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Saturday, November 27, 1999
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Right to debate and differ

IF one were to ask me as to what I was most proud of about my country, without the slightest hesitation my answer would be: freedom of expression. Almost like a city on the Hill, with all our limitations, we are a democratic country. Freedom is the mother of democracy. Twentieth century would be known, inter alia, for the greatest freedom struggle in history and a remarkable victory for the people of India. Talking of history, our great Gurus stood against tyranny and laid down their lives to preserve freedom of faith. In the modern times Tagore’s sublime, lofty dream to see his fellow beings walk without any fear and with heads high is a thought deep for rejoicing for us today. In the famed Gettysburg address ending “Government of the people, for the people by the people” most certainly Lincoln enshrined the spirit and substance of democracy. In his youthful inaugural address, yet again, late President Kennedy’s call to please any friend and “oppose any foe” to defend freedom and democracy around the world was a message historical, loud and clear. So in times old and new, in real life and literature quietly flows the song of freedom.

Mature democracies encourage debate and discussion, even dissent. Because that is what governance “of the people, for the people, by the people” is all about. The moment an elected party or government suppresses criticism or dissent it ceases to be representative. Intolerance of opinion is an enemy to democracy. Freedom of discussion and debate is the very fabric and essence of democracy. “I detest what you say but I’ll defend until my death your right to say it” says Voltair. With us the recent trend to cut down and butcher dissent is deeply disturbing. First, with the Congress Party at the Centre. The famous trio bent backwards, took too many words (as if shaking and crawling on their knees!) to say, what translated in democratic terms only meant, “Sonia, your lack of experience and foreign origin aren’t going to help the party. Let’s reconsider”. What followed is history! It was sheer butchery of democratic system and values. Such butchery uncivil, it is neatly demeaning.

Now closer to home at issue in Punjab is the Shiromani Akali Dal Party headed by Parkash Singh Badal. In particular the recent talk of serving “a show-cause notice” on Ravi Inder Singh — a senior leader, former Speaker and a distinguished MLA of the party in power. It is common knowledge that he springs from a great Akali tradition and is a man of distinct individual talent. To say the least all he simply wanted (“of those whom much is given, much is required” Bible), within the party” — was to interact and discuss the reasons and remedies for the near-complete rout of the party in the elections recently held. Head of the party’s reaction was severe and sharp. Panic and threats of serving a show-cause notice (read, you dare! face expulsion!) followed. Now Ravi Inder Singh is not important. The underlying moral of the story is! It’s not a notice or threat to an individual. It’s the butchery and burial of a sovereign principle: the right to debate and differ in democracy. It is the deathknell to the very democratic system. Are the political parties feudal dynasties? What sort of elected representatives ought we have who can have no right to stand up and speak what is simply a writing on the wall? Split, corruption and inefficiency are talk of the day. Hardly anything to celebrate over the body economic of the State. Virtually bankrupt and literally on oxygen from the Centre. Ironically, interestingly, funnily, stunningly the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee is sharpening its knives (some like Jagmeet Brar, their swords) and waiting for their easy prey. They want Badal to continue and “complete” the task.

For a democratic system to survive, two factors stand out. One is assertion of right. With true and genuine belief, with conviction one must assert one’s right to debate and differ. Two, the price of freedom is vigil. You cannot shut your eyes and sleep and hope to be free. You have to be alert and watchful all the time. On the one hand when the going gets tough, the tough get going. On the other, let Socrates stand up and speak for us: “Those who do injustice to others are more disgraced than the ones inflicted upon”. Let there be a fair fight! Don’t we all Punjabis love it?”


Media Advisor explains

A report (Media Advisor to repay loan, Nov. 15) in your esteemed daily indicts me, among other things, for “profligacy”, wangling a prestigious government post in violation of the Civil Service Rules (CSR), breaching a contract on a TV documentary with the Department of Information and Public Relations (DIPR), Punjab, and dragging my feet now on returning the advance given to me for the purpose.

First of all, the charge of profligacy and spending Rs 15,000-16,000 per month on entertainment of the media. The record of every penny spent by this office on hospitality is maintained and audited. I have checked the records of hospitality expenditure by this office for the past nearly three years and found that, on a monthly average, your correspondent’s figure is somewhat off the mark—by more than 250 per cent. If he has any evidence to the contrary, he would perhaps like to share it with the readers of The Tribune.

Regarding the documentary, yes, the film was assigned to Indiavision, a media and culture group with which I was associated. But the film was completed, submitted and its receipt acknowledged vide official communication No. PR(Films)-95/741 dated 12-6-95. It was even reviewed by a technical committee, which, however, found some defects in it and asked those to be corrected. The DIPR asked the producers to collect the U-Matic and VHS cassettes of the film for incorporating the desired changes.

I am no longer associated with Indiavision, but I have been informed that the DIPR has been approached several times in the past for the cassettes but that the department insists the film had never been received by it, the above mentioned communication notwithstanding. I was approached some time back by one of the officers of the department to use my influence with the producers and ask them to refund the advance given to them.

As I had been originally associated with the project, I deemed it my moral obligation to intervene — and did so. Consequently, the producers agreed to refund the total advance and required (a) that they may be allowed to repay the money in seven instalments. (They deposited Rs.20,000 along with their request.) and (b) that the original film, which is their property, be returned to them. The DIPR has outrightly rejected the instalment plan and the producers, I understand, have promptly agreed to repay the money lumpsum, also reiterating their request regarding the return of the original film which, I am certain, the department, will have no problem in meeting, if they have the film. But if they have already returned it, I have undertaken to stand guarantee for repayment.

Instances of persons coming from private or autonomous organisations on assignments in the government are far too common to have really escaped the notice of the senior correspondent. I worked as Press Secretary to Chief Minister (Mr S.S. Barnala, 1985-87) on deputation from the PAU, Ludhiana. Mr Parkash Singh Badal during one of his earlier stints as Chief Minister had the celebrated Punjabi writer, the late Mr Kulwant Singh Virk, in this capacity, again on deputation while he was still in university service.


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Ugly manoeuvres

Kalyan Singh, the person who executed an effective check on Mayawati’s power-hungry politics and brought the uncertain political turmoil in Uttar Pradesh to rest, faces the wrath of his own party’s High Command, which regularly, periodically and emphatically denied any change in leadership prior to the elections.

The credibility of such politicians is at stake who weigh the leader in pre-election and post-election pans. Such manoeuvers will pave the way for fresh caste-oriented inter-party and intra-party realliances. It is bound to pose greater threat to the party’s stature in politically important states like Uttar Pradesh.



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