Is resounding silence goal of our democratic vision?

T R Raghunandan

As of today, the crisis over the letter written to the prime minister by nearly 50 celebrities drawn from the world of art and culture seems to have blown over. A Muzzaffarpur Court’s authorisation to register an FIR on a sedition complaint filed against them has been dismissed by the police as frivolous. Meanwhile, thousands have endorsed the letter deploring the spate of lynching and that ‘Jai Shri Ram’ is now a war cry, daring the government to arrest them for sedition as well.

Finally, the Union government, breaking its silence, has declared through Minister Prakash Javdekar that it had nothing to do with the magistrate’s actions directing an FIR registration.

I was 15 when the Emergency was declared by Indira Gandhi in June 1975. I had just begun to read newspapers. Jayaprakash Narayan and his ‘Total Revolution’, which were till then hazily remembered, assumed a new significance. Indira Gandhi abrogated fundamental rights and jailed the Opposition. The papers told us nothing, but whispered conversations were enough for me to realise that India’s democracy had gone terribly wrong.

A propaganda blitz followed in my school at Cochin, a Kendriya Vidyalaya, as our Principal enthusiastically embraced the task of extolling the government. We recited the 20-Point Economic Programme in the daily assembly.

Our school annual day, a charming potpourri of humourous skits, group dances, a Shakespearean drama and a lovely Sanskrit play, became a paean to Indira Gandhi and her nationalism, much like a Chinese opera of the Cultural Revolution.

We were policed. I was sent home once for growing my hair long -- the only time that my mother supported the Emergency. Filled with righteous indignation at the infringement of my private rights, I chafed and resisted ineffectively.

In 1976, I moved to Delhi, where the suffocation was worse. Delhi was emblazoned with posters of Sanjay Gandhi and his five-point programme. Nobody dared to ask where his authority came from. The papers were silent; only reporting how the dominoes fell. Biju Patnaik, in jail, was released after he praised Indira Gandhi. The message was clear to the rest who were incarcerated. Join us, walk free.

The weeks after Indira Gandhi fortuitously announced fresh elections and lifted the emergency were the most exhilarating from a political sense, in my life. I found my voice and did I use it! I bunked classes, to mill on Delhi’s University mall road to watch our newly released former students union president, Arun Jaitley, Vajpayee and Raj Narain, speak with feeling and passion. We mocked Indira Gandhi’s hasty reaction to rein in the adverse groundswell, telecasting Bobby on the day that JP held a grand, multi-party rally in Ram Lila Maidan. An Opposition coalition – dismissed by Indira Gandhi as a Kichhdi – stormed into power and our victory cries rang out loud and clear.

Once political voice was found, it was never quelled. I moved quickly to mocking Raj Narain and his idea of celibacy being the best method of family planning. Morarji and his urine drinking spawned an endless stream of poor jokes.

The Emergency made me a political animal in the most effective way possible. Dissent, denied at an impressionable age, became an end in itself. Most of all, one was unafraid – that was an elixir as valuable as fresh air and water.

One never anticipated that we would return to similar conditions. A taste of dictatorship once in life is enough to whet the appetite for it, forever. Yet, we are back there again. One feels the same choking sensation and the same outrage of 45 years ago. Déjà vu.

Now is more dangerous than the past. If Indira Gandhi’s Emergency was a B-grade horror movie, the current dispensation acts with the finesse of an Alfred Hitchcock.

The violence against innocent people and intimidation of dissenters is decentralized, with little concrete evidence to link it to a central authority. Minister Javdekar’s view that the Union government has nothing to do with the FIR on sedition is, formally, justified.

Why would the Union government draw attention to itself, when those influenced through a relentless media campaign of intolerance declare war against those who speak out?

Today’s danger is that one does not need an Emergency to create Emergency -like conditions; a cohort of conventional and social media aggressors, lynch mobs, maverick judges, lawyers, bureaucrats and small time politicians are there to intimidate and harm those who dissent. The envelope is being pushed daily; the bar is lowered. Earlier, criticism of the government invited adverse action; now, even writing to the prime minister in a tone that is considered as something he may not like, is a culpable offence. An occasional signal from the top through a fiery speech is enough to trigger the dirty work.

Dissent is much more than a political irritant; it is the lifeblood of the evolution of ideas. Quite apart from politics, innovation in science and culture will not progress if one does question seemingly established realities.

One cannot Make in India, if one is Scared in India. And dissent does not come in pre-ordained convenient packages. Those who are outspoken in the arts and science, will naturally speak of politics. They will not agree on most things. That’s what keeps a democracy going, and growing. Treating dissent as seditious, under a long obsolete colonial era law will damage the country beyond repair. Is a resounding silence the ultimate goal of our democratic vision?

(The author is former Joint Secretary – Ministry of Panchayati Raj, GoI)

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