Govt anxiety rising?

Stifling Dissent

By Dhurjati Mukherjee

The recent cases against rights activists and their ‘house arrest’ additionally point to the fact that the Government is bent on stifling dissent in the country. Some experts have analysed the situation as a case of nervousness in view of growing protests by different groups against the Centre’s policies, the relentless Congress attacks against the Government over its lack of transparency on the Rafale defence deal and also the RBI’s revelations that the demonetisation exercise failed to achieve the objective of unearthing black money. Whether in the political, economic or social fields, it is generally believed that the Government has virtually failed to live up to the challenges.
The intelligentsia has revolted against the political philosophy of the ruling party and its determination to curb any dissenting opinion. Some regional leaders have pointed out that the present situation in the country is akin to the conditions prevailing at the time of Emergency. It is indeed quite strange why the BJP is acting in such a way.
Meanwhile, while inviting views on the sedition law, a consultation paper brought out by the Law Commission observed: “In a democracy, singing from the same songbook is not a benchmark of patriotism. People should be at liberty to show their affection to their own country in their own way. For doing the same, one might indulge in constructive criticism or debates, pointing out the loopholes in the policy of the Government”.
The paper further added “every irresponsible exercise of right to free speech and expression cannot be termed seditious…..Expressions of frustration over the state of affairs, for instance, calling India ‘no country for women’, or a country that is ‘racist’ for its obsession with skin colour as a marker of beauty, are critiques that do not threaten the idea of a nation”.
This clearly shows that even the judiciary does not support the Government’s stand which had slapped Section 124A that is, the sedition law on youth leader, Kanhaiya Kumar, Gujarat Patidar leader, Hardik Patel and some of the recent arrests.
Discontent is in the air. It is palpable in the growing protests and the appearance of non-sectarian mass movements in different parts of the country. Farmer protests have broken out in several States; Dalits are a disenchanted lot and have taken to active protests, from Una to Saharanpur, despite the systematic attempt to woo them; the ongoing student protests in universities highlight the continuing resistance against assaults on the autonomy to think and the right to engage with ideas, which the ruling dispensation disapproves of. Even though these protests are not pervasive and do not pose a serious challenge to the BJP’s winning spree in elections, they have nonetheless invited the wrath of the Government.
At a broader level, dissent has been curbed through a combination of coercive and non-coercive means. These include reducing the remit of Right to Information (RTI), curbs on foreign-funded NGOs, criminalisation of dissent through sedition provisions of the penal code, and the hounding of human rights activists and civil society groups. One can add to this list the CBI raids on NDTV which many people have rightly read as a message to the media in general to fall in line, if they haven’t already done so.
This is similar to the way in which the Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Film and Television Institute of India were targeted earlier with the express purpose of eradicating important sites of dissent. Each of these institutions is perceived as a threat to the ideological agenda of the regime, raising inconvenient questions that the regime feels needed to be silenced.
Thus, not just at the central level but in many parts of the country, specially West Bengal, the ruling party in power does not want Opposition parties to function as is normally done in a democracy. Can one imagine that around 25,000 candidates could not file their nominations in the recently held elections in the State? Stifling dissent not just of the Opposition but also those who may not be actively involved in politics has been a tendency of many regional parties though they talk of democracy, off and on.
The reports of violence that have hit the headlines during the past one year or so are a pointer to the fact that people do not have the right to involve in constructive criticism or follow life styles that may not be in consonance with what is preached and practised by the party in power. This indeed is a very disturbing trend that obviously does not augur well for a democracy.
The present situation is definitely not conducive for healthy growth of society and its different institutions that have virtually lost their independence and become stooges of the ruling establishment. The intelligentsia is thus frustrated in such a situation. Added to this is the distressing economic scenario of the widening disparity between the rich and the poorer sections as also between the urban and the rural sectors and the organised and the unorganised sectors in matters of income. As is well known, whatever politicians may claim about high GDP growth, it reduces inequality or measures the same.
All this may have retarded what politicians frequently refer to as ‘inclusive development’ with power and authority being imposed from the top. Thus those at the top – the big business houses have gained from Government’s policies while the income levels and living standards of the poor and the economically weaker sections have virtually remained unchanged.
At this juncture, when uncritical nationalist fever is running high in the country, such arbitrariness and arrogance of the political establishment will make it more and more difficult to exercise the right to protest, which is an integral part of constitutional guarantees.
The question arises where does this leave the issue of democracy? This is precisely the space in which dissent and democracy make their connection. Freedom of expression and its concomitant, the concept of dissent, are essential for democracy. It is a concept that contains within it the democratic right to object, oppose, protest and even resist.
In the end, keeping dissent alive is to practise what Edward Said called “speaking truth to power” in his penultimate 1993 Reith Lectures. As he rightly observed: “No one can speak up all the time on all the issues. But, I believe, there is a special duty to address the constituted and authorised powers of one’s own society, which are accountable to its citizenry, particularly when those powers are exercised in a manifestly disproportionate and immoral war, or in a deliberate programme of discrimination, repression, and collective cruelty.”
Over the years Indian democracy has provided space for many different and contradictory visions and voices to express themselves. Under the present dispensation – possibly guided by the RSS’s monolithic view of the world — these spaces have been shrinking steadily and the Government is stifling dissent. Unfortunately, the international media is quite critical of the existing state of affairs. This has to change as not only is the Government losing its goodwill among the critics in India and abroad but also among the aam janata, who are the potential voters. —INFA