Is it a hopeful time or a time of deep despair for India?
The predominating public debate about the condition of contemporary India is visibly polarised along these lines.
One the one hand, there is talk of India having entered an ‘Amrit Kaal’ or golden era. This assertion is made by the ruling dispensation. On the other is an overwhelming feeling that India is fast moving towards a dark age of totalitarianism.
There is nothing much to worry about if the country is pacing towards a hallowed time. We can just continue to be in the country and reap the benefits. However, it’s a matter of concern if we are descending into a dark age – perhaps some preparation is warranted.
Clearly, the concern that democratic rights are shrinking in India is not unfounded. A good number of human rights activists and journalist who exercise these rights – especially the right to criticise the government – are facing police cases or are already in jail.
The recent incidents of the detention of journalists associated with the news portal NewsClick and the arrest of its founder and editor Prabir Purkayastha and the human resource chief Amit Chakravarty, and reappearance of a criminal case filed way back in 2010 against Arundhati Roy, author, and Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a former Kashmir University professor, are clear examples of the onslaught on democratic values.
It almost seems as if democratic rights are the price one has to pay to enter into or live in this Amrit Kaal.
However, how useful is the term totalitarianism to understand the predicament India is facing today? To pose the question differently, has the ruling dispensation managed to totalise every domain and every strata of life in India to accept it as an invincible force? This might be their ultimate goal but to assume we are already there is a bit premature and can only cause hopelessness and despair. It would also be wrong to assume that there are no totalitarian tendencies in India today.
One of the key aspirations of any totalitarian regime is to make the populace subservient to its world views. It is here that it finds its direct opponents in the media, the fourth pillar of liberal democracy, and the proponents of human rights values. In this domain the Modi government seems to have succeeded a great deal by slapping cases often invoking the stringent UAPA, leaving journalists and human rights activists to turn only to the judicial system. Here, most of the legal remedy attained, even though limited, has come from the supreme judicial authority – the Supreme court of India located in the national capital. This also shows the extreme difficulty in gaining this remedial measure available for democratic existence in contemporary India. With the limited resources – just a handful of smart lawyers who are ready to take up these issues – it may not be long before this remedial measure experiences absolute exhaustion, a clear indication of the success of totalitarian aspiration.
However, the main actors in this story – the dissenting voices who are targeted by the Union government – are also those who are well aware of their democratic rights while exercising them. They are an educated lot, often urban and with reasonable access to judicial remedial measures. They are cornered today not only by the powerful government machinery but also by a large army of those who control the terms of public debate in the mainstream and social media. They brand them ‘urban Naxals’, ‘anti-nationals’, and a variety of abusive terms. They are seen as an impediment which is stalling the establishment of Amrit Kaal in India and its conversion into Bharat.
This does not mean the end of hope for India’s democracy.
Democratic existence in a country like India cannot only be imagined purely in terms of the ideals of liberty, free speech, fraternity or secularism. The large majority of the populace do not carry out their everyday life by being conscious of their democratic rights as citizens. Citizenship for them may only mean availing themselves of the benefits of governmental initiatives like health care or public distribution system or the right to vote in elections.
Citizenship is one of the modes of existence in India for them. But it is an important mode. It may be because of this that a large number of people came out to protest when they felt a threat to this mode of existence in the wake of Indian parliament passing Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019. It was a fight for the right to exist and not for upholding the ideals of liberal democracy. It is also possible to see another major protest against the Union government – the farmer’s protest against the now-scrapped central laws – also as a fight of this sort. It may look simplistic but most powerful and enduring fights are often fights which are necessitated when our existence as bare beings are threatened. These may be some of the most visible examples of struggles that we have seen for democratic life of this sort, but there may have been many more unnoticed ones.
It is here that totalitarianism would find its limits, and fail to establish itself.
Even if people fall prey to religious majoritarianism, and get swayed by the charisma of an all powerful image of the leader, when it comes to questions of subsistence and sheer existence, getting co-opted may not be a possibility.
The large majority of India’s populace finds its existence in between political extremes. It will be from these quarters that unexpected voices are likely to emerge and save India.
Ashokan Nambiar teaches at Manipal Centre for Humanities, MAHE, Manipal.