April 16, 2024
Annapolis, US 70 F

OPINION: Punishing Dissent Undermines the Fabric of Democracy

Last week, the London-based media outlet The Independent published an article that detailed troubling allegations of intimidation and harassment of individuals – all contributing members of the Maryland Democratic Party – because they expressed concern about Lt. Governor Aruna Miller’s financial and collegial ties to a right-wing Hindu nationalist movement known as the Hindutva. The Hindutva movement was founded with the mentoring of Mussolini and his Fascist party and today has waged rampant violence against nearly half a billion minority and oppressed caste citizens in India. The details of Miller’s associations with Hindutva have been extensively covered by The InterceptHuffington Post, and now in the mainstream press in India as well. 

Some of the allegations of harassment by Ms. Miller occurred as far back as 2018 when she was a Congressional candidate.  However, one particular allegation occurred this year during her tenure as Lieutenant Governor. Specifically, Nathan Feldman, an elected official in Montgomery County’s Democratic Central Committee (MCDCC)  has alleged that the MCDCC Chair made threats to him if he didn’t change his vote on an upcoming appointment. The Committee Chair repeatedly told Feldman that this demand was at the direct behest of the Lieutenant Governor. 

At face value, threatening a voter, whether it is jury tampering or at the polls, is scandalous and an abuse of power. With the MCDCC, such behavior has dramatic consequences for local democracy in Maryland. That is because the MCDCC, which is composed of two dozen individuals, is responsible for the appointment of nearly 40% of all Montgomery County legislators to the General Assembly.

But in addition to the threat, the reason for the threat — to punish a candidate because they criticized Ms. Miller’s associations with far-right groups – sends a chilling message to all members of civil society: if you dare to exercise your First Amendment right and criticize an elected official in Maryland, there will be retaliation. 

I am the candidate in question and had expressed concern about Miller’s right-wing Hindutva donors. And I’m part of a growing coalition asking her to return those donations.

It is important to note that this particular incident with Aruna Miller should not be relegated to a personal disagreement. Miller and I have hardly met. Rather, it is about whether the right to dissent is protected from government retaliation within Maryland’s borders.

Dissent is the “secret sauce” of a healthy working democracy. Our very nation was founded on a Declaration to King George, essentially dissenting from his “taxation without representation” reign.  And when our country’s founding fathers crafted the Constitution, they incorporated the freedom to dissent into the very first sentence of its Bill of Rights. And, of course, throughout U.S. history, many reforms have been made because citizens have dissented from the dominant narrative of that era.

I believe that Ms. Miller and others involved in the allegations detailed in the Independent should be subject to an independent and transparent investigation. But just as importantly, senior Maryland elected officials – Governor Moore and the Maryland Congressional Delegation –  need to break their silence and affirm support for an investigation. Public trust relies on our confidence in the integrity of our elected officials and their commitment to not misuse their power. Having senior elected officials (who are also our Democratic party elders) openly state that this is not how the Maryland government does business and that they also welcome a closer review of the allegations will provide Marylanders with interim reassurance until a full investigation can be conducted.

Susan Kerin is the Chair of Peace Action Montgomery, a chapter of national Peace Action. She also has volunteered with the Montgomery County Democratic Party for over a decade and is a co-founder of the No Hindutva Maryland coalition.

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