten days after the publication of this serious report, the Supreme Court in a petition by Zakia Jafri, the wife of late Congress MP and trade unionist Ehsan Jafri, who was murdered along with 67 others in the communal violence in Gujarat in 2002, upheld the investigation conducted by the Special Investigation Team (SIT). But, in addition to praising the SIT, the court found it fit to disparage and criminalise the actions of those knocking on its doors.

The Gujarat ATS acted within hours of a Supreme Court Ober-dicta; the order pointedly called for those asking for justice to be “in the dock” instead. By almost actively creating conditions for the Gujarat ATS to swoop down on activist-journalist Teesta Setalvad’s house, a thick red line in institutional response has been crossed. Arresting documenter/fact-checking journalist and Alt News’ Mohammad Zubair, who relentlessly exposes fakeries and hate machines, is the latest travesty. In contrast, those spewing hate are allowed to go scot-free.

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Is the Concept of Rights Becoming a Farce?

If the indifference towards the WIRED story can be read as institutional negligence, we now appear to be discussing ‘institutional activism’, which attacks the rights of citizens and criminalises the defence of human rights. Repeated denouncements of the very concept of rights, at least twice by the Prime Minister and then the Home Minister, and even by the National Human Rights Commission, have had a chilling effect on institutions that were, in fact, meant to be safeguarding rights.

Institutional abdication is quickly turning to what can only be termed as clearing the path for the political objectives of a powerful executive to run over India. How much longer before the cloud hanging over India’s democratic record today morphs into a shroud?

(Seema Chishti is a writer and journalist based in Delhi. Over her decades-long career, she’s been associated with organisations like BBC and The Indian Express. She tweets @seemay. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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