State impunity, gross inequality, a divided society, climate catastrophe, fake news – there is a juggernaut heading towards us. It can be overwhelming as an individual, easy to throw up your hands with an air of resignation or bury your head in the sand. However, one has to look for and find the spaces – the spaces in between, under and over the prevailing status quo – in which to resist, act and effect change. Take Gauri Lankesh – woman, journalist, activist, woman – murdered in front of her home the other day while returning from work. What is the anatomy of such a murder – the ingredients that go into its making? And what are the levers, policy and otherwise, that can be put to use to address such events? And what can we, as individuals, do? Where and how can we intervene?
The Anatomy of a Murder
- Shrinking civic space
Civic space is what underpins democratic societies – the space to organise, the space to participate, the space to express, the space to dissent. The claiming of rights is enabled by this space, as is the ability to influence political and social processes around us. The 2017 Civicus Monitor findings show that 97% of the world’s population lives in areas where civic space is ‘closed’, ‘repressed’, ‘obstructed’ or ‘narrowed’ (as opposed to the 3% – 16 of the 134 countries surveyed – who live in countries where civic space is ‘open’. Not surprisingly, there is a direct correlation between human development and how open a country’s civic space is, as well as an inverse correlation between openness and inequality). Civicus rates India’s civic space as ‘obstructed’, liable to be undermined by and face constraints from those in power. And the narrowing of this space has only increased in recent years, with the crackdown on dissent, as well as regulations such as the FCRA (Foreign Contribution Regulation Act), which obstruct civil society actors from accessing foreign funding. As the UN Special Rapporteurs put it:
“We are alarmed that FCRA provisions are being used more and more to silence organisations involved in advocating civil, political, economic, social, environmental or cultural priorities, which may differ from those backed by the Government.” (UN Special Rapporteurs on human rights defenders, Michel Forst, on freedom of expression, David Kaye, and on freedom of association, Maina Kiai, June 2016).
Article 19 of the Indian constitution guarantees the freedom of opinion and expression as well as the freedom of peaceful assembly and association. India is also a signatory to both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), both of which enshrine the freedoms of expression and assembly. So, normatively speaking, India guarantees its citizens the fundamental right to gather and to dissent.
The state inserts a caveat though – you can express yourself as long as what you do or say is not prejudicial to the interests of the state – i.e., is not deemed ‘anti-national’ or a threat to the nation’s security. Given that a state’s security interest trumps all, and can trample all fundamental rights, it is easy for an ill-intentioned government to abuse this caveat to come down heavily on actors or actions that are not in line with its views, or that it sees as a threat to the status quo. And increasingly that is what we are seeing in the India of today.
- Freedom of expression – speaking truth to power
There have been reams written about freedom of expression, and more so recently after the Charlie Hebdo episode. What many found problematic in the Charlie Hebdo case was the inequitable power relation between those who spoke and those who were spoken about. Suffice to say that even if one does not believe in freedom of expression as an absolute right, freedom of expression, when it speaks truth to power is, and should be, an inalienable right. How else would you, in a democracy, hold those in power to account? How else would you put forth and debate an alternate discourse, an alternate way of being as a society? How else would you try and shine a light?
And Gauri Lankesh held and propagated views that were antithetically different from and opposed to the government of the day. And she was speaking truth to power, of course. And that is an inalienable right one has as a citizen of India. And she was killed for that.
While investigating the anatomy of this murder, one cannot help but discuss the role of misogyny. It has never been easy to be a woman in India. And to be an outspoken one, going against the current nationalistic and extremist dispensation, even less so. Those in power will brook no opposition – and in the age of the nationalist strongman leader (Modi, Putin, Trump, Erdogan, Xi, Duterte), the woman singing from the so-called ‘anti-national’ hymn sheet is hounded, trolled and killed. A tweet just hours after Lankesh’s murder called for the assassination of five more women writers/thinkers/journalists, including Arundhati Roy.
