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India – The Fate of Dissent in an “Export-quality” Democracy

In India we often indicate the superiority of a particular product (be it a pair of pants or a crate of mangoes) by referring to it as being of “export-quality.”

Anti-nuclear activist SP Udayakumar. Credit: IANS

In India we often indicate the superiority of a particular product (be it a pair of pants or a crate of mangoes) by referring to it as being of “export-quality.” I have often wondered whether our much-vaunted democracy is another instance of something Indian that is not really intended for domestic consumption but only to impress those outside our country. It seems we have reduced democracy to just three things: (a) the conduct of largely free and fair elections; (b) orderly transitions of power between civilian regimes; and (c) the fact that the Indian armed forces are uninvolved in politics.

When subject to a less superficial and more substantive audit, our claims to democracy falter at so many levels.

Almost 70 years after independence, nearly 80% of our population remains incredibly poor, living on less than $2 a day. The degree of malnutrition among our young is the highest in the world. On the Human Development Index we are not only buried way down the list of nations, we are regressing in comparison to neighbors such as Bangladesh. What good is the right to vote if so many cannot even be sure of the next meal?

At any point in time since Independence the number of Indians in states governed by some form of authoritarian rule (Kashmir and the entire northeast come to mind) exceeds the population of many nations in this world. We claim to have freedom of press, but a study by Delhi’s Center for the Study of Developing Societies found that not one of the over 300 leading media executives and shapers of opinion was from a non-‘dvija’ background. While a rapidly rising number of authors and artists have rightly returned their Sahitya Akademi awards in protest over the growing communalisation of our institutions and public life, the murder of Dalits in broad daylight evokes barely a smidgen of protest.

It is strange that in the world’s largest democracy, any female between, say, 12 and 72 would be taking a huge risk if she were to venture out alone after dark into any of our cities. Female infanticide remains a horrendous blot on our record, while the lives of so many of the girl children who survive are marked by continuous deprivation and discrimination.

All this and more is well known, and the gap between our thin democracy and the substantive ideal remains wider than ever. What I would like to highlight, however, is one instance of how our democracy operates when faced with a most important and basic test: how does it treat a principled individual who happens to disagree with the state? I have in mind S.P. Udayakumar, an educator and opponent of the nuclear plant at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu.

In the mid-1990s, S. P. Udayakumar completed his dissertation (on the politics of Hindutva and the threat it represented to Indian secularism) at the University of Hawai`i at Manoa. He had multiple options to work as a scholar in the United States and did so for a few years.

Udayakumar, however, was very clear that he had to return to his native Kanyakumari district to fulfill his lifelong ambition: to establish a quality school providing free education for the underprivileged.

In due course, with the support of local residents and small donations from his many friends in different parts of the world, Udayakumar and his wife Meera were successfully running a school whose philosophy of education was based on Gandhian principles in the best sense of the term. Most importantly, the school catered overwhelmingly to the poor and destitute from the lowest castes – precisely the people neither India’s state nor its much-vaunted emerging market ever gave a damn about.

Once Udayakumar became conversant with the various issues surrounding the nearby Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP), he was drawn into the movement opposing its construction and commissioning.

The KKNPP, like so many other projects involving India’s nuclear establishment, is marked by cost overruns, dubious safeguards, poor environmental impact assessment, corruption, secrecy, and highly inadequate crisis-management planning in the event of a disaster. As M.V. Ramana’s meticulous research in his recent book has shown, our track record is one where the adverse impacts are visited disproportionately on the poor and any benefits accrue exclusively to our urban middle-classes. Udayakumar emerged as a well-informed, principled and staunch opponent of the KKNPP.

Yet, for doing that he has had about 380 patently false cases filed against him – including charges such as sedition and “waging war against the state.” The Supreme Court recently insisted that the state government of Tamil Nadu withdraw about 140 of the cases as lacking any merit but Udayakumar continues to be hounded, with about 30 charge-sheets filed by the police necessitating repeated appearances in court. Alongside this, his passport has been impounded; he is under continuous police and IB surveillance; and his bank accounts have been frozen. There is not one shred of evidence that any of his activities have been remotely against the law or the best interests of his community – yet the harassment is unending. The school that he and Meera started is now down to just about 125 students and has been attacked by the usual goondas with the covert support of the local police and party hacks.

In any society, especially one that proclaims its democracy from the rooftop on every occasion, the right to dissent from the state is paramount. The Udayakumars, Teesta Setalvads, Binayak Sens and Medha Patkars of our nation are to be treasured and valued for they are the exceptions, those who despite paying an enormous personal price have continued with the struggle. Think of how many who espoused the right causes gave up after the initial onslaught of trumped-up court cases, intimidation, allegations of being unpatriotic, and harassment? And further still, how many gave up without even trying after seeing what happens to whistle-blowers in our society?

Disagreement, dissent and principled opposition to authority are the lifeblood of any democracy. The example of Udayakumar’s continued harassment and intimidation by the Central, state and local governments, by political parties of every hue at both New Delhi and Chennai, is proof of our authoritarian core. Next time we feel the urge to celebrate our allegedly exceptional and vibrant democracy, let us instead remember that until individuals such as Udayakumar are treated with fairness and in accord with their constitutional rights, our democracy will be nothing more than yet another “export-quality” commodity: intended for foreign audiences but denied to those who matter within our own country.

Sankaran Krishna is professor of political science at the University of Hawai`i at Manoa in Honolulu, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]

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