INDIA: An Act to suppress democratic rights 

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is informed that District Magistrate Barwani in Madhya Pradesh state has issued a “show cause” notice to human rights defender Ms. Madhuri Krishnaswami on 10 May 2012 asking her why actions should not be initiated against her under the Madhya Pradesh Rajya Suraksha Adhiniyam, 1990 (Madhya Pradesh State Security, Act, 1990) to expel her from Barwani and six neighbouring districts.

The AHRC condemns this executive action and calls upon the civil society organisations in India to extend support to Madhuri and Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS), an organisation she leads. The notice was served to Madhuri and the organisation – a people’s movement with thousands of families as members – at the same time the Indian delegation, led by the Attorney-General of India, Mr. G. E. Vahanvaty, addressed the United Nations’ Human Rights Council on India’s human rights commitments.

The Madhya Pradesh Rajya Suraksha Adhiniyam, often referred to as a black (draconian) law has questionable premises concerning its enactment, a fact proved from the pattern of its enforcement. (A softcopy of the law could be downloaded here.)

This law allows the executive magistrate unbridled powers to curtail the civil rights of a person. The executive magistrate, after a summary proceeding, may (i) restrict the movements of a person; (ii) restrict the person from entering any place within his jurisdiction and places ‘contiguous’ to the magistrate’s jurisdiction, which usually implies the entirety of the state; (iii) impose conditions upon a person as to contain the person’s freedom of association and communication; (iv) dispossess the person of the person’s property; or (v) require a person to sign a security bond. Worse still is the statutory prohibition in the law (vide section 9) that restricts the options available to an aggrieved person by order of an executive magistrate to appeals only to the state government. This limits the jurisdiction of the courts to intervention only where errors are apparent in the procedure followed by the executive magistrate as specified in section 10 of this law.

This law contravenes constitutional guarantees. The state, in the absence of any proclamation of emergency, could exercise its powers through a state agent (in this case, the executive magistrate who is not a judicial officer) to restrict the civil liberties of a citizen. The law crucially assumes that a person served a “show cause” notice has committed an offence; this leaves only one option for the person so blindly charged. This is a summary procedure, where the law does not require the adjudicating executive officer to write a reasoned out order. Here again the law breaches yet another elementary proposition of justice, where the prosecutor and the adjudicator are the same. Put simply, this particular law breaches two fundamental principles in criminal law: (i) presumption of innocence and (ii) impartial adjudication. This law is, as such, prone to misuse – the notice served against Madhuri and JADS is but one example. The AHRC believes that this law is not yet adequately questioned and would certainly fail the test of constitutionality.

It is reported that the executive magistrate who have served the Madhuri and JADS the show cause notice is acting merely on the dictates of the state’s government, which has decided to use the Madhya Pradesh Rajya Suraksha Adhiniyam against the work of peoples’ movements, movements such as JADS. The government states that the ‘compelling causes’ that lead them to exercise this law against the JADS and Madhuri are certain criminal cases registered against the organisation over the past several years. However, to date, the courts have dismissed all these cases.

It is also alleged in the notice that the organisation has been “obstructing” government-sponsored development work in the state. These accusations are baseless. The organisation has instead been insisting that the state administration ensure its welfare schemes are properly implemented and weed out corruption in the implementation of these schemes. The movement has been working to ensure that the benefits of these government schemes reach the tribal communities who are the rightful beneficiaries of these schemes. The JADS is engaged in educating its members and the extended tribal communities it support of their rights.

The fact that informed citizens question government servants has irked not just the administration, but the state government as well. The JADS strives to ensure dignity of the indigenous people, women and children. The organisation has spearheaded protest gatherings when the corrupt district administrators have siphoned money off the poor who did manual labour under the national rural employment guarantee scheme. It has organised protests against the neglect of the district administration of tribal communities. It works with the victims of human rights abuses who have complained against forest officers who molest women, steal from tribal hamlets and demand bribes from the tribal communities in exchange for allowing them to live peacefully. These are searing issues of oppression that a corruption-ridden and inept administration would not appreciate. Unfortunately, legislations like the Madhya Pradesh Rajya Suraksha Adhiniyam compose the manner in which the administration responds to such calls for accountability. Under this law, any and all calls for greater accountability and transparency could be termed “anti-state” or “a threat to national security”; this results in a reduced space for dissent and expressions of a desire for true democracy in India.

The process adopted by the state concerning JADS has now become an ingrained pattern of state oppression of people’s movements in Madhya Pradesh. On at least five occasions the state government has followed this pattern of registering a series of false cases against social and political activists and later serving them “show cause” notices under the Madhya Pradesh Rajya Suraksha Adhiniyam so their activities could be legally and “legitimately”, albeit unconstitutionally, stopped. Some of these cases have been withdrawn by the state administration, whereas others are fought out in courts. The law is claimed by the government to be necessary in the prevention of organised crime, yet it serves instead to generate organised civil resistance, the suppression of which could end in widespread civil unrest. Thus ingloriously dissected, such an Act is an act indeed, a performance or miming of law which permits puppets in the administration to move, wave and bow according to the insecurities of the government not robust enough to engage in public debate.

If the magistrate under instructions from Bhopal is to proceed with the notice served upon JADS, the officer will have to forcefully evict at least a few thousand families from their homes for them to remain outside Barwani and six neighbouring districts. The impossibility of the process will force the magistrate to target a few individuals representing and or leading the JADS, exposing the actual absence of justice in issuing the notice and initiating proceedings against JADS in the first place.

The case against JADS is not an isolated incident. It is yet another example in a long chain of state-sponsored assaults upon democracy, rule of law and the collective wisdom of the people. The JADS is an organisation working for the rights of the indigenous communities and against corruption, deforestation, malnutrition, forced eviction and it is the collective voice of protest by the people against systematic injustice meted out against them by the governments for the past 14 years. To term legitimate protests and organisations organised crime is itself a criminal act, one that denies the inherent dignity of the Indian peoples and their voice.

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.
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