CJI’s remarks on State highhandedness ray of hope in ‘electoral autocracy’ that’s now India

Judicial non-intervention even in face of acts like abrogation of Article 370 and Godi media’s subservience have emboldened ruling regime to trample upon constitutional provisions with impunity

CJI Ramana (File Photo- IANS)
CJI Ramana (File Photo- IANS)

Amulya Ganguly

An unprecedented event in January, 2018, saw four Supreme Court judges hold a press conference – the first and last, in their view – to announce that democracy in India was in peril because “things are not in order” in the judiciary.

Four years later, Chief Justice N.V. Ramana, has also voiced his discontent over the state of affairs in the country where “hasty, indiscriminate" arrests are being made and laws are being passed without “detailed deliberation and scrutiny”.

The reason, according to him, is the prevailing “hostility” in politics where the space for the opposition is “shrinking”. As the CJI has said, “these are not signs of a healthy democracy”.

Are the fears expressed by the four judges earlier coming true? Whenever misgivings are voiced abroad over the democratic conditions in India, the government routinely rubbishes them for being “biased”. Obviously, such a dismissive attitude cannot be taken with regard to the CJI’s observations.

For the first time since the Narendra Modi government assumed office, it is arguably under pressure. Up until now, it has had its way on the incarceration of dissidents or peremptory steps such as the abrogation of Article 370 since the judiciary has not always intervened.

No judge had earlier described multiple FIRs against a fact-checker as part of a “vicious cycle”, as Justice Ramana has now done. The result of the ease with which the police and the investigative agencies could persist with such “cycles” was that the ordinary person was virtually at the mercy of the authorities as in a banana republic.

India has seen a strong Central government earlier too, notably when the Congress was in power in the decades immediately after independence. But, even then, few were scared to speak their minds. Parliament was a forum where the opposition gained nearly as much prominence as the prime minister and the ministers.

Between 1947 and 1975, India saw itself as a model democracy. The international community also recognized it as such – “famously democratic”, as The Economist said. The election of the world’s first communist government through the ballot box in Kerala in 1957 confirmed this reputation at a time when other newly-independent countries in Asia and Africa were going under the heels of dictators.

Now, the lengthening shadow of authoritarianism has made critics call it an “electoral autocracy”.

The authoritarianism is the result of an overbearing Centre, and for the ordinary people, the only escape route back to the earlier days when the sense of freedom was more prevalent is via the judiciary and a revived opposition.

Justice Ramana’s observations, therefore, carry a lot of weight. If his obiter dicta lead to a toning down of the highhandedness of the police and investigative agencies, it will bring about a sea-change in the atmosphere of the country by making people less afraid to speak out, as the late tycoon, Rahul Bajaj, had said even about the timidity of the rich and famous.

At present, “an overwhelming culture of fear” prevails in India, according to the British-Indian sculptor, Anish Kapoor. “This is the route to fascism,” he reportedly told an Indian magazine which has refused to publish his comments.

The faintheartedness of the magazine is in keeping with the lack of spine shown by the media in general, underlining the tendency to play safe which has earned them the sobriquet of “Godi media” or lapdog media from critics.

It is such weakness on part of the media, among certain other factors, which has allowed the government to ride roughshod over civil liberties and keep scores of activists in jail.

(IPA Service)

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Published: 25 Jul 2022, 6:25 PM