Reflections on this Independence Day: Is democracy alive, dead or dying?  

Indian state and society are witnessing the withering of institutions. Constitutional morality has been rendered unfashionable by the very institutions put in place to uphold it

Reflections on this Independence Day: Is democracy alive, dead or dying?  

Teesta Setalvad

A week before Independence Day this year, Gaffar(52), an autorickshaw driver in Sikar (Rajasthan) was forced to chant ‘ Jai Shri Ram’ and even after he complied, he was beaten until he fell unconscious. The attackers also asked him to hail the Prime Minister. ‘Say Modi Zindabad’, they demanded even as they rained more blows on him.

Gaffar is lucky to have survived. Mohsin Khan was beaten to death barely weeks after Narendra Modi led his party to victory in June 2014. His only crime was he had looked and dressed like a Muslim. Akhlaq to Pehlu Khan to Junaid to countless others have been lynched since 2014 but the Prime Minister has been silent, not bothering to condole or condemn.

The silence from the top was seen as tacit approval of their conduct and vigilante groups went on the rampage. They took over the streets, pouncing on Muslims and reminding them that this land now belongs to the vigilante groups, not citizens from minority groups.

On August 15 we will still hail our democracy, unfurl the Tricolour that embodies our diversity and still celebrate the freedom enshrined in the Constitution, but smarting under the same blows that were showered on both Gaffar and Mohsin.

Reeling under a government re-elected in 2019 by an even larger minority, Indian state and society is witnessing the withering of institutions. Constitutional morality has been rendered unfashionable by the very institutions put in place to uphold it. While the Muslim is the visible and most vicious target, Christians and Dalits are not far behind.

Resistance and Dissent are being dubbed anti-national, patriotism is today mono-coloured even as criticism of the government of the day – albeit a majoritarian government is seen as disengagement with the nation. A section of the law, 124-A that should have been repealed decades ago is being used to put in prison mothers of children who performed in school plays challenging an amendment to the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019.

This amendment has itself been termed by jurists and activists as unconstitutional. This is apart from the application of brazenly draconian laws like the UAPA (with amendments made in 2008, 2011 under the previous government!) and state laws that are similarly brutal in their application, especially against social activists, lawyers and political dissenters.

A decade ago, we critiqued the Gujarat Model as we saw the whitewashing of mass crimes committed in 2002 through the carefully crafted nexus (read alliance) between dominant corporate bodies and a cross-national bureaucrat (IAS) and police (IPS) network.

Some of us (unsuccessfully) warned of the pitfalls and inevitable failure of this model that was an epitome of concentration of capital and jobless growth. It was only when a young Patel leader (Patels are among the more privileged of the castes among the forward backwards), demanded jobs for jobless Patel youth, that too in 2015, that some aspects of this critique found wider resonance. Before that, even ‘liberal’ TV anchors blindly and thoughtlessly promoted the Gujarat model without proper scrutiny, discussion or debate.

Kashmir and Jammu lie dismembered through an act of the ModiShah regime that made a mockery of political morality, law, the Constitution and decency. “The Parliament is being used to pull down Indian democracy brick by brick,” Shah Faesal had told me in an interview last year. A year later, killings and repression continue. Even the miniscule but culturally vital, non-migrant Kashmiri Pandit community feels betrayed.

Months after Kashmir was betrayed in August, the government was shaken by mass protests that shook India in December 2019 when the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed. Mainly Indian Muslims but many others took to the streets peacefully to assert their right as citizens. Eager to disrupt this long-lasting protest, Delhi state elections came in handy and hate speeches were used by the ruling BJP and its top leadership to provoke and discredit the protesters. When even that did not quite work -- as the results of the polls defeated the hate offenders -- engineered violence in February 2020 in Delhi was used as a ploy to shake up the protests. The COVID induced lockdown has also come in handy to illegally incarcerate and hold as many as 1350 persons, again after filing ‘mass FIRs’ (remember Gujarat 2002?), using suspicious technology like ‘face recognition tests’ to falsely target those who led the protests.

UP has followed the same pattern. Like several other states, it saw widespread, anti-CAA and anti-NPR-NRC protests. Here the state was even more vicious and vindictive. Today, 82 persons face serious charges, many face the threats of all their properties being unlawfully attached and snatched away (included in the list is a rickshaw driver). A state whose own record of governance has been repeatedly blemished by extra judicial killings and worse, is today using threat and violence against its citizens. But media outlets have hailed the chief minister Ajay Bisht aka Yogi Adityanath as the ‘best’ (gulp gulp) chief minister in India!

What else should India recall this Independence Day?

Democracy is (or should be) something that gives the weak the same chance as the strong. The vote and the voice represent the balancing of the weak with the strong.

The announcement of the lockdown was heralded by the onslaught against Indian Muslims under the garb of the ‘Super Spreader Tablighi Jamaat’ congregation held in midMarch 2020. No questions were asked of the Delhi police (that falls under the Ministry of Home Affairs, MHA) responsible for giving permission nor of any temple anointing ceremonies or gatherings. The single point agenda appears to be to use any occasion under the sun, to call out, vilify and target, the Indian Muslim.

COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown it brought has rendered Parliament even more obsolete as fundamental policy changes are being effected without democratic dialogue or regard for the opposing point of view.

The country held 91 million tonnes of food grains in FCI godowns, which it could have distributed to millions of its starving citizens, reeling under an economic crisis made worse by the lockdown. It did not. The government of India gave a go-ahead to commercial mining in 40 locations of the country, where dense forests stand, all during the COVID 19 lockdown.

The central labour ministry goaded states to dilute progressive labour laws that have held good for decades and had come to India’s working class after decades of struggle. A 12-hour working day with rest only after eight hours makes a mockery of Dr Ambedkar’s plea for not just equal wages for equal work but dignified conditions of work.

In the weeks after the hastily imposed lockdown, 10 million (100,000) labourers travelled by special trains at their own cost. Instead of ensuring that rail and other transport remain affordable and accessible, the Indian Railways are also being stripped and privatised. Before we know it the less reachable destinations will be off the map, declared ‘non-profitable’ and vast sections of Indians would find themselves back in pre-Independence days.

The insidious transfer of fundamental public resources to private capital –signalling a threat to democratic access to health, food, agriculture, education, and transport, all without due democratic debate –that pose an increasingly existentialist threat. Over 1,75,174 acres (70960.21 hectares) of Forest Land were diverted to Industry between 2014-2019 according to the Parliamentary Standing Committee Report while 15,971 hectares (39,450 acres) are being diverted for “infrastructure projects” every year since 2014.

The New Education Policy (NEP) 2020 and the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification (EIA) have drawn widespread criticism, partly because these fundamental changes are being ushered in while bypassing due process and without much public deliberation.

The struggle to regain India’s soul may well require a mass ‘Jail Bharo’ movement. If needed, so be it.

(Teesta Setalvad is a civil rights activist and secretary, Citizens for Justice and Peace. Views expressed are personal)

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