As I write this, we are on the last phase of a hate speech-ridden, deeply polarised general election. We have recently witnessed a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) youth leader, Priyanka Sharma, being remanded to 14 days of judicial custody and being let off by the Supreme Court after being asked to tender an apology.
Sharma had shared a morphed photograph of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee on her Facebook account. I have seen the picture; it is ridiculous but not obscene, nor inciting violence in any way. So leaders are not to be mocked at, ridiculed or made fun of ever; they are indeed sacrosanct.
Let us not forget that Banerjee had a college professor arrested for forwarding a cartoon on her, earlier. Let us pray for our new deities - the political class - that will rule us and define the rules of humour and India’s rich tradition of culture, literature, music and even cartoons.
The recent violence in Kolkata between the BJP and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) is even more disturbing. The destruction of the bust of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar – the legendary writer and Bengali Renaissance figure, is an attack on Bengali cultural identity and collective memory. For, is not ‘the struggle of memory over forgetting, the struggle of power’? as Milan Kundera so memorably wrote.
This act of vandalism, allegedly by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and BJP goons after being greeted by black flags held by Calcutta University students at party president Amit Shah’s roadshow, is in keeping with the destruction of statues of some icons that belong to the ‘other’ – Lenin in Agartala, B.R Ambedkar in Uttar Pradesh and Periyar in Tamil Nadu.
So, cultural memory and what is sacred is to be defined by the Hindu Right-wing, for this not a plan on how to govern but how to seize control of your mind and what you should and should not remember. This is a selective dismembering of memory and you must only valorise a mythic and glorious past that was India till the ‘invaders’ (now infiltrators) came.
The spirit of democracy is to allow a free-wheeling discussion of issues that mean so much to the people – employment, farmers’ suicides, women’s issues, environment, drinking water – the list is long. But I am seeing so much bullying, intimidation and muscle-flexing that it is hard to believe this is my beloved country – India founded on the civilisational values of ahimsa (non-violence) and satyagraha (peaceful resistance).
In a democracy, we elect people to serve and not bully us into submission and debarring us from raising our voices and recording our dissent. Demonetisation rocked the country, as the poor and the working class that works on cash, had their entire livelihoods destroyed. An old woman in Kashipur, who can neither walk nor see properly and has kept her lifetime savings sewn into her razai (quilt) takes it out and gives it to the sarpanch (village headman) for changing it perforce into the new currency. The sarpanch decides what he wants to do with her hard-earned money and she has no recourse but to accept it. This was the village scenario, but demonetisation was flaunted as a measure that would wipe out black money.
The BJP government introduced electoral bonds to fund political parties and stop black money. In 2018, the ruling BJP received Rs 210 crore, that is 95% of the total bonds issued. This is an astronomical amount and percentage, so why is it that we, the people of India, do not know the source of the electoral bonds that are funding these and hence this election?
The anonymity of donors has been challenged by an NGO, the ADR (Association of Democratic Reforms) in the Supreme Court. However, the Attorney General, K K Venugopal, argued for the Centre: “It is not the voters concern where money comes from. Transparency cannot be looked at as a mantra…”.Indeed, so if we the voters do not know who is funding the candidate or party, how is this an informed choice?
It is well known that corporate interests back the political party that makes ‘ease of doing business’ more important than the basic needs and human rights of the beleaguered, disempowered, hapless Indian citizen. The last five years have witnessed an astonishing rise of Indian billionaires while the common man and woman have had their noses rubbed to the ground, with farmer suicides, rising inflation and unemployment at a 45-year high.
No one is talking about women’s employment and their participation in the workforce that has declined. A study by the Pew Research Centre shows that against a 45.4% median of female share of the workforce in 44 countries, Indian women have only 25.9%, among the 10 lowest. According to a yet to be released NSSO (National Sample Survey Office) report, women’s participation in the workforce has further declined. This has serious implications for the status of women as they become vulnerable to domestic violence and are forcibly pushed into degrading sex work.
The Supreme Court has ruled that that the details of the electoral bond funds be provided to the Election Commission in a sealed cover by May 30, but ironically, by then the voting will be over and the results will be announced on May 23.
It is only during election time that the hapless citizen feels empowered and even that right is being taken away. Who is being mocked at in this election? Are these elections peaceful? Are these elections fair? Are we keeping the spirit of democracy or going through the motions of it?
As I travelled through India, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Myanmar, recording oral testimonies of surviving freedom fighters, I kept asking each of them why they had fought for the freedom of India? Janaky Thevar, the first woman to command the Rani of Jhansi Regiment who marched through the forest of Burma along with Netaji and the Ranis said: “We wanted to see India free!’ She heard Netaji speak at a padang (park) in Kuala Lumpur, saluted him took off her earrings and gave them to him. She and her sister, Papathy, joined the Rani of Jhansi Regiment. Years later, she recalled the burning desire to free India and Netaji’s mesmerising speeches and personality with a light in her eyes!
Leaders have their impact, they draw a whole people towards a certain direction. The freedom fighters had Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Gandhi as their inspiration; who do we have?
In Prai, a small town in Malaysia, I met Kannusamy and asked him why he had fought for the freedom of India when he had never set foot on Indian soil? He lost his temper and rebuked me: “It’s a funny question to ask an Indian. Once an Indian always an Indian.”
I am still searching for that spirit that made India free and will keep it so. I am searching for the spirit of democracy.
The writer is an award-winning author and film director. The views are personal.