Dissent is Dangerous: What Unites Jamal Khashoggi and Alok Verma?

Politics

Dissent is Dangerous: What Unites Jamal Khashoggi and Alok Verma?

Illustration: Arati Gujar

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peaking up against powerful institutions and people is a daunting task for the average civilian. And through the course of this month, from #MeToo to the ongoing crisis in the CBI, we’ve seen that hold true not just in India, but the world over. While there’s never a particularly good time to risk being a dissenter, recent events have highlighted just how dangerous it is to challenge the powers that be.

October began with the gruesome murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who wrote in the Washington Post about the notoriously secretive Saudi regime. Saudi Arabia holds a rock-bottom Press Freedom Index rating of 169 (India, by comparison, has slipped to 138), and Khashoggi’s inside information on life in the Kingdom, and his criticism of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is trying to market himself as a progressive young leader, did little for the country’s PR problems. That is likely why, after weeks of denial and shifting stories by the Saudi government, it has now admitted that the murder was premeditated.

Closer to home, whistleblowers and informants who have challenged the status quo have not had any better luck than Khashoggi. In the case of Kerala Bishop Francis Kurakkal, who stands accused of raping a nun, a key witness to his alleged crimes, Father Kuriakose Kattithara, was found dead in mysterious circumstances on Monday. Kattithara’s body was discovered in his room at his school in Jalandhar, mere days after Kurakkal reached the same region for his trial. Although Kattithara’s family have expressed suspicions of foul play, his funeral was held today after preliminary post-mortem reports revealed no injuries.

Both Khashoggi and Kattithara challenged the untouchability of lofty religious and political institutions, and in doing so, were seen as a threat. Both met a tragic end, with investigations into each death still continuing. And both, even in life, were harassed and dismissed, mistreated with shocking impunity by the very powers they tried to expose.

What lessons have we learned from Khashoggi and Kattithara, as we find ourselves embroiled in a national whistleblowing scandal that has shaken faith in our government, police, and intelligence agencies?

The CBI fiasco may be mired in the confusion of party politics, rather than being a foreign relations disaster like the Khashoggi killing, or an unwelcome challenge to an embattled religious institution like Kattithara was. But the response to erstwhile CBI chief Alok Verma, and other CBI officers who dared suggest an investigation into the government’s activities, has been eerily similar.

A quick recap on what has come to be known as CBI vs CBI: former CBI Chief Alok Verma was investigating charges of bribery against second-in-command, Special Director Rakesh Asthana, when Asthana insisted to the Central Vigilance Commission, which deals with government corruption, that it was Verma who had taken the bribes in question. Due to this stalemate, the government put both officers on leave. However, other officers who were investigating Asthana were also transferred out – perhaps because Asthana is known for his proximity to the PM.

Already, this connection does the Centre no favours. Even more damning is the fact that Verma was investigating the government’s involvement in the alleged Rafale scam. Some have claimed that disagreements within the PMO have filtered into the CBI, while others think this is a battle between the opposition and the ruling government playing out. In a report, Scroll pointed out that the charges levelled at the two CBI officers are not comparable, because Verma filed an FIR based on testimony. And the possibility that Verma is being targeted by government forces grew even greater yesterday, when four men, identified as Intelligence Bureau agents, where apprehended outside his house on charges of spying.

What lessons have we learned from Khashoggi and Kattithara, as we find ourselves embroiled in a national whistleblowing scandal that has shaken faith in our government, police, and intelligence agencies?

This won’t be the first time that those who raise the alarm against corruption are met, not with measured investigation, but with intimidation and silencing tactics. During the investigations of the Vyapam examination scam, nearly 40 people connected to the scam – accused, witnesses, and journalists – were found dead under mysterious circumstances. Satyendra Dubey, the whistleblower who exposed corruption in the Golden Quadrilateral highway project, was gunned down in Bihar in 2003.  

The Guardian describes the murder of Khashoggi as Saudi Arabia’s “worst diplomatic crisis since 9/11.” Meanwhile, in an interview with The Wire, a fellow priest in Kurakkal’s diocese has condemned the corruption of the Church, calling the allegations against Kurrakal the “tip of the iceberg”. What the CBI drama will reveal about our country’s institutions remains to be seen. But already, the situation in which Alok Verma, and the other officers who tried to challenge the government, have found themselves falls into a pattern that should give every citizen pause – no matter what their stance is on the CBI crisis.

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