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India: Happy Birthday, Mr. Modi - you effectively murdered democracy (again)

by Ashish Kothari, 19 September 2017

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Ashish Kothari’s Blog, September 18, 2017

Happy Birthday, Mr. Modi: you effectively murdered democracy today (again)

Yesterday (17th September), we witnessed the shameful spectacle of the prime minister of a nation celebrating his birthday by dedicating a dam to the nation, even as thousands of people were protesting that their houses and lands are being submerged by this dam without the rehabilitation due to them. Are we living in a democracy, or what farcically passes off as one?

There is no denying that the very fact that I can write this, that people can voice their protest on the streets or in jal satyagrahas, means that the democratic spirit is alive in India. But the counter-signs are also very evident. In theory, gram sabha consent is to be taken for village lands to be taken for other purposes; in theory, we have panchayati raj and the decentralization of power to people; in theory, adivasi peoples have the option of ‘developing’ in ways that suit their cultural and ecological roots. Yet all this is thrown to the winds when it comes to what the state considers ‘national interest’, which often is a convenient figleaf for naked power politics and corporate profits.

A quick word on Sardar Sarovar project, since that was the focus of the Prime Minister’s birthday celebrations. This gigantic project has promised to bring water to thirsty Kachchh, Saurashtra, and southern Rajasthan, for the last 4 decades. Till date, with a project cost of over 90,000 crores, less than 50% of the canal network is ready, and most of these regions are waiting (even a fraction of this . Simultaneously, about 40,000 families amongst those to be displaced by their villages and towns getting submerged, are still in the valley without any reliable assurance of rehabilitation; about 6000 complaints regarding this are pending with the official Greivance Redressal Committee. Meanwhile, though, the central and state governments have thought it fit to take the dam to it full height and complete filling the reservoir. Even as Mr. Modi was celebrating at Kevadia, the dam site (where residents of 6 villages displaced in the 1980s are still protesting about the shoddy treatment meted out to them!), residents of the valley further upstream were sitting half-submerged in the rising waters of Sardar Sarovar’s reservoir. Active with the Narmada Bachao Andolan which has been a beacon of democratic dissent for 32 years, these people were offering jal samadhi not only as a protest but to perhaps help atone for the sins of an uncaring state, maybe even help us collectively reduce the shame brought on by Mr. Modi’s celebrations?

But of course this is not only about Mr. Modi. He merely represents, somewhat more ruthlessly than others, a way of thinking that considers people and nature as expendable in the pursuit of power and what the west has defined as ‘development’. He is both a product and a legitimizer of a shallow form of democracy in which we have rights to go to the polls every 5 years but for the entire period between this, no effective right to participate in decisions that affect our lives; worse, which authorizes attempts to stifle citizens’ dissent and freedom of speech. And he epitomizes a form of hyper-nationalism that invents myths of national history designed to vilify the ‘other’, bringing in its wake religious intolerance and casteism whose results we are seeing in the horrifying chain of killings and beatings of religious minorities, dalits, women.

None of these started with the present regime. Jawaharlal Nehru championed industrial development and mega-projects, dismissing in the process more humane, decentralized and swaraj-based pathways that Gandhi and others advocated. The Congress brought massive changes in macro-economic policies from the late 1980s, taking us headlong towards integration into the global economy and privatization; the BJP is only being more effective in pursuing the same model. The 1984 anti-Sikh riots, arguable India’s worst since Independence and rivaled only by the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat (with Modi then the state’s Chief Minister), were under a Congress regime’s gaze. And no-one should forget the suspension of democratic rights and processes during Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. Or the atrocities in Nandigram over land acquisition, while the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was in power. Or the many excesses that various regional parties have perpetrated in whatever state they have ruled.

So, no, Mr. Modi and the BJP are not to be credited with the start of these trends. But the current regime appears to be taking them to new heights, or to bullet train speeds if you prefer. Forces of religious and caste hatred have become bolder, as witnessed in the spate of incidents targeting Muslims and dalits, vigilantism in the name of the poor cow, and the killings of intellectuals and journalists who dared to challenge religious obscurantism. The carefully cultivated culture of ‘silence’, or of saying too little and too late to chastise the perpetrators, from the highest functionary of the country is as much as sign of things as the actual incidents themselves.

As alarming as these, are the actions and rhetoric relating to the imposition of ‘developmentalism’ as the prevailing economic orthodoxy. India has a large number of constitutional provisions and laws and policies that are meant to safeguard nature, the environment, and communities from being dealt with unfairly in the pursuit of development. Previous regimes were already poor in adhering to these; the BJP has made no bones about considering these to be unnecessary hindrances to the country’s growth ambitions, and has tried actively diluting or bypassing them like never before. From the first day, those put into the crucial role of the Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, had the clear mandate of speeding up green signals to mining, dams, ports, highways, industries and the like; not a mandate to protect the environment. In the previous regime we had a Minister for Tribal Affairs who at least had the honesty of pointing out to his colleagues how they were riding roughshod over adivasi rights while pursuing industrialization (or undemocratic conservation); his successor in the current regime appears to have given up on fulfilling his duty to protect these rights. And everyday we hear of one megalomaniacal project after the other being approved or inaugurated, the bullet train being the latest in a series of costly, showy ventures that benefit the rich while depriving the poor of resources needed to improve basic infrastructure. Is it surprising that inequality is at an all-time high in India, with nearly 60% of its wealth being cornered by 1% of its population!

Economic policies such as demonetization and GST have not considered, or deliberately ignored, the enormous negative impacts on tens of millions of people who eke out a living in the informal economy (witness for instance the widespread distress amongst craftspersons due to the sudden increase in taxation with GST’s imposition). Contrary to its promises with regard to black money and corruption, the BJP has actually brought in a Finance Act 2017 that will enable political parties to get anonymous funds including from corporations, effectively taking crony capitalism a huge leap forward. And wielding the Foreign Contributions Regulatory Act (FCRA) as a sword to threaten any civil society organsiations that dare to raise such issues, the Ministry of Home Affairs has effectively become a Ministry for Hounding Activists.

There are many more examples and instances of how the last three years have become even more nightmarish for anyone who cares for basic dignity, justice, and sanity, than were the previous regimes. Several of the actions mentioned above have been dagger-thrusts into the body of democracy; today’s birthday celebrations were yet another. The only thing that stands between the ongoing, slow murder of democracy is citizens’ vigil, speaking out, refusing to accept that these things are being in our name, speaking truth to power, re-asserting swaraj as a form of radical power and sovereignty rooted in ethics, and showing real answers to the problems of deprivation, injustice, and ecological devastation. Fortunately, India has a rich tradition of these, and they are emerging stronger even as the threats increase.


The above article from Ashish Kothari’s Blog is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use