‘Let d shooting of #GauriLankesh serve as example to those antinationals who masquerade as journalists & activists. I hope this is not d last in a should be episode of serial assassinations of all anti nationals . Shobha De ;Arundhati Roy ;Sagarika Ghose ;Kavitha Krishnan ;Shiela Rashid etc at d end of a list that should start with antinational & treacherous politicians . A hit list be prepared & eliminate all those on d list .At last a ray of hope.’
An event I attended recently in Rotterdam in The Netherlands, where Arundhati Roy was reading from her new novel and discussing her life and literary work, was rudely hijacked by two middle-aged Indian men shouting her down and claiming she was ‘anti-national’. They were threatened by her fiction! The organisers of the event, Roy’s Dutch publishers, were clearly unprepared, not having anticipated this level of uncalled-for-bile at a literary event, leading to the evening being cut short and Roy being ushered out. And as a counterpoint, Pankaj Mishra was a few miles away in The Hague, The Netherlands just a few days later, releasing his non-fiction work ‘The Age of Anger’ – he spoke his mind on the current dispensation in India (rest assured his comments were less than flattering) – but there were no men shouting him down and calling him anti-national. And nor has his name appeared on any ‘hit list’.
Resistance and recourse
So if this heady cocktail of the reduced space for expression and dissent; an autocratic nationalistic government fuelling extremism, bigotry and division; and prevalent misogyny led to the murder of Gauri Lankesh, what is the antidote? How can we as citizens address this? What are the levers available to us?
Normative – legal
As pointed out earlier, there are both multilateral/universal and national instruments that enshrine the freedoms of expression and assembly as fundamental human rights. However, we have also seen how these are ridden roughshod over by states in the name of ‘national security’. There may be legal recourse to the violation of your rights based on these international instruments. For more on jurisprudence precedents, strategic litigation in national, regional and international courts, and more information relevant to the freedoms of expression and assembly, see below:
Policy lever – trade
There are multiple moves afoot (including at the UN level) to ensure that the guarantee of fundamental human rights are made part and parcel of all trade agreements (bilateral, multilateral), with states obliged to ensure that there is no contradiction between its commitments to universal rights treaties and its trade obligations. Given the salience of trade to the economy and, by extension, the raison d’être of most governments, this is an important advocacy lever for civil society.
Given, for example, that the long-stalled Indo-European Free Trade Agreement talks have just restarted, this is a clear opportunity for civil society on both sides to lobby and advocate in order to ensure that no deal is done without the necessary guarantees secured. And these guarantees should not only be about the environment, health or consumer protection, i.e. those rights most immediately associated as being likely to be violated by trade, but guarantees should also be sought about the shrinking of civic space as a whole, including the rights of expression and assembly: important to ensure that trade agreements are sustainable and equitable. The European Parliament is extremely concerned about the shrinking of civic space worldwide and has developed a range of tools to help address it. Advocacy on linking trade and fundamental human rights will therefore have a receptive audience at that end. The G20 leaders have also set out as a priority the ‘adherence to fundamental labor, social, and environmental standards’ – again a (vague) commitment made, but up to civil society to see that it is enforced. While normative instruments can be overlooked at the state’s convenience, tying universal norms to a trade deal can leave a state with less wriggle room.
Organising/protesting/educating at the local/community level is still one of the most effective forms of resistance. Finding the spaces in which to do so and augmenting it with an appropriate engagement strategy (with policy makers at the municipal/local/regional level and other relevant stakeholders) is important and will always remain so. Engagement and dialogue with the other side is crucial – as vital as speaking truth to power.
A lot has been said on the role of the media in the polarisation of society today, and social media with its algorithm-driven echo-chambers has only exacerbated the intolerance. Again, the spaces must be found within both traditional and the newer forms of media to resist the prevalent toxic discourse, engage with it and fashion a kinder, more inclusive politics and society.
Given the anatomy of the murder, the culpability of the state belies its purported democratic credentials. We need to work together and concertedly to resist, regroup and reform.
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