Do Indians, neither vigilant nor vocal, deserve democracy?

Protests by political parties and civil society after 2014 have been muted. What offended us before 2014 don’t offend us now. We are much less vigilant and vocal and have accepted poor governance

Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: PTI)
Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: PTI)

Ranjona Banerji

It’s tempting to blame the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, whether enforced or self-inflicted. It’s tempting to blame fear of the virus, which fear can neither be scoffed at nor misunderstood. But is it just the pandemic and its attendant problems of death, suffering and loss of livelihood that are responsible for our inexplicable apathy?

Probably not. Long before the virus, we demonstrated our much lauded but essentially destructive famous Indian rope trick of “tolerance”. What else can explain our ability to put up with and make excuses for all the rubbish and incompetence this government throws at us? How have we allowed our minds to become so numb and our thinking power so stunted?

Where should we start? Let’s get to our wallets. It’s not just the pandemic that has lightened them. The pandemic has just made it all worse. Jobs were already lost, businesses shut down, opportunities stymied and growth stunted, soon after the demonetisation masterstroke in 2016.

But as one BJP stalwart had put it then, no one rioted so obviously India was happy with the economic destruction wrought by demonetisation.

If rioting is indeed the only litmus test of social distress that the BJP can understand, let us then look at rioting. The protests against the Modi Government’s Citizenship Amendment Act, the National Register of Citizens and National Population Register led to riots in Delhi in February 2020. Citizens’ and students’ peaceful protests descended into violence, specifically as is usual in India, Hindu-Muslim violence and as is also usual in India, despite various pathetic cries of outrage I hear around me, Muslims were attacked by Hindus.

How did the Centre, which runs the police in Delhi, see these riots? As an opportunity to block dissent and save their own compatriots who took part in the rioting. It reads like dystopian fiction but is straight out of 20th century political practice. The police decided that the culprits were the victims and the victims have been jailed and charged. That is, people who spoke up for democracy and quoted the Constitution of India are now enemies of the state.

Obviously, this clear message to anyone who dares to question the Government of India and its discriminatory actions: you will be imprisoned, and the key will be thrown away. In today’s India, civil society activists are incarcerated, and violent rioter are feted.

What happened in the Delhi riots is also what happened with the Bhima Koregaon violence. The Dalits who spoke for themselves and those who spoke for them were jailed without trial. The perpetrators of the violence, all with some sort of Hindutva and/or Sangh Parivar connection, have become heroes in their own special bigoted universe. The message from the Government of India and its minders is hammered home again and again: speak and face dire consequences.

Farmers across India rose against the hurriedly and shamefully pushed through Farmers’ Bills last week. This is not the first time that farmers in India have protested government policy in the last six years. But what difference will it make to larger Indian society, which has fallen deep into lethargy? There was a time when a rise in the price of onions could bring down a government. The days when rural distress led to rural anger and change in voting patterns are long gone.

We have now become so tolerant that we can take and process whatever is thrown at us, no matter how horrific, with barely a ripple moving through society. The media plays a significant role in assisting the dispensation and drugging us into submission. So, we are actually happy to have our minds numbed by manufactured television drama. By the clever ploys of distraction and deflection. By vilification and disintegration of other people to comfort us in our own days of despair.

How long ago was it that we actually got upset about mob violence and the systematic lynching of Muslims and Dalits since 2014? The rise in crimes against women and the most horrific stories of gangrape? They come and go, and the chief minister of the state where most of the rapes happen lectures his compatriots on law and order without the slightest tinge of irony.

How far this tolerance takes us will indicate how quickly we want to spiral into destruction. One day the virus will be vanquished. And we’ll wake up to the ruins of Indian democracy.

(The author is a journalist and commentator based in Dehradun. Views expressed are personal.)

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