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Saturday, November 22, 2003

The events of the past fortnight have once again demonstrated the fragility that characterizes the fundamental rights in this country. The Tamilnadu Legislative Assembly found five senior journalists guilty of violating the legislative privileges and sought to imprison them. This episode brings into relief many questions. First, can Article 194, pertaining to legislative privileges, override freedom of expression enshrined in Article 19? Can judiciary adjudicate on the question of legislative privileges?

Constitutional issues aside, what troubled me most is the fact that the perpetrators of the “alleged” crime were not even given an opportunity to present their case, which is in gross violation of principles of natural justice. Take another example: an Additional District Sessions Judge recently convicted a few local politicians in Uttar Pradesh for murdering noted stage artist Safdar Hashmi. What was the crime of Safdar Hashmi? He directed the street play titled “Halla Bol” which depicted a local politician in poor light and he paid the price with his life. These are but few incidents, which demonstrate the high handedness of the persons in authority.

Quiet often we come across this paradoxical situation. On one hand we have all the things that are mandatory for democratic polity – fundamental rights enshrined in constitution, free polls, separation of powers, etc.  The poor and the oppressed do enjoy some sense of power due to these formal democratic procedures. On the other hand we often come across the authoritarian behavior from individuals manning the state apparatus. The poor, sometimes even the educated and well-off, do experience a sense of powerlessness in face of such behavior. Why this paradox? Why is it that we see individuals/political leaders functioning in an authoritarian manner in a democratic polity?

The answer probably lies in the manner in which democracy took root in this country. However much we may harp on the various democratic practices in ancient India, they were few and far between. Democracy in India, like elsewhere in the world, is a modern phenomenon. Democracy in India is a product of freedom struggle - a product of mere ideological belief that “the people of India” are the true sovereigns. Moreover, the socio-economic conditions were not propitious for vibrant functioning of democracy. As a consequence, democracy was supplanted in a society characterized by hierarchical social relations. Democracy not only altered the existing social relations but in the process it also got distorted. Consequently the norms that accompany democracy such as notion of equality and concept of individuality were not completely internalized and absence of democratic culture became a defining feature of our democratic polity. Whether it is police brutalities or high handedness of officials or periodic break down of law and order or the centralized decision making processes in our political parties and government, all of them reflect the absence of democratic culture in our social life.

How can we address this situation? The answer to problems in democracy is more democracy. We can usher in genuine democracy by making various institutions such as universities and political parties more democratic.  For instance take our political parties: the word democracy is antithetical to their style of functioning. The decision-making in the government cannot be democratic if the party in power is subservient to whims and fancies of an individual. That’s what has happened in the case of Tamilnadu. None of the MLAs of the ruling party strongly opposed the privileges motion and toed the official line promptly. Vehement opposition to such an act, though valid, is an inadequate response. One should realize that the absence of internal democracy in political parties facilitates enactment of draconian laws. The answer lies in strengthening and democratizing political parties, and in decentralization of power.

The media must realize that its freedom and autonomy is contingent on the health of our democracy. If the personnel of the media behave as though they are managing a purely commercial enterprise but not as vanguards of fundamental rights, they are not only undermining their profession but also jeopardizing democracy. Media must take proactive steps for reforming democracy and merely reporting sensational political events will not suffice. Media must provide a platform wherein lively debates and action plans are formulated for strengthening our democracy. The freedom of the media is directly related to the robustness of democracy and hence it is in the media’s interest to consistently work for a strong and vibrant democracy.

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