The Indian Express | 1 week ago | 19-03-2023 | 11:45 am
A common thread of vulnerability, victimization and stigmatization run through disability and caste-based discrimination that makes out a strong case for intersectional and interrelational engagement with both these forms of discriminations. Viewing these two types of discriminations through distinct axis provides for empathy and comradery for concerns of one another.Anchoring the identities of caste and gender with disability helps to comprehend different shades of vulnerability. A Dalit woman with a disability is marginalised both within the disability group as well as from outside, and they are also subject to violence and stigmatization by disabled and nondisabled men within the family and outside. The Supreme Court of India recently amplified this vulnerability by looking at violence against a blind Dalit woman through the lens of intersectionality. An upper-caste disabled man may have hesitation to engage and interact with people with disabilities belonging to lower castes due to prevailing caste consciousness. On the other hand, the antagonization between disabled men belonging to the upper caste and Dalit men with a disability is also well known, with the former deriding the latter for enjoying the “dual benefits”.Presently, the disability rights movement is mostly limited to claiming reservations in jobs and fighting for petty governmental benefits. The movement has not yet been able to come out of the grips of medical and rehabilitation professionals. Characterization of the disabled as ‘Divyang’ by the political establishment merely endorses the Ableist segregation of the disabled by sugarcoating their disability and from thin air implies divinity in their bodies as much as Mahatma Gandhi had purportedly looked at Dalits as “Harijans,” a term reprobated by the community. Unlike the Dalit movement, there is little realisation in the Disability rights movement about liberation or self-determination. Moreover, disability rights movements are fragmentary, with each type of disability having its own chorus and agenda. In fact, barring a few organisations like National Platforms for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD), India lacks a cohesive and organised cross-disabilities movement.Alienation by other movements, such as Dalit and LGBTQ, merely compounds the isolation and segregation of the disabled. Commingling of caste and disability issues, apart from generating comradery and solidarity for one another among the members of these groups, would also de-hegemonise the intergroup dialogue by bringing both groups on the same plane. Members of both disabled and backward caste groups would foster the virtues of empathy and interdependence in their interactions. With their politics of liberation, Dalits would revitalise the disability rights movements by salvaging them from medicalisation.In other words, the social justice movements would become less medicalised and more inclusive. I say less medicalised because non-disabled people must appreciate the lived experiences of differential bodies through different impairments. The social justice movement would also salvage the disabled from the caste consciousness. To be precise, if you want to combat caste consciousness and the labelling of disability as mere medical problems, the disabled need to appreciate the stigmatization arising out of caste, and Dalits must come to terms with the ghettoization of the physically and mentally disabled stemming from crude reduction of disability into diseases or state of being worthy of treatment.To what extent and how far the Disability rights movement identifies itself with other mainstream movements is an issue requiring empirical and documented research. Of course, I am aware of many disabled comrades, including Milind Yengde, who took cudgels against casteism and ableism by bringing together various social movements. However, I have not seen mainstream activists from other movements recognising disability rights movements as a social issue. It is one thing to speak on behalf of persons with disability and quite another to assimilate the disability rights angle as part of the mainstream movements. In my opinion, the former smacks of paternalism. A world sensitive to physical and mental disability would be wary of polarising disabled versus non-disabled, by perceiving physical and mental disability and social disabilities not as two extremes of the spectrum but as a continuum.Yearning against ability privileges and perception of normalcy as a quintessence of ableism would drive the world toward the adoption of universal design and would foster the virtues of accessibility and reasonable accommodation.In Dr. Ambedkar, Dalits got a ‘Massiha’ to accelerate their fight against discrimination based on caste socially, politically, and constitutionally. With one stroke of pen, the Constitution initiated an unprecedented measure of abolishing untouchability and visiting the breach of this norm with criminal sanction.In sharp contrast, the social demarginalization of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) and characterisation of physical and mental disability as a want and weakness has been simply perpetuated by the Constitution. Time is therefore ripe for Dalits to extend their comradery to persons with disabilities and to embrace this ableism stricken lot as a part of their consciousness. Embrace of the other would nurture politics of authenticity with physical and mental disability being recognised as a part of broader marginalisation in ever-expanding diverse humanity. To conclude, multi-layered oppression caused by the complex intersections of caste, gender, and disability cannot be combated and remedied effectively with single-axis legal discrimination laws and fragmented social movements. The need of the hour is to have an inclusive and progressive coalition of the Dalits and Disabled activists to raise a clamour for de-essentialisation of medicalisation of disability and have compassion and unflinching empathy for the needs of one another.The writer is a disability rights activist and a professor at NLSIU, BangaloreSuraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters, curates Dalitality and is currently at Oxford University
