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‘The Silent Coup: A History of India’s Deep State’ review: When the security establishment serves the executive

India and Pakistan are both democracies in form, if not necessarily 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, intelligence agencies, the Central Bureau of Investigation, the National Investigation Agency, the Anti-Terrorist Squad, and a multitude of other organisations 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.

Fake world 

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. “This book,” Joseph writes, “is an incomplete documentation of the vicious attack on the world’s largest democracy by those who are duty-bound to protect it.”

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, beat him and torture him in custody. 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.”

One of the lighter moments – though it would still qualify as black humour – in this otherwise grim book occur during Wahid’s farcical narco-test, administered by “the celebrated narco-analyst” Dr S. Malini of Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) in Bengaluru. Wahid is excited about the narco-test, believing that it would finally establish his innocence. But when his responses don’t match the script prepared for him, the narco-interrogation takes a bizarre turn.

“She asked about the bomb blasts. ‘How many people came and stayed with you?’

Wahid said, no one. She asked him to say that four people stayed with him. Wahid was silent. ‘What comes after three?’ she asked. Wahid replied four.” Right through the narco-test, “a senior officer from the ATS stood next to Malini, instructing her what to ask him, and then prompting the answers expected.” It later turns out that Malini, who was instrumental in sending many to jail as assistant director of the FSL, had submitted fake certificates. She was sacked – but not before she had conducted over 1,000 narco-tests and 3,000 lie-detection tests.

Turning into law-breakers 

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?” 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 so long as they served the executive rather than the Constitution they had sworn to defend, their depredations ranged from encounter killings and custodial torture to manufacturing fake narratives, framing innocents, planting evidence, and “even creating terrorist organisations”.

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 significantly weakened, and before four Supreme Court judges held an extraordinary press conference on the dangers facing Indian democracy. The Silent Coup, on the other hand, has no such illusions. It ends on a sombre note – reprising the infamous public meeting of February 2020where 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.

sampath.g@thehindu.co.in


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