Long ago, which is until December 2019, we were free people. We could travel, go to the movies, organize parties and attend funerals. We could even cough and sneeze. Crowds were so much a part of life that here were advocates of online working, of cold contact on social media, of blessed silence. Then silence descended; a silence not experienced by humans for a long time, as far as memory goes. Even during the 1918 Spanish flu, the world was humming; factories were running and travel was possible. Roads were busy and shops were open. World Wars did not cause silence but the opposite; industry was running at a frenetic speed to make armaments. And bombs were falling, artillery was booming, planes were thundering.
This silence was different. Not only were there no sounds, this silence numbed the brain. It paralysed smiles and laughter. In less than a month, the world was turned topsy-turvy by a microscopic organism which does not even meet the definition of ‘living’. In this scared new world, the former advocates of blessed silence were pleading for noise to preserve their sanity. They stood on the balconies and clanged pots; if there was an opera singer on the street, she gave a live performance from the balcony. An accomplished dancer offered to take out the garbage for his neighbours, one bag at a time. Since taking out garbage was a permitted activity and no speed limit was prescribed, he danced on the street, bag at one end, pirouetting at his leisure to the bin. The neighbours, who played music for him on the phones, gave a huge round of applause as each bag was ceremoniously deposited in the bin and the dancer went through his mellifluous steps to the next house to collect the bag. Yes, humans know how to keep themselves happy and entertained if the blaring TV and the octopus internet will give us a break.
These diversions have been a rare break for the unsmiling lips, silence and gloom. Now that we can see some light at the end of the dark tunnel, we can indulge in an inquiry about those whose passion it is to snatch the smiles of the innocent. This evil is invariably a malignancy in society; it grows for the sake of growth, unmindful of the pain and suffering caused to the body in which it grows. It is called a megalomaniac dictator. Smiles are snatched by dictators’ lust for power. From Nero to Hitler, Mao and Stalin, these power-hungry monsters have been creators of silent screams of suffering. Then one day, a would-be-martyr decides to break the silence and soon there is a chorus of freedom in the public space again.
Yes, this is the fundamental difference between a democratic and undemocratic state. Most of the dictators do allow freedom in the private space. It is their tentacles in the public space that are considered the killers of democracy. If you want to test democracy, go no further than measuring the restraint that people feel in the public space about activities that cause no harm to fellow citizens, the dictator excluded.
The much-misused word “obedience” should have this limited meaning in the dictionary: “Obeying norms which prevent the deliberate action of one knowingly causing harm to another”. Anything more than that is military obedience that comes from the need of psychologically preparing a soldier to kill and be killed at the command of a superior without being burdened by his social and moral norms. Is it any wonder that dictators tend to don military uniforms and append top military titles to their names? Armed forces, which should be instruments in the hands of the state, increasingly become the hand and the dictator the instrument.
Recent human experience shows that in the global world, the authoritarian malady in one nation has spill over consequences for many others and, in some cases, for the whole world. Hitler’s derangement did not affect Germany alone; USSR Communists caused four decades of misery in Eastern Europe. It aided Mao and caused death of tens of millions. Cuba and China are still ruled by remnants of that ideology. Yahya Khan’s hatred of anything Bengali sent ten million refugees to India. Idi Amin, Omar Bashir, Mugabe, Erdogan; the long line of dictators has been a harbinger of deaths and pain for the world.
Free media is the biggest instrument in the hands of democracy. It ensures the sanctity of public space as long as the waves in ether and the lines in print are not under the control of the state. If the media of a country can objectively call out the most powerful, democracy is safe. If they start uttering partisan truth, democracy is in peril. No wonder free media is the prime target of a dictatorship and partisan media is the target of supporters of democracy.
All this has relevance to the misery the world has gone through since February this year. The lockdowns and requirements of social distancing are Draconian measures taking away individual freedom in the public space. These are characteristics of totalitarian regimes, not of democracies like India, UK or the US. It is a sad commentary on the effectiveness of evil that a totalitarian regime has compelled vibrant democracies to resort to dictatorial measures.
China has not tasted democracy in its entire history of thousands of years. Except for a brief interlude of ineffective leaders like Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek, China moved from the “divine” and ruthless emperors to Mao’s “Great Leap forward” that killed millions. It culminated in the famine of 1959-1961. Then the Cultural Revolution, that was spearheaded by Mao andcarried on by the Gang of Four led by Mao’s fourth wife Jiang Qing, after his death, cut off the Chinese people from their cultural roots. The 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of protesting students proved that in China, the Red Army is the hand and the Communist Party the instrument. The brutality being inflicted on the people of Hong Kong is another link in that bloodstained chain which controls people’s smiles in the public space. Like any totalitarian system, it lives on the continued support of its armed forces. Such systems can be dislodged only when the armed forces side with the rebels.
It was the opaqueness of the Chinese state that led to the pandemic. Denial that their was spread of a new pathogen, orders to destroy samples and test results, silencing the whistle blowers, denying human to human transmission, blaming the US army for it, the Chinese state did everything in its power to conceal the infection. That snatched precious weeks from the world when restrictions on travel and rigorous testing could have prevented the spread. While China prevented internal travel from Wuhan, it allowed tens of thousands to fly from Wuhan to other countries. When the rest of the world was a fortnight away from large-scale spread, China asked its embassies all over the world to mop up masks and other protective equipment from the markets and ship these to China, all the while denying the extent of the epidemic. Then, as the world became entangled in the grip of the virus, China exported such equipment at up to ten times the original price, giving small quantities as gifts.
There are reports that a lot more people were infected in China than reported by that state. Interpolations from the number of ash urns handed over to relatives from crematoria yield a figure of deaths many times the official number of less than 5000. Newsweek had reported local residents saying that based on these urns, at least 26000 would have died in Wuhan alone. Small amounts were paid to these relatives to hush them up. Obstinate ones disappeared as did bloggers who insisted on telling the true story. New York times chronicled the disappearance of two such bloggers, Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin. The sufferings of the Chinese people were duly matched by the misery of the rest of the world, as it became the victim of the Chinese “gift”. While the deaths of hundreds of thousands across the world are lamentable, it is billions who were deprived of freedom and happiness under the lockdown. Jobs were gone, economies nosedived, and today hunger stares in the face of at least a billion people.
China was a minor power till Clinton enabled it to join the WTO. By using state subsidies in various forms including use of prison labour, China soon captured world markets and became not only an economic challenge but also a military one to the US. This speaks volumes about the consequences of democracies going to bed with dictators who always have a short-term advantage over the former. Europe mollycoddled Hitler; USSR had a no-war pact with him. Both lost lives and happiness as a consequence. It is time the free world takes a hard look at its approach to dictators. Even if you do not want to fight them, please do not join them if you cherish freedom and smiles.