Vol. XLI No. 44 October 29, 2017

From Rajasthan to "Mersal", a Bad Week for Democracy in India

Brinda karat

In the village of Karimati in Jharkhand, Koili Devi, the mother of 11-year-old Santosh Kumari, who had died of starvation, had to flee her home as she was attacked by local goondasreportedly because she had challenged the official version that her child had died of malaria not hunger, and dared to publicly say that in fact her child had died because the government had passed orders that no one without an Aadhar card would get rations. She spoke the truth, and for that she was attacked. The local auxiliary nurse confirmed that the child was not suffering from malaria. She has been suspended from her job. The message: toe the government line or face the consequences.

More than one million ration cards in the state have been cancelled, without any notice, as being fake. Rations have been denied to thousands of poor families, a substantial number because the cards have not been seeded with Aadhaar. There have been no physical verification processes, no opportunity for people with bona fide ration cards to establish that they are not fake. Thousands who have got seeded ration cards have also had their cards cancelled. In digital India, if the machine does not recognize your thumb print, you cease to exist. The National Food Security Act under Section 15 mandates the setting up of a grievance redressal mechanism at the district and block level so that families like Koili Devi's can exercise a basic democratic right to appeal an unjust decision like the cancellation of a card, a matter of life and death for millions of families; but in Jharkhand, as in most states, the establishment of such democratic mechanisms are not the priorities.

In Tamil Nadu, a quite different scenario unfolded, but the message was the same: toe the line or else. Here the film "Mersal" faced the wrath of BJP state leaders because of a dialogue which criticized the GST. The film is supposedly about the corruption and injustice in the health system and the hero makes a comment that although Singapore has a lower GST rate than India, the health services there are free.

How could anyone, least of all "ignorant" actors, dare criticize the "great achievement" of the Modi Government, even if every small shopkeeper, trader or small business owner across India and certainly in the state of Tamil Nadu is in deep distress, and who cares if the film has been passed by the censor board? When the Modi-Shah duo label all critics as being against national interest, then state BJP office bearers have a responsibility to follow their leaders. The film-makers and the main actor, Vijay, have been abused, demeaned and a demand has been made by the BJP that the scene should be cut. True to form, this all-out assault on the right to freedom of expression was further coloured by crass communal statements accusing the actor of agreeing to such dialogue because he is a Christian. Bullying, hounding, intimidation, the shameful display of power against cultural artists.

Around the same time, in another part of the country, in Rajasthan, democracy took a beating with the draconian Bill introduced by the State Government termed the Criminal Laws (Rajasthan Amendment) Ordinance, 2017, which seeks to protect the corrupt in positions of power from the reach of the law that ordinary citizens have to face. The proposed amendments to the Criminal Procedure code, 1973, and Indian Penal Code, 1980, provide extra protection to public servants by preventing any investigations by courts on a private complaint. The present laws in any case provide adequate protection to public servants and their actions "in the course of duty" and prevent any cognizance of private complaints against them without the prior sanction of the relevant authority. However, this Bill provides an unprecedented cover of six months to the relevant authority to give sanction during which period no action can be taken by any court. But even worse, there is a ban on the media from any coverage of the case till the sanction is given. In case the identity of the public servant is revealed, the person responsible can be sentenced to jail for two years. From Lok Pal to Bhrasth Pal. The Bill has been challenged in the courts, but it is hardly a secret that courts too are vulnerable to political pressure.

But it was the questions raised by the actions of the Election Commission which topped the events of the week. There is still no logical explanation for why the Election Commission did not declare the election dates for Gujarat elections when the Himachal elections schedule was declared earlier this month. While the Gujarat assembly's term ends onJanuary 22, 2018, it is January 7 in the case of Himachal Pradesh. As a result, the model code of conduct did not kick into place in Gujarat, and conveniently did not interfere with the previously declared programmes of the Prime Minister to his home state where he made a slew of promises worth thousands of crores. At least two former chiefs of the Election Commission went public with their criticism of the delay in announcing the dates, saying it creates "grounds for suspicion." Such actions do little good to the credibility of an institution constitutionally mandated to conduct free and fair elections.

But in the end, it is the people who decide the fate of democracy, and the good sign is the increasing number of voices speaking truth to power, like the child in the fable who cried, "But the Emperor has no clothes."