As with many things about our political setup, free speech in India runs on some tough compromises. As shaky as these compromises are and as far from ideal as they may be, they sort of keep the Republic afloat. The Congress Party manifesto released yesterday appears to be breaking these compromises, possibly turning the country into something like JNU campus.
Take secularism. Real secularism would mean complete separation of state and religion. It is based on the principle that public representatives cannot use public money to pander to any particular religion. That’s not fair to people of other religions.
But ‘Indian secularism’ is different. At least in principle, it allows for some amount of state patronage for every religion. As I said, it’s a compromise. Another way of saying is that instead of being equally fair to all, our secularism tries to be equally unfair to all.
Free speech in India works in the same ramshackle manner. The alleged Constitutional guarantee of free speech comes with so many riders that it’s not worth the paper it is printed on. The first was inserted by Nehru himself in 1951 to overrule a Madras High Court decision that allowed his political opponents to publish magazines that could criticize him. In 2012, rationalist Sanal Edamaruku was facing arrest and had to flee from India because he dared to debunk a “miracle” at a Mumbai church. Let alone Nehru, even the Election Commission today makes rules on what leaders are allowed to say in political speeches. Whither free speech?
Despite these curbs on free speech, we at least had a compromise. Even though it was never explicit, it was mostly clear which curbs on free speech were targeted at which side of the political spectrum. The principle of being unfair to all.
The Congress manifesto issued yesterday appears to suggest a breakdown of this compromise.
Congress wants to remove sedition laws because they now believe that the law violates freedom of expression. Interesting realization after 58 years of ruling India. But in the very same manifesto they also say this:
So they want to include sedition under freedom of expression and at the same time expand the definition of hate speech (which is already overly broad)? Since the one in power decides what is “hate speech”, it is clear where this is going. So the law is being relaxed to make “Bharat ke tukde” chants legal, but the law will be tightened against whatever the Congress calls “hate speech”. Fairly clear that they intend to use this law against those who speak for Hindu rights. The entire secular ecosystem has been pushing for it: over the last few years, everything from Hanuman stickers to sarees has variously been labelled as symbols of hatred.
This is what I meant by turning India into JNU campus. A place where calling for Bharat ke tukde is perfectly legitimate free expression, but having a Hanuman sticker on your car can get you labelled as a potential criminal.
The compromise is being broken. From equally unfair to all sides, the new ideal is to make it unfair to just one side. In other words, apartheid.
This reminds me of the time Modi came to power and the Chief of the Censor Board changed. Liberals complained bitterly that the new Chief of the Censor Board was anti-free speech, which apparently made them different from the previous Chief! In other words, liberals did not object to the existence of the Censor Board itself, they merely objected to who was wielding that power of censorship. The protest was not against censorship as a principle, but against their friends being censored.
On AFSPA, the Congress manifesto is even more problematic.
First of all, when a big national party suggests in its manifesto that the Indian Army is systematically involved in “enforced disappearance, sexual violence and torture”, it seriously undermines our position in the world. Aren’t they repeating what Pakistan wants the world to believe?
In this respect, the defence mounted by P Chidambaram is quite pathetic.
As a free democratic nation, the Indian state does not impose AFSPA as a merry sport. It is done to deal with exceptionally difficult situations. To promise amendments in AFSPA as a political lollipop, as a carrot to dangle before voters in an election manifesto, is extremely irresponsible. In fact, it helps enemies who would have the world believe that the Indian state uses AFSPA as a tool of oppression, rather than a tough choice in extreme situations.
There is one thing in the Congress manifesto that deserves some serious ridicule but has not been mentioned very much in the media so far.
Gareebi Hatao was promised by Indira Gandhi in the 1971 election. Some 48 years later, her grandson Rahul Gandhi has renewed this promise but pushed the date for fulfilling the promise to 2030!
That’s at least three elections away! A promise made in 1971 … and Rahul ji now says he will fulfil it provided the Congress wins not just 2019, but also the 2024 and 2029 elections!
Also, be very careful about the language. Congress does not promise to eliminate poverty even if it wins the next three elections: only “abject poverty”. The manifesto does not define what “abject poverty” would mean.
Is Rahul Gandhi asking the people of India to give him 3 more successive election victories in return for removing what he calls “abject poverty”, something that he refuses to define? This would be comical if the joke was not on the poorest of the poor.
The question is where would the Congress get these ideas from. Why would a party that has governed India for 58 years suddenly be so irresponsible?
There are two reasons for this. The first is that with the current Congress having no ideas of their own, the JNU type radical leftists have filled the intellectual void. Sapped of all organizational strength and intellectual clarity, the Congress has handed over the steering wheel to the radical left.
The second reason could be more sinister. Even though Congress has ruled 58 years, their chances of being dominant over the next several decades are practically zero. The BJP’s geographical spread now includes Bengal, Odisha, Haryana, the North East. Simultaneously, the Congress at the end of the road in old strongholds like Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. It seems increasingly unlikely that Congress will be able to get more votes than BJP in any foreseeable future election.
In other words, Congress knows that going ahead, it will have very little stake in governing India. Is this realization taking them into dangerously irresponsible territory?