Democracy dies in darkness

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How India is dealing with coronavirus

Long before the Washington Post adopted “Democracy dies in darkness” as its first official slogan in 140 years, the powerful phrase was associated with government skullduggery. It originated during Watergate, the stunning 1970s political scandal which resulted in the resignation of President Richard Nixon. 

Five decades later, resuscitated on the masthead of Jeff Bezos’s newspaper, it’s an enduring reminder that vigilance — and the sustaining transparency of daylight — is the eternal price for liberty.

Immensely worrying then, with authoritarianism already on the rise, that the coronavirus emergency has plunged the world into virtual darkness. With checks and balances in disarray, alarming power grabs are underway in several countries. 

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbanhas secured emergency powers, giving him the right to rule indefinitely. A few days ago, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz accused Benjamin Netanyahu of perpetrating “a coronavirus coup” and editorialized that “Americans should beware a Trump who decides to emulate Netanyahu. The US president, who now fancies himself a ‘wartime president’ with all the emergency powers that accompany the title, will go farther and more radical than Netanyahu would ever dare.”

In Brazil and Chile, and closer to home in Thailand and the Philippines, there are inescapable indications of the emergence of autocracy. As Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the United Nations special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, recently warned: “We could have a parallel epidemic of authoritarian and repressive measures following close if not on the heels of a health epidemic.”

In India, there are many disconcerting developments under cover of lockdown. The outspoken author and conservationist Prerna Bindra told me: “During the current crisis, there have been a number of official decisions which are of great concern, that undermine democracy.” 

She pointed out the government published its highly contentious draft environmental impact assessment notification to dilute its crucial public hearing component after the WHO confirmed that Covid-19 was a pandemic. 

Many environmentalists fear this is the backdoor regularization of massive violations.

Bindra says: “While the country is caught in crisis mode, projects have been approved in and around sanctuaries, and crucial tiger habitats, including the pristine Western ghats. Calling for public comments in this situation seems to be a mockery. 

“How do the people in remote regions who are going to be impacted even know this process is going on? Where is the democracy in this? 

“In my view, to prioritize these kinds of ecologically damaging projects, even as we know definitively that the root cause of such pandemics is the destruction of natural eco-systems, demonstrates dismal disregard for consultative processes as well as public health.”

Earlier this week, The New York Times carried a trenchant opinion piece entitled: “In India, a pandemic of prejudice and repression.” Its author, Siddharth Varadarajan, is an editor of The Wire, an independent-minded news website, about which he says: “At one point, we faced 14 defamation cases, all of them frivolous, seeking damages totaling $1.3 billion. The cases were filed by people who are either a part of the ruling establishment or considered close to it.”

Even though state borders are closed, Varadarajan writes: “Policemen were dispatched from Ayodhya to my home in New Delhi, 435 miles away, to summon me” even though, “they knew I would never be able to make it across state lines. They also knew I would be unable to approach the courts because of the lockdown, making me potentially liable to arrest.”

The Editors Guild of India responded sharply: “No democracy anywhere in the world is fighting the pandemic by gagging the media” and Varadarajan notes, “civil society outcry over this intimidation forced the police to backtrack.” 

But immediately afterwards, “the human rights activist Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbde, a management professor and leading intellectual, were taken into custody last week under a draconian anti-terrorism law on the flimsiest of evidence.”

Just this week, the Editor’s Guild was forced to react again, as the acclaimed Kashmiri journalists Gowhar Geelani and Peerzada Ashiq were charged by the police in the normal course of their daily work, with their colleague, the brilliant 26-year-old photojournalist Masrat Zahra, facing the extraordinary accusation of “activities against the integrity and sovereignty of India” under the oppressive Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

This time, the apex journalist’s body said: “Any recourse to such laws for merely publishing something in the mainstream or social media is a gross misuse of power. Its only purpose can be to strike terror into journalists.”

The day after she was charged, Zahra reacted poignantly on Twitter: “I am slowly learning what it means to be human. What it means to make mistakes and learn from them. 

“How to stop running from what is heavy and uncomfortable in my life. How to understand that I cannot control life.I am slowly learning how to laugh and cry and feel through it all.”

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.