Democracy in peril?

Rising Hate Crimes

By Dr. Oishee Mukherjee

Not just dissent but healthy discussion and dialogue are key features of a democracy. Every citizen is entitled to have the right to criticise the ruling party and its various actions – be it in the political, economic or social realm. Also actions by other political parties may come in for criticism. But, unfortunately, this criticism is not seen as constructive, which would augur well for any democratic society.
The ruling party is just a political party in the democratic system of a country and questioning or criticising it does not make one ‘anti-national’ as is being made out to be, at least in India. Thus, criticism may not mean that an individual or a group of individuals are against the national ethos but have diverse approaches in political and/or economic and social understanding. In this connection, the recent open letters to the Prime Minister, first by those criticising lynching and apathy and hatred towards minorities since the BJP came to power and the counter by another group, saying that it was one-sided and voiced selective outrage, are quite interesting as they project diverse viewpoints.
Last month, those critical of the government sent an open letter to Prime Minister Modi, written by 49 eminent personalities, including filmmakers, vocalists and historians, which said that lynching of Muslims, Dalits and other minorities must be stopped immediately, and also stressing there is “no democracy without dissent”. They came out with bare facts.
These referred to the ‘Face Checker in Database’ and the ‘Citizen’s Religious Hate-Crime Watch’, which stated that religious identity-based crimes had gone up in the last nine years and 62 per cent of the victims belonged to the Muslim community. Of the 254 religious identity-based hate crimes between 2009 and 2018, about 90 per cent of the attacks happened after May 2014, adding that a country cannot have true democracy without dissent. In fact, they pointed out that people should be allowed to lead their own lives as long as they do not violate rules and regulations of the land.
On the other hand 62 other celebrities hit back promptly with another open letter, describing the 49 as self-styled ‘guardians’ and ‘conscience keepers’ of the nation and accused them of “selective concern and demonstrated a clear political bias and motive”. They merely tried to defend the Modi government.
Given the two groups arguments, one finds it difficult to deny the fact that the attitude of the present government towards minorities, specially Muslims, as per media reports, leaves much to be desired. International media too has reported the rise in hate crimes. These widespread reports of Muslims being lynched, tortured and even killed just because they may not toe the official line or practise a different religion is indeed quite distressing.
Worse, the latest trend of chanting of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ has now become synonymous with nationalism, and has been reduced to “provocative war cry”, which obviously impacts and deprives the minorities to preach and practise their own religious beliefs.
It is also distressing to note that colonial era laws are being used to suppress freedom of expression. One may refer here to Mahatma Gandhi, who was charged under Section 124A (sedition) of the IPC on which he aptly observed: “If one has no affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote or incite to violence”.
The present attitude of equating any critique of the government or State or even the party in power with ‘anti-nationalism’ is to devalue nationalism itself to the level of ‘lumpen evangelism’. The conflict between democracy and nationalism should not arise in a mature republic like India. The ruling party must not forget Article 19 of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and expression.
The government must that in a diverse country like ours, with different castes and creeds, different religious identities etc., people should be allowed to follow their own path of belief and feel secure to lead their lives of course without violating the laws of the land. But unfortunately this is not happening. The secular spirit has been eroded and imbecile justifications are being advanced and threats issued to those who go against the religious beliefs of so-called Hindutva.
The question here arises is whether Hindutva, which is being practised presently is a true reflection of Hinduism. Analysts feel that aggressive Hindutva has led to curtailment of individual rights, specially of those belonging to the poor and weaker sections. At least religious leaders like Ramakrishna and Vivekananda always emphasised the need for religious unity and also pointed out that the essential values of all religions were the same.
The present trends clearly point out that an aggressive political society today has made life insecure for the common man. As law-abiding citizens, where do they seek recourse as they live in a virtual state of fear if they are not part of the so-called “Majority”? While on the one hand, big statues such as Sardar Patel’s are being constructed and Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary is being celebrated with leaders talking about his life and mission, on the other, they are violating the basic principles of equality and justice.
As is well known, Gandhi, in his political and social struggle, was influenced by intrinsic values of Christianity, Islam, apart from Hinduism. Can we then not say that right to life is being violated at every step by the government?
The intolerance in society, manifest through increase in hate crimes, cannot be allowed to continue. But then intellectuals, religious leaders and social activists have to come together to propagate the true meaning and essence of religion. The ulterior motive of clinging to power should not be allowed to be accomplished by misinterpreting religion and playing with peoples’ sentiments.
Apart from freedom of thought and expression, rights of the struggling masses have to be restored so that they could live with dignity. Thus, the approach of the government must change from mixing religion with politics to a genuinely pro-poor approach that would evolve a genuine action plan for rural regeneration, more employment opportunities, entrepreneurship development at the grass-root levels along with more power to the panchayats for a real democracy to be functional.
People have started realising that the majoritarianism is just a ploy of the government to come away from crucial economic and social issues. Thus the present government’s over enthusiasm with religion and nationalism is just to hide its inefficiency in tackling more pressing matters that could really bring in transformation and improve the living standards of the masses.
It is only time that even illiterates will realise this and understand the fact that we have to live in society in harmonious and communitarian manner and this was emphasised by none other than luminaries like Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore.—INFA