THE committee under Finance Secretary TV Somanathan, announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman last week, to relook at pension may not recommend a solution where the gains made over two decades are reversed, The Indian Express has learnt.That’s the big-picture sense from conversations with officials who have to balance the imperatives of politics in a pre-poll year and a reform that has withstood the pressures of time — and partisanship.There are options.One, increase the government contribution to the pension corpus of its employees from the current 14 per cent to such a level that the employee can expect 50 per cent of her last drawn basic pay as pension upon retirement.Indeed, one of the models being looked at is the Andhra Pradesh government proposal which has a “guarantee” that employees will get 50 per cent of the last drawn salary as pension.Officials said the government may also explore ways to make good for the increase in payout (dearness relief announced twice every year increases the pension by a certain percentage taking care of the rise in living expenses) as it happens under the old pension scheme (OPS).The NDA lost elections in 2004, the year NPS was implemented. But the Congress carried it forward. After a decade, when NDA returned under Modi, it consolidated the gains. But in 2019, just before elections, NDA hiked government contribution. Now, a fresh review again just ahead of 2024 polls.Whatever the formula that’s worked out, one thing is clear.The committee and its mandate mark a sharp turnaround in the Modi government’s support of the new pension system (NPS) — where contributions are defined, and benefits market-linked — which came into effect in January 2004, just a few months before the Lok Sabha elections.“There was no question of any looking back when the BJP under the leadership of Narendra Modi returned to power. His political conviction in pension reforms and fiscal conservatism meant the NPS was there to stay,” said an official.And yet there was no escaping the politics.In fact, the BJP’s electoral loss in May 2004 may have nothing to do with pension reforms – the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government was convinced of the economic rationale behind the move. But the party’s 10-year loss of power, between 2004 and 2014, is a memory that still stalks North Block.This when, in 2009, BJP’s loss in the Lok Sabha elections had not deterred the Congress from staying the course on pension reforms. With Manmohan Singh at the helm, and P Chidambaram as Finance Minister, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government earnestly implemented the NPS, exhorted states to follow suit, and also introduced a Bill to develop and regulate the pension sector. This was one of the many reforms that earned bipartisan support.There were four good reasons the government reformed the pension sector at the time it did: i) with increasing life spans, pension bills were ballooning, putting to risk future finances of the Centre and states, ii) a safety net for a very small percentage of workforce was being funded ironically by even the poor taxpayer, iii) inter-generational equity – the next generation footing the bill for the previous – presented a difficult-to-ignore moral hazard, and iv) India was at the cusp of a 50-year demographic dividend opportunity beginning 2005-05 with the best working age population ratio (workers or those in the 15-64 age group age/ dependents or those under 15 plus 65 and over).However, after the first five years in power, the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre did not take any chances. Just before Lok Sabha elections in 2019, it increased the employer’s contribution to NPS to 14 per cent of the employee’s basic pay every month from 10 per cent earlier; the employee continued to contribute only 10 per cent of her basic pay.The timing was not lost on those keeping a tab on BJP’s economic thinking; this came into effect from April 1, 2019.Now with just a year to go for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP is acutely aware of an altered economic and social landscape. The straws in the wind have been there for the past couple of years.Low growth that precedes the pandemic, job and income losses during Covid-19, stretched financial resources of people due to medical expenditure, and high inflation – which works like a painful tax on the poor, have highlighted the inadequacy of safety nets for a bulk of the country’s people. The political class cannot be blind to this. To discount the giveaways in recent Budgets by even fiscally prudent states like Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra as an election freebie will be drawing a wrong message.It is in this backdrop that government employees are demanding a return of the old pension scheme. At least five states (Congress-ruled Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Himachal Pradesh, JMM-led Jharkhand, and Aam Aadmi Party-led Punjab) have done so, having already notified the old pension scheme.The Congress win of the Assembly elections in Himachal, which most attribute to its promise to bring back OPS, has made the BJP leadership anxious. In Maharashtra, protests by state government employees prompted the Eknath Shinde government, whose finance minister is BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis, to set up a committee and address the NPS shortcomings. Some national employee unions continue to protest too, giving calls for rallies demanding restoration of OPS.Then, there is the insider bias. A section of senior IAS bureaucrats – who have the political executive’s ear – feel their juniors who joined service after January 1, 2004, can’t be left to the “mercy” of markets while seniors retire with the assurance of a continuously rising pension kitty.This conversation on NPS has been in the top echelons of power for a while now. Not that the Prime Minister is not aware of these noises around him. But if his preference for fiscal prudence is an indication, he will be happy only with a solution that doesn’t put the future of state finances in jeopardy.
