By Cedric Prakash, SJ

Democracy is in peril! There is no doubt about that! We see how democracy (and the values it embodies) is slowly but surely being dismantled in country after country. On 25 September  2022 Giorgia Meloni’s ‘Brothers of Italy’ party won the snap general elections in Italy. The party, which is the most ultra-right-wing party to gain power in Italy since Mussolini’s fascism, is known for its anti-immigrant stand and its disdain for human rights, particularly those of women and of the LGBTQI community. 

A few days earlier, there was another shock awaiting the people of Europe: Sweden, once regarded as a bastion of democracy and of liberal values, voted by a slim margin for a right-wing government.  Analysts said that the recent vote had been one of the closest in modern times and reflected a desire by Swedes to move in a new direction after decades of centre-left policy-making that has included openness toward asylum seekers, emphasis on individual liberties and adherence to socially liberal ideals. All cherished values of democracy! There are other countries in Europe like Belarus and Hungary that have blatantly shed any pretence of being democracies as authoritarianism has taken over. In Belarus, the elections are openly rigged and civil liberties are throttled. The despotic President there has total control of the military, the judiciary and other institutions that are meant to be independent. Pro-democracy protests and movements are dealt with severely.

It was a black day for democracy, when the U.S. Capitol was ‘invaded’ on 6 January 2021.Donald Trump called his supporters to Washington DC for a ‘Stop the Steal’ rally on the day Congress would count the votes of the Electoral College. No one expected the violence and the mayhem that would take place in the world’s oldest democracy. The world watched with shock and angst. Such a terrible reality could not be happening in the United States and more so, instigated by an outgoing President.

Watching the apparent falling apart of the great American democracy, the world leaders reacted swiftly and strongly. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor said Mr. Trump bore responsibility for the riot by his supporters. “Unfortunately, President Trump did not accept his defeat since November, not even yesterday, and that has naturally created an environment that enabled such violent events.” Her foreign minister, Heiko Maas, was even more blunt, drawing a parallel with Hitler’s power grab. “Violent actions come from inflammatory words on the steps of the Reichstag and now in the Capitol,” he said, in reference to the burning of republican Germany’s parliament building in 1933. “Disregarding democratic institutions has devastating consequences.”

Democracy in India is in the doldrums too. India attained her independence on 15 August 1947; later the Constituent Assembly gave the people of India a democratic and visionary Constitution, based on the four non-negotiable pillars of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. For years India went to town priding herself of being the world’s largest democracy. But suddenly those very institutions which are meant to be the bulwark of democracy have begun collapsing like a pack of cards.

On 25 September 2022 Giorgia Meloni’s ‘Brothers of Italy’ party won the snap general elections in Italy.

In the recent past, particularly since 2019, there has been a dramatic and drastic erosion in the democratic space in every respect and particularly for dissent in the country; the ordinary citizen has been experiencing this in many brutal ways. The calculated destruction of democratic values and of the rights of the citizens takes place at a frightening regularity. Hate speech is on the rise; the demonization and the denigration of the ‘other’, particularly the minorities, have gained official legitimacy. The perpetrators indulge in verbal and physical violence with impunity, knowing full well that nothing will eventually happen to them. A strategy that has been central to the erosion of democratic space has been the weaponizing of the criminal justice system by the State, to harass and punish those who dare to protest against the anti-people and anti-Constitutional policies and actions of the Government.

The disheartening part, in my opinion, is that the judiciary in India has not sufficiently played the role of being independent, impartial and for ‘the people of India’. Quite a few judges have often acted in a partisan manner and have been reluctant to speak truth to power and restore justice. Earlier, the mainstream media allowed for expression of protest and raised issues of such injustice; unfortunately, today it has become the voice of the State and an important medium to popularise the narrative of the State. Several human rights activists are in jail. Their friends and supporters have built up a campaign for their release and against the use of draconian laws. Scores of people have been detained under various other repressive state laws. This includes journalists, human rights activists, trade union activists and workers, cultural activists, comedians, environmentalists, youth, students, farmers, electricity and industrial workers, and large numbers of minorities, to create a false narrative of internal terrorism and threat to the nation.

It was a black day for democracy, when the U.S. Capitol was ‘invaded’ on 6 January 2021.

Last year a ‘National Campaign to Defend Democracy’ was launched when 165 movements, platforms and organizations, representing thousands of citizens, gave a call for a country-wide action to save our democracy: marking the international day for Indigenous people & Quit India movement day, as a day of Public Action. The action all over the country continued until 28 August with India’s Independence Day (15 August) being the high point, when thousands pledged to campaign for the repeal of draconian laws and to protect our democracy. The Pledge read: “On the occasion of the 75th Independence Day, on 15th August, we pledge to defend the legacy of our Freedom Movement, the spirit of the Preamble and the values of our Constitution. We pledge to campaign for repealing all draconian laws and assert the right to bail of every citizen. We believe that the right to question and the Right to Dissent are the foundation of our democratic, secular and socialist republic. We commit to campaign against all ideologies, laws, and state actions that deprive us of the freedoms of speech and opinion, conscience, association, and to non-violent opposition”.

Strongmen, dictators, those who attempt to destroy democracy and democratic institutions have with them money. They are able to buy up people, silence them, blackmail them. Then there is muscle. They use violence to intimidate, harass, incarcerate and even kill, and the military establishment usually toes their line. They are adept at manipulation of both minds and machines. They have with them the media. ‘Tell a lie a thousand times and people will accept it as the truth.’ That was the dictum of Josef Goebbels, the information minister of Hitler.

Democracy in India and across the world is surely in peril. However, there is hope. ‘We the people’ of India need to do all we can to protect and promote our democracy. As a people we also need to internalize and actualize that prophetic prayer of our Nobel laureate, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore:

“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action –
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake”.

Fr. Cedric Prakash, SJ (GUJ) is a well-known human rights, reconciliation and peace activist. He is a writer who writes regularly for Catholic and secular magazines. A recipient of several international and national awards, Cedric is currently engaged in Advocacy work.