Need to safeguard democracy and not fall for the propaganda of divisive political agendas: Prem Shankar Jha

By Muslim Mirror Network

There is need to safeguard democracy and not fall for the propaganda of divisive political agendas, said veteran journalist Prem Shankar Jha while addressing  a convention organised by ANHAD on “Defending the Idea of India’  at the Constitution Club, New Delhi Saturday.

Jha flagged the urgent need for Election reforms especially interns of transparency in funding of elections and political parties to address the skewed playing field. He also underlined the need to undertake reforms in education and agriculture.

There is growing violence, an atmosphere of hatred across the nation and a consistent attack on the democratic fabric of our country. Constitutional and human rights of people, most notably – the fundamental right to equality, the right to live with dignity, to question the state and dissent – have been trampled with impunity. Institutions of oversight have been systematically emaciated, with the independence of the judiciary under a serious cloud and the functioning of the Parliament gravely compromised. We have learnt from the experience of neighbouring countries, once these structures are allowed to crumble, nations pay huge prices to rebuild them.

We feel that the urgency to intervene in defence of diversity, pluralism, democracy, constitutional values and justice has never been more pressing than in the conditions prevailing in the country today. It is therefore necessary to energize all peace loving citizens by conscious interventions.

Prof Mridula Mukherjee Former Chairperson, Centre for Historical Studies, JNU & former Director Nehru Memorial Museum and Library chaired the convention. She placed questions like how do we see the idea of India in the past and in the future and how will we struggle to defend it.

Ashok Vajpeyi- Hindi poet-critic, translator, editor and a major cultural figure of India said that the fractures in society are increasing and deepening, whether we look at violence, rape, attacks, persecution of innocent people, atrocities or discrimination. Democracy has got reduced to only voting. The idea of India is based on the spirit of inquiry, of seeking knowledge- this can be traced all the way back to the rigved. The idea of India is inclusive and celebrates diversity. But today there is an attempt to replace plurality with majoritarianism- to show others down, make them feel lesser. This can be seen in the words and actions of the people in power today. There is a move away from scientific temper, knowledge and replacing it with myths, misinformation. The struggle to safeguard the idea of India is much longer than any electoral battles, he said.

Prof Aditya Mukherjee- Retd. Professor of Contemporary India History, Centre for Historical Studies, JNU & Dean of School of Social sciences, JNU, talked about Civil liberties and freedom of speech were central to the idea of India. Gandhi said Civil liberties and freedom of speech is the water of life as in these are non-negotiable in a democracy. During the freedom struggle, there were such divergent thoughts and ideologies but they all co-existed. Freedom of association, secularism and a pro-poor approach were the cornerstones of the idea of India born from the time of early nationalists. The people masquerading as true nationalists were not part of the freedom struggle and did not even pledge allegiance to the idea of India. Today secularism and diversity of living together is under severe threat. And this includes the erasure of minority existence from history books, from public spaces like the name of roads, the demonising of minorities and forcing them to live in ghettos. All research highlights these as the classic precursors to genocide.

Anjali Bhardwaj- Co-Convenor of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information & Founding member of Satark Nagrik Sangathan, She said we adopted a democratic form of government after independence which essentially means rule by the people. Therefore the idea of India is inextricably linked to the principle of decentralisation of power. Central to this is the right to question and the ability of people to exercise their right to informed speech and expression and hold the government to account. Information is power and therefore the RTI Act has emerged as one of the most important tools for citizens to participate in democracy. Every year millions of people use this tool to question power and seek accountability. There is a very clear attack on the right to question. There is an attack on those who question- from physical attacks to using the might of the state to silence those who question. Another form of attack is by undermining laws and institutions which empower people and seek to check excesses of executive power. We need to fearlessly and in our on ways struggle to defend the idea of India and the right to question.

Avinash Kumar- Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Equity Studies, said what’s unfolding in India right now has parallels in many countries right now. Maria Ressa the Nobel prize winner has just come out with a book titled How to Stand up to a Dictator and many of the practices and policies adopted by an autocratic government in the Philippines resonate with what is happening in India. The undermining of truth, labelling people as anti national or foreign agents, filing cases and criminalising those who dissent- these are all the same strategies adopted by autocratic governments. There are also stories of hope and lessons on how to resist the undermining of democracy- key to this is building communities and having belief and hope for a better future.

Santosh Mehrotra- development economist, an economic adviser in the United Nations in New York City, Italy, and Thailand (1991–2006), and technocrat in the government of India (2006–2014) said that the Government is trying to distract people from the ground reality that unemployment is increasing tremendously. For every category of people unemployment has increased and wage rate has fallen. The government keeps misleading the nation on unemployment – they claim employment has increased but the reality is that they have counted unpaid family labour as employment in the PLFS though this goes against all internationally accepted definitions of what constitutes employment. Government claims through Mudra scheme 42 crore families given loans whereas government’s data itself shows that by all counts there are only 26 crore families in India. So has the government given multiple loans to the same families? When challenged the government has no answers. In fact they suppress reports and data that show the truth.

Pamela Philipose- journalist and researcher, former director & editor-in-chief of the Women’s Feature Service and former senior associate editor of The Indian Express, said that the Prime Minister believes in one way communication and that is why he uses social media and not press conferences as the means of communication. Systematically there has been clamping down of media and access to information – the buy out of the CNN IBN group and more recently the NDTV to stop independent media and voices. On the other hand there is encouragement and resources for shrill, divisive media. The government has a multi thousand crore budget for electronic media and uses it to control them. There is now consolidation of pro BJP media and complete undermining of investigative and independent media. Suddenly in 2019 elections we saw the birth of Namo TV which transmitted to our televisions through all phases of elections making a mockery of all guidelines and norms of the Election Commission which remained a mute spectator. How should we resist this? We have to fight the government and the BJP IT cell creates fake news which aims to create fissures among people.

Zoya Hasan, Professor of Political Science and Dean of the School of Social Sciences (SSS) at the JNU. She served as a member of the National Commission for Minorities from 2006 to 2009. Professor Emerita, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University spoke pluralism and said that pluralism is central to the idea of India. Our national anthem celebrates the diversity of regions and languages. Today there is an attempt to replace this with one language, one religion and also one enemy. Keeping the attention on these issues takes away focus from performance in office, issues plaguing people’s lives and the country whether it’s the economy or the democratic back slide. The battle lines are between a secular idea of India and a communal idea. Unlike Yugoslavia, USSR or even Pakistan, India has remained unified because we provided space and representation to all diverse identities. However, the trend is changing- if we look at the Parliament and legislatures there is hardly any representation- the ruling party has not given a single ticket to Muslims. Multiculturalism and pluralism produce more equitable outcomes.

Leena Dabiru welcomed everyone on behalf of Anhad and Anuhyaa Trilokyamangalam sang a poem of Dushyant Kumar in the beginning.

The convention was attended by over 200 intellectuals, students, teachers and concerned citizens.

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