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Voice of the people

In defence of democracy and the necessity of intellectual dissent in its sustenance

Voice of the people

On July 23 last year, a group of eminent Indians expressed concern at the number of "religious identity-based hate crimes" in India in a letter to the Prime Minister. This enunciation of "no democracy without dissent" was met with a clampdown by the State when an FIR was filed in early October against the 49 signatories including Indian academicians and scholars in the fields of history, activism, sociology, environmentalism and art. The FIR accused them of sedition, public nuisance, hurting religious feelings, and supporting secessionist tendencies.

There is a troubling tendency at work here, a knee jerk reaction that is the condemnation of academic works – a concerning narrative brewing in Indian polity.

In the modern-day, this is potent in the way public universities and their students who dissent government policies are targeted using state-enabled police force. A fact-finding report from the People's Union for Democratic Rights investigated the police crackdown of 13th and 15th December on Jamia Millia Islamia University students protesting against a controversial new bill concerning citizenship grounds. Dubbing the incident "Bloody Sunday 2019", it states in its findings- unprovoked brutality ranging from excessive force, detention and prevention of medical aid, to communal verbal abuse and threats of sexual violence.

In return of their attempts to facilitate the culture of public reasoning around government policies, these freethinkers have been made out to be a public nuisance at best and outright enemies of the nation at worst.

Seeing the events that have unfolded in this new, nationalistic India, George Orwell's description of a dystopic state comes to mind. His novel 1984 paints an unnerving political reality. To anybody who dissents, there is a 'thought police' watching every action. This unregulated crackdown on free-thinkers is legitimised under nationalism.

Orwell describes a dystopia where critical thinking is a sin and inciting others to think is a greater sin yet.

What is bound to happen when these practices have no place in public life and we forecast a fall into democracy fuelled by populism? The fallout is apparent. If we do not question as citizens, we yield the proactive nature of citizenship and turn into mere subjects.

Only do utopian democracies have citizens intrinsically questioning those in power. But since democracy is innately driven by information and awareness, our society is in dire need of a pillar that independently and unbiasedly challenges the State and its narrative.

At a time when the Parliament has top lawmakers failing to produce degrees, and rarely ever sees quality debate, the fate of a democracy whose people lack judgement seems bleak.

There has emerged a lingering separation of the intelligentsia and the general public. The former having diverged from political practice, which is justifiable since dissent today comes at a high price and populists are rarely sympathetic to intellectuals. Gauri Lankesh, a journalist and editor of Gauri Lankesh Patrike, was a well-known critic of the current regime who was shot dead on the evening of September 5. Lankesh was exemplary of exactly what the ruling party fears, an effective political organiser uniting social and political minorities in opposition to the Hindu nationalist view of India.

Various forms of anti-intellectualism taking root across nations all have the background of fascism-driven, populist societies.

With dogmatic narratives in power, there's little space for institutions principled on deliberation, individualism and challenging imposed ideas. A culture where arguments must be defended and debated before they can be adopted poses a threat to a government thriving on an uninformed, easily mobilised public.

We must abandon our divides of political beliefs to question why many present regimes try to hinder the free expression of said beliefs in the first place. Does the growing niche of intolerance of academic universities and individuals signal mankind backsliding into authoritarianism in the 21st century?

This perpetual conflict between a State seeking disproportionate power and educational institutions that promote academia debatably finds reflection in the Indian government's recent steps against a prominent public university. At the time of its establishment, the dialogue was that this should be a university that voices opinions on noble ideas, scientific socialism and societal upliftment.

In the year 2016, with the nationalist BJP in power, the term 'anti-national' was attributed to the students community of a certain University after its students' union members were arrested under charges of sedition when an evening of artistic protests came under scrutiny. The teachers' association of the University took a stance for democratic thinking and justice, declaring that campuses of many public universities are home to the biggest enemy of demagogic rulers thinking.

There are grounds to critique the 'Ivory Tower' mentality in universities, shielding academic students from engaging with anyone outside their professional class, i.e., dispensing opinion on something they have little experience of. This is clearly not the case with all universities that are also home to students from rural backgrounds with families below the poverty line.

Significant voices from the Indian ruling party, have time and again labelled the actions of these students as 'against the State', or as the Union Home Minister revealed to the CRPF, those of 'Urban Naxals'. This brings us to the question of whether institutions claim to preach academia yet foster anti-State sentiments and activities under the garb of 'academic scrutiny' and 'freedom of expression'.

The most probable explanation would turn out to be that the crime in question is challenging the status quo put in place by governments at home and around the world. If not by engaging in such judgement, can we make sure that democracy's self-moderating mechanism is not tampered with?

This tendency to use the weight of the majority and the state's supremacy to quash dissent, intellectual or otherwise, can only intensify into an addiction to absolute power. The outbreak of violence in Delhi can be considered an escalation of mindless populism. No longer was the 'debate' veiled as a question of pro-CAA or anti-CAA, it became an orgy of violence, fueled by dark religious separatism and the words of a few politicians.

For the first time in recent memory, the capital was ablaze with rampant communal violence. It is relatively heartening to see the condemnation of the mindless nature of this outbreak on all sides. But this is not a problem for our leaders alone.

In a democracy, we are all guardians of liberty and equality, our vigilance must be constant and absolute. The brightest among us should be our guiding light and not pariahs in our society. We must all do better.

The writer is a student of Class 12. Views expressed are strictly personal

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