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History 'will remember' 2019 for silencing dissent, democracy, human rights

By V Suresh*
In the annals of contemporary Indian human rights history 2019 will be marked as the year when the Indian state – the Government of India – exhibited its near total disdain for human rights and rule of law by committing, not by individual or localized acts of human rights abuse alone; in a dramatic manner, the Government exhibited its might in a colossal, huge, collective and fearsome manner its utter disrespect for constitutional values and ethics and that it considered fundamental freedoms and human rights as mere scraps of paper.
Two events stand out for the sheer magnitude and scale of the egregious state action and what it indicates for the future of human rights in India. First is the stealthy and sinister manner by which Article 370 regarding special the status for Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) was abrogated on August 5, 2019, putting with immediate effect an entire state of over 8 million Kashmiris in the Valley under lock down mode resulting in unimaginable misery to local people.
At an equally fearsome and hugely mind boggling manner was the completion under the supervision of the recently retired chief justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi, of the NRC (National Register of citizens) process in Assam declaring over 19 lakh people as foreigners and directing their detention in Special Camps. The completion of the state wide NRC exercise in Assam, exhibited the callousness, cruelty and heartless manner to which such a process will eventually degenerate into.
Scores of distraught families found some members of the family declared as citizens and others as foreigners, pushing scores of people to commit suicide. On August 31, 2019, the final list of people excluded from the NRC was published, showing 19,06,657 persons to be excluded. Even if it is argued that these persons have the right to appeal this finding, the sheer sense of insecurity and personal/family human tragedy this process has triggered is unprecedented.
The NDA Modi-Shah led government showed that the NRC exercise was not meant just for Assam but they intended to roll it out throughout the country as an exercise to find out foreigners. In real terms, the NRC exercise has been aimed at Muslims, and the announcement of nationwide NRC exercise has already sent shockwaves amongst the wider section of Muslim community across many states.
A number of BJP-led states like Karnataka and Maharashtra (which was under BJP rule till now), have already announced having detained people in special camps to be detained to Bangladesh. What is most worrying about these macro-level egregious forms of human rights abuse is the near total capitulation of all democratic and constitutional institutions meant to act as checks and balances to the State usurping or aggrandizing all powers to become a huge totalitarian or fascist state.
No institution has been left untouched or uncompromised: from the CBI to the Enforcement Directorate, to the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and the Election Commission, just about all institutions have been either forced to cow down or manned in such a way that they bow down to the power of the Government.
In this dismal scenario, the Constitutional Courts – the Supreme Court as also the High courts – envisioned by the Constitution framers as the sentinels of the Constitution, protector s of fundamental rights and meant to be a bulwark to protect citizens and communities from being crushed by the all-powerful state, have unfortunately not risen to the occasion.
Even in the face of credible information evidencing the largescale humanitarian crisis unfolding in Kashmir, and despite reports of widespread medical and mental health issues affecting thousands of people, the SC did not feel compelled to challenge the government's claim of normalcy and that people in Kashmir welcomed the shutdown.
Almost all institutions have been either forced to cow down or manned in such a way that they bow down to the power of the Government
This when there was considerable evidence to the contrary before the court itself. Scores of mainstream political leaders, including 3 former Chief Minister's have been kept in confinement; yet the SC has not felt it an urgent issue of rights violation sufficient for it to intervene. The acme of the Court' s prevarication on conflicts concerning majoritarian issues and politics came to the fore in the unanimous ruling of the 5-judge Constitution Bench in the Ayodhya- Babri Masjid case delivered on November 9, 2019.
What is baffling is that despite the Bench coming to an unanimous finding regarding the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992 by remarking that “… the destruction and the obliteration of the Islamic structure was an egregious violation of law” the Court goes on to hand over the entire site to the Hindus for constructing a temple while directing the government to give a 5-acre plot of land in Ayodhya for constructing a mosque.
While the aim to bring about a closure and conclusion to the Masjid-Mandir dispute is welcome, the reasoning adopted and other issues have raised more debate and dispute than resolving the issue. Numerous other instances of mass human rights violations have regularly surfaced.
These include recent reports that over 10,000 tribals have been booked for sedition in a few tribal districts of Jharkhand for challenging development projects in their areas. Sedition cases also came to be filed against 49 prominent writers, film makers and others who wrote to the Prime Minister against widespread hate crimes and intolerance in the country.
Lynchings continue to be reported regularly from across the country. What stands out in many such instances of widespread rights violations is the partial and dubious role of the police, the protectors of law, who routinely and brazenly support the ruling government and its political groups.
The custodians of law become emboldened to abuse the law with a sense of impunity because of the failure of existing Constitutional and Democratic institutions, especially the Courts, to question them and demand accountability for abusing the law or violating the rule of law. This then is the challenge before the human rights movement in India: of a situation highlighted by the failure of democratic institutions to enforce the rule of law.
A higher responsibility now rests on us, as citizens, to be more vigilant and willing to speak truth to power; to assert that we will not remain quiet and mute spectators as the powers-that-be try to subvert and bend democratic and constitutional institutions. We will have to continuously oppose the attempt of the Indian state to silence voices of dissent, democracy and human rights.
We will have to be prepared to work continuously to enforce the rule of law and assert the primacy of fundamental rights and directive principles of the Indian Constitution. Ours is the task to build a transparent, inclusive, accountable, socially just and democratic way of life.
The words of the former UN Human Rights Commissioner, Zeid Raad Al Hussein best illustrates the challenge before us, “Ultimately, it is the law that will safeguard our societies – human rights law, binding law which is the distillation of human experience, of generations of human suffering, the screams of the victims of past crimes and hate. We must guard this law passionately, and be guided by it.”
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*General Secretary, People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), National. Source: PUCL Bulletin (December)

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