The shrinking space

Is it a throwback to an old and forgotten feudal era where even raising your voice would mean a punishable offence,
‘Power does not corrupt people. People corrupt power’——-William Gaddis

Should Mahraja Hari Singh, the last ruler of the autocratic Dogra dynasty ( 1848- 1947), rise up from his ashes and watch the ‘elected representatives’, he would bemoan for not wearing the democratic apron. That cloak, he would notice, has all the ‘transparency’ to hide the ugliest. He would envy the improvisation the present ‘democratic’ dispensations are gifted with. He would be fascinated to see how probes on gross human rights violations are ordered just to calm the nerves and vanish in thin air. He would envy constituting Commissions like SHRC that like ‘toothless tigers’ lack the prowess. He would be stunned to find that what from his despotic regime was wrenched in mid twenties—freedom of press, platform and assembly—has been subjected to repressive restrictions.

He would wonder on ‘legal’ enactments like PSA, the AFSPA and other anti-democratic measures, asking how come mine was despotic and yours democratic regime. He would bang his head on the wall for not putting a façade of peoples’ representatives to mask his autocratic rule. The most notable political figure to fight against the Dogra repressive regime was NC leader Sheikh Abdullah. But as authenticated by historical evidence, power intoxicated him and he proved the most arrogant ruler. He dragged his opponents on the streets, exiled them and strictly curbed dissent. Even listening Radio Pakistan was seditious that warranted confiscation of the transistor sets. His successive rulers played fraud with the peoples’ mandate and further eroded the democratic space.

How ironic. The political stalwarts who became victims of repressive laws in their struggle for freedom of expression turned not different when they assumed power. The Public Safety Act—that has gained the notoriety of being ‘lawless law’ by human rights groups—was ‘gifted’ by NC in Sheikh Abdullah’s tenure. It was claimed then the law was meant for netting and frightening the jungle smugglers. The truth, however is that this law has been generously used as instrument of political vendetta by the successive dispensations against their political rivals. Each competing in outsmarting the other in making the PSA more stringent to fetch the reward of appeasement. At the time PSA was enacted, detainees were to be lodged in jails in their localities, further amendments ensured they rot in jails outside valley in Jammu and outside state in rest of Indian states. With chief minister of JK State heading the Unified Head Quarters and having two service Generals as advisers, the demand of NC and PDP for removal of the the Armed Forces Special Powers Act( despised as ‘draconian’ by Amnesty International) is just an eye-wash, more than that it is playing deceitful politics. Hari Sing would be dumb-struck on this stink dichotomy. In this back-drop, the very rushing through of property damage bill in the legislative assembly and placing it for consideration and passing do expose the faith credentials of those who say they are committed on ‘battle of ideas’, ‘goli nahein boli’ ( not gun, but talks) dispute-resolution mechanism. The bill seeks incorporation of controversial provisions in JK Public Property ( Prevention of Damage) Act 1985.
It replaces the ordinance promulgated by Governor NN Vohra on October 25, 2017 on the recommendations of the PDP-BJP coalition government. Read this carefully, ‘Whosoever calls for a direct action, whether he participates in such an action directly or indirectly which results in damage to private and public property, shall be deemed to be guilty of abetment of the offence under the act’, reads the bill. The ‘direct action’ according to the bill implies the use of strikes, demonstrations or other public forms of public protests rather than negotiation to achieve the demand. The bill, as its wording suggest, is inherently draconian, more reprehensible than PSA and other repressive laws. One is aghast at how this obnoxiously bad idea got conceived and nudged them to introduce it in the lower house. And how shamelessness overpowered their sense of shame. Even when Delhi was indecisive to incorporate these provisions in its own property damage law( remember the central property damage law—The Prevention of Public Property Damage Act 1984—is applicable to all the States except JK), Home Department that Mehbooba heads mooted all the controversial provisions and in all brazenness went with it to the assembly! The public processions, demonstrations, rallies, strikes and shutdowns are universally accepted democratic modes of protest people hold across the globe. It is an important manifestation of dissent that demarcates a democratic state from the totalitarian state. You curb it, you kill the very soul a democratic society draws its sustenance from. The bill criminalizes all modes of protests and dissent. It frames persons who call for protests even when the call is peaceful and the caller sits in home. It may be that some agent provocateurs play some mischief or some anti-social elements are planted and they damage the property.
It is sheer injustice to punish organizers, who call for non-violent mode of protest, for the crimes perpetrates by others. The people at the helm of affairs need to think that it is because of choking of democratic space that breeds and fosters extremism. The best antidote against the growing monster is allowing democratic space and encourage dissent. Thanks to united voice of the Opposition and wide-spread criticism the bill could not become a law and government was forced to send it to the Select Committee. On 13 February, the controversial ordinance lapsed and thus the bill met its silent death. The ruling PDP too had to support the bill, but only after they smelt the mood of the people. Otherwise, they had, as the introduction of the bill for consideration and request for passing it do indicate, mortgaged their conscience to their coalition partner BJP which insisted bill be passed.