Friday, June 13, 2008

Civil Liberties Under the threat

Is India fast turning into a police state?

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

As India grows to become global power, the penetration of civil society, media and other instruments of state become stronger and visible. While it might not be to the likings of those in power when they see protest against forcible acquisition of land in the name of ‘development’. Portraying India as a democracy is easier as we have everything which makes us a successful democracy in the world. We have the ‘best’ constitution. We have president who ‘epitomizes’ ideal Indian woman, chief justice of India from the most marginalized community. The chief minister of India’s most populous and perhaps most criminal state of Uttar-Pradesh is a ‘Dalit woman’. We have so many from the marginalized communities that it looks as if we are a mature democracy.

But the brutal fact is that we are still a democracy which works on symbols. So when symbols are questioned, our maturity as a democracy comes to an end. Therefore, each of these symbols whether they belong to the most marginalized communities or women, feel irritated once they are questioned. The governments of the day feel that these babus in their secretariat provide them the true information. Every act of the state which is questioned is considered as blasphemy.

Over 30 years ago, Indira Gandhi became larger than life. Any criticism of Indira became a challenge to the nation and the critiques were put behind the bar. But that was very small thing. Today, the states are becoming highly inflammable and intolerant to any criticism of their functioning. They want a media which could report on their press releases. They want civil society to do the work designed and defined for the construction contractors hence you find more NGOs in the domain of contractors. Very few have got the guts to speak up against this tyranny.

One need not to go into political ideologies or international connections of civil society groups here but the basic of why the state and its authorities are getting tizzy over criticism need serious analysis. When Binayak Sen was arrested in Chhatisgarh, the same argument was given that he had linked with Naxalites. A state which has surrendered and can not protect its citizens is blaming a human rights activist who has been sincerely doing his work, is termed as a ‘sympathizers’ as if sympathy with a group become anti national. One does not know what does it mean but definitely all those who once upon of a time wrote that Maoists were terrorists in Nepal, will have to shut their mouth and sit with them as people’s power have brought them. Binayak Sen is still languishing in Jail despite appeal for his release by international community. His continuous confinement shows how mature are we as a democracy.

Just a few days back, about 18 farmers contested election as mark of protest in Polepally, Mehboob Nagar, Andhra Pradesh where Andhra Pradesh government is developing an SEZ. The land acquired made a majority of the people of the area completely landless and penniless. The state’s forced acquisition did not give people time to think. Political parties play blame game and yet when they come to power, behave in a very similar way. Hence when the farmers contested in the polls as independent candidates, they all calculated and yet were not allowed to protest. If the chief minister comes to the town, all the contestants were illegally detained and let off in far away places.

Illegal detention is part of our police culture. It is to stop you speaking in open. It is state’s intimidation with out killing you. It is basically killing us all the time. Movements are divided, rifts are created among them, laws are interpreted in such a way that no one would believe in democracy. Why should any one believe in it if after 20-30 years of struggle and faith in the highest law of the land, people do not get justice? The case point is Shaheed Udham Singh Nagar, where over 150 Dalit landless workers were involved in their struggle for livelihood. About 1167 acres of land was illegally possessed by a company named as M/s Escorts Farms Ltd. Despite Allahabad High Court verdict which was later upheld by Supreme Court, the state government refused to implement the order. Even the Lokayukta of Uttarakhand found that the officials of the government have violated the law and done contempt of the court, but nothing moves. A fresh petition was filed by Social Development Foundation in the Supreme Court of India with Justice K.G.Balakrishanan and Justice Ravindran issued notices to Uttarakhand government against the same. Not every one can go to the court. By the time, people reach Supreme Court, their patience is gone, and a number of them do not even remain alive to see the dooms day. Hence in democracy people are using other techniques for their redressal like social audits, public hearing, people’s tribunals and many innovative ideas. Unfortunately, the government officials have become too intolerant to these ideas as they have become instruments for public shows and media relation exercise. The officials, habitual of hiding facts know that under tremendous pressure of civil society, they won the issues like Right to Information which is being used by people to redress their issues. In fact, it has become an obstacle in the freedom of the officials. Now, issues like Social Audits of the government programmes have also made people aware of their rights. Those who enjoy ignorance of people at the cost of their livelihood are now feeling challenged and confronted and therefore various acts of intimidations.

