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Civil disobedience has come back to haunt authorities

SAR Geelani's acquittal is one such example of 'people power' shaking the ivory towers of government agencies, writes Cooshalle Samuel.

india Updated: Nov 13, 2006 04:53 IST

For India, a country born out of activism, the concept isn’t really new. But what is redefining it today, is the increasing participation of the urban middle and upper classes who no longer have a mere opinion but an assertive attitude.

Armed with the latest technological gizmos, these new age activists are banding together to bring the guilty to justice, support the innocent, preserve the environmentand resist unfair policies and laws.

The acquittal of professor SAR Geelani, one of the four accused in the Parliament attack, isone such example of ‘people power’ shaking the ivory towers of government agencies.

Convinced of his innocence, a few prominent citizens created an all India committee for his defence. His death sentence was followed by a 3-day bandh in Kashmir and a flood of 50,000 postcards demanding a fair trial.

A similar quest for truth was started by Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) who undertook an independent inquiry into the 2002 Godhra carnage. Based on their petitions, in 2004 the Supreme Court ordered retrial of the Best Bakery case outside Gujarat and directed the police to reopen and review over 2,000 incidents of violence in the state.

The country has also witnessed shocking instances of desperate citizens drawing attention to their plight. One such incident was the nude march of some 30 Manipuri women protesting the rape and murder of a woman. As a result the government was forced to appoint the Justice Upendra Commission to look into the legal, constitutional and moral aspects of the Armed Forces Special Provisions Act. Its recommendations, even though not implemented, included toning down the Act and making it applicable to all “disturbed areas” in India and not just the North-eastern states.

In another act of defiance, Delhi citizens refused to pay a 10 per cent hike in power tariff, starting a civil disobedience movement. After issuing warnings to those refusing to pay, the governemnt later had to completely roll back the hike in the face of increasing popularity of the movement.

Environmental activism too has come a long way from the days of the Chipko movement, with informed citizens increasingly using judicial interventions to save their surroundings. One such triumph was the 2005 Bombay High Court judgement in response to a PIL filed by the Bombay Environmental Action Group, which set aside the sale of textile mill lands and made available some 200 acres for open spaces and 162-222 acres for low-cost public housing, in a city starved for space.

Knowledge based activism of not for profit, think tanks such as the Center for Science and Environment (CSE), the Public Affairs Centre (PAC) and the Consumer Education and Research Centre (CERC) etc too are proving effective. Staffed by professionals using research tools, media, lobbying and advocacy, these groups are working to make the system more citizen friendly. The CSE’s recent report on pesticides in drinking water and colas has drawn government attention to the misuse of these chemicals in India and initiated debate and review on the regulatory mechanism for drinking products.

As the next story goes to show that participatory citizen initiatives can go a long way in successfully deepening the roots of representative democracy.

First Published: Oct 30, 2006 03:51 IST