There is an environment of fear in India. The State must renew the commitment to rights
Indian democracy has always been a work in progress. There is no doubt that unlike most post-colonial democracies, the idea of representative democracy, elections, free speech, free association and rule of law took deeper root in India. But while there may be a difference in degree, there has never been a golden period where individual rights were sacrosanct and protected as rigorously as the original drafters of the Constitution had in mind. This was symbolised in Jawaharlal Nehru’s push to bring in the first amendment, which restricted the scope for fundamental rights, Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, Rajiv Gandhi’s attempts at bringing in the anti-defamation bill, the curtailment of individual liberty under anti-terror laws, the fact that perpetrators of even mass crimes have often got away, and the crackdown on free expression for the fear of offending sensitivities. So no regime can claim it has been truly democratic.
Yet, even in the backdrop of this mixed history, what appears to be happening now is an almost unprecedented attack on civil liberties of citizens, especially those citizens who the government finds inconvenient. From Bhima Koregaon to the Delhi riots, from the 2016 episode in Jawaharlal Nehru University to the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests to even Hathras, there appears to be a pattern where the fundamental right of citizens to life and liberty is increasingly under strain. If, in the past, political protection enabled distortions in the justice system to protect the powerful, what is now happening is that the political regime is using the justice system not just to protect its own, but to frame others under serious charges from sedition to inciting violence.
The action against a range of intellectuals and activists and journalists — Sudha Bharadwaj, Anand Teltumbde, Stan Swamy, Apoorvanand, Harsh Mander are among the better-known examples — indicates that the space for free expression and dissent is jeopardised. It gives rise to apprehensions that the political dispensation does not view criticism as an essential ingredient of democracy. It empowers the police to be vindictive rather than fair. It erodes the rule of law. And it creates fear. This is not to suggest that critics must not be held accountable for any illegal or unlawful activity; nor is it to endorse the viewpoints of many of these activists. But it does mean that the regime must revise its approach and deepen its commitment to rights.