People of India are proud of the fact that their country is the largest democracy in the world. India has been a source of inspiration for people’s struggle for freedom and human rights around the world. While many neighbouring countries slipped from democracy to dictatorship or remained as democracy for name’s sake, India could hold on to functional democracy. But the experience of India after the ascent of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the centre has been one of disheartening and disappointing, regarding the functioning of democracy and enjoyment of human rights by the citizens. One of the reasons for the weakening of democracy is the shrinking space of civil society.
While speaking to a group of social activists in Chennai on 19th January Dr. Arul Raja SJ explained how a strong civil society can strengthen democracy. He was addressing the participants of a workshop organized by Streevani, Pune and the Forum for Justice and Peace on the topic, “An Alternative Narrative and Strategies for a Prophetic Mission”. The five pillars of democracy, as explained by Dr. Arul Raj, are Legislature, Executive, Judiciary, Media and Civil Society or the Civil Space. While the first four are well organized, the Civil Society is not organized.
At the same time the Civil Society has a crucial role to play in safeguarding and strengthening democracy in the context of India. According to him, the structure of democracy is kept alive in India, but in the private space it is being murdered. More and more criminals are entering the legislature with every election. According to the information submitted to the Supreme Court in the second week of March, 2018 by the central government, 1765 MPs and MLAs or 36% of the lawmakers are facing criminal trials. The total strength of Parliamentarians and members of State Assemblies is 4896.
The media almost on a daily basis report how the ministers and government employees amass wealth through corrupt practices. The four top judges of Supreme Court made history in January 2018 by addressing a press conference in which they made the complaint about government’s interference in the functioning of judiciary. Thus the three pillars of democracy are being weakened. They asserted that unless things were set in order and that the Government stopped interfering in the judiciary, “democracy would not survive in the country!” The way the Government procrastinated on the appointment of Justice K. M. Joseph to the Supreme Court, (because he did not give a favourable judgement to the BJP as the Chief Justice of the Uttarakhand High Court), is a textbook example.
Media is often described as the fourth pillar of democracy. But independence of the media is very much restricted by the control of the government and the ownership of the corporate sector. For example, Network 18 is an Indian mass media company which is owned and operated by Reliance Industries. It has interests in television, print, internet, film, mobile content and allied businesses. It has the ownership of 19 news channels. Most of the newspapers in India are afraid of carrying any news or write up critical of the government. They are either frightened of harassment or losing advertisement. Paid news has become very common.
The 2017 Press Freedom Index ranks India 136 out of 180 jurisdictions covered. In their 2017 report, ‘Defenders of the Earth’, lists India among the deadliest countries for land and environmental defenders as it has seen killings spike against a backdrop of heavy-handed policing and the repression of peaceful protests and civic activism.
The reaming pillar is the Civil Society. That is also encroached by the government, especially after BJP came to power at the centre. Harassing and restricting the activities of the Civil Society Organizations have been one of the priorities of the Modi government and of the Sangh Parivar. In May 2015, a host of civil society organizations wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister of India. The opening paragraph said, “We write to you, as members and as representatives of civil society organizations, and above all as Indian citizens, to express our deep concern on how civil society organizations and their donors are being labelled and targeted. Funds are frozen, intelligence reports are selectively released to paint NGOs in poor light, and their activities are placed on watch list. NGO projects have been shut down, donors are unable to support work, and there is an overall atmosphere of State coercion and intimidation in the space of civil society.” (Ref. The big squeeze on civil society, on the right to freedom of expression by Neera Chandhoke in Hindu, July 20, 2017)
Maharashtra police on 28th August raided the homes of prominent Left-wing activists in several states and arrested four of them, accusing them of having Maoist links. Near simultaneous searches were carried out at the residences of prominent Telugu poet Varavara Rao in Hyderabad, activists Vernon Gonzalves and Arun Ferreira in Mumbai, trade union activist Sudha Bhardwaj in Faridabad, and civil liberties activist Gautam Navlakha in New Delhi. Subsequently, Rao, Bhardwaj and Ferreira and Navlakha were arrested. They are still behind the bars.
What is their crime? They stand for the rights of the disposed: the Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims and women. They are branded as “Urban Naxals” and “Half Maoists” by not only members of the ruling party, including eminent ministers, but also by sections of the television, digital and social media. Suppression of dissenting voices had been resorted to by various governments in the past, but the BJP government under the influence of RSS has become notorious for stifling the dissenting voices. The religious leaders who ban any dissent by their followers are worse than the RSS and BJP.
The textbook definition of democracy is “government of the people, by the people and for the people”. People are at the centre of democracy. Their role is not just electing the governments periodically. They have the right to make the government accountable to them by asking questions, criticizing the wrong policies and actions of the government. Governments in general have a propensity to appropriate, accumulate and misuse power. “Citizens have the right to scrutinise the work of their representatives, publicise acts of omission and commission, such as infringement of civil liberties, appropriation of tribal land for purposes of accumulation, failure of governments to provide a reasonable standard of life for the citizens, and engage with leaders on the troubled issue of political conflicts. The right to engage with, interrogate and criticise representatives is an integral part of democracy. Without this right democracy becomes farcical, an empty term, a phantom concept, an illusion”, writes Neera Cahndhoke.
The BJP government and its ideological mentor RSS have scant regard for the civil society organizations. While the BJP took over the political space, the organizations floated by RSS have taken away the space of the civil society. The protest against the Supreme Court verdict regarding Sabarimala temple shows how the limited space of the civil society is usurped by the BJP government through its right wing frontal organizations. The dalit, tribal, women and human rights activists are intimidated, isolated, terrorized and even eliminated both by the state and non-state apparatus.
Against this backdrop the followers of Jesus, particularly the consecrated men and women, have to play their prophetic role with maximum imagination, said Dr. Arul Raja. “Convert the righteous anger of the people into collaborative potential” he appealed to the religious women and men. If the consecrated women and men wait for the permission of their major superiors to participate in any public protest against the wrong policies of the government, atrocities on the dalits, tribals women and children, will they be able to play their prophetic role? Will they be able to be faithful to their call?
(Published on 28th January 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 05)