19-25 February 2016 #796

Remaining an open society

The shrinking liberal space in the region and erosion of political freedoms should ring alarm bells for us in Nepal, especially with political extremism taking root in the country once again.
Rubeena Mahato

The Indian government’s crackdown on Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students is only the latest among a series of attacks by the Modi government against free thought and speech.

From the way in which writers, journalists, scholars and activists are being punished in India for holding opinions different from the ruling BJP party, it seems the biggest democracy in the world is fast losing its liberal character. A government that is so intolerant towards its own people can hardly be expected to be generous towards its neighbours. And indeed in the last few months, Nepal has experienced the full scale of India’s coercive and belligerent diplomacy in the form of a five-month border blockade.

It must be sufficiently clear by now that the blockade was not India’s stance for inclusion and democracy in Nepal as some tried to portray it. The New Delhi establishment doesn’t really protect those values inside its own borders, couldn’t care less if it is nurtured in other countries. But the Modi administration appears to have realised it bit off more than it could chew, and wants to reset ties during Prime Minister Oli's visit.

In reality, contrary to its image as a vibrant democracy with space for diverse views and ideologies, today’s India has become an inhospitable place for dissidents and minorities where even harmless criticism can invite the wrath of the government and a radicalised fringe.

NGOs are strictly controlled, human rights workers are denied visas and movements for autonomy and self-rule are brutally suppressed. Politics in India today is a volatile mix of religious fanaticism and ultra-nationalism. So, we can only speculate what led Nepali progressives to support Modi and his troupe as they imposed an illegal, inhuman and morally deplorable blockade against Nepal.

If anything, the growing intolerance in India should be worrying for smaller countries in the region that are still learning the ropes of democratic governance. As India becomes less and less free, its foreign policy will become more and more restrictive with repercussions for regional security and stability.

The shrinking liberal space in the region and erosion of political freedoms should ring alarm bells for us in Nepal, especially with political extremism taking root in the country once again. Open societies with diversity of opinion, protection of minorities and democratic accountability can only exist with constant citizen vigilance and effective resistance of extremist ideologies.

We only need to look at our recent past to remember how easily hard-won freedoms can be lost to despots, demagogues and populist leaders. This time around, we also witnessed how despite the trillions of dollars invested on ‘Democracy Promotion’ every year, the international community can conveniently close its eyes to injustice when the rights of smaller, less consequential countries are throttled by a strategic ally.

Across the world, we are witnessing a wave of democratic reversals. In Europe, that bastion of political liberalism, right wing parties with conservative views on immigration and religious freedom are gaining popularity. Secular bloggers are being killed one by one in Bangladesh, while the government is harassing respected editors like Mahfuz Anam of the Daily Star. War crimes in Sri Lanka and Nepal have gone unpunished. Maldives has seen a democratic rollback, ignoring polls to imprison elected President Mohamed Nasheed.

Nepalis have fought to retain democratic freedoms whenever they have been threatened. Despite setbacks and flaws, political freedoms are still intact: citizens can freely express opinions, some of which would be considered subversive elsewhere, organise peaceful protests, and civil society has an influential presence.

We must do all we can as citizens to preserve this liberal space and promote an open society in Nepal, not just for us but for other South Asians denied freedom of expression in their own countries. We should remain a country where diverse opinion, peoples and viewpoints can co-exist.

Read Also:

In Dependence, Editorial

Proxy war, Editorial

Inconvenient truths, Damakant Jayshi

Maiming the messenger, Anurag Acharya

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