Whither Rights – Of Life, Food, And Everything In Between


The recent elections – from civic body elections in Maharashtra to Assembly elections across India – have indeed marked a watershed moment in the life of the Republic. Ironically, they have not done so for the discourse they have produced in the Indian media – discourse ranging from the imminent threat of fascism to sectarian strife. They have marked a watershed moment for the discourse set as a part of the campaigning itself.

The elections seem to have marked the death of rights and issue-based politics in India, seemingly “for good”. The disconnect, which has been apparent for a while, to anyone following electoral democracy in India, now seems to be complete and final. Going by the results one may actually conclude that either the Indian electorate is least interested in issues that touch, shape and define their immediate concerns, or they have become so tangential to the electoral process that results can be stolen in broad daylight.

Sample the crushing defeat of Irom Chanu Sharmila in Manipur, a Northeast Indian state relatively aloof from the discourse of sectarianism and intolerance which has engulfed the ‘mainland’ in recent times. A political observer may agree that nothing touches the lives of the citizens in Manipur more than the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) that empowers even a non-commissioned officer of the security forces to kill citizens merely on suspicion, with impunity. The Act, first introduced by British colonials, is a negation of everything that the Indian Constitution guarantees to its citizenry, beginning with the fundamental right to life, which cannot be taken away without due process of law. Now, an armed soldier shooting at someone and killing him or her merely on suspicion can be anything but the rule of law and is blatantly unjust and unconstitutional.

And, this is not the only way AFSPA flouts the Indian constitution. It stands in contravention to another fundamental right guaranteed to every citizen – the right to equality before the law. The AFSPA makes citizens of areas where it is imposed more unequal than other areas.

It was this injustice that moved Irom Sharmila Chanu and launched her into an epic resistance that has drawn parallels to that of Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. She went on a fast on

5 November 2000, after personnel of the Assam Rifles shot dead 10 civilians waiting at a bus stop in Malom, Manipur, and remained on this fast for 16 years, a period during which she was incarcerated and subject to force-feeding by the Indian State. She became the face of resistance to AFSPA and the heavy-handedness of the Indian forces.

Then, this year, she decided to fight the injustice democratically through electoral politics. However, the results show a consummate loss for her. She has secured only 90 votes against 18,649 secured by the winner and stands 4th, or second last in the constituency.

All this in a state that has lost countless lives to AFSPA and has seen all shades of protest against the Act. The protests have seen elderly mothers stripping naked in front of the Kangla Fort, the then headquarters of the Assam Rifles, the paramilitary force held responsible for most AFSPA killings. The protests have also seen repeated outbreaks of violence, including one where protesting citizens went berserk and torched the state assembly to vent anger.

None of this seems to have mattered to electoral politics and the issues that such politics revolve around. What exactly can matter to such political elections, if even the right to life does not matter? If one looks closer at the elections across the country, one can see how nothing much of importance to the people seemed to matter to the election results.

Even the agrarian crisis that has ensnared the lives of more than 300,000 farmers in India over recent years – more than 600 of them in the last three months alone, counting only 2 states, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh – has been of no consequence. Their suicides appear immaterial to election results across states.

This disconnect has been active for some time now. For a decade, 2004-2014, the Maharashtra electorate continued to return the coalition of the Indian National Congress and Nationalist Congress Party to power at a time when the crisis was peaking, despite the government’s categorical failure in arresting the crisis.

And it has not been limited to just one state, or even to one side of the political spectrum. So one cannot argue that there was some other diversionary factor in the discourse, for instance “the need to stop sectarian forces from grabbing power”.

The farm suicides were peaking in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh as well even as the electorate there kept returning the Bharatiya Janata Party to power in the same time frame, again, despite the government’s dismal failure in arresting the crisis.

This trend of disconnect has however become absolute. The campaign discourse this time had not even a token reflection of what is affecting people’s lives on a daily basis.

Only an outsider without any knowledge of the realities of the disconnect would be surprised how, in a country where widespread poverty keeps 58.4 % children of India below 5 years of age perpetually anaemic across states ruled by political opponents, there is no reflection of this in any state and local election campaigns. Anaemic children and dead citizens shot by AFSPA protected personnel do not even have a vote do they?

Is there a way out? Perhaps. Bringing back the right to life, to food, and to everything else fundamental in between, to the centre stage might be a way. How? We can get to that. But, first, is anyone even thinking about this – anyone, including the civil society?

Samar is Programme Coordinator – Right to Food Programme Asian Legal Resource Centre / Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong


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