A new social and political code is in the making: Don’t ask questions. It is the exact opposite of the ethos that was considered absolutely necessary in a democracy and which led to the enactment of the Right to Information Act (RTI Act) — that transparency and openness are the hallmarks of a democracy and that information, with few exceptions, must be available to the public. The RTI Act has made a world of difference to the process of decision-making, reduced arbitrariness and exposed corruption, and is a great weapon in fighting injustice. In the past, governments had got away with plain lies because there was no way to call their bluff. (Courts did intervene occasionally but they were constrained by the lack of judges, backlog of cases and paucity of time. The sheer volume of work has overwhelmed the judicial system). The RTI Act has been a game-changer.
Tradition of questioning
The same principle informs the Question Hour in Parliament. Ask a question and the minister is bound to answer, truthfully, within 14 days. Supplementary questions can be put to the minister on the floor of the House and she is bound to answer. Many ministers are caught out in Question Hour. A minister who has provided a wrong answer is liable to be hauled up for breach of privilege. A vigilant Prime Minister, if he sits through Question Hour for a whole session, can separate the wheat from the chaff among his ministers.
If questions had not been asked, the world would be flat, homosexuality would be a disease, and the woman alone should bear the blame if a couple were childless. Gravity would not have been discovered, relativity would be a crazy man’s tale and flying would only be for the birds. Socrates told his pupils to question everything and a good teacher will tell the same thing today to her class. Thomas Becket, canonised later by a Catholic Pope, questioned his king; Martin Luther questioned the Catholic Church’s dogmas. Vishista-advaita was born because it questioned the philosophy of advaita.
Mahatma Gandhi questioned the professed authority of the white man to rule over the Indian people; 50 years later, Martin Luther King questioned the professed superiority of the white citizen over the black citizen. Deng Xiao Ping questioned the Communist-Maoist orthodoxy and ushered in economic liberalisation in China; the Maoists question the inequality and inequity aggravated by economic liberalisation in India. Every war — Vietnam to Iraq to Syria — has been revisited and questioned. The Henderson-Brooks report questioned the conduct of the India-China war of 1962.
The new code
The great tradition of asking questions is under threat. The rules of the new code are:
1. Do not ask questions.
2. If you ask questions, you are anti-national.
3. Your question will be turned on its head to mean something totally perverse.
4. Your questions will be met with irrelevant questions.
5. The irrelevant questions will be answered, not your questions.
There are other gems that have not yet been elevated to the status of rules but they may soon be. Here are two: Asking questions is not good culture (Mr Kiren Rijiju). Asking questions is cheap politics (Mr Venkaiah Naidu). In the last year, there has been a determined attempt to shut out questions and shut up people who asked questions. When Akhlaq was lynched by a mob, the question was who gave the mob the right to kill him. That question was replaced by ‘Did Akhlaq’s family keep beef in their house?’. Socrates would have asked, ‘What has the family keeping meat of any kind got to do with the criminal act of a mob playing the role of judge, jury, prosecutor and executioner?’.
When Rohith Vemula explained in his last testament why he took his own life, all questions were brushed aside. The only question that was allowed was ‘Was Rohith Vemula a Dalit or a non-Dalit?’. The judge answered dutifully that he was not a Dalit. Socrates would have asked ‘Did the answer throw light upon the fundamental issues of discrimination and oppression raised by the young scholar in his last letter?’.
Taking refuge in lies
Questions were asked about the chest-thumping over the cross-border action by the Army. They were turned on their head as if the questions were about the Army’s competence and truthfulness. The new rules took over and those who asked the questions were branded anti-national.
There are questions about the veracity of the official version (or versions) of the Bhopal jailbreak in which eight prisoners escaped after brutally killing a head constable, Ramashankar Yadav. Hours later, the police claimed that all eight had been killed in an ‘encounter’. Was it true or fake? The people of India have, regrettably, tolerated encounters of both kinds. It is the law that does not tolerate fake encounters. Even in the case of a genuine encounter, the law obliges the government to register an FIR and hold a thorough and independent inquiry. The government of Madhya Pradesh is stoutly resisting an inquiry and employing every trick and lie to forestall one. Sample these: ‘Accused’ in cases of terrorism have become ‘terrorists’. Undertrials have become convicted prisoners. Prison food has become chicken biryani.
But let me tell you, the law will catch up and there will be an inquiry. I cannot say whether the truth will come out of the inquiry but, at least, the questions will be asked.