Aruna Roy: Character of our nation is on test     

Those of us who care for integrity, principle and constitutional values as citizens of India have a huge task ahead. When Independence was dreamt of, it must have seemed impossible

Photo courtesy: social media
Photo courtesy: social media

Aruna Roy and Nachiket Udupa

“Being part of a democratic government is hard. Being a citizen is hard. It is a challenge. It’s supposed to be. There’s no respite from our ideals. All of us are called to live up to our expectations for ourselves -- not just when it’s convenient, but when it’s inconvenient. When it’s tough. When we’re afraid.”

- Barack Obama

This was an Independence Day that came with baggage. This is a time when fundamental questions arise about our democratic practice. It has questions that are being asked just not today, but even those that future generations will ask of the ruling dispensation, the dispersed Opposition and of the adult citizens of today.

Some of the problems arise from the inherent short-changing and perversion of procedures, vital for fair democratic functioning. All this boils down to what we call the basic structure and fabric of a democracy, the Parliament. To quote from the PRS report:

“The 17th Lok Sabha … was remarkable for several reasons. … Parliament passed 28 Bills during the session -- higher than any in the last ten years.

Hidden amongst this high level of productivity is the lack of scrutiny. Of the Bills passed, 23 were not examined by any parliamentary committee; the other five had been scrutinised in earlier avatars by the last Parliament. 25 Bills were discussed within five working days of their being introduced. These included Bills such as the ones related to reorganisation of J&K (and the resolutions) which Lok Sabha Members saw only after the day’s sitting had started; and very technical Bills such as the Companies Amendment (which, introduces jail terms for not meeting CSR obligations) and the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code Amendment; the RTI Amendment; and the National Investigation Agency Amendment.”

The Indian Parliament is bulldozing fundamental changes to the Constitutional architecture of our country without proper pre-legislative, or Parliamentary consultation by disallowing any detailed scrutiny, or examination even by standing and select committees set up for the purpose.

Laws so passed are going to become part of governance, and when anti-people laws get enacted, the rule of law evolved to protect us becomes, ironically, the tool of suppression. The RTI, was first in the line because it is an entitlement that allows us to legitimately question the power structure, including the elected and non-elected members of the ruling elite. The changes in the UAPA is bound to throw fear into the mind of every dissenting person, that expressing their opinion could have them arrested for being a terrorist. Don’t ask uncomfortable questions; don’t express dissent seems to be the clear warning of the government.

India is celebrating 72 years of freedom. But what does freedom indeed mean? The Constitution says that the State derives its sovereignty from its people. But it also gives us principles. There has to be a principled and therefore accountable use of that sovereignty. The people of India, who are the sovereign, will have to be informed, consulted and made part of the decision-making process, without compromising on the principles we stated and accepted as we laid the foundations for a free nation.

It is in this context that we must analyse the political environment in India today. Those in power have never been comfortable with being questioned. Privilege begins with impunity. When the principles or rights begin to create discomfort, the ruling dispensation starts curtailing the freedom of citizens. As a result, either the principles prevail, or crude power breaks down all constitutional and ethical safeguards to ensure continuity of power. It can happen like it did during the Emergency or now, when structures protecting public interest are being swept aside mindlessly.

Article 15, for example, guarantees citizens the right to freedom from discrimination on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth. This was a freedom that was threatened when the present government first came to power in 2014. It began with ghar wapsi of Muslims, continued with the lynching of minorities of Muslims and Dalits and which continue till today.

With the NRC the state discriminates through citizenship, based on the place of birth, ostensibly with logic, but where the intent and its implementation manifests in the targeting of specific identities. In all these violations of freedom, government has either ignored the issue or not intervened to stop discrimination. Through the NRC, legitimate citizens of the country are being put through torture and tension to try and prove their citizenship, and the state becomes the perpetrator of the crime.

Article 19 provides the freedom of expression; it would not be an exaggeration to say that it is the most fundamental of rights. The fourth pillar of democracy, free and independent media, is highly compromised today. LK Advani’s comments during the Emergency, that when journalists were asked to bend, they began to crawl are echoed today.

In these times of an undeclared Emergency that we are living in, the media is controlled through ownership and conflict of interest, by companies who steer marauding development with the help of unethical alliances.

