It’s 2019 and we’re still at that point where we can hope the new year will be better than the one that’s ended. In a couple of weeks, however, such hopes will prove forlorn, reality will set in and our expectations flounder. But, today, let me answer a question I was asked on New Year’s Eve: What are you hoping for from India’s politicians?
My answer is simple. Let them learn to accept criticism. It may be wrong and it could be prejudicial but we, the people of India, have a right to criticise those we’ve elected to office. In between elections, it’s the only way of grounding them. Or else they would soar above, keeping us in thrall. Yet two separate but telling developments late last year have convinced me this is something our leaders cannot accept.
In December, the Manipur government arrested Kishorechandra Wangkhem, 39, under the National Security Act (after initially arresting him under the sedition law) for criticising the state’s chief minister. What did he say that was so unpalatable? He called the CM a puppet of the PM. And why did he say this? Because he opposed the state government’s decision to commemorate the Rani of Jhansi who he believes has nothing to do with Manipur’s own struggle against the British. For this he could be detained for up to 12 months without trial.
Earlier, in October, Abhijit Iyer-mitra was arrested and jailed in Orissa for the audacity of criticising the Konark Temple, questioning the Odisha origin of the rasagola and making derogatory remarks about state legislators. In this particular instance, even our Supreme Court lost its sense of proportion. When Iyer-mitra petitioned the court, arguing his life could be in danger in jail, its response was, in that case, there’s no better place than prison!
In their time, Congress governments were no different. Aseem Trivedi, who was only 25, was arrested by the Mumbai police for cartoons depicting Parliament as a water closet. Ambika Soni, then information and broadcasting minister, pronounced that cartoonists “should stay within constitutional parameters” adding, pointedly, “they cannot make national symbols the object of their cartoon”.
Why ever not? Why can’t we satirise, parody and ridicule our leaders? Indeed, why can’t we be rude about them? The British mock their Queen and wear the Union Jack on socks and underpants and it’s taken in good humour. The Americans are brutal in their treatment of Donald Trump – and he doesn’t like it – but he dare not threaten them with jail. But crack a joke about our grand panjandrums, mock and laugh at them, and you could be placed behind bars.
“Politicians must be tolerant”, hollered Markandey Katju, when he was head of the Press Council. “This is not a dictatorship”. No one listened to him then and they certainly aren’t today. Yet we claim to be the world’s biggest democracy. In terms of size we, no doubt, are. But if it’s the spirit that counts, we betray ourselves without even realising what we’re doing.
So, I say to our politicians, whether from the Congress or the BJP, national or regional, great or small, make my democracy mahaan. Learn to smile sweetly, even if your teeth are tightly clenched, the next time your countrymen censure you, laugh at your face or prick your pomposity. Nothing makes Indian democracy so hollow as your intolerance of criticism. On the other hand, if you can acquire a sense of humour, you’ll end up with a lot more friends.