India’s political system is veering towards a full-blown tyranny. The targeting of Opposition leaders leading to the farcical disqualification of Rahul Gandhi, the hounding of civil society and research organisations, censorship of information, the suppression of protest, are harbingers of a full-blown system of rule where all the interlocking parts add up to the one objective of tyrannical rule: To create pervasive fear.These actions are alarming, not because this or that leader has been targeted. They are alarming because the current BJP government is signaling not just that it will not tolerate the Opposition. It will not, under any circumstances, even contemplate or allow a smooth transition of power. For, what these actions reveal is a ruthless lust for power, combined with a determination to use any means to secure it. Neither the form of power the BJP seeks, nor the ends they deploy to achieve it, knows any constraints or bounds. That is the quintessential hallmark of tyranny.In a democracy, a smooth transition of power in a fair election requires several conditions. The ruthless crushing of the Opposition and the squelching of liberty erodes these conditions. The first is that professional politicians treat each other as members of the same profession, not as existential enemies to be vanquished by any means. Once a regime does that to its opponents, it fears the consequences of losing power. It can no longer rest in the comfortable belief that democracy is a game of rotating power; transitions should be routine. Can you now imagine Prime Minister Narendra Modi or Amit Shah or their minions calmly contemplating the prospect that they could ever be in the Opposition, after the hubris they have deployed against opponents and critics? The hallmark of tyrants is impunity in power and therefore an existential fear of losing it.The issue is not whether the government is popular. It may well be. Tyranny can be a stepchild of democracy, as Plato knew so well. The insatiable show and assertion of power the BJP is engaged in traps them in a logic where they will seek to create the conditions in which a fair and open contest is no longer possible. Their institutional imagination is paranoid — desperately trying to shut out even the slightest opening from which light might appear. What else but a paranoid system would target small think tanks or civil society organisations that do social service? What else but a paranoid system would appear to politically orchestrate a disqualification of an Opposition MP?And this same paranoia will make the prospect of even risking a fair electoral contest from now on a non-starter. Paranoia is the seed of all repression and we are now seeing it in full measure.Political parties that situate themselves as unique vanguards of a majoritarian national identity find it difficult to relinquish power. In normal politics there are many sides to an argument, and we can all pretend that different sides are acting in good faith even when we disagree. But when the ideological project is singularly communal and wears the garb of nationalism, every dissent is treated as treason. Ideological parties like the BJP will play by the electoral rules when they are not in a position to wield power, or when they feel electorally secure. But once this regime is entrenched, it will think it is its historical destiny to act as a kind of nationalist vanguard, no matter what the circumstances.In its own imagination, this nationalism will justify everything: From playing footloose with the law to outright violence. It has institutionalised vigilantism, violence and hate into the fabric of politics and the state. But this culture is not just difficult to dismantle. It is also part of a preparation to exercise other options in case a purely political hold on power is no longer possible. Parties that have institutionalised structures of violence are less likely to give up power unless they are massively repudiated.But the logic of tyranny goes further. Increasingly, the issue is not just the weaknesses of the Opposition parties. Even in the wake of this disqualification, Congress’s political reflexes, the willingness of its members to risk anything, and its ability to mobilise street power, is seriously in doubt. Opposition unity is still a chimera, more performative at the moment than real.But has the psychology of tyranny now been internalised by enough Indians to make resistance more difficult? India still has the potential for protest on many issues. But what is increasingly in doubt is whether India wishes to resist deepening authoritarianism.To take one example, India’s elites, broadly understood, have gone well past the quotidian fear of those in power. This kind of fear often expresses itself in a gap between public utterances and private beliefs. But what is happening is something far more insidious, where a combination of fear or outright support for government is so deeply internalised that even private demurring from blatantly authoritarian and communal actions has become rare. Ask any victim, who has been the object of the state’s wrath, whether they are at the receiving end of horrendous violence, or targets of administrative or legal harassment. Even the private shows of support will disappear as swiftly as the state intervenes. This suggests either a deep-seated cowardice or a normalisation of authoritarianism.The hallmark of a successful tyranny is to induce a sense of unreality in those who support it. This sense of unreality means no disconfirming