The world’s largest democracy is at the crossroads. That the economy is in deep crisis is clear. But what is less appreciated is that all the pillars of a democratic system of governance are under assault. The fundamental right to freedom of expression has been systematically suspended through suppression and intimidation. Dissent is deliberately stifled as ‘terrorism’ or branded as an ‘anti-national activity’. Many institutions that are meant to uphold the rights of citizens and society at large, have been co-opted or subverted. The Indian state now diverts attention from real problems of the people by pronouncing bogus threats to ‘national security’ everywhere. Of course, some of these threats are real and have to be dealt with uncompromisingly but the Modi government and the ruling BJP conjure up sinister conspiracies behind every political protest, indeed behind any and everything they see as opposition to them. The system unleashes investigative agencies on dissenters and deploys proxies through sections of the media and online troll factories. India’s hard-won democracy is being hollowed out.
The Modi government leaves no scope for exaggeration. Every organ of state that could possibly be used to target political opposition has already been pressed into service — the Police, the Enforcement Directorate, the Central Bureau of Investigation, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and even the Narcotics Bureau. These agencies now dance only to the tune of the Prime Minister and Home Minister’s Office. The use of state power must always obey constitutional norms and respect established democratic conventions. Foremost among these are two: such power must always be used in the interest of ALL citizens without discrimination of any kind; and the state machinery must not be used to selectively target political opponents. The Modi government has consistently done more than any previous government in independent India to violate these core principles.
Earlyin its first term, the Modi government began designating its own political opponents as enemies of the Indian state. This self-serving move unleashed the most draconian laws in our penal code against any and every protester who disagreed publicly with the BJP and its politics. It began in 2016 with the invoking of sedition charges against young student leaders in JNU, one of India’s foremost universities. It has continued relentlessly in a wide variety of contexts, with a series of disturbing arrests of well-known activists, scholars and intellectuals. They have no doubt taken positions contrary to that of governments in power. But that is what democracy is all about.
The most cynical attempt to label anti-BJP protests as anti-India conspiracies is seen in the Modi government’s response to the extraordinary protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens (CAA-NRC). The CAA-NRC protests, led primarily by women, showed how a genuine social movement can respond to sectarian and discriminatory politics with a strong message of peace, inclusiveness, and solidarity. The protests at Shaheen Bagh and at other countless sites across the country demonstrated how dominant male power structures can be persuaded to play a supporting role, leaving the centre stage to women. It was also notable for its proud use of national symbols, including the Constitution and its Preamble, the national flag, and our freedom struggle.
Thismovement received wide-spread support from civil society activists and organisations across the political spectrum who also opposed the divisive CAA-NRC. But the Modi government refused to acknowledge this movement. Instead, it chose to vilify it and made it a divisive issue in the Delhi elections. BJP leaders – including the Minister of State for Finance and the Home Minister – used abusive rhetoric and violent imagery to attack what was essentially a Gandhian satyagraha. Other BJP Delhi leaders publicly threatened to attack the protestors. The ruling party created the conditions in which violence broke out in northeast Delhi. These riots in February would have never occurred had the government wished to prevent them.
In the months following, the Modi government carried its vendetta to extreme lengths, claiming that the protests were a conspiracy against the Indian state. The result has been – blatantly biased investigations with around 700 FIRs filed, hundreds being questioned, and dozens detained under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Prominent civil society leaders, some of whom are renowned all over the world, are being named as masterminds and instigators of the Delhi violence. The BJP may have differences with dissenters and civil society activists. Indeed, the same activists have often protested against Congress governments as well. But to paint them as anti-national conspirators promoting communal violence is prejudicial and extremely dangerous for democracy.
It is nothing less than shocking that eminent economists, academics, social campaigners and even very senior political leaders that includes a former Union Minister have been maliciously targeted through so-called disclosure statements in the investigations by the Delhi Police. This only shows that the BJP is determined to pursue its authoritarian strategy regardless of consequences. The Uttar Pradesh government’s vile response to the Hathras protests against the rape of a Dalit girl, the unlawful cremation and the intimidation of her family crying out for justice is in keeping with this intolerant and undemocratic mindset. It also happens to be in total contrast to how the UPA government handled the Nirbhaya case.
Underminingthe basic principles of liberty and freedom of expression in this manner poisons politics and the society itself. The BJP, like every other political party, is entitled to propagate any ideology within the framework of the Indian Constitution. But our Constitution also assures every Indian that fundamental rights do not end with the right to vote — they also include the right to freedom of expression, the right to protest and dissent publicly and peacefully. To paint genuine civil society leaders as evil conspirators and terrorists, is to burn the bridges of communication with the common people, on whose behalf they speak.
Citizensdo not cease to be citizens when the party they voted for loses an election. The Prime Minister repeatedly claims to represent 130 crore Indians. But his government and the ruling party are treating political opponents, dissenters, and those who did not vote for the ruling party as second-class citizens without democratic rights. The people of India are not just an electorate. They, and only they, are the nation. Governments exist to serve them, not vilify this or that part of them.
This nation will thrive only when democracy as envisioned by our Constitution and the Independence movement is followed in its letter and spirit.
Sonia Gandhi is chairperson of UPA.