When we assess where we stand 70 years thence, the picture is sombre. Not that there has been no progress. India is a large and growing economy. Life expectancy has grown remarkably, poverty rates have come down, India is one of a handful of countries that can launch satellites into space or have harnessed the fiendish energy of atomic fission. Indian technology services companies are important components of what makes the world work. Indian vaccine makers produce half the number of vaccine doses delivered in the world. Indians are acknowledged technocrats, and members of their tribe run two of the world’s largest five tech companies.
In his Independence Day address to the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort, Prime Minister Narendra Modi enumerated many further advances made by his government. And advances that he proposes to achieve further. These are remarkable by any yardstick. He appealed to every Indian to redouble efforts to make this, the third decade of the 21st century, the one in which India will realise its aspirations, having secured its basic needs in the previous ones.
The intended effect, of course, is to make every Indian reach for at least a thimble to join a collective effort to fill that half of the glass that is still empty. Yet, the cold water spilling out from the glass is enough to wake one up from the idyll, created by the rhetoric, of a nation marching unitedly and purposefully towards a new dawn. The Supreme Court has delivered the most recent splash of bracing awareness of the threat to democracy itself, the means to sustained and broadbased progress towards the goals of the freedom movement.
The Court has found senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan guilty of contempt, for two tweets that criticised recent incumbents of the office of the chief justice. If a senior lawyer who regularly appears before the Supreme Court is no longer free to express his frank opinion of court verdicts or the conduct of judicial functionaries, what kind of freedom of expression can ordinary people or journalists expect to have, especially as the Court has sanctified classification of defamation as a criminal offence as well?
It is not just that the Court has clamped down on criticism of its own conduct. It has allowed highhanded conduct on the part of the executive to proceed without hindrance. Several tribal rights activists have been in jail for two years in connection with the violence that broke out at Bhima Koregaon on 1 January 2018, when Dalits commemorated the 200th anniversary of the victory of Mahar troops of the British East India Company over the Peshwa’s upper caste army at that place (Mahars are a large Dalit community of Maharashtra). The gathering was attacked by right-wing activists. Protests erupted around Pune, Pimpri-Chinchwad and Ahmednagar and a Dalit youth died, reportedly in police firing.
The leader of the right-wing group was arrested, but the case against him was dropped, after a principal witness against him was found dead and her sibling was slapped with charges of attempted murder. Thereafter, the police dropped all investigations against the right-wing groups involved in the incident and discovered a Maoist conspiracy, including to assassinate the Prime Minister. In two years, the police have locked up assorted rights activists and academics, including two from Delhi university last week, without offering any proof other than what is contained in a sealed envelope handed over to the Supreme Court. They are in no hurry to proceed with prosecution. The Supreme Court has not just been a mute witness to this violation of basic freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, but also colluded in it by dismissing petitions for bail in these cases.
Police investigation into the recent Delhi riots are no less perverse. Those protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act are painted as conspirators and instigators of the riots, while the BJP leader who threatened violence if the anti-CAA protests were not called off is entirely off the hook. Students have been arrested under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
If these are instances of violation of basic freedoms guaranteed by the democratic Constitution arising from acts of commission, the march of locked-out migrant workers back home that proved lethal for many was the result of gross omission: failure, when a national lockdown was declared with scant notice, to take into account this huge class of people who lead precarious lives of day-to-day subsistence far away from any form of social support. The way the migrants were treated will remain a permanent blot on India’s democratic record.
So would demonetisation, which managed to kill off droves of small businesses that could not survive the financial shock of cash being driven out of the system. High import duties on metals and petrochemicals, the basic building blocks of small scale production, transferred income from consumers, who have to pay prices higher than what prevail in the global market, to industrialists. Protection has only increased under the present regime.
Digitisation of transactions is hugely beneficial, but also fraught. Digitised transactions lend themselves to surveillance and misuse. India is racing ahead with digitising sector after sector of everyday life — healthcare would be the latest — with protection against neither cyber criminals nor unlawful surveillance by the state. The Prime Minister announced measures to secure India against cyber crime, but was totally silent on a law to protect citizens’ lives from arbitrary state intrusion.
A fundamental feature of democracy is securing some inalienable rights of minorities against majoritarian urges. And this has been under systematic attack in contemporary India. Such attacks are not justified by the past cultivation of minority groups as expedient vote banks, making little effort to engage with them to align their normative behaviour, still rooted in pre-modern, anti-democratic custom, with the requirements of democracy.
Democracy is undermined when dissent is treated as treason and dissidents are labelled anti-nationals, subjected to cyber bullying, charged with sedition and worse on a routine basis.
Democracy is undermined when accountability of the state is truncated. The PM Cares Fund has been taken out of the ambit of the Comptroller and Auditor General. Of every rupee that goes into the Fund, about 12 paise belongs to the states, which are entitled to 42% of the taxes collected by the Centre and lose out when contributions to the Fund qualify for a deduction from taxable income. There are no valid arguments for keeping the Fund out of CAG audit.
Attempts to topple elected governments, some successful, reduced powers of information commissioners, the manner in which Jammu and Kashmir’s special status was taken away, concentration of decisionmaking within the Prime Minister’s Office, barred entry to journalists to the finance ministry, failure to publish statistical data that do not suit the government, the list of actions that chip away at democracy is long.
Democracy is a living force that exists outside the government, outside the Constitution and its institutions. That is why democracy survived the Emergency, which suspended many democratic rights. To give that force vital energy and to strengthen democracy, We, the People, have to exert ourselves as citizens, not petition any organ of the state. It is up to us, people, to realise the ever distant goals of the freedom struggle.