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Dissent vs descent: The democracy debate

Author: Sanju Verma
Publication: The Guardian
Date: January 1, 2022
URL:      https://thedailyguardian.com/dissent-vs-descent-the-democracy-debate/

The Narendra Modi government has always encouraged constructive criticism and dissent, which are the bedrocks of democracy.

The fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution of India are an integral part of India’s democratic ethos, with Article 19 of the Constitution guaranteeing the right to free speech and expression. Article 19(2) provides specific conditions under which the right to free speech can be restricted. These restrictions necessarily have to do with the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, morality or other areas pertaining to contempt of court, defamation or incitement of an offence. The moot point to be noted here is that the right to free speech and the right to dissent are not absolute. Every freedom comes with checks and balances and Article 19 is no exception.Hence, those who hide hate speech under the pretext of exercising their rights under Article 19 are simply trying to mislead and misinform.

Prior to Lok Sabha 2014 elections, the Congress-led UPA government passed an order stating that the Cable Network rules forbid anything which is not in good taste, decency, slanderous or detrimental to social/public and moral life of the country. Any television channel which showed the then Prime Minister (Manmohan Singh) in poor light would be liable for adverse action under the Uplinking and Downlinking Regulations as also a penal action under Section 20 of the Cable Network (Regulation) Act. This order was unconstitutional censorship by the erstwhile Congress regime, prompted by nothing but Modi-phobia, as it was very clear to political pundits and Congressmen alike that the massive Narendra Modi wave was set to uproot the inept and corrupt Congress from South Block, which did happen with Narendra Modi storming to power with a huge mandate. Since 2014, Prime Minister Modi has never looked back and his popularity and stature have only risen manifold.

The notorious Cable order under the Manmohan Singh regime said, that on days Singh addressed the nation, no other speech should be or would be telecast. Any comment of an Opposition leader would be censored, said this order. Blanket censorship has no place in democracy, as criticism is a way of life. All individuals in public life must be subjected to scrutiny. Criticism is a part of public accountability. But the infamous Cable order restrictions encroached on free speech and right to dissent. Airwaves are public property and the only use of the airwaves is regulated by the government. Users of the airwaves must not violate constitutional guarantees or the sovereignty and integrity of India or any of the Article 19(2) restrictions. Disagreement with the Indian Prime Minister is not a restriction mentioned in Article 19(2). Then on what grounds did the Congress-led UPA dispensation attempt to foist the draconian Cable order?

Why were the self-declared beacons of free speech, also called the “Award Wapasi” and “Khan Market Gang”, quiet then? Large parts of India’s leftist media, which has repeatedly levelled baseless allegations at the Modi government for curbing free speech, never cared to as much as even whimper once, at the fascist Cable order by the erstwhile Congress government. Why? The answer is obvious. The politically irrelevant, leftist media has been unable to stomach the relentless rise in PM Modi’s political capital.

Few months back,when comedian Munawar Faruqui was released from Indore prison, India’s ‘left-liberals’ were delirious with joy but this same pseudo-secular brigade has till date not even bothered to shed crocodile tears for the unarmed Karsevaks who were brutally gunned down in 1990 on Mulayam Singh Yadav’s orders. ‘Jai Shri Ram’ is a salutation and not a war cry. At a public function in 2021, after being greeted by chants of ‘Jai Shri Ram’, Mamata Banerjee accused BJP of insulting Netaji by raising ‘Jai Shri Ram’ slogans and refused to give her speech at an event that was attended by none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to observe Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s 125th birth anniversary. Instead of questioning Mamata’s irresponsible behaviour, large swathes of India’s Leftist media endorsed her Hinduphobic bias. With almost 80% Hindu population, why should Hindus be apologetic about saying Jai Shri Ram, which is merely a celebratory greeting? The Thekedaars (custodians) of free speech fell silent when a young Nikita Tomar was shot dead in 2020, by a radicalised islamist who wanted to forcibly convert her to Islam. Those who are quick to taint everything that is Bhagwa or Saffron in colour have no problems with rampant killings of Hindus, as part of Love Jihad. Why? Did the Khan Market Brigade condemn the brutalisation of Nikita Tomar by a radicised Islamist? The answer is a simple ‘no’!

