Time to fight undeclared emergency
Dr. Santosh Kumar Mohapatra*
June 25, 2021, is the 46th anniversary of the declaration of the State of Emergency. Prime Minister Narendra Modi left no stone unturned to make a stringent attack on Congress. While tweeting, Prime Minister Narendra Modi hit out at the Congress for trampling over the country’s democratic ethos and said the dark days of Emergency imposed in 1975 can never be forgotten.
He described the Emergency period from 1975 to 1977 as a systematic destruction of institutions. He urged Indians to pledge to do everything possible to strengthen India’s democratic spirit, and live up to the values enshrined in our Constitution. Union Home Minister Amit Shah called the emergency a period of “brutal tortures” and “ruthless rule of 21 months” to “quell the voices against one family.” The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) urged people to pledge that “Congress should never be given a chance to do it again”.
Except for the short interval of the Emergency, India has always upheld steadfast faith in civil liberties, debates, freedom of expression, and consensus. Therefore, India’s democratic model has been respected internationally. However, our mainstream political culture is undergoing an epochal change now. Democracy has been confined to only suffrage or the right to vote. Poor and honest people cannot dare to contest election today. The election has become a rich person’s game as a larger percentage of people with criminal backgrounds having huge assets are elected to parliament.
There has been a huge discussion on emergency by the ruling class in the last few years is to camouflage its clandestine design of establishing political suzerainty and hegemony and to have hassle-free oligarchic, despotic rule by battering opposition. How can a party be blamed for the mistake of one leader only? But the truth is that it is not Congress but Indira Gandhi had declared an emergency. People should not be swayed by such propaganda. Indira Gandhi is not alive and she has no chance to rule again. But she had begged apology after defeat and then people elected her again as Janata Dal’s experiment ended in a fiasco.
Can the nation forget the enormous contribution of other Congress leaders? It is true, we have not developed the way we should have. But a lot of progress has been made during the Congress regime. But what is worrying is that progress made in Congress/UPA regime has taken a downward turn under the present political dispensation. There is no inclusive development.
Today, the atmosphere is so noxious, so toxic, that Indians are probably undergoing the excruciating experience of undeclared emergency. The editorial titled “Eerie silence: undeclared emergency” (The Telegraph, 1 February 21) raises the same question: Is India in a state of “undeclared emergency”? Of course, several media organizations — the Press Club of India, Editors Guild of India, Indian Women’s Press Corps, Indian Journalists Union are among them — think this is, indeed, the case.
Their concerns cannot be scrubbed away. ‘Democratic’ India has developed a new brash impetuous of intimidating members of the fourth estate who still have the spine left to be objective and critical. Legal provisions, some of which are legacies of colonial law, are being unashamedly used to impose a culture of silence. Democracy must ensure equal opportunities and equal rights for all citizens. But this is a chimera today.
In this situation, it is interesting to observe how the international community perceives the perilous turn that our republic is taking. India’s democracy which prides itself as the world’s largest democracy is taking a ranking battering these days. Four renowned reports, the Freedom House Report and the Global Democracy Index, and World Press Index which use a rigorous methodology, show how the international community perceives what’s happening in India. Freedom House’s latest global report on political rights and civil liberties covers developments in 195 countries and 15 territories. V-Dem, a Swedish rights organisation, claims to produce the largest global dataset on democracy involving 202 countries from 1789 to 2020. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index gives a snapshot of the health of democracy in 165 countries and two territories. World Press Freedom Index is being released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a French NGO.
On March 3, in its annual report on global political rights and liberties, US-based non-profit “Freedom House” downgraded India from a free democracy to a “partially free democracy”. This status change, according to the report, came “due to a multiyear pattern in which the Hindu nationalist government and its allies have presided over rising violence and discriminatory policies affecting the Muslim population and pursued a crackdown on expressions of dissent by the media, academics, civil society groups, and protesters.” Freedom House said civil liberties have been in decline since Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, and that India’s “fall from the upper ranks of free nations” could have a more damaging effect on the world’s democratic standards.
A week later on March 11, in its report titled “Autocratization Turns Viral.” V-Dem demoted India from being a democracy to an “electoral autocracy”. This decline has been gradual yet consistent over the past few years. Its assessment is correct as India’s ranking was also lower during the Emergency in the mid-1970s when Indira Gandhi, the former prime minister belonging to the Congress party, suspended civil liberties.
In month of February 2021, India, described as a “flawed democracy”, slipped two places to 53rd position in the latest Democracy Index published by The Economist Intelligence Unit. The Economist’s Democracy Index is based on measuring electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties. Its score dropped from 7.92 in 2014 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power to 6.61 last year, and its global ranking slipped from 27th to 53rd among 167 countries surveyed in 2020.
