‘What is constantly said is that that you must not attack the government because it will endanger the country. There are times when the only safety of the country is attack upon the government, and it will be a grave dereliction of duty on the part of the members of this house if, being honestly convinced that it is necessary to challenge the issue, they take no steps to do it.” These words apply to Prime Minister Modi’s slander against the opposition.
When Stafford Cripps spoke thus in the House of Commons in 1940, his country was in mortal peril. Nazi Germany rained bombs on London. On much less, Kargil, we had two former foreign secretaries, and former senior bureaucrat K. Subrahmanyam, who later became head of the bogus Kargil Inquiry Committee, issue a joint statement in June 1999 pathetically pleading that it was essential for all to “suspend for the time being any focus on the inadequacies and failures that have led to the crisis”.
After the crisis, distinguished journalists Pamela Constable and Sankarshan Thakur published a collection of essays, Guns and Yellow Roses, on the lack of truthful reportage and comment during the war. A BBC journalist remarked, “With luck, this collection of essays is the beginning of India’s honest introspection about Kargil.” He was proved wrong. The truth was unceremoniously buried. So will it be about Pulwama and much else if citizens do not hold the Modi government accountable. Two of them spoke up bravely. On Feb 18, Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee asked pointed questions on the government’s culpability for sheer neglect. She had kept quiet, but Modi’s “regularly politicising” of Pulwama, in company with his political valet Amit Shah, forced her to speak up.
At a rally in Mumbai on Feb 23, president of the All-India Majlis-i-IttehadulMuslimeen, MP AsaduddinOwaisi, asked, “About 200 kilograms of RDX was used for the blast in Pulwama” — which he strongly condemned — “Was the intelligence department sleeping?” A member of Modi’s cabinet impugned the loyalty of critics.
Half a century’s life as free citizens has not sufficed to train some in the duties of citizenship. It is time we realised that if dissent had not been stifled on Kashmir and the boundary dispute with China, New Delhi might not have gone to the brink. Popular opinion in Kashmir was misrepresented. Maps that showed the boundary in the Aksai Chin as ‘undefined’ were taken out of circulation.
There is no conflict between condemnation of the Pulwama killings and accountability for New Delhi’s neglect. No conflict either between commitment to the truth and loyalty to the country. On the contrary, it is precisely during a crisis that the truth should be told, and the government asked to account for its lapses.
Britain showed prime minister Neville Chamberlain the door during the Second World War. His successor, Winston Churchill, faced a motion of no-confidence when Rommel’s army was at the gates of Cairo and Alexandria, and Singapore had fallen. There was demand for a royal commission on the debacle. During the Korean War, the US Senate armed services and foreign relations committees held joint hearings in which all the top guns testified, including the secretaries of state and defence, and the army chief.
The 1942 no-confidence motion against Churchill read: “That this house, while paying tribute to the heroism and endurance of the armed forces … has no confidence in the central direction of the war.” The mover, John Wardlaw-Milne, offered to withdraw it. Churchill refused. It was a serious challenge, supported by Churchill’s friend, admiral of the fleet Roger Keyes, and former secretary of state for war Leslie Hore-Belisha, who asked, “How can one place reliance in judgements that have so repeatedly turned out to be misguided?” The motion was defeated.
During the First World War, Churchill had to leave the cabinet over his role in the Gallipoli debacle, on which an inquiry was set up. Dissent was voiced freely during the Boer and Falklands wars.
The American press covered itself with disgrace on the Iraq War. Paul Krugman wrote in 2004, “[W]hy did the press credit Bush with virtues that reporters knew he didn’t possess? One answer is misplaced patriotism. After 9/11, much of the press seemed to reach a collective decision that it was necessary, in the interests of national unity, to suppress criticism of the commander in chief.”
Margaret Thatcher revealed the mindset of governments when she sneered at the BBC in 1982: “It seems that we and the Argentines are being treated almost as equals and almost on a neutral basis.” Retort to the suggestion that the media must be the publicity arm of the state was swift. Richard Francis, managing director of BBC Radio, said “The widow of Portsmouth is no different from the widow of Buenos Aires. The BBC needs no lesson in patriotism.” This is the retort that upstarts in power deserve.