Even professional cynics harbour some romantic notions — ideas which look childish or embarrassing when held to scrutiny. Here’s mine: I’m proud of being born in the world’s largest democracy, India.
It’s the ‘democracy’ bit I value. Renowned historian Ramachandra Guha is fond of pointing out that India was almost the only post-colonial society to pursue an open society, rather than an autocratic state.
Political theorist Sunil Khilnani notes that “independent India appears as the third great democratic experiment launched at the end of the 18th century by the American and French revolutions” — and that while it’s the youngest of the three experiments, the country’s scale may make it the most significant.
The concept is embraced by every man on the street, every politician. And up until now, by me. No matter what its problems, India has universal suffrage, a constitution that promises equal rights, and a jostling, noisy media. When I visit I find myself in the middle of an opinionated crowd. Friends, family, strangers: no-one holds back on what they think.
So when outsiders fault the country’s slow progress my comeback is usually along the lines of “democracy is messy; we’re not China”.
In the last few years, with violent nationalism on the rise, a spate of reports highlighting inequalities of caste and gender, independent media and judiciary under unrelenting attack, and fake news being used to serve political agendas, that defence has become harder to sustain. Last week I gave it up for good.
For months colleagues and I have been working on a series of programs about India since independence for Radio National. We received a grant to travel to the subcontinent and interview the country’s best and brightest: historians, economists, investigative journalists, satirists, environmentalists, academics, architects and student leaders.
We were advised to apply for journalist visas back in December, well ahead of our planned flight in February. We waited. And waited. Jokes were made about bureaucracy.
I called the Sydney visa office to check where they were up to and found their helpline was outsourced to somewhere in India and no-one there had a clue about what was happening back here. More jokes. Then anxiety crept in.
I called DFAT, who had given us the grant, to ask if they knew what the hold-up was. I called friends who were old India hands, people who worked at embassies, journalists who might have a contact. I sent countless emails, I called Julie Bishop’s office, I called Delhi.
Reassurances flowed — this was “always the way”, the consulate “often waits until the last moment”. But that last moment was a fortnight away, a week away. Then, with days to go, a highly placed government source admitted there was a problem: “It’s about the Adani story.”
In October last year, reporter Stephen Long and the Four Corners team dug into the dealings of the company behind the controversial Adani coal mine and found a history of environmental and corporate malfeasance. It was a hard-hitting piece but still it seemed incredible that it could affect our visit. After all, India is a democracy.
We never got our visas. We haven’t had an official explanation. We did receive some strange emails: requests to send a list of who we would talk to and offers to have someone accompany us around Delhi. There are troubling questions about what this means for Australian journalism. But that’s not all that’s at stake.
When we emailed our interviewees to say we had not been granted visas and would have to cancel the trip, the responses were swift and astute. “I’m so, so sorry but I’m not surprised.” “Is this about the Adani expose?”
There were apologies for this ‘shabby’, ‘wretched’, treatment. “I fear for our democracy,” wrote one.
“Sad, sad, sad,” wrote another. “This is India.”
There is of course another India highlighted by those responses. Rather than succumbing to cynicism, the people we set out to interview are trying to hold their leaders and their country to account — through books and articles, on stage and screen, on the streets and in the academy.
They have more to lose than a couple of visas. Some have been jailed, trolled or intimidated, other have seen colleagues murdered or faced death threats themselves, yet they were willing to talk to us then, and now.
As a nod to our own democracy, we could do them the courtesy of listening.