Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Crumbling State of Liberal Democracy: Some reflections on the International Democracy Day 2020

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Representative image of people raising question | Source: via Freepik

The liberal democratic world order which was accepted as a preferred governance model in major parts of the world has been under assault by the increasing authoritarian leaders since the last few years. The monopolization of power by subverting the in-build checks and balances of the democratic institutions is now a new norm in even the large democratic countries like the  United States or India as well. The International Democracy Day, which falls on 15 September, gives us an opportunity to reflect on the present state of liberal democracy in the world.

Monopolization of Democratic Institutions

In recent years democratic institutions across the world have shrunk into the hands of a few.

In the United States, President Trump is interfering in the running of independent democratic institutions. John Torpy—American academic, sociologist, and historian—currently Professor at City University of New York—fears that US democracy under Trump is going under “swamps”. Mentioning about President Trump’s obstruction of the democratic institutions, he writes “As many people have noted, if the president can simply refuse to cooperate with Congressional requests for documents and witness testimony, we live not in a democracy, which requires that officials be accountable for their actions, but in an autocracy, in which the executive can make decisions without the possibility of oversight by others.”

Viktor Orban, the President of Hungary | Source: Elekes Andor via Wikimedia

In Hungary, democracy is on the proverbial deathbed. Hungarian President Viktor Orban—amidst COVID-19 pandemic—passed a bill in parliament granting his government access to emergency powers. This bill—which is now the law of the land in this European Union country—gives the absolute power to the executive without any checks by the parliament. Political commentators like Zoltan Cegledi argue “The government’s will to destroy, limit and exhaust democracy is permanent. Its future victims will be the remnants of autonomy.”

In India, lately the government scrapped the question hour from the parliament citing the spread of COVID-19. Leader of Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad expressing his concern on the decision said "In a democracy, the government is answerable to people of India through Parliament and the Parliament comprises members of Parliament representing different states, political parties, and regions of this country. People of the country have no access or means to ask the question to the minister inside the Parliament. So, their representatives are the members of the Parliament. These MPs ask questions on behalf of people of India."

This is not the first time the government of India changed the rules for the conduct of those institutions where it may get questioned. The RTI Act gave people of India the right to seek information from the different institutions of the government (excluding the intelligence). In 2019, the Indian parliament passed an amendment to the Right to Information (RTI) Act of 2005, which is being criticized widely.

Prabhash K Dutta mentions in his article published on India Today that this amendment removes the fixture of duration for the five years for chief information commissioners as well as the information commissioners and altered their salaries, for both they will be separately notified by the government. He furthermore mentions “This, in a political sense, means that the government can threaten or lure the chief information commissioner and information commissioners with arbitrary removal or extension and curtailment or increase in salary depending upon their suitability for the ruling dispensation.”

Lady Justice: Allegorical personification of the moral force in judicial systems | Source: Tingey Injury Law Firm via Unsplash

In some countries, the executives are also interfering in the judicial process. President Andrzej Duda of Poland has lately signed a law that gives him power to appoint the judges as well as penalizes the judges of the court to question any appointments done by the President in the judiciary. Malgorzata Gersdorf—the president of Poland's Supreme court—termed it as “Muzzle Law”.

In Hong Kong as well, after the implementation of the New Security Law by the Mainland severely affects the independence of the judiciary and gives China-appointed Chief Executive the power to appoint judges in the “cases of security.”

In Egypt the government under Al Sisi has subverted the judicial system by expanding the scope of military courts. These courts  are directly controlled by the army (not the judiciary) and the defendants can neither access a lawyer nor are brought to a judge after the arrest.

Throttling the flow of information on internet

The assault on democratic discourse has extended to the internet, which has emerged as an important tool for easy and quick access of information. However the authoritarian streak in the ruling establishments do not not want the information to spread so fast.

Anti CAA Protest in Assam, India | Source: Ankur Jyoti Dewri via Wikimedia

An apt example is the widespread shut down of the internet during the time of protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) across India. These shutdowns were not only to gag the Anti-CAA protestors but also unconstitutional according to the law of the land.

In Indian province of Kashmir, the internet was totally shut down for almost 5 months from 5th August 2019. The services were later restored but even today, 16th September, 2020 there is no access to the high speed internet in the region.

In some other countries like Belarus and Ethiopia, as well, the government resorted to shutting down the internet during the public protests.

Similarly the popular social media platforms like facebook, twitter, reddit, and many others which are used to freely share information, are restricted or banned in many countries.

This all happened in 2019-20 despite the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution stating that cutting access to the internet violates  article 19, paragraph 3, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights back in 2011.

