Herald View: The dangers of denying dissent
Both Sri Lanka and Ukraine offer some bitter lessons. Will the ruling party in India pay heed?
For a party that has just swept Assembly elections in four out of five states with astounding majorities defying most common expectations, the level of the BJP’s insecurity about its own citizens is both troubling and surprising. One expects that it would shore up on its crying need for both national and international acceptance as a party that believes in the basic freedoms of its people and Constitutional guarantees to all Indians by allowing democratic dissent and differences of opinion to prevail. Instead, despite its brute majorities which indicates the inability of dissenters to shake the faith of its supporters in its right to rule over most of the nation– 17 out of 29 states on last count – the ruling party at the Centre is only exhibiting its scant respect for democracy, lending credence to growing voices that the elections were somehow rigged and do not really reflect the mood of the nation. It is also very revealing that they should risk international opprobrium by preventing journalists, activists and other dissenters from addressing various forums across the world on a last minute whim when these people are about to board their flights. A much more intelligent course of action would have been to allow these visits and show up the dissenters as unreasonable critics given that the government had upheld their right to free speech and disagreement.
But such action is not the way of the dictatorship that is fast overwhelming India. Left to their instincts, we would have no elections at all under this dispensation. However, the BJP, after much cribbing about the futility of frequent elections, seems to have realised these are a safety valve against the growing discontent among the masses and, without periodic reinforcement of their so-called popularity, they would have an uprising on their hands given the state of the tanking economy, lack of employment, rising prices, denial of Constitutional freedoms and many other ills that have taken over since 2014. This government seems completely ill-advised on processes and procedures for limiting damage control and is getting away with these acts only because the media and much of the oppositionis hopelessly compromised. However, what it can get away with within the country may not find much support internationally, particularly as most right-wing governments abroad are falling by the wayside or are on the brink.
The case of neighbouring Sri Lanka is a wake-up call. Every ethnic, linguistic, caste and religious polarisation, albeit with their own unique specifics, in this tiny island nation is today magnified in and by the Indian state. From a nation with an enviable GDP that topped India’s throughout the independence of both nations from the British, its witch hunting of journalists, activists, dissenting groups and its majoritarianism have brought it to a horrifying crossroads where food, electricity, fuel are all in shortage and its economy is at a standstill. The war in Ukraine has also been brought about by narrow parochialism, denial or rights to certain sections of the people and a certain amount of anti-Semitism and far-right extremist violence that targetted Russian ethnicity in various districts.
One might argue that India is a different ball game but the parallels with Sri Lanka cannot be overlooked. It remains a fact that allowing voices of dissent offer a glimpse into latent discontent that holds the potential of snowballing into civil war and possible economic collapse as in Sri Lanka. There are already lessons from history around the world. This regime must learn to read the fine print on those lessons.
(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)