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Democracies Can Die – In Broad Daylight Too!

H Karthik Seshadri
3 July 2020 3:57 AM GMT
Democracies Can Die – In Broad Daylight Too!
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Democracy is not a mere once-in-5-years exercise of getting inked on the finger. It is about an alert citizenry staying well-informed, engaging with one another to understand the problems and continuously participating in building opinions and engaging with policy making.
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Few minutes before the clock struck midnight on 25th June 1975, the President of India signed the Proclamation of Internal Emergency on the advise of the Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi. A state of Emergency was proclaimed and enforced through the prescribed process under Article 352 of the Indian Constitution. A question that we, citizens, should be asking ourselves is, "For a democracy to crumble, is a formal declaration necessary?".

Professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt from Harvard University have written a masterpiece "How Democracies Die"[2]. The theme of the book is an analysis of how elected leaders across the spectrum have used the very process of election and subverted the democracies that brought them to power and how gradually they were able to assume to themselves autocratic power. As the book's title itself indicates, it is an analysis of how Democracies die.

The authors identify certain indicators that lead to the deterioration of Democracies. Broadly, they are summarised as:

  • Elected autocrats maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance;
  • Efforts to subvert democracies are portrayed as efforts to improve it, such as making the judiciary more efficient, cleaning up electoral processes, combating corruption. These are done legally, with the approval of the legislatures and the courts;
  • Opposition efforts are dumbed down and name-called, while often, media is bullied into silence or self-censorship or bought over;
  • The Public are often confused about happenings and do not immediately realise what is happening, simply because there is no single moment – no coup, declaration of martial law or suspension of the constitution or Proclamation of Emergency in which the regime crosses the line into dictatorship. The erosion is for many, almost imperceptible.[3]

What is the relevance of this book to the Indian context? It may be worthwhile to consider some of the circumstances that exist in today's day and time in India.

Erosion of Rule of Law by Suppressing Dissent:

Before COVID 19 pandemic struck India, two important decisions were taken by the government that need to be highlighted.

  • The abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution of India and the division of the State of Jammu & Kashmir into three Union Territories;
  • The amendments effected to the Citizenship Act in what is popularly referred to as the CAA, and the announcement of an exercise for creating a National Population Register (NPR) for the purpose of creating a nation-wide National Register of Citizens (NRC).

These decisions were effected without any meaningful public consultation. The decision to abrogate Article 370 has been described by scholars as being close to a constitutional fraud and a betrayal of the people of Jammu & Kashmir.[4] The status of the state of Jammu & Kashmir changed overnight into three Union territories. Three former Chief Ministers of the state were detained under the Public Safety Act. Host of other prominent citizens including a retired bureaucrat and lawyers were also detained. The internet connection was severed and communication channels shut down. Travel to and from Jammu & Kashmir was severely restricted. Even elected Members of Parliament were not allowed to visit the state. For months Jammu & Kashmir was practically cut off from the rest of India. Challenge to the abrogation before the Supreme Court is yet to be decided.

Soon thereafter, the Parliament introduced the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which saw protests erupt across the country against the proposed amendments which were perceived by many citizens as being unfair to those of the Islamic community. However, the Bill was passed very swiftly amidst opposition in both houses of the Parliament. The Citizenship Amendment Act was challenged in the Supreme Court of India by numerous persons. Protestors held huge demonstrations across India, including sit in protests in places like Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, Azad Maidan in Mumbai and numerous other places. Across the world protesters stood up against the CAA. Students from various reputed institutions like Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jamia Milia Islamia, Delhi University, Indian Institute of Science Bengaluru, Benaras Hindu University, IIT-Madras and many such reputed centres of learning stood at the forefront of these protests. Citizens across the country in various cities joined in the protests, against what they saw as an unjust, discriminatory law.

