Rising intolerance can kill democracy

Silencing dissent rather than rebutting such arguments through debate has become the order.

A statement by the BJP patriarch L K Advani, ahead of the 40th anniversary of the imposition of the Emergency of 1975, that “forces that can crush democracy are stronger now”, in an interview to a newspaper has stirred a hornets’ nest in the political circle. But several incidents of the recent past in our country build apprehensions in the minds of people about the future of our democracy.

The Supreme Court verdict striking down section 66A upholding the citizens’ right for free speech recently had bro-ught exuberance. But political parties, religions and educational institutions in the country are yet to develop a capacity to accept criticism. There is a perilous trend of increasing intolerance in the political and cultural space of India and this divide is increasingly perceptible with the rise of social media.

The first parliamentary majority in three decades bypassed parliament and took the shorter, ordinance route to set in motion quite a few pieces of temporary legislations within a span of less than a year. The latest example is the Land Acquisition Bill making it easier for companies to purchase land for industrial projects.

The earlier ones are The Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Ordinance, 2015; The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Ordinance, 2015; The Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Second Ordinance, 2014; The Insurance Laws (Amendment) Ordinance, 2014 etc.

The spate of bans enforced by political and civic authorities in India recently includes the state government of Maharashtra prohibiting the sale of beef, the Central government banning the infamous BBC documentary India’s Daughter alleging that the filmmaker failed to obtain the necessary licenses, and the  Karnataka government barring parties in which foreigners are present unless the party is under police supervision.

A Greenpeace activist was prevented from testifying aga-inst the Indian government ignoring the interests of forest dwellers and others while pushing the Mahan coal mining project in Madhya Pradesh before the elected representatives of the UK.

Religious prejudice resulted in a group of people mercilessly chopping off the hands of a professor in Kerala a few years ago, alleging that a question set by him in an internal examination of a college indirectly wounded their religious feelings. We witnessed the bigotry that emerges in the educational sector too when the principal of a well known college in Delhi banned its first ever online news magazine for not getting the content cleared by him.

Another case in point is the Human Resource Development ministry hampering the activities of a students’ group in Indian Institute of Technology-Madras over supposed comm-ents being made against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the new policies of his NDA government. According to media reports, the HRD ministry, apparently acting on an anonymous complaint, wanted to know what a pro-Ambedkar students’ group was up to in IIT-Madras.

Although political discussions and criticism have traditionally been a part of college education down the ages and across the world, the institute banned the group from functioning on its premises immediately after the government made it clear that they were watching the group’s activities. Recently, the controversy over International Yoga Day had gathered considerable momentum too.

Silencing dissent
Intolerance for other viewpoints is evident across the entire political and civil spectrum of India today. Silencing the dissenting voices rather than rebutting their arguments through debate or initiating a process of legitimate democratic negotiations has become the order.

The trend is a challenge to the clarion call in the preamble of our constitution that India is to be a ‘sovereign, secular, socialist and democratic republic.’ Sadly nowadays, no major leaders take questions and if one can’t ask questions as a voter, how do we decide where these leaders stand on issues? Public discourse can only lead to the reform of ideals.

The theory that the lack of political and other civil rights can in some way be ‘good’ for economic expansion and development has a long history. In East Asia, a series of countries have been able to merge impressive economic success with non-democratic political systems. Similarly, the continent of Africa is full of dictatorial regimes which have made a mess of their economies.

Although there are several fast growing countries with authoritarian administration, things can also go appallingly wrong under these regimes. Hence, it is unsure whether authoritarian regimes will go towards economic growth or towards social disaster.

To gain from this period of ideological flux, the injection of a spirit of inquiry in public debates is required. The temperament necessary for democratic negotiation, accommodation and compromise is essential especially in our educational and cultural arenas.

Pervasive growth in physical infrastructures and intolerance and unwillingness to accommodate other opinions is catastrophic. A serious attempt is wanted to cleanse the country of its prevailing bias and hatred along with propagating a culture of tolerance.

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