October 18, 2020
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Drowning Dissent

What we have at stake in the floundering career of our Republic is the plural character of our polity pitted against a conformism imposed from above, i.e. by an elite conspiring and conniving to rule the vast mass of population.

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Drowning Dissent
Drowning Dissent

In a remarkable essay, The Prevention of Literature, published in 1945, George Orwell put it most succinctly: "…freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose." 

What we have at stake in the floundering career of our Republic is the plural character of our polity pitted against a conformism imposed from above, i.e. by an elite conspiring and conniving to rule the vast mass of population, a sixth of humankind inhabiting the entire planet crowded within the frontiers of a modern nation-state.

Orwell’s essay, written sixty years ago when the Second World War was just ending, seems just as relevant today and prophetic in retrospect. I am tempted to quote him at some length: 

 "In our age, the idea of intellectual liberty is under attack from two directions. On the one side are its theoretical enemies, the apologists of totalitarianism, and on the other side its immediate practical enemies, monopoly and bureaucracy. Any writer or journalist who wants to retain his integrity finds himself thwarted by the general drift of society rather than by active persecution. The sort of things that are working against him are the concentration of the Press in the hands of a few rich men, the grip of monopoly on radio and films, the unwillingness of the public to spend money on books, making it necessary for nearly every writer to earn part of his living by hackwork, the encroachment of official bodies like the M.O.I. and the British Council, which help the writer to keep alive but also waste his time and dictate his opinions, and the continuous war atmosphere of the past ten years, whose distorting effects no one has been able to escape."

(Inside the Whale and Other Essays;
Penguin Books, 1962).  

As a writer who was nine years old when India became an independent and new nation-state, and twelve years old when the Constituent Assembly declared ourselves to be citizens of a Republic, I have lived through a period of ‘continuous war atmosphere’ not unlike what Orwell was talking about. I now think that the entire Indian subcontinent -- or indeed the whole of South Asia comprising nations erupting out of a tenaciously surviving civilization with a precariously balanced plurality of character -- has been in the throes of a continuing civil war. 

In a civil war situation, the vox populi is no longer reasonably unanimous or consensual. It turns polyphony into cacophony resulting in a Tower of Babel type of crisis. Prior to independent nationhood, we were plunged into what some people would call a fratricidal communal conflict and others a genocidal deluge. Both Muslim and Hindu ‘nations’ here were conceived and carved out in genocide; and territorial disputes over historical cartographic illusions show no signs of going away in the near future. 

Drowning the voice of dissent has been a regular exercise throughout the new nation-state of India whose ruling elite learnt the wrong kinds of political lessons from their occidental political mentors including Great Britain, Europe -- Western, Central, and Eastern -- and the United States.

If we read the Constituent Assembly Debates and listen to the voices of our Founding Fathers who represented our ruling elite then, we get a vivid picture of the challenges to our present Constitution and where they come from. It seems a miracle now that individuals like Nehru and Ambedkar, who were actually in the liberal minority, prevailed then. The passage of the Hindu Code Bill through the Parliament was fraught with the same hazards. At each stage, human rights were sought to be limited and concessions were carved out to appease religious, communal, ethnic, and gender interests in the status quo. Modernisation itself was seen by the majority among the ruling elite as culturally dangerous and undesirable.

But to focus more sharply on to the conflict between pluralism and censorship, one must examine the implications of Article 12 to Article 35 of the Constitution of the Republic of India. These are stated in Part III of the Constitution that deals with Fundamental Rights.

These rights proclaimed on January 26, 1950 converted us legally from being vassals or subjects of an absolute sovereign authority (such as the British Monarch that ruled us till August 15, 1947) to having become citizens with inalienable rights and privileges. Our individual status as citizens of India was guaranteed regardless of race, religion, sex, creed, caste and so forth.

This was a written text modifying which was made deliberately difficult so that it could be done only with an overwhelming majority of our elected representatives agreeing to a change and its President assenting to such a change, subject to a review by the nation’s judiciary.

There can hardly be a dispute that our Founding Fathers conceived our Republic as consisting of plural communities that were regarded as one people and that this plurality was a delicately balanced unity that would be safeguarded from any brute majority or rogue force trying to crush or oppress individual citizens or minorities in terms of religion, race, creed, language, caste and so on.

However, people who traditionally perceived themselves as subjects and their leaders as headmen or masters by birth privileges such as caste, gender, or religious and traditional communal consensus that would directly be in conflict with their paper status as individual citizens, continued to live under the illusion that they were vassals of a government that had absolute power over their lives and destinies. The realpolitik governing India did not change just by the ushering in of a Constitution that reflected modern democratic aspirations and a value-perception of human life and freedom that informed our Founding Fathers. Indeed, one of them, Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar once bitterly remarked that constitutional morality was difficult to cultivate in our soil.

Our Constitution, 54 years after it was launched, remains fundamentally unaltered despite some questionable or dubious amendments. But successive governments both at the centre and in the states since 1951-52 have in practice abused state power on a growing scale so that we now have political parties that agree to fight it out amongst themselves by coercion and corruption.

Money has been a seemingly benign but always malignant source of power and violence in culture and society. Today with the globalisation of the capital market it can make nations and governments bounce like dud cheques with instant shifting and relocation of power, pauperizing communities at will, rendering local and regional labour jobless and powerless with one decisive electronic click. The global creation and distribution of wealth is itself controlled largely not by nation-states but by those who eye their natural resources--human resources included--with an eagle but piratical eye.

