Herald View: Is India free from fear, repression, injustice? What can citizens celebrate?
Is India free from fear, hunger, hatred, ignorance and inequality? Free from superstition, untouchability and injustice? Is there freedom, equality and tolerance?
The Independence Day should normally be an occasion to rejoice and renew our resolve to work for a better India. But this year we observe the 73rd anniversary of India’s Independence with the sobering thought that the nation in many ways has slid back to August, 1947. The euphoria of the ‘Indian Century’ has waned and both the raging pandemic and the economic devastation caused by a sudden and ill thought-out lockdown have pulverised the nation. All the challenges the newly independent country faced in 1947 seem to have resurfaced in 2020 casting a cloud on our spirit.
The all too familiar spectres of hunger, poverty, misgovernance, a country divided on religious lines, external threat and aggression on our border and violence ripping the country apart, it would appear, never left us. Indeed, in many ways the situation today is even worse than in 1947. We were not then surrounded by hostile neighbours and there was hope for the future, a confidence that was not belied despite myriad problems and limited resources. The fledgeling nation then took giant strides in building institutions for the future. From setting up the Election Commission to the Space Research Organisation, from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences to the Indian Institutes of Technology, the first four decades after Independence witnessed the nation redeeming its tryst with destiny
But while August, 1947 promised to have ended brutal repression, humiliation of the ordinary citizens and an unjust administration, 72 years later colonial rules continue to stifle freedom and unleash repression. In 2020 India is not free from fear. Institutions seem to be in terminal decline. The Parliament, where a weak opposition in the fifties and sixties, were allowed elbow room and time to discuss and debate issues of public importance, is a pale shadow of itself. Bypassing the Parliament by the executive, the government springing surprises on members with sudden legislations and not allowing enough time for study or scrutiny have reduced its role. State patronage has been used brazenly to buy the silence and collusion of the media, which refuses to ask inconvenient questions to the executive even as the judiciary seems to place increasing reliance on information provided by the government in sealed envelopes and appears increasingly arbitrary in taking up cases.
Much of the world now sees India as ‘not free’, ‘partially free’ or ‘least free’, as a country where the citizen’s voice has become feeble and counts for very little. India this year figured in the bottom five of ‘free democracies’ and was ranked 83rd along with Senegal and Timor-Leste in the Freedom in the World 2020 report. The suspension of Article 370 in Kashmir, bifurcation of the state and downgrading it to two Union Territories without any consultation with the people or the elected assembly was cited as one of the reasons for considering India among the least free democracies in the world. Frequent Internet shutdowns, the passage of the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), incarceration of dissenters on the most frivolous of reasons ( 21-year old student Amulya Leona spent eight months in jail for calling for amity between India and Pakistan), unprecedented police brutality in several states including Uttar Pradesh, where police put up hoardings with photographs and address of people protesting against the CAA, police violence in Jamia and police inaction in JNU led to India sliding from the 75th rank in 2019 to the 71st rank in 2020 in the report released by US based watchdog Freedom House. Laws discriminating against Muslims and the fierce crackdown on protesters, use of colonial laws on sedition and problematic data protection and privacy laws on the anvil are some of the worrying developments the world has taken note of.
Institutional safeguards are breaking down, supposedly independent regulators like the National Human Rights Commission are now blaming victims of police violence as those who invited the brutality. And the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) has done away with chapters on democratic rights, federalism and citizenship on the pretext of reducing the workload of students affected by closure of schools and colleges. Observers have been quick to point out that India today resembles both Pakistan and China in terms of religious bigotry and a one-party rule. Does that call for a celebration?