Will democracy survive after the elections in India?

For many people in India, democracy means a majoritarian rule. Once a party or a coalition is elected, it acts as if it has the moral and legal right to do what it pleases! That is the crossroad where India is today with Narendra Modi in power disregarding the aspirations of the minorities and diminishing the power structures that provided political and social equilibrium in the last 7 decades or more.

India has not only survived through the growing pains of a democratic experiment but prospered as a nation under a Nehruvian vision and the constitutional umbrella engineered by the great B.R. Ambedkar. Together, they have built Institutions that guaranteed life and property of every Citizen regardless of their background or circumstances and provided an opportunity to climb up the ladder of success and economic prosperity. What we should have witnessed is a continuum of those policies and practices resulting in more openness and tolerance, and yet the opposite seems to have taken place.

Many liberal critics of the Modi regime sincerely believe that his administration is run by a political dogma inspired by the RSS ideology. His long association with that organization and penchant for appointing many of the chief ministerial candidates from that feared cadre may have given such an impression to the public. It is suspected that many of his illiberal policies and reluctance to err on the side of liberty and justice may be the direct result of his commitment to that ideology.

That ideology is based on a common thread promoted by the Sangh Parivar organizations and is called the ‘Hindu Nationalist agenda of BJP.’ The ultimate goal of the agenda is to transform the pluralistic and democratic India to a Hindu nation where the majority religion will have the pre-eminence and minorities relegated to subservient role probably being denied equal protection or opportunities, that too, to a substantial segment of the population.

What is happening to the soul of Indian democracy? After five years of BJP rule, lynching has become the national pastime, and the mobocracy rules the day. Attacks on innocent civilians continued even after India’s Supreme Court requested the government to enact new legislation to end an increase in mob violence and lynching that have reportedly killed over a hundred people accused of cattle theft or other bigoted reasoning.

For astute political observers, these are not isolated incidents, but rather a direct result of evolving national policies that have provided cover and credence to vicious gangs and thugs who are engaged in this type of violence in the name of religion. The mob is appeared to be succeeding every day in tearing up the secular fabric of a nation while the Government’s own actions tend to weaken the Institutions of democracy at every juncture.

Let us take a look at some of these developments in the last five years under the Modi administration that is having a transformational impact on the society and accomplishing their stated goals:

The weakening of Institutions:

  1. Disrespecting Parliamentary Democracy:

The constitution framers created a democratic system wherein the legislature would make laws, the executive would implement laws and be accountable to parliament, and an independent judiciary would enforce and interpret the laws. They also put in systems of checks and balances among these three organs of the state. However, over the years, these three organs of the country have pushed the boundaries of their relationship with one another.

NDA has the majority in the Lok Sabha where they pass ordinary bills and then pass it on to Rajya Sabha as Money bills to circumvent their numerical impairment in that body. They also have shown utter disregard to deliberate on essential bills bypassing various parliamentary committees. It should also be noted that Lok Sabha passed the Finance bill of 2018 without even debate against the objections by the opposition.

2)    Running interference with Law Enforcement

             Agencies such as India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Enforcement Directorate of the Finance Ministry, the Income Tax authorities and even local police forces are often accused of doing Government’s bidding. The opposition has charged that their leaders have been frequently targeted for harassment which they consider as a political vendetta for expressing their opinions critical of the government.

3)    Assaulting on the Independence of Judiciary

India has witnessed an extraordinary news conference by four members of the Collegium revealing the skew in the allocation of work and lack of transparency by Dipak Misra, a former Chief Justice of India. According to the retired Justice Jasti Chelameswar, the second senior most judge at the time, “we tried to persuade the CJI to take steps but failed. Unless the Institution of Supreme Court is preserved, democracy won’t survive in the country”. There is indeed a cloud still casting a pall over the recent verdicts on Loya and Mecca Masjid cases.

4)    Weakening of RTI

Since the Narendra Modi government came to power, access to information through the Right to Information (RTI) Act has diminished greatly, according to the annual report of the Central Information Commission (CIC) for 2014-15. “Every Indian deserves to know the truth, and the BJP wants to hide the truth. The BJP believes the truth must be hidden from the people and they must not question people in power. The changes proposed to the RTI will make it a useless Act,” Rahul Gandhi said that on Twitter.

