Review: The Silent Coup by Josy Joseph
In the 1990s, Irshad Ali lived in a single-room slum house in Rithala, on the northern fringes of Delhi. He had six sisters, and a brother who was in jail for murder. Ali drove a taxi to support the family but the money wasn’t enough. Then some policemen he met while visiting his jailed brother suggested he could make more money by becoming their informant. Ali, with his brother’s help, began stealing letters of other inmates and spying on them, passing on the details to the police. For this, he received a princely ₹7,000 a month. Gradually, he moved up to doing tasks for the Intelligence Bureau and the Special Cell of Delhi police, including recruiting other informants. Then one day in December 2005, when he went for a routine meeting with his IB handler, he was suddenly blindfolded and kidnapped by the agents. After two months of illegal detention, Ali and his cousin Qamran, who he had recruited to be a police informant, were presented to the media by the police as dreaded Al-Badr terrorists. They spent a decade in jail.
“In Ali’s media interviews, well after he had been released, he had a further explanation for why he was picked up”, writes Josy Joseph in his new book The Silent Coup. “He says that, in the months running up to his detention, he was being pressured by his handlers to indoctrinate local Muslims into taking up arms and then pass on the details. It was a simple plan – create a fake terrorist and arrest him, ruin his life and show him off to the public as a success of the war on terror. This model, of creating a fake incident or a fake terrorist, is among the dirty secrets of the Indian security establishment”.
The Silent Coup is an eminently readable account peppered with such stories of characters like Ali and the good and bad men – they are mostly men – of India’s sprawling security machinery. It is a scathing indictment of the police and internal intelligence professions, and of the profession that both Joseph and I belong to, the media. Interactions with anonymous sources lead many journalists to believe that they are privileged members of some secret club, writes Joseph, and so they end up amplifying fake narratives and unverifiable information. What the security establishment gets out of this arrangement, apart from control over the narrative, is deniability.
Joseph documents case after case of shocking falsehood and outright murder by crooked elements in the security agencies. The pattern that emerges is one of a system where these elements can pass off anything they want as intelligence from informants. This allows them to manufacture fake news to suit themselves or their political masters. These lies are then fed to a pliant media to create a narrative, and some poor sod is enmeshed in a false case. In places where an active insurgency is on, matters take a more sinister turn, with fake encounters of ordinary people who are then passed off as dreaded terrorists – the same model of “solving” cases that Ali nearly fell victim to.
Many of the cases that Joseph recounts in this book, such as the killing of former BJP leader and Gujarat Home Minister Haren Pandya, and the Sohrabuddin, Ishrat Jahan, and Justice Loya cases that followed, have been reported in the media in great detail in years past. It is however difficult even for an engaged reader to follow a case from start to finish, as it plays out in the news over many years. This book, by lucidly compressing several cases that made headlines, has made it easy for everyone to see clearly what really happened. Furthermore, Joseph’s insights based on his decades of experience as a journalist covering the security agencies has given him a ringside view into the degeneration of the country’s national security setup to the point where parts of it are now distressingly politicised and dangerously corrupt, serving blatantly political agendas or shady business interests rather than national interests. As a result, Indian democracy stands seriously imperilled, and the Constitution is left as a mere holy book which, like other holy books, is piously worshipped for show while its basic tenets are actively ignored in life.
The subversion of democracy due to the corruption of the country’s security setup, visible in ongoing matters such as the Pegasus issue, is the “silent coup” that the book talks about.
It may not quite live up to its billing of being “A history of India’s deep state” but The Silent Coup’s close look at what really goes on behind many a sensational headline is valuable enough. In order to be a history, the story would perhaps need to engage more than it does with the part of the country where the security establishment has been in action the longest, Northeast India. It was there that several of the crooked techniques that Joseph mentions in his book, such as the creation of fake militant groups, were pioneered. A history would also need to present more detail on key institutions and functionaries. Nonetheless, this is a valuable book that every Indian who cares about his country ought to read if he or she wants to understand how things actually work in dark, hidden corners of the world’s largest democracy.
Samrat Choudhury is a journalist and author. His latest book is The Braided River; A Journey Along the Brahmaputra.