evidence can dent their support for the regime. In this world, India has little unemployment, its institutions are fine, it has ascended to the glorious heights of world leadership, it has not ceded any territory to China, and there is no concentration of capital or regulatory capture. But the unreality centres mostly on the lynchpin of this system of tyranny, the prime minister. In his hands, repression becomes an act of purification, his hubris a mark of his ambition, his decimation of institutions a national service.Institutionally and psychologically, we are already inhabiting a tyranny, even if its violence is not in your face. A regime that is paranoid and full of impunity will overreach. But what is the threshold of overreach? The threshold seems to be shifting higher and higher. Communalism was unleashed. No reaction. The information order collapsed. No reaction. The judicial heart stopped beating. No reaction. The Opposition is being vanquished by unfair means. No reaction. Such is the logic of tyranny that the ogres of oppression roam free, while we look on indifferently as justice and freedom are tied in chains.
CV Ananda Bose on how as Governor of West Bengal he follows the path of conciliation and cooperation, the relevance of his post, and why Indian democracy is still vibrant and buoyant. This session was moderated by Deputy Political Editor Liz MathewLiz Mathew: West Bengal Raj Bhavan has now become a role model for a cordial relationship between the elected government in the state and the governor. How did you do that?I was only a mute witness to the process of evolution that is taking place in the concept of cooperative federalism in the country. In place of confrontation, we should have conciliation. Antipathy should be replaced by empathy. And passion should be tempered with compassion. A middle path is always better for society. The Raj Bhavan should become a no-conflict zone. I’m happy that this concept has been subscribed to by all the enlightened stakeholders of Bengal, including the political setup, the media, the government, the judiciary.Be it a politician or a bureaucrat, their first, second and third duty is to the people. People are supreme. And if anything goes wrong, Indian democracy has a lot of buoyancy and mid-course correction can be doneLiz Mathew: Your father was so fascinated by Subhas Chandra Bose’s ideology that he named you after him. You have also started cultural exchanges between West Bengal and other states, including Kerala. How relevant is it?When cultural cooperation takes place effectively, there is a shared heritage… When politics invades culture, there is chaos. When culture enters politics, there is refinement. People of my generation in Kerala have read Bengali novels. Almost every week, leading journalists would bring out translations of Tarashankar Banerji and other great writers of Bengal. Gurudev Tagore was a household name in Kerala. I remember having fallen in love with Mini (from Rabindranath Tagore’s short story Kabuliwala) at the age of eight. When I was in college, Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen were our heroes and role models. So that cultural affinity between Bengal and Kerala has always been there. Now, with the cooperation of the government of West Bengal, particularly the Education Minister, we hit upon the idea of a Kerala-Bengal culture corridor. The process has already started. We are inviting artists, writers, painters, dancers from both states for exchange programmes.Liz Mathew: Centre-State relations have recommended that a political person should not be in a constitutional post which calls for impartiality. What is your view?It depends on the attitude and approach of the individuals who occupy these positions. I do not find anything wrong with a political leader occupying a constitutional profession. We have great statesmen who are also good politicians. The bureaucracy is thrice removed from the people. In a democracy, particularly the democratic setup in India, we, the people, gave this Constitution to ourselves. The authorities, including bureaucrats and politicians, get authority to be the dispensers of India’s destiny because the people have given it to them. So be it a politician or a bureaucrat, their first, second and third duty is to the people. People are supreme. And if anything goes wrong, Indian democracy has a lot of buoyancy and that mid-course correction is done.Vandita Mishra: Now that the West Bengal governor’s house is a place of calm, what would you say to other governors in other states, where we have seen a pattern of BJP-appointed governors taking on the opposition-ruled governments so openly?I have neither the inclination nor the competence to deliver value judgments on my counterparts in other states. They all have their own style and each state has its own milieu.Amrith Lal: You were a popular bureaucrat in Kerala and cited people like (Ritwik) Ghatak, (Mrinal) Sen and (Tarashankar) Banerjee as inspirations. So, how did you end up with the BJP?Right from my birth, I was a part of the bharatiya janta. It’s only recently that the ‘party’ element has been added… I belong to all parties.Bengal has led the nation in many spheres… it is all decided by the will of the people… Bengalis have an inner strength. Once they tap into that, no force can prevent Bengal from reaching its destination as a world leaderLiz Mathew: You recently had an issue — the tenure of West Bengal Vice Chancellors (VCs). It was a setback initially but you made it an opportunity. Could you tell us how you resolved that issue?As a Chancellor and Governor, it is my duty to see that a Supreme Court judgment is upheld. There were only two ways open before me. I called the VCs and told them — one was that if the VCs feel that a Supreme Court judgment is binding on all of India, they have the option to resign, but I am not pressing them for that. Otherwise, the other option: termination notice. All of them said, ‘Sir we’re resigning.’ Nobody had any objection. It was a very graceful resignation. I compliment the VCs for their magnanimity. I didn’t have to issue the notice. But the next day, they had no place to go, and I had to run the universities. There is nothing that prevents the Chancellor from requesting the same Vice Chancellor to continue for two-three months in an interim or caretaker arrangement…The government also cooperated. We are glad that the High Court has completely endorsed the position.Liz Mathew: There is an alleged overreach of the judiciary into the executive. How do you see this?Separation of powers is basic to the constitutional democracy that we have adopted in this country: the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. There are defined areas of operation for them… Our democratic system is strong enough to face any eventuality and come up with acceptable solutions.Shubhajit Roy: In terms of the country’s economic improvement and growth trajectory, Bengal has lagged behind other states. What do you think plagues Bengal?Every state has its own ups and downs. Bengal has led the nation in many spheres. It has potential and Bengal will develop it. In a democracy, it is all decided by the will of the people… governments will come and go, but I treat Bengal as a state. Bengalis, as a people, have an inner strength. Once they tap into that, no force can prevent Bengal from reaching its destination as a leader of the nation.Independence of the media is very important and Indian democracy protects that, the Constitution protects that, and the courts are there… there are checks in place… Dissent is the essence of democracyLiz Mathew: What are the challenges before the state?Gopal Krishna Gokhale had said, what Bengal thinks today, India will think tomorrow. Bengal is still capable. There may be many factors which stand in the way. These may be political, economic, or cultural. These factors have to be addressed separately. A comprehensive view is to be taken on how Bengal can go forward, which the political system, particularly the democratic system, will be able to address adequately from time to time.P Vaidyanathan Iyer: There have been a perception of corruption and rising violence, at times related to elections also. What has been your sense in the last four or five months?There will and should be zero tolerance to corruption. Violence has no place in democratic elections. Force is no arbiter. The Constitution is to be upheld. Whenever there is laxity in maintaining law and order, as a constitutional head, the governor will not remain a mute witness. Effective and proactive action will be taken as is mandated by the Constitution of India.P Vaidyanathan Iyer: What is the status on the Lokayukta? Are you looking at a revised ordinance or bill?As per the Lokayukta Act, the Lokayukta cannot be given reappointment in any manner — in the public sector, private sector, cooperative sector. But somehow the will of the legislators was to give reappointment. What is reflected in the amendment was that the term can be renewed. In my opinion, renewal can be done only when somebody holds office. Once somebody has remitted the office, renewal cannot be done, so reappointment is not possible. So, the amendment is not valid. Then, what is the way out? Amend the act within the framework of the Constitution and the law of the land. That is why that file was returned, because there is no legal provision for it. The legislators’ intention was not reflected in the way the amendment was made. Now, it has not come back to me. So, I cannot comment on that. Once the amendment is done, the situation will be different.Monojit Majumdar: The friction between the office of the governor and elected governments, especially Opposition governments, is historical. Do you feel there is an overall shrinking of space for disagreement in Indian politics?Democracy is an evolutionary process. As we evolve, new problems may come and new solutions will also come. So, I don’t think there is anything strange or disturbing. Conflict of interest has always been there in any growing society. From the conflict, a balance should emerge. The quality of the balance is what determines the strength of society. I see the death throes of an old order and the birth of pangs of a new one in the so-called conflicts.Sudhakar Jagdish: Panchayat elections are to be held. Will you take a preemptive action regarding the deployment of Central forces, considering the violent rural elections that have taken place in West Bengal earlier?I would not use the word preemptive, I would prefer the word proactive. All proactive steps will certainly be taken. In an event of an election, particularly panchayat elections, where millions are involved, a conscientious administrator should look at four points: intelligence, preparation for action, action and mopping up. Intelligence — get all information about the goings on in the field. Check if the ecosystem permits people to come and vote freely and if there are any disturbing forces working from behind. Preparation for action — law and order have to be maintained. I can’t say whether Central forces will come or not… Action is on the day for voting. There should be freedom for everyone to come and exercise their vote without fear or favour. Then mopping up — if there are a few conflicts and skirmishes, these are all part of democracy. Steps should be taken for that also. This four-fold approach will be taken and whatever decisions are required, it will be proactively taken.Liz Mathew: The BJP state leadership seems to be upset with the way you are functioning. Have you addressed their concerns?I have interacted with all political parties and non-political groups there. I listen to them. Whatever is possible from the part of the governor, I try to do it without delay… Criticism is good and improves you. I’m very hopeful that if winter comes, spring cannot be far behind.Vijay Jha: In today’s political environment, how relevant is the post of the governor?The post of the governor has relevance… The nominated governorship’s role and relevance were defined in the Constitution… The governor has the right to be consulted, the right to be informed and the right to intervene… governors are also given discretionary powers. These are to be used very sparingly, to uphold the Constitution and to clear a constitutional backlog. The governor still has relevance as a friend, philosopher and guide to the elected government.Sudhakar Jagdish: But when the governor takes on a bipartisan role, don’t you think this argument of scrapping the whole governor’s office gains strength?Canadian statesman Lester B Pearson said, ‘It’s easy to frame a constitution but difficult to make it work.’ That is the fate of the constitution where democracy is there. I think there is a silver lining. I’m sure institutional ownership will improve. Whether a governor stands by truth or not, is for posterity to decide.Avishek G Dastidar: In your meetings with the chief minister, have you exchanged gifts?She gifted me a lot of goodwill. I gifted her a lot of understanding.Avishek G Dastidar: Since you’re living in Kolkata, how is your life there? What do you like about Bengalis?What I love most about Bengal is that it’s full of Bengalis… Calcutta is a city with a soul. People are very accommodating, sentimental, emotional and friendly. There is a larger humanity which pervades it.Monojit Majumdar: Is there one figure from either Kerala or West Bengal who guides you in the way you conduct yourself?That one and only figure is Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.Kaushik Das Gupta: You spoke about democracy as an evolutionary process. What do you think would be the challenges of the governor in this new order?The designation of the governor itself is intriguing. The governor does not govern. He’s like the Speaker. The Speaker does not speak. That’s the beauty of democracy. I don’t think I feel any special challenge this position… It’s an evolutionary process.Vandita Mishra: How would you define this new order that you are saying is going to be born?There is a growing feeling among the entire world that democracy can deliver only if there is good governance. We must be able to put in place systems of good governance and ensure that these systems will work. That is going to be the biggest challenge, not only for India but for any nation. I’m sure that Indian initiatives and good governance are widely noted by the world. Other democratic countries are following suit, particularly our insistence on inclusiveness in every sphere. I’m not saying that everything is perfect here, but the process has started. India is becoming a perfect democracy. The way of the world, in the future, is the Indian way. I feel proud that democracy has come of age. It has been tried, tested and found to be effective. We know how to do mid-course correction.Liz Mathew: There is growing criticism about the way Indian democracy functions, regarding freedom to dissent and speak, in every sphere of life. Do you see any point in that criticism?So long as the Indian press is assertive, democracy will flourish in this country. As Joseph Pulitzer said, ‘Our republic and its press will rise or fall together.’ This applies to all republics. The independence of the media is very important and Indian democracy protects that, the Constitution protects that, and the courts are there. There are sufficient checks and balances in a democracy. Dissent is the essence of democracy. There may be aberrations here and there because we are a growing democracy… I think, freedom of expression and democracy are safe in the hands of the vibrant and vigilant media.Liz Mathew: Unlike in the past, Raj Bhavans have become a hub of activities. What is the purpose of this?The Raj Bhavan is meant to be a neutral centre for encouraging the cultural and social life of the state. There is nothing which prevents it from becoming accessible to the people. We are going to make the Bengal Raj Bhavan more people-friendly. The process of dignified decolonisations is already taking place. We know that the Raj Bhavan represented the conquerors and intruders. We do not want to obliterate history, but democratic India has no need to glorify those who acted against the interests of this nation. Raj Bhavan should be jan bhavan.
Why does the disqualification of Rahul Gandhi from Parliament last week have the reek of dirty politics? Why does a Prime Minister with the highest approval ratings of any world leader seem afraid of a man his spokesmen routinely dismiss as a goof? Why does the most powerful political party in the world seem suddenly unsure of its stature? If you think I have the answers to these questions, you are wrong, but they are questions that are being asked and should be asked.Rahul Gandhi may not be the most skillful politician, but it is hard to see him as a criminal who deserves to have his entire political career ended because he made a silly speech. The court in Surat that sentenced him to two years in prison for ‘criminally defaming’ everyone whose name is Modi had barely announced its judgement when the administrative machinery of Parliament swung into action. The court gave him thirty days to appeal against the sentence but before any appeal could be filed Rahul found himself disqualified as the Member of Parliament from Wayanad.It is not the legality of what has happened that should be a cause of concern but the politics that seems to envelope what happened. Ever since Rahul said ‘on foreign soil’ that democracy in India has been weakened since Narendra Modi became prime minister, he has been a BJP target. For the first time ever, Parliament was prevented from functioning not because of the opposition but because of the treasury benches. Senior ministers lined up to demand stridently in the house and outside that Rahul Gandhi apologize to Parliament for saying that he was prevented from speaking in it.After the ‘A’ team had finished their attack, the BJP’s ‘B’ team that consists of its spokesmen was ordered to attack and they did. Brutally. One spokesman, who has been the TV face of the party, went to the extent of declaring that Rahul was the Mir Jaffar of our times. For those who do not remember this historical figure, a short reminder. He was the traitor who helped the British win the Battle of Plassey. What did Rahul say in London or Cambridge University that makes him a traitor? Nothing.He wanted to come to Parliament to answer the charges being flung at him by the BJP but was not allowed to speak. After this, came the disqualification without giving him time to appeal the sentence. So, what is really going on? Could it be that the most popular leader in the world is seriously worried about a man who has led the Congress Party to two defeats in general elections? The more important question is why Narendra Modi appears to be going out of his way to prove Rahul Gandhi’s charge that he has crippled our democratic institutions by exerting upon them his immense power?Surely, he does not believe that Rahul is so big a criminal that he has no place in Parliament. He cannot possibly support Rahul’s disqualification since according to the Association of Democratic Reforms, 39% (116) of the BJP’s winning candidates in 2019 had criminal cases against them. The Congress Party scored higher at 57% or 29 MPs with criminal records. Many have charges far more serious on their records than criminal defamation. All Rahul did was ask rhetorically why it seemed that all crooks were called Modi. This comment offended a BJP man whose name was Modi, so he filed criminal defamation charges on behalf of the entire Modi community.What worries me as someone who has covered Indian politics for a very long time is how very thin-skinned our politicians seem to have become. Clearly, they have not heard what the American President, Harry Truman, said about the pressures of public life. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” It is worth remembering Truman’s words because the defining trait of nearly all our public figures in recent times is that they are offended so easily that even the once mighty Indian media has learned the art of kowtowing. This is unfortunate because we already have high officials and Bollywood stars kowtowing and opposition leaders living in mortal dread of the midnight knock that could bring either the Enforcement Directorate or the Central Bureau of Investigation to their doors.Meanwhile, the Budget got passed last week without debate because Parliament has not functioned in the hope that Rahul Gandhi will apologise for saying that Indian democracy is under threat. Now, he has no need to because the doors of Parliament house are closed to him for the immediate future. The question really is whether all this will help the BJP win a third term and the answer is that by the time the next general election comes around, who knows how many more opposition leaders will find themselves reluctant to stay in the kitchen because the heat has got too intense.For the moment, they seem to all be standing on the side of Rahul Gandhi and that is good news. So far, they have been suspicious of the Congress Party’s projection of their leader as a future prime minister, and many have said more than once that who becomes prime minister can only be decided after the election results come. Now we have Arvind Kejriwal saying that this is not Rahul Gandhi’s fight alone but theirs as well.
Protests continue to rage across France over President Emmanuel Macron’s unpopular pension Bill, which was pushed through using special constitutional powers on Thursday (March 16) without giving French lawmakers a chance to vote. The Bill, among other things, raises the retirement age from 62 to 64.Protests have been vocal, and in some cases, violent, with protestors burning effigies of French politicians and blocking roads and certain services. In Paris, workers have refused to collect garbage, which has been piling up on the streets for days, along with its sickening stench.“Anger is growing,” a 48-year old striking worker told The Guardian. “This has gone far beyond pensions, it is about our political system. The president has executive powers that need to be rethought. It’s about protecting France’s whole postwar system of social protection. It’s about hanging on to our welfare state, as Macron tries to unpick it – from housing benefits to the unemployment system. French people are well informed and politicised, they won’t let this pass.”On Monday, Macron’s government narrowly survived two no-confidence votes. Unions have called for a massive nationwide day of protests on Thursday (March 23), Reuters reported.The French are often perceived to have a penchant for protesting. While this stereotype might be slightly overblown, France boasts of a long history of anti-establishment social movements which have enjoyed a fair degree of success. Charles De Gaulle referred to it as his country’s “perpetual political effervescence”.But certain data suggests that this perception might not be very accurate. Compared with other western democracies, especially in Europe, France does not statistically see a much greater number of protests. Neither are French citizens more agreeable to protests than their counterparts. However, while protest “might not be a uniquely French activity”, it remains “an important element of French culture and politics”, wrote political scientist Frank R Baumgartner.Notably, Baumgartner adds, “some of its (protests’) forms in France are different than in other countries, and some types of protest appear to be more effective in France than in other countries”.Political scientist Frank L Wilson, in ‘Political Demonstrations in France: Protest Politics Or Politics of Ritual?’, links this very visible image of a “protest society” to the colourful tactics used by demonstrators, their focus on Paris, and a firm anti-establishment