Shrinking democracy, shadow nationalism

“The spirit of democracy cannot be established in the midst of terrorism, whether governmental or popular.” — Mahatma Gandhi

Dissent, dialogue, discussion, debate — the quintessential D’s of democracy are what make it functional, and scissoring of any of these parameters makes it surreal and pulverised leading to a state of lawlessness and absolutism.

The ugly fracas that unfolded at Delhi University’s Ramjas College recently over an invitation to Jawaharlal Nehru University scholar Umar Khalid to speak at a literary seminar ‘Cultures Of Protest - Unveiling the State: Regions in Conflict’ and the resultant scuffle allegedly spiked by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) — a right-wing student organisation affiliated to Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) warns of our democracy turning into a sham.

The Ramjas incident speaks of a culture of violence enveloping universities across the country where scope for dissent, space for debates and discussions, freedom to hold diverse views, questioning government and its policies is treated with contempt and met with fierce opposition in addition to abuse, trolling and intimidation as tools to clamp down dissenters, students, teachers, activists and critics of government for asserting their basic democratic and constitutionally guaranteed rights under Article 19(1) (a).

A disturbing angle into the episode is the indifferent and kowtow attitude of the police, who not just refused to grant protection to the organisers and speakers at the event, but miserably failed to contain the violent scuffle that followed. In this incident, students, journalists and faculty were rouged up, bruised and beaten with police on a standby and complicit in the letting things turn worse. This resulted in the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issuing notice to the Delhi police commissioner over reports about alleged police excesses at the Ramjas College.
work in universities — a place where democratic ideals find place through debates, discussions, dissent, deliberations bringing the best out of students through a culture of reason, productive dialogue and constructive criticism.

A pattern of unrest, however, appears to be set in motion with nationalism as a potent weapon with jeering slogans of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ and ‘Vande Mataram’ used to shout down those who question, opine, differ and criticise an issue away from a set narrative and discourse.

Hate-nationalism

Gurmehar Kaur’s is a pointed case of hate-nationalism, as she  was hounded and recklessly trolled for speaking her mind and taking a stand against the violence unleashed by the ABVP members at Ramjas College. Faced with threats of rape and rants of anti-national branding, being called naïve and compared with India’s most wanted fugitive by an elected MP from Mysuru, the 20-year-old eventually backed out.

Politics of hate and convoluted nationalism is deployed of late reflecting a ‘back to the drawing board’ strategy using state power to crush ‘’dissent and reasoning’’ in all its possible forms, evident over a slew of incidents that were rocked by similar protests, subsequent violence and spiteful nationalism to dissect and shift the tangent of a democratic discourse.

It was exactly a year ago

that the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) episode had rocked the national capital over an event on Afzul Guru’s sentencing marred by violence, protests, rumpus, trolling and name-calling with charges of sedition clamped on students. In early 2015, screening of a documentary on the Muzaffarnagar riots in Kirori Mal College and JNU was disrupted.

Besides, there was suicide of a Dalit research scholar at the Hyderabad Central University, the Film Institute imbroglio; axing of the Ambedkar-Periyar Study circle in IIT-Madras; agitations in JNU and Jadhavpur universities and many such recurring instances with a set pattern have created an atmosphere of fear among students and faculty shrinking the democratic space for being a devil’s advocate.

A democratic atmosphere with freedom to negate, accept and tolerate diverse points of views alone can sustain a democracy like ours and not the bandwagon of parochial nationalism. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi had rightly pointed out in June 2014, a month into office, “Our democracy will not sustain if we can’t guarantee freedom of speech and expression.”

(The writer is a student of MA in Journalism at Manasagangotri, University of Mysore, Mysuru)

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