Need to safeguard rights

Threat to Institutions

By Dhurjati Mukherjee

Recently former Chief Justice of Delhi High Court Justice AP Shah regretted the fact that every institution designed to hold the Executive accountable is being systematically destroyed since 2014, the time the BJP government came to power. Delivering the late Justice Hosbet Suresh Memorial lecture titled: “The Supreme Court in Decline: Forgotten Freedoms and Eroded Rights”, he said: “We might not be in a state of war but we are in a state of emergency, unprecedented for generations. Central to all this, and certainly, of most concern to me, is the role of the Supreme Court”. He further noted: “In India, today, every institution, mechanism or tool that is designed to hold the Executive accountable, is being systematically destroyed”.
Retd. Justice Shah came down heavily on the alleged misuse of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), which he said was being used to stifle dissent and put people behind bars and branding them as ‘anti-nationals’. Referring to the Supreme Court, he said, “In the face of all this, the one institution which has the capacity to turn the tide is the judiciary. Unfortunately, it seems to have lost its way”. According to him, with Parliament weakened, the apex court would have been the next best space to discuss the Kashmir trifurcation, the constitutional validity of the Citizenship Amendment Act, the suppression and criminalisation of the protests against the law, the misuse of draconian legislation like the sedition law and the UAPA.
Similar sentiments have been aired by number of intellectuals and jurists for some time now. However, in addition reference has been made to another form of repression i.e. stifling the right to protest and the right to free speech. Justice Shah cited the crackdown on the anti-CAA protests and implications on civilians, critical of the government in the North East Delhi riots and worse the judiciary looking the other way like a mute spectator.
Reported attempts are being made to stop dissent in all forms and concentrate power in a centralised manner. Such stifling of dissent is being carried out in a surreptitious manner and through free flow of unaccounted money, while institutions are being centralised so as to ensure there can be no support of dissenting opinion. It appears that people from all walks of life are being allured to support the government.
The common man has reason to worry as he knows he won’t get justice or his grievances be patiently heard as the government has turned ‘autocratic’ and anti-people. This can be gauged from the government going into denial mode with regard to the misery of migrant workers, which it claimed was triggered by fake news and it chose not to have any data! An impression that the Opposition and critics feels is gradually growing is that the government is only tilted towards the corporate and business community and is interested in aiding them through various ways.
One may refer here to a seminal book, ‘A Systems Analysis of Political Life’, wherein political theorist David Easton, argued that public trust in political authorities and institutions provides diffused support that authorities can always fall back on in times of crisis. Trust in government represents the confidence of citizens in the actions of the “government to do what is right and perceived fair”.
Thinkers such as Gandhi, Madison and Hume thought that expression of distrust towards the government could act as a safeguard for democracy but this is not being allowed by the current dispensation. Distrust towards the government can be the result of public experience of governmental incompetence, which is well manifest from recent developments in the country.
Political analysts and vocal critics of the government believe and quite rightly, that a situation of such magnitude wasn’t witnessed even during the darks days of Emergency. The judiciary, the last bastion for powerless citizens to appeal to, has not played its independent role. One may recall here that at the dawn of the modern State, the kings and lords realised the importance of the administration of justice. A democratic government transiting to the authoritarian mode is what has actually happened i.e. violating the citizens’ sense of right and fairness.
The way situation is developing and shaping in different sectors points to a process whereby there is a clear tendency to centralise authority and control without considering the views and interests of the people at large. There is also a clear tendency of suppressing dissent at any cost. A classic recent-most example is that of Amnesty International being hounded out of the country and its India office having had to shut down. While government claims bungling of foreign funds, what is said to be behind the action is two of its critical reports – one on Jammu & Kashmir’s changed status and the other on the N-E Delhi riots.
The present situation doesn’t augur well for the country and many critics and dissenters suggest the need for ‘strong resistance’. But the big question is how shall such resistance be organized in the country and who will lead these protests against authoritarian government? However, people are responding in their own little way. With regard to the recent Hathras ‘gang rape’ case, 100-odd top retired bureaucrats have expressed concern over the rule of law and how institutional autonomy is being eroded.
In a federal structure, the centralisation of authority – concentrated at the Central or State level – is a big no go, particularly for a healthy democracy, where transparency and public opinion needs to be valued. Unfortunately, our political leaders are not interested in proper decentralisation be it political or economic power. It would not be out of place to refer to a recent observation of Delhi High Court which expressed ‘pain’ that, on at on the one hand, the government talks of ‘Make in India’ and, on the other, floats tenders that would result in ouster of local, small entrepreneurs.
The court further stated: “What really irks is that if you really want to oust these people (small entities), then say so. Don’t be hypocritical in your speeches. Your political leadership speaks of ‘Make in India’, they speak of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’, they speak about encouraging local industry, but your actions don’t match your words,”, the court pointed out in a case relating to tender conditions for ground handling operations in regional airports.
Thus, whenever leaders talk of decentralisation, it should be viewed as hoodwinking the people and more so because national parties have themselves concentrated authority at the highest level. At this moment and situation, to restore autonomy to different institutions pressure groups need to be created across board to ensure there is correct decentralisation so that the people’s voice and views even at the grass-root levels are reflected at the top decision-making process and rights are not stifled.— INFA