The world’s map is already warped by this. It makes Texas look larger than the United States of America in terms of control of oil producing regions of the planet; and the North American N.R.I. as powerful in Gujarat as the Jewish lobby in the U.S. is in determining the fate of Palestine. The real Clash of Civilizations is between the Old World and the New, and Europe is only just discovering the nature of the trans-Atlantic challenge and the Anglo-Saxon sweep of the globe through a communication revolution and an information explosion. Decisions made in board-rooms thousands of miles away determine our fate in formerly inaccessible parts of India such as the once-heavenly Bastar. Our General Elections, whether we perceive it or not and whether we like it or not, are also an auction of South Asia at which we --as the actual voters--are the weakest bidders. 

Speaking of fundamental rights only, look at our children below the sub-voting age that comprise the largest segment of our population. Girl-child labour, girl-child malnourishment, and girl-child illiteracy in India are a horrifying reality that would inevitably lead to a shrivelling of the very roots of our society within a generation. In fact, the entire female population of India seems to be heading for a qualitative-quantitative decline.

More than 60% of male children in the 0-18 segment would seem to fare no better. While girls before they are married serve as domestic labour in their own homes, spend hours fetching drinking water from scarce and distant sources and looking after younger siblings, the relatively ‘privileged’ male child provides farm labour and performs other unpaid chores before dropping out of primary school or secondary school altogether. Rural families regularly migrate to semi-urban or urban centres with their children who then become urban urchins, rag pickers, or small-time criminals on a daily percentage basis in the big cities. Some girls become sex workers even before reaching puberty, and their brothers may become pimps or illicit drugs or bootleg liquor vendors, or join gangs. A few of the luckier boys join political front organizations sent out to collect protection money; and the brightest among them may be trained as sharpshooters in the supari murder trade, or become small-time netas and muhalla-level terrorists. 

Have you ever wondered where the fighting-fit, street-smart squads of organizations such as the Bajrang Dal, the Patit Pavan Sanghatana, the Sambhaji Brigade, the Raza Academy and so on -- and their ilk elsewhere in the country under various local labels -- come from? Don’t you know who their political bosses are and which of the regional and national political parties’ interests they serve? 

We live in an India where the obvious has become invisible by ‘civilized’ consensus. We ignore the fact that terrorism is a form of employment--created out of human resources given criminal training of which democracy and civil society are prime soft targets--and its ends are political and financial power. 

We refuse to consider that the law favours the lawless through the docility or with the connivance of those who already wield political clout; or that ‘populist expressions’ of ‘hurt sentiments’ are engineered by vested interests against constitutional guarantees given to individual citizens or fragile ‘classes’ and ‘micro-minorities’ such as writers, artists, investigative journalists, outspoken intellectuals, honest officials, and scholars. 

At bottom, these ‘small voices’ represent our decency, our plurality, our cultural vibrancy, our innovative and critical nature-- dissent, debate, and discussion--all of which are sought to be drowned in a barbaric pandemonium comprising slogan-shouting, instigatory and inflammatory oratory, and actual fisticuffs even in such formerly hallowed places such as  Parliament and the state legislatures. By now, even impressionable children watching televised house proceedings see adult representatives of the people doing things for which they (the children) would not be spared by their teachers. 

Extra-Constitutional bullying is not recognized as a criminal offence by the Government of Maharashtra who have posted an armed guard at my door since January 7, 2004 to ‘protect’ me. Surely, the government of my state knows from whom there is a threat to my person. I am targeted among others by the Maratha Seva Sangh as one of those who have been thankfully acknowledged by Professor James Laine, author of the hastily banned book Shivaji: Hindu King in Muslim India that now the government thinks provoked sensitive Maratha minds to attack the B.O.R.I. 

The Maharashtra police, despite some of their elite officers being currently embroiled in the Telgi scam investigation, are reputedly efficient in containing crime. They have a Special Branch and a Crime Branch that is supposed to have sharp noses and ears, and agile legs and arms, not to mention acute brains.

Don’t they already know who attacked the Bhandarkar Research Institute on January 5, which tabloid weekly instigated and provoked the ‘public’ to teach a lesson to American historian James Laine and his supposed ‘collaborators’ (all of them allegedly Brahmins conspiring to damage the legend of Shivaji the Founder-King of Maratha Swaraj)? Which Pune ‘historians’ protested against the book Shivaji: Hindu King in Muslim India simultaneously approaching the Oxford University Press and the Government of Maharashtra? Don’t they know the systematic build-up of the ‘hurt sentiments’ myth by an organization floated by one of their own bureaucrats while in active service, his name, and his organization’s name? 

I refuse to believe that they are that inept. Their only fault seems to me to be that they think that the realpolitik in Maharashtra is more sacred than the Constitution of the Republic of India. They are not alone in this. Their counterparts in every state of the Republic think similarly, and so do their counterparts in Delhi.

This is a dismal scenario pointing to an even bleaker future. But without facing it squarely, our future will soon look like the worst part of our past.

Dilip Chitre is Honorary Editor New Quest - a quarterly journal of participative inquiry into society and culture - and this piece appears in New Quest Number 155 (January-March 2004) focussing on "the rise of neo-Fascism in India".

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