Democracy under assault

Hardly anyone is aware today that in Britain there existed a party called the British Union of Fascists (BUF) whose members were known as the Black Shirts. The BUF had its genesis in 1932, mainly due to the overzealous efforts of a Member of the British Parliament, Sir Oswald Emald Mosley (1896-1980). The BUF had its sway for about four years until it was banned through the Public Order Act of 1936. Fascist forces can rise bit by bit but there comes a time when there has to be a hard stop. What we are witnessing in India today may not officially have the tag of fascism but it is not the moniker that is of concern here. What matters is the role/activities of the Hindu right-wing groups that seem to work in concert with the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in myriad ways. The actions of these groups are not removed by any distance from a high degree of active repression and tyranny perpetrated on hapless and helpless deprived sections of the Indian society, particularly the minorities and the Dalits. The latest nation-wide arrests of noted intellectuals and activists on grounds that do not look credible and are carefully targeted at those opposed to the government appear to confirm fears that there is a concerted effort to put down all voices opposed to the government, raising the spectre of an undeclared state of Emergency.

The nation-wide anger and angst against these arrests and the outpouring of criticism tells us that we are in new territory. Even those who were willing to give the benefit of doubt to the government are now wary as it becomes amply clear that this is an attack on the democratic institutions and systems of India. The Supreme Court had to remind the establishment that “Dissent is the safety valve of democracy and if you don’t allow these safety valves, it will burst.” This simple comment is telling. That in the 21st century the highest court in the land had to issue this cautionary note tells us about the state of democracy under the current government in BJP-ruled India and in Maharashtra, where also the party is in power and is the State which has moved to arrest the intellectuals.

The pot is being stirred as we near the 2019 elections. There is a renewed sense of energy in keeping tensions high. Ever since the BJP came to power in 2014, we have been witness to the beatings, bullying, burning, and lynching of various sections of our people in the country. How a deviant group acts and behaves in a given context depends on the kind of moral/political backing it has, or assumes that it has, at least in a latent way if not totally manifestly. Extra-judicial attacks committed against fellow citizens so brazenly will not ensue unless the stormtroopers and the so-called fringe groups feel assured of backing and protection from the law and order agencies and from people in high echelons. Playing ostrich and being silent at the top has bestowed a high degree of legitimacy on these fringers to run riot.

There has been a rising trendline in the number of communal flare ups as reported by the government. Strong facets of racism and xenophobia are inherent factors in communal flareups besides the fact that the rioters invariably strike at the sources of livelihood of the vulnerable groups. The intention has always been to bring the minorities down to their knees by hitting hard at their economic base. It is important to point out that the victims almost always have been from among the minorities and Dalits.

To what extent is the State complicit in this is to be comprehended from the fact that the highest strata of the State seems to condone these acts; there is hardly ever any action taken against such felons, nor at least a bit of lip service or modicum of condemnation of these acts. The lynching of innocent and utterly vulnerable people by the brigades has never been dealt with any degree of seriousness at the level of the Home Ministry or the Prime Minister’s Office. The number of cases in this particularly heinous kind of violence stands at 72, according to Arun Shourie, a former BJP minister who has himself suffered at the hands of trolls and now stands against the government.

Will we ever be witness to the purging, in some way at least, of the state-backed vigilantes and trolls? Not likely, when the Prime Minister of the country keeps track of the activities of such groups by following and keeping in touch with them on the social media. The functioning in India of vigilantes has become a cause for concern for civil society in general and the left-leaning and liberal public in particular. Let us hope the State wakes up and takes corrective measures.

Given the kind of society and polity we live in, is it conceivable that intellectuals in particular and the civil society in general, will rise and voice their concern to the state authorities and the establishment that all is not well in our daily lives and our body politic? We need more voices to speak up from our democratic and secular institutions, including the educational ones. There is already a lot of unease. The wide spread arrests of activists can therefore be seen as a desperate act by the government that wants to send a chilling message: fall in line, sit quiet, or else!

M A Kalam is professor of Applied Social Sciences, C K Prahalad Centre for Emerging India at the Loyola Institute of Business Administration (LIBA), Chennai.

(Syndicate: The Billion Press)

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