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DREAD OF DEMOCRACY - India, in 2010, is a nation where the mind cannot be fearless

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By Rudrangshu Mukherjee
  • Published 31.12.10
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The historian Ramachandra Guha has famously described India as a fifty-fifty democracy. But even admirers of India as a functioning democracy will perhaps be forced to admit that certain events in 2010 forced the needle to move beyond fifty against democracy. Threats to democracy and democratic rights have never been as evident, and as powerful, since the dark days of the Emergency in 1975-76 as they were in the course of this year.

In the last couple of months, the talking point among the intelligentsia has been the tapes concerning one Niira Radia that were leaked. The recorded conversations revealed a most unseemly aspect of Indian life: a lobbyist working on behalf of powerful industrial houses to influence appointments of ministers; leading journalists appearing to be working at the behest of the lobbyist; and politicians and bureaucrats allegedly committing gross misdemeanours and acts of indiscretion. The public outcry at the content of the tapes deflected attention from a serious violation of democratic rights and individual freedom.

The tapes demonstrated without an iota of doubt that the government had been tapping Niira Radia’s phone and eavesdropping on her private conversations. No one from the prime minister downwards has been able to offer an acceptable explanation for what can only be described as a gross violation of privacy and of an individual’s rights. The statement that Ms Radia was an agent of a foreign power, or that she was a threat to national security, is disingenuous. There is nothing in her track record, or in anything that she said on the phone, to suggest that she was a threat to the security of the Indian republic. The taped conversations do provide some clues that she may have been involved in financial shenanigans, but that surely does not constitute a threat to security. If she were indeed violating any of the tax laws of the country or not paying her dues to the national exchequer, there exist instruments, other than phone-tapping, to discover such violations.

Any civilized and democratic society assumes a distinction between the public and the private spheres. An individual’s phone conversations fall clearly within the realm of the private. The government of India, by tapping Ms Radia’s phone, broke that distinction. In so doing, it showed that under its aegis, no Indian’s privacy is respected by the Indian State. What could be a bigger threat to Indian democracy than this blatant disregard of an individual’s rights to his or her own privacy? The tapping of phones, though permitted under the laws of the Indian republic, should be enforced with extreme discretion and strict guidelines. Phone-tapping should be the exception rather than the rule. One doesn’t have to be a supporter of Ms Radia’s mode of operation to see and appreciate this point.

A similar violation of democratic rights occurred when the writer, Arundhati Roy, was charged with sedition under Section 124(A) of the Indian Penal Code. She is supposed to have voiced “anti-India” sentiments. There can be little doubt that many find the views of Ms Roy distasteful and perplexing. But surely, if India is a democracy, she should have the full right to express her views, however inimical those views might be to the Indian State. What is problematic is the very idea of “anti-India” sentiments. What are pro-India sentiments? Only those views and feelings approved of by the Indian State? A democracy, by definition, must have room for dissent, for argument and for difference. Dissent is part of the Indian intellectual tradition. The statement of the Union law minister that freedom of speech “cannot violate patriotic sentiments” makes a mockery of democracy and of one of the most important rights in a democracy — of free speech.

Why should any individual in a democracy voice only patriotic sentiments? The law minister is obviously unaware that the tomtoming of patriotism has menacing associations with the history of fascism and can be used to obliterate difference and argument. “Democracy,” as Amartya Sen has written, “has to be judged not just by the institutions that formally exist but by the extent to which different voices from diverse sections of the people can actually be heard.’’ The charge of sedition denies Ms Roy the right to hold and express certain views. It is a profoundly disturbing and dangerous precedent. Even if the Indian State dislikes what Ms Roy says and believes in, it must allow her the space and the right to express her views. This is what Voltaire said was at the heart of democracy. India failed that litmus test in 2010.

If all this was not bad enough, at the end of the year came the news that a Chhattisgarh court has convicted Binayak Sen to life imprisonment on grounds of sedition. Sen is a well-known doctor and human rights activist who, having sacrificed a lucrative career, has spent the better part of his life working among the poor of Chhattisgarh. The charges against him are that he acted as a conduit for Maoist leaders; that he possessed Maoist literature; and was known for his close association with some “hardcore Maoists”. The evidence provided for all this was weak in the extreme and may have even been fabricated or planted. But that apart, how can the possession of a certain kind of literature, or associating with people with a certain kind of political beliefs, be a ground for sedition and for life imprisonment?

The judgment actually passes all comprehension. Sen has spoken openly against Maoists and their activities. He has never incited violence, let alone taking part in violent activities. It is a widespread suspicion that Sen is being punished for his strong condemnation of the officially sponsored vigilante group, the Salwa Judum. His life imprisonment represents that strange anomaly in a democracy — he is a prisoner of conscience. He has been put away for life because of what the State alleges are his views.

The killing of the Sikhs in 1984 after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat in 2002, and the life imprisonment of Binayak Sen in 2010 — these are four indelible black spots on the record of Indian democracy. The irony is that those involved in the first three events mentioned above are going around scot-free, and some of them have held, or continue to hold, high offices. These are people who deliberately, and in cold blood, challenged and tore apart the secular fabric of the Indian State and the Indian Constitution by inciting violence and perpetrating communal carnage, yet they have never been charged with sedition. But a doctor with no record of any anti-State statement or activity has been put behind bars for life on the grounds of sedition. What could be a greater travesty of justice and democracy?

It is time to review the very notion of sedition and the laws that govern it. For most educated Indians, the laws of sedition hark back to the days of the British raj when Indians were not granted citizenship and could be muzzled and oppressed through various acts, of which the Rowlatt Act, against which Mahatma Gandhi launched a protest movement, was a notorious example. Does a democratic republic like India, proud of the way it fought British autocracy, require laws of sedition to suppress views or should it allow liberty and free speech to thrive?

India, in 2010, has come perilously close to being a country where the mind is no longer without fear. The Indian State does not hesitate to suppress thought and opinion. There are millions of Indians who, because they are deprived of food, drinking water, healthcare and education, cannot hold their head high. A handful of people might be happy that India has a 9 per cent growth rate, but for all Indians with a conscience and a commitment to democracy, 2010 was not a year in which they could be proud to call themselves Indians. There are very good reasons to believe that Rabindranath Tagore, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and others like them would have shared the shame if they were alive.