Are free speech and the right to dissent a prerogative only of people from the “other communities” and not Hindus? Don’t Hindu lives matter? In fact, the best thing about the BJP is the fact that it believes in “justice for all and appeasement of none” without feeling apologetic about Hinduism, Hindutva and Hindu culture. For almost six decades, India’s Left and the Congress, legitimised everything that was anti-Hindu, to the extent that the Congress filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court, doubting the veracity of Bhagwan Ram and the Ram Setu. Rahul Gandhi, of late, has been talking about how Hinduism is progressive but Hindutva is regressive The hard truth is that, both Hinduism and Hindutva are one and the same thing .What is called Hinduism in English, is called Hindutva, in Hindi. The moot point is, under the guise of Freedom of Expression (FoE), for decades together, parties like Congress and the Samajwadi Party (SP), tried to subjugate Hindu pride. Those who say FoE of minorities under the Modi government is under threat would do well to know that amidst the COVID pandemic, while Hindus chose to not celebrate Kanwar Yatra and even the Mahasnans at Kumbh Mela were truncated, many Muslims celebrated Eid in large numbers outside the Charminar at Hyderabad. Does FoE mean, one community is allowed to flout the law of the land, while the other is expected to always conform? I am not for a moment suggesting that the rulebook should be flouted. All I am saying is it is not majoritarianism but rabid ‘minoritism’ which needs to be curtailed. The very First Amendment to the Indian Constitution brought in by India’s first PM, Jawaharlal Nehru, which curtailed free speech with ‘reasonable restrictions’, showcases how the Nehruvian model played truant with free speech and subsequent Congress regimes only furthered this agenda. The policy of minority appeasement got a boost in 2012, when Congress under Manmohan Singh made the absurd suggestion that “minorities should have the first right to resources”. If anything, under the guise of FoE, it was Hindu rights that were repeatedly trampled, with the erstwhile Congress regime looking the other way, leaving Hindus to their abject misery. Things have changed now. While PM Modi has always denounced vigilantism of any kind, the resurgent Hindu pride under the Modi government is a refreshing change from the pre-2014 days, when wearing a sherwani was secular, but wearing saffron was communal.

In the summer of 2014, the people voted decisively for: Honesty over dynasty. Development over decay. Security over stagnation. Opportunities over obstacles. Vikas over vote-bank politics. Indians were tired of corruption, cronyism and nepotism. made headlines instead of anything positive. The Modi mandates of 2014 and 2019 were epoch-making, also because for the first time in the history of India,a non-dynastic party was blessed with a complete majority. The Modi government works with the spirit of ‘India First’ instead of ‘Family First’, where minorities have as much say and as many opportunities as the Hindus,who are the majority and form almost 80% of the population. In fact, in some welfare schemes like PM Awaas Yojana,15% is earmarked for minorities, largely Muslims. Also, between 2014-2019, more than 3 Crore scholarships were given to minorities, primarily Muslims and, by 2024, an additional 5 crore scholarships will be handed out by the Modi government to minorities. Hence the baseless charge that the Modi government is anti-Muslims, is a lot of hogwash. Equally, if one mocks Hindu gods and goddesses by indulging in profanity, under the guise of humour, that is unacceptable. Why is it that comedians like Rana who ridicule Hinduism but never ever mock madrasas or mosques, expect to be mollycoddled? The real problem is not with the “Saffronistas”.The problem lies with those who claim to be secular, but in fact, are nothing but Hinduphobes, trying to chip away at our glorious past and traditions.

Over the last five years, the Indian economy has been the cynosure of the world’s eyes. India has made remarkable achievements in sanitation coverage (from 38% in 2014 to 98% now), banking the unbanked, financing the un-financed, building futuristic infrastructure, homes for the homeless, providing healthcare for the poor, and educating the youth. Reflective of this paradigm shift is the fact that now, there is a government that puts institutions above everything else. India has seen that whenever dynastic politics has been powerful, institutions have taken a severe beating. Dynastic parties like Congress have never been comfortable with a free and vibrant press. The pre-2014 UPA years saw the bringing of a law that could land you in prison for posting anything “offensive.” A tweet against the son of a powerful UPA minister could land innocent citizens in jail. In fact, if there is one Party that blatantly violated anything and everything to do with FoE, it is the Congress Party. When the sun set, on the evening of 25th June 1975, it took with it the democratic ethos of India. A hurried radio address by the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, showed the extent to which the Congress could go to safeguard the interests of one dynasty. The Emergency, declared by Indira in 1975, made the nation a prison overnight. Even to express, was to commit sin. The 42nd Amendment of 1976 put curbs on the Courts and their powers relating to judicial review. It took a groundswell of public opinion to end the Emergency but the anti-constitutional mindset of those who imposed it remained. Congress has imposed Article 356 almost a hundred times, with Indira Gandhi herself doing so about fifty times. If Congress did not like a State government or leader, the government was summarily dismissed. Congress’ contempt for the Courts is anyway legendary. It was Indira Gandhi who called for a “committed judiciary”, which sought to make the Courts more loyal to a family, than to the Constitution. This pursuit of a “committed judiciary” made Congress overlook several respected Judges, while appointing the Chief Justice of India.

