PUCL Bulletin, August 2001

Erosion of civil liberties
-- By Kuldip Nayar

A Mexican revolutionary once differentiated dictatorship from democracy thus: In the first, the top man changes the people; in the second, the people change the top man. This is equally true of political parties. They too change people. But their way to limit individual's rights is often so subtle that they do not realise it till the brainwashing is complete.

That people who defied Indira Gandhi's authoritarian rule, should be whittling down the fundamental values of our democratic society comes as a shock. I am not referring to the darkening shadows of saffronization, nor the decreasing resistance to the survival of the fittest economy. I am talking about the systematic way in which the Government is taking the country towards regimentation.

The report, which a committee of Central Ministers has submitted, to tone up governance and law and order is a retrograde document. There is an effort to centralize authority, a sign of dictatorship. The report, if implemented, will bring back the most reprehensible aspects of the Emergency. The Janata Government justifiably changed the definition of internal security into internal disturbance in 1977 after ousting Indira Gandhi. The Shah Commission found no threat to the well being of the nation from sources external or internal. The Ministers' report now restores the phrase 'internal security' and gives all the discretion to the Government in power.

Take another case. One had imagined that the uproar over the Home Ministry's order for security clearance before holding international conferences, seminars, symposiums, or workshops in the country would compel the Government to withdraw the circular. But the effect has been the opposite. Only minor changes have been made in the reissued circular. The guidelines have once again made it clear that participation of foreigners in conferences of political, semi-political, communal or religious nature or those related to human rights or sensitive technical subjects should not be generally considered.

Participants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, Pakistan, or Sri Lanka have been once again singled out. It means that it is a policy decision not to let people in South Asia mingle among themselves and develop an entity of their own. How ridiculous this looks where the Prime Minister, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, is trying to bring Pakistan closer to India?

The circular's notoriety has spread far and wide. 1 believe that Attorney-General, Mr. Soli Sorabji, was asked by many top British commentators during his recent trip abroad: what is happening to India? On his return, he is said to have talked to the Home Secretary who has reportedly assured him that the circular is being modified. The first modification has not materially changed the original circular. The second one may be more of the same.

The Home Secretary's assurance is not convincing. It sounds hollow because the Human Resource Development Minister, Mr. Murali Manohar Joshi, has issued an order to all universities that proposal for holding international conferences; symposiums, seminars, or workshops require prior approval of his Ministry. When asked if the circular was out of tune with the country's ethos, he reportedly said that it was the need of the hour. Mr. Joshi should remember the simple edict: no Government can suppress the people's right to speak. So many dictatorships of the Left and the Right have tried to do so but they all have come to grief. In the age of the Internet and websites, people can hold online conferences and seminars. How can the Government try to ban them?

The People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) has already challenged the earlier version of the circular. It is awaiting hearing in the Supreme Court. It should come up when the Court reopens after the summer recess in early July. It will put the Attorney General, a human rights activist himself, to the test. Will he support the Government or stand up in court and say: My Lord, I cannot defend the circular. If his relentless fight against the Emergency were any guide, he would rather quit than defend the circular. [Regrettably the Supreme Court has dismissed the petition]. The Home Ministry's circular is only a symptom, not the disease. The disease is the Government's increasing sense of intolerance. It does not brook criticism and wants to smother those who express dissent The Tehelka- .com people were harassed after they exposed corruption in high places. Even their books and papers were rummaged.

Outlook, an English weekly, has become a bee in the Govemment's bonnet. lndira Gandhi used income tax sleuths to harass and humiliate those who did not fall in line during the Emergency. Conforming to that style, income tax officers, along with police officers, raided the offices of the magazine's proprietor. They also searched the Bombay office of Outlook for 22 hours, accosting the journalistic staff to know why certain stories were filed. Floppies were removed and diaries confiscated.

The magazine's editor complained to the President of India. He also wrote to the Prime Minister to register his protest: I appreciate that you, your party and some of your advisors do not always agree with our point view. But to order IT raids! There has been no reply. One vainly hopes that the liberal Vajpayee will one day wake up. So far he has proved to be only a mukhauta (a mask), as the RSS ideologue, Mr. Govindacharya, once said.

Whose country is it anyway? Indira Gandhi gagged the press openly by imposing censorship and blocking out authentic information. The BIP- led Government is trying to do it through the backdoor. What is the difference? High- handedness and arbitrary actions are being carried out with impunity as much now as during the Emergency 26 years ago.

I have sent a copy of the Home Ministry's circular 'to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to draw its attention to the instruction that foreigners should not be normally invited even to conferences on human rights. My plea to the Commission is that the circular violates the norms of an open society, which a human being has the right to enjoy. I think the circular also violates Article 19 of the Constitution which guarantees a citizen's right to form association. The Government can restrict it only in the interest of public order or morality. This reasoning has to be justified in a law court. There cannot be a blanket order like this.

The NHRC has come a long way. Human rights activists used to stay away from it because it was regarded as a body to cover up the Government's misdeeds. But in the past few years, the NHRC has become a place where an Indian can go for redress.

The Government is now suspicious of the Commission because it has taken to task the administrations in different States. In Orissa, the Commission has found the Government wanting in coping with the relief work after the super cyclone. Gujarat, according to the Commission, should be sensitive to the requirements of the earthquake-affected in large areas of the State. The Commission has told Delhi: the recent experience in Orissa and Gujarat emphasizes the urgent need for an elaborate disaster management plan for the future to deal with all natural or man-made tragedies and calamities.
Such advice cannot be to the liking of the Central Government, which wants the commission to be a goody-goody body, submitting its annual report, dotting this, and crossing the t's. The Commission, on the other hand, has asked for amendments to the Freedom of Human Rights Act, 1993, to have more powers to safeguard human rights. The Centre has not responded to the Commission's request, which is 15 months old.

Strange, how quickly has the BJP Government got into the" shoes of Indira Gandhi!" Is it the fault of the chair or of the party?

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