The Indian state is about to vest itself with the extraordinary power of declaring anyone a terrorist, without so much as a trial. Parliament is on the brink of passing the amendment to the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, which has been rightly termed as India’s most dangerous law yet. In any other country, this would have created tremendous uproar. But in India, the protest is so muted and timid that nobody on the street would have even heard of it.
It will be simplistic to just blame the media for ignoring it. We must ask something deeper. Do people care?
Surveys say no. Over the years, surveys have routinely captured a peculiarly strong Indian appetite for authoritarianism. A Pew research survey a few years ago found that 55 per cent of Indians backed autocratic rule by a strong leader unfettered by legislatures and courts, and 53 per cent actually supported military rule. Another recent survey of college students found two-thirds supported a single-party rule and over 50 per cent of the surveyed students were in favour of a military rule.
Taking forward Congress legacy
Why have Indians been unable to build a base of public support for civil liberties, after more than seven decades of democracy?
The single biggest culprit here is the traditional Indian political elite. It’s especially amusing when the Congress complains about repression under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, because it created the very apparatus that is now being used for repression. The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), the National Securities Act (NSA), the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), the preventive detention laws (under Article 22 of the Constitution), and the anti-free speech laws (Clause 2 of Article 19, which denies ‘absolute right’) are all part of the Congress’ legacy. A brief glance at India’s human rights record in Kashmir is enough to dispel any pretensions of the Congress’s steadfast commitment to liberalism.
Even the much eulogised Nehruvian era was built on the foundation of a centralising, paternalistic state. The very first amendment to the Constitution in 1951 restricted the freedom of the speech, from its earlier almost absolute form. It also put certain laws relating to Zamindari abolition beyond the scope of judicial review, in order to protect them in case they contravened fundamental rights. In the Nehruvian philosophy, rights were not ‘natural’ but handed down by the state, and therefore, the state could legitimately abridge them in certain situations for a greater social purpose.
Jawaharlal Nehru wasn’t above dismissing state governments on flimsy grounds either. In fact, academic Ajay Gudavarthy argues that the era of Indira Gandhi merely represented “the authoritarian impulses of Nehru’s statist model of nation building becoming more pronounced.”
The Nehruvian era’s rights template that filtered down to the people was out of the need for a strong centralising state to usher in top-down development. During Indira Gandhi’s rule, civil liberties were portrayed as impediments to the welfare state. In fact, she took her distaste for civil liberties to a whole new level by briefly suspending democracy itself.
It’s not just the Congress party. Kashmir’s Farooq Abdullah had famously said in 2011 that it was time for India to have a “controlled democracy”. He was echoing Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Bin Mohamad’s “too much democracy” coinage.
BJP’s source of power
If we wonder why the BJP’s politics of fear of “anti-nationals” always succeeds over the politics of fear of their authoritarianism, we must consider the following.
The RSS and the BJP have spent decades propagating among the people the fear of ‘anti-nationals’ taking advantage of a soft state. Now let’s see which among our current opposition parties has consistently propagated the cause of civil liberties against an encroaching state. Not one. After years of neglecting civil liberties, you can’t suddenly put it on the political agenda just because the BJP is in power.
The second group of culprits are the middle classes, the opinion-forming classes that constitute civil society. The middle classes in other countries are the fiercest defenders of civil liberties; in India, they are the conservative flagbearers of the strong state. The middle classes are primarily responsible for the “masculinity of politics and statism”, according to psychologist and social theorist Ashis Nandy. As professor Leela Fernandes writes in her book India’s New Middle Class, the politics of the middle classes is focused on shielding democracy from the “corrupting influences of mass based politics and vote banks”, and suspicious of “unions, subordinate castes and Muslims”.
Craving order and apprehensive of the rise of the masses below them, the middle class invariably turns a blind eye to the restriction of civil liberties.
It is hardly surprising that the middle classes were also the cheerleaders of the Emergency. As Vir Sanghvi writes, the middle classes were delighted at the declaration of Emergency because “there were no more strikes, beggars were off the streets, petty crime was down, and the trains ran on time.”
When the privileged middle classes fail in their role of keeping checks against state power, it can hardly be expected of the deprived masses to fill in for them. Already dependent on the state for their material security, the deprived classes are more likely to look upon the state as a source of hope rather than a threat.
It is also a bit of a myth that the masses punished the Indira Gandhi government for suspending their freedoms. The Congress rout in northern India can mostly be explained by just two factors – the horrendous sterilisation drives that alienated the poor, and the loss of the Dalit vote following the desertion of Jagjivan Ram, the tallest Dalit leader of the time. In southern India, in contrast, which also saw a suspension of democratic freedoms, the Congress vote share actually increased in all four states. In Tamil Nadu, the Congress doubled its vote share.
The third set of culprits are the civil liberty organisations who have historically failed to create a popular mobilisation on the issue of civil rights. Even though civil rights are primarily a political issue, organisations such as the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) have treated them mainly as a legal issue. These groups have foregone political activism for the legal method of approaching courts for the protection of fundamental rights. Unlike the mass mobilisations for worker rights, the issue of civil rights has remained confined to a narrow clique of lawyers and academics.
The disinterested privileged elite
But perhaps the most important reason the issue of civil liberties is brushed aside in our popular discourse is because of one underlying dark reality. Repressive laws, though uniformly dangerous in theory, in practice are mainly used to target certain communities. To put it bluntly, they are used to clamp down on the assertions of the marginalised, the Adivasis, the Dalits, the Muslims, and Kashmiris.
The coercive apparatus of the state, even in the normal course, disproportionately targets these communities, which collectively make for over half of all prison inmates. But draconian laws particularly target them – from the sedition cases filed against thousands of tribals participating in the Pathalgari movement in Jharkand, to the NSA cases filed against Dalit activists in Uttar Pradesh, to the scores of now acquitted Muslim men who have lost decades of their lives after being charged under Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, or TADA. Let’s face it, we all know who this recent UAPA amendment is meant to target, which explains the disinterest of most of the privileged elite.
The politics of invoking fear of Modi’s authoritarianism will only work if the current opposition parties truly reckon with their own dismal record on civil liberties. The opposition then must concretely and consistently demonstrate that losing these liberties will affect everyone, and not just the already marginalised.
The author is a research scholar in political science at the University of Delhi. Views are personal.