Congress’ modus operandi was simple— reject, discredit and threaten. If a judicial verdict went against them, they rejected it, then they discredited the judge and thereafter, talked about bringing impeachment motions against the judges.

In a telling comment, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi called the Planning Commission led by Dr. Manmohan Singh, “a bunch of jokers”. This comment gives you a glimpse of how Congress treated government institutions. Remember how a policy decision taken by no less than the Union Cabinet was torn into pieces by Rahul Gandhi in full public view while Rahul was not even a member of any Ministry? The NAC was created by Sonia Gandhi as a body parallel to the PMO. And then, Congress has the cheek to talk about institutions? Those journalists who troll the Modi government day and night under the guise of speaking truth to power, did not bother to utter a single word or even squeak in protest, when democratic traditions were flouted with rabid impunity and NAC acted as an extra-constitutional arm of the Manmohan government. And today these media men have the audacity to lecture the Modi government on FoE? The hard truth is, while Congress suppressed dissent with a heavy hand, the Modi government believes in consensus and not confrontation.The Modi government could have easily chosen to put down the farm protests by using the might of the State, but it chose not to. In fact, PM Narendra Modi, with folded hands repealed the farm laws, asking farmers to end the protest. Discretion is the better part of valour and Narendra Modi has showcased on more than one occasion why his government respects institutions and their integrity.

Political parties are vibrant bodies that manifest diverse public opinion. Sadly, Congress does not believe in internal democracy. If a leader dares to dream to head that party, he or she is shunted out of Congress. The sense of entitlement can be seen in their conduct towards routine legal processes. Since 1998, Sonia Gandhi has been the Congress President, barring a brief period when a clueless Rahul Gandhi took over only to sheepishly step down. The Congress working committee (CWC) has only three women out of 15 members, with two out of those three, being Sonia and her daughter Priyanka Vadra. How can a party which has no internal democracy, respect India’s democratic ethos? At present, Congress’ top leadership is on bail vis-a-vis major scams. When the authorities seek to question them on their dealings, they do not even bother to reply. Are they scared of accountability or do they not believe in it?

It is said, “Eternal vigilance remains the price of liberty”. While the Modi government is vigilant and is working hard to strengthen the intuitions given to us by the makers of our Constitution, the Opposition is doing what it does best–flouting every democratic norm. While the Congress and Shiv Sena recently tried to elect the Speaker of the Maharashtra legislative assembly via a voice vote and not via a secret ballot which is the norm, the TMC on the other hand, appointed Vice-Chancellors (VCs) to two dozen institutions in West Bengal, without so much as informing the Chancellor (Governor Jagdeep Dhankar, in this case). Governor of Maharashtra, rightfully, did not allow Congress to bulldoze him into approving a voice vote. Interestingly, leftist media, instead of questioning the Congress for attempting to flout norms pertaining to Speaker’s election, trained its guns on B.S.Koshyari, the Maharashtra Governor. Well, among other things, it says a lot about the media’s warped role as the fourth pillar of democracy! There is a famous adage: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Clearly, the Modi government has always encouraged constructive criticism and dissent, which are the bedrocks of democracy. Equally, dissent is different from descent and India’s beleaguered Opposition needs to know, by descending into the depths of a polarising narrative, it can never hope to resurrect its dwindling fortunes. “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwaas and Sabka Prayaas” is an abiding work ethic for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and that is what makes his politics so unique and inclusive, in the true spirit of how the world’s largest democracy should run its course.


-The writer is an Economist, National Spokesperson of the BJP, and the Bestselling Author of ‘The Modi Gambit’. Views expressed are the writer’s personal.

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