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Saturday, August 31, 2002

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”




This is the quote that appears on the edit page of a local US daily. Most papers as we all know, carry a quote on the top or bottom of the editorial page – a different quote each day. But this particular newspaper carries this same quote everyday! On two visits, separated by more than a year, a friend found this first amendment to the US Constitution cited in the newspaper everyday of her stay there. I don’t know if this newspaper still carries these lines.

But one thing I know. This paper was sending a powerful message by repeating the same quote everyday. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” is something all of us heard, but too few pay much attention. This paper is telling us that we should remind ourselves everyday of our rights, and remind the government of its responsibilities.

We have to remind the lawmakers and ourselves, that in a democracy the citizen is the ultimate sovereign and whatever anybody does should serve his/her interest. Unfortunately most of us have taken our responsibility as citizens too casually. Having elected our representatives we felt that our responsibility ended there. Maybe we got liberty and democracy too easily without much struggle. Maybe we didn’t know what they actually meant. Maybe we took our freedom for granted. Whatever be the reason, when our elected representatives failed to fulfill their responsibilities; when our public servants started behaving like our masters; we just did not assume the responsibility for setting things right.

Now at last when citizens are asserting and insisting that all candidates seeking public office should furnish information regarding their criminal background, if any, and their assets and liabilities - all political parties are ganging up to deny us even this basic information. In full violation of the Constitution and in defiance of the Supreme Court’s order, the government has now promulgated an ordinance that is in contravention of article 13(2) of the Constitution which explicitly states that the state shall not make any law which takes away or abridges the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Instances where the Constitution has been violated are innumerable. In our own state, elections to the local governments have been delayed in flagrant violation of the constitutional mandate. Only by decree of the Court and when left with no choice did the government reluctantly conduct elections.

If even elections could be put off to suit a government’s political convenience or a leader’s whim, we can well imagine the sheer nonchalance with which the rights of ordinary citizens are trampled upon. And when large amounts of taxpayers’ money are swindled, all we do is wring our hands in despair. This inaction and apathy is largely a product of a sense of helplessness. Democracies all over the world flourished only when citizens took responsibility and resorted to collective action. We are not alone in being betrayed and victimized by our own representatives and publicservants. It is in the very nature of power that public office is abused if there are no instruments of accountability. In a poor country, with largely illiterate people, and a feudal culture, such kleptocracy is unchecked. But India of 2002 is no longer what it was 50 years ago. The bulk of our people are literate and politically aware now. The informed middle classes are seething with rage. All we need is for them to realize their power, and get together to force reform. The nation is on the verge of fundamental changes. The younger generation is impatient for change. The communications revolution is bringing us all together, and building a sense of citizenship and common purpose.

Politicians, if they are sensible, should sense the mood of the people, and bring in political reforms quickly. Politics is about peaceful change. Let the parties and legislators understand that. Those who believe it will be business as usual will be swept aside by the rising tide of anger and yearning for change.


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