INDIA: Neither democracy nor justice as core values

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission on the occasion of Human Rights Day

The incumbent government has pushed the people to one of the worst living conditions they have faced in recent collective and individual memory. Millions of Indians are repeatedly queuing up before banks and currency dispensing machines, struggling to withdraw legitimately earned money.

State and private employees are being denied free access to their salary. Pensioners are unable to withdraw their pension. The situation is chaotic, if it has not already reached a stage of rupture.

It is all the result of the Union government’s decision to withdraw an estimated 86% of the currency in circulation in the country in its attempt to combat black money.

What was the government’s preparation before such a move? The answer: practically nothing, other than keeping the move a closely guarded secret for obvious reasons. Has any country that has tried a similar measure in the past succeeded? Not one.

This situation in India, in the wake of the overnight withdrawal of 500 and 1,000 Rupee notes from circulation, and their replacement with new currency notes at a painfully slow pace, mirrors India’s human rights record. Like the money in the bank that all Indians today struggle and fail repeatedly to gain access to, human rights too is a minimum guarantee that the Indian State has promised to its people, but hardly anyone is able to realise.

During all the confusion created by shortage of currency, wherein millions of ordinary people are finding it difficult to make ends meet, there are also the country’s politicians and super-rich who have been documented celebrating private functions of disgusting opulence, spending millions. Ministers and bureaucrats who are invited to these functions have been flown in on chartered flights. This too mirrors the ground situation in the country, where notions of democracy and justice have only served the privileged.

A root cause of the dire straits related to black money and human rights tragedy is the non-existent criminal justice framework. What is passed-off as a justice framework in the country is a body of institutions that are neither equipped nor expected to follow a set of laws.  Due to this, even though unaccounted money might not surface in a huge quantity for a while, it will survive. And, it is the lack of this justice framework that will continue to prevent ordinary citizens from exercising their human rights across the land.

India does not have a corruption prevention agency. In fact, such an agency having the power and resolve to contain corruption was never a policy priority of any Indian government. It is public knowledge that elections in India are contested spending black money amounting to billions. This is the reason why the so-called democratic process in India successfully maintains corrupt politicians in the country’s legislative houses, term after term.

Corruption has corroded and wilted even the namesake constitutional values that once existed within Indian establishments. It has spared no State-run institution. A statement “that even the Indian judiciary is not immune to corruption” is today clichéd. Yet, it has not stirred up any popular uprising against these institutions. The people of India live in absolute despair.

Some of the horrendous dictators of the past were the choice of despondent citizenry that felt the need for a strong government with a tough leader at its centre. What else would explain a person like Mr. Narendra Modi being elected as the Prime Minister of a country that claims it is a democracy. This is the same man who is neck-deep in the blood that was shed in Gujarat in 2002, and the killings that his government, and he personally, presided over.

Indeed, for the sake of argument, Indian courts have cleared Modi of all charges. But expecting a powerful politician to be indicted, tried, and convicted requires institutions that will stand up to uphold justice and truth. And to do so these institutions must have justice as a non-negotiable core value. In India this is not the case. Justice is not a core value of any of the India’s public institutions.

The civil society, and the national and international media, has forgotten Modi’s patronage and role in the Gujarat massacre. Media that once analysed threadbare Modi’s role in the massacre and held him guilty for the loss of life, destruction to property, and peaceful life of the people in the state, are now competing to win his praise.

To top it all, the country also lacks an honest political opposition that has a vision, substance, and reason in engagement, and that shows some intelligence in its engagement with the incumbent government. Most opposition leaders, when part of the previous government, have done nothing remarkable for ordinary people.

It is incorrect to state that the incumbent government is wholly responsible for the prevailing situation in India. The corruption scandals and ineptitude displayed by the last government shocked even Indians, usually immune to stories of corruption. At the same time, when Dr. Manmohan Singh was the Prime Minister, at least major projects that projected the utilisation of large extent of natural resources and required eviction of people for the project to be implemented had to be also vetted by a body named the National Advisory Council. Often the Council was not effective to the degree people expected. Yet, there was a layer of scrutiny, even if that too was not followed on all occasions.

The incumbent government however decides such matters with the least level of transparency. In most cases the Prime Minister individually and directly takes the decision, and not the respective Cabinet Ministers holding the portfolio. Consultative process is not one of the strong characters of the incumbent Prime Minister. On repeated occasions, the Prime Minister has indicated that consultation is for the weak.

While being lauded as one of the fastest growing economies, the reality in India is such that this growth has not benefitted an estimated 60% of the country’s people. India still has worse malnutrition statistics than some of its poor neighbours, like Sri Lanka, Burma, and Nepal, the latter being a country reduced to stones and boulders after a massive earthquake.

