Democracy and dissent in India@75

If authoritarian control is the hallmark of today’s political culture, then imposing curbs on freedom and dissent is its manifest condition

Democracy and dissent in India@75

Zoya Hasan

The 75th anniversary of India’s Independence is a landmark event in the history of our democracy. India introduced a full fledged democracy in a multi-religious, hierarchical society divided by centuries of caste discrimination and traumatised by Partition and the horrendous violence surrounding it. India did better than most countries in establishing democracy despite very high illiteracy and poverty. Democracy was sustained for over seven decades with only a brief interregnum of the Emergency. The key to the success of India’s democracy lies in its inclusiveness. But in the past few years, there has been an unmistakable erosion of inclusiveness and democracy even as there’s greater emphasis on elections than even before. But there’s more to democracy than holding regular elections. What happens between elections is as important as what happens in elections.

The general elections of 2014 signalled a tectonic shift in the political landscape to the Right. Since then, the electoral majority has rested with the party that overtly represents majoritarian nationalism, which is distinct from the dominant strand of Indian nationalism since the freedom struggle. This is beginning to change the meaning of democracy in the direction of majoritarian rule—a system of political rule by a political/ethno/religious group elected under a system of universal suffrage—which has implications for democratic rights and dissent.

The strength of a democratic society depends on a system of checks and balances amongst institutions, and how robust the checks are. Clearly, the checks and balances of democratic government have been weakened, free speech has been curtailed, deliberation and debate in Parliament have been bypassed, public institutions have lost autonomy, and deep inequalities and inequities that mark contemporary society have not received the urgent attention they deserve. The legitimacy of political opponents is routinely denied as evident from the explicit objective of a ‘Congress-free India’. This mission, however, is not limited to the Congress party, it extends to an opposition-free nation ruled by one party. The larger intent is to create a political state where there are no opposition parties, and there is no opposition—both at the electoral and legislative levels and ideologically in terms of the space available to express alternative views. This is a unique attempt to build a one-party state in a multi-party polity.

If authoritarian control is the hallmark of today’s political culture, then imposing limits on freedom and dissent is its manifest condition. Today, there’s no Emergency, no press censorship, no lawful suspension of laws but the muzzling of dissent is taking place through a combination of coercive and non-coercive means. Coercive means include criminalisation of dissent through sedition provisions of the penal code. The numerous sedition cases filed against dissenters reflect the will to minimise opposition. Non-coercive means include efforts to roll back civil society by using, for example, a law on foreign funding to control NGOs. In short, restrictions on the exercise of freedoms of various kinds are many.

One of our most important fundamental rights is to protest. It is the essence of our democracy. The freedom to assemble peacefully and in an unarmed way is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution. However, there is a long list of arbitrary decisions and high-handed police action that have curtailed this right. Authorities often resort to repressive tactics to stifle public protests. This is evident in how the government has clamped down on major public protests in the past few years.

This regime seeks dominance by fighting not only against party-based opposition but also dissenting intellectuals, universities and independent journalists. Curbs on dissent have taken the form of attacks against liberals and liberal institutions and preventing intellectuals from playing their expected role in pursuing critical inquiry and democratic debate. There is a range of methods to punish or intimidate individuals who speak or write against the government or the ruling party, including arresting them for sedition or unlawful activities. The has led to the creation of a climate of fear in which intellectuals will hesitate to express dissenting views. Moreover, the idea of autonomous educational institutions has been utterly devalued and academic independence has been deeply compromised. At the same time, authorities are busy reorganising school and college syllabuses to reflect the ideological and cultural biases of the current regime.

The assault on intellectuals and universities is alarming, but no less alarming are the attempts to control and discipline the media. Authorities in recent times have been putting pressure on the media to minimise the circulation of news and views critical of the government. The media’s independence has been seriously curbed by a variety of restrictions on freedom of expression including digital and social media. Systematic efforts have been made to discipline the media through criminal defamation and by using various regulatory agencies to target media houses and journalists. As a result, the media has been reduced to an amplifier for the ruling party and an interrogator of the opposition.

Curbs on democratic dissent are not new. Previous governments too made things difficult for dissent and protests. However, there is a sense in which these negative trends have accentuated or sharpened. The scale of restrictions is much greater now than before, with the exception of the Emergency. Also, what is significantly different is the wider ambience of intolerance encouraged by the volatile combination of religion and nationalism, with the explicit backing of state power. What further differentiates this regime is the space it provides for the construction of an enemy within, which the regime needs in order for majoritarian politics and perception of majority victimhood to thrive.

Not enough freedom and widespread suppression of dissent can harm the effective functioning of democracy. Unfortunately, that obvious truth is still not adequately recognised. The curbs on free speech and dissent are part of a concerted movement to impose a communal agenda to bolster exclusionary ideologies and politics at the expense of democratic rights.

(The author is Professor Emerita, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Distinguished Professor, Council for Social Development, New Delhi)

(This article was first published in the National Herald newspaper on Sunday.)

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Published: 15 Aug 2022, 9:00 PM