Democratic Space- What Is That?
By Dr. Shah Alam Khan
03 June, 2009
As if the Chhattisgarh government was not good enough to rain destruction on a soul like Dr Binayak Sen, we now have the Madhya Pradesh government arrest Mrs. Shamim Modi, a social activist and a law graduate working among the tribals in Betul district of the state. Geographically they seem to be different states with different issues; the fact that they are ruled by the same party is uncanny. What is even more interesting is the fact that both Dr Sen and Mrs Modi were involved in raising issues of the local people; their health, their employment and very importantly their environment.
In Algebra of Infinite Justice and throughout her other essays, Arundhati Roy has spoken of a democratic space. A breathing space within the plexus of a complex social order, to agitate and protest. In my opinion democratic space is an unwritten permission to think. A fundamental consideration and respect granted by a state to its subjects to raise a voice of dissent and disagree. It is this democratic space which forms the basis of a vibrant democracy. We Indians have witnessed a violation of this space time and now either as clamping of emergency, burning of books, boycotting movies or even building dams against local wishes. Violation on and off is a mistake but violation on a regular basis is a habit. This is even more dangerous when the infringement is by the perpetrators of democracy themselves. The ruling party in Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh stands guilty of this crime. The BJP has a habit of intruding into the democratic space.
Most contraventions of this nature start as pin pricks to test a society. The experiment is completed with the implementation of harsher laws, more strict censorship and refusal to accept protest. India’s neighborhood has witnessed this all. What could be more glaring than the Talibanisation of Pakistan. The resurgence of Taliban in Pakistan started with minor issues. They were seen as saviours from a US backed regime setting in order its own personal agenda than caring for the welfare and will of the people. Today Taliban threatens to annihilate the state. And remember it was the Pakistani state machinery which silenced those who made the correct noises. People like Pervez Hodbouy and Asma Jhangir stand isolated and lonely.
Freedom to protest is an intrinsic check mechanism in any democratic system. It provides a measure of accountability to the system. Even history remains witness to the power of protest. Who can ignore the fall of the German wall to persistent and powerful protest. Writers, artists, social activists, intellectuals, government employees, anyone can be a medium for this voice of reason. Disputing the government policies need not necessarily mean sedition. Governments are after all meant for the welfare of their subjects. If subjects are unhappy with a policy, they should have the right and freedom to organize and agitate. Labeling this agitating cohort as traitors is a calculated move by those who are inclined to fail democracy itself.
The cases of Dr Binayak Sen and Mrs Shamim Modi are no different. They are a minority which knows the art and power of protest. They know how to expand the democratic space. They asked questions which had uncomfortable answers. They are the true guardians of democracy. By actively using the state machinery against them, the governments of Chattisgarh and MP have shown a blatant violation of a valid democratic right. The BJP as such has proved beyond any doubt its inability to handle issues without blurring the line between civilization and savagery. It is of utmost importance that we Indians should be able to read the game plan of an organisation hell bent on destroying the democratic credentials of this beautiful country. There is an urgent need to protest against this brutality of thought. A clear message has to go today so that our generations to come could breathe in an infinite democratic space.
Dr. Shah Alam Khan
Department of Orthopaedics
All India Institute of Medical Sciences
Ansari Nagar, New Delhi-110029