I view India as a democracy whose people are free to do what they want provided it’s within the confines of the law. Alas, as its term draws to a close, the Narendra Modi government seems to disagree. Last week it made strenuous attempts to stop Indian citizens invited to Pakistan’s National Day reception from attending. This wasn’t just wrong. It was also reprehensible and could prove internationally embarrassing.
First, it is not against the law to attend a Pakistan Day reception. Nor is it morally forbidden to do so. The government chose not to but the PM still wrote to his Pakistani counterpart to greet him. If his fellow citizens wish to do the same by accepting the high commissioner’s invitation they have every right to attend his reception.
So what was the government thinking when it ordered the Delhi Police to stop and question every Indian guest before permitting them to enter the Pakistani high commission? They were asked for their names, phone numbers and why they wanted to attend the reception. Those who refused to answer were not allowed to proceed. And what was the justification for this illegal and offensive behaviour? This is what a police official told the Press Trust of India: “The government boycotted the event … in such circumstances it was important to note the details of the people who were present there and to ascertain reasons for their presence.”
At almost every level, this is an affront to Indian citizens and to our democracy. Ours is not a police surveillance State. We are not required to follow what the government does and, indeed, we’re free to act against its advice. Nor do we have to explain our decisions to the authorities. To insist on this is to infringe on our rights. Finally, Modi was elected to protect them and not to trespass on them.
However, that’s not all. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government did not behave in this outlandish way after the Kargil War, which was far worse than the Pulwama terror attack. And if the government doesn’t want Indians to attend the Pakistani reception, why did the Prime Minister send a letter of greetings to Imran Khan? Incidentally, till the Pakistani PM tweeted about it, news of this letter was withheld from us! Which raises the question: Does the government have one policy for itself and another for the citizens of India?
One more point. The government was upset because the high commissioner invited the Hurriyat. Yet this is not the first time that has happened. More importantly, Vajpayee and LK Advani used to hold talks with them. And, finally, let’s not forget we consider the Hurriyat Indian citizens. In which case, are we seriously telling the Pakistanis they can invite some Indians but not others? I’m afraid the conclusion I have come to is both sad and stark. The government has tied itself up in knots. The world will only laugh at us and this embarrassment is self-inflicted.
But I can’t leave it there. I have one more point to make. In any other democracy, the government’s highhanded behaviour would have enraged the citizenry. Sadly, in India it hasn’t met with the opprobrium it deserves. If we don’t loudly protest when our rights are trampled upon, the government will continue to do so. We owe it to ourselves to tell Modi and his cabinet that this was unacceptable and must never happen again. With elections 10 days away, this is a critical message.