Is India Really a Democracy? The Answer, My Friend, Is Blowing in the Wind: Nayantara Sahgal

The author's lament about the attacks on individual rights and freedoms in present-day India.

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Songs have a way of staying in the mind. Songs stay ready to be remembered, and never more powerfully than when their words bring to mind the times we are living in. One such song is Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’:

‘How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry;
how many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died;
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, the answer is blowin’ in the wind. . .’

Why do these words remind me of India today? Is it because I am standing on the same soil, but around me is an unfamiliar country? I keep hearing that India is a democracy but in a democracy, it is criminals who are in jail – not citizens who have committed no crime but to disagree with the ruling power. In what number these have been incarcerated we don’t know. So can we call India a democracy?

The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind.

Recently I heard that the government wants a strong opposition. But when members of the opposition such as the Elgar Parishad prisoners, to name one case, are in jail for criticising some official measure or not falling in line with the ruling ideology, is this the way that a democracy treats dissent?

In all the decades since independence in 1947, there have been robust fights between opposition and government over every conceivable issue, inside and outside parliament. No one was sent to jail for loud and clear denouncements of some government action or government policy. India’s vigorously functioning democracy was admired the world over as an example to other Asian countries. Why is this example not being followed in present-day India itself?

We need to face the terrible truth that though prisoners in a democratic country have rights, these have not been observed here under governments past and present. It is a matter of shame that prisoners in Indian jails are routinely tortured to extract confessions, and selected political prisoners have been singled out for vicious treatment including denial of bail even when bail was desperately needed for medical or family reasons. Some have died of their treatment in jail. One well-known victim was the Catholic priest Father Stan Swamy who was eventually released only to die on his release. How many unknown political prisoners may have suffered a like fate we do not know. Does this sound as if the government wants a strong opposition?

The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind.

People hold posters and candles outside the church holding a memorial for the human rights activist and Jesuit priest Father Stan Swamy, in Mumbai, Tuesday, July 6, 2021. Photo: PTI/Kunal Patil

I ask myself, is this India? I look around at all that is happening and it is not the country I grew up in. It looks like some alien country in which no familiar landmark remains. My newly independent India gave itself a constitution that guaranteed liberty, equality and fraternity to all Indians. It is a constitution that recognises and respects individual rights and the absolute right of every Indian to live and worship as he/she chooses. This rock-solid constitutional guarantee can in no circumstances whatsoever be compromised or withdrawn. That legacy is being abused or ignored. It is tattered and torn. The India that inherited it, cherished it and took pride in it is no more.

Can a country and all the individual rights and freedoms it once gloried in disappear? We see that it can. I am watching it struggling to survive, as I am watching the multi-cultured, multi-religious civilisation that India once was, gasping for breath.

In actual human terms, the policy of shrinking India into a single Hindu – as defined by Hindutva – culture has left millions of Indian citizens living in fear of what may happen to them as they see what is being done to their kind. Muslims are being targeted. Two well-known tragedies are those of an innocent blacksmith and a fifteen-year-old boy on a train, going home with Eid presents for his family. They have respectively been lynched and knifed to death. Christian churches are being vandalised or torn down, Bibles have been burned.

The atmosphere around us has altered. Different values now prevail and demand our allegiance. Hatred is the new teaching. Vengeance is permissible in order to carry it out. Violence has become an accepted way of life. Lynch mobs flourish and roam free. The murderer of the greatest Indian of our time is being hailed as a hero. Where am I, I ask myself. Can this be India?

To get back to the plight of political prisoners and the treatment of those who have been thrown into jail on trumped-up charges, let us look at the known facts of one famous case, that of G.N. Saibaba, a dedicated professor of high repute at Delhi University whose passion is teaching, who is loved and respected by his students and colleagues, who is known for his help to poor, rural and backward students, and for his free tuitions to the needy.

What has happened to Saibaba is documented in detail in his book of poems and letters from prison titled Why Do You Fear My Way So Much? from which this account is taken:

One afternoon in 2013, 50 policemen (in civil dress) stormed his house at the university and took away his laptop, his and his wife’s phones and other precious belongings on the charge that he had stolen some goods that had been found in a village in Maharashtra. What stolen goods? Nobody knows. Soon after, the police were back and their vehicles surrounded the house while they interrogated Saibaba late into the night. Some months later, they pulled him out of his car while he was driving home from college, took him to the airport without informing his family and flew him to Nagpur. From there, he was taken to Gadchiroli in a van surrounded by vehicles full of armed commandos pointing their weapons in all directions.

This charade must have been designed to show they had arrested a dangerous terrorist and not a professor of English literature who had been bound to his wheelchair since childhood as the result of a bout of polio. Saibaba was then locked into a solitary cell known as an anda cell. I had never heard of an anda cell but have learned that it is inhumanly cramped. Half the cell has no roof, only an iron grill that lets in the pouring rain and scorching sun so that he feels as unprotected as he would on an open road.

In dire need of medical treatment for the painful bloodied wounds and bruises of his brutal removal to jail and for his rapidly deteriorating health which has been neglected too long, his barbaric confinement has left him inanimate and immovable. He is unable to lift his hand or foot without help. In these tragic and inhuman conditions, he has not been allowed bail. The United Nations, and protestors fighting this shocking injustice both in India and abroad, have long been demanding his release. But to date, there is no release for Saibaba.

Can it be true that what is known as democracy in today’s India has a different meaning from democracy as it is practised worldwide? But what use is it asking, for the answer is blowing in the wind.

Nayantara Sahgal is an Indian writer, winner of the 1986 Sahitya Akademi Award and is the niece of Jawaharlal Nehru.