Democracy – still a distant cry in India

Kobad Ghandy  has been imprisoned since October 2009 on charges of being a member of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).  He was released December 2017 as all charges he faced had been dropped. Despite this, he was arrested three days later and remains in prison as police continue framing new charges against him. This recent article by Kobad was published in the mainstreamweekly 2 March 2019.

Democracy, freedom and 70th year of the Indian Republic

by Kobad Ghandy,  Hazaribagh Central Jail, Jharkhand, India. February 1, 2019

“Awards will honour me, if I were to live like a corpse.”—Tamil poet, Inquilab (died December 2017).

Sitting in the hospital ward and reflecting on the just held Republic Day function in Hazaribagh Central Jail (renamed after J.P.), I wondered at the relevance of the Constitution with respect to my decade-long incarceration, denying my fundamental right to freedom even after my acquittal in case after case. That too in a place in the wilderness, a thousand miles away from home, where I know not a single person—not even a lawyer—and that too at the age of 72, with numerous ailments, and little medical facilities.

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Kobad Ghandy being brought to the district court in Karimnagar

Having just witnessed the celebrations of the 70th Republic Day function, my thoughts drift from the events of the day to the path traversed in these ten long years—from jail to jail; from court to court; mostly in places I have never been to, some I had never even heard of! For example, the two cases here are in a place called Tenughat, who existence I had never heard of, just like the four cases in Achampet (Telangana). And though the latter cases were over 15 years old,

no charge-sheet was filed, keeping the door open to future harassment. And the Hon’ble Magistrate, while granting the statutory bail, imposes conditions of monthly appearance at the local police station (200 km from Hyderabad), knowing fully well that I am from Mumbai, aged and ill!! And when I do report, after my final release from Vishakhapatnam jail in December 2017, the Jharkhand Police land up and arrest me outside the court premises, in a case/incident of 2006—that too after ignoring numerous letters/reminders by the Hyderabad Jail Superintendent to issue the production warrant while I was still in jail. And to add salt to the wound, three months later, they add another case of 2007 (in a place called Nawudih—also never heard of), of which I had No Earlier Record!!

So, such planting of new cases can go on endlessly until I am dead.The Constitution did not prevent the police: from putting fake cases on me all over the country (proved by all the acquittals, lack of charge-sheets and even dropping of FIRs), from producing production warrants at their whims and fancies; and did not prevent the courts from accepting unsigned confessions before the police, though this (even signed) is not admissible in Courts under the Evidence Act; in denying all human rights in Tihar-Jharkahnd-type jails, though an under-trial; etc. etc. The list could go on and on. Where is the constitutional protection, the democracy? And they keep using the same draconian UAPA of which I have already been acquitted again and again, in Delhi, Punjab, Telangana etc.

Though India is a single country, this does not prevent States from using the same law again and again! Is this not slow poison utilising the legal system to destroy a person step by step, in a cold calculated way? Where is my right to a speedy trial; right to life and liberty and all other fundamental rights denied me even the past ten years? Would all this be possible in a truly constitutional democracy?

If one selflessly works for the poor one is branded and pushed to a slow death (and they say: ‘law is taking its own course’); while if one loots the country and the banks, upright CBI officers are immediately transferred and the culprits allowed to flee the country with their loot.Obviously, there is one legal system, but two laws operating—one for the genuine patriots, another for the robber barons.

What has happened to the great ideals of the Constitution for which thousands sacrificed their lives and many were incarcerated in this very jail—like Rajendra Prasad, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Rahul Sankritayan, J.P. etc.

Sitting here in this historic place, there seems not even an iota of impact of these freedom fighters. Thinking of them and their struggles and sacrifices, one can only recall the lofty ideals set out in the Preamble of the Constitution, resolving “to secure to all citizens: Justice—social, economic and political; Liberty—of thought, expression, faith and worship; Equality—of status and opportunity; and to promote among them all; Fraternity, assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation.”

Why have these ideals remained a dead-letter, even seven decades after its (the Constitution’s) adoption?Maybe, one major cause can be found in what the ex-MP, Jay Panda, says in an article in the January 16, 2019 issue of The Times of India. It says: “After achieving Independence in 1947, though India adopted a modern Constitution, it largely continued operating under the governance structures that the Raj had bequeathed, whose fundamental objectives had been different.

