INDIA: Democracy is also about questioning

The demand of political parties that the Government of India provide proof of the Indian Army’s “surgical strike” against Pakistan is brewing a political storm in India. Persons in the government have deplored the questioning, labelling it as anti-Army and against national security. Some have even gone to the extent of demanding that those who do not believe the Indian Army and the Indian government leave the country and settle in Pakistan.

It is understandable that patriotism could take a hit with such questioning. But are not such questions, and the capacity for such questioning, the weft and warp with which the concept of parliamentary democracy is woven?

The absolute position adopted by the government – that activities undertaken by State agencies, if carried out for national security, must not be questioned – in fact strengthens impunity, a curse that exists in India. There are thousands of cases reported from India where the police first detain persons even before they have evidence linking the crime to anyone, then proceed to “investigate” the persons using brute forms of torture, and finally after long periods of arbitrary detention, release the person. India’s official entry to next year’s Oscars is based on a true account of such policing, which is common around the country.

So ludicrous has the practice become that the police issue “good conduct certificates” to those finally released, stating that these persons had nothing to do with the crime alleged against them. This kind of policing is prevalent both in instances of routine crime “investigation” and in cases where the police pick up persons on suspicion of them being involved in the planning or execution of terrorist or other disruptive activities. Most of those picked up are either migrants, poor, or from religious minorities.

The Indian Judiciary has failed miserably to stem this practice. The role of a judge in a criminal proceeding is first to assess the need to detain a person. The concept of bail is rooted in the court’s authority to limit the power of the State to detain a person and to question the State, demanding justification for a person’s detention.

In advanced jurisdictions, where the law enforcement agencies are trained and equipped to undertake modern crime investigation, agencies resort to arresting a person only if they have substantial evidence. Only then does this person get arrested and interviewed for the offense. Unfortunately, in India, where there has been no policing policy for the past six decades, and inherited practices from colonial policing, such concepts don’t make much sense.

The right, power, and means to question the police and all State agencies for their action and inaction must be the foundation upon which a democracy is built. The deficiency in this capacity is what encourages misuse of authority.

The mentality not to question authority, i.e. State agencies, particularly the police, is elemental to a society that practices caste-based discrimination. In caste, challenging hierarchy is considered transgressing strong social practices. The branding of caste upon the body of the Indian society is so deeply engraved that people today fail to respond to misuse of authority. This has stunted the average Indian’s capacity to protest. From time to time this incapacity leads to the breakout of violence, which masquerades as protest.

Transforming this understanding to policing, State agencies like the police are placed at a higher level in society beyond questioning by the common man for their actions. This contravenes the principle of civilian policing, which is based on the understanding that the police are the servant of the people and not enforcers of fear.

However, practicing this principle contravenes the philosophy of the Indian State, wherein policing is approached as a State tool with which fear is imparted through the agency for social control. This is one of the root causes for endemic torture in India.

For India that spearheaded the independence movement in Asia, questioning the ‘whiteman’s burden’ of ‘civilising’ the world, the logic, principle and empowerment in questioning state actions must not be alien. The vigour with which Army’s actions against Pakistan is questioned is absent when term after term corrupt individuals and criminals get elected to Indian legislative houses; or when businesses devour the poor, alienating them from their hut and hearth; with detention centres filled with undertrials who are detained for years beyond the maximum period of punishment prescribed for the offence for which they are charged; or about Indian courts taking more than a decade to complete trials.

Societies that dare to question are those that are truly free. For the democracy in India to mature, it is questioning that must be encouraged.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-154-2016
Countries : India,
Issues : Democracy, Legislation, Rule of law,