Suppressing the dissidents

Anti Al-Sisi protests in London | Source: Alisdare Hickson via Flickr

In Egypt, the government is resorting to Military Court trials, and ditching the normal judicial system. The detainees are put under inhumane conditions (people tried here are mostly the dissidents against the government). Vanshita Banuana from Global Views 360 writes “There have been multiple reports of torture, sexual assault while placed in detention. In prison too, detainees face inhumane conditions, not being allowed to see family, exercise or get sunshine and fresh air. Thousands of student protestors, journalists and political dissidents have been tried in these military courts, and hundreds more have been killed extrajudicially. At the same time, citizens’ tools to criticise these steps are undermined, such as by limiting the domain of NGOs, censoring news and social media, and blocking around 600 websites.”

In India the government uses many draconian laws to suppress activists working for the marginalised communities. The Unlawful Activities Act (UAPA) is the most controversial and draconian law which is being used frequently by the government to curb the dissenting voices.

Indian government, as a part of its ambitious smart city project, is installing CCTV camera systems in the major towns across India. The footage from these cameras along with the AI based facial recognition technology is a deadly combination for curbing dissidence. Privacy experts like Arun Mohan Sukumar fear “If you don’t have adequate checks and balances, there’s a high chance the government will be tempted to use the data for highly dubious purposes.”

A ray of hope

As Victor Hugo said “When Dictatorship Is A Fact, Revolution Becomes A Right.” The people across the world have started speaking up against the assault on democratic values and institutions. They face hardship, vilification, and incarnation but remain committed to fight for the protection of liberal democracy. This gives us hope that the liberal democracy will ultimately prevail as it is what Abraham Lincoln described, “The government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

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October 23, 2020 3:57 PM

Male gaze, their female guardians and sports-wear

In Helen Cixous’ essay, ‘The Laugh of Medusa’, she urges women to redefine what their body means to them, not just physically but also socially, emotionally and politically. This could happen by re-writing about your body in a way you deem  fit, the expression you identify with and separating it from how your body has been written about by men. The expression could be how you view your body separate from the patriarchal lense.

It is no secret that a woman’s body is subject to critique. While clothing for men is just a tool to cover themselves as per the surrounding environment, clothing for women isa social and political narrative that dictates their life or as we affectionately call it ‘culturally appropriate’.

The clothing style could vary. It could be a woman covered head to toe in a Burqa, it could be a woman who decides to wear sports-wear in a park or it could be jeans and a top. Everything is critically evaluated by men and by women who work towards protecting the male gaze.

The male gaze is a heterosexual way of looking at female bodies that sexualises these bodies into an object. It is a gaze that runs on the self-affirmative notion that the bodies of women, and what they do with it, is directly linked to how they  appear in front of a man.

In a recent incident in Bangalore, India, popular Indian actress Samyuktha Hegde was abused and threatened by senior political leader of the congress party, Kavitha Reddy,  for wearing sports-wear, in Bangalore’s Agara Lake park. She was exercising with her friend.

Kavitha Reddy initially claimed she was in indecent attire and went onto morally police and then later abused the actress and her friend.  A supposedly progressive political leader gets uncomfortable by what women are wearing. It breaks into an argument and a fight where the politician is supported by five to six men. Later on, the police appear to be appeasing the politician instead of the women who were harassed. Although she did apologise, her apology came after her video went viral, and as a protection for her own political reputation.

To look at Samyuktha Hegde’s clothing as a threat is to view her clothing as an act of obscenity therefore bullying her identity and sense of agency and reducing her to sexual object, who, by putting her in public, apparently gives the men present a right to look at her? Nevermind that she was there to workout like everyone else, her actions were confused as to how men look at her. In the video posted by the actress, the politician is surrounded by men who are championing her on. The politician choses to side with the patriarchal figures in shaming these women. Asking to protect from the male gaze is a far stretch but punishing women for the male gaze is where we should draw a line.

What roles does Kavitha Reddy play? She is the guardian of the male gaze. We find her in our mothers, in our grandmothers, in aunties and sometimes our friends. She understands a woman’s body as an object that is there to be looked at by men. She gets angry at women for wearing certain kinds of clothing but she is not angry at men for looking. The agency in this case always belongs to men.

When Cixous asks women to re-define their identity, she urges us to strangle the moral police that comes alive in such instances. It is the moral police that shames women for wearing clothes that don’t flatter their bodies or clothes that do flatter them. She urges us to reflect upon the source of such vigilance. Do we shame other women because we believe in what we are saying or our identity is partially (or  wholly) shaped by the male gaze?

Whether we chose to wear a burqa, or a dress, or variations of the new type clothing produced everyday, the crux of the matter is that it should not worry anyone apart from the one wearing it. The identity of a woman, sexual or otherwise, has to be redefined to be separated from the men and their gaze. We have to draw a line otherwise people in power will continue to abuse their power and preserve patriarchy and male gaze.

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