This was in contrast to the US and China. Both these countries, after achieving independence in 1776 and 1949 respectively, drastically overhauled their inherited governance structure…. In India the earlier rules were designed by the Raj for containment rather than empowerment of the people. They are also outdated, having been modelled on 19th century norms in the UK and the US, which both have made important changes in their legislative rules.

In the institutions like CBI, and many others, such continuity had meant the government of the day would appoint its choice of director entirely as it wished, without any checks and balances that are common for key posts in modern democracies. That was emblematic of a colonial government, not an independent one…..” I may add that so also the criminal-justice system, the jail system, as also many other structures like the IAS, IFS, IPS, IB etc. continued in the colonial/British mould. This has facilitated the unconstitutionality I have faced in these past ten years.

Sitting here in a Jharkhand jail, where freedom and humanity are a distant dream, I begin to wonder as to why such an overhaul does not take place even today, when, in a country like the US (for which our leaders have such a fascination) it could take place two-and-a-half centuries back? On the contrary, there seems to be further retrogression; and where a State like Jharkhand, in all spheres, seems half-a-century further backward compared even to the Telugu States from where I have just been brought.

That too a State that probably produced the largest number of freedom fighters who sacrificed their lives for the country’s freedom from British rule—from the Baba Tilka Manjih revolt dating as far back as 1765; to the Koli revolts of the 1820s; to the 1855 Santhali Hul where the four brothers and sisters (Sidhu, Kanu, Chanbairav and Phulo-Jano) were hanged and about 15,000 Santhals killed; to the 1857 Sipahi Mutiny which had a major impact in Jharkhand: with the Ramgard battalion joining the revolt (on October 3, 1857 150 soldiers were killed), the two brothers Nilambar and Pitambar (both hanged) and others leading the revolt in Chotanagpur area and where over 500 villagers were publicly hanged in the coal village of Rajhara in 1858; and finally the Birsa Munda revolt of 1902.

I wonder, can this possibly be the land of these heroic martyrs which seems to resemble a Congo rather than a 21st century civilisation; where their dreams seem lost in the wilderness of petty intrigue, personal gain and mining loot?

So, was our freedom struggle incomplete as Jay Panda would imply? And if it was so, why is it not an issue with any political party? And that too when all of them would be aware that all human and development indicators put India on par with the most backward countries of the world—sub-Saharan Africa! With leaders making a bee-line tries for the US every second day, and top policy-makers comfortably ensconced in US universities, do they not care to look what brought America to its present economic strength? And when it is so obvious that it was precisely such democratic restructuring that has facilitated both the US and China becoming by far the largest economies in the world?

In addition, why do these leaders/policy-makers not consider the fact that while India and China got their independence about the same time, China has an economy five times India’s, where the people’s livelihood has reached mid-levels like any developed country, where its science and technology is overtaking even the US’ (it has the equivalent of four Silicon Valleys to the US’ one); while India continues to wallow in its acute backwardness, poverty, sickness, semi-literacy, with nearly everything of value either imported or manufactured by foreign (of foreign collaborated/owned) companies.

Though being in jail, even as an under trial, deprives us of our voting right—de facto right to citizenry denied—I keenly observe the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections, hoping that, at least, some political formations will ponder over these issues. As all raise the issue of ‘development’, surely this should not be restricted to merely building roads, statues, ports, airports etc.—not even schools, colleges, hospitals—nor merely handing out freebies; but deep structural changes that will facilitate long-term growth from the grassroots as happened in the US, China and elsewhere. Surely, merely winning or losing should not be the central point—for genuine Swadeshi, Janvad and Swarajya; on the issues of jal, jangal and zameen, encompassing both the economy and the environment (nature).

If such basic issues are not taken up will these coming elections too be reduced to yet another jumla; what Chidanand Rajghatta called ‘Electile Dysfunction’, where, as he says (TOI, May 14, 2018), politics becomes the mere art “of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich, by promising to protect each from the other”.Unfortunately, Santosh Desai warns in ‘City City Bang Bang’, (TOI, January 15, 2019): “no political party has shown any new ideas.

