Kerala’s decision to regulate content on social media prompted a lot of outcry across the political spectrum. The administration had initially justified the decision by saying that the aim was to stop online harassment, before deciding to not implement the law. In the course of this fiasco, a larger problem with Indian politics was highlighted yet again, the absence (read: disregard) of ideals of individual liberty and rights. With a new series of legislations, like the OTT regulation and the so-called ‘Love Jihad act,’ being cleared this is an interesting time to understand individual rights in the Indian political dispensation - for what it’s worth.
From the freedom of expression to the freedom of religion, the Constitution guarantees some fundamental rights to every citizen of India, irrespective of identity. However, for a citizen to freely exercise these rights, there needs be a political machinery which respects an individual’s personal liberty. Political parties, whenever and wherever in power, have failed to understand and allow the existence of such an environment.
Conversations around dictatorial behaviour of politicians cannot begin without the mention of the Emergency. It was, after all, the first time in independent India where state machinery was used to commit all kinds of violations against citizens. The emergency saw it all - forced vasectomies, opposition leaders in jails, the absolute muzzling of the freedom of the press. Whereas commentators repeatedly recount those twenty-one months as the darkest period in Indian democracy, what they fail to do is gauge the legacy it left in the political sphere. This is what the piece is going to focus on - the fundamental damage done by the emergency in converting politicians from public servants to public rulers.
In the late 80s and early 90s, voters began to move away from the Indian National Congress and thus came to life a new breed of regional leaders. The most prominent names: Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh, Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar, Jyoti Basu in West Bengal, and M. Karunanidhi and J. Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu.
These leaders became local legends and commanded respect, not just in their state, but across the nation. Each one of their reigns saw some or the other kind of attack on either a section of population or the opposition, using state machinery. It is their tenure which sealed the idea that the post-emergency relationship between the elected and the electorate had changed.
Let us start with the Left led by Jyoti Basu. Political violence was one of the key characteristics of Bengal during the Left’s over 30-year reign in the state. However, what is not covered in as much detail is the fact that, in the heights of their power, the Left was absolutely tyrannical. One of their lesser known mass atrocity comes in the year 1982 in Bijon Setu, when 17 people were lynched in broad daylight. Per early reports, accusers had close connection to the CPI(ML) but because of lack of investigation no arrests were made. The media coverage remained apathetic and in the year 1996, when the National Human Rights Commission finally decided to go ahead with the investigation the state government interfered in their work. This incident captures everything that was wrong with the way powerful governments functioned; such was their might that their party members could be accused of mass slaughter and still get away without a single arrest. Per an estimate, the Communists committed over 2000 political murders in their reign. The sheer violence with which they grew killed any scope of individual liberty in the state.
Bihar, on similar lines, had Lalu Yadav’s jungle raj - a state of absolute lawlessness between 1990 to 2005, with the RJD in power. The number of kidnappings that occurred in the span of fifteen years is undocumented, because the police officers were either aligned with the guilty or afraid of them; however, a report in The Times of India states the number to be over 32,000. As for murders, Bihar Police records reveal that between 2000 and 2005 over 18,000 people were murdered. As with Basu, Lalu Yadav got away with all of these violations. In fact, the only charges he ever faced was of corruption and that screams everything about the dispensation – theft is a greater crime than murder and kidnapping.
A similar pattern was seen with the other leaders mentioned above. Karunanidhi, when in power, decided to allow his party-men to attack Jayalalitha and AIADMK members on the floor of the parliament. Jayalalitha censored journalists and sued DMK members when she came to power. Mayawati used POTA against political opponent Raja Bhaiya. When the SP came to power in UP, they decided to “Yadavize" the police force, with Akhilesh Yadav appointing 56 of 86 SDMs from his caste. This kind of blatant misuse of state machinery by ministers across the country exposes a larger problem that needs to be confronted.
Since the day Indira Gandhi decided to use the state machinery for her vindictiveness, liberal values have seen a departure in Indian politics. Core principles of freedom of speech or tolerance do not find any space in the political class today. Whenever any leader has gained significant power, they have misused it in the most blatant manner.
This brings us to the current administration. When in 2014 (and 2019) the BJP got a decisive mandate, it was their turn to be vindictive, that is, disregard basic principles of a democratic system. This was the reality for many at the state level; now it was true at the national level. The only reason no Prime Minister since Indira Gandhi had been able to break the system with such ease was because no one had the numbers to do so. The BJP did.
Even now they are not alone who are being undemocratic. Look at the TMC government in West Bengal and the number of BJP workers that have been found dead. Naveen Patnaik's BJD government is cracking down on the Odia-language news channel OTV. The YRSCP government in Andhra Pradesh has hit out hard at TDP members using the state police. These incidents make it clear that even today it is not only the BJP which is pushing out actions like these, it is anyone with power. If at all the Indian society needs to be free and truly democratic, the next challenge for it is to create a politically tolerant environment where the state machinery is not blatantly misused for personal gains and setting scores.