The stinging observation of the Supreme Court that dissent and protest are the safety valves of democracy is as heartening as the furore in the mainstream and social media over the arrest of five leading human rights activists and intellectuals for alleged Maoist links and for their purported role in the Koregaon Bhima violence, near Pune, in December, 2017.
Yet, it is utterly dismaying that for much of the middle class, urban India, it is much ado about nothing. Indeed, the reaction of the average middle-class Indian is one of scorn and contempt for bleeding hearts and educated troublemakers — people like Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira. If truth be told, the city-bred, educated, middle-class Indian has no interest or patience with the nuances and processes of democracy.
Disillusioned with the corruption and messiness of politics, the Indian middle class was looking for quick-fix solutions in the guise of a messiah, which they found in Narendra Modi. Having elected him PM in 2014, the citizenry has been particularly lazy by promptly suspending the last vestiges of independent thinking and prefers to let him formulate and articulate what and who is 'national' or 'anti-national' - the ultimate litmus test of the country's welfare and interest.
And the Modi government has done just that by following the classic maxim 'call a dog mad and then shoot it'. On the one hand, the entire political opposition has been systematically vilified and discredited, while on the other hand, all kinds of dissenters, protestors, individuals and institutions that decry, criticise or agitate against the government, central or state, have been branded as leftists, liberals, 'sickulars', anti-nationals, 'tukde-tukde gang', Maoists or Naxals and bunched together as enemies of the state.
Such has been the impact of this sustained defamation that the middle class seems to have internalised the belief that a democratically elected government has the untrammeled right to crush dissent by fair means or foul. Furthermore, whether it is the extreme left or any political, social, economic thought and action even slightly left of centre, it is viewed with a hostility bordering on hatred by the middle class. Perhaps, it's time for the middle class to go back to the basics and educate themselves about the fuller meaning of democracy beyond casting their vote for the party and leader of their preference and electing a government.
Dissent is not sedition: Every citizen has a right to pursue and propagate his/her political ideology and oppose another party, another ideology and government in power, not just electorally but through all non-violent means within the ambit of the Constitution and law. Speaking against the government or the state or devising legal, political, tactical means to humble the state does not constitute sedition. Inciting people to resist the state, sympathising with or helping them also does not amount to a call to overthrow the elected government. While Maoists use violence and can rightly be accused of being anti-national, human rights activists and intellectuals who expose the state, its callousness, its crimes, its incompetence, its corruption, its intentions, its political ideologies, its misuse of power and try to empower those who cannot fight the state on their own, are actually staunch nationalists, because of their commitment to the downtrodden of this country and not blind loyalty to the all-powerful government.
Innocent until proven guilty: Mere accusation or arrest does not make anyone guilty. The charges need to be proven and backed by evidence. More importantly, since the legal process is long and winding, it would be a travesty of justice to not give the benefit of the doubt to the accused, especially in politically loaded cases, where there is the power of the state on the one side and vulnerable individuals on the other.
A party or a leader does not constitute the nation: Just as Indira was not India, Modi and the BJP, too, are not India. They might be in power in a huge majority of states and at the Centre currently, but, ultimately, the BJP is merely a political party and Modi just a democratically elected political leader who has to work within the bounds of the Constitution and uphold it. Similarly, an ideology - right or left wing - cannot define a nation or the idea of nationhood and one need not have any loyalty to either the BJP's cultural, majoritarian nationalism or to Marxism, Maoism or any other version of a leftist manifesto. All political parties, leaders and activists claim to fight on behalf of the people, but no one should be allowed to claim a monopoly on nationalism.
Democracy is not a smooth ride: Finally, the middle class needs to understand that it is the very tumult and tension of a democracy that ensure the freedom of its populace and maintain the balance in the political system. Any party or leader who becomes too powerful, turns authoritarian. So while we may completely disagree with the actions, thoughts and beliefs of individuals like the intellectuals and human rights activists arrested, they are performing the very critical function of keeping the state on its toes, questioning its functioning, challenging its power, flagging its injustices and raising the consciousness of the people to exercise their democratic rights. They are certainly neither enemies of the State nor of the country's progress.
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