The governments unleashed the Police force against the students of some of these universities in a manner never seen before. The Police entered University campuses to assault students. The Police watched as political mobs entered University campuses with weapons and created mayhem. Not a single arrest has followed the brutal crackdown on the protesters. Despite the crackdown, the protests took creative forms of kolams and rangolis[5], music and street art[6], school plays and readings of the Preamble of the Constitution. Despite massive public sentiment against the CAA, those in power chose to treat the protesters as 'anti-nationals'. Two Members of Parliament were shockingly open and vocal in their calls for violence against the protesters, as part of their election campaign for Delhi elections. One, a sitting Minister of State made a hate-filled call at a public meeting for unleashing raw violence by calling out the slogan "Desh ke gaddaron ko" prompting his supporters to respond with "Goli Maaro Salon Ko".[7] The other Member of Parliament's hate speech at his campaign rally warned the people that protesters at Shaheen bagh "will enter your homes and rape your daughters and sisters." One must ponder over the fact that till today no punitive action have been made against any of the proponents of the above hate speeches.

The toxic build up of hate in Delhi resulted in a sudden explosion of violence in North-East Delhi beginning on February 23, 2020. There was largescale murder, looting and destruction of property that resulted in many people of the Islamic community having to leave their homes for safer zones. Despite the damage of the violence showing that the victims of the violence were predominantly from the Muslim community, the State chooses to build a narrative of the riots being caused by the Muslims. The State diligently refuses to acknowledge any role played by the hate speeches in fuelling the riots. Instead, the State chooses to accuse protestors and activists of instigating riots. The government now using its police powers has charged various leaders of the peaceful protests of having instigated violence and rioting, conveniently turning a blind eye to those who indulged in hate speeches. Student protestors were arrested and detained under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Even a pregnant student was arrested and kept in detention.

The strategy appears to be very clear. Bully your opponents into submission. It really does not matter whether the charges will be proved. That is going to take an enormously long time, given the track record of the criminal justice system in the country. The time and money that will be needed for those charged to defend themselves would drain them off all their energies and from raising their voices against what they perceive as an unjust law. The mighty government machinery funded by the common man would be put to use against the very same common man for having raised his/her voice. Will anyone be held to account, if the charges are not proved? Will the government compensate the individuals who were incarcerated or had to stand a long and arduous trial to establish their innocence?

What is the consequence of the above? A sense of fear is driven into the minds of people who have the intellect to critically analyse events around them and engage with the government through their opinions and feedback. These people are forced to think whether it is worth the dangers to their selves, careers and families for them to stand up to protest against an unjust law. What if the state adopts a similar strategy and implicates them? It is my submission that once such thoughts enter the minds of the common man, democracy is in peril.

After all, democracy is not a mere once-in-5-years exercise of getting inked on the finger. It is about an alert citizenry staying well-informed, engaging with one another to understand the problems and continuously participating in building opinions and engaging with policy making. Democracies thrive with an engaged, enlightened citizenry. Democracies die with silent citizens, who do not question or analyse and are content with swallowing propaganda.

Dilution of the fairness of Elections:

Elections are the process by which our citizens are empowered to put up their representatives for governance. This process however has become entirely perverted into 'party politics'. For a long time, the word 'party' was not found in the Constitution of India, till it was introduced by way of an amendment to the Constitution in the X Schedule in 1985.

Parties have now assumed a very structured existence. They are like behemoth corporations. Parties have realised the power of propaganda and social media. They have a centralised command and a number of employees. They have propaganda wings that operate Twitter and Facebook accounts. They have enlisted full time personnel to disseminate News and information in the manner in which it suits them. Fake news/Alternate facts, through medium of Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp forwards are used extensively in order to bring enormous confusion in the minds of people by clouding issues. Instead of political activity being about disseminating information, encouraging discussion and building consensus towards right decision making, political parties are indulging in propaganda and brainwashing. The expenses for marketing, advertising and propaganda are considerable. Parties require huge amount of money for these activities.

Sometime in 2017 the Central government introduced an amendment to the Finance Bill to bring in "electoral bonds". What was sought to be introduced ostensibly as a measure for increasing transparency in the political funding process, has turned out to be an opaque system, of corporations concluding a bargain with the political parties and the likely 'winner' in the elections. Previously it was incumbent on a political party to disclose any donation it received in excess of Rs.2,000. However, with the introduction of electoral bonds, the names of the purchasers of these bonds were not disclosed. Challenges have been made in the Supreme Court to the amendments to the Representation of Peoples Act, Foreign Contributions Regulation Act, Income Tax Act, Companies Act, that enabled this process. Several elections have come and gone but the challenge remains undecided.

