A democracy in peril

In 1892, when Swami Vivekananda toured Kerala, he had dared to denounce that state as a 'lunatic asylum'. He did so, provoked by the prevalence of untouchability there. The contrast between the spirituality of Vivekananda and the escapist theatre of the religious leaders of today worries me.

The only statement comparable in its forthrightness and sense of responsibility in our times has come not from any religious leader but from four senior judges of the Supreme Court. Indian democracy, they have warned us, is in danger. What corresponds to Kerala's untouchability 126 years ago is the potential communalism-based tyranny in India. When Vivekananda attributed madness to Kerala, he used the term as a metaphor, not as a literal fact. Madness, from the spiritual point of view, is the disconnect between head and heart, between reason and feeling. It creates a state in which human suffering and degradation are taken for granted. The tolerance of whatever cheapens and endangers life implies spiritual madness.

If a politician says he/she will dish out development to you irrespective of who you are, what your value system is, what your education or health status is, there are only two possibilities - either he/she is mad, or he/she thinks you are mad. When millions of people go crazy over such a bait, they behave as though they are unaware of being in a collective asylum. When minimum government and maximum governance is promised and an entire nation is crushed with governmental arbitrariness for months under the pretext of smoking out black money and the people simply lap up the canard, they label themselves to the same effect. When Opposition parties assume that the best way to serve the country is to suspect and undermine one another, they confirm the suspicion.

Vivekananda's outright denunciation of the social madness that stymied Kerala and the danger signals that the four judges of the Supreme Court have sent out to the country at large converge on our destiny as a sane, democratic polity. It is a mark of our spiritual decline that the judges' cry seems to have gone unheeded. I have mulled over this situation for days now. It is clear to me that keeping quiet over the aberration unfolding will be a gross betrayal of all that I have lived and struggled for. I abhor the fake spirituality that remains indifferent to the plight of the people.

A democracy is in peril when the people believe, willingly and eagerly, in illusions and falsehoods. This happens because they renounce the rational outlook and embrace a magical worldview in which someone with a magic wand comes and solves their problems. There is no doubt left that the moonshine of 'development' was not a promise but a bait. Good governance was marketed not as a commitment to people's welfare, but as the opium of the people. Welfare, by the way, is not a matter of stomach alone. For us, welfare refers also to human dignity and liberty. Even if hate-driven communalism is offered to us in a glittering heaven, we should still recoil from it in horror. We would do so, if we are more than animals. When the people of a nation are treated as senseless herds mindful only of their stomachs, I believe democracy is in peril. It is clear to me that the opium of development has been used to lull us with false hopes to the reality of the degradation of our shared heritage.

The superiority of democracy over other forms of government is that it stands by the supremacy of the will of the people. This abstract idea becomes concrete through checks and balances that bridle tyrannical tendencies inherent in State power. Such checks and balances are erected through institutions. Judiciary and Parliament are foremost among them. Parliament, the 'temple of democracy', is, today, so only in name. So we are left only with the judiciary. It should worry us that the highest rung of Indian judiciary, which has such a glorious track-record of serving as a sentinel of the rule of law, has come under unprecedented strain. No one believes this strain to be a simple, internal haemorrhage. The four judges stated that it is not. All of us owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

But that is not enough. We need to speak up. The pressing need for this arises from the fact that ever since these judges stood boldly by our democratic heritage, they have been subjected to an orchestrated campaign of vilification. The allegedly suspicious circumstances around the death of Justice B.H. Loya seem to suggest that the judiciary is being brought under pressure. If Indira Gandhi had expected the judiciary to bend, this time around, the judges are being expected to crawl. The 'third pillar' of democracy could indeed crumble under the burden of misapprehension.


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