In a shameful series of events, today, Anna Hazare, and thousands of protesters got arrested by the Government of India in Delhi and elsewhere. Their crime was they were demanding the government to implement an effective anti-corruption bill, Jan Lokpal Bill (People’s Ombudsman Bill). The irony being that yesterday was India’s 64th Independence Day. The arrests raise important questions for the state of democracy in India, and spaces of political dissent. Ekta Parishad strongly condemns these arrests and calls upon the government to act upon the nation’s demands for not only a stronger Jan Lokpal Bill, but also working upon systematic, broader, and democratic changes in the present paradigm of governance and development.
While corruption has been an integral part of the Indian society recent scams like 2G scam, CWG scam stand testimonial to an unprecedent rise in scale of corruption. These scams are the tip of the iceberg of several underlying related issues of growing inequality, increasing cost of living, communities losing access to their livelihood resources, marginalized communities being pushed into poverty among others. While people of India may not share a common analysis of the root-causes of the problem, they clearly share the effects of these problems: a growing frustration with the way things are.
Lokpal is one of the institutional structures that can address corruption by having complete powers to investigate corruption against the executive, legislative and judiciary powers of India in a fast-track manner. Different central governments have been dragging their feet for the past 40 years to implement a Lokpal Bill and hence the civil society had to resort to a non-violent form of protest in April of 2011 to apply pressure on the government to give this issue its due importance. The government agreed to the demands of civil society and constituted a committee of elected representatives and civil society members to develop a draft of the bill that will be tabled in the Parliament. During discussions of the drafting committee, the government representatives rejected many of the proposals from civil society. With the government enjoying a majority in both the houses of the Parliament the hopes of an effective Lokpal Bill diminished and this pushed the civil society for another non-violent protest on August 16th 2011.
This time the government resorted to repression and regulating dissent by not giving the civil society permission to carry out its protest in the way it wants to. Unreasonable conditions were laid before the leaders for carrying out a protest and the civil society members refused to sign an undertaking that would limit their freedom to express their dissent: which included a 5000-cap on the gathering and just 3 days of fasting. The police have detained the leaders, like Hazare and Arvind Khejriwal in judicial custody. They have also arrested thousands of protesters across the country. Although they are now released Hazare and Khejriwal are continuing to stay in prision to press for their constitutional right to protest peacefully. People in many parts of India seem to be ready to take on this government for its undemocratic and corrupt ways. Hundreds and thousands of people are on the streets, protesting the arrests and in many instances courting the arrests.
Why should people in other parts of the world care about this? While the issue of corruption maybe local, it is connected with larger issues related to cuts to public spending, growing unemployment, rising inequalities etc that are triggering protests worldwide. There are common connections between these social justice movements from Egypt to UK, from Chile to Syria, from US to India. These movements connect at the over arching questions of a) how can citizens reclaim their voice in the framing of laws and policies that govern their lives b) in this existing socio-political structure with separation of powers between the judicial, executive and legislative, what spaces exist for civil society to express dissent when these three powers fail to deliver justice to society ? c) Does our rights and responsibility end with the casting of power of the ballot.
In light of these questions, having and preserving spaces of dissent become all the more important. Efforts by governments to carry out repression and regulate dissent should be seen as an attack on democracy and on our fundamental human rights. We call on all global citizens to condemn the actions of Government of India in detaining the leaders of the anti-graft movements and urge the GOI to respect the sentiments and wishes of the people in framing the laws of the country.
Ravi Badri & Nishant Upadhyay
August 16, 2011