Why is the possibility of alternative thought so outlawed in this country?

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THE LOPSIDED conversation about power in India — how much is needed, how it should be generated — masks a deeper left lobe crisis in the country that no one is quite noticing.

A recent issue of TIME  magazine had former US President Bill Clinton spelling out five ideas that are changing the world (for the better). Among the ideas he listed was green energy. According to him, “Germany, where the sun shines on average as much as it does in London, reportedly set the world record for electricity generated from the sun in a single day: 22 gigawatts, or roughly the output of 20 nuclear power plants.” India should have leapt at that statistic with interest. If dank Germany can do that, imagine what sunny India could generate.

But back here in India, Clinton might have been charged with sedition for harbouring such blasphemous thoughts. That’s not to be idly facetious. At Koodankulam — India’s now-famous battleground nuclear site — according to activists, the Tamil Nadu Police has filed 109 FIRs against a staggering 55,795 people for protesting peacefully against the plant; 3,600 people have been charged with “waging war against the nation”; and another 3,200 people have been charged with sedition. In real terms, this may not translate into actual mass arrests and jail; but it’s a reminder the chopping block is always close. If anyone distinguishes themselves from the crowd as a leader, the shadow will become a sword. SP Udayakumar should know: he is a fugitive.

Two weeks ago, confronted about the government’s draconian response to protesting fishermen in a closed-door conference, a young Central minister raised the usual sleight of a foreign hand; a foreign hand, he said, was behind the protests. Pressed to specifically reveal who these hands were and what motive governed them, he said he wasn’t too sure but had been told by the local CID that the US, some Scandinavian countries and perhaps Germany for good measure was behind the protesters. Otherwise, how could poor fisherfolk have known the difference between biogas and nuclear power, he argued!

All of this — the FIRs, the ratcheted-up charges, the feeble theories — are not an isolated story. They are symptomatic of the increasing paranoia, intolerance and simple-mindedness of the Indian State, irrespective of which party represents it. The enemy is not a specific protest or documented mischief-maker: the enemy is alternative thought. Dissent. Any form of argument that sits inconveniently against the grain.

It is indisputable that India needs more energy. But are mega-megaprojects — 70 pollution-spewing thermal power plants crowded along a 22-km stretch of Srikakulam; 600 dams on the Ganga that will reduce it to a nalla; multi-thousand crore nuclear plants that threaten local communities — the only answers to those needs?

There are those who argue that plurality is the real genius of India and the country would be much better off with innumerable mini-grids: electricity generated, delivered and governed locally, depending on what is most suited to the area: thermal, hydro, biogas, wind, solar. This would cut the over 40 percent that is wasted in transmission and improve distributive justice. The rivers of Himachal Pradesh would not have to be sucked dry to light up Delhi. The defenders of plurality are not just romantic Luddites. They are willing to concede that the country would need some big projects, but with a little bit of fresh thinking, they argue, the panicked need for monster projects would subside: some big ones could sit by many small.

Let us assume this rational-sounding premise is wrong. The deeper question is, why does it scare our planners so much? Why is the very possibility of alternative thought so outlawed in this country?

Coasting in urban alcoves of comfort, it is easy to miss these alarming signs. They feel very far from one’s skin. But this week, more than 30 organisations from every corner of India came together in the capital to showcase fabricated cases and false arrests across the country (Read A few good men & women). There were farmers, Dalits, filmmakers, activists, tribals, Muslims and journalists. Each of them had been penalised mercilessly by the State for having an intellectual position that went against the dominant narrative. For each of their stories, there are still hundreds more that lie unknown.

The protests at Koodankulam; the ongoing march for land from Gwalior to Delhi; the innumerable Indians asking for fairer terms of engagement are all nascent conversations the country urgently needs. Shutting them down arbitrarily is a much bigger blackout than we realise.

Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka.
[email protected]

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Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka, a weekly newsmagazine widely respected for its investigative and public interest journalism. Earlier she had worked with The Pioneer, India Today, and Outlook. In 2000, she left Outlook to join Tarun Tejpal, and was among the team that started Tehelka.com. When Tehelka was forced to close down by the government after its seminal story on defence corruption, she was one of four people who stayed on to fight and articulate Tehelka‘s vision and relaunch it as a national weekly.

Shoma has written extensively on several areas of conflict in India – people vs State; the Maoist insurgency, the Muslim question, and issues of capitalist development and land grab. She has won several awards, including the Ramnath Goenka Award and the Chameli Devi Award for the most outstanding woman journalist in 2009. In 2011, Newsweek (USA) picked her as one of 150 power women who “shake the world”. In May 2012, she also won the Mumbai Press Club Award for best political reporting. She lives in Delhi and has two sons.

1 COMMENT

  1. Completely agree with you. The right to dissent is one of the basic tenets of democracy. What is the government afraid of ? As a citizen of this country I have the right to think differently. The charges slapped by the Tamil Nadu police testifies the government’s staunch disrespect towards democracy.

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