PUCL Bulletin June 2003

(The Hindu, 5 May 2003)


Killing free speech
By K. G. Kannabiran

Also see, An Appeal to Conscience
Let's us not allow Anomie to set in!
Open letter by K G Kannabiran
President, People's Union for Civil Liberties

THERE ARE other ways of restraining free speech and expression, freedom
of assembly and association. Use of laws invites adverse criticisms.

Though the state generally does not care for such criticism, this does not solve the problem. Killing silences criticism once and for all. The critic is silenced and his death silences other like-minded persons. The others seek reasons for the killing not because their conscience is disturbed, but because, living in a society, they feel compelled to justify their silence. People feel that the critic was
silenced for his confrontational politics. We are neutral not because of our objective understanding but on account of subjective factors, terror and survival.

The Government need not resort to the relevant sub-clauses of Article 19 of
the Constitution by framing laws or to even invoke the drastic Emergency. Governments have now learnt to abandon governance without doing away
with the formal framework. With the onset of the 21st century, mankind has come a full circle.

We struggled against arbitrariness, which was not premeditated, and
insecurity. Through gradual evolution, we brought orderliness in our
lives. We devised rules to govern ourselves.We fought against dominance in
various forms. We also formulated a philosophy to change the world. And
this led to the framing of the Constitution, which was in itself a major step towards transparent governance.

Associational freedoms were the first to come with the emergence of power and its dominance.

It looks as though we have returned to the Hobbesian state of nature where life was depicted as "nasty, brutish and short". (man is wolf of man), said Hobbes. The progress we have achieved seems to have come to a halt. Instead of moving towards an egalitarian society, we have been busy completing the task left unfinished by Hitler and Mussolini. We do not even change the signboards. Governments manage the atrocities with the same signboards, democracy and socialism. It does not embarrass governments nor does it lead to angry protests.

One can have a Constitution without working it and by allowing parts of it fall
into desuetude. And that would be a tragedy because if these rights are
not available or if people are trained not to use these rights or to look
at the exercise of these rights as a futile endeavour, when globalisation and market forces fail to enhance the quality of our lives, as ahuman collective we would have forgotten the art of collectively protesting. This process appears to be on already.

This state of affairs can only be described as anomie. In Andhra Pradesh, over four decades of continued brutality employed by the Government for putting down the CPI (M-L) movement has led inexorably to the present state of anomie in governance. This is not peculiar to the State. We recently witnessed the total breakdown of order in Gujarat where authority was supervising mayhem and looting of Muslim shops by middle-class families. This anomie takes various forms and exists in various stages across the country. There seems to be a total
abandonment of governance. Andhra Pradesh has taken the pioneering
step of privatising extra-judicial killings of non-parliamentary political
dissent, including the defenders of human rights and intellectual supporters
of this dissent.

When three inspectors in Andhra Pradesh were abducted recently, quite a
large number of human rights activists and writers received threats saying that they would be killed should something happen to the abducted.

This is nothing new as it has been the logic of state violence for over
three decades. For every extremist killing, the state kills a human rights defender. These were extensively reported in the media — electronic
and print. The Telugu daily, wrote an editorial against the practice.
Despite the release of the abducted policemen, the threat to the lives
of Varavara Rao, Gadar and N. Venugopal, a fairly well-known journalist,
continues. This is not something personal to them. How can anyone claim
the authority to extinguish the right to life of Mr. Rao or for that matter of X, Y, or Z for their political views? This situation has the potential of occurring in every State, but in Andhra Pradesh it happens regularly.

The issue in question has nothing to do with the life and politics of either Gadar or Mr. Rao or anyone placed in a similar situation. The problem arises because of the existing scope of the law in the case of violation of freedoms. The Constitution proceeds on the assumption that the state is likely to be the only violator of our freedoms. All major assumptions of a liberal state have disappeared.

The state, under these circumstances, corresponds to some extent to the
"Exceptional State'' conceptualised by Nicos Poulantzas: "Law to put it
briefly, no longer regulates; arbitrariness reigns.

What is typical of the Exceptional State is not so much that it violates its rules, as
that it does not even lay down rules for functioning. It has no system; for one thing, i.e. it lacks the system for predicting its own transformations. This is evident with the fascist state...'' The rights that are recognised and declared in the Constitution are the rights that in here in the people. How should one react to the erosion of rights by the aberrant sections of civil society is the principal
question raised by Mr. Rao, Gadar and others. Has the state the authority to
privatise state violence to hireling vigilante groups, ostensibly autonomous for
liquidating persons, with a view to withdrawing intellectual support to a
political movement, in which the state has not been successful desp!
ite three decades of extra-judicial executions? These are questions,
which primarily should be pondered over by society where governance has
refused to advert to these very basic issues despite rulings by the NHRC
and courts. The complaint is not about breach of a particular law and
the desire is not to correct an isolated aberration.

We have long passed that stage. We have reached a situation where the
entire constitutional and legal system has been rent asunder for personal
and political aggrandisement.

The peoples' social contract set out in the Preamble to the Constitution is wholly breached and put out of action.

When the very major premise of Rule of Law and the Constitution is sought to be
negated, a near revolutionary process affirming our faith in these values is called for. It is not a few writers', cultural artists' and journalists' right to life that we are concerned about; it is the entire politics of dissent.

We should be concerned about the emerging trends of the rise of right-wing populism, whether it attacks left-wing politics presently confined to extremists among them or it attacks the minorities and the secular values as it parades as the only defender of faith. A study of the police system shows that it is more in harmony with right-wing politics than with liberal and democratic values.

When amorphous and unidentifiable and ostensibly autonomous groups
attack our freedoms or our person, how do we retain our freedoms and our
right to life is the question that squarely stares us in the face. I am afraid of the rise in the number of anomic persons "who are spiritually sterile, responsive only to themselves, responsible to no one". The anomic person derides the value of other persons. We have to attempt and reinstate the fast vanishing social cohesion without undermining the plural character of our polity.

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