5)    Influencing the Election Commission

Shiv Sena, a member of the NDA coalition, has dubbed the election commission as a ‘Tawaif’ (Mistress) of a political party. Coming from an ally, it only amplifies the long-held suspicion by many that election commission has become a tool increasingly in the hands of the BJP government. “People are losing faith in the voting system,” Shiv Sena spokesperson Sanjay Raut told ANI.

  1. Muzzling of Freedom

     Freedom of Conscience is fundamental to all other liberties. It is innate and God-given. It is guaranteed under the Indian Constitution. However, it is open season on those who freely exercise it. President Ronald Reagan once spoke eloquently on the importance of maintaining the freedom we all cherish. He said “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same”.

  1. a)    Stifling of Individual thought and expression

Professor M.M Kalburgi and Govind Pansare were active in combating the organized mysticism and cultures of gullibility widespread at the “popular” level. Their professed independence and determined efforts to alert the common man from the hideous agenda of the so-called religious godmen cost their lives.

  1. b)    Harassing of the Media

Media is dubbed as the fourth estate and has a vital role to play in a vibrant democracy. However, they are increasingly fearful of their existence if they do not toe the line of the Government. Many of these media outlets are bought out by the crony capitalists and have become the cheerleaders of the BJP agenda.

  1. c)    Curbing dissent in Academia

Academia has become another favorite target of the Modi Government. BJP and its ilk have always hated Institutions like JNU where the free flow of ideas flourished, and lively debates on the pros and cons of contemporary issues were the order of the day. Today, the students and faculty in these revered institutions are intimidated, harassed and called anti-national for failing to toe their Hindutva agenda line and often charged with sedition.

  1. d)    Diminishing Civil Society

Modi Government has been openly hostile to civil society groups. It repeatedly denounces human rights and environmental activism as “anti-national” – a phrase that carries connotations of treason. Their role is critical in a society especially because of the lack of ethics and morality of the current regime that is supremely indifferent to the plight of hundreds of millions of its citizens.

  1. e)    Violating of the Religious Freedom

Religious freedom in India continued on a downward trend in 2017, said the United States Commission on International religious freedom’s annual report released recently. It said that although government statistics have indicated that communal violence has increased over the past two years, during the year, Hindu-nationalists groups sought to “saffronize” India through violence, intimidation, and harassment against non-Hindus and Hindu Dalits” although Indian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion through article 25 and 26. India is home to roughly 172 Million Muslims- the third largest Muslim population in the world. Since the ascendance of Modi as the Prime Minister, tensions between Muslims and Hindus have increased in many parts of the country. Modi’s rise has further pushed Muslims towards marginalization.

Christians, who constitute around 2% of the population, are also under severe stress with many of their places of worship under attack, with increased re-conversion efforts by Hindu fundamentalist organizations, removal of Christmas Day and Easter Day from the National Calendar and by the cancellation of FCRA of thousands of Christian charities effectively putting them out of business, the Saffron brigade is questioning the very Indian ness of every Christian in India.

  1. f)    Policing Morality

A group of youths, mainly reportedly affiliated to Bajrang Dal allegedly stripped and attacked a Muslim youth in public in Mangalore for the simple reason that he was found to be with a Hindu girl. The man identified as Shakir claimed he was merely giving the girl a ride in his car on her request when he was attacked.

  1. g)    Imposing Dietary restrictions

Since Mr. Modi rose to power, emboldened hard-line Hindu activists have assaulted cow traders and people suspected of eating beef, claiming to defend Hindu beliefs. Mohammed Aklaq of New Delhi was dragged down from his home and lynched to death for the suspicion that he had possessed beef in his refrigerator.

