Blatant lies, mass arrests and Internet shutdowns as depicted in large bold letters in every newspaper. Students attacked, libraries invaded, gas shells fired, you’d think the country was in the throes of a civil war or a coup.
The end of 2019 has seen one of the most bizarre events in Independent India’s history. Scores of people, old and young, the disabled and enabled, are protesting against an unconstitutional blight that has been passed in the form of the Citizenship Amendment Act. Instead of rectifying refugee laws, the government has taken a blatantly discriminatory line on religious grounds.
Many have pointed out the problems with this law and its unconstitutional nature. Debates abound on the idealistic nature of democracies and the practical challenges and ground realities. Some of them are based on reason and others pure rhetoric.
The first principles of a liberal democracy include the consent of losers. And yet, despite aggressive backlash from people, lies are being peddled, protests silenced, and the media is being clamped down. It is stranger that such regressive political movements are being peddled as progressive, and with support. People’s prejudices have been stoked and while freedom of expression permits articulation of prejudices, it is startlingly one-sided.
What is happening in India is largely reflective of a major part of the developed world. The ripple effects of regressive political stances are spreading across countries. Most liberal democracies have gone through numerous churns of marginalised groups adjusting to a country’s laws. Sometimes they have been coerced, subjugated, and compelled to obey through violent means, while in others the transition was more peaceful.
Religious, cultural and ethnic identities have become malleable, through science, economic progress and bridging of cultural gaps via social media. And yet the same mechanisms have been used by ideological demagogues to stoke the fires of anxiety, insecurity and cultural superiority.
History is a silent spectator. Ideological movements have slowly gathered momentum across the world, placing individuals with dogmatic strains in positions of power. The realignment of communities across the world is breaking down, with fears of liberal democracies subsuming ideologies and making them irrelevant.
But as Levitsky and Diblatt say, “History doesn’t repeat itself. It rhymes”. The promise of history is to find the rhymes before it is too late.
It will be foolish to assume that the horror and hate of the hour are a result of only the government’s actions. Our prejudices run deeper, our hatred much stronger, and our eyes blinded by the fanned flames of our divisive biases.
The demise of modern republics is subtle. It is no longer about storming ministries and residences of the political elite like a classic coup’d’etat, but moulding the fabric of society towards hate. It is the powerful stoking of the anxiety of communal disharmony with a semblance of peace, allowing constitutional bodies to remain in place, while subverting the methods, mechanisms and laws to the benefit of those in power.
When heinous crimes happen and the law is powerless to stop it. When mob justice becomes accepted as the norm. Where unconstitutional bills get passed without much debate. This is how a republic dies.
When newspapers toe the government’s line, when shortcuts and incompetence come disguised as efforts to clean up the economy or the judiciary, when small actions incrementally devalue the very laws and principles they were meant to uphold, that is when a republic dies.
When elected representatives weaponise the media, manipulate institutions, openly endorse hatred, and when people, academics, the experienced and anyone with an opposing view get silenced or bullied into subservience, that is when a republic dies.
A similar churn is happening in India. A storm is raging in the minds of people, the tensions palpable in the air we breathe. For too long we have made enemies and villains out of normal men and women, and blamed them for our misdeeds, to hide our own fallacies. Today religions fulfil these roles, tomorrow it will be castes and sub-castes.
The people will do well to remember our Constitution’s Preamble. These are pivotal points in a nation’s making that will define the road a country takes. It takes naught to sully the protesting fervour. But its perseverance is a testament to a republic’s undying spirit.
The world has been witness to countless events where perceived superiority of a race, deliberate denigration of religions, and collective hatred have resulted in disasters to life on a global scale. Our two world wars, the many genocides in history, and the inhuman brutality of the Third Reich are enough proof. India doesn’t need this hatred. The collective power of people has temporarily turned the tide for they would even prefer the fear of the unknown to laws based on religious segregation.
Make no mistake. This is how it starts. We’ve seen how it ends. The future stands in witness and is asking us questions. Is this how a republic died? Or is this how a republic is saved?
The writer is editor and programme manager at Takshashila Institution. The views expressed here are personal....