Blowing In The Wind

Is India a Democracy?

Nayantara Sahgal

The government wants a strong opposition. But when members of the opposition such as the Elgar Parishad prisoners, to name one case, are in jail for criticising some official measure or not falling in line with the ruling ideology, is this the way that a democracy treats dissent?

In all the decades since independence in 1947, there have been robust fights between opposition and government over every conceivable issue, inside and outside parliament. No one was sent to jail for loud and clear denouncements of some government action or government policy. India’s vigorously functioning democracy was admired the world over as an example to other Asian countries. Why is this example not being followed in present-day India itself?

People need to face the terrible truth that though prisoners in a democratic country have rights, these have not been observed here under governments past and present. It is a matter of shame that prisoners in Indian jails are routinely tortured to extract confessions, and selected political prisoners have been singled out for vicious treatment including denial of bail even when bail was desperately needed for medical or family reasons. Some have died of their treatment in jail. One well-known victim was the Catholic priest Father Stan Swamy who was eventually released only to die on his release. How many unknown political prisoners may have suffered a like fate the country doesn’t know. Does this sound as if the government wants a strong opposition?

The answer is blowing in the wind.

 Is this India? It looks like some alien country in which no familiar landmark remains. The newly independent India gave itself a constitution that guaranteed liberty, equality and fraternity to all Indians. It is a constitution that recognises and respects individual rights and the absolute right of every Indian to live and worship as he/she chooses. This rock-solid constitutional guarantee can in no circumstances whatsoever be compromised or withdrawn. That legacy is being abused or ignored. It is tattered and torn. The India that inherited it, cherished it and took pride in it is no more.

Can a country and all the individual rights and freedoms it once gloried in disappear? People see that it can. They are watching it struggling to survive, as everybody is watching the multi-cultured, multi-religious civilisation that India once was, gasping for breath.

In actual human terms, the policy of shrinking India into a single Hindu – as defined by Hindutva – culture has left millions of Indian citizens living in fear of what may happen to them as they see what is being done to their kind. Muslims are being targeted. Two well-known tragedies are those of an innocent blacksmith and a fifteen-year-old boy on a train, going home with Eid presents for his family. They have respectively been lynched and knifed to death. Christian churches are being vandalised or torn down, Bibles have been burned.

The atmosphere around has altered. Different values now prevail and demand allegiance. Hatred is the new teaching. Vengeance is permissible in order to carry it out. Violence has become an accepted way of life. Lynch mobs flourish and roam free.

To get back to the plight of political prisoners and the treatment of those who have been thrown into jail on trumped-up charges, it is better to look at the famous case, that of G N Saibaba, a dedicated professor of high repute at Delhi University whose passion is teaching, who is loved and respected by his students and colleagues, who is known for his help to poor, rural and backward students, and for his free tuitions to the needy.

What has happened to Saibaba is documented in detail in his book of poems and letters from prison titled ‘Why Do You Fear My Way So Much?’ from which this account is taken:

‘One afternoon in 2013, 50 policemen (in civil dress) stormed his house at the university and took away his laptop, his and his wife’s phones and other precious belongings on the charge that he had stolen some goods that had been found in a village in Maharashtra. What stolen goods? Nobody knows. Soon after, the police were back and their vehicles surrounded the house while they interrogated Saibaba late into the night. Some months later, they pulled him out of his car while he was driving home from college, took him to the airport without informing his family and flew him to Nagpur. From there, he was taken to Gadchiroli in a van surrounded by vehicles full of armed commandos pointing their weapons in all directions.’

This charade must have been designed to show they had arrested a dangerous terrorist and not a professor of English literature who had been bound to his wheelchair since childhood as the result of a bout of polio. Saibaba was then locked into a solitary cell known as an anda cell. It is inhumanly cramped. Half the cell has no roof, only an iron grill that lets in the pouring rain and scorching sun so that he feels as unprotected as he would on an open road.

In dire need of medical treatment for the painful bloodied wounds and bruises of his brutal removal to jail and for his rapidly deteriorating health which has been neglected too long, his barbaric confinement has left him inanimate and immovable. He is unable to lift his hand or foot without help. In these tragic and inhuman conditions, he has not been allowed bail. The United Nations, and protestors fighting this shocking injustice both in India and abroad, have long been demanding his release. But to date, there is no release for Saibaba.

Can it be true that what is known as democracy in today’s India has a different meaning from democracy as it is practised worldwide? But what use is it asking, for the answer is blowing in the wind.


[Source: the wire]

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Vol 55, No. 1, Jul 3 - 9, 2022