Deciding When Democracy Dies
When Kangana Ranaut’s office was met by BMC bulldozers, what essentially was a war of words between her and the ruling Shiv Sena in Maharashtra over the Sushant Singh Rajput incident, became an example of misuse of state power. The actor took to Twitter to proclaim the “death of democracy”. The television media ran with it, and so did spokespersons of the BJP. “Ye hai fasivad”—this is fascism—and so on. Where were the defenders of free speech now, they asked. Parts of social media challenged this by reminding everyone of the wreckage caused on JNU, Jamia, and AMU not long back. Why did you not proclaim the death of democracy then, they asked the mainstream media. Both these positions come varyingly close to making reasonable arguments, but not enough.
First, the hypocrisy of the mainstream media, especially television news, is obviously glaring. It is curious (but not difficult to explain) to see when much of the news media does and doesn’t make these grand claims. It is true that news channels did not take up attacks on our universities with such seriousness as they did stories related to Sushant, Rhea, and now Kangana. They also actively maligned universities, students, activists, and critics of the government in general. Using dog whistles, they also hounded common Muslims—from Shaheen Bagh to Jamia and to the Delhi riots. A media so decadent must be called out. There is another subtle aspect to these shenanigans: the disappearance of citizens from the discourse. When assaults on students and hunting of academics do not provoke a reaction of ‘death of democracy’ from mainstream media but instead lead to the vilification of those very targets, it implies that the citizen no longer matters in the political discourse. Concerns of the common do not remain concerns at all. Even democracy and its limits then start to exist only for a select few.
Second, however, the Shiv Sena’s actions are condemnable. People who pledge to uphold constitutional values should not suddenly start pretending that the Shiv Sena is some liberal icon and that just because Kangana is close to the BJP, her rights cannot be curtailed by the state. It is true that she had been served a notice for alleged unauthorised constructions well in advance. It is also true that she is not some ordinary citizen fighting an oppressive state. Her Y+ Security and the disproportionate media attention speak for itself. But the Bombay High Court was right in staying the demolition and remarking that it “smacks of mala fide”. What is also illustrated is the extent to which the state machinery can be used by governments to target whomever they want. Those who disagree with Kangana’s sensationalised and dramatic speech must still uphold her right to speak. Thus, the Shiv Sena and the BMC must be condemned along with the media.
In the end, the actors don’t seem to be much more than political pawns. However, as conscious citizens, we must not be drawn into an endless cacophony of whataboutery and must uphold principles over partisans.