Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bittersweet relationship with activists is well known. It stems from the tough times he had to face post-Gujarat riots in 2002 when his government was dragged from one court to another.
Modi recently addressed judges of the Supreme Court and chief justices of high courts in the presence of chief ministers. Going hammer and tongs, he said, “The judiciary is not as fearless today as it used to be 10 years ago. Are activists not driving the judiciary? Judges fear what their (the activists’) reaction would be when they render justice as per the law and the Constitution.”
His remark came after the court ruled in favour of Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai who was offloaded at the Indira Gandhi International Airport from a flight to London. She was scheduled to make a presentation before British MPs regarding alleged human rights violations at Mahan in Madhya Pradesh. The court slammed the Centre saying, “The State cannot muscle its way through with a voice of dissent.”
In another case, the apex court granted anticipatory bail to activist Teesta Setalvad, who was accused of misusing donations received by her NGOs for the welfare of 2002 riot victims. The Gujarat Police had alleged that she had spent the money on the purchase of luxury personal items and payment of her credit card bills.
Criticising Modi’s statement, Shabnam Hashmi, who had founded the NGO Act Now for Harmony and Democracy (ANHAD) after the 2002 Gujarat riots, says, “I am not surprised. They had always wanted to turn India into a fascist State and this time they have come very close to it. He knows well that he can’t dictate terms to the judiciary directly, hence the indirect route.”
She adds, “He was referring to the human rights activists who exposed his wrongdoings during the 2002 riots and who are standing up against the recent Land Acquisition Bill. He knows that the environmental activists are a roadblock in the government’s move to acquire thousands of acres of poor farmers’ land.”
Expressing her displeasure, Pillai in a series of tweets called Modi’s remark “derogatory” and “undemocratic”. “Making derogatory remarks against activists is not the answer. Is the government forced to react to proactive decisions by the judiciary in an undemocratic manner? Suppressing dissent is the height of intolerance,” she tweeted.
Kavita Krishnan of the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA) says that Modi himself belongs to the five-star category. “If at all anyone is leading a five-star life, it is Modi. And it is he who is trying to influence the judiciary. It was childish on his part to say this,” she says.
Joining the chorus, Seema Mustafa, editor-in-chief of The Citizen, says, “It is plain derogatory. One does not expect the prime minister to be confrontational. He should have addressed the judiciary instead of joining issue with activists who are doing their job. I think he is just upset that some of the court’s recent judgments have been fair and as per the law.”
Mustafa further says she doesn’t know any activist who leads a five-star life. “Frankly I don’t know any activist who leads a five-star lifestyle. Modi must first explain what he meant by five-star activists. If he judges them by the clothes they wear, then the clothes he wears are not less than seven star,” she says. “I do not think it is right for him to say that the judiciary is affected by anybody. It’s completely wrong. The judiciary is more likely to be influenced by the government than by the ‘five-star’ activists. Is he trying to say that the judiciary is susceptible to pressure by activists and does not listen to the government?”
Chief Justice of India HL Dattu, too, reacted to Modi’s statement and told the media, “Judges today are as fearless as they were ever… Judiciary and Parliament are like siblings and must work together towards a truly just and effective administration of justice. It is our obligation to support one another as well as correct one another if we sway from the path laid down by the Constitution.”