Joy turns to despair at 75?

India at Independence, noted the watchdog,offered a beacon of hope, but it “retained many colonial-era laws that restricted freedoms and, over the years, added more such laws, undermining its democracy.

“What should be a moment of celebration and joy has become a moment of deep despair and reflection,” is an assessment by US-based free speech watchdog, PEN America. This after it reached out to authors from India and the Indian diaspora to write short texts expressing what they felt about India’s 75 years of independence.

The short statements of 100-odd authors collectively titled ‘India at 75’ were sought over a period of time and uploaded on its website. The introduction reads: ‘Some voices are optimistic, some prayerful, some anguished and enraged. Some suggest defeat, others venture hope, still others are defiant. The authors hold a spectrum of political views, and may be in disagreement about much else, but they are united in their concern for the state of Indian democracy.’The authors, include Kiran Desai, Jhumpa Lahiri, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Geetanjali Shree and Ganesh Devy.

India at Independence, noted the watchdog,offered a beacon of hope, but it “retained many colonial-era laws that restricted freedoms and, over the years, added more such laws, undermining its democracy. An internal Emergency in 1975 curtailed civil liberties and jailed dissidents….” However, the “elections in 2014 has transformed India into a country where hate speech is expressed and disseminated loudly; where Muslims are discriminated against and lynched, their homes and mosques bulldozed, their livelihoods destroyed; where Christians are beaten and churches attacked, where political prisoners are held in jail without trial. Dissenting journalists and authors are denied permission to leave the country”.

In PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index 2021, India is the only nominally democratic country included in its count of ‘the top 10 jailers of writers and public intellectuals world-wide.’ In recent years, the country has seen an acceleration of threats against free speech, academic freedom and digital rights and an uptick in online trolling and harassment. Similarly, in a letter to President Droupadi Murmu the signatories, including J.M. Coetzee and Orhan Pamuk, expressed “grave concerns about the rapidly worsening situation for human rights in India, specifically freedom of speech and creative expression, on the eve of India’s 75th anniversary of independence.”

This certainly doesn’t bode well for any democratic society. Not just political but social and economic problems of great magnitude plague the Indian society. While economic problems may be attributed to the high population growth compared to resources available to cater to their development, it is equally true that the right strategy as envisaged by Mahatma Gandhi, has not been adhered to. But of greater concern are socio-political problems of religion, caste and class with an authoritarian government dictating terms without considering the lives and livelihoods of the masses.

One may mention here that even the Additional Session Judge of a Delhi court, while granting bail to Alt News co-founder, Mohammed Zubair, stated that Indian political parties were open to criticism, adding that mere criticism did not justify the invocation of penal sections 153A (promoting enmity between different groups) and 295A (outraging religious feelings).  “Hindu religion is one of the oldest religions and most tolerant. The followers of Hindu religion are also tolerant. Hindu religion is so tolerant that its followers proudly name their institution/organisation/facilities in the name of their Holy God or Goddess”, the judge observed. But unfortunately, toleration is steadily becoming extinct.

The present form of religion being preached and popularised is making religion intolerant and sectarian. Sadly, it is being accepted because real education has not reached the masses who have very little knowledge about what Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda preached. The need for using religion to unite people and communities is not being followed.

At the same time, social analysts are questioning whether India is facing an informal type of emergency? The increasing misuse of draconian laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), the National Security Act (NSA), or the Public safety act (PSA) has empowered governments to unilaterally declare somebody a terrorist or ‘urban Naxal’, arrest him arbitrarily and incarcerate him for extended periods without trial. Agencies like the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and IT department have become adept at investigating those who speak up. Missing the basics that criticising the government in power should not be taboo for dissent is healthy for a vibrant democracy.

What Jesuits like Stan Swamy preached was not to be converted to the fundamentalism of development, a world that destroys the margins. He represented a hope for the tribals and the oppressed communities but it wasn’ seen as such. One may mention here that Naxalite leaders like Kanu Sanyal or Jangal Santhal talked of justice, suffering, without evoking revolution and they suffered quietly in jail without a murmur. Both Marxists and missionaries understood caring was a cosmopolitanism that went beyond Marx and Christianity.

Dissenters and the dissenting imaginations may be more committed to their institutions and help the process of highlighting democracy. But the authoritarian attitude of the government has led to social service becoming suspect. Dissent needs to be understood in the wider context of knowledge and democracy as a difference that sustains.

Two modes of dissent are believed to have suffered from this onslaught — the concerns for environment and for human rights. Both these issues have converged around the tribe as a way of life and thought. The fate of the tribe, the loosening of forest laws, all gets swept under the table of ‘’Urban Naxal’. It’s time that dissenters stand up united along with academics and ordinary citizens to uphold the rights of the tribes and backward communities for a decent life.

Academics and civil society groups are sidelined and are also threatened by various State machineries. And, troll armies are there to provide the back-up to destroy a person’s reputation even before he or she is declared innocent. The only fool proof remedy is judicial protection. However, justice is delayed and the ruling dispensation has little interest to boost up the judicial infrastructure.

It is believed that within a few years, roughly 20 percent of all humans on this troubled planet will be looking to find shelter in this country. As ethnicities and genetic groups increasingly mix with one another, our species is moving towards multiplying micro-diversities rather than any over-arching homogeneity.

The authoritarian character of the government needs to change and a judicious transformation of the political order is critical at this juncture. People are promised eradication of casteism and communalism but the real picture appears to be the reverse, due to ignorance, lack of education and awareness. A progressive society cannot afford to follow a fundamentalist path.

As an author wrote: it is time that we must ask – which idea of India provides succour and safety to the widest variety of people? Which idea is most accommodating of difference, whether ethnic, racial, religious, of secular orientation, of different practices of living?  Which idea will ensure the fairest distribution of increasingly scarce resources? The rulers must pay heed and provide answers.


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Dhurjati Mukherjee

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