The report also discusses the mounting pressure on India’s democratic norms, with ‘democratic backsliding by the authorities and crackdowns on civil liberties’ and ‘a religious element to the conceptualization of Indian citizenship’. Efforts to contain and suppress Covid-19 led to further erosion of civil liberties.
Media is called the fourth pillar of democracy in a democratic country like India. The strength of any democracy lies with the transparency of the media. It is believed that whenever a democratic government tries to be autocratic, the media comes in the light to safeguard the interests of the citizens and netizens. But India has been placed at 142nd position among 180 countries in the latest World Press Freedom Index 2021, released on April 20, 2021.
India was at 142nd position in 2020 as well, which means below 141 countries. In 2016. India’s rank was 133 which has steadily climbed down to 142 in 2020. The RSF report says India is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their job properly. They are exposed to every kind of attack, including police violence against reporters, ambushes by political activists, and reprisals instigated by criminal groups or corrupt local officials.
Since 2019, the BJP government has been trying to unleash a fiendish attack on democracy, attempting to decimate the concept of lawful protest and the right to dissent. There is a gradual shrinking of the democratic footprint across the country. Since India has always been a melting pot of ideas and discourses, the decline of democratic space is serious. It is sad for democracy when young activists are branded as terrorists.
“The state has blurred the line between the constitutionally guaranteed ‘right to protest’ and ‘terrorist activity’. If such blurring gains traction, democracy would be in peril”. This was the observation of the Delhi High Court while granting bail to three student activists arrested for allegedly instigating the Delhi riots of February 2020. The concern of the court raises serious questions about the transformation of the Indian polity. It is gratifying that the courts have finally come forward in defence of the right to protest and the right to dissent. But the real problem that we face is deeper.
Now sedition charges are made against journalists, editors, and intellectuals for showing dissent, against the government. Data from the National Crime Records Bureau in 2019 indicated that there had been an astonishing 165% rise in cases of sedition, many of which targeted journalists. The weaponization of sedition — a point that the Editors Guild has drawn attention to — as well as of other draconian legislations including recent control on social media can have only intents of stifling, throttling of independent and critical views. This warrants serious introspection on the part of institutions that claim to be the upholders of democracy.
Even during the emergency, rules against journalists were not so punitive, harsh. Christophe Jaffrelot- professor of political science, France, is one of the acknowledged experts on right-wing nationalism- has mentioned in his latest book, titled “India’s First Dictatorship, is about the Emergency in 1975-77” that India is less an undeclared emergency and more sultanism.
During an emergency, the media was against the government. All were aware of the danger and fought unitedly. But now the situation is graver, horrible. The media has lost its independence and credibility and no more acting as a watchdog of democracy rather has become part of the ruling classes. Media is subverted and pounded ether by veiled threat or allurement of advertisement. Media houses are twisting their editorial policies to suit the dictate of the ruling dispensation. It is no more representing the voice of the voiceless.
People are unable to understand the surreptitious design of a ruler and its pro-corporate, pro-rich agenda, communal polarisation, exploitation of religious faith for political gains. People are made to believe by media that despite leading a miserable life, this the best possible situation in a given situation so that people do not raise voice against injustice.
A larger percentage of youth remaining unemployed don’t think that government policies have also spurring unemployment. The word “positivity “is frequently uttered today to suppress dissent and criticism and accept suffering, exploitation without protest. Society is torn asunder and people, families are divided while the certain sections of intellectual are deliberately defending failures of rulers, and people are deprived of knowing the truth. Hatred is created against dissenters and critics. Social media is flooded with false, fabricated, and concocted news and video.
The ruling dispensation at the Center is comparing its performance with the worse records of any past years, previous regimes, other countries to hide its failures. It is not efficient people but the supporters of ruling dispensation have been entrusted with the handling of most of the regulatory bodies, and key posts which are supposed to provide justice to people and ensure pro-people governance. This has weakened the justice delivery system, suppressed the voice of the voiceless, weakened democracy, and helped the rich.
The basic foundation of a democracy is that there should be a trustworthy Opposition that should speak for the masses. By trying to decimate the opposition, the Narendra Modi government has created a culture of repression, fear, and silence. Now emergency-like situation is prevailing. Reverses to India’s democratic and pluralist exceptionalism would imperil social cohesion at home and corrode the country’s reputation abroad. Hence, it is high time to fight an undeclared emergency.
The author is an Odisha-based eminent columnist/economist and social thinker. He can be reached through e-mail at [email protected]
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Sambad English.