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Why dissent will become more difficult in India

By T N Ninan
April 04, 2016 14:35 IST
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'These trends put at risk not only minorities or the media or some other out-of-favour group, they can and do concern everyone,' warns T N Ninan.

At one level, India is deepening and strengthening its democracy. Oppressed or suppressed castes have found political voice over the past quarter century and, in a battle that has just been fought, women are winning the right to enter temples where their entry used to be barred.

So the problem that the country faces is not with democracy (however imperfect its practice); the issue which should get attention has to do with liberalism. As Fareed Zakaria argued more than a decade ago in The Future of Freedom, you can have one without the other; many countries do.

India was never a truly liberal system. The government placed far too heavy a hand on the economy, and in many areas there were not enough checks and balances to prevent the misuse of power -- which therefore was frequent.

Remember also that the Constitution restricts freedom of speech when it comes to criticising a friendly country -- begging the question of who maintains authorised lists of which countries are friendly, and which not.

The situation improved with the advent of economic reforms, which paved the way for the abolition of many controls and a greater role for competitive markets and private players.

At the same time, the end of a single party's dominance of the political sphere helped some existing institutions gain confidence and credibility, including the Election Commission and the Comptroller and Auditor General.

The Supreme Court permitted and even encouraged public interest litigation, while the Right to Information law empowered ordinary citizens in an altogether new way.

The media gained in size and reach. New institutions were created for better regulation of the stock market and for preserving the competitive nature of markets in general. The system developed more checks and balances.

The trouble today is that a reverse trend has started. The Gujarat government has proposed a new law that gives it over-arching power over all universities in the state, while the report of a fact-finding team sent by the Editors Guild to look at pressures on the media in Chhattisgarh makes for disturbing reading -- journalists are subjected to arbitrary arrest, or attacked in their homes, and there is pervasive fear.

Meanwhile, the party in power at the Centre puts forward the formal proposition that criticism of the 'nation' should not be permitted. What does that mean? If a nation is its people, does it become impermissible to argue that Indians are prone to racist attitudes when it comes to black Africans?

A state government has just been dismissed, preventing a floor test of its majority, bringing back memories of the arbitrary exercise of power that prevailed when Indira Gandhi was at the helm.

Efforts are being made to whittle down the scope and power of the Right to Information law, while autonomous institutions feel the dread hand of government on their shoulders.

Shouting a slogan has been made a test of one's nationalism. People are lynched in their homes or on their way to a cattle market, while reporters are attacked in court premises in the capital.

Insidiously, there is one rule for those in favour, another for those out of favour.

It is hard to see India being anything other than a democracy but, in Zakaria's framework, it is in danger of becoming a quite illiberal one if some recent trends continue or gain in strength.

No 'basic structure' of the Constitution is threatened, but the de facto position on the ground will be that dissent becomes more difficult, and conformism born out of fear or compulsion more prevalent.

It bears pointing out that these are not trends that put at risk only minorities or the media or some other out-of-favour group; they can and do concern everyone.

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T N Ninan
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