The UN’s International Day of Democracy, which falls on September 15, is hardly known in India. As it dawns, the UN is so far away and our problems on the ground so unhappily close. The theme this year is inclusion and conflict prevention. Within the international community, India positions itself as a beacon of democracy and so it should. Equality and inclusion is our credo and we have a long and honourable record of this in the annals of history. But due to the scenario of late, we have reason to worry.
Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights, has just recently castigated India for suggesting it will deport the Rohingya refugees back into a geography of death and devastation. Not surprisingly, his contention has been rebuffed by the Indian government, with the country’s envoy to the UN calling it a “tendentious judgements made on the basis of selective and even inaccurate news reports.” No doubt some troll will get after him because he is a Muslim.
But the commissioner is correct. Not because he reminds us of our duty but because our past tells us we don’t leave people to their oppressors. Remember the Tibetans? Remember the millions of Bangladeshis who were housed and fed even as we helped them to new nationhood? Remember the Tamils of Sri Lanka? Cynics will say we had our reasons. Sure, but we were poor and generous and it stood our international reputation in good stead.
The UN high commissioner has also expressed dismay at the rise of intolerance towards religious and other minorities. Recalling the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh, he voiced alarm at the threat to “people who speak out for fundamental human rights … who tirelessly addressed the corrosive effect of sectarianism and hatred….”
On September 21, the world community will again be closely watching India at the UN’s Human Rights Council. As part of the universal periodic review process, India had presented its report in May this year. The wholesome picture the then attorney general Mukul Rohatgi had then painted had compelled me to wistfully tweet “Mukul Rohtagi read out India’s UPR statement. I want to go live in the country he was describing.” But I digress.
After hearing India out, the 42 council members made 250 recommendations, many repeating the same exhortations. Amongst them: adopt a national human rights plan; ratify the Convention Against Torture and end torture; take steps to avoid excessive use of force by security forces; revise or repeal the infamous Armed Force Special Powers Act (AFSPA); strengthen the independence of the judiciary and take steps to reduce delays; consider abolition of the death penalty; suppress de facto discrimination against any group or person; to ensure more women in parliament and assemblies enact the Women’s Reservations Bill; criminalise marital rape; decriminalise consensual same sex relations; make efforts to eradicate child marriage; protect human rights defenders; make sure all limitations on freedom of expression, assembly and associations are not over restrictive and in line with international human rights law; amend the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act to ensure human rights defenders can work effectively.
Who can disagree with these suggestions – except perhaps North Korea or Saudi Arabia? Now, in a few days, India will be free to accept some and ‘note’ the others. What will it do?
There is no getting away from the fact that 70 years on, Indian democracy needs some urgent repairs. The state has and is continuing to build a legal superstructure which can make it easy to oppress; there are no checks and balances. Institutions and agencies of state routinely overreach their mandates – look at AFSPA, the impunity enjoyed by the armed forces and the Border Security Force, everywhere the coercion and the brazen disregard for due process.
Other institutions don’t fulfil their mandates at all: see the over 100 human rights monitoring bodies sprinkled across the country; their performance will not bear scrutiny. There are no institutions of quality to go to when there are violations. The Supreme Court, instead of being a remedy of last resort perforce, finds itself the locale of first resort. The high courts’ jurisprudence in defence of civil liberties waxes and wanes. There is a see-saw between preserving civil liberties and freedoms and falling into an easy agreement with spurious interpretations of national security, national interest and the compulsions of ‘law and order’. On the ground, the corrosion of institutions and mechanisms to create real democracy are so decayed that it is perhaps not even possible now for the best-intentioned governments – and there are some 30 of them in this country – to deliver democracy. No sooner we make institutions than we cripple and cobble them.
See the panchayats, ill equipped, poorly capacitated, niggardly financed, uncertain of their authority and captive to the political tensions of the day. See the lower courts starved of money, manpower and infrastructure. See the information commissions up to their ears in arrears. See the police, holding on to an old hierarchy and an ancient colonial ruler oriented mandate. How can a police so devoid of vision, so short staffed, ill-trained, inefficient and a daily site of corruption and abuse of power create an environment of safety and security in which whatever his station in life or her belief, every man woman and child can enjoy democratic rights and liberties? Instead, as the threat of violence fashions our future, we are left holding on for dear life – whether we are man or woman, poor or rich, rural or urban, political workers or media folk, there is little by way of remedy available.
Where there are no remedies against the depredations of others – individual and state – how can there be rights? Where rights are being so badly wounded, how can there be democracy? The answer cannot be in more authoritarianism, more brutal boots on the ground, more silence in case we shame ourselves by speaking out, more curbing liberties and casting them as license. We know the leopards of violence, tyranny and impunity are prowling around each home, but the cure is to get rid of the leopard not cage the prey.
Democracy day, as I said, is hardly known in India. But democracy is. Perhaps we can celebrate it more next year.
Maja Daruwala is senior adviser to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.