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Strangers in our midst

The decisive question for democracy in India: How should it deal with citizens who think differently and are annoying or inconvenient to ‘us’?

Written by Satish Deshpande |
Updated: December 27, 2018 12:13:15 am
India democracy, Indira Gandhi Emergency, narendra modi, urban Naxal, anti-terror laws, Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, UAPA, Indian express Laws like the UAPA seek to impose ‘reasonable restrictions’ on the rights normally enjoyed by citizens. (Illustration: CR sasikumar)

Nindak niyare rakhiye/ Aangan kuti chhawaye — keep your critics close to you/build them a cottage in your backyard — sang the medieval poet-thinker-saint Kabir Das, offering us a profound metaphor for modern democracy. For, unlike the misleading cliché about it being a form of government of, by and for the people, democracy is really an ongoing struggle for power among competitors claiming to represent the people. The redeeming feature of this power struggle is that even the losers are — or should be — assured of a cottage in the backyard, because the victor knows, or should know, that victory is always temporary, and the contest must be entered afresh ever so often.

It is our collective misfortune that the Narendra Modi regime seems determined to create an advanced version of the Emergency regime of Indira Gandhi by erasing the redemptive aspects of our democracy and reducing it to a shrill and demagogic authoritarianism. This tendency is best illustrated by the recently invented and painstakingly propagated label, “urban Naxal”. The label functions as a mobile shadow of the real war in central India that can be made to fall on practically anyone, defining them as an enemy combatant, and enabling them to be charged under harsh anti-terror laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (or UAPA).

While every democracy has legal limits to political activity, it is likely that there will be people who will exceed these limits, just as there will be others who support such people, yet others who support the supporters and so on. It is equally likely that leaders already in power will try to outlaw their political opponents so that they can retain power in perpetuity. Given these possibilities, it is imperative that definitions of what counts as anti-state activity be strict and not stretchable.

“Urban Naxal” is a classic instance of definition-stretching as it tries to create a penumbra around “Naxal”, itself a term that needs periodic re-examination. In this context, it is significant that the petitioners who approached the Supreme Court in the matter of the so-called “urban Naxals” arrested in August were described by counsel for the Union government as “strangers”.

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We need to think about the way in which those in power are constantly inciting us to see strangers everywhere. In the popular idiom of northern India, the sense of stranger invoked here is not that of the ajnabi (an unknown person), or the pardesi (someone who belongs elsewhere), but that of the gair or paraya (an excluded person or group). It is a sense close to that of the German sociologist Georg Simmel, who insisted that the figure of the stranger is neither new nor unknown. As a long-standing and familiar member of society, Simmel wrote, the stranger is like “the poor and the various ‘inner enemies’ — an element whose immanent presence and membership include at the same time an externality and opposition.”

In other words, the stranger is someone in our midst whose membership in our society is beyond doubt. And yet, this reality is somehow erased or over-written with an other-ness and an oppositional or enemy-like identity. This kind of magic trick requires hard work and freshly coined labels like “anti-national”, “urban Naxal”, or, indeed, the more polite “stranger”.

Their ultimate objective is to interrupt the intrinsic inclusiveness of citizenship. These labels are meant to hide the awkward fact that the people they are used against are fellow citizens with equal rights. From this perspective, citizenship is an unacceptably flat concept that discourages distinctions. It must, therefore, be redefined to accommodate exceptions — asked to “adjust” a little, as we might say to fellow passengers in a crowded train. The legal way to “adjust” citizenship is through special laws like the UAPA, or its many cousins and ancestors stretching back to the infamous Rowlatt Act whose centenary is due next year.


Laws like the UAPA seek to impose “reasonable restrictions” on the rights normally enjoyed by citizens. That is why they differ from other special laws meant to protect vulnerable groups like Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes or women. The latter laws — against caste atrocities or dowry harassment, for example — strengthen the legal process for punishing acts that are crimes anyway, even without the special laws. By contrast, the UAPA converts acts that are not just lawful but matters of right — free speech, assembly without arms, forming associations — into “unlawful activities” solely because of the suspicion that their objective may be to overthrow the state. For such drastic restrictions on basic civil rights to be seen as “reasonable”, it is imperative that laws like the UAPA have strong safeguards against their misuse by the government of the day.

Though it is our second-oldest special law, UAPA lacks the safeguards that its predecessors and younger siblings were endowed with. The provision for single judge oversight tribunals is rarely invoked, and there is no built-in self-terminating “sunset clause”. But its provisions apart, what really matters is that the UAPA is being used alarmingly often. According to the latest National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, from 2014 to 2016, it was invoked an average of 930 times each year. The UAPA also has a far higher pendency rate than other laws, and almost 90 per cent of its cases are carried forward from year to year. Does it seem reasonable for the Indian state to fear for its very existence roughly two-and-half times every day? It is far more plausible that such laws are essentially devices for parking political opponents and other inconvenient persons in jail.

The decisive question is how to deal with fellow citizens who think differently and are annoying or inconvenient to us — like lawyers who defend the socially and economically defenceless, or civil rights activists daring to make the state accountable, or even poets who celebrate revolution. A mature democracy should surely be able to ensure that Kabir’s idealistic backyard cottage is not substituted by an authoritarian prison.

The writer teaches sociology at Delhi University and was among those who petitioned the Supreme Court against the detention of activists, allegedly for their connection to the Bhima Koregaon incident

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First published on: 27-12-2018 at 12:13:13 am
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