2019 has been — to say the very least — an interesting year for India. The current administration, unlike most others before, has been on a constant roll of implementing policies that were formerly considered pipe dreams, including GST, demonetization, the reunification of the JnK region and, of course, the NRC and CAA bills. Not all of them were necessarily successful, but a government that actively creates change is considered a sign of a healthy democracy for some.
Notwithstanding all the achievements of the administration, there’s a record they set that is very worrying. The internet has been shut down 95 times in India this year.
The government must not have the autocratic right to deny access to information and communication.
The most common defense given by officials is that the shutdowns are “required” to maintain decorum in the region. In reality, however, this is increasingly being used as a tool to aggressively control dissent. This ranges anywhere from the propagation of anti-national views in Kashmir to paltry incidents like conducting religious processions or the spreading of anti-Islamic views on Whatsapp. Certainly, some of these shutdowns were warranted by palpable threats, but it seems like the usage of this power is moving further and further from its central rationale.
Are these swift, and heavy-handed tactics becoming something of a punishment for protesting in order to discourage political discourse? The expression of political views; nonconforming to a precedent or not, is an integral factor of the functioning of a democracy. In my opinion, the biggest failing of this democracy is the fact that the archaic law against sedition still exists and is actively being invoked by the government. Considering that there has been no effort from them to set the limits of what is defined as sedition in the last 70 years, this word is, has been, and will be subject to indiscriminate misappropriation.
I’m not in favor of letting a small group of 800-odd people decide what a billion-and-a-half other people can say or think. A government has been elected to govern its people, not dictate what is considered acceptable or inappropriate. I’ll take this chance to remind you that the average age of the parliamentary lower house is 57.5 years, while the average Indian is only about 28 years old.
Of the many things I envy about the USA, the 1st Amendment is certainly one of them. While there are many inevitable issues with unhindered political discourse, a country needs the freedom of expression to function as a democracy. One where the rules of governance are set by the people, not an arbitrary group of disconnected elites. The fundamental difference between the American and Indian constitutions is the tone; the freedom of expression in America isn’t something the government gives, it’s something American citizens — as humans — have the right to. In India, however, this whole deal is decidedly complex.
I’ve spoken to many well-intentioned people who support government-sanctioned “control” of speech. On the face value, the idea of regulating speech does make sense because the propagation of some ideas can potentially — and unnecessarily — destabilize peace.
However, I think there’s a factor that isn’t considered well enough. For all its merits, India is still a young and undeveloped democracy because well-defined lines of political ideology haven’t developed in this country yet. Some parties have indeed declared their political leanings (namely, the INC favoring the left and the BJP the right), most bank on religious and cultural sectarianism to attract votes instead of actual political ideology. This, in my opinion, is primarily due to the fact that the society here is extremely heterogenous and is evidenced by the fact that regional parties hold tremendous power in India, quite unlike the US, UK and other countries in the West. What I’m coming to, conversely, is that the failure to recognize the threat of giving the government the power to control speech in a country that is heavily divided by communalist partisanship can be extremely unwise. To preserve and improve the current status quo of stability between the majoirty and minorities in this country, powers that give partisan control over thought and ideology must be done away with.
I admit to unconciously putting some effort into making my words appear more admissible and politically correct with regard to the sentiments of the government and the general population. I think the fact that I was unconfident about publishing this article is quite shameful; my internal inhibitions reflect the political climate in this country. I was constantly reminded of the stories of people getting arrested for posting “objectionable” content and journalists getting attacked for disseminating unconventional and alternative views.
All the same, it’s really quite funny how in the process of answering “Is it prudent to discuss Indian politics publicly nowadays?”, I ended up sharing my views on the state of Indian politics myself. Ultimately, while I remain forced to be a bystander to matters concerning politics (the minimum age of candidacy in India is 21-25), I can’t do much but keep my chin up and hope for the best.