39 Years Later

June comes, June goes. And civil liberties groups across the country reiterate their resolve to fight against authoritarian tendencies in Indian democracy. 39 years later it is the same question as to how to protect democratic rights, albeit there is no official Emergency. In a way Emergency acted as a catalyst for making a civil society relevant and unitedly vocal outside the ambit of partisan politics. Liberals and democrats, for the first time, marched to freedom, in their limited capacity, to defeat fear-psychosis that was associated with Emergency. But fear-psychosis continues to stifle the voice of dissent against social and economic injustice in some parts of the country. The people of those areas, particularly in North East and Jammu and Kashmir, don't enjoy democratic rights they are entitled to. They live in a perpetual state of Emergency. Nobody knows when Emergency will be lifted from these ‘disturbed’ areas. Then tribal protest everywhere in the country, be it Chattisgarh or Maharashtra, faces Emergency; they are not allowed to protest. Emergency continues to haunt a large number of people, marginalised and poor people, who are literally neo-liberal refugees in their own homeland.

Civil Libterties Movement that arose from the womb of Emergency got splintered, when Emergency officially ended. It’s a tragedy that civic society cannot act in unison even for civil libterties. There are so many issues that demand civil libertarians speak out vociferously to challenge the status quo and yet they are mute spectators while strengthening the very basis of status quo and weakening the foundations of democracy. Today this movement that had once raised great expectations to make this fragile democracy functional and meaningful, is no longer developing, both horizontally and vertically. Movement that today survives in some pockets, is resorting to ad hoc-ism and fighting rights abuses by the police and that too locally. The possibility of a unified struggle for the protection of democratic rights across the country seems bleak.

Rights activists who are campaigning against police atrocities, social evils, violence against women are dubbed maoists (or left-wing extremists) the way communists in pre-liberated Vietnam were denigrated—Viet Kong. Some civil liberties groups are projected as front organisations of naxalites because they take up the cases of extra-judicial killings, disappearance, ill-treatment of prisoners and all that. Even these organisations otherwise continually facing the ire of the administration all the time, failed to move in a co-ordinated manner and put up resistance to ‘uncivil libterties’.

Of late there are some ominous signs in civil liberties movement. Retired police officials and bureaucrats who were instrumental in suppressing civil liberties in their service days are joining the movement, sometimes launching their own platforms, apparently seeking to address human rights violations. The situation is somewhat paradoxical—ex-policemen are talking about civil liberties and human rights. If anything they raise more concerns over rights abuses among the public—many are apprehensive of their motives.

In truth the scope of civil liberties movement has widened over the years. As most political parties, left and right alike, refuse to speak on behalf of the ‘development’ induced evictees, unfair labour practice, market mayhem, increased oppression against the weaker and vulnerable sections of the society by the men in uniform, people look forward to civil liberties groups for redressal. They feel helpless and voiceless in a situation where the persons in authority violate all constitutional norms with impunity.

Emergency created a suffocating atmosphere, curtailing democratic space at its roots, for the dissenters but today democratic space is denied to a large number of people, sometimes legally, who decline to kowtow to the powers that be. True, there is no Emergency but there are so many draconian repressive laws in place that they can easily thwart democratic aspirations of the people, without officially declaring Emergency.

Thousands of political prisoners are languishing in medieval jails without trial for years for ‘crimes’ which they never committed. And this is one area where civil libterties movement has failed miserably to develop a countrywide campaign against illegal detention a la Emergency. Sporadic and isolated agitations, here and there, against indiscriminate arrest, torture, custodial deaths, incarceration on flimsy and trumpeted charges, are no answer to continuing suppression of civil liberties and democratic rights, otherwise guaranteed by the constitution. Only after America and China, India can boast of such a huge prison population and yet they call it the biggest show-piece of democracy.

These days there are official human rights bodies both at the centre and in states—this was not the case during Emergency. For all practical purposes these highly decorative organisations mock at themselves when, it is the question of protecting rights and liberties.

Legally speaking there is no bonded labour in the country but in some states brick kilns continue to thrive on bonded labour. Only a few weeks back the media reported that brick kiln workers in Medak and Rangareddy districts of Andhra Pradesh were kept in bondage, subjected to inhuman torture and forced to work for more than 12 hours per day for a paltry sum of Rs 500 to 700 per week. Their children were also working with them. These workers are mainly tribal migrants from adjoining Orissa districts. Brick kilns in Thane and Bhinwandi districts of Maharashtra too are using bonded labourers, drawn from the Katkari tribe. For these people civil liberties sound funny. They live in Emergency; they die in Emergency.

While marking the black chapter of Indian democracy—the promulgation of Emergency on June 25—one aspect is ignored. The external angle of that sordid episode! Those were the days of Soviet domination over Indian polity and Economy. Not for nothing the Muscovites of India were the ardent supporters of Indira Gandhi’s authoritarianism. And the captains of industry were enthusiastic champions of Emergency as they saw in it a nice device to bash labour without being confronted by the forces of labour organising. Today the corporate lobby is demanding an Emergency-like atmosphere to speed up growth, to shape democracy, hopefully in their own mould.

Vol. 47, No. 1, Jul 13 - 19, 2014