position. To understand the unique culture of protest in France, one has to look back at the nation’s history.During the Middle Ages, a form of collective action known as ‘charivari’ was popular across many parts of Europe, including France, where both the word and the custom likely originated. The custom involved groups of young men surrounding people accused of having committed moral offences (for instance, having sex out of wedlock). They would then loudly bang pots and pans and shame the alleged offenders. Often, charivari would devolve into brutal retributive violence.Over time, charivari started taking distinctly political tones, targeting figures such as corrupt officials or tax collectors. Thus, what used to be customs concerned with social transgression transformed into acts of political mobilisation, carrying with them both the raucousness as well as the violence of the charivari.Historian William Beik writes that something that struck him while researching French urban history was what he called “a culture of retribution”. “Groups of relatively disenfranchised individuals from the middle to lower ranks of a local community, but lacking any formal institutional identity, would mobilise either spontaneously or after informal meetings and discussions, to attack an abuse of power by those in authority,” he writes.The essence of traditions such as the charivari and the ‘culture of retribution’ can be found in today’s protests, often in more symbolic forms. For instance, during the current wave of protests, there have been multiple instances of effigy burnings of political leaders with “We beheaded Louis XVI and we can do it again with President Macron” being a common refrain.The French public guillotined Louis XVI on January 21, 1793 at the Place de la Concorde in Paris. This was a momentous occasion as the ‘public’ took power in its own hands, to remove a ruler seen as apathetic as well as to address systemic socio-economic problems. Crucially, the Revolution created French national consciousness as we know it, around the romantic ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.These ideals continue to be a central feature in France’s culture of protest with every protest eventually boiling down to citizens talking of upholding these ideals. At the same time, every perceived authoritarian figure also draws comparisons to Louis XVI.Moreover, not only did the Revolution permanently cement the French public’s ‘anti-establishment’ credentials, what followed the Revolution also imbibed the populace with deep lying cynicism that can be seen in France’s various intellectual traditions, all the way till de Beauvoir, Sartre and Foucault.Unlike the idyllic utopia that the Revolution promised to bring, it brought instead the Jacobin Reign of Terror, Napoleon, and eventually, the strengthening of French capitalism and the modern nation state. All this while the masses of France saw paltry improvements in their own lives. According to sociologist Charles Tilly, the gradual transformation of folk traditions such as the charivari to a cultural political protest has to be seen in this context. These traditions were kept alive in language that borrowed deeply from the intellectual currents surrounding the Revolution to respond to grievances that never quite went away.Today, the unique position of France’s extremely active unions explains the persistence of the nation’s protest culture, a Vox report suggests. Labour historian Stephan Sirot notes the paradoxical position of French unions. On one hand, France has the highest number of trade unions but on the other, it boasts among the lowest percentage of workers who are a part of the union, with the average number standing around 8 per cent of all workers (compared to 25 per cent in Europe).“The political influence of French unions is abnormal,” Radu Vranceanu, research director at the Grande Ecole de Commerce in Paris, told Reuters. “It’s not at all in line with their capacity to mobilise people.”These unions gain a lot of power not from their membership but conditions (in the form of laws and rules) which are favourable to them. This makes them take extreme positions on anything they might have a disagreement with – they protest constantly lest their position be changed via executive fiat. On the part of the capitalist “management”, they too often begin negotiations in bad faith, starting off with an extreme, often untenable proposal before watering it down post the inevitable union protests.“French unions must often stage radical action as a prerequisite for obtaining good faith negotiations that big unions in the UK and Germany are granted out of hand, out of management’s respect of their power,” political scientist Guy Groux told Time magazine.Over time, protests have become an intrinsic part of France’s politics not as a way to shake the system but as a ritualised performance within it. “In France, contemporary political protests flow out of a rich history of contention that is full of drama and passion. Protest has become an important popular art in France,” Wilson wrote.Major protests are near festive events with protesters often engaging in street dances and small gatherings in bars before and after the march. Yet the drama of France’s ritualised protests does not diminish their political value. Indeed much of the value, including strongly held stereotypes regarding protesting French persons, comes from the ritual of protest itself.Wilson suggests that policymaking in response to protest events should not be the only measure of a protests’ efficacy. In fact, in France, protests usually crystallise over vetoing existing policies rather than proposing new ones (like we see currently with Macron’s Bill). Rather, the success of protests also lies in their ability to foster political consciousness, remind people of their power, and keep politicians inconvenienced and on their toes. In this, the ritualised theatrics of France’s protests play an all-important role.