Therefore, questioning government and authorities may cost you life as happened in the case of Lalit Mehta, a social activist of the right to food campaign in Jharkhand, who was shot dead when as he unearthed massive scandal in the NREGS. Shockingly rather than arresting the culprit, the government reports implicate noted economist Jean Dreze, the inspiration behind right to food campaign. It shows how the governments of the day function and how ignorant its officials are about the persons leading such movements. It is not their fault but the culture we have developed in the government which they are the law unto themselves.

The point is that these cases will go on and on. We will highlight them and ultimately put the erring officials to scrutiny but what happens to the people. Many of the people in these cases are old and by the time justice comes they are no more. In the Shaheed Udham Singh Nagar case many lost their children. Cases were filed against them for ‘disturbing’ peace. Similar thing happened in Polepally as just a day back, a young woman drank poison as her family was in a difficult situation after the land was forcibly taken over by the government. Now, over the years apart from mobilization as form of protest, organizing alternative strategies such as blogs, silent protests, fast and public hearing are fast becoming instruments of civil society. As corporatised media is controlled and give news according to their own interest, we have to find, who will be interested in our stories. But if you are not politically correct and are not into any fixation into ‘this’ or ‘that’ political formation, then even the best known ‘secular’ paper like ‘the Hindu’ can ditch you. And we know how faithfully it reported the events of Nandigram.

The ‘democratic’ Marxists are most undemocratic. Apart from fudging the data, playing with numbers to prove them with ‘impeccable’ credentials, they have been romanticized by aid agencies, people working for land rights and those working on secularism in India. Yes, outside Bengal, they fight for people’s right over resources, they are organising public hearing and being part of it. They are role models even for their ‘worst’ critiques like ‘world bank’. ‘Frontline’ gave them hundred percent marks for ‘elimination’ of manual scavenging and wonderfully handling the Nandigram crisis. When public hearings are considered as part of people’s protests and their faith in democratic values, in Bengal, the police order have put question mark over such things. That human rights organization, MASUM, which is working against torture and custodial deaths, organized a Public Hearing against the victims of police atrocities in Kolkata on June 9th and June 10th. It is strange that the state government felt offended with the activities of a civil society organization where a former Chief Justice of a state high court and a former chairperson of National Commission for Women, participated as observers. Have public hearing or people’s tribunal become parallel government? Perhaps the governments of the day want to believe that. Unfortunately, they do not understand that people’s tribunal helps the victims to understand the legal dynamics of their cases. People’s tribunals are like watch dogs of the government action so that they can be improved. Like any civil society these are lawful activities with legal luminaries and government authorities participating in it.

In a civilized society, governments of the day need to be on the toes. No government, however, old or big might be is above the rule of the law. Government’s authorities are responsible to people. Their activities need to be questioned. The state human rights commissions are becoming redundant. Even the activities of NHRC are limited. And even with in those parameters, the governments are not interested in forming these commissions. The case point is Haryana where a woman who was raped by the constables of Haryana police committed suicide in front of the DGP office after failing to get FIR against the erring policemen who instead of surrendering tried to implicate her husband. Haryana which is notorious for honored killing and caste based crimes, does not feel it necessary to have its own State Human Rights Commission.

The assaults on human rights defenders will grow in the coming days. They would be asked to toe the government line. Like the embedded press, perhaps, the government is looking for embedded human rights activism. They find it difficult since their own institutions which they constituted are not functioning according to their fancies. It is time, Indian officials and police adhere to international norms and practices. Any act of intimidations to human rights activists will only damage the forces of rule of law in the country. As long as there will be assault on people’s right whether they are fundamental rights or rights over resources, people will fight for justice and for that they will not only need strong national laws but support and collaboration from international laws and civil society. Human Rights movement world over are supporting people’s cause and need full support. We must decry and oppose to any attempt to intimidate people to express their opinion and exercise their right to organize a public hearing which is part of any civilized democratic system to highlight the plight of the victims. If that is taken away from us, there will be no difference between a democracy and a military junta or a martial law regime anywhere in the world. Wake up India, otherwise, it would be too late.