The ‘illiberal streak’ in our society is growing

Columnist  | Shobhaa De

Opinion, Oped

Here in India, citizens are turning away tiredly from the daily outrage over who is an “urban Naxal” and who a “Maoist”.

Gauri Lankesh

The government can detain us… but can’t close the ears and eyes of the people.” With that sign off, hand-cuffed Reuters’ journalist Kyaw Soe Oo was marched off to prison, accused of breaching Myanmar’s state secret laws, while reporting a Rohingya Muslims massacre. His colleague, Wa Lone, also issued a terse statement, which said, “We will face the verdict with courage.” This brought to an end a farce of a trial that was conducted in the Yangon court, led to worldwide condemnation and protests, especially since the two journalists have emphatically denied the charges, after being held in the Yangon’s Insein prison since December.

The most shocking aspect of the two arrests and subsequent seven-year-prison sentence is the disgraceful role played by a lady who was once admired as an international political hero, a courageous dissenter, after spending 15 years under house arrest. Who can forget Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s media presence during those traumatic years? She was the sole voice challenging the junta — the attractive and articulate face of moral opposition to the dreaded military rule in Myanmar. Today, she has lost all the global respect she had garnered over decades. She, the cherished symbol of free speech and democratic rights back then, has kept silent, shocking loyal fans across the world. The government she works for, in a post akin to a Prime Minister’s, is being roundly reviled, with the UN, the US and the European Union condemning the action taken against the two men.

Here in India, citizens are turning away tiredly from the daily outrage over who is an “urban Naxal” and who a “Maoist”. Even assuming that the Maharashtra police has done an exemplary job of uncovering a gigantic conspiracy, hatched by a shadowy group of people, its handling of the sensitive and highly sensational case has been nothing short of clumsy — including holding a press conference, when the matter is sub judice. They have been rapped on the knuckles by the Bombay high court, which is shameful enough. What happens next is what counts. September 5 marked the first death anniversary of slain journalist Gauri Lankesh. Even though the cops claim to be close to solving the murder case, there are enough people raising key issues about the official narrative that is being dished out. I revisited the book written by Gauri’s former husband, Washington-based veteran journalist Chidanand Rajghatta. Titled, Illiberal India: Gauri Lankesh and the Age of Unreason, the book is an impassioned plea for restoring sanity and justice in an environment that has been vitiated by agents of prejudice and hate. In a recent interview he states, “…it is fairly clear there is a lunatic fringe that believes in settling scores with guns and violence; they lack the capacity to engage in dialogue or conversation.” Further, in response to a question about the SIT investigation, he says, “…the good news is merely unravelling the plot has alerted us to the rise of right-wing extremism, which is as much a danger as left-wing extremism.”

Assuming, this case is cracked… assuming all the other cases are also cracked (miracles do happen!), will anything change? The political scenario is so charged and toxic, citizens are prepared for virtually anything. After reading Mr Rajghatta’s absorbing book, which neatly marries the personal with the political, one is left with a sinking feeling that we may witness grislier assassinations going forward. Extremists find new and unique ways to eliminate those they hate. Pistols and bombs, target practice and motorcycles are so done! So passé! Surely, there must be more inventive ways to murder unarmed “anti-nationals”? There is no mechanism in place anywhere in the world that can anticipate, much less combat attacks planned by fringe groups out to create mayhem. The hit list of potential targets has been made public — though, most would agree that’s a pretty idiotic move! But there it is — a list! What are people featured on the list supposed to do? Ask me! I was on one such list soon after Gauri Lankesh was killed. What did I do? Absolutely nothing! Simply because there really is nothing one can do by way of protection, besides staying cooped up at home. I’ll be damned if I did that. I know the experience of living with SPG protection, and I can tell you, with all that intense training and know how, there is nothing these handpicked cops can do if an assassin rides up alongside the target’s car at an intersection and pumps bullets into the victim before riding away and melting into the traffic.

I am a nobody. An insignificant player. I was surprised to find my name on the list of five women journalists facing threats issued by some loony, in the first place. He had described us as “anti-nationals” and boasted of “serial assassinations”. Well… so far, all five are still alive. About tomorrow? Who can tell? It’s not about this particular threat or that loony. It is the growing “illiberal streak’’ in our society — that is the seriously alarming part.

As in Myanmar, so too, in India, it is worth repeating the defiant and telling words of Kyaw Soe Oo, the arrested journalist: “The government can detain us in prison… but it can’t close the ears and eyes of the people.” No, it can’t. And that is what will save us.

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