It is customary to celebrate Republic Day with a display of state might. When the practice began, there must have been a benign hope that the state represents the people and also takes it upon itself to strengthen the essence of citizenship — personal liberties. The irony behind this is two-fold. One, it sidetracks the essence of democracy — the power of citizens. Two, the state often turns out to be the main threat to citizen power.
This irony gets grotesquely represented through current happenings within the republic. The new year began with the determination of the state to employ two different legal instruments to handle views the establishment abhors. Sedition law is invoked to implicate JNU students and action against activist-intellectual Anand Teltumbde advances on the basis of UAPA. Hiren Gohain, another activist-intellectual, is also slapped with sedition charges. “Urban Maoists’ arrested last year are yet to be formally charged and tried. They languish in custody, without legal recourse. A journalist from Manipur has got a jail term under NSA.
Beyond the lament, a critical question stares us in the face. How do we reconcile the democratic enthusiasm of large sections of the citizenry with a pathetic acceptance of state power that jeopardises the democratic spirit?
There is no denying that India is a vibrant democracy in terms of political competitiveness and citizen assertions, mainly through the ballot but many a time by taking to the streets in order to tame state power. But in spite of this vibrancy, our record is not very robust when it comes to demanding the rule of law, subscribing to a liberal ethos and supporting the freedom of expression.
A study conducted by Lokniti-CSDS around 2014 brings this contrast in sharp focus. Asked to choose the “essential characteristics” of democracy, citizen-respondents gave much lower preference to ideas involving individual freedom. Thus, compared to elections (identified by over 24 per cent) and narrowing the gap between rich and poor (almost 23 per cent), only 18 per cent thought that free expression is an essential characteristic of democracy. Similarly, freedom to organise politically was seen as essential to democracy by 17 per cent per cent compared to fulfilling basic needs (31 per cent) and free media was understood as an essential feature of democracy by only 16 per cent compared to “law & order” (22 per cent) and provision of job opportunities (21 per cent). Governance and welfare trump individual freedoms when it comes to imagining democracy.
In the context of such disinclination among citizens to actively press for liberal norms in the public arena, the state, political elites and functionaries of political institutions need to carry the extra burden. That perhaps was also the expectation of the founding fathers who believed that while citizens are bound to have a set of priorities governed by the exigencies of social inequalities and livelihood challenges, the responsibility of ensuring a liberal ethic in political practice would have to be shouldered by the elites.
Looking back, the elites and our political institutions have failed in fulfilling this responsibility. Instead of being custodians of freedoms, both political elites and institutions have used this absence of public enthusiasm for civil rights as a fig leaf to construct the idea of democracy in an insidious way: In the Seventies, the fictitious duality of “bread vs freedom” was presented. That moment allowed for a distortion of democracy. Down the line, without formally pronouncing it, murmurs of a hierarchy between group rights (understood mainly in terms of identity rights) and individual rights gathered strength. The entire question of reform of Muslim personal law was sacrificed at the altar of group rights and freedom of expression has often been sacrificed for the hurt sentiments of various communities.
This tedious and often treacherous downplaying civil rights was reflected in the false dichotomisation of Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles, a weak rights movement and the non-existent civil rights organisations. In fact, struggles for civil rights are seen as the arena of some quirky activists. The invocation of rights by groups propagating radical political changes and/or a separate political existence further contributed to the popular alienation from the cause of civil rights.
The emergence of the framework of “terrorism” legitimised the state and its institutions in employing more and more stringent and arbitrary legislation giving powers to the police. This framework facilitated the practice of combining conspiracies, mass violence, protests and anything the establishment does not like, as an “unlawful” act. The history of TADA, POTA and UAPA is testimony to that. The present regime has been gleefully using the instruments of sedition law and UAPA. This usage is deeply ingrained in its understanding of the idea of nation-state.
But before we critique the current regime, this long history of institutional apathy or even antipathy to civil rights and the institutional proclivity to apply harsh laws against inconvenient political protest needs to be remembered. In fact, the collective failure is in our inability to appreciate the politics that informs many so-called terrorist acts. Whether in parts of the Northeast or in the Maoist-affected belt, the actions that get named as “terrorism” emanate from a politics we are neither able to understand nor respond to. Hence, police and military solutions are brought in. Add to this a majoritarian and falsely nationalistic imagination and you have the recipe for a full-fledged assault on civil rights.
Its political opponents find it convenient to find fault with the present government in these matters, but they lack sincerity because they would be willing to use the same legal-institutional instruments to demean civil liberties (as in Odisha and West Bengal). Thus, the plight of civil liberties in India represents the dual abdication by the political class.
First, through its unwillingness to uphold civil liberties, our political class has ensured that the ideological space of democracy would not expand. Two, by consistently engaging in dubious practices of not only legislating bad laws but also the ideological practice of relegating individual rights as second order rights, our politics and political classes have helped in shaping a distorted idea of democracy. The many contemporary instances of state assault on civil rights should therefore be a grim reminder of this narrow imagination and distortion of the democratic idea from which the republic suffers.