Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Republic is not for the Public

It is Republic Day 2012. This is one of the only two days in the year when Indians suddenly get uncontrollable attacks of effervescent public patriotism. As is the norm, noise is being made this year as well, flags are being hoisted, spiffy and sloppy march-pasts are being organized and drilled at schools, government offices, residential neighbourhoods, and through the picturesque boulevards of the national capital. Celebrations of the anniversary of the day that India’s constitution came into effect are proceeding with all the usual bells and whistles.  

This year, more than any other year, thinking Indians will be forced to re-examine what Indian democracy really means, if it means anything at all. These last few years have been exceptionally bad for the health of the Indian democracy as well as for basic human rights. One incident after another, one farce after another has shown up the real nature of the fool’s paradise we live in. while we are happy going about our business in the belief that we live in a free and democratic nation, where the constitution – which we are celebrating today – guarantees us certain basic and inalienable rights, in actual fact what passes for freedom in this land of ours is steadily declining, at an alarming rate!

The last few years have seen increasingly frequent, and disturbing, incidents illustrating just how intolerant India has gotten, and how unable and unwilling the powers that be are to control such intolerant elements. The government itself has, for many years, set an example of exclusion and intolerance in the name of protecting the “sentiments” of one community or the other. From banning books, to refusing sanctuary to writers from neighbouring countries, to an inability or unwillingness to protect Indian writers and artists in their own homes, India has shown the world that freedoms and rights come a very, very far second to vote bank politics and an imaginary threat to “law and order”.

Academia is following suit, and writers and thinkers from Rohinton Mistry to A K Ramanujan are feeling the heat. While one expects not only neutrality but an actual pro-liberal, pro-open-thought bias from at least the higher education institutions entrusted with churning out our thinkers of tomorrow, it is increasingly becoming apparent that those expectations are false and far from the truth. In other disturbing developments, students at an eminent, reputedly a-grade, reputedly forward thinking higher educational institution proudly burn books as an emblem of caste pride. While I detest the book they were burning, I cannot and will not accept burning a book….any book… as anything good. It only exhibits and increases intolerance.

The democratically elected government of our great democratic notion is not only pushing a bill through parliament which will eliminate my ability to write the way I am writing this today, but will also have the power to actually punish me, with a fine or a jail term, for “hurting sentiments” (you don’t like what I have to say…don’t listen… is what I have always said. Let those who are offended boycott that which offends them, as I boycott bigoted crap and racist BS floating around, online and off. But they cannot use their “offended sentiments” as an excuse to deny me my say or block my access to what I wish to read or see or hear. How can a FREE government of a FREE country deny me the right to say my piece or hear someone else’s? How can they silence my voice or another’s? By what right?) What is worse, the judiciary, which had been showing signs of growing up and growing an actual spine has regressed, and warned sites like Google and Facebook to ban “offensive” content. Without getting into the debate of who gets to decide what is offensive, and the fact that I find such a demand extremely offensive myself, this demand is childish, undemocratic, and impossible.

It not only shows the absolute absence of the right to freedom of speech and expression in this fair land of ours, but also exemplifies how little the “big shots” know about how the net actually works. When the various companies, who had been issued this ultimatum, tried to explain that it is plumb not possible – if advisable – to monitor or pre-censor the humongous volume of traffic from India, the judges reacted with a knee jerk, and EXTREMELY disturbing and undemocratic remark that the sites better do what they were told OR ELSE they could easily be blocked entirely “like in china”!!!!

DID I HEAR THAT RIGHT???? Did a member of the esteemed judiciary, of our esteemed democracy compare us to an absolutist nation whose record in human rights is one of the most pathetic in the world? Do we really want to be a country where government drives tanks over its citizens and basically OWNS everyone as if they were chattel? Do we want to be a nation where one cannot have a free thought without being in fear of one’s life and liberty? Do we desire to achieve the lofty levels where we imprison and torture Nobel Peace Prize winners and measure out the right to life to our citizens by the thimbleful? I, for one, don’t. That’s the last place on earth I would wish to be. And just as I am starting to simmer down from the fuming induced by this piece of news, something even worse occurs.

A certain organization of clerics, claiming to represent a certain community, yells itself hoarse protesting the plans for Salman Rushdie to attend the Jaipur lit fest. Threatens violence if he arrives. And, surprise surprise, our SCAREDY CAT of a government begins to quake at the thought of losing a single minority vote on the eve of polls in UP. So what do our state and central governments do about this undemocratic demand and threatening of violence? Absolutely nothing! On the contrary, the state government actually applies pressure on the organizers of the event to get Rushdie to change his plans. Reports are sent to him (real or made up is anyone’s guess) of underworld operatives arriving in Jaipur armed and ready to kill him.

He cancels his visit (which the cleric organization has the audacity to call a “victory for democracy”) and schedules a video conferencing event instead. But, our spineless government does not have the cojones to ensure even that. So, a few minutes before the event is about to start, it is shut down because the powers that be refuse to provide any police protection to the venue and the organizers (some of whom have been getting death threats). So even his voice is strangled, and this is free, democratic, republic of India which is celebrating the implementation of its constitution with much pomp and show today!

So, what is the point of calling ourselves the biggest democracy in the world? What are we celebrating when we ban and burn books and films, allow pet goons of one political party or another to freely destroy, pillage and vandalise museums, libraries, movie theatres, and what have you. What is the republic worth when we shake in our boots at the thought of someone being upset and as a result deny sanctuary, deny protection, drive out, all the perceived “disturbing” elements? What is the meaning of the constitution, when the constitutionally elected governments are trying to apply forced and arbitrary censorship laws? What does free and democratic India have to offer me if it can’t offer me the right to read, see, and say what I wish? What does a constitution mean to me if I can no longer breathe freely under it?

All I can see is a steady decline in rights in this nation, dangerous precedents being set for future fundamentalists of all colours to take advantage of, a complete lack of political or executive will to control such elements, and the beginning of the end of the Indian democracy. 

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