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In Indian families and in Parliament, tears are the weapons of authority

Amrita Dutta writes: Government’s refusal to talk to the Opposition as equals, using ideas of honour and propriety as a smokescreen for a ruthless exercise of power is a dissolution of democracy. It’s a game familiar to those growing up in Indian homes.

Written by Amrita Dutta |
Updated: August 19, 2021 7:39:56 am
Rajya Sabha Chairman Venkaiah Naidu turned emotional on Wednesday. (ANI)

Dear ladies log, we have seen this film before, haven’t we? The men of the house moved to tears in the name of order, discipline and “sacredness”, usually when confronted by difficult daughters or forbidden love or a challenge to authority.

Rare is the Indian woman whose desires and decisions — to love, to study, to marry or not — have not been questioned thus: “Do you know how much this will hurt your father/family? Do you know how much we love you?” A venerable Indian tradition in which the powerful do not just stamp out your freedoms, but it breaks their heart if you object to it. And so, in the horrified hush that follows, the house rallies around the patriarch’s feelings, the young woman sacrifices hers — and the rebellion is sidestepped. End of debate.

I was reminded of such expert emotional arm-twisting, as I watched the foiling of debate and deliberation in the Monsoon Session of Parliament, which ended with Rajya Sabha chairman Venkaiah Naidu in tears. The anguish of the veteran BJP leader was at the disruption of the House by Opposition members, who refused to give in to the magnificent mandate of the Modi government, often useful to ram through sweeping changes in laws.

This time, the government used it to dodge straight questions on whether it used the Pegasus spyware against Indians, allegations which have moved many other governments to action. The Opposition insisted on answers and made a ruckus. The government did not relent. It flexed muscles and cried anarchy, and Naidu said he lost a night’s sleep. No, somehow, the tears were not at the prospect of a predatory state snooping and hacking phones; at the citizen being turned into the enemy.

As Hindi cinema’s fathers through the ages have shown us, the tears of those in positions of authority are often effective — in breaking up couples and getting sons to fall in line, in silencing the mutinous and snatching back the currency of victimhood.

It happens in Houses of Parliament, as well as our ghar-parivar and gali-mohalla, where young girls (and boys) are trained to tiptoe around the fragile emotions of loving fathers and husbands, to keep their voices down, bite that cheeky answer back, and not ask inconvenient questions.

My mother recalls how, at dusk and with the imminent arrival of their father from work, her boisterous siblings and she would be ordered to turn into silent shadows at home. The girls would pull bangles up their little arms, so that they did not tinkle disobediently.

But bangles will clink — and some girls grow up to be women with difficult questions, at home and in the House. They will not go gently, if they are being forced into marriage or yanked out of college and love; or being told to respect disrespectful and abusive elders. In Indian families, such revolts are met with gaslighting (outright denial of oppression), the tears of those who wield authority over children and women, and their fury at being challenged.

It’s something we have seen play out often in our public life in the last couple of years. The Modi government has muscled through legislation as varied as the Citizenship Amendment Act, the abrogation of Article 370 and the farm reforms. When vast numbers have taken to the streets to say, “Sorry, we do not agree. Your laws will harm our lives and identities”, it has responded with injured pride and pique, vilification and sedition cases.

Paternalism sustains homes and domestic hierarchies. In schools and colleges, it trains us in deference, not doubt. Increasingly, it also bleeds into our political and social life, as worship of authority and the authoritarian turns into a cult. The state bloats a little more every day on a diet of our freedoms. It has drawn Lakshman rekhas around who we can marry, what faith we can follow, and what films we can watch. It even wants the power to cancel old films cleared by the CBFC, just in case.

The monsoon session of Parliament saw a prolonged stalemate, but also extraordinary instances of protesting Opposition members being edited out of the Lok Sabha TV telecast. The government believes that the grave questions thrown up by the Pegasus scandal or the year-long farm protests or its mismanagement of the pandemic can be muted by invocations of national or parliamentary honour.

It believes, like good Indian parents, that since it knows best, it is beyond reproach. Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla has rued the “poor productivity” of the House, another minister has likened Opposition’s unruly behaviour in the House to vandalism. Naidu has denounced the Opposition’s protests as “sacrilege” in a “temple of democracy”.

All of this points to an idea of parliamentary democracy in which the sarkar is the headmaster, and the others misguided children who must keep their fingers on their lips. Or, at best, a clearing house for bills, bound to meet KRAs of productivity.

But the Parliament of a large democracy must be held to higher standards — it must engage with things that adults deal with, such as dissent and disagreement. It is more — a staging ground of politics, noise and protest. It is not a temple, where accountability must bow to reverence, or where notions of purity are wielded to exclude large sections.

The refusal to talk to the Opposition as equals, the need to use ideas of honour and propriety as a smokescreen for a ruthless exercise of power is a dissolution of democracy. It is a game still played in Indian families, but daily challenged as well by the anger and aspiration of young men and women. But if Parliament is turned, without a fuss or a furore, into such a pygmy patriarchal set-up, tears must be shed for such a travesty.

This column first appeared in the print edition on August 18, 2021 under the title ‘Cry, beloved democracy’. amrita.dutta@expressindia.com

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