Chaos in the Rakhine province of Myanmar has caused a large number of casualties and rendered thousands homeless. The Myanmar government has been accused of attempting ethnic cleansing and has been heavily criticized by the onlooking world. Why is Aung San Suu Kyi so quiet on this catastrophe? How can the ethnic Rohingya of Myanmar find a safe haven? And what action must be taken to bring an end the mistrust and violence besetting Rakhine?
Gauri Lankesh was a woman of enormous courage and a certain daredevil attitude, and this is probably the trait that aided those who took away her life. A more cautious individual would have sought—and insisted—on being provided protection against the many who daily poured vitriol at her. Not that she was alone in getting such attention. There are dozens of journalists and writers who have received threats as ugly as those directed at Ms Lankesh. In just a single case, the individual concerned began getting telephone calls and SMSs mentioning where his daughter or wife was at the time the particular call was being made, and explicitly being told that their lives would be cut short, were he to continue to write what such callers described as “lying filth”. Needless to say, his writings have become way more anodyne and a lot less padded with sensational facts after that series of calls was made. His understandable explanation is that he has no right to subject his family to the risk of being killed just so that he continues to enjoy the luxury of writing or saying in public what he pleases. Rather than freedom of speech, what he has been experiencing may be described as “feardom of speech”. Such control through intimidation of what is said and written is not the monopoly of any particular party, but has infected most of them. In the immediate aftermath of the killing of Gauri Lankesh, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi held the BJP guilty of the crime. Either Rahul is talking through his Gandhi topi, or he has facts about the case that he is concealing from not only the public but the investigating authorities. The Congress heir apparent’s continuing silence as to the evidence on which he has based his sensation allegation of the BJP’s culpability is being interpreted by the overwhelming majority even of traditional Congress voters as evidence that he has no evidence.
The shooting to death of Gauri Lankesh should not be viewed as an isolated act, but part of the dismaying reality that freedom of speech, although mentioned as a right in the Constitution of India, remains distant in practice. Some of the most smelly colonial-style legislation came about during the decade when Manmohan Singh was Prime Minister. Aided by a BJP Parliamentary Party that seemed during that decade to specialise in spending more time in walkouts over a miscellany of issues, the UPA passed laws that would have pleased Winston Churchill and other racists, who believed that the birthright of the Indian was slavery to the government and not control over his or her own destiny. Assisted by a plenitude of laws, it has become child’s play to fling a citizen into the criminal justice system, a construct where hundreds of thousands remain in jail, sometimes for more than a decade, without a single court having found them guilty of any crime. In other major democracies, people are sent to jail only after being found guilty by a jury of their peers. In those countries where the justice system regards imprisonment as the exception rather than the rule, those convicted are given notice of a month, and sometimes more, to put their house in order before going off to prison. In India, they are taken away a few minutes after the judge pronounces sentence. Very often, those convicted come to court to hear the verdict from the jail they are in as under-trials. The power to reform India’s colonial-era justice system vests with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Justice Dipak Misra. Should either or both decide to re-format the justice system so that the bar gets raised substantially for taking away the liberty of a citizen, including for issues involving freedom of expression, a significant step forward would have been traversed in the reconfiguration of India into more of a 21st century construct.
Why is freedom of speech so important, and conversely, why is “feardom of speech” so harmful to the future of our country? Because of the impact of either on the Knowledge Economy, the success of which hinges on a culture permissive of ideas that mainstream opinion may disagree with. Apart from the regulatory system, which is still a mass of weeds choking initiative and activity, another difficulty faced by the knowledge sector in India is that Chidambaram-Sibal creation, the Information Technology Act. Bureaucracy everywhere lusts for power over citizens, and once this is given in the form of measures that make it mandatory to get permissions serially from miscellaneous authorities, dilution of such control systems gets resisted by the civil service. This band remains as convinced as the British were that the natives of India are a collection of potential hooligans, needing constant chastisement and supervision. Before her death, Gauri Lankesh had been harassed multiple times through use of the anachronistic laws of defamation so tenderly preserved in India. Admirers of Narendra Modi anticipate that he will brave the fury of the bureaucracy and take an axe to the jungle of unproductive (save for bribe generation) laws and prohibitions that keep India at the bottom of the international ladder on the ease of doing business. Until “What You Know” becomes more important in the success of a business than “Who You Know”, India will continue to be denied the double digit growth it needs to stave off a future societal catastrophe. At the root of the many ugly manifestations of anger that are shown on television screens are tens of millions of the young who lack work that is productive for the country. It is they whose interests need to be tended, not fund managers based in London, New York, Dubai, Singapore, Zurich and Frankfurt, who collectively promote government policies that cause mass misery, so that they increase their own wealth at the expense of ours.