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  Opinion   Oped  26 Jan 2017  Celebrate our democracy’s rulebook

Celebrate our democracy’s rulebook

Antara Dev Sen is Editor of The Little Magazine. She can be contacted at:
Published : Jan 26, 2017, 6:21 am IST
Updated : Jan 26, 2017, 7:35 am IST

Our real strength comes from our resolve to overcome hurdles and from the rights and freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution.

An Indian street vendor sells Indian flags at a traffic intersection on the eve of India's Republic Day, in Kolkata. (Photo: AP)
 An Indian street vendor sells Indian flags at a traffic intersection on the eve of India's Republic Day, in Kolkata. (Photo: AP)

We are celebrating our 68th Republic Day. We will see majestic marches and stunning feats by our security forces, and fantastic floats from various parts of our amazing country. We will stare in awe at the proud display of our weapons of mass destruction and marvel at our vast range of cultural talents. And we will feel impeccably important and powerful.

While it is fine to feel grand during the Republic Day ceremony, it may also be useful to recognise what exactly we are celebrating. Contrary to popular belief, Republic Day is not meant to celebrate our tanks and missiles. It commemorates a much deeper, far more durable power we have. It celebrates our Constitution. It’s the day the Constitution came into effect. It honours the rulebook for our democracy, the book that gives each of us the right to be a free and proud citizen of India. And the Constitution itself celebrates our many diversities and our equality as human beings and as citizens of India, it guarantees us equal rights irrespective of our position in society.

But over these 67 years, how loyal have we been to this superb Constitution of ours? As I write this, on the eve of our 68th Republic Day, let’s take a look at some of today’s headlines.

In Chhattisgarh’s Bastar, distinguished academic and activist Bela Bhatia has been threatened by a violent mob, which seems to have police protection. She was told to leave immediately, if she didn’t want her rented house set on fire and her dog killed. Her crime? She has been helping village women raped and physically assaulted by the police to file FIRs and has been raising awareness about such atrocities in Maoist-affected villages away from the media spotlight.

A few days ago, the National Human Rights Commission sent a notice to the Chhattisgarh government about the sexual and physical assaults on 16 women by Bastar’s policemen and held the government responsible for such violations of tribal women’s human rights. Ms Bhatia had helped the NHRC in its investigations. Naturally, the police was not pleased.

Shockingly, though, activists and lawyers who requested Bastar inspector-general S.R.P. Kalluri to ensure Ms Bhatia’s safety have received abuse in return. In response to messages of concern, the top cop seems to have sent back messages saying “F U” and “Maoists and their dogs like you will be stoned out of Bastar. Beware.” But locals may not be surprised by such shameful behaviour from the chief law enforcer of the region (Mr Kalluri has denied it).

Apparently he and his policemen have been issuing statements labelling researchers, fact-finding teams and journalists as “white-collar Naxals” and declared 2017 to be Mission White Collar — the year when they rid Bastar of these pesky people pursuing bothersome stuff like justice and democratic freedoms.

Like in most strife-torn regions, human rights are under severe attack in Chhattisgarh. And so are those trying to defend them. The mandate to fight Naxals and other extremists gives the police and security forces an impunity that crushes the very idea of human rights, justice and democratic freedoms as guaranteed by the Constitution. Lawyers like Shalini Gera and Isha Khandelwal of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, and journalists like Malini Subramaniam have been attacked and forced out of Bastar.

Ironically enough, though the long arm of the law fails to reach victims in these villages, it manages to grasp those trying to help them get justice. So members of a fact-finding committee who visited Bastar last year got slapped with a murder charge. Among them were academics like Nandini Sundar of Delhi University and Archana Prasad of JNU, activist Vineet Tiwari and Sanjay Parate, the CPI(M) state secretary of Chhattisgarh.

The fact is, if high-profile people from Delhi can be targeted, guess what the ordinary disempowered villager faces? Raman Singh’s BJP government doesn’t seem to mind either such brazen misuse of power or such blatant violations of human rights.

Let’s get some things clear. Reporting human rights abuses is not a crime. Helping a victim of rape and physical assault to lodge an FIR or seek legal justice is not a crime. Documenting human rights abuse in the interest of justice is not a crime. But those attempting these are in trouble. Because dissent or any independent thought, is a problem for an authoritarian administration. And people like Ms Bhatia, who refuse to be cowed down and insist on staying in Bastar and doing whatever is necessary to protect the human rights of these unfortunate citizens, are those who are truly celebrating the spirit of the Republic, by honouring the guarantees of the Constitution.

But then we have not liked dissent for quite some time. We use whatever means possible to stifle dissent or any independent thought. We could slap a sedition case against you for speaking about freedom. If you take up legal cases we don’t like, or raise awareness of inconvenient truths, we could cancel your organisation’s license to receive foreign funds. We could toss you in jail for being a terrorist if we want. So, as the IGP of Bastar allegedly said to activists: Beware.

On the 68th Republic Day, this utter disrespect for the Constitution is not what we want to witness. And there are so many other ways we are failing our citizens and their constitutional guarantees.

We failed Baby Lakshmi, 3, who was run over as she played on the streets that was her home. There are about three million homeless people in India, citizens who live and die on the streets, battling the elements and our apathy. Citizens of India who have been grossly let down by the State.

But then there is a Shaheera Ahmed, and her “community teachers”. The schoolgirl from Kashmir’s Dadsara village topped the Class 12 exams with an astounding 498 out of 500. This in spite of enormous hardship and political unrest due to the violence of security forces, including schools closed for almost five months. But community teachers stepped in, and Shaheera made the best of their guidance.

This never-say-die spirit is a celebration of our Republic Day. Not our missiles. Our real strength comes from our resolve to overcome hurdles and from the rights and freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution. If we nurture that some more, we would really feel grand and powerful.

Tags: republic day, constitution, national human rights commission