Last January around Republic Day, attention was focused on the women of Shaheen Bagh. Their peaceful round-the-clock picket protest organised mostly under tents in the short but bitter Delhi winter was awakening the conscience of the country, inspiring protestors from all walks of life to stand up for India’s constitutional commitment to secular values. Activists, poets and thousands of ordinary people committed to inclusion in the tradition of satyagraha honed by Mahatma Gandhi were opposing amendments to the citizenship law which sought to segregate refugees by religion to be eligible for Indian citizenship. Their protest, which might seem like a distant memory today, was cut short by a brutal riot, police crackdown and a hard COVID-19 induced lockdown.
A year later, the quest of the present national government to craft a ‘New India’ has instigated another massive peaceful mass mobilisation that flows across religious and regional lines. Farmers and their supporters are deeply apprehensive about three interrelated laws designed to alter the character of markets for agricultural produce with implications to benefit the interests of big business at the expense of small and marginal cultivators. The laws were hurriedly drawn up and pushed through parliament with undue haste and without proper debate about their implications on both livelihoods and states’ rights over agricultural activities which are precariously balanced with the remit of the Central government in the constitution.
India’s Republic Day celebrations are an occasion to rejoice in the rituals of democracy whose norms are finely laid out in the constitution formally adopted on January 26, 1950. The constitution itself derives its core values from the country’s inspirational freedom struggle. Principal among these are justice, liberty and equality, along with the promotion of fraternity.
For many Indians – at home and abroad – who take pride in their constitution and the recognition of their country as the world’s largest democracy, a sense of despondency is setting in.
The proverbial facts speak for themselves. The CIVICUS Monitor, a participatory platform, measures that the state of civic freedoms globally ranks India in the ‘repressed’ category on account of the poor protection of the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly enshrined in the chapter of fundamental rights in the constitution. The Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index ranks India at a lowly 142 out of 180 countries covered. Freedom House, which measures the state of democracy worldwide, lamented that the country received the largest score decline among 25 of the world’s biggest democracies in its Freedom in the World 2020 report. Among the reasons listed are the Central government’s unilateral annulment of the semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir and restrictions on freedom of movement and internet shutdowns there.
Moreover, India’s civil society which helps shore up its democracy stands beleaguered today. Several peaceful activists, including social justice advocates, academics and student leaders have been questionably detained using security laws and are languishing in pre-trial detention for their defence of constitutional values. Civil society organisations that promote rights, justice and equality are facing unprecedented challenges from restrictive laws that limit their ability to operate and raise funds. Illustratively, Amnesty International, the world’s pre-eminent human rights movement has been hounded and baited in the country for its monitoring of rights violations. Its offices have been raided and staff harassed.
The acid test of democracy is whether everyone can express democratic dissent without fear of persecution. Strict scrutiny of critical voices and deepening divisions in society along sectarian and ideological lines are fraying the social fabric of the country and tarnishing its image in the international sphere. They should be a matter of deep concern for anyone with an interest in seeing the country prosper.
Through the years, India’s diplomats have been able to point to the country’s vibrant civil society as evidence of its commitment to inclusive governance and readiness to take on leadership roles in the international sphere. During the height of the anti-colonial struggles in the second half of the 20th century, India was viewed as a beacon of democracy and hope for freedom movements the world over. India’s constitution provided the blueprint for many newly independent countries to frame democratic governance in the second half of the twentieth century. In the present scenario, India’s ability to speak with credibility in defence of democratic values on the international stage has been eroded. This has implications for the country’s participation in multilateral institutions where promotion and protection of international norms are crucial.
Republic Days are in essence festivals of democracy. Floats depicting cultural life from different parts of India are a key aspect of colourful Republic Day parades. They’re designed to remind Indians that everyone regardless of faith or identity has a place in the union. January 26 is indeed a day to celebrate the primacy of the constitution and the sacrifices of those who helped win our democracy and protect it every day. Four days after Republic Day, on January 30, India will be marking Martyr’s Day, which is the solemn anniversary of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 by a religious zealot. It’s a stark reminder of the perils of ideological fanaticism.
The constitution provides pathways to accommodate various points of view. Its adoption by a newly independent India still groaning under the weight of feudal and caste oppression was an exercise in hope intended to give wings to aspirations for democracy and equality. Today, that very democracy appears fragile. Many who disagree with the actions of the government of the day are demoralised.
Yet, another path is available to India’s political leadership. A change in course is still possible – the constitution mandates it.