Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Crumbling State of Liberal Democracy: Some reflections on the International Democracy Day 2020

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Representative image of people raising question | Source: via Freepik

The liberal democratic world order which was accepted as a preferred governance model in major parts of the world has been under assault by the increasing authoritarian leaders since the last few years. The monopolization of power by subverting the in-build checks and balances of the democratic institutions is now a new norm in even the large democratic countries like the  United States or India as well. The International Democracy Day, which falls on 15 September, gives us an opportunity to reflect on the present state of liberal democracy in the world.

Monopolization of Democratic Institutions

In recent years democratic institutions across the world have shrunk into the hands of a few.

In the United States, President Trump is interfering in the running of independent democratic institutions. John Torpy—American academic, sociologist, and historian—currently Professor at City University of New York—fears that US democracy under Trump is going under “swamps”. Mentioning about President Trump’s obstruction of the democratic institutions, he writes “As many people have noted, if the president can simply refuse to cooperate with Congressional requests for documents and witness testimony, we live not in a democracy, which requires that officials be accountable for their actions, but in an autocracy, in which the executive can make decisions without the possibility of oversight by others.”

Viktor Orban, the President of Hungary | Source: Elekes Andor via Wikimedia

In Hungary, democracy is on the proverbial deathbed. Hungarian President Viktor Orban—amidst COVID-19 pandemic—passed a bill in parliament granting his government access to emergency powers. This bill—which is now the law of the land in this European Union country—gives the absolute power to the executive without any checks by the parliament. Political commentators like Zoltan Cegledi argue “The government’s will to destroy, limit and exhaust democracy is permanent. Its future victims will be the remnants of autonomy.”

In India, lately the government scrapped the question hour from the parliament citing the spread of COVID-19. Leader of Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad expressing his concern on the decision said "In a democracy, the government is answerable to people of India through Parliament and the Parliament comprises members of Parliament representing different states, political parties, and regions of this country. People of the country have no access or means to ask the question to the minister inside the Parliament. So, their representatives are the members of the Parliament. These MPs ask questions on behalf of people of India."

This is not the first time the government of India changed the rules for the conduct of those institutions where it may get questioned. The RTI Act gave people of India the right to seek information from the different institutions of the government (excluding the intelligence). In 2019, the Indian parliament passed an amendment to the Right to Information (RTI) Act of 2005, which is being criticized widely.

Prabhash K Dutta mentions in his article published on India Today that this amendment removes the fixture of duration for the five years for chief information commissioners as well as the information commissioners and altered their salaries, for both they will be separately notified by the government. He furthermore mentions “This, in a political sense, means that the government can threaten or lure the chief information commissioner and information commissioners with arbitrary removal or extension and curtailment or increase in salary depending upon their suitability for the ruling dispensation.”

Lady Justice: Allegorical personification of the moral force in judicial systems | Source: Tingey Injury Law Firm via Unsplash

In some countries, the executives are also interfering in the judicial process. President Andrzej Duda of Poland has lately signed a law that gives him power to appoint the judges as well as penalizes the judges of the court to question any appointments done by the President in the judiciary. Malgorzata Gersdorf—the president of Poland's Supreme court—termed it as “Muzzle Law”.

In Hong Kong as well, after the implementation of the New Security Law by the Mainland severely affects the independence of the judiciary and gives China-appointed Chief Executive the power to appoint judges in the “cases of security.”

In Egypt the government under Al Sisi has subverted the judicial system by expanding the scope of military courts. These courts  are directly controlled by the army (not the judiciary) and the defendants can neither access a lawyer nor are brought to a judge after the arrest.

Throttling the flow of information on internet

The assault on democratic discourse has extended to the internet, which has emerged as an important tool for easy and quick access of information. However the authoritarian streak in the ruling establishments do not not want the information to spread so fast.

Anti CAA Protest in Assam, India | Source: Ankur Jyoti Dewri via Wikimedia

An apt example is the widespread shut down of the internet during the time of protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) across India. These shutdowns were not only to gag the Anti-CAA protestors but also unconstitutional according to the law of the land.

In Indian province of Kashmir, the internet was totally shut down for almost 5 months from 5th August 2019. The services were later restored but even today, 16th September, 2020 there is no access to the high speed internet in the region.

In some other countries like Belarus and Ethiopia, as well, the government resorted to shutting down the internet during the public protests.

Similarly the popular social media platforms like facebook, twitter, reddit, and many others which are used to freely share information, are restricted or banned in many countries.

This all happened in 2019-20 despite the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution stating that cutting access to the internet violates  article 19, paragraph 3, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights back in 2011.

Suppressing the dissidents

Anti Al-Sisi protests in London | Source: Alisdare Hickson via Flickr

In Egypt, the government is resorting to Military Court trials, and ditching the normal judicial system. The detainees are put under inhumane conditions (people tried here are mostly the dissidents against the government). Vanshita Banuana from Global Views 360 writes “There have been multiple reports of torture, sexual assault while placed in detention. In prison too, detainees face inhumane conditions, not being allowed to see family, exercise or get sunshine and fresh air. Thousands of student protestors, journalists and political dissidents have been tried in these military courts, and hundreds more have been killed extrajudicially. At the same time, citizens’ tools to criticise these steps are undermined, such as by limiting the domain of NGOs, censoring news and social media, and blocking around 600 websites.”

In India the government uses many draconian laws to suppress activists working for the marginalised communities. The Unlawful Activities Act (UAPA) is the most controversial and draconian law which is being used frequently by the government to curb the dissenting voices.

