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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 17, April 18, 2015

Five-Star Activism, too, is Democracy. Deny it, and we face New Totalitarianism

Friday 17 April 2015, by T J S George


Forget the beef ban and the Good Friday controversy in the Supreme Court. More important is the fact that we seem to have reached a stage where we cannot debate issues like water and air pollution, forests and wild life, the death of rivers and the enormity of pesticide abuse that is killing citizens in tens of thousands. We cannot discuss them because discussion means criticism as well—and we have a new India where criticism is considered “anti-development”.

Which Indian in his senses would want to be anti-development? The question therefore is about the nature of development and what we mean by that term. Is it development to cut down mountain ranges in the Western Ghats for putting up industrial plants? Is it development to take tribal lands away without giving the tribals either a say in the matter or meaningful rehabilitation plans? Is it development to have in India 13 of the world’s most polluted 20 cities with New Delhi ranking as the most polluted city in the world (WHO report, 2014)? Is it anti-development to raise such issues, engage in debate, even criticise official policies?

There are frauds in this field. There are also many dedicated organisations doing good work, especially on issues related to development without destruction. The Development Alter-natives Group, the India Development Alternatives Foundation, Environment Support Group and the Centre for Development Alternatives are examples of organisations engaged in the vital task of discussing and researching different types of development paradigms. There are other organisations such as Greenpeace that campaign aggressively for environment protection. Their activism does not mean that they are a danger to India; they are a warning to those whose blinkered view of development is a danger to India.

Actually, the kind of development-for-the-sake-of-development philosophy adopted by the Narendra Modi Government has attracted criticism from within the Sangh Parivar itself. No one will question either the integrity or the nationalistic credentials of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch. What makes it different from other Parivar followers is its intellectual honesty. It has openly questioned the Modi Government’s position on foreign investment, especially in e-commerce, insurance and defence. It criticised the Modi-Jaitley Budget as “pro-corporate” and the government’s “hazardous flirtation with the US” on subjects such as intellectual property rights. Certainly the Prime Minister would not dare include the Jagran Manch in his list of “five-star activists”? There are large segments of independent citizens who agree with the Jagran Manch’s views even when they have no truck with the Parivar line of thinking. They are not “five-star liberals” or “pseudo-seculars”; they are just Indians who care for India.

In our system, unfortunately, the value of the Opposition is diminished because Opposition parties oppose for the sake of opposing; the BJP did the same when not in power. But there are legitimate organisations, groups and individuals who criticise one government policy or another out of conviction and concern for the country. Maligning them would be a sign of intolerance at worst, of confusion at best. Our government seems to have developed some sort of difficulty in separating what is good for all from what is good for a few. Perhaps this is related to its apparent inability to distinguish between rhetoric and governance, between the election campaign mode and performance mode. So it ends up doing things it should not be doing, like robbing the Peter of agricultural India to pay the Paul of industrial India. Farmers greet this policy the only way they know — by committing suicide. Even then, the foreign investor, earnestly wooed to ‘make in India’, is in no hurry. Something is amiss.

We have only two alternatives. Either listen to the advice of our ancient rishis or succumb to the warning of modern rishis. The first course was spelt out in Arthashastra which specified punishments for those who destroyed nature: “For cutting the tender sprouts of fruit trees and shade trees, a fine of six panas. For cutting the minor branches of the same trees, 12 panas, and for cutting the big branches, 24 panas.”

If we fail to heed that advice, what awaits us is what a modern rishi, Aldous Huxley, predicted in his Brave New World as far back as 1958. “By means of ever more effective methods of mind-manipulation, the democracies will change their nature; the quaint old forms—elections, parliaments, supreme courts and all the rest will remain. The underlying substance will be a new kind of non-violent totalitarianism.”

Let no one say we had no choice.