India: A Republic Of Silence

“Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.” –Franklin D. Roosevelt

I write this article as a personal appeal and in a state of alarm. Alarm at the efforts to silence all criticism against the current Indian government and alarm at the level of silence being practiced institutionally by the government, by the media, by the civil society and by the public in general, slowly but surely turning India into a republic of silence!

One needs to look no further than the comments on my article, “Why India Needs Rahul Gandhi”, published in the Huffington Post that merely presented a counter view to the popular perception about Mr. Rahul Gandhi. Instead of discussing the merit of the article based on the arguments presented, I was targeted across Facebook, Twitter and even LinkedIn with the rhetoric ranging from me being branded as an anti-national to being a sycophant and everything in between.

My case is symptomatic of a larger phenomenon. Any question that is even slightly critical of the current dispensation is shut down by voluminous and vituperative rhetoric. Any article, any status update and any comment meets the same fate. And contrary to popular belief, its not the online brigade of the BJP, but people like me — the netizens who rallied behind PM Modi in 2014 and pinned high hopes on him — who are finding it difficult to accept the relative underperformance of the government and any criticism associated with the same.

I’ve termed this phenomenon as “People’s Silence” wherein we as a people have surrendered the right to question, to criticize and to engage in meaningful debate simply because we chose to believe in the fable that one man can be a savior to a nation of more than 1.2 billion people. As that fallacy is unraveling, we as a society are finding it difficult to accept the fact that the solutions to our problems do not lie with one man but with us as a people who have to hold those in power accountable by engaging in thoughtful debate and constructive criticism. Rather than confronting our responsibilities, we as a collective people are trying to quell dissenting voices. Accepting dissent might lead to the sad realization that we do not have silver bullets to solve the nation’s chronic issues like poverty, corruption, hunger and economic stagnation. That means that there is not just one savior, but all of us will have to do our bit, including entering into politics to improve the fate of our nation rather than relying on Mr. Kejriwal to root out corruption and Mr. Modi to jumpstart the economy. Statements like “Mr. Modi will change India,” or “He is our only hope” worry me. These statements are contradictory to the ethos of a democracy. The inability of our people to rise above these disempowering statements is the greatest crisis in Indian politics.

Another form of silence that we are witnessing is what I’ve termed the “Savior’s Silence”. It began the day the cabinet was reduced to schoolboys who could not even select their own staff let alone make their own decisions. If UPA government was criticized for a dual power center then Mr. Modi’s government can be criticized for centralizing power in a single person. This is a power that does not welcome dissent as is evident from the current government’s practice minimal external communication. This coupled with the fact that our eloquent PM has maintained a stoic silence, barring few platitudes, over issues like the rise of fundamentalism, farmer suicides and the rise in naxal violence, among other issues.

Lastly and perhaps the most unnerving is what I’ve termed “Institutional Silence” where traditional watchdogs like the media and civil society have also gone silent for fear of backlash. As such, various civil society organizations have been put under the scanner and funding has ceased for organizations like Greenpeace with charges ranging from financial misconduct to anti-national activities. This coupled with the fact that in the era of paid news and corporatization of media, news has also become a commodity that can be bought and sold thus rendering its credibility suspect and its impact limited. Therefore, reporting against a ruling government with deep pockets in a society immersed in the practice of silence can be commercially, as well as strategically unviable. The fundamental problem we are facing is the lack of a critical mass of people’s organizations (for example, NGOs, community organizations, people’s movements, students movements and cooperatives), as well as critical media challenging the status quo and deepening the language of democracy around substantial issues of food, education, health and ecology.

How I wish back the days when I could post a critical comment without being attacked personally, or when a hyperactive media fearlessly reported about impropriety at the highest levels, or when we discussed judicial activism and not jurisdiction. I hope that we can start the debate again from where our constitution starts: We the People of India. This nation’s founders knew that its destiny lay not in the hands of any one person but its teeming millions.



Shashank Shukla, India

About

The author is a Mason fellow from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, is a writer, a social entrepreneur as well as a politico-social commentator focusing on contemporary issues in Indian society


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