Updated: February 24, 2016 12:02:26 am
Over the last few days, different parts of our fine nation have churned, with activists championing a variety of causes and students reclaiming their democratic right to debate issues like the death penalty, tribal rights, Dalit access to education, forests under threat from mining interests and state repression. As democratic voices rise to levels that can no longer be ignored, surprisingly, the prime minister’s response has been to suggest that there is an elaborately choreographed conspiracy, which may involve NGOs, to challenge his leadership.
This isn’t surprising. After all, the government and its overzealous agencies have invested considerable energy in muzzling dissent — the coming together of civil society is the result of this campaign. Meanwhile, depressing stories continue to pour out: Most recently, tribal rights activists, like Soni Sori, have been subjected to the worst forms of repression.
But despite the gloomy stories, there is a ray of hope. February 18, 2016 will go down in history — provided our fundamentalist friends do not edit it out of the public record — as a day when democracy danced defiantly in the streets of Delhi. Even as the police stood by waiting to respond — there was an underlying threat of violence that no one wanted to acknowledge but none could ignore entirely — thousands took to the streets in support of JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar, whose case epitomises the silencing of dissent. We came out in our thousands to question the arbitrariness of his arrest, the ridiculousness of the sedition charges against him, and the sheer injustice of him and JNU being on public media trial — indeed, he has already been judged guilty by some media houses.
I am struck by a sense of deja vu. One year ago, I faced a similar, though less dramatic, situation. I had dared to campaign in support of a forest community opposing a coal mine, so I, too, had been branded an “anti-national”. My patriotism, too, was put on public trial and many of my rights — to speak truth to power, to speak up on behalf of communities under threat, to challenge “development” — were summarily revoked.
I paid a heavy price at the time and over the following year. Indeed, all my colleagues at Greenpeace did, as we found our accounts frozen, our time taken up in court cases defending ourselves against a series of increasingly creative and arbitrary allegations, our personal freedoms curtailed, and our actions as a collective questioned, repeatedly and unfairly. We were prepared to pay this price — though grudg-ingly — because we knew it was the cost of questioning this government’s singular vision of development.
One year on, I am distressed to find just how much company I now have. What began as attacks on environmentalists and social activists now encompasses so many others — and the price being demanded is even higher. Kanhaiya’s arrest was followed by outbreaks of violence on the streets and, shockingly, even in courtrooms. Justice and peace became mere words, trampled upon by a furious mob. The message is chillingly clear: Anyone who disagrees with the ruling elite’s vision of the nation is “anti-national” — and a conspirator. Any talk of freedom of speech or constitutional rights is “sedition”. We are now at pains to prove just how “Indian” we are.
The current government has been aggressively pushing an agenda to fast-track economic policies that ensure growth at any cost, dilute environmental regulatory frameworks in favour of industry, change laws on the rights of forest-dwelling communities, and silently usurp people’s rights over their land, forests and other resources that are deemed fair game to be sacrificed for the “development” of the nation. Anyone who dares to speak in opposition is promptly branded an anti-development, anti-national conspirator.
The second part of the agenda is to institutionalise an ideological hegemony in the country, and polarise people along lines of ultra-nationalism and religion. People like Rohith Vemula, Kanhaiya, Perumal Murugan and Mohammad Akhlaq became the unintended flashpoints of this narrative, plot-turners in this saga.
When fundamentalists seek to control the entire spectrum of human behaviour — from what we eat to what we say; from what we read to which philosophical ideals we choose to embrace — we are sent hurtling towards the forceful creation of a monolithic society. One that denies its citizens the right to personal freedom, the right to diversity. This may be the expected — though not the acceptable — new normal.
As concerned citizens, we have the moral obligation to join forces in defence of the one ideal we share despite our many differences: The right to dissent, to speak our minds, and advocate for an alternate definition of growth, development, human rights and, indeed, the nation. For this, we must use every possible non-violent, democratic tool at our disposal. My patriotism is not up for discussion. You can question my position on certain issues and vociferously disagree with my opinions. But you cannot create a new definition of nationalism and then measure my patriotism against it.
The silver lining is that each time the government denies someone the right to an “alternate opinion”, it strengthens our resistance. Each time it slaps the “anti-national” label on someone, it widens our support base. The more people it clamps down on, the more it increases the numbers of those on our side of the barriers. The greater the freedoms it restricts, the louder the voices against it will get.
Will the dream of a diverse India, which we are all so proud of, be allowed to flourish? Or will we find ourselves keepers of an alternate nation, struggling to keep our notion of our country alive in spite of — not along with — this proudly elected majority government that wants to believe it represents us all? Only time will tell. But it will not be a silent story, and not one that is told from just one side of the protest-march barriers. Of that you can be sure.
I love my country, in all its pluralist splendour. I love it enough to commit to its future, to work towards improving circumstances for all, and help bring about social change. We are ready to defend our vision of India even if efforts like these lead to us being branded anti-national conspirators.
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