Sunday, 13 April, 2008

EXPRESS EDITORIAL: Torching freedom

China’s chairman is our chairman,” was the preponderant Naxalite graffiti in Kolkata in the ’60s-’70s. The CPM was then battling Naxalites. China’s Olympics are our Olympics, the CPM seems to be saying now and, of course, after 30 years of institution-capturing that Chairman Mao would have been envious of, there is no one left in Kolkata to battle the CPM. So Tibetans who have protested all over India and all over the world have been banned from the streets of the city that hosts more rallies than road signs and more bandhs than BPOs. China’s consul general, as reported in this newspaper, is delighted. Well he might be. Which other government apart from that run by China’s communists has understood that, since Beijing decided that the Olympics would be the event when it walks down the world’s ramp, no one else must be allowed to share the spotlight?

But India hosts rambunctious protests by all kinds of groups and the one thing India understands better than China’s apparatchiks is the value of freedom of association. The CPM is one of the biggest beneficiaries of that freedom — where would an agitation-prone party, which reckons blocking streets in Kolkata would change American foreign policy, be if protest were circumscribed? So the CPM banning the Tibetan rally in Kolkata is not just democratically abhorrent, not just an embarrassment for India, but chillingly hypocritical. Will the Congress take on the CPM on this? It must. The issue is not safe passage for the Olympic torch. That the government is handling. The political issue is basic freedom. And the Congress must also remember realpolitik. The CPM boycotted Parliament when American President George W. Bush was to address it. Comrades organised massive protest rallies during his visit. That was the CPM’s democratic right. Now, when India’s credentials as a democratic country are in question thanks to the Kolkata ban, the Congress as the ruling party must bluntly and publicly criticise its ally.
There have been questions about the CPM’s China sympathies. Some of the interrogation has been crude. Some misplaced — the CPM was right in saying Chinese companies shouldn’t be victims of security paranoia. But since the party has decided that Chinese communist sensibilities must be protected from a handful of young Tibetans, it invites very sharp questions. The first question is: why does the CPM think India’s democracy must carry the torch for China’s Olympian intolerance?

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