Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Purushottam Agarwal - Towards a Ban’ana Republic?

The week ending March 5 acquired significance indicating the direction we, as a country, seem to be heading in. In the preceding five days, there was a ban a day in the country, including the one on beef in Maharashtra and on the screening of the BBC documentary, India’s Daughter. The documentary is detrimental to the nation’s reputation abroad – the nation was told by one of its most phony ‘conscience keepers’. Beef is, of course, supposedly detrimental to the religious sentiments of the majority of Indians. Banning is the easiest solution in both situations. Democracy is all about numbers and vote-banks and their sentiments. Is it not? Freedoms of expression and that of choice are easily dispensable. Aren’t they?

That is why governments across party lines seem to be outsourcing the business of managing hurt sentiments. A vigilante group of the powerful OBC (other backward classes) lobby forces an author to declare his own death, and the Tamil Nadu government actually facilitates this ‘compromise’. Only a couple of weeks later a TV channel suffers a bomb attack for the alleged crime of discussing the historicity and desirability of ‘thali’ (mangalsutra) in the same state with a similar cynical response from the government, which is remote-controlled by a ‘strong’ leader and ‘able’ administrator.

But, then, there are pragmatic realities. Within 15 days of the Maharashtra ban on beef, the BJP-led government in Goa decided to import beef from the neighbouring states. The ban on India’s Daughter was made ineffective courtesy YouTube and Facebook. Incidentally, according to data released by Facebook, in the second half of 2014, India topped the list of countries making requests for the removal of ‘objectionable’ content.

Here is some more news in similar vein. The Haryana assembly has passed “the most stringent law” against cow slaughter. Initially, it considered prosecuting the ‘culprits’ of cow slaughter under IPC 302 (murder); now, mercifully, the penalty would be milder, just three to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment, and a fine up to '1 lakh. A 71-year-old Christian nun is gang-raped in a small town in West Bengal by young men, 15-20 years old. No arrests have been made in this horrific incident till the time of writing. In Malda district of the same state, a women’s football match is banned by the administration in consultation with the top leadership. The reason is not difficult to guess – local maulvis had objected to the players’ clothing. The prime minister is reportedly upset about the attack on a church in Haryana, but seems to be quite alright with some of the most aggressive voices being nominated to the national executive of his party.

The central government is hell bent upon bringing in its ‘development friendly’ land acquisition legislation, even if its allies and even Sangh Parivar outfits are sceptical of its provisions. As the major opposition party, the BJP had supported the law just two years back, which it now finds obstructive for its development ideas. Here is an interesting difference between the development ideas of Hindutva and those of Moditva. The land acquisition bill has also galvanised the Congress and other opposition parties to put up stiff resistance, even if the prime minister has made it into a personal prestige issue, typically spinning to the underprivileged that the opponents of the bill are obstructing the construction of schools and hospitals.

On another front, swine flu shows no signs of abating – it has already killed more than 1,700, and the number of cases has crossed 30,000. At the same time, the health budget along with the education allocation has been reduced in this year’s pro-investor, pro-business and pro-growth (whose?) budget. But, of course, arbitrary land acquisition will take care of it all. Incidentally, there is no credible audit of the use of land already available with the government, in fact, the idea of any such audit and social impact assessment is anathema to the Modi government.

 It is important to grasp the structural connections between the indifference to attacks on free speech, alternative viewpoints and diversity on the one hand and insistence on a very regressive land acquisition law and cuts in health and education expenditure on the other. The connection signifies the withdrawal from the most crucial duties of a modern, democratic state. The twin ideas of the protection of rights and implementation of the law are the very raison d’etre of a modern state. The indifference to attacks on free speech and cultural diversity indicates an unwillingness to protect the rights of citizens. The eagerness to appease any and every vigilante group and all kinds of politics of hurt sentiments reflects the unwillingness to implement the rule of law. In the aggressive insistence on the land acquisition bill, the very notions of rights and responsibility are at stake. The government wants to empower itself not for the general good, but for the benefit of the super-rich.

That is why there is an active hostility to the idea of social impact assessment coupled with deliberate vagueness in expressions like ‘infrastructure’ and ‘national interest’. How else, such an aggressive acquisition of land can be justified when the proper land audit has not taken place? How cynically vague expressions like ‘infrastructure’ and ‘public good’ could be used can be easily grasped if we recall that almost all the land taken for huge golf courses was acquired under the colonial-era land law of 1894 for ‘public good’?

A democratic welfare state is, of course, committed to development and recognises the important role of private industry, facilitates fair play and hassle-free transaction of business and commerce. Being a welfare state does not imply being hostile to business and enterprise, but it certainly implies being committed to the empowerment of citizens. Freedom of expression is sine qua non of such empowerment. It is not some middle-class luxury, but a crucial guarantee of an individual’s right to record his or her will. It is about the right to an alternative point of view on any given matter.

As opposed to the welfare state, there is the idea of a client state. Historically, demagogues of various hues come to power by invoking religious, cultural, even civil sentiments (for example, the disdain for corruption in public life) with the help of the super-rich of society and seek to create a state dedicated to unbridled money-making on part of a tiny minority. Such a state deliberately subverts the rule of law in order to encourage crony capitalism, which is detrimental even to the classical capitalist ideals of free competition and hassle-free enterprise. Not to speak of the foundational capitalist idea of the right to property, which has essentially been abrogated under Modi’s new land ordinance. The appeasement of, in fact, active abetment to the politics of hurt sentiments is an integral part of this strategy.

The idea of a ‘banana republic’ implies conversion of democracy into a mere formality. The state in such a scenario tends to be soft in the spheres where it needs to adopt a no-nonsense posture (for example, in the case of Khap diktats from Haryana to Tamil Nadu; and the posturing of ‘hurt’ sentiments of all hues) and to be very harsh on the fantasised enemies of the people, nation or culture; to be indifferent to the welfare of people, and to be subservient to the wishes of one’s friends and financiers. Let us reflect calmly, but urgently – how far are we from such a dystopia.