Furthermore, as a consequence of Political Parties having such enormous resources, we are witnessing a very worrying trend of horse trading happening across several States. Elected representatives are being lured into 'resort commerce' and elected governments toppled. Examples of this crass commercialisation of politics are many.

There was a time when Election Commissioners evoked fear in all electoral participants. Times have changed.

When Elections become less free and fair, democracies fade away.

Erosion of Individual liberty using extraordinary powers:

The World Health Organisation had warned the world about the outbreak of a viral infection in China called Covid 19 in early January 2020. It took the Central Government nearly 2 months, to come to terms with the seriousness of the pandemic outbreak. Suddenly on March 24, 2020 it imposed a 'lockdown' by giving 4 hours' notice to the people of the country, invoking the provisions of the Disaster Management Act. All forms of public transport were halted. It is now 3 months and despite withdrawal of the lockdown in a phased manner by the Centre, very many States have continued the lockdown in different forms. Consequently businesses, courts, education and even access to medical care have all been severely impaired.

The restrictions imposed by the governments led to an unprecedented situation where thousands of persons who had moved from their origin States to other States in the country in search of employment and popularly referred to as 'migrant workers' began treading their way back to their 'homes' on foot. Social media reports and ground level reporters showed the horrors of this 'reverse migration'. Hundreds lost their lives. Public Interest litigations had to be filed in various High Courts in the country to highlight the plight of these poor migrants and the lack of support from the Governments. All this while the Government was trying to protect itself from its inactions and was on denial mode. Public pressure and outcry led to the Supreme Court suo moto stepping in to issue directions for the safe transportation of the migrant workers.

At the same time a very opaque Fund was created under the name of PM-Cares. Opaque for the reason that its accounts are not made public nor subjected to a public audit by the CAG. Huge amounts were collected especially from corporations and contributions to the PM Cares Fund was also accorded benefit of fulfilling the statutory Corporate Social Responsibility obligations for the corporates while denying the same for contributions to other Relief funds[8]. Applications made under the Right to Information Act for disclosures about the contributions to the PM Cares and the use of the monies were stonewalled and information denied to the public.

There have also been reports of a crackdown by the governments against journalists who were reporting on events concerning the citizens during the lockdown[9]. Journalists are the eyes and ears of the citizens. They bring to light any administrative or executive lapses. States have used the police machinery to register FIRs and, in a few instances, arrested journalists during the lockdown so as to create a 'chilling effect' on free speech. It is a matter of concern that various States are looking at the Covid 19 problem more as a law and order issue and not as a health issue for its citizens.

Conclusion:

We are reminded, time and again, correctly, that on June 25, 1975 an atrocious act was committed on the nation when Emergency was proclaimed by a power hungry despotic Prime Minister. As citizens it is our duty to ensure that such an action is never repeated by any leader(s) in the future. It is also the bounden duty of every citizen to realise that a declaration of Emergency is not the only way by which a Democracy dies. Democracy can die in broad daylight in front of our eyes without anyone of us realising that the dying process is happening. As citizens we must realise that we are not married to any political party. No man is our God that we think he can do no wrong. It is our duty to prod our institutions to be more robust so that they are a check and balance on each other because power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It is our duty to form opinions and express them and participate so that this beautifully vibrant democracy called India stays alive. If, by asking questions, you irritate someone in power, and it gets you a tag of being an anti-national, take pride that you are a patriot in the service of your nation.



[1] H.Karthik Seshadri is a practising lawyer in the Madras High Court. He can be reached at [email protected] and tweets under the twitter handle @advkarthiksesha

[2] Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, "How Democracies Die – What history tells us about our future", Penguin Books, 2018

[3] The Professors describe this as a "Tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy's assassins use the very institutions of democracy – gradually, subtly, and even legally – to kill it.".

[4] Pratap Bhanu Mehta, "The story of Indian democracy written in blood and betrayal", The Indian Express, 6 August 2019. Gautam Bhatia, in his blog, said that it came "dangerously close to…constitutional fraud". Gautam Bhatia, "The Article 370 Amendments: Key Legal Issues", Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy, 5 August 2019.

[9] Rights & Risk Analysis Group report dated 15.06.2020, "India : Media's Crackdown during Covid 19 Lockdown" speaks about instances of FIRs' being registered against 55 journalists across the country. See also https://thewire.in/media/covid-19-journalists-arrested-booked-report

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