Good? Bad? Ugly?
We no longer live in a democracy
by Venita Coelho
We no longer live in a democracy. This is the sad truth I have been forced to look in the eye.
The Moira Gram Sabha was held this morning. At the previous Gram Sabha, I and two other members had not been allowed to speak because we were not on the electoral. Not only that, rowdies had taken over the Sabha and shouted down anyone who tried to speak up. The Moira Action Committee was quite sure it would happen again, so yesterday itself we sent an application to the police for police protection in case the rowdies struck. And I had made sure to go and get myself on the electoral rolls since I had every intention of exercising my basic right to speak up.
Well - the police were there. And this is what happened.
The Gram Sabha proceeded quietly until I stood up to ask 'What is happening on the 20 year development plan?' If I'd stood up to ask the time of the day it would have had the same result. A whole game plan immediately swung into place. One villager stood up waving my column from the Herald and demanded that I apologize for what I had been writing. I refused, saying that if they had a problem they should reply in the same forum and write to the Herald. Then more rowdies joined in and they began to shout. The Sarpanch told me to reply to them. I refused. I had no need to - I had a right to the opinion I had aired. Then they demanded I not be allowed to speak and be removed because I was not on the electoral roll. I said I was ( Electoral Roll Part Number 8 Serial Number 809) and said they should produce the roll to confirm it. Nothing of the sort was done. Instead the shouting rose to a crescendo. I was threatened with 'We'll see how you step out of your house. We'll see how you live in this village.' I was surrounded by a ring of shouting gesticulating men threatening me with the worst. And what did the police do? They swung resplendently into action - by grabbing me, pulling me forcibly out of my chair and dragging me to the police jeep. I was driven straight to the police station and held for 3 hours. When friends asked if they could accompany me they were pushed away from the police van.
Those who break the law, issue threats, intimidate are allowed to continue in the Gram Sabha. The single woman who is sitting peacefully in her chair refusing to walk out because it is her right to be there is picked up by the police. Not just picked up but forcibly dragged out.
The Sarpanch not only refuses to check the electoral roles, he issues a complaint hastily scribbled on a piece of paper to the cops on the basis of which they grab me and pull me out of the Sabha.
I am then held for three hours. The police repeatedly assure me I am not arrested - but I cannot leave till the PI comes.
And meanwhile the Gram Sabha continues. No one protests. No resolution is passed condemning what has just happened. Two women panchas have sat there and watched another woman be dragged out as if she was a criminal.
Democracy is dead.
In a democracy every citizen has a right to an opinion and a right to air it.
In a democracy the rule of law is supreme.
In a democracy the police are on the side of justice.
In a democracy the officials are bound to act by rules and laws.
No. Ours is not a democracy. I asked too many awkward questions. I wrote a column in which I aired my views. I questioned illegalities in licences. I had to be shut up.
And so the Sarpanch ignored every rule in the book to get me out of the Gram Sabha. The police turned on the person who had requested their protection in the first place. The rowdies threatened, shouted, shut me up - and were allowed to get away with it completely.
I enclose the column I wrote last week for the Herald. Sadly, every prophecy I made in such sadness and disillusionment has come true. It has indeed come home.
I have always been inordinately proud of Goa. Nowhere else could I have dreamed of being an accidental activist. I have often said to my mother - 'If I had raised my voice like this in any other state in India I would have had goondas at my doorstep threatening me by evening'. Only in Goa could a movement like that started by the GBA flourish. Only in Goa could a government be brought to its knees by ordinary people and be forced to take back a Regional Plan. Only in Goa could one stand up fearlessly and be an activist and proud of it.
Goondaism, attacks, intimidation – all those happen far away, in other states like Bihar.
And then it comes home…
I woke up one morning to read headlines that left me stunned. A desperate protest against illegal mining had ended with a woman, her eighty four year old mother, and her nine year old daughter being put in jail.
I sat there in shock. Women had been man handled while the police stood by. A nine year old girl had spent the night in jail. Surely this was not happening in Goa?
Then it comes to those you know…
A few days later I woke up to read headlines of Aires and Prajal being attacked and blood being shed. Prajal is as much of an accidental activist as I am. One of the most gentle people I know, it is his love for Goa that has led him to speak up. And he had been brutally beaten. Aires had actually had the fingers on his hand cut off!
One too many awkward questions asked – and a violent attempt to throttle the voices. But surely not in Goa? My Goa?
And then it comes to your doorstep…
I woke up one morning to find that I had been served a notice by the Panchayat claiming my garage was illegal and I should show cause why it should not be demolished. I was not alone I discovered. All core members of the Moira Action Committee had been served notices. One of them even got a notice because her wall was one centimetre more than what was shown on the building plans!
Certainly it is not in the league of getting beaten up and losing a few fingers. This is mere common or garden harassment – but while the scale is different, the principle and the methods are exactly the same. Use official clout to harass and intimidate when the questions get too awkward. And then, if that fails – bring on the muscle. At the last Gram Sabha in Moira, the Panchayat hired rowdies who shouted down any member of the Sabha who tried to bring up awkward questions.
The members of the Panchayat are people like us. They are the ones we live next door to. The ones with whom we share a milkman and a newspaper vendor. Simple everyday people. I wonder if they realise that in making the choice to use common harassment they have taken the first step towards corruption. The first step down a long path that leads eventually to activists being beaten up and blood being shed.
The problem with Goa is not that her politicians are corrupt. It is that her people have become corrupted. Let us not blame those in governance alone. It is the man next door who is corrupt - who has traded a favour to build an illegal wall; who has bribed someone to get permission to add one more floor to his house; who has not protested wrong doing because he himself has a skeleton to hide; who has voted in a ward member who he knows will give him permission to add an illegal garage. Goonda raj and blood shed is the grand finale. The humble beginning is in a Panchayat that chooses to harass, in a neighbour who chooses to trade turning a blind eye for favours.
It begins right here, next door. The vicious cycle of corruption and intimidation has come home to stay. It lives next door to you. It's time to ask ourselves if it lives in the same house as we do.