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What do you do when the practice of government is not in sync with the theory of constitutional governance? You concoct a new theory.
The past week has seen two stalwarts of the Narendra Modi regime – National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat – make up new theories on the hoof to justify violations of the rule of law in the name of the greater good of the nation.
On a day that the police in Jammu and Kashmir arrested a human rights activist for questioning the Central Reserve Police Force for killing a young man, Doval told trainee police officers that civil society was the “fourth frontier of war”. An adversary may find conventional warfare expensive and inefficient. “But it is the civil society that can be subverted, subsumed, divided, manipulated to hurt the interests of a nation,’he warned, reminding his police audience: “You are there to see they stand fully protected.”
In other words, the vigilance of the police is needed to identify and act against the fifth column in civil society.
Doval also came up with a new definition of democracy, one that privileged elected representatives at the expense of the electorate. The quintessence of democracy did not lie in the ballot box, he was quoted as saying. “It lies in the laws made by the people who are elected through those ballot boxes,” and in the will of the police to enforce them: “Laws are not as good as they are made. Laws are as good as they are implemented and executed.”
While Doval presented these claims to underline the importance of rule of law, there are three obvious problems with his formulation.
Most of the laws the police are called upon to enforce are colonial era laws that were not the product of any democratic deliberation. Like the crime of sedition, for example. Second, many of the laws passed by elected lawmakers are poorly or vaguely drafted, inadequately debated and primed for abuse. Third, all laws and all executive decisions are subject to judicial review. In other words, laws are as good as they are constitutional, and it is the courts who decide that and not those elected through the ballot box.
Taken together with his insinuations against civil society critics, the Doval theory of democracy is nothing more than a policeman’s charter for a police state. Those who challenge the letter and spirit of what elected representatives – i.e. the government – want are to be treated as internal enemies in the ‘fourth frontier of war”.
But even this may not be enough to safeguard New India. The police also need the help of upstanding, vigilant, patriotic citizens prepared to take the initiative in their own hands. One day earlier, General Rawat spoke publicly about how it was a “good thing” that the public at large in Jammu and Kashmir was ready to “lynch the terrorists”. He was speaking at an event organised by the Times Now channel.
Rawat cited no evidence to back up this claim of public readiness – other than speaking of some unidentified social media posts. When anchor Rahul Shivshankar asked him about the risks of encouraging vigilantism by civilians, he said this was self-defence, and that it was wrong to think ‘terrorists’ had human rights while their victims didn’t. Ignoring all the cases of mistaken identity from Andhra Pradesh and Assam to Palghar in Maharashtra, he added that village ‘self-defence’ against intruders like cattle thieves is a fact of life across India and even when villagers end up killing someone, the courts take the wider circumstances of the threat posed by intruders into account.
Both Doval and Rawat are only echoing the line taken by Prime Minister Modi at a National Human Rights Commission event last month, when he said that “some people see human rights violations in some incidents but not in others. Human rights are violated when viewed via political spectacles. Selective behaviour is harmful to democracy… Some try to dent the country’s image in the name of human rights… Looking at human rights with an eye on political gains and loss harms these rights as well as democracy.”
In sum, what we have here is a clear elaboration of the view that accusing the government and its security agencies of human rights violations threatens national security and is thus a criminal act, possibly a seditious one.
This is precisely the mindset which leads to the Tripura police filing terror charges against lawyers who produced a fact-finding report on the recent anti-Muslim violence in the state, or indeed the filing of serious criminal charges like sedition against journalists who reported that the farmer who died during the January 26 protest in Delhi had been shot dead. Whether the Supreme Court is willing to go along with this new theory of rights is another matter.