I think we are in the midst of an undeclared multiple emergency that is flattening all our familiar signposts in every sphere of public life.Mere refutation of the prolific lies and recourse to conventional remedies seem no longer of any avail.Included of course is the alarming fact that most of the institutions guarding the public interest have been totally disarmed.There is not only a civil and an economic emergency,but a constitutional crisis of unprecedented dimensions.But we assiduously keep up the make-belief that things are mostly normal.We see and squirm at the events but remain blind to the trend driving them.
The public sphere is the consequence and product of the constitutional premiss that the state is the creation of free citizens,and they are more or less free to call it to account.But today the state has acquired or has been endowed with a transcendent authority that imposes upon citizens the status and obligations of its slaves.Slaves cannot inhabit a public sphere where they are free participants.They are bound to bow to the state on every conceivable occasion and suffer in silence its usurpation of their power to freely combine and act in the public sphere.
They have to seek permission to organize a protest or a rally,and they can do so,if at all possible,in a designated place .They have to watch their words and refrain from anything that causes ‘offence’.And who knows how a word against a political leader or a head of a government might give offence to some people or other!They are losing their right to voice their complaints and demand their dues from responsible authorities.
This situation is extraordinary,and it has confused all the people who thought there were legitimate answers in place to satisfy their hankering for justice and restitution.Of course this is not to insist that their rights have been fully guaranteed or that the remedies have been readily available. But what we have been witnessing is a systematic stamping out of even the last relics of the public power of citizens to challenge despotic authority.
People go to courts as the last resort.But the courts mostly seem impervious to such alarums.They complain of excessive expectations from them,push serious complaints into the yard of the executive or the legislature and wash their hands and sometimes pour cold water on fervent cries for undoing grave wrongs and injuries.
Political parties,civil society groups and retired bureaucrats and generals voice full-throated demands for reversal of this record.Most of the time they come up against a blank wall.Yet they continue to hope against hope and return with newer petitions and complaints.
All this may be dismissed as cynical grumbling.But I don’t debunk protest as such or the affirmation of faith in institutions.But am most disturbed by their stolidity and what seems to be flagrant unconcern.As if all of us have agreed to play at befooling ourselves and refused to think out of the box.Some couragious members of the lower judiciary have played an exemplary role in upholding the rule of law and calling a stop to rampant misuse of law,but in some of these cases the High Courts seem to have brusquely clipped their wings.
Against this murky background the Supreme Court’s recent intervention on behalf of petitioners representing victims of the infamous ‘sedition law'(Section 124(A) of IPC) comes as a considerable relief.SC’s unambiguous order to defer all pending cases of sedition and allow bail to those victims jailed under its draconian sweep is certainly quite reassuring. The honourable judges have apparently taken with a pinch of salt the government’s profession of good intentions. And they are asking for prompt concrete action.But the Law Minister’s sombre mutterings about ‘Lakshman Rekha’ portend no good.
As for the time-honoured principle of separation of powers it is clearly visible that under its cover the executive is increasingly overstepping its legitimate limits in a reckless manner.Every time it claims to act within its right as the executive power of the state and there is not a shred of evidence that it will acknowledge and stop at a definite terminal point on this route.Increasingly this aggression is making a travesty of rule of law and thus attenuating the circle of judicial power. Whether its promise to review the impugned section of IPC will be sincerely fulfilled,or whether it turn out to be old wine in a new bottle remains to be seen.Sitaram Yechury has just expressed such a misgiving.And he speaks soberly.In such a case it will be back to square one and the country will be on the edge of a precipice.
And Section 124(A) is just one of the arms of despotic power.Being ‘colonial-era relic’ is only a minor feature.The basic characteristic is unbridled power at the expense of rights of free citizens.Masquerading as a necessity for safety of the state there are half a dozen other statutes like the UAPA that have been marshalled in aid of establishing brutal power.Poet Milton had memorably written about ‘necessity,the Tyrant’s plea’ more than three hundred years ago.And the words have not lost their edge.
This situation now urgently calls for more and stronger activity on the part of the judiciary, even though it might draw from expected quarters raucous charges of ‘judicial overreach’.When your opponent blithely treads down all rules,there may not be much to gain in invoking the playbook.
Hiren Gohain is a political commentator