Dwindling Democracy : On Shrinking Democratic Space in India

img1 Cedric Prakash
02 Nov 2020

The Times of India on 30 October had an interesting editorial opinion ‘SCs Message’ with a subtitle “Let India remain a free country” Don’t treat criticism as a crime. The editorial opinion was significant (i) it highlighted the significance of Article 19 of the Constitution namely freedom of speech and expression, in the context of a recent Supreme Court judgment and (ii) the judgement given was in a very specific context: here it is the Kolkata police and West Bengal a State currently at logger-heads with the Central Government.

The Supreme Court certainly deserves plaudits for the judgment. The one hauled by the Kolkata police was one Roshni Biswas of Delhi, because of two posts on a Facebook page where she said, “The lockdown is not being followed at Rajabazar…. During lockdown, thousands of people have come together and raising concerns as to whether the State administration would do something about it.” The FIR stated that the posts implied “the State administration was going soft on the violation of the lock down at Rajabazar as the area is predominantly inhabited by a particular community.” This area has a majority of Muslim population.

Granting relief to Ms Biswas who was summoned for questioning by Kolkata police over these posts that attracted an FIR, the Supreme Court bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and Indira Banerjee finding the post too innocuous to be converted into a first information report (FIR), the shuddered to think that if police were to issue summons to ordinary citizens in this manner, it will set a dangerous trend forcing Courts to step in and protect the constitutionally guarded fundamental right of free speech under Article 19(1)(a).

Also read Testing Time for Democracy by Dr. Suresh Mathew

The bench remarked, “If some person writes something against the Government in some country, are you (state) going to make him appear, say in Kolkata or Chandigarh or Manipur and tell him that now we will teach you a lesson. This is a dangerous proposition. Let this remain a free country.” On all counts, it was a much-needed observation from the apex Court. 

The TOI op-ed goes on to state categorically that “the SC underscored that it exists to protect ordinary citizens from harassment by the state. The court, rightly, strictured the “chilling message” sent when police in various cities resort to similar summoning of people from across the country. The current mood across governments of “You want freedom of speech; we will teach you a lesson” was certainly not what our freedom fighters or Constitution drafters had in mind. Yet, political dissent and activism facing pushback in the form of misguided IPC, NSA, UAPA cases are increasingly being reported”.

Today, 83-year-old Jesuit priest Fr Stan Swamy is languishing in the Taloja jail near Mumbai for his apparent involvement in the Elgar Parishad and the subsequent violence of 1 January 2018 in Bhima- Koregaon. A charge which is fabricated and which Fr. Stan vehemently denies. He was arrested on 8 October under the draconian UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act). Fifteen others  have also been arrested on similar charges; they are Sudha Bharadwaj, (human rights lawyer and activist from Chhattisgarh),Varavara Rao (78-year-old Activist, writer and poet from Andhra Pradesh; he is currently very sick),Anand Teltumbde (70-year-old Dalit scholar and activist),Arun Ferreira(advocate and human rights’ activist from Mumbai),Vernon Gonsalves (civil rights activist and former professor at Mumbai University),Sudhir Dhawale (writer and Mumbai-based Dalit rights activist), Shoma Sen(professor at Nagpur University),Surendra Gadling (a UAPA expert and lawyer from Nagpur),Mahesh Raut (a young activist on displacement issues from Gadchiroli),Rona Wilson (Delhi-based prisoners’ rights activist),Gautam Navlakha (Delhi-based journalist and civil rights activist),Hanybabu Tarayil (DU Professor)and three members of the Kabir Kala Manch ,Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaichor and Jyoti Jagtap. They are not the only one’s other human rights defenders like Umar Khalid and Sai Baba; some anti-CAA protestors who are also in jail on false charges, all because they have taken a stand for justice and truth.

