The Incarcerations: BK-16 and the Search for Democracy in India by Alpa Shah - review by Owen Bennett-Jones

Owen Bennett-Jones

New Delhi Confidential

The Incarcerations: BK-16 and the Search for Democracy in India


William Collins 336pp £30

In September last year, the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, said he had credible information about Indian state involvement in the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian-based campaigner for an independent Sikh state. Nijjar had been shot dead in his pickup truck outside a Sikh temple in British Columbia. ‘Absurd,’ said India in an official statement. ‘We are a democratic polity with a strong commitment to rule of law.’ 

But then in November, the United States authorities said they had thwarted a plot to kill another Sikh separatist, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, on US soil. More mindful of US than Canadian power, India gave a measured, private response. The White House relayed what the Indian government had said: ‘They stated that activity of this nature was not in their policy … We understand the Indian government is further investigating this issue.’

Generally speaking, when states murder dissidents abroad, they pay a price. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul and the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London are still frequently mentioned in the media. Documentaries have been made and plays written about them. Human rights organisations have demanded that those responsible be shamed and sanctioned.

No doubt Khashoggi and Litvinenko were better known to Western journalists than Nijjar and Pannun. And the campaigns for democracy in Saudi Arabia and Russia are probably of greater interest to Westerners than the struggle for an independent Sikh state. But there is another aspect to the relatively uncritical treatment of India. It is thought of as the world’s largest democracy. People go there on holiday and enjoy one of the world’s great food cultures. It used to be the jewel in the imperial crown, and while most attempts to export parliamentary government to former colonies resulted in vicious dictatorships, India has been vaunted as an exception. 

It all means, to put it in public relations terms, that India has a great national narrative. And, once embedded, narratives are very hard to shift. So, while the sending of assassins abroad fits with our preconceptions of Saudi Arabia and Russia, it contradicts our understanding of India and so has been discounted or even ignored. 

The Incarcerations shows how outdated the established narrative about India has become. The book describes the way Hindu nationalists have taken over Indian state institutions, including the judiciary. It tells the story of the arrest of sixteen of the country’s leading liberal activists and human rights campaigners (known as the BK-16), who were detained in 2018 for supposedly being involved in a plot to, among other things, assassinate the prime minister, Narendra Modi.  

The first section of the book is devoted to the best known of the incarcerated activists, the trade unionist and lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj. Her story typifies those of the men and women the Indian state has silenced by imprisoning them ahead of trial. As one of their lawyers put it, they may well all be found innocent, but the judicial process, which could take ten to fifteen years, with the defendants spending long periods in pretrial detention, is itself the punishment. 

Born in the USA to parents studying economics at Harvard, Bharadwaj began her life of activism by giving up her American passport. The US consul, she later recalled, was ‘flabbergasted’ and asked if she really understood what she was doing. She said she did and soon relocated from the comforts of Delhi to Chhattisgarh in central India, where for decades she devoted herself to defending the rights of mineworkers. Alpa Shah admiringly describes the sacrifices Bharadwaj made, the obstacles she faced and the battles she won. It is a portrait of a woman of remarkable selflessness, principle and courage. Shah describes the equally impressive lives of the other human rights defenders arrested at the same time as Bharadwaj.

As well as offering these biographical sketches, The Incarcerations touches on three new aspects of political power in India: oligarchs, 24-hour TV news and digital surveillance technology. Like Putin and to a lesser extent Xi, Modi has relied on the support of oligarchs, particularly the multibillionaire Gautam Adani. Back in 2002 Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, was banned from visiting the USA and UK after presiding over anti-Muslim riots that left a thousand dead. Following the massacre, Modi was shunned by some of India’s business leaders but not Adani, who was later handsomely rewarded for his loyalty. At one point, Adani was worth $150 billion. Their relationship has endured, despite Adani’s companies facing fraud charges last year.

As for India’s private news channels, they generally accept the official line before buffing it up with advanced production techniques and the window-dressing of independence to pump out state-sanctioned messages in a far more effective way than staid state TV could ever manage. In Bharadwaj’s case, for example, an Oxford-educated TV hack, Arnab Goswami, denounced her as a Maoist promoter of terrorism involved in a plot to kill Modi within hours of her arrest. Having shredded Bharadwaj’s reputation, the channel then offered her an interview, which she wisely declined, not only because to have accepted would have given the channel undeserved legitimacy but also because she would have been shouted at so aggressively that she would have been unable to make herself heard.

The most interesting passages in The Incarcerations document in detail how the Indian government uses digital technology to not only monitor but also frame its opponents. By purchasing the services of private companies that specialise in hacking, most states now have the capacity to get into mobile phones, home computers and email accounts. But there is a countervailing force in the form of activists, journalists and specialist companies that respond to these state actors by discovering what security officials have been doing and then exposing it. Even the best state hackers, it seems, leave clues. Citing the Washington Post, Wired and a loose international network of cyber-security experts, Shah convincingly argues that key material in the prosecution cases against the sixteen activists, including a letter supposedly written by Maoists plotting to assassinate Modi, were fabrications planted by the Indian police on the computers of some of the accused. The whole story illustrates how sophisticated states can be in their efforts to suppress criticism, but also how clever and dogged cyber activists can be in pushing back. 

But for all that, the state has had the last laugh, tying its opponents up in legal knots and forcing them to defend themselves in court when they would far rather be defending the rights of those who are oppressed by India’s authorities and exploited by its corporations.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March

A Mirror - Westend

Follow Literary Review on Twitter