The possibility of structural reform at the lowest administrative unit continues to look bleak…. interestingly, the politics of the day seems incapable of pushing significant social change. In fact, the application of power seems designed to preserve the status quo, rather than challenge it…”I would not be so pessimistic as one reads of many a new entity like the ‘Bahujan Azad Party’ (a group of 50 IIT alumni who quit their jobs), the ‘Swaraj Party’, the ‘People’s Justice Centre’, the ‘Bhim Sena’ etc. to mention just a few. But, then again, I have been cut off from society for nearly a decade, and maybe the two senior journalists know better.

Besides, the failing and unattended health condition, total isolation from relatives and friends, and the biting cold, make serious concentration and conceptualisation difficult. Added to this, the acute (untreated) nocturia prevents sleep and causes dehydration aggravating BP, continuous drowsiness/weakness and a buzzing sound in the head. Even sitting at a stretch and the regular yoga has become difficult due to the aggravating orthopaedic problems.

Sometimes one wonders whether it is not better to go on a fast-unto-death against the violation of all my constitutional and human rights and for immediate release, rather than a painful slow death at the hands of the system. [They will not call it murder, but ‘natural’ death due to old age like many others here.] At least then I would keep alive the tradition of the great martyrs of Jharkhand, and of my late wife, Anuradha, whose eleventh anniversary of martyrdom falls within a couple of months.But, even more than health, the most debilitating factor here is the horrific atmosphere within these Jharkhand jails (probably reflecting the inferno outside), which numbs one’s mental abilities.

If Tihar was bad, it was bliss compared to here, and, at least, the medical attention was decent. Here, it is like living amongst snakes and scorpions (of course, there are exceptions) not knowing when one will be bitten/stung. Additionally all the other two thousand inmates are locals with myself being the only person from far off.Though the Superintendent has been kind in granting decent facilities (whatever is available) given my age and health conditions, at the ground level one mostly finds people who seek to take advantage of one’s vulnerability.

With the local police and media having portrayed me as some ‘Maoist leader’ (in spite of being acquitted of all Maoist charges, in not just one State but four—they obviously don’t accept the judiciary) all the varied Maoists made a bee-line for me, once I entered. Being from outside the State and aged, I thought, how considerate. But, I was soon shocked to find their only interest was to extract money; and when they found I had little, they quickly lost interest.

Later, others informed me that even mid-level Maoist leaders who have come to the jail have had pots of money which they flung around. With my city background, this history and my vulnerability due to age and isolation, it seems they thought to make a killing. It is common Indian courtesy to look after a guest, but more than the Maoists it was a few others who rendered assistance and made life liveable.But the attitude of these Maoists appears be part of the general atmosphere prevailing in Jharkhand, right down to the village levels, that even family members (let alone fellow villagers) betray each other, sending a rival to jail, even killing him, for petty advantage or mere jealously.

The rot is so deep that nearly half the inmates (particularly among non-tribals) are cases involving dowry death/wife killing/rape. With no regular jobs available, there seems all round criminalisation of society. And all this is aggravated by extreme levels of backwardness, poor educational levels (resulting in the horizons being limited) and deep patriarchal and casteist attitudes. All this is also resulting in poor levels of hygiene, false prestige, and a narrow world outlook limited to one’s immediate surroundings.Quite naturally all these negatives are sharpened within the harsh confines of the jail. And unfortunately the Maoists too seem part of this milieu and often even more unscrupulous. And, in addition, when one sees the fervour of the throngs over the rituals at the Chhat and other pujas (attended all for the experience), I wondered whether I belonged to a different world.

It is such an atmosphere that is intellectually debilitating, where clarity of thought becomes the biggest casualty. Of course, I have tried to make extensive notes on all aspects of Jharkhand life—religious customs, tribal life, mining activity, environment, cultural norms, crime and gangsters, not to mention the Maoist (and other groups) presence—of which I knew nothing earlier.

Surprisingly the Maoists had the least information to give (except for some slogans), even of their own movement, the details of which I could gather from villagers and local activists.Sitting here in the hospital ward amongst such people, I wonder what the coming elections would mean to these people—whose life revolves around their identity/caste, petty gain and their limited circles. Concepts of constitutionality, democracy, human rights, nation-building, GDP growth etc. would seem concepts far removed.

