Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Compulsions and Democracy

What is that forces people, in a democracy, to stay away from speaking against systemic fault-lines? One would think that democracy, being a guarantor of freedom of speech, would encourage the opposite. Recently, I had the privilege of speaking to two distinguished personalities, who have served two of the most powerful institutions in India – a former senior IPS officer and a former Chief Justice, Delhi High Court. The two gentlemen have also served the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) as well as other organisations working for the promotion of civil liberties. The issue was the large number of mercy petitions of prisoners on death row, pending before the Government of India. At least 26 such petitions are reported to be pending before the government, with the oldest among them having been filed a decade ago. The Supreme Court of India recently slammed the Central government over this record. Not only was this shameful, said the Apex court, but it also violated a prisoner’s right to live with dignity, guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution.

The event was a live discussion on national television. I and a colleague of mine spoke to the two guests on the finer print behind this issue. Our guests immediately agreed with the view taken by the Supreme Court and informed that the reason behind the delay was mostly political. But of these 26 petitioners, we argued, cases of only a handful had some sort of political connection, the most famous and the most recent one being that of Afzal Guru, convicted for conspiracy in the December 2001 attack on Indian Parliament. Several others are ordinary people, put on death row for gruesome murders. What was the reason behind the delay in deciding their cases? The observations put forward by our guests indicated that they did not have concrete answers.

Or were they keeping the answers to themselves? This question, which I asked to myself, was answered by one of the guests, but off the record. When the show was over and the cameras turned off, he offered me an insight. Awarding death sentence to somebody who has committed a heinous crime is a populist measure, he said, referring to the common man’s perception of justice. And abolishing capital punishment, something that human rights activists are fighting for across the globe, would amount to taking a step that would involve the risk of inviting the displeasure of a large section of the electorate. Translated psephologically, this could mean loss of a few thousand (or more) votes. And no government in India, irrespective of the party in power, has had the courage to look beyond this risk, till now.

Now I haven’t met any relative of a victim of a heinous crime, like murder or rape. So I don’t know whether what my guest pointed out is really the aam aadmi’s perception of justice. But even if it is, it does open another debate - who should be made the guarantor of justice: law or popular perceptions? I was left wondering as to why either of my esteemed guests could not make this observation in full view of the TV audience?

The first step towards correcting one's mistake is acknowledging that one is wrong. When even two retired representatives of the State can not be frank about systemic fault-lines, how can we expect the State itself to be honest in admitting that something is wrong? History has shown us that this couldn’t even be thought of in a monarchy. The modern world is still telling us that this is not possible in an autocratic setup as well. But what prevents a democracy, and a liberal one at that, from truly guaranteeing freedom of speech?
Still wondering…

Charu Kartikeya

Friday, September 25, 2009

International Day of Democracy Demands Thorough Attention

When the intellectuals of the country accepted ‘Charwak’ as Rishi, Akbar initiated Din-i-Ilahi, Mahatma Gandhi advocated paying lump-sum amount to Pakistan after partition, Pandit Nehru fostered the presence of opposition parties in the Parliament and Atal Behari Vajpayee reminded Narendra Modi of Raj-Dharma after the Gujarat carnage, what they all were doing was basically translating the essence of political tolerance. But all these examples, somehow, were indicators of exceptional behavior that our leaders showed in the past. Talk of local, national or international politics, the spirit behind these moves has never really been the custom of political arena. Although we see a sharp division between the behaviours of leaders and the masses, humanity, all over the world is laden with the incidents of deliberate denial of the doctrine of political tolerance, which is the essence of democracy. Therefore, on this International Day of Democracy (September 15, 2009) the theme for which is ‘Democracy and Political Tolerance’ as decided by the United Nations, we need to discuss, debate and imbibe the cherished culture of political tolerance in our day to day behavior.

What is Political Tolerance?

Political tolerance can be defined as “the willingness to extend basic rights and civil liberties to persons and groups whose viewpoints differ from one's own”. This is a central tenet of liberal democracy. Democracy must encourage a wide array of ideas, values and beliefs - even those which may offend segments of the population, provided such rights and freedoms are guaranteed by the law of the land. Democracy functions better when there is perfect harmony between the will of the majority and respect for the rights of individuals and groups in the minority. Without safeguards for free expression of divergent opinions, there is the risk of perpetration of “tyranny of the majority”. In a free and open society, public deliberation should expose "bad" ideas instead of suppressing them.

In simpler terms, political (religious and social) tolerance means accepting (accommodating, living and putting up with, and respecting) the views and ideas of others you do not agree with.

The exercise of political tolerance and promoting a culture of political pluralism are the cornerstone of democracy. Democracy is unthinkable when only the dominant political discourse and views are heard. Tight control or the monopoly of information by the dominant class of society stifles debate and undermines citizen’s ability to influence government’s decisions and policies. All ideas must therefore be allowed a place in the “market place of ideas” as connoted by renowned political thinker John Stuart Mill. The best public policy should arise out of competition among divergent views and ideas that are expressed in a free and transparent public discourse.

Remember Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989 in China, anti-Sikh riots of 1984, Gujarat violence in 2002 and very recently the Nandigram Massacre in 2007. These incidents explicitly narrate the story of the debauchery of democratic values and political tolerance in and outside the country which appears to have direct or sometimes hidden consent of respective state machineries. This no doubt is deplorable but there is a darker face of it which needs serious condemnation on all the levels of national life.

Who can forget the denouncement of a group of noted intellectuals and artists, who were known for their non-partisan political approach, by the left government in West Bengal, expulsion of a onetime best parliamentarian known for his unflinching ideological adherence from CPM, the forced exile of Taslima Nasreen, house detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, huge criticism faced by L.K. Advani after his statement over Jinnah and very recently, the expulsion of veteran B.J.P leader Jaswant Singh just because of a few pro-Jinnah remarks in his book? Are these merely some discrete incidents or they underline a very subtle kind of violation of the principle of political tolerance growing in the mind of the masses and the political parties governing them? On this occasion of International Day of Democracy the situation demands thorough attention of all pro-democracy activists, academicians and scholars.

B. Sanjay