‘Dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If dissent is not allowed, then the pressure cooker may burst’, remarked India’s Supreme Court in 2018 while passing judgement on the arrest of human rights activists around the country. That was more than two years ago. The situation hasn’t improved and those raising their voices in support of the voiceless are being silenced. The safety valve is being sealed permanently so that it never goes off. The tools used in the process are threats, violence, harassment and misuse of laws and state machinery.
Video Volunteers Community Correspondents, who are from marginalised communities themselves, echoed similar sentiments when they got together to discuss ‘Democracy and Dissent’, during a live online discussion on Oct 2, 2020 - the occasion of the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.
“Gandhiji said that if you really want to become a democracy your reliance on the military should be minimal,” said Basharat Amin, a correspondent from Kashmir, remarking on the abrogation of Article 370 from India’s constitution that gave special status to Kashmir. Ever since the scrapping of the article, Kashmiris have been living under a strict lockdown even before the global pandemic struck. In another part of the world, where 5G smartphones are being launched, Kashmiris still struggle with 2G Internet speeds. Education, legal formalities and healthcare are the worst hit due to the slow speeds and Basharat has made many video reports highlighting it.
But it's not just our friends from the north that are suffering. “Dalits and tribals' rights are especially being abused,” says Yashodhara Salve, who reports from Gujarat and has been involved in Dalit rights issues for years. A lot of economic and financial harassment of Dalits is on the rise. Those in the ruling class are following a pattern of targeting the most marginalised communities to silent the whole village into submission. This way, they slowly control the whole population, she says. The way the Hathras case was mishandled points to the same issues that Yashodhara highlighted. A Dalit girl was raped and brutally murdered in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras district in September. Her body was cremated against her parents' will and without any religious rites. The administration seized the entire village disallowing media and political leaders. It was also reported that the victim’s family was pressured into changing their official statements.
A similar form of resistance was faced by Laxmi Kaurav, a Video Volunteers community correspondent and an ASHA worker (local health worker) from Madhya Pradesh. She recalls an incident from 2018 when she along with several other ASHA workers organised a march to the Chief Minister’s Office and planned to peacefully submit an application demanding better wages. However, not only were they manhandled by the CM’s staff, more than 150 workers were booked under the law. The episode repeated itself when the CM came to the district of Bhind to inaugurate certain projects. ASHA workers led by Laxmi again tried to meet the minister but their applications were torn.
Bideshini Patel, who has been reporting on issues such as the effects of mining on her community for many years now and lives in a remote tribal village, says that the rights of people living in remote villages and tribal areas are especially threatened. They are cut off from the main population due to lack of development, connectivity in their areas and many are unaware of their rights. Activist and correspondent from Jharkhand, Rejan Guria further elaborates Bideshini’s points and says the government seems to be playing in the hands of big corporates and isn’t interested in upholding the constitutional rights of the people. Despite this, it is necessary to keep raising voice against oppression and work towards the upliftment of these societies, Bideshini says.
Crimes against women are on the rise in Uttar Pradesh. Even before the Hathras case that garnered a lot of mainstream media attention, there were similar incidents that happened in neighbouring districts, and they continue to flourish even after the Hathras case. Three sisters were attacked by acid by a man in Gonda, Uttar Pradesh when they were sleeping in their home. “Forget nighttime, I fear going out even in the day for fear of getting groped or catcalled,” says Zainab Wahab, who works as a Lucknow correspondent for Video Volunteers in Uttar Pradesh. If you raise your voice against injustice, you are branded an anti-national and booked under (stringent) laws like UAPA, adds Zainab. In recent times, Umar Khalid, a name that became popular as one of the faces behind the 2016 violence in JNU campus, has been booked under the UAPA law accusing him of conspiring to spread riots in Delhi.
The moderator of this special discussion on Gandhi Jayanti, Stalin K, the co-director of Video Volunteers, wrapped up and reminded the correspondents of their duties as media persons - to raise voices and ask tough questions to those in power. Whether the atmosphere is favourable for reporting or not, it is important to continue reporting on those who have been deprived of their social standing. Whether it is through prose, poetry, art, social media or by going out on the streets to protest, it is important to keep expressing dissent in a democracy.
To watch the panel discussion (available in Hindi only), please click here: https://youtu.be/HwK_Hl6lCJc
Avijit Adhikary is a journalist with nearly 8000 days of field experience till date. In the past two decades, he has witnessed the ebb and flow of the media industry in India, with ripples felt in his region too. This includes the rise of digital media, the decline of print...