Also read Democracy in Decline:The Frightening Slide of Democracy in India

Noted social scientist Christophe Jaffrelot in an op-ed in The Indian Express (29 October) says (of those arrested) “They were all accused under the draconian anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, of a conspiracy aimed at overthrowing the government and assassinating the Prime Minister. The accusations were made on the basis of letters recovered from the computers of two of the arrested. Amnesty Tech, the Amnesty International’s digital-security team, discovered subsequently that one of these computers contained malware allowing remote access and alleged that the letters could have been planted. The allegation that the letters had been manufactured cannot be dismissed given that the communication of the Naxals is always heavily coded. While searching the houses of the accused, the Maharashtra police listed as evidence against the accused literature that is not banned — they also commented on the political ideas and social attitudes of the accused. For instance, the men in uniform who searched the house of Varavara Rao’s daughter Pavana and son-in-law K. Satyanarayana, a professor at the English and Foreign Languages University in Hyderabad, asked, “Why are you reading books on Mao and Marx? Why do you have books published in China? (…) Why are there photos of Phule and Ambedkar in your house, but no photos of gods?’’ To Rao’s daughter, they said, “Your husband is a Dalit, so he does not follow any tradition. But you are a Brahmin, so why are you not wearing any jewellery or sindoor? Why are you not dressed like a traditional wife? Does the daughter have to be like the father too?” In trying to make people comply with the upper-caste version of their religion and exhorting them to reject leftist ideologies in an anti-intellectual manner, such policemen echo the discourses of the Hindu nationalist vigilantes.

At a recent Media Conference, organised by the People Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) opposition Leaders from across the political spectrum have called for an immediate repeal of the UAPA. CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury at a virtual conference recently “This the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act must go from statute books. It has to be removed. We do not need these sorts of laws that can be misused. The present regime removed checks and balances on UAPA and misused this draconian law. It must go.”

The judiciary was always meant to be the strongest and an absolutely non-partisan pillar of democracy. This latest judgement notwithstanding, some of the recent judicial  pronouncements will make most Indians hang their head in shame; they include the ones on the Raffaele jets corruption, the two verdicts on the Ayodhya- Babri Masjid and of course the contempt of court foisted on Prashant Bhushan for his two tweets - one against the current Chief Justice and the other against some of the former CJIs. That the Supreme Court has had to dilly-dally on such a contentious issue like the UAPA, which today gives the State unbridled power to haul up any citizen who dissents or criticises the Government – speaks volumes of the shrinking space of democracy in India. 

Recently the High Court of Uttarakhand said, “Unless public functionaries are criticised, democracy cannot be strengthened … if dissent is suppressed under the sedition law, it would make democracy weak. Criticising the government can never be sedition.” It was quashing a sedition case against a journalist who accused the Uttarakhand CM of corruption.  As the TOI op-ed ends, “despite this being the settled law on sedition, police are keener to follow political diktats rather than umpteen judicial pronouncements quashing sedition cases as well as narrowly restricting its interpretation. The time has come for the Supreme Court to re-examine whether the colonial-era sedition law is compatible with constitutional freedoms, given its frequent abuse”.

Civil society is being throttled in India. The less said about the media the better – a sizeable section of the mainstream media is today regarded as ‘godified’ – corrupted, co-opted and muted. There are those who mouth empty platitudes and shout lies and hate after buying up people for their TRPs. The legislature seems to have become impotent going by the wat Articles 370 and 35A with regard to Jammu and Kashmir, the FCRA amendments, the farm bills and the three labour codes were passed. The ‘Executive’ obviously plays to the tunes of the political masters- clearly demonstrating how spineless it has become. On the feast of  Milad-un-Nabi(30 October)the National Conference (NC) claimed that authorities in Jammu and Kashmir prevented its president Farooq Abdullah from leaving his residence to offer prayers at the Hazratbal shrine; besides several human rights defenders were apparently being harassed and even intimidated prompting Mary Lawlor the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights tweet late at night, “ I have been hearing disturbing news about a series of raids in #Kashmir against Human Rights Defenders, including some I have been talking to in recent weeks”

Earlier this month the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet in a statement on India said “I urge the Government to ensure that no one else is detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly – and to do its utmost, in law and policy, to protect India's robust civil society. I also urge the authorities to carefully review the FCRA for its compliance with international human rights standards and to release people charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for simply exercising basic human rights that India is obligated to protect. I am concerned that vaguely defined laws are increasingly being used to stifle these voices."

Democratic space in India is shrinking very fast; it will all be lost, if we the people of India do not wake up now – and stop the rot!
*( Cedric Prakash is a human rights and peace activist/writer. Contact: cedricprakash@gmail.com )

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