Electoral bonds, has opened up avenues for them to “legally” control the government and politics itself. The corporate capture of the mainstream media has made maximising profits (not just their own, but of their corporate masters) - as opposed to speaking truth to power - the raison d’être of journalistic culture. Independent media is finding the current political environment stifling, when media’s primary role seems to be to spread misinformation.

The roots of the Right to Information also lie in Article 19(1) and the freedom of expression. The RTI has connected many dots to expose corruption and arbitrary use of power. The power elite have resisted the RTI and recent amendments to the Act are further testament to the fact that it was a powerful tool in the hands of all citizens, emphasising the people’s right to access information.

The amendments expose the government’s fear of the RTI and its desperation to stifle a questioning citizenry arises from this. It was therefore imperative for the government to curtail the independence of institutions that check the excesses of the government.

The list of institutions that have lost their independence under this government include the Supreme Court, the Governors, the Election Commission, the RBI, the CBI, the Information Commissions, Universities, the Censor Board; and the list goes on.

Article 21 talks about protecting life and personal liberty. Personal liberty is basically freedom at an individual level. From this fundamental right flow several other landmark legislations such as the MGNREGA, which provides a right to employment, and the National Food Security Act, which provides the right to food. This government has taken several policy decisions, such as underfunding MGNREGA or making Aadhaar mandatory for PDS, which have undermined these legislations which are the lifeblood to the marginalised people in society. These decisions are part of a concerted strategy to slowly drain these laws with wounds inflicted on it day to day.

Article 22 gives freedom from arrest and detention in certain cases. This has been severely compromised by the amendments made to the UAPA. The UAPA, even before it was amended, had many undemocratic provisions allowing the state to designate an organization as a terrorist organization without complying with the principles of natural justice imbued in Article 14 of our constitution.

The amendments made by this government gives the state even more discretionary power to brand any individual as a terrorist which is a frontal attack on the founding constitutional value of liberty. This has been preceded by a campaign to defame dissenting voices, and especially of those who amplify reality, as undefinable “urban naxals”. There are several Articles which protect the freedom to practice the religion of one’s choice. This, as has been stated earlier, has been under threat since 2014 when the ghar wapasis and lynchings started.

The government abrogating Articles 35A and 370, disregarding the rights of those living in Jammu and Kashmir cast a very long shadow over Independence Day this year. Leaders of political parties have been kept under house arrest. State elections were deliberately not held along with the general elections, so that there is no state legislature to ratify this decision. This is as close to dictatorship as one can get under the guise of democracy.

One can continue to list the ways in which freedom is in peril but the biggest blows to freedom are not necessarily legal and policy decisions, although these decisions play an important role as well. Freedom where only agreement is entertained, is slavery by another name. Freedom is really tested only when it allows for dissent. And when this government roots out dissent, it attacks freedom.

The pattern that emerges is the killing of critique and dissent, and the moral base of a political system; mocking at human rights and civil liberties.

There is little or no mainstream political opposition to the current ruling dispensation. The only real opposition left for this government is a free and vibrant civil society which keeps a check on its excesses. This is indeed a problem for a government, that rates itself on popularity and propaganda. Hence, the measures to curb the freedom that citizens and thereby civil society enjoy.

As the amendments made to the UAPA and scrapping of Articles 35A and 370 show, we are living in an undeclared state of emergency. It may be clichéd but that does not make it less true.

It is at times such as this, that the character of a nation is tested. Those of us who care for integrity, principle and constitutional values as the citizens of India have a huge task ahead. When independence was dreamt of it must have seemed impossible. When emergency was declared it seemed to be invincible to reverse. But these victories were achieved. A similar galvanising of civil society forces is needed today to fight a government which seems to be surrendering to its autocratic urges to acquire concentrated power.

We must not forget the lessons taught by Gandhiji, in the words of Howard Zinn:

“You are saying our problem is civil disobedience, but that is not our problem.

Our problem is civil obedience.

Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of their leaders of their governments and have gone to war and millions have been killed because of this obedience.

Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity and war and cruelty.

Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country.

That’s our problem.”

We need to use freedom of thought and expression to fight the assault on these freedoms. We need to start thinking for ourselves rather than becoming prey to the narratives peddled by vested interests, and act on them. It is time to exercise our freedoms - of thought, expression and action - in order to save them.

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Published: 17 Aug 2019, 4:03 PM