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Freedom curtailed, democracy warped

Freedom is being curtailed and democracy is bent out of shape.

Aparajita Pande

I write this on the day when the All India Congress Committee at the Bombay session launched the Bharat Chhodho Andolan or the Quit India Movement at the stroke of midnight on August 8, 1942 demanding an orderly British withdrawal and hence the birth of a free India. 70 years from that day we stand at August 8, 2018. Is our India really free today?

I believe we live in a democracy where each citizen has a say and has the right to participate in the national dialogue. I have sadly come to the point to say that such is not the present state of affairs. Journalists are being let go because their opinion is adversely suited to the current dispensation, people are being lynched over mere suspicion, polarisation on religious lines is an everyday happening, general intolerance at a universal record high, investment and credit creation zero and heavy employment generation sectors, that can generate massive employment, like the textile industry, dairy, and skill training units are on their knees. Freedom is being curtailed and the democracy is bent out of shape.

The the most recent test of democracy comes by way of resignation of two senior journalists of ABP news under mysterious circumstances that does not just raise questions but also concerns. And why has ABP all of a sudden come under scrutiny and been pressurised? It all began when on their primetime show ‘Masterstroke’ a woman farmer said that her farm income had doubled in a video interaction with PM Narendra Modi. This information was later labelled as tutored by an ABP news report pointing to manipulation on BJP’s part thereby debunking such claims.

This was widely criticised and denied by all BJP leaders and received a lot of backlashes. And so ABP came under the scanner. Some say they were not fired, they just moved on for better pay while the others maintain they were ‘let go’ owing to their anti-government coverage. One cannot ignore the coincidence in the timelines of the ABP news report (after 8th July telecast of Masterstroke) and two most senior journalists of the channel submitting their resignation (on August 3).

Are we being trained and tutored to forget that freedom of expression is a fundamental right in the constitution? How can the media be expected to function when it works under the constant fear and undue vigilance of the government. The existence of a free press is a vital pre-requisite to the functioning of a true and a thriving democracy. Media censorship is certainly not the way forward, in fact, it is going to take us way back in time.

Surjewala said censorship was the “new normal” in Modi’s “new India.” Not for nothing that earlier this very year, India’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index slipped by 2 ranks and is currently at 138 in a total of 180 countries. We manage to stay just 1 rank above Pakistan. The ABP development would certainly contribute to more dip when these rankings are updated next time.

In the past years there has been constant talk of cherishing the ideals of the constitution that our found fathers left us with. Today the first step to remedying it is saving our constitution first and saving India aka ‘Bharat bachao’. Not only the Indian press but also the fundamental rights in our constitution have been facing repression from rising allegations against supposed anti-individual campaigns to murdering journalists. The state should not be taken back from the ideals of constitutional pluralism to a space that violates freedom of expression and human rights. It will only lead to erosion of the very principles on which democracy stands.

Balancing state power with rights of the citizens and maintaining a harmony in both is the way forward for democracy. Strengthening freedom of expression will only strengthen India. Free speech does not just entail speaking and expressing views freely but also allowing people to disagree. The state should encourage a dialogue with all opinions, even the conflicting ones. This is essential for the society to progress and democracy to thrive.

Having said that there is no denying that ugly factors have surfaced that fit the paradigm of a self-promoting intolerant manipulative state in the 21st century. India’s extremism continues to exasperate and shock. How our constitution is increasingly being rendered irrelevant is the constant narrative. In the words of philosopher Saul, our citizens deserve a massive restructuring of the state. Don’t we owe that to August 8 of 1942.

(Author is a lawyer & freelance writer)

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