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In a healthy democracy, dissent is not treason!

The writer is an author and lawyer based in Mumbai
Published : Mar 24, 2019, 12:10 am IST
Updated : Mar 24, 2019, 12:10 am IST

It would be trite to say that the persons aggrieved have remedies in suits for libel and prosecutions for defamation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo: PTI)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo: PTI)

There is a grave danger to democracy if those in power create an atmosphere of siege and accuse political opponents of internal subversion and complicity with foreign countries. Dissent is branded as treason, democratic debate is stifled in the name of security, and men in power assume a divine right to rule.

Indira Gandhi once said, “Fascism does not mean merely repression; it does not mean merely that the police use excessive force or that people are imprisoned. Fascism is the use of falsehood. Over and above everything, it is the propagation of the big lie. It is the use of whispering campaigns, the search for scapegoats.”

This description fits Prime Minister Narendra Modi perfectly. Mr Modi began a reckless election campaign no sooner than he took the oath of office as Prime Minister in 2014. Tirades were delivered at rallies, in newspaper interviews and on the TV, directly by himself or by his chosen agents like Amit Shah, the BJP’s president. Mr Modi handpicked this confidant of his Gujarat days for that post to serve as his hatchet boy.

It would be trite to say that the persons aggrieved have remedies in suits for libel and prosecutions for defamation. The pertinent question is whether in such cases the grievance is theirs alone. The pollution of the country’s public life by foul libel is an offence against the public at large.

Under Section 199 of the Indian Criminal Procedure Code, a complaint of defamation can be made only by “some person aggrieved” by the offence. Citizens’ bodies such as fair campaign practices committees should be encouraged to pronounce on libels and to pursue libellers in courts and in the media in order to nail their lies to the counters.

Legal remedies apart, it is time to wake up when dissent is approximated with treason. It is a matter for alarm when the rulers of the day habitually impugn their political opponents’ loyalty to the nation. The rulers wield the power to act on the libels they concoct. The law, of colonial days, requires sanction for prosecution of “public servants”. It is an insurmountable hurdle that no other democracy sets up.

Elections bring out the worst in India’s swadeshi McCarthy and his cohorts. Addressing a rally in Gujarat during the campaign for elections to the Gujarat Assembly, Mr Modi delivered a masterpiece that he will never live down.

He alleged that Pakistan was interfering in the Gujarat polls. He quoted “media reports” to say that top leaders of the Congress had met leaders from Pakistan at Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar’s residence. “(The meeting) was attended by Pakistan’s high commissioner, Pakistan’s former foreign minister, India’s former vice-president and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.” Universal ridicule followed in its train.

The leader is equated with the nation. Criticism of his policies becomes treason to the nation. “Modi hatred”, the Prime Minister charged, had turned into “hatred for India”. Megalomania expands with the prospect of electoral challenge.

On March 5, Mr Modi called the leaders of the Opposition parties Pakistan’s “poster boys” because they discharged their duty to the country by raising legitimate questions on the Balakot affair. “They abuse Modi here and get claps in Pakistan. Their faces are on Pakistani TV channels.”

Which brings us to another disquieting feature of Mr Modi’s diatribe — linking the Opposition with Pakistan and branding both as impossible. On New Year’s Day he said that it would be a “huge mistake to think that Pakistan would mend its ways soon”.

This spells a deadlock in relations with Pakistan and reduces the Opposition to outcasts beyond the pale. Parliamentary democracy requires a measure of trust and consultation between its two sides. Charges of treason, however, render that impossible.

All this while, a shrill propaganda campaign is stepped up on public expense. If a project is launched for upgrading local trains in Mumbai, the government of Maharashtra puts out huge advertisements with Mr Modi’s photograph on them; all at the public’s expense. One awaits a legal challenge to this abuse of power.

The limit was reached in the claim to divine support while on a visit to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi. He claimed that Shiva told him: “‘Son, you speak a lot; come here and prove yourself by doing something’”. He added, “I think I was summoned by god for this project”.

It is one of the RSS-BJP’s objectives to demolish the Gyanvapi Masjid there, despite a more than 50-year-old accord between the communities for the existence of the mosque that was signed on October 12, 1968.

One is reminded of Benjamin Disraeli’s immortal jibe at Gladstone: “I don’t mind the hon’ble gentleman cheating at cards, but I do resent his attribution of victory to divine intervention.”

By arrangement with Dawn

Tags: narendra modi, democracy