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Indian democracy's manifesting death wish

ou are working overtime to finish democracy." this
was the anguished cri de couer (‘cry from the heart’) of Somnath Chatterjee, speaker of the Lok Sabha —the lower house of Parliament which under the Constitution of India is empowered to originate and debate the most important legislation of the Central government — on February 28. The speaker was articulating his frustration about constant disruption of Parliament by the 535 members of the Lok Sabha. On that day in anticipation of the Union Budget for 2008-09, members of several opposition parties left their seats and marched into the well of the Lok Sabha below the speaker’s chair and continuously chanted slogans calling upon the government to provide debt relief to the nation’s farmers.

Surely the country’s 535 MPs in the Lok Sabha and 241 in the Rajya Sabha can’t be unaware that unruly boisterousness in Parliament’s august chambers of deliberation and debate undermines the faith of the people in the parliamentary system of government, and lends a cloak of legitimacy to the growing number of extreme Left and fundamentalist political formations hell-bent upon destroying Indian democracy?

Such apprehensions are neither fanciful nor paranoid. Deep in the interiors of the Indian hinterland, beyond the interest or reach of the country’s urban-centric and celebrity-trivia obsessed media, over 150 of the country’s 604 administrative districts are currently under the sway of ultra Left naxalites and/or Maoists working overtime to establish the dictatorship of their politburos which have little patience with bourgeois democracy and rule of law. Indeed prime minister Manmohan Singh has gone on record as saying that naxalites/Maoists, whose anarchic message falls on receptive ears among the poorest and most backward rural communities repeatedly let down by the parliamentary democracy system, are the greatest internal threat to Indian democracy.

According to official statistics, the number of hours lost on account of unruly behaviour of MPs has risen from nil in the first Lok Sabha to 42 in the current (14th) house. And given that every minute of parliamentary time costs taxpayers Rs.26,000, the loss of 42 hours in the recently concluded budget session is indefensible. Particularly as the Union Budget for 2008-09 which ordained a massive, unprecedented debt waiver of Rs.60,000 crore was guillotined (i.e passed without debate due to paucity of time).

Against the backdrop of MPs elected at great cost to the public, taking their duties so lightly and frivolously, it’s hardly surprising that a growing number of people countrywide are losing their faith in the parliamentary system. Even as a new general election looms on the horizon, this is an appropriate time for the country’s MPs to accept the reality of a direct cause-and-effect link between the growing incidence of civic insurrection and lawlessness in the neglected rural hinterlands of India and their own reckless lawlessness in Parliament. Speaker Chatterjee is right: Indian democracy’s death wish is becoming more manifest with each passing day.

Shameful hounding of Taslima Nasreen

angladeshi author Taslima Nasreen’s forced exit from India to Europe on March 19 is another shameful blot upon India’s professedly liberal secular democracy. It is pertinent to recall that three years ago Nasreen had fled to Kolkata to escape the wrath of Islamic fundamentalists in Bangladesh. Then last November she was once again obliged to flee from Kolkata to Delhi after the CPM (Communist Party-Marxist)-led Left Front government which has ruled the state of West Bengal for over three decades, declared it was unable to guarantee her safety. Now that once again she has to flee Delhi, is a shocking indicator of the ineffectiveness of governments in the states and at the Centre to maintain the rule of law and stand up to fringe fundamentalist groups.

Although it’s true that the Central government didn’t ask her to leave the country and technically offered her protection against Islamic fundamentalists, its hospitality to the brave woman author who has aroused the ire of religious zealots in Bangladesh and in India for speaking up for women’s rights and causes — a taboo subject in orthodox and regressive Muslim societies — has been so grudging and ill-mannered, that Nasreen has decided to call it quits and retreat into lonely exile in Europe where she has often said she suffers cultural isolation and loss of creativity. In Kolkata it was hotly rumoured that last November the CPM had instigated and orchestrated street protests and violent agitation against the hapless author to deflect public anger against Left Front government atrocities committed in Singur and Nandigram. In these rural districts the state government had forcibly acquired rural landholdings for setting up SEZs (special economic zones), giving free rein to CPM party cadres to let loose a reign of terror against protesting farmers.

Curiously, nobody within the country’s 18 million strong police force or within specialist agencies such as the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation), RAW (Research and Analysis Wing), Intelligence Bureau etc has been able to ascertain the identities of the fundamentalists who have committed the grave offences of criminal intimidation, utterance of inflammatory statements likely to cause a breach of peace etc, which are grave offences under the Indian Penal Code, 1860.

Indeed the shabby treatment meted out by the West Bengal and Central governments to Nasreen is the mirror opposite of the considerate and principled support the British government gave India-born author Salman Rushdie — although it cost the British taxpayer millions of pounds — when Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared a fatwa against him for alleged blasphemy in 1989.

Quite clearly preoccupied with vote bank politics and appeasement of Hindu and Muslim fanatics whose religious ardour tends to make them oblivious to the fundamental right of every citizen to freedom of speech, the country’s politicians can’t be bothered about bringing fundamentalists who breach the law, to book. The day isn’t far when fringe religious fanatics who know little about democracy and care even less, will start curbing and censoring parliamentary debates.

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