Democratic India’s shrinking freedoms

 

For more than sixty five years we have been a democracy and we are even called the largest democracy in the world. Some call our democracy vibrant and some others brand it “raucous”. Whatever one might call it, it is universally accepted that it is indeed a democracy. We have all the elements of a democracy – a parliament, an independent judiciary, a government that acts in the name of a constitutional head and a press or, one might say, the media that claims to be free and independent.

Having all the trappings of a democracy the country should have ensured freedom of every kind to the citizens. But that is not so. The freedoms that one seeks in a democracy – those of speech and expression, thoughts and actions, that of movement within the country and so on – are, of late, being severely restricted. In fact, one tends to feel that our democracy is increasingly becoming restrictive on various counts.

Let us take the fourth pillar of democracy, for instance, the media. Only the other day the Chairperson of the Press Council of India (PCI) advised governments to shun the practice of “blackmailing” the media by stopping the flow of ads to them to counter criticism. Describing the practice as “undemocratic”, he threatened legal action if such practices were brought to his notice. This, however, has been the practice ever since our democratic framework came into existence. No wonder the media houses came in support of the chairman PCI. Ads largely sustain affordable dissemination of information. Governments and their agencies command enormous amounts of funds for advertisements and they have been using this clout with impunity to browbeat the media. Most fall in line but some, made of sterner stuff, choose to plough a lonely furrow at great personal cost. Unable to compete with media houses well-fed with ads of governments they either scrounge around or fold up. In the process, truth and objectivity become casualties, depriving the people at large accurate perspectives of all that happens around them.

I, for one, can quite comprehend the way the governments gag people’s voices. About a decade ago a large number of columnists in Bhopal, including your reporter, used to write comments in the local papers on all that transpired or did not transpire in connection with the town’s civic amenities. The pieces were generally critical of the local government and its agencies. Nonetheless, the local readers and even the bureaucracy used to appreciate the comments. All the columnists, they said, acted as opinion makers. Soon, however, the dailies, including several national ones, stopped publishing what they called unsolicited articles. Even the “letters” column has been banished from the city supplements. One feels so helpless. One cannot air, forget about opinion, even one’s grievances. All are left wondering whether the press has been bought off.

Political corruption spawned by the country’s electoral system also contributes to curtailment of freedom. In the prevailing “first-past-the-post” system votes are purchased by or on behalf of the candidates. Political parties, therefore, collect huge amounts legally or illegally to further their chances of winning elections only by majority of votes polled. Those which capture power would seem to be hitting gold. In this era of coalition politics even a minor political ally can generate enormous amounts of funds through their respective representatives in the governments or in the legislatures. One cannot forget the candid statement given in one unguarded moment by DMK’s Andimuthu Raja of “2G Spectrum”-fame that he had a party to take care of, national interests seeming to be immaterial to him.

Every political party indulges in this practice, the Grand Old Party of India having become a past master in the game. The slush funds are used in electoral campaigns, to buy support or even legislators to enable capture of power or to cling on to it. Mindboggling illegal amounts are collected in dodgy ways only to enable further milking of the system and plunder of public resources depriving common man his freedoms of employment, education, health care and so on. In the midst of rising inequities politicians and industrialists are rapidly becoming billionaires in the country’s liberalised economy while the common man continues to languish in poverty, disease and squalor. The lure of power has converted our politicians into crooks. Not only there are riches that come within one’s grasp but also all that which power alone can secure – whether legal or illegal, ethical or unethical. Self-serving, as they are, they think only of furtherance of their own interests and those of their close relatives and friends. Emergence of dynastic politics is a direct consequence.

 Ours is no longer a democracy; it is an oligarchy that uses the public resources to serve only a few, their families and sycophants to the exclusion of the vast majority. General wellbeing of the nation is mostly put on the back-burner. Thus, in repeated quests of power and taking a partisan view a railways minister would approve projects that serve only his own constituency and an industries minister would locate industries despite difficulties of infrastructure and logistics in the area that has returned him to power. In the era of weak governance of the ruling coalitions together with the scourge of what is known as the “coalition-dharma”, this evil has become a full-blown curse affecting the lives of a vast section. In this connection one recalls the resignation of Dinesh Trivedi, Railway Minister, who dared to deviate from his party-line to think of strengthening the railways by way of raising fares that had remained static for years. Despite being applauded by the Prime Minister for his refreshingly new and genuine national perspective the “Coalition Dharma” didn’t allow his continuance even at the risk of the Railways going bankrupt. Everyone takes such aberrations as fait accompli.

In addition, a peculiar phenomenon is being currently witnessed. Small social groups or those from religious fringes have developed the audaciousness and the spunk to torment and curtail liberties of the innocent. In Haryana, for instance, a “khap” bans the use of cell phones by women or prevents them from marrying men of their own choice for the sake of upholding what they consider to be the “tradition” or, far away, in caste-conscious Tamil Nadu a dalit is ostracised for marrying an upper-caste. For a misconceived affront to a faith, a Rushdie is prevented to attend Literary Festivals, a Taslima Nasreen is not only chased out of Kolkata by a fanatical mob, a supposedly secular metropolis, she is also assaulted in Hyderabad and the iconic artist MF Hussain is forced to live his last years abroad and even die there. Likewise, while, three Kashmiri teenagers had to say goodbye to their rock-band in compliance with a fatwa, another set of youngsters were assaulted for partying in a way disliked by “moral policemen” of a small obscure religious group in Karnataka.

In this country today one is not even free to express one’s opinion or lampoon those who happen to be in power. Thus cartoonists are put in prison for their satirical cartoons and cases are filed against those who criticise people in power for their perceived misdemeanours. Drunk with unhindered power the political class has increasingly shed all humour and has become intolerant of criticism. A move was afoot to censor even the social networking sites. Mercifully, the effort was given up owing to the hue and cry raised by the civil society.

Given above is a list which is only illustrative of the ways democratic freedoms of our countrymen guaranteed under the Constitution are being whittled down. What is more, while the traditional liberalism of the country and the freedom to practice it progressively shrinks with small socio-religious groups bullying the rest, the dispensations seem to be unable to move in to stem the obvious rot for fear of losing their political support base. None seems to want to rock the boat, little realising that such indifference, over a period of time, would only nourish a growing monster.

In the absence of strong political formations at the Centre and ascendance of regional political set-ups the future does not hold out any hopes. Dependence on regional satraps has seemingly emasculated the national parties and hence the period of non-governance and ambivalence towards rule of law is likely to get prolonged. In the process, democratic freedoms, as we have known them so far, may also progressively get pared down.