In India, democracy is not dead

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NOTArendra Modi’s Friday announcement to repeal the three new farm laws is proof that democracy is still alive and well in India.

The laws had prompted widespread protests from farmers who had gathered at the borders of the nation’s capital since August 2020. The decision, which comes months before state assembly elections scheduled in the state of ” grain to grain ‘from Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, a politically important region. , is proof that sustained public pressure on political issues cannot be ignored by any government, despite its power in parliament.

Commentators on Indian politics have expressed fears that the country’s democratic credentials will slowly erode since the right-wing Bharatiya Janata party formed a majority government and returned with a stronger mandate in 2019. The fear is not out of place because the government has been bold. tactics in handling farmer protests and other similar critical government acts to quell dissent.

The supervision of sedition charges against journalists reporting the farmer protests on January 26 via social media, a day when, ironically, the nation was celebrating its founding as a democratic republic was perhaps a particularly low point during the struggle. Several hundred farmers have also lost their lives while braving difficult conditions.

Authoritarian present and past

The BJP government passed the three farm laws in September last year, shaking up parliamentary procedure and ignoring opposition demands for wider consultation. Prior to that, the country witnessed the arrests of students and activists opposing the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) under the draconian Prevention of Illegal Activities Act – amended in 2019 to allow the powers of the state arbitrarily declaring citizens to be terrorists.

The government also suspended citizens’ fundamental right to freedom of assembly in several parts of India following anti-CAA protests in 2019. CAA made religion a basis for granting citizenship in India, striking at the very root of India’s secularism. credits.

An anti-CAA demonstration. Photo: PTI / File

In September of last year, while doing my PhD fieldwork in India on the Right to Information movement, social activist Aruna Roy told me that she found the current state of “Undeclared emergency” in India much worse than what happened during the emergency in 1975 under the leadership of Indira Gandhi.

In 1975, Roy had quit his job in the Indian Civil Service to pursue social activism in rural India and oversaw a popular struggle for a right to information law to allow citizens to ask questions of people. members of the government.

Commentators often have drawn parallels between the governments of Modi and Indira Gandhi for his equally authoritarian tactics. But in 1975, the government had a justifiable legal basis for the general suspension of civil rights; today there is none.

The state of emergency of 1975 was a legal suspension of the law. Between 1975 and 1977 Gandhi suspended basic rights, arrested political opponents and government critics, muzzled the free press, and plunged democratic India into a deep obscurity that shook the average Indian’s intrinsic faith in it. Benevolent state.

Several leaders of Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the right-wing political party that was the forerunner of the current ruling BJP, were attacked at the time. The assault on India’s democratic spirit is therefore nothing new.

The crisis as an opportunity

But if there is one thing that my research on the Indian right to information movement has highlighted, it is that every crisis in and of itself also presents an opportunity.

As Sunil Khilnani noted in his book ‘Incarnations: India in 50 lives’: “The lasting effect of his reign (of Gandhi) was to open the state to a deeper and more accessible democracy”.

In 1975, attempts by the Congressional government to silence dissent led to the rise of strong political opposition. Ms Gandhi was accused of electoral malfeasance by her political opponent Raj Narain, which resulted in a legal battle. To verify accusations that the prime minister abused the state apparatus for elections, Allahabad’s high court demanded the official “Blue Book” containing details of the prime minister’s election campaign. The government refused to share the Blue Book with the court citing state privileges and official secrecy provisions.

However, the court refused to accept this argument, noting that the citizens of Free India have the right to know about the activities of their elected representatives. The government eventually gave in, resulting in charges being laid against the prime minister for the first time in Indian history, overturning his election. While this court ruling, later overturned by the Supreme Court, served as an immediate provocation to impose an emergency in 1975, the High Court order nonetheless heralded the fight for a right to information law in India.

I am telling this nugget of history here to show how an effort to suppress dissent by government became the starting point for a subsequent citizen movement.

The post-emergency era in India not only saw the consolidation of political opposition against Congress, which had enjoyed unhindered power for the first three decades since India became independent, but also saw several popular movements take shape outside the realm of formal party politics.

The civil society organization – Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan – led by Roy is one example. Although it took several years of struggle before the right to information law was finally passed in 2005, it is evident that the era of urgency gave the impetus to the popular struggle for field information law.

While India’s constitution clearly allows the state to assume an authoritarian position, it is equally true that people on the ground are able to creatively exercise their free will to resist the state through popular struggles. This is what India has witnessed recently in the form of farmers’ protests. Shortly after the protests gathered momentum, the Indian government was forced to withdraw some of its previous measures, such as the decision to criminalize thatch burning and change the provisions on electricity subsidies. for farmers.

Friday’s announcement of the complete repeal of new farm laws only further asserts how no government, no matter how strong its mandate, can afford to ignore the voices of people emerging from the earth. .

Often in mainstream discourse one meets such statements that the constitution is dead or that the idea of ​​a democratic republic, envisioned by our founding fathers, has been assassinated by the powers that be. What such analyzes overlook are the compensatory forces generated by authoritarian aggression. It should be remembered that the idea of ​​India that the constitution embodies was itself the result of such a protracted struggle waged by the people against the colonial powers.

Therefore, the obituaries of Indian democracy can wait.

Vidya Venkat is a doctoral researcher at SOAS, University of London. She has worked for several years as a journalist in India since 2007. She can be reached at vidya_venkat@soas.ac.uk.


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