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Shrinking freedoms: ARE WE REALLY A DEMOCRACY?, 13 February, 2013 Print E-mail

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New Delhi, 13 February 2013

Shrinking freedoms


By Proloy Bagchi

 For more than 65 years we have been a democracy and we are even called the largest democracy. Some call our democracy vibrant and some others brand it “raucous”. Whatever one might call it, it is universally accepted that it is indeed a democracy. We have all the elements of a democracy – a Parliament, an independent judiciary, a government that acts in the name of a constitutional head and a Press or, one might say, the media that claims to be free and independent.

Having all the trappings of a democracy the country should have ensured freedom of every kind to the citizens. But that is not so. The freedoms that one seeks in a democracy – those of speech and expression, thoughts and actions, that of movement within the country and so on – are, of late, being severely restricted. In fact, one tends to feel that our democracy is increasingly becoming restrictive on various counts.

Let us take the fourth pillar of democracy, for instance, the media. Only the other day the Chairperson of the Press Council of India (PCI) advised governments to shun the practice of “blackmailing” the media by stopping the flow of advertisements to them to counter criticism. Describing the practice as “undemocratic”, he threatened legal action if such practices were brought to his notice. This, however, has been the practice ever since our democratic framework came into existence. No wonder the media houses came in support of the chairman PCI.

Ads largely sustain affordable dissemination of information. Governments and their agencies command enormous amounts of funds for advertisements and they have been using this clout with impunity to browbeat the media. Most fall in line but some, made of sterner stuff, choose to plough a lonely furrow. In the process, truth and objectivity become casualties, depriving the people at large accurate perspectives of all that happens around them.

I can quite comprehend the way the governments gag people’s voices. About a decade ago a large number of columnists in Bhopal, including this reporter, used to write comments in the local papers on all that transpired or did not transpire. The pieces were generally critical of the local government and its agencies. Nonetheless, the local readers and even the bureaucracy used to appreciate the comments. All the columnists, they said, acted as opinion makers. Soon, however, the dailies, including several national ones, stopped publishing what they called unsolicited articles. Even the “letters” column has been banished from the city supplements. One feels so helpless. Has the Press been bought off?

The curtailment of freedom also occurs because of the political corruption spawned by the country’s electoral system. In the prevailing “first-past-the-post” system votes are purchased by or on behalf of the candidates. Political parties, therefore, collect huge amounts legally or illegally to further their chances of winning elections only by majority of votes polled. Those which capture power would seem to be hitting gold mines. In this era of coalition politics even a minor political ally can generate enormous amounts of funds through their respective representatives in the governments or in the legislatures. One cannot really forget the statement given in one unguarded moment by DMK’s Andimuthu Raja of “2G Spectrum”-fame that he had a party to take care of, national interests did not seem to matter.

Every political party indulges in this practice, the Grand Old Party of India having become a pastmaster in the game. The slush funds are used in electoral campaigns, to buy support or even legislators to enable capture of power or to cling on to it. Mindboggling illegal amounts are collected in dodgy ways only to enable further milking of the system and plunder of public resources depriving the common man his freedoms of employment, education, health care and so on.

In the midst of rising inequities politicians and industrialists are rapidly becoming billionaires in the country’s liberalised economy while the common man continues to languish in poverty, disease and squalor. Ours is no longer a democracy; it is an oligarchy that serves only a few, their families and sycophants to the exclusion of the vast majority.

The lure of power has converted our politicians into unprincipled crooks. Not only there are riches that come within one’s grasp but also all that which power alone can secure – whether legal or illegal, ethical or unethical. Self-serving, as they are, they think only of furtherance of their interests. (Emergence of dynastic politics is a direct consequence.) General wellbeing of the nation is mostly put on the back-burner.

Thus, taking a partisan view a railways minister would approve projects for his own constituency and an industries minister would locate industries despite difficulties of infrastructure and logistics in his area. In the era of weak governance together with the scourge of “coalition-dharma”, this evil has become a full-blown curse affecting the lives of a vast section.

A peculiar phenomenon is being currently witnessed. Small social groups or those from religious fringes have developed the audaciousness and the spunk to torment and curtail liberties of the innocent. In Haryana, for instance, a “khap” bans the use of cell phones by women or prevents them from marrying men of their own choice for the sake of upholding the “tradition” or far away in caste-conscious Tamil Nadu a dalit is ostracised for marrying an upper-caste.

For a misconceived affront to a faith, a Rushdie is prevented to attend Literary Festivals, a Nasreen is not only chased out of Kolkata, a supposedly secular metropolis, she is also assaulted in Hyderabad and the iconic artist MF Hussain is forced to live and die abroad. Likewise, while, three Kashmiri teenagers had to say goodbye to their rock-band in compliance with a fatwa, another set of youngsters were assaulted for partying in a way disliked by “moral policemen” of a small obscure religious group in Karnataka.

Given above is a list which is only illustrative of the ways democratic freedoms of our countrymen guaranteed under the Constitution are being whittled down. What is more, while the traditional liberalism of the country and the freedom to practice it progressively shrinks with small socio-religious groups bullying the rest, the dispensations seem to be unable to move in to stem the obvious rot for fear of losing (political) support. None seems to want to rock the boat, little realising that such indifference, over a period of time, would only nourish a growing monster.

In the absence of strong political formations at the Centre and ascendance of regional political set-ups the future does not hold out any hopes. Dependence on regional set-ups has seemingly emasculated the national parties and hence the period of non-governance and ambivalence towards rule of law is likely to get prolonged. In the process, democratic freedoms, as we have known them so far, may also progressively get pared down. ---INFA 

(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)


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