Freedom, Flag and the Four Estates

There is a little known tradition in the U.S.military, of flying the flag upside down. It’s an officially recognized signal of distress.

Title 4, chapter 1 (8a), of the U.S flag code states: the flag should “never be flown upside down except as a signal of dire distress, in instances of extreme danger to life or property.”

As we prepare to greet our 70th Independence day tomorrow, I am strangely reluctant to celebrate. Not because I feel any less Indian or any less Independent as a human being. But because I am deeply aware of how curtailed our common rights have become. How much on the brink we stand, as a country of the unfree.

Do we really qualify as a nation in dire distress? In extreme danger to life or property?

 

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I think each man and women should answer these questions for themselves. How much is too much? When is it enough? Is this our tryst with destiny and are we okay with it?

Democracy and Freedom are not thought experiments. We are not free because we tell ourselves so, once every year. A free and independent nation is a living, breathing thing that one experiences daily.

Elevator Music

It is pointless to recall every demeaning national experience and slights to sanity, over the last two years.

Not merely because it will take too long, but because this government has come to treat the media and all intellectual activity like Gregorian chants on Elevator Music.

A Mildly irritating, two-minute  background hum that one can shout over. And easily forget as soon as one gets off the damn thing. 

But in Gregorian chant mode one can quickly run through some of the main highlights of our political experience since the BJP government came to power:

  • dissenting Facebook account holders put in jail
  • sedition charges filed against university students from Jawaharlal University and others
  • multiple journalists in Chhattisgarh jailed
  • dalit student leader Rohit Vemula driven to suicide by an uncaring HCU vice chancellor
  • Hyderabad Central University barricaded, put under siege
  • criminal defamation used as a means of throttling dissent
  • inter-faith couples targeted by Love Jihad activists
  • violence against people who refuse to say Bharat Mata Ki Jai #BMKJ
  • Muslim man Akhlaq lynched to death on the suspicion of storing beef
  • Multiple alleged Beef Eaters, Cow transporters lynched, hanged, burnt -most of whom happen to be Dalit
  • And last but not the least, Kashmir reignited. Protesters shot in the eye with high velocity pellets with the intent of blinding them. (After much research, we are told)

This is not to mention

  • Rs 20,000 crores sunk in the K.G. basin for gas not found
  • 1500 farmers left to commit suicide and suffer untold losses (really, we’re not being told ).
  • Yet, Rs 670,000 crores of depositor’s money lent to big corporate defaulters by banks. Some of it twice, despite foreknowledge that they were defaulters. Rs 500,000 crores is now being written off.
  • one of them — Vijay Mallya – allowed to fly out of the country at the last minute.
  • that was the second millionaire thief runaway, after home minister Sushma Swaraj helped UK chum, Lalit Modi  get permission to fly around Europe
  • and to allow all of this and more to happen India’s most promising RBI Governor was let go for promising to clean up the banks in a comprehensive AQR (Asset Quality Review).
  • now the government is coming after small depositors to ‘widen the tax base.’

Really, just don’t mention the last few  at all. It’s not a big deal. Only Rs 670,000 crores, a few cronies and our tax money.

Because seriously, the reason I don’t feel like celebrating is that this government and its prime minister, in addition to not doing all the things above, have also, skillfully, not done other things as well.

The Four Estates and a Thumb

Since coming to power, Prime Minister Modi and his government have refused to engage with the media officially. We know that.

They come out of their quarters in carefully staged outings, to float carefully managed tropés and return to whichever hole they live in.

The party line is that they are busy going about ‘their business’ as good executives should, and the media is just a painful annoyance.

Given the state of Indian television I’m inclined to sympathize with them.But really, Television isn’t the only media.

And you have to remember, this too-busy-to-talk, is a new party line. Adopted after former Education Minister Smriti Irani’s spectacular combustion against JNU student protests, backfired.

What no one’s pointing out is, Irani exploded on Rajya Sabha TV, Lok Sabha TV and Twitter. Not in front of the media. And even before her operatic performance, there was always a  Modi policy of not engaging with the media every since the Gujarat 2002 riots and the Karan Thapar non-interview.

