In My Own Voice: Is This the Sprit of Democracy?
As I write this, we are on the
last phase of a hate speech-ridden, deeply polarised general election. We have
recently witnessed a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) youth leader, Priyanka
Sharma, being remanded to 14 days of judicial custody and being let off by the
Supreme Court after being asked to tender an apology.
Sharma had shared a morphed
photograph of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee on her Facebook
account. I have seen the picture; it is ridiculous but not obscene, nor
inciting violence in any way. So leaders are not to be mocked at, ridiculed or
made fun of ever; they are indeed sacrosanct.
Let us not forget that Banerjee
had a college professor arrested for forwarding a cartoon on her, earlier.
Let us pray for our new deities - the political class - that will rule us and define
the rules of humour and India's rich tradition of culture, literature, music
and even cartoons.
The recent violence in Kolkata
between the BJP and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) is even more disturbing. The
destruction of the bust of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar - the legendary writer and
Bengali Renaissance figure, is an attack on Bengali cultural identity and
collective memory. For, is not 'the struggle of memory over forgetting, the
struggle of power'? as Milan Kundera so memorably wrote.
This act of vandalism, allegedly
by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and BJP goons after being greeted by black
flags held by Calcutta University students at party president Amit Shah's
roadshow, is in keeping with the destruction of statues of some icons that
belong to the 'other' - Lenin in Agartala, B.R Ambedkar in Uttar Pradesh and
Periyar in Tamil Nadu.
So, cultural memory and what is
sacred is to be defined by the Hindu Right-wing, for this not a plan on how to
govern but how to seize control of your mind and what you should and should not
remember. This is a selective dismembering of memory and you must only valorise
a mythic and glorious past that was India till the 'invaders' (now
The spirit of democracy is to
allow a free-wheeling discussion of issues that mean so much to the people - employment, farmers' suicides, women's issues, environment, drinking water - the list is long. But I am seeing so much bullying, intimidation and
muscle-flexing that it is hard to believe this is my beloved country - India
founded on the civilisational values of ahimsa (non-violence) and satyagraha (peaceful resistance).
In a democracy, we elect people
to serve and not bully us into submission and debarring us from raising our
voices and recording our dissent. Demonetisation rocked the country, as the
poor and the working class that works on cash, had their entire livelihoods
destroyed. An old woman in Kashipur, who can neither walk nor see properly and
has kept her lifetime savings sewn into her razai (quilt) takes it out and gives it to the sarpanch (village headman) for changing it perforce into
the new currency. The sarpanch decides
what he wants to do with her hard-earned money and she has no recourse but to
accept it. This was the village scenario, but demonetisation was flaunted as a
measure that would wipe out black money.
The BJP government introduced
electoral bonds to fund political parties and stop black money. In 2018, the
ruling BJP received Rs 210 crore, that is 95% of the total bonds issued. This
is an astronomical amount and percentage, so why is it that we, the people of
India, do not know the source of the electoral bonds that are funding these and
hence this election?
The anonymity of donors has been
challenged by an NGO, the ADR (Association of Democratic Reforms) in the
Supreme Court. However, the Attorney General, K K Venugopal, argued for the
Centre: "It is not the voters concern where money comes from. Transparency
cannot be looked at as a mantraâ€¦".Indeed, so if we the voters do not know who
is funding the candidate or party, how is this an informed choice?
It is well known that corporate
interests back the political party that makes 'ease of doing business' more
important than the basic needs and human rights of the beleaguered,
disempowered, hapless Indian citizen. The last five years have witnessed an
astonishing rise of Indian billionaires while the common man and woman have had
their noses rubbed to the ground, with farmer suicides, rising inflation and
unemployment at a 45-year high.
No one is talking about women's
employment and their participation in the workforce that has declined. A study
by the Pew Research Centre shows that against a 45.4% median of female share of
the workforce in 44 countries, Indian women have only 25.9%, among the 10
lowest. According to a yet to be released NSSO (National Sample Survey Office)
report, women's participation in the workforce has further declined. This has
serious implications for the status of women as they become vulnerable to
domestic violence and are forcibly pushed into degrading sex work.
The Supreme Court has ruled that
that the details of the electoral bond funds be provided to the Election
Commission in a sealed cover by May 30, but ironically, by then the voting will
be over and the results will be announced on May 23.
It is only during election time
that the hapless citizen feels empowered and even that right is being taken
away. Who is being mocked at in this election? Are these elections peaceful?
Are these elections fair? Are we keeping the spirit of democracy or going
through the motions of it?
As I travelled through India,
Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Myanmar, recording oral testimonies of
surviving freedom fighters, I kept asking each of them why they had fought for
the freedom of India? Janaky Thevar, the first woman to command the Rani of
Jhansi Regiment who marched through the forest of Burma along with Netaji and
the Ranis said: "We wanted to see India free!' She heard Netaji speak at
a padang (park) in Kuala Lumpur, saluted him took off her
earrings and gave them to him. She and her sister, Papathy, joined the Rani of
Jhansi Regiment. Years later, she recalled the burning desire to free India and
Netaji's mesmerising speeches and personality with a light in her eyes!
Leaders have their impact, they
draw a whole people towards a certain direction. The freedom fighters had
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Gandhi as their inspiration; who do we have?
In Prai, a small town in
Malaysia, I met Kannusamy and asked him why he had fought for the freedom of
India when he had never set foot on Indian soil? He lost his temper and rebuked
me: "It's a funny question to ask an Indian. Once an Indian always an Indian."
I am still searching for that
spirit that made India free and will keep it so. I am searching for the spirit
The writer is an award-winning
author and film director. The views are personal.