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EDITORIAL: Ever since Narendra Modi-led BJP came to power in India in 2014, civil liberties and freedom of expression have been on a downward slide from a free democracy to what Sweden-based V-Dem Institute has appropriately described as an “electoral autocracy.” In a latest example of intolerance for independent opinion, eight people have been arrested for making “offensive” social media posts about the death in a helicopter crash of the country’s top military commander Gen Bipin Rawat along with his wife and 11 others. Notably, all these people have been arrested in BJP-ruled states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh as well as in the Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK). An employee of the Jammu and Kashmir Bank was also suspended merely for reacting to the news of chopper crash with a laughing emoji. Police also said they were planning to take action against a lecturer in Pulwama after some right-wing groups complained that he had made derogatory posts.

Indeed, it is considered bad manners in this part of the world to make negative comments about the death of a person. Rivals are also supposed to commiserate with the affected party. In that spirit Pakistan’s Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee Gen Nadeem Raza and Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa offered their condolences “on tragic death of CDS General Bipin Rawat, his wife and loss of [other] precious lives in a helicopter crash in India.” Public figures, nonetheless, have to pay for their actions in death as in life. Contrary to the tradition in his country for the military to stay out of politics, the deceased general had made himself a polarising, even reviled, figure by siding with the ruling BJP-RSS combine, and courting controversy with his politically tainted statements and actions. He was universally denounced when he awarded a medal to an officer who had tied a civilian to the front of his jeep in IIOJ&K in a show of force, and also by justifying ‘lynching’ of alleged terrorists. Former Lok Sabha MP and Congress leader Sandeep Dikshit had described Gen Rawat as ‘sadak ka goonda’. It should not be surprising, therefore, if his demise has evoked the reaction it has. In any event, the right to dissent from the official point of view or policies is an inherent democratic right. The crackdown on those who posted unfavourable remarks in the present instance exposes, once again, the truth about the state of democracy in India.

The BJP has constantly been attacking democratic freedoms. Earlier this year, The Economist’s Intelligence Unit ranked India at 53rd position in its Democracy Index for the country’s “democratic backsliding” and “crackdowns” on civil liberties. And this month, the Committee to Protect Journalists placed it among the worst countries for press freedom, noting that India had the highest number of journalists killed in 2021, with four journalists murdered and one killed while covering a protest — most likely, it was also a murder considering that BJP goons have regularly been attacking protesters. India’s liberal democracy campaigners, of which are aplenty, have a tough fight on their hands.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

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