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“This Is Democracy, Sir!”

“This Is Democracy, Sir!”

The Janata Party had overwhelmingly defeated the Congress (I) in the 1977 parliamentary elections and thereafter formed the Union Government with Shri Morarjee Desai as Prime Minister.

In December 1978, a few days before Christmas Day, Om Prakash Tyagi had introduced a private member’s bill in the Lok Sabha, entitled, “Freedom of Religion Bill, 1978” but the content was just the opposite; the principal objective was to control and curtail religious freedom, similar to those invoked in Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Arunachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand and commonly known as “anti-conversion” laws.

The Honourable Prime Minister was due to visit Shillong to grace the Convocation of the North Eastern Hill University (NEHU) on 07 April, 1979. A few of us got together and were of the view that we should express our grievance over Tyagi’s “Religious Freedom” Bill during the Prime Minister’s visit to Shillong and the best way to do so was during his arrival and road ride from the IAF’s Upper Shillong helipad to NEHU campus, i.e. to welcome him with black flags.

In less than 48 hours, we got hundreds of small black flags stitched and on the morning of the 7th, as people filled the bamboo guarded roadside, black flags were distributed and when the Prime Minister took the road show, a sea of black flags were fluttering as they were waved left and right and high as far as the arm can stretch sideways, front and upward.

Obviously, Shri Morarjee Desai was not at all happy. His face turned sour and standing beside him in the official open vehicle, was Mr. Darwin Diengdoh Pugh, Meghalaya’s Chief Minister. On seeing the people of Shillong waving black flags, the Prime Minister turned to the Chief Minister and in a stentorian voice asked Mr. Pugh, “What is this?” to which, Bah (Mr.) Darwin rhetorically countered with a question, “What Sir ” More exasperated than ever, the Prime Minister louder and more stentorian, “What is this black flag ?” Bah Darwin, without batting an eyelid, turned to the Prime Minister and answered, “This is democracy, Sir!”

On learning about this exchange between the country’s Prime Minister and Meghalaya’s Chief Minister, I came to understand one more positive regarding democracy, i.e. THE RIGHT TO DISSENT IS VERY MUCH AN INTEGRAL COMPONENT OF DEMOCRACY, making it lively and dynamic. Today, dissent is not being tolerated. Most unfortunate and sad, and spells the death of democracy, slow, suffocating. Those who cannot keep their mouths shut, are labelled as ‘anti-national’, threats to arrest them under ‘sedition’ and now, human rights activists are being targeted under some sections of the IPC and other legal provisions so as to silence the voice of dissent.

“Dissent is a safety valve of democracy and if you don’t allow these safety valves, it will burst,” said a Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra, also comprising Justices A. M. Khanwilkar and D. Y. Chandrachud, on the arrest of five civil rights activists - Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves Arun Ferreira, Sudha Bhardwaj and Gautam Navlakha.”

I believe that many of us might still remember the moral of a story written for children, i.e. about the emperor’s clothes. The emperor was first cheated by his royal tailor but the subjects dared not say a word, even though there were no clothes stitched for him but plenty of money must have been passed into the tailor’s hands to bring out the most expensive and regaling wear, befitting the royal power and authority of the no-nonsense emperor. When the emperor came out from his chamber to meet the public and hold court, everyone assembled, exclaimed on the supposedly exquisite clothes the emperor was wearing that day, fearing to reveal the truth that he was walking/parading naked as on the day he was born; except for one innocent boy, who did not yet know the meaning of being diplomatic, being courteous and to control his tongue from airing out nothing but the truth on the ground reality prevailing. “The emperor is naked!” blurted out the boy in a state of shock and innocence, on seeing the emperor without any clothes. That was the truth and it could not be camouflaged. And there was complete hush, people looking at each other but not one, man enough to either concur with or counter the young boy and no one either, reprimanded the boy for his daring audacity in proclaiming the truth. Does this Government not want to hear and know the truth?

As the U. N. Independent Fact-finding Mission on Myanmar has castigated the Myanmar’s Army on its pogrom against Rohingyas and also the U. N. Chief has called for justice on the Myanmar crisis, allow me to remind us of a few quotes from U. Thant, a Myanmarese, who was U. N. Secretary General during 1961 – 1971.

“Governments, systems, ideologies, come and go, it is humanity which remains.”…“As a Buddhist, I was trained to be tolerant of everything except intolerance. I was brought up not only to develop the spirit of tolerance but to also cherish moral and spiritual qualities such as modesty, humility, compassion and, most important, to attain a certain degree of emotional equilibrium.”

Let me conclude by quoting from (L) Senator John McCain’s final letter to America. “We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all corners of the globe.” (from the John McCain Memorial Dossier, OZY Special Briefing, 29 August, 2018)

(The writer, a former Vice President of the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI), is a retired Minister of the Presbyterian Church of India.)

(Published on 10th September 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 37)