  1. i)    Stifling Artistic expression

“Democracy is under threat in India with “artists, writers and rationalists” being attacked in some form or other, says acclaimed actress and filmmaker Nandita Das who feels conservatives and right-wing groups are increasingly becoming country’s moral police. Be it the debate around growing intolerance in India or the agitation around the release of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film “Padmavati” or the issue around “S Durga” or occasional calls to put a temporary ban on Pakistani talent  from working in the Hindi film industry – the conversation around the extent of creative freedom in India keeps coming back. Moreover, Nandita Das feels that there has been an attempt to silence creative voices.

Yogi Adityanath, the saffron-robed new chief minister of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh said some time ago that its most famous monument, Taj Mahal, does not represent  “authentic Indian Culture” – presumably because the 17th-century tomb was built by a Muslim King for his Muslim wife. Minority groups, as well as secular-minded Hindus, are increasingly fearful that the country’s diversity is under threat. “We are turning into Pakistan,” said a society hostess in Delhi.

7)    Practicing Anti-Dalit policies

Since the ascension of BJP to power, there is one in a series of incidents that has revealed the mindset of a party, on the one hand, urging Dalits to unite under the flag of Hindutva but on the other, setting up a delimiter to what extent they can be included. First, the ban on the Ambedkar-Periyar Study circle of IIT Madras, then the burning alive of Dalit children in Haryana and finally General VK Singh allegedly referring to them as animals. The suicide note of Rohit Vemulla, a Dalit scholar, may have summed the heart-breaking sentiment felt across their community. “My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness -the unappreciated child from my past”.

8)   Implementing Zero tolerance in Kashmir

According to the Prem Shankar Jha “let us look at where Modi has taken India in the past five years. In Kashmir, he has let loose a regime of absolute terror based on the idea of zero tolerance for political dissent. Today there are no militants in Kashmir, only terrorists who are being hunted down and killed without even being given a chance to surrender. Modi says the Kashmiris are itching to be freed from them”.

The United Nations also have chimed in: “There is an urgent need to address past and ongoing human rights violations and abuses and deliver justice for all people in Kashmir, who for seven decades have suffered a conflict that has claimed or ruined numerous lives,” a report by the UN Human Rights Office published on Thursday says.

  1. Treating Mythology as Science

Human Resource Administration is busy at work changing curriculum and rewriting history to fit the Sangh Parivar narrative. RSS, the radical organization that is behind this administration, has determined to create a theocratic state and the HRM is more than willing to affect those changes. Jawaharlal Nehru, the architect of modern India, is being made to disappear as well as an iconic figure in Indian history.

Conclusion: Democracy and Secularism in India under serious assault.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s victory in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 has ushered in an unprecedented attack on India’s democracy and injected new elements of intolerance and authoritarianism into the lives of people living in the country. As per Jairus Banaji in an article in the Wire that very eloquently put it “behind the mask of a developmental regime promising rapid industrial expansion and millions of jobs for the mass of unemployed youth, we have seen instead a hideous explosion of the cultural politics of the extreme right, overt acclamations of a Hindu Rashtra, a wide-ranging takeover of educational and cultural institutions by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a rampant culture of violence targeting freedom of expression, freedom of religion, intellectual freedoms, and even the freedom of the young to love, a calculated drive to communalize voters in North India with hate campaigns that have led to the horrid lynching at Dadri and Udhampur, a shocking subversion of the judicial system through a concerted drive to secure the release of elements indicted on fake encounter and terrorism charges, fabrication of evidence to crush a handful of individuals who have campaigned for justice for the victims of the Gujarat violence, and of course the brazen murder of anti-superstition crusaders. The fabric of India’s democracy is today being torn to shreds. This is the first government in independent India where the RSS is overtly in command. We are further away from both Jawaharlal Nehru and BR Ambedkar than ever before: from Nehru’s contempt for the RSS as a harbinger of fascism to Ambedkar’s vision of a casteless India”.

A constitution exists to create a framework for the government to function and the constitution of India tries to keep the government inside that framework. That is what Nehru and Ambedkar intended as its authors. It is obvious to any independent observer that the current Modi regime has shown very little respect for that sacred document. Now it is time for the voters to decide whether they want to protect the Constitution that protects them! Martin Luther King once Jr. Said: Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”. Let voters decide!

(Writer is the Vice-Chairman of the Indian Overseas Congress, USA)

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