I wondered whether democracy can at all be built in such a desert of backwardness, where the smallest unit—the family—is itself autocratic. Surely a flourishing democracy could be truly built only on the foundation of an enlightened population.For the first time in my life, viewing the Hindi-belt from close quarters, I could now understand the great significance for the democratisation of society of the social reform movements of Maharashtra and South India of which there is no trace in this Hindi-belt. From the earlier Bhakti movements to the 19th century Phule-Periyar-Ambedkar (and other) movements, these brought about a great churning and awakening in society, not seen in these parts.But, alas, these too seem to be retreating with Brahminism (to be distinguished from Brahmins—the ideology) tending to envelop all aspects of life—social, political, cultural, economic.

In India feudal thinking takes the form of Brahminism, characterised by its casteist, patriarchal and anti-democratic approach, with a deep-seated inferiority complex—despising the weak and poor, while being slavish to the ‘superior’ and powerful. It tends to reverse the democratic traditions of the social reform movements and is so pernicious that it even tends to infect other religions, secularists, rationalists and even Communists/Maoists. It even affects/impacts the lower castes and tribes—the most affected by it.

In this 70th year of the Republic, it is worth contemplating as to why democracy is still a distant cry and why the social reform movements are retreating. The reason is to build a sustaining democracy with true freedom (though I may not live to see it), it needs to be all-encompassing—socio-religious, cultural, political, economic, administrative etc.

Not only have the administrative/legal structures of the colonial 19th century times to be thoroughly overhauled into modern-day democratic structures; but also a pre-requisite to democratic awakening is an enlightened population with a robust educational system—not geared to create babus as it is today, but to give the child/student ethical values and the ability to make their own decisions. In fact, over 5000 years ago Zarthustra had said:“With an open mind, seek and listen to the highest ideals. Consider the most enlightened thoughts. Then choose your path, person by person, each for oneself. Turn yourself not away from the three best things: Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds.”This would be exceedingly relevant even today.But for this the goalposts have to be changed.

The final aim cannot be just democracy and freedom—it has to be the Universal Happiness of All. It is only if this is the goal will we seek to continuously deepen the levels of democracy and freedom. Democracy, freedom as also equality are not an end in themselves, but a means to an end—that is, seeking universal happiness.

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Anuradha Ghandy, communist and revolutionary leader

For all this to be achieved one also needs to promote an Anuradha-style ethical existence of truth, simplicity, straightforwardness (avoiding duplicity), being honest and not back-stabbing, being fair/unbiased and not discriminatory, standing up for justice, and exuding an aura of empathy for the aggrieved and concern for others. And such an ethical existence needs to be reflected in all spheres of life—social, cultural, political, economic—everywhere. Only then will democracy and freedom lead gradually to universal happiness.Ethics, freedom, democracy, concepts of equality and justice etc. must all be interlinked in all spheres of life, to bring about a sustainable change for the better which will not get reversed.

None of these should be developed in isolation from the other. Only then it will lead to the ultimate goal of universal happiness; otherwise, it is likely to get aborted as has happened time and again in history.A nation/country can create an atmosphere of happiness for its citizenry by: promoting democracy and freedom in every aspect of life; facilitating a decent existence as a minimum requirement; promoting knowledge and an ethical existence; and standing up for justice and truth.

Unfortunately, India is at the very bottom of the World Happiness Index—133rd amongst 156 countries. Worse still, it has dropped eleven points in just one year from 2017 to 2018. In fact, the situation is so bad that India is the worst in South Asia—comparatively Sri Lanka is 116th, Bangladesh 115th, Nepal 101st, Bhutan 97th and Pakistan 75th.

To reverse this state of affairs I do hope at least some political formation will put forward real issues for the true and all-round welfare of our people and promote Anuradha-style ethics to set an example for the nation.

So, the problem of democracy and freedom, and the flourishing of our Republic has to be dealt with at its roots for the ultimate creation of a humane society, where each individual can begin to bloom in the rose garden of an evolving utopia, where all have the ability to clutch at the petals of happiness.

And, as a Lewis Carroll couplet put it:
Let craft, ambition, spite,
Be quenched in Reason’s night,
Till weakness turn to might,
Till what is dark be light,
Till what is wrong be right.