October 2, 2020
Civil disobedience is the inherent right of a citizen; they dare not give it up without ceasing to exist.
– MK Gandhi, Young India, January 5, 1922
We are celebrating the 151stth birth anniversary of MK Gandhi but I have not begun my article with a quote of Bapu as a ritual. Bapu’s comment from almost a century ago is a wake-up call today for us to take charge of our democracy and to stand up to those who have hijacked it.
Take recent happenings. Last year, the nation rose to protest the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and it felt that as if we had discovered the power of citizens in a democracy. The protests evoked a response from the government that Bapu would have appreciated. He said that the purpose of civil disobedience was to evoke a brutal response from the opponent. The government resorted to unethical means to punish those it identified as leaders of the mass protest.
When the India Against Corruption movement gained momentum, it felt as if the long-awaited second freedom movement had begun. But because the movement was ethically unsound and dishonest, the wave subsided as spectacularly as it began and the only thing it destroyed was the legend of Anna Hazare. Unfortunately, it also discredited the demand for the much-required Lok Pal Bill and an effective anti-corruption watchdog.
From transparency to opacity
Since Independence, one law has empowered us the most and has ushered in some transparency into the working of the government, The Right To Information (RTI). Since it became law, both government and bureaucracy have been pretty hassled, as they ought to be. The two have ganged up and have attempted to subvert and de-fang it, but fortunately they have failed so far.
It is the fear of this law that has forced the Prime Minister’s Office to keep the PM Cares fund out of RTI purview. It reflects how even the high and mighty are afraid of the law and how much it empowers the common citizen. Alert citizenry forced the government to abandon plans to emasculate the law once earlier. The government, ably assisted by the bureaucracy, has continuously attempted to erode the RTI, making it more convenient for themselves and impotent in its ability to empower citizens.
The present government is allergic to being questioned; it brands questions as an anti-national. No wonder it wants to take as much as it can out of the RTI ambit. Our collective apathy helps it.
The subversion of democracy
We have seen how the current government subverts and circumvents Parliamentary democracy. Bills are passed without adequate debate, by manipulation of the Constitutional system. Look at how Article 370 was abrogated or the CAA and Citizenship Rights (Amendment) bills were passed. Look at how the farm bills were passed and the Essential Commodities Act was diluted. You will notice how autocratic the government is becoming. All this is happening because we the people, the most important pillar of democracy, have abdicated our duties. It is our apathy, our couldn’t-care-less attitude, our inaction that is emboldening the regime and strengthening its strides towards autocracy and totalitarianism.
Intellectuals and political activists are prosecuted for standing up to the government but we sit and watch their victimisation. We watch silently as the judiciary is compromised.
Recently, farmers took to the streets to protest the new farm bills but we were more engrossed in the details of a star’s interrogation. In the past, if a panic-stricken and poorly-managed exodus of migrant labourers had happened, several state governments and even the Union Government would have been forced to quit. At the beginning of the pandemic, due to the unplanned and inhuman lockdown, thousands fled whichever way they could, even on foot. But not a single government was held responsible. No minister lost his or her job, no government was dismissed. We did not care.
Time to rise up
Pre-Independence, the colonial rulers attempted to subjugate us through draconian measures like the Rowlatt Act and the Simon Commission. Indians realised this was an insidious attempt to further enslave them. Look how people reacted then. They took to the streets, there were nationwide agitations, there were hartals and even grenades were thrown in the Colonial Parliament. About hartals, Bapu has written in Young India (May 6, 1919): “Hartal is the best method of marking our strong disapproval of the action of the Government. It is a means more powerful than monster meetings of expressing national opinion.”
Isn’t it time to mark our strong disapproval of this government’s anti-people, undemocratic actions and its systematic subversion of democracy? Isn’t it time for nationwide hartals?
Due to the Supreme Court’s intervention, we have the NOTA option while voting. It’s time we got the Right to Recall. It must become a fundamental right. If I have the right to elect, why not the right to recall? If necessary, we should be prepared to fight for it. Let our ministers be scared. Let us recall representatives who betray our vote by crossing parties and bringing down governments. We should have the power to recall dishonest and immoral, self-seeking representatives.
Today, the time has come to rise up. If that entails consequences, face them bravely. I am ready for them. Are we all? It is time for waqt-e-gadar. If we don’t have the courage to fight for our democracy, what right do we have to celebrate Gandhi Jayanti, to celebrate the birth anniversary of an eternal rebel?
Tushar Gandhi, great grandson of the Mahatma, is an activist, author and president of the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation. Reach him here: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pictures courtesy: Wikimedia Commons, Pixabay, Flickr