Blanking out media is a major problem. This should be apparent to anyone with experience in a democracy.

The media is called the Fourth Estate for a reason.  The job of a responsible Press is to be the conscience keeper of a nation. To question and challenge the government on behalf of the people. To ensure and insist the government engages in a dia-logue instead of a mono-logue; that those in power speak with the public instead of at them.

 

Just saying No

But, this government likes saying No. It doesn’t care that Prime Minister Modi himself spent way too much time outside the country last year,  without commensurate foreign policy gains.

On the contrary, the United States, which had once barred him from entering the country as chief minister in 2005, then shamelessly courted him back in 2014, is now once again unhappy with his domestic intolerance regime(n). China has put hurdles on India’s entry into the NSG (and yes, procedural hurdles are how you do it). And ties with Pakistan are at an all time low, Seriously, how does one mess up ties with Russia?

As for the long list of little countries that BJP spokesmen like to trot out to pad the margins – we know they pad the margins, the expense sheet, and little else. Nepal is a good example.

If that were not enough, legislators complained last week that the prime minister rarely deigns to attend Parliament. First Post called it PM-Mukt Parliament (PM-free Parliament as in pest-free homes).

On August 10 this year, he didn’t turn up in Parliament for a constitution amendment bill, a first ever in history. The bill had already been discussed threadbare for months in his absence and he just had to turn up and show his face. But, this is Just Say No Modi.

The same day, on August 10, Supreme Court Chief Justice TS Thakur lashed out against the government for not clearing the names of 75 judges, whose names were passed on to the executive by the collegium. It was the final straw in a series of snubs that the executive has been handing out to the judiciary over the last six months.

This April, a frustrated Chief Justice Thakur broke into tears on network television as the nation watched in horror. A sobbing chief justice has to be some kind of a first too.

After a long tussle with the government on the Collegium system versus a government appointed Judicial Commission, the victorious  Supreme court had found itself thwarted on all appointments and blamed for all backlogs.  ‘All I need is for you to fill judicial appointments’, he begged Modi who was sitting on the same dais.

Modi had no option but to promise him a quick resolution. Justice Thakur, hoped his own public humiliation might indeed ensure a solution. But four months later the wall remains stubbornly stony. The justice system log-jammed.

Last week, Justice Thakur lost his patience and threatened to “pass orders”. The idea of a face-off between the Supreme court and the Prime Minister’s office does not bode well. South Asia has a bad history of such events (India in 1977 and Pakistan more recently).

This ticks off the third and final arm of a democracy that Modi has shown complete disdain for. He has shown that he will not engage with the media, because he dislikes dialogue.

He does not attend parliament often enough. Despite a national outcry, he tried to pass the Land Bill as a national ordinance and then withdrew it. He passed a constitution amendment bill in absentia,  the Aadhar Universal ID bill was passed as money a bills thus holding the Legislature at gunpoint.

And now he thumbs his nose at the Judiciary. A chief justice cries and Modi doesn’t give a damn.

Raja aur Praja

This behoves the question : What problem does PM Modi have with all branches of a functioning democracy? Who is this man we have elected?

Is he the Raja answerable only to his Praja, as a King to his people? Because the only kind of gathering Modi will address is a public gathering or rally.

Is he a King who will meet only his Courtiers and no one else.

Is he at best, a chief executive answerable only to his board of directors — the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)?

Look at the landscape — roving lynchers, a throttled press, suicidal farmers, besieged universities, killed rationalists and writers, and finally, sidelined democratic institutions.

Is this his Idea of India?

If it is, we need to stop participating in it.

This was not the founding fathers’ Idea of India. We the People, fought for an independent nation, one half and a score centuries ago.

India’s tryst with destiny cannot and does not mean this.

In the name of a nation that was once free but is not today, I will not be celebrating this Independence day.

In my mind, the flag flies upside down. A sign of dire distress.

Each of us must decide when to say enough is enough. But all of us have to remember only this — no help is coming from outside. If we want to fly the flag straight again, we have to help ourselves.

In memory of August 15, 2016. India’s 70th Independence Day

For my father,
Late, Col S.P. Singh V.S.M.

 

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