The undeclared yet practiced policy of the Indian State for the past 30 years has been not only to turn a blind eye to this problem but also to continue engaging in activities that have worsened the situation. For instance, there are thousands of villages in India where families live in abject poverty, with no hope, and the reason for their condition is being repeated:  forced evictions without just compensation and rehabilitation, across generations to execute State-run or privately owned mining and other large-scale projects.

A country that is today able to commission satellites to be sent to outer space for foreign governments is not genuine in finding means to get a square meal across to its own children in the country’s abandoned and gloomy backyards. Acute malnutrition and high rates of infant mortality are reported regularly from Sriharikota, in Nellore District of Tamilnadu, which houses one of India’s satellite launch facilities, the Satish Dhawan Space Centre.

India is made of stark contrasts. Despite its riches and achievements, millions of lives fall through the cracks of bureaucratic ineptitude, caste and gender based discrimination, and corruption and neglect of the Indian State, into chasms of hopelessness. These lives keep being lost. Neither the Union government nor its state governments have true records and data of those who are living in acute poverty and suffering from malnutrition.

Such statistics are also absent regarding instances of extrajudicial executions and other forms of brutal custodial violence, though these too are reported daily from literally every district of this vast country. This is because, in its attempt to deny responsibility, the State throws its best resources to cover-up its criminality. After being unsuccessful in seeking and obtaining relief, repeatedly, the people have lost faith in most of their State institutions. So they have stopped complaining.

Speaking openly about the above is not tolerated in India anymore either. Anyone who critiques the government or its policies is threatened by the State. Many who decided to dare have either perished or are being dealt with by State one way or the other. Fabricated cases, prolonged periods of detention, repeated raids by State agencies, and travel bans are a few means that the State employs against such rogue individuals or organisations. In some cases there is also a media trial.

Professional standards of journalism are at their lowest in India. A large and influential cartel of publishing houses that call themselves independent media, and an expanding group of pseudo experts who express opinions live on news shows are in fact today’s real opinion makers in India. There are too many unverified claims, fake news items, and regressive opinions broadcast daily in the country. The ordinary people in large numbers thus consider political satire shows as a credible alternative for real news, since such shows research their subjects well and are current in their critique.

The government could pass off claims of achievement without having to substantiate anything with credible data. All that is required is for the Prime Minister or for a senior politician to address the country through one of their chosen media outlets. Indians today are at such risk that they could wakeup one morning and learn that their country is in a full-blown war with its neighbour, without the government having to show cause in Parliament.

Speaking against the armed forces, for whatever reason, is unpatriotic, and a life threatening venture today in India. Questioning the government is not a democratic value anymore either. The country is heading fast in a direction where all State actions will soon become unquestionable.

The Judiciary is eager to swallow State claims, and refuses to verify their genuineness. In any case the Indian Judiciary has not set higher standards for itself against the government, since the Judiciary too is equally inept and does not tolerate criticism. These circumstances have narrowed further the already rarefied space for public dialogue. One could get arrested for calling foul against the State and the Indian courts have shown on repeated occasions that they will not intervene to defend rights.

Everything in India is today measured at varying, and gradually intensifying, degrees of patriotism. At a worrying pace, language, food, dress, online and casual opinions expressed in chat forums, and even movies, have become yardsticks with which patriotism is measured. The latest contribution to this list has been made by the Supreme Court of India, which in a detestable show, wasting time and resources, has ordered playing the national anthem at every movie hall before each show, and asking all those who are present to stand up when the national anthem is so played.

Politicians, bureaucracy, Judiciary, and the media all compete with each other to showcase their patriotism. When India is compared to Hitler’s Germany there are too many similarities. One cannot find fault with any ruling party leader’s statements, even if such statement may be based on miserably mistaken knowledge of history.

India is today a country that shares the sparkle of international limelight. But it is a glitter that only looks good in comparison with its neighbours. India is now a global player, with high stakes; it is poised to win and lose. Yet, for the ordinary Indian, the world around has shrunk to such low levels that even a fight for day-to-day existence is a game that is lost, even before it starts.

Human rights are considered an obstacle in modern India by the State and the privileged. Executive actions like extrajudicial executions, torture, militarisation (wherever and whenever the government decides), forced eviction of the poor, all forms of gender violence, and caste-based discrimination are considered to be issues not to be publicly spoken about, or protested against, since this may hurt India’s image and global or domestic business interests.

It is in this context that some 1.3 billion people, every sixth person of this world, will observe Human Rights Day in India. On 10 December 2016 too, women will be raped, the poor will be evicted, children will be sold, and a few unfortunate souls will perish in State custody. There is nothing and no one in India who can stop this today. Those who will be faulted however will be the ones who dare to challenge the continuation of the same.