Article of Faith: The Death of Indian Democracy

It might be too soon to bemoan the death of Indian democracy, but that horrifying prospect doesn’t seem all that far off. Over the past year, several distressing incidents – that point to a drastic fall in tolerance – have taken place:

– One of India’s best-known painters is forced to die in exile after Hindu fundamentalists force him to leave the land of his birth.
– The BJP government in Madhya Pradesh makes even the possession of beef punishable by a seven-year prison term. Police are also given the authority to carry out raids on the mere suspicion of the presence of this ‘substance’.
– One of India’s most famous authors is stopped from delivering a video address at the Jaipur Lit Fest due to electoral compulsions and threats by Muslim fundamentalists.
– Some obscure Sikh group is all up in arms about Jay Leno’s joke connecting Mitt Romney and the Golden Temple, forcing the government to lodge a formal complaint.
– The government of India asks the BBC to apologise over the ‘insults’ to India in the Top Gear Christmas Special. (The only apology due from the BBC is for making this much-awaited show such a tame and tepid affair.)
– People wearing black clothes at a Rahul Gandhi rally are asked take off their black attire. This follows several incidents where Congress workers beat up protestors.
– The government – and the honourable Delhi High Court – warn that online services could be banned if ‘objectionable’ material was not removed.

Meanwhile, our leaders (and that’s in the worst-possible sense of the word) bicker and squabble in their bid for power and ascendancy. Unfortunately, most of them seem to think that the presence of regular elections is a symptom of good democratic health, everything else be damned.

So, looking at the State of the Union (pardon me while I keel over, laughing and crying alternately), what we have is a country that can spend millions on renovating the Constitution Club for its worthless MPs, and on building statues of a megalomaniac state leader. Now, this would be fine if we weren’t so goddamned poor. But, when 600 children die of encephalitis in UP, and hundreds more spend the bitter Delhi winter on the streets, this spending doesn’t just look obscene, but criminal and treasonous.

The British never really left, did they?

However, this diatribe of mine is not about the abject poverty an overwhelming majority of our countrymen find themselves stuck in, but is about a fundamental issue pertaining to our nation’s soul:Freedom of Expression. And to a lesser extent, the pernicious influence religious dogma has on the poor and ignorant. In fact, it is this dogma that keeps poverty alive, forces women into subjugation, and makes development impossible. When all you need to do to forestall the construction of a highway is to build a shrine, there’s something seriously wrong. When girls’ education suffers due to regressive beliefs, it’s a crime that endangers our nation. When criticism of a corrupt leader is considered ‘objectionable’, it’s a wake-up call.

Extremism – and a stubborn refusal to allow dissenting voices to be heard – is the single biggest factor in the suffering we see around us. I am not taking issue with faith in God or in a higher power. What is wrong is inflexible religious doctrine that strengthens human cruelty.

Over the past few years, there have been several such incidents where self-proclaimed ‘defenders’ of religion/India have threatened violence when confronted with any thought not in sync with their atavistic beliefs. But, can we blame just these hotheads? No. None of this is possible with the acquiescence of the political class and bureaucracy. These rulers of ours, who have arrogated to themselves a god-given right of being our mai-baap, know very well that the only hope they have of maintaining their hold on power is to keep a vast swathe of India poor and fearful.

The real blasphemers are those whose faith is so weak that mere words, jokes, or stand-up sketches can damage their sentiments. The real traitors are the ones who turn respect for our nation into a rallying point for sheep-like assent. The real criminals are the ones who protect only the violent. They are the ones who shouldn’t matter. They are the ones whose extreme beliefs deserve no protection whatsoever.

Faith is not wrong; religion is not evil – when used constructively. For the majority of people, their faith is a friend that gives their lives a moral balance. It adds colour and variety, and enriches our culture. But, it is the extremists, whose threats of violence give them more weight than they deserve, who turn this into a nightmare.

It is human nature to oppose – by any means possible – any change or challenge to the status quo. At the same time, it is also the duty of the government to see that violence is not used to suppress this change. Fight others’ ideas and words with your own, not with weapons.

What makes India real is not our physical reach but the idea that a bunch of disparate peoples – hailing across the divides of geography, race, culture, and religious beliefs, can live together with tolerance and mutual respect. This respect also means acknowledging those who disagree with you, or don’t believe in your dogma.

Failing to protect dialogue from rabble-rousing hotheads is a betrayal of the great ideals upon which our nation was founded.

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