Cracks in Democracy: the Turkish and Indian Examples

Modern society despises three sins: laziness, theft and disobedience.

Time has been so carefully carved up in our day that not one second is to be wasted. Work has spilled beyond formal hours, carried in our smart phones and our computers.

Even leisure feels like work – as people pay hard cash to exercise and to relax. To thieve is acceptable if you are a banker, but it is a cardinal sin if you are poor.

And disobedience? Well, that is the worst sin of them all.

It is unforgiveable to speak out against what the state does, even treason to do so. Those who are disobedient are not like the lazy and the thieves. They do not merely interrupt the system; they turn their backs on it. These are the real sinners – the disobedient.

No wonder then that modern states – across the board – have no room for the disobedient, the person who will not accept the social order, the one who has other ideas. It is for them that the deepest prisons are built, for unlike other criminals, the disobedient would like to proselytise their views.

They believe that they have an alternative to offer, so they are unrelenting in offering their criticisms and their utopias. They cannot stomach being silent. It is a compulsion. For this reason, they are buried underground, their mouths sealed.

Old medieval provisions sneak into modern societies: prohibitions against the insult of a monarch become an injunction not to speak ill of the democratic leader or of the judiciary.

Forms of early modern anxiety about criticism morphs into a deep-rooted condemnation of treason. It is left to the powerful to define the gap between criticism and abuse, between dissent and treason. They close the gap when it suits them, throwing into prison people who are far from treasonous but who are nonetheless critical.

Apprehensive regimes are often the most hasty to define any dissent as treason. Their insecurity leads to the gun before the argument. Their leaders take to the stage to declare that they are being threatened personally or that this or that person is a problem.

Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest, asked Henry II? His minions killed Thomas Becket. He winked and they acted. He set in motion events that led to this death and then that. Terror of the state is unleashed in the name of fighting terrorism.

In India, the party in power has winked. Its far-flung supporters are alleged to have assassinated progressive and communist intellectuals such as Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi.

Calculated doses of violence against minorities set the dial to fear. Prison doors creak open. Threats are made. Intimidation is the order of the day. Academics who sign petitions are told to back down. Artists are harassed. Young students from oppressed backgrounds are told to stay in their place.

One student, Rohit Vemula, was expelled for his activism. He committed suicide, writing: “My birth is my fatal accident.”

Was this suicide or indirect political murder? India’s streets flood with students, angry at this death. They refuse to back down.

The party in power meanwhile is led by a man – Narendra Modi – who speaks of Development and against Disorder. He speaks of Power Stations and Space Stations, Hydroelectric Dams and High-Speed Trains.

He does not like dissent. It is anathema to him. He would like the trains to run on time, lips to be sealed. He tells all campaign groups that they do not want to promote development. Greenpeace earns his special ire.

Environmentalism is a foreign plot. It cannot be tolerated.

India is not alone. Turkey is in the queue for this descent into Order. Academics sign a petition that asks for peace – an end to the war against the Kurds – and they are accused of terrorism.

Provincial universities that sit along the road from Istanbul to Ankara are the primary targets. Professors at Kocaeli University and Abant Izzet Baysal University are the first to get arrested.

More high-profile colleges will not feel the clammy fingers of the police. Their suppression will be subtler. The Turkish Council of Higher Education (YÖK) will come after them. Individual faculty members will be fired through internal channels.

This is the kind of intellectual cleansing that the extreme right has long longed for – to excise intellectuals, whose dissent is constant and clarifying. Green lights flashed from the West. The United States said it was concerned about the arrests, but then – in the same breathe – said it did “not agree with the opinions expressed by those academics”.

It does not, in other words, agree that negotiations are a good pathway to peace. War is Washington’s tonic. Intellectuals who disagree should not be arrested, but they should certainly be ignored.

Other countries – such as Saudi Arabia and Thailand – are not on this list. They are monarchies with their own, deeper problems. In such countries there is no pretense to democracy. One man rules them. It is his prerogative to decide what is True and what is False, whether the Earth goes around the Sun or the Sun goes around the Earth.

To speak against them is to lie. Dissent is not possible. Those who open their mouths are flogged. Between Raif Badawi and Thanakorn Siripaiboon there is no gap. These are young men who had the temerity to speak out against a system that has no space for speech.

Siripaiboon made fun of the Thai monarch’s dog. This is lèse majesté, a crime against the king. It is unspeakable.

But India and Turkey are democracies. Dissent in a democracy is meant to be the doorway to justice. Petitions are meant to be a letter to the people, explaining points of view that are absent in the public domain.

To write a petition is an act of democracy. It is the opposite of terrorism. To accuse those who write a petition of treason is to close the door to democracy. It is to say that there is no gap between the gun and the word, between those who take up arms against a state and those who speak against the state.

It is to silence dissent. It is to return us to the time of kings.

Both India and Turkey linger at the edge of democracy. It is not enough to hold elections – more is needed. Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom for dissent – these are the minimal elements of a democratic society.

If a state quashes dissent and uses war as a weapon of fear against the public, then it might remain a political democracy but it will no longer be socially democratic.

This column originally appeared in Al Araby.

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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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