Steps to undermine democracy in India are becoming increasingly common. The police action by the Uttar Pradesh government – ruled by the same political party that runs the Central government – against The Wire and its founding editor, Siddharth Varadarajan, shows how far-reaching the destructive stabs at democracy have become in India.
The Wire’s views on what is happening differ from those of the government, but it is terrible to see, related to that difference, the attempt of the UP police to press the charge of criminality against The Wire, with the possibility of arrest of its editor.
As a proud Indian citizen, I have to hang my head in shame at the gross misbehaviour of our elected leaders – both for their attempt to curb media independence and for their efforts to violate freedom of speech in the country. While recording my condemnation of this particular case – and demanding that the charges of criminality be immediately withdrawn – I cannot but reflect on the general subject of the decline of democratic freedom in my country.
The thoroughly unjust criminal proceedings against Varadarajan and The Wire are terrible developments for India. They are so not just because they bring out – for the whole world to see – how incredibly intolerant the largest democracy in the world has become under its present leadership. India’s fall from democratic norms has been, in recent years, a subject of widespread discussion – and frequent denunciation – in the world, bringing sadness to India’s friends and much joy to its enemies. Serious as this global fall is – from which India’s recovery would take time (after the present political leaders get replaced, as will no doubt happen sooner or later) – that is hardly the worst aspect of this terrible police action and of similar acts of authoritarianism in many parts of India. The main loss for India from such striking misuse of political power is surely its far-reaching domestic consequence.
Democracy in India has accomplished many positive results. The persistent occurrence of devastating famines in India, which characterised British India, stopped immediately with the establishment of democratic governance and media freedom. There are many other achievements, for example the major advances by India in intellectual creativity, making use of a combination of democratic tolerance and extensive media freedom. While there are other democratic objectives such as the removal of poverty and of gross inequality which need to be pursued further, they could be achieved with better policies within – and helped by – a democratic political system. Even if China is seen as having done well notwithstanding its restrictions on press freedom, that is a partial story (China also produced the largest famine in history during the Great Leap Forward), and the achievements are thoroughly dependent on the commitment of China’s leadership to schooling and basic healthcare for all, in line with the core political faith of the leadership, which has no parallel in India. To go against media independence in conditions like India’s cannot be an intelligent development policy.
Winning a general election gives the ruling party powers that can be interpreted in different ways, and sometimes more can be read into it than is constitutionally justified. The issue is not so much whether the spectacular outcome in the 2019 general elections was strongly influenced by a war – which tends to favour ruling parties (as the Falklands War turned Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher from trailing in the polls in 1982 to a resounding victor in 1983), nor whether it was pivotally influenced by the immensely larger electoral resources that the ruling party had. It concerns, rather, the misinterpretation of the powers that legitimately follow from a victory in a legislative election.
A victory here does not give the rulers the moral – or even legal – authority to identify someone as being “anti-national” merely because he or she is opposed to the government (which is not the nation). Nor does it allow the government to characterise a political disagreement with it as “sedition” (as has been repeatedly done by the Indian government). Nor, in the present case of the UP government’s police action, can any criminality charge be drawn based on a journalist’s different reading of facts from what the government wants people to believe.
I end with two final points. First, no government lasts forever, even though the ruling groups might have the illusion that they would. The terrible departures from acceptable norms that the government may be able to push through right now may not be viewed in quite the same way in the future. Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s famous poem ‘Hum Dekhenge’, written in protest against President Zia ul Haq’s rule, pointed to a time in the future, when today’s deeds would be judged differently. Zia was all-powerful then, but how is he viewed today? And how are the politically invincible authoritarian rulers of Latin America of the past typically seen today? Are powerful rulers in India thoroughly indifferent to judgments that history will make?
The second point concerns our national history. India fought for democratic rights for a long time during its struggle for independence – many people gave their lives, and others went through huge hardship, to establish an independent democracy in our country – with a wonderful combination of citizens with many different religions, persuasions and convictions. That struggle was not for the arbitrary governance by an imperious regime that fits the UP police action against media freedom, combined with the attempted arrest of great journalists. We did understand in our colonial past the inferior status of being a citizen of the British Raj. But can we really accept having a similar subjugation in our own democracy?
Amartya Sen is an economist.
This article is published under a Creative Commons license, CC-BY-SA.