In India, Dissent Gets More Dicey Since Modi's Reelection

There has been an obvious and unnerving crackdown on dissenting voices in the weeks since Narendra Modi began his new term as prime minister.

 BJP activist hold Prime Minister Modi picture during BJP Lalabazar
BJP activist hold Prime Minister Modi picture during BJP Lalabazar
Sidharth Bhatia


MUMBAI — In the last month or so — since this government was sworn in — a couple of notable things have happened:

The Enforcement Directorate (ED) filed a case against journalist Raghav Bahl for alleged laundering of funds. The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) issued an order against Radhika Roy and Prannoy Roy, promoters of NDTV, restraining them from accessing the financial markets for two years and stripped them of directorships of their broadcast television channel. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) filed an FIR against Anand Grover, a well-known lawyer and an NGO he runs, the Lawyers Collective, for violating rules of accepting foreign funds. And police officer Sanjiv Bhatt was sentenced to life imprisonment in a 30-year-old case.

In Uttar Pradesh, the Adityanath government booked rapper Hard Kaur for sedition for social media posts against the chief minister and Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Earlier, journalist Prashant Kanojia had been arrested for social media posts against the chief minister and is now out on bail. Kaur is based in the UK and thus out of reach, but had she been in India, she would be behind bars today.

In the first three cases, the government is not directly involved in the actions taken by independent authorities and institutions. The ED, SEBI and most of all the judiciary are supposed to be independent of direct government control. So to imply that they were directed to take action in a particular way would be incorrect. Nor would it be tenable to suggest that they should not face charges for any irregularities or crimes they may have committed.

Anyone can be picked up by the police for a Facebook post or tweet.

Equally true, however, is the fact that Bahl, the Roys and Bhatt have, in different ways, been critical of Narendra Modi and his government. In the case of Bahl, after being a supporter at one time, he began to sharply criticize the Modi government's policies. NDTV is a fair and balanced channel, and even on occasion has leaned towards giving the right-wing some extra leeway, but is not seen as friendly enough and being part of the "Lutyens' in-crowd." As for Bhatt, he has been going for the jugular, raising questions about the culpability of Modi in the 2002 killings in Gujarat.

SEBI and ED have shown remarkable swiftness in coming down on the Roys and Bahl, and in Bhatt's case, the Gujarat law enforcement system has shown no such efficiency in 180 other cases that have taken place between 2001-2016 — not a single policeman has been convicted.

Coming to the Hard Kaur case, her posts may be overly critical and even seen as offensive and defamatory, but in no way are they seditious. The Indian constitution has a wide definition of sedition but also provides exceptions — merely being critical of the government cannot be grounds for arrest. Otherwise, journalists and many others would be in jail — although given that much of the media is so complimentary of this government, criticism may well one day be seen as an ‘anti-national" and seditious act.

There are many provisions that the UP government or indeed Adityanath in his personal capacity could have used to sue Kaur, but his police chose to go with a charge of sedition — which has become the first option of a force wanting to show it is taking action.

Rapper Hard Kaur — Photo: Bollywood Hungama / Wikimedia Commons

The swiftness and the hard line taken by regulatory bodies, governments and even the courts on crimes or misdemeanors signal that from now on, no quarter can be expected from the system. SEBI must have scores of cases of corporate malfeasance — the newspapers are full of promoters, companies and mutual funds playing fast and loose with public funds — but there has hardly been any punitive action against any of them.

The ED has alleged that Bahl illegally bought an apartment in London — for the princely sum of a little over Rs 2 crores (about $290,000), which will barely get a matchbox flat in Mumbai — which his wife says was declared in her tax returns. This could have been a routine tax inquiry and is hardly a big case for the Enforcement Directorate.

But this is not merely about the double standards of agencies. That big guns often get away lightly is a sad fact of life in India, as is government interference in the affairs of bodies that are supposed to be independent. The Supreme Court has called the CBI a "caged parrot," and governments of all hues have used it in the past.

What should concern citizens is that critics of the government now will have to be alert to being singled out for attention and investigation. Politicians are becoming prickly about criticism on Twitter and the BJP is hardly alone in this. But the enthusiasm with which BJP governments use the law of sedition for what is at worst libellous is alarming. In January, the BJP-led government in Assam filed sedition charges against three people, including the eminent writer Hiren Gohain for their remarks against the controversial Citizenship Bill.

There will be no room any more for the argumentative Indian.

Does this mean that now even criticism of policies can be seen as a cry for revolt against the state? Will academics, activists and journalists who write and speak against the government face arrest, jail or worse, conviction? It is a frightening thought.

These actions are bound to have a chilling effect. There is no need to pass any preemptive law to curb freedom of speech and expression. The media has already rolled over and waits to be tickled, and powerful public figures tend to be extremely wary of expressing any dissenting opinion. At the ground level, people are being lynched for their beliefs, diets or just for being from a particular religion. And when someone refuses to shut up, the heavy hand of the law falls upon them. Anyone can be picked up by the police for a Facebook post or tweet.

The establishment has let it be known that it is in no mood to be tolerant of criticism. With a second-time majority at the Center and many state governments under its control, and an opposition numbed by its defeat or busy protecting its own shrinking turf, the BJP is not going to waste any time coming down on dissenters and other malcontents.

Rajnath Singh had warned that a new law on sedition would be enacted that would be more stringent. That was not poll-time rhetoric. There will be no room any more for the argumentative Indian. Everyone is expected to fall in line.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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