Saturday 1 September 2018

SC affirms individual liberty (Sunday Guardian)


The bugle has been sounded and the proclamation read out by very civil, left-liberal individuals that India in 2018 has returned to the dark days of the Emergency of 1975-1977. The uproar is over the arrest of a few activists by the police because of their alleged links with Maoist insurgents, and for their alleged involvement in a plan to assassinate the Prime Minister. The Congress, the only political party to have actually imposed an Emergency, is outraged at the curbing of civil liberties by a very “dictatorial” government of Narendra Modi. In the process, it seems to have forgotten that the Congress-led UPA government during its 2004-2014 stint in power arrested some of these same activists—and many more—apart from mounting stringent action against NGOs it alleged were front organisations of the Maoists. Such a memory lapse may or may not be a deliberate strategy at a time when the Congress is cutting its cords with the past and reinventing itself under its new India-born president, a process that apparently includes taking itself out of the 1984 riots. But then such memory lapses are common among all political parties, whether they be in power or in Opposition, and are accepted as an intrinsic part of the way politics is “played” in India. The problem here is much larger in nature—that matters of national security are becoming the “happy” hunting ground of politicians and activists; that Indian polity is getting so deeply divided into “left” and right” that the breach seems irreparable; that the security and law and order machinery is being unable to think ahead and pre-emptively act where it comes across situations judged inimical to the interests of the nation. More often than not, the police are failing to follow procedure and perform due diligence to build water-tight cases, thus giving scope to opponents to paint them as a vindictive force pursuing “soft targets”.
Maoism was India’s gravest internal security challenge according to Dr Manmohan Singh, when he was Prime Minister. It continues to be the same with Narendra Modi as Prime Minister. It was in Manmohan Singh’s time that “Operation Green Hunt” was launched and the Salwa Judum came into existence. But what was missing in Manmohan Singh’s time was the virulence with which activists have banded together at present to vociferously paint the current dispensation as a threat to civil liberties, as a fascist regime. The current uproar is in keeping with the narrative that left-liberal groups in India have been trying to build assiduously over the last four years, ever since the Modi government has come to power. It’s a different matter that their ferocity is also accompanied by an unwillingness to give space to any alternate world view, or give a chance to someone outside their “comfort zone” to be at the helm of affairs. This becomes starkly apparent when they speak out in unison if the civil liberties of their interest groups are affected, but go completely silent when someone from the opposite end of the spectrum gets affected, for instance, when persons belonging to the “right” are persecuted in states such as Kerala and Bengal. Moreover, when these civil society members relate the Rafale deal with the arrest of the activists, as Arundhati Roy and others are doing, they, perhaps unwittingly, act as force multipliers of the principal Opposition party, which has been trying to pin down the government on the deal. In the process, they dilute their claim of neutrality and objectivity at the altar of partisan politics. As for their claim of evidence being concocted about an assassination attempt on the Prime Minister, such conclusions are best left for the courts to draw.
There is no denying that the police in India have often been found to be boasting of much more than they can deliver as evidence. So it is incumbent on the police and the agencies to provide clinching evidence to take their case forward. Lest they forget, the procedure followed by the police in making the arrests has already come for questioning in court. In fact, Indian law and order and other security agencies have often failed to build fool-proof cases because of the lackadaisical attitude of investigating officers or their inability to withstand political pressure coming from across party lines. Their reputation will take a further hit, and the government will be embarrassed apart from coming under severe criticism, if the police are unable to prove the specific charges made, and not talk in generalities of the arrested activists being Maoist front-men and women. In general, civil rights should be upheld and liberty assured, save in exceptional cases. In such a context, the Supreme Court decision to ensure only house arrest for the five charged with grave crimes by the Pune police is laudable. Indeed, such a form of incarceration should be more widely resorted to rather than clog the jails. And in such circumstances, having police personnel live inside a residence is an invasion of privacy and property rights, the same rights that the “Left” doctrine rejects in countries ruled by them. As to whether the five sought to be arrested are in that exceptional band or are innocent, only the courts can decide.

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