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Saturday, June 29, 2002

This week marks the 27th anniversary of imposition of ”internal emergency” in this country. That dark chapter in our country’s history saw suspension of basic civil liberties and habeas corpus, and stifling of press freedom. About 100,000 people were incarcerated for daring to speak-up. Contrast this with just 864 persons detained during the whole of US Civil War!

Emergency has become the defining event of our post-independence history. Life has never been the same again after the tumultuous period. It is a tribute to the strength and resilience of our democracy that we have bounced back.  27 years after the event, its time for us to take stock of the situation.

Based on the yardstick of competitive elections, free political parties, peaceful transfer of power and legitimate exercise of power by the elected, India is recognized as one of the few post-colonial countries with a stable democratic regime. But when judged by the more exacting standards of democracy of empowerment of citizens, rule of law and self-correcting institutions, our polity emerges poorly.

Power is being habitually abused for personal gain or to hurt real or perceived opponents. The way First Global is being harassed and hounded for merely being a main investor in is a good example of such arbitrary exercise of power. It was widely reported that Laloo Yadav’s men had brazenly stolen hundreds of new cars from dealers to ferry guests for his daughter’s wedding! The tragic events in Gujarat reflect the complete failure of governance process and the abdication of state’s basic responsibility of protecting the life and liberty of its citizens. There is little evidence to show that these matters are being investigated. We may have survived a major assault on our democracy 27 years ago, but millions of mini-emergencies keep haunting us every day.

This week we were witness to the “investiture” ceremony of Omar Abdullah as the new president of National Conference. In the recent past, in Andhra alone, whenever a sitting legislator died, the wife/son are the chosen successors. We may have abolished princely states but we sure have retained dynastic and autocratic parties. For daring to express the truth, senior party functionaries are humiliated and expelled. Where is democracy? In effect our polity is reduced to being the personal fiefdoms of a few thousand families across the country with the rest of having no say.

But there happens to be a silver lining.  A few groups of people cared to speak and some institutions have listened. Now citizens across the country along with civil society participation have succeeded in putting pressure on the Election Commission to act proactively in implementing the Supreme Court judgment of May 2, to force candidates to disclose their criminal antecedents and assets and liabilities. Although the government and mainstream political parties have tried their best to scuttle the Court’s judgment, civil society pressure prevailed and paid rich dividends. Just as it happened during emergency, when millions of ordinary citizens stood up and actively resisted the tyranny of the state, citizens of this country should stand up and be counted. The fight now is not against one party or one event. It is a struggle for the very soul of our democracy, and for an accountable and honest political process. In a democracy, the citizen is the ultimate sovereign and eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

There is a poem written by a Nazi victim sending us a powerful message to speak up.

First they came for the Jews;And I did not speak out;Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for the Trade Unionists;And I did not speak out;Because I was not a Trade Unionist

Then they came for the Communists;And I did not speak out;Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for me;And there was none left;To speak for me

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