Indian government, as a part of its ambitious smart city project, is installing CCTV camera systems in the major towns across India. The footage from these cameras along with the AI based facial recognition technology is a deadly combination for curbing dissidence. Privacy experts like Arun Mohan Sukumar fear “If you don’t have adequate checks and balances, there’s a high chance the government will be tempted to use the data for highly dubious purposes.”

A ray of hope

As Victor Hugo said “When Dictatorship Is A Fact, Revolution Becomes A Right.” The people across the world have started speaking up against the assault on democratic values and institutions. They face hardship, vilification, and incarnation but remain committed to fight for the protection of liberal democracy. This gives us hope that the liberal democracy will ultimately prevail as it is what Abraham Lincoln described, “The government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

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October 18, 2020 6:46 PM

Bhagat Singh: The Man, The Life, And The Beliefs

Bhagat Singh is one of the ‘big names’ immortalised in the history of India’s freedom struggle and eternally cherished even after almost ninety years of his martyrdom. What makes him stand out is his popularity among the masses being almost on par with the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, despite his beliefs and actions being diametrically opposite to theirs.

Of the freedom fighters who remain mainstream in today’s India— a crowd predominantly made up of politicians with center or right of centre leanings, Bhagat Singh occupies a relatively lonely spot as a young, staunchly left-wing revolutionary who outrightly rejected Gandhi’s philosophy, and preferred direct action over politics.

Newspaper headline after Central Legislative Assembly non-lethal bombing

Bhagat Singh is most commonly and widely remembered in association with an incident where he, along with his friend and comrade B.K. Dutt dropped non-lethal smoke bombs into the Central Legislative Assembly from its balcony in 1929. They also scattered leaflets by the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA), which he was a major part of and was aided by in orchestrating the bombings. He is said to have been inspired by French anarchist Auguste Vaillant, who had bombed the Chamber of Deputies in Paris in 1893.

The bombing gathered widespread negative reaction due to the use of violence, especially from those who supported the Gandhian method. While Bhagat Singh and the HSRA wanted to protest exploitative legislatures such as the Public Safety Act and the Trades Disputes Bill, it is also widely accepted that they additionally intended to use the drama and public attention of the ensuing trial to garner attention to socialist and communist causes. Bhagat Singh and Dutt did not escape under the cover of panic and smoke despite the former carrying a pistol, and waited for the police to find and arrest them. During the trial Bhagat Singh frequently chanted a variety of slogans, such as ‘Inquilab Zindabad,’ which is even today often raised in protests across India.  

March 25th Newspaper carrying the news about execution of Bhagat Singh | Source: Tribune India

However, this was not the trial that ended in Bhagat Singh receiving his execution sentence. Before the Assembly bombings, Bhagat Singh had been involved in the shooting of police officer John Saunders, in connection to the death of freedom fighter Lala Lajpat Rai. At that time he and his associates had escaped, but after Bhagat Singh was awarded a life sentence for the Assembly bombing, a series of investigations led to his rearrest as part of the Saunders murder case. It was this trial— generally regarded as unjust— that led to his much protested execution sentence.

Bhagat Singh was hanged to death on the eve of March 23rd, 1931 and he was just twenty-three years old.

Despite the criticism he received for his actions, his execution sentence was widely opposed and many attempts were made to challenge it. In fact, his execution came on the eve of the Congress party’s annual convention, as protests against it worsened. He was memorialised nationwide as a martyr, and is often addressed with the honorific Shaheed-e-Azam Bhagat Singh.

Apart from being a socialist, Bhagat Singh was attracted to communist and anarchist causes as well. In ‘To Young Political Workers,’ his last testament before his death, he called for a “socialist order” and a reconstruction of society on a “new, i.e, Marxist basis.” He considered the government “a weapon in the hand of the ruling class”, which is reflected in his belief that Gandhian philosophy only meant the “replacement of one set of exploiters for another.” Additionally, he wrote a series of articles on anarchism, wanting to fight against mainstream miscontrusions of the word and explain his interest in anarchist ideology.

Bipin Chandra, who wrote the introduction to Why I am an Atheist by Bhagat Singh | Source: Wikimedia

While writing the introduction to Bhagat Singh’s remarkable essay Why I am an Atheist in 1979, Late Bipan Chandra described the Marxist leaning of Bhagat Singh and his associates in the following way;

Bhagat Singh was not only one of India’s greatest freedom fighters and revolutionary socialists, but also one of its early Marxist thinkers and ideologues. Unfortunately, this last aspect is relatively unknown with the result that all sorts of reactionaries, obscurantists and communalists have been wrongly and dishonestly trying to utilise for their own politics and ideologies the name and fame of Bhagat Singh and his comrades such as Chandra Shekhar Azad.”

Bhagat Singh is often admired and celebrated for his dedication to the cause of liberation. However his socialist, communist and anarchist beliefs were suppressed by the successive governments in Independent India. This in a way is the suppression of a revolutionary who has the potential to inspire, unite and motivate the growing population of a spectrum of activists all over India, in direct response to the fast-spreading divisiveness and intolerance in the country, often patronised by the groups and organizations professing the right-wing fascist ideology.

Bhagat Singh’s dreams of a new social order live on, not just in his writings, but also reflected in the hearts of every activist, protester, and dissenting citizen. The fight for freedom, revolution, Inquilab, may have changed in meaning, but it is far from over.

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