The armed forces have been steadfast in their resistance to any proposal to repeal this law that gives them the power of life and death over ordinary citizens in areas brought under the Act’s purview, with no questions asked. And the inability of the country’s civilian leadership to override the resistance of the armed forces is part and parcel of the overall weakening of political authority that today threatens to unravel India’s democratic state.
Sure enough, it is pointless to blame the armed forces or the politicians alone in this regard. Equally at fault are other actors. A middle class guided by a narrow vision of its own self-interest. A relatively lazy and incompetent media that fails to put in the hard work needed to understand reality in its complexity and plumps, instead, for the shortcut of zeroing in on one, any one, sensational dimension of the problem to be reported.
Democracy Under Threat
Constitutional bodies like the Comptroller and Auditor General that hunt for populist glory rather than serve out their assigned job of providing inputs to committees of Parliament that would hold the executive to account. Civil servants who find easy refuge in institutionalised absence of accountability. And the courts that take blithe advantage of missing specific constitutional restraint to foray into areas far beyond their competence and comprehension, a tendency deplored by sections of the judiciary itself.
The continuing revelations on how Ishrat Jahan was killed in cold blood, along with three others, in a joint operation by the Gujarat police and the Intelligence Bureau, tell a tale, among other things, of degradation of Indian democracy.
Men in uniform can kill off anyone, just about anyone, provided they take the trouble to fabricate a charge of threatening the authority and integrity of the Indian state. There is no institutional mechanism in place to check their behaviour, save vigilance of the courts.
When our armed forces can kill, rape, torture, maim and heap indignities on ordinary people, under the cover of a law that gives them absolute impunity, and when policemen can bump off whom they like in staged encounters, are we really a democracy? Does the political system that tolerates such cold-blooded murder of people by agencies of the state have any right to present itself to the world as its largest democracy? This is not a debate in political classification or about the foolishness of seeking a middle ground in binary choices, like suggesting that someone is a little pregnant.
That would be like worrying about the chastity of a rape victim assaulted savagely enough to bring out her entrails, as in the infamous Delhi rape of December 2012.
What Holds India Together
Liberal democracy is what allows India to be. With its enormous diversity, multiple group identities of caste, religion, region, ethnicity and language, India is still a functional entity only because its organising principle is democracy. If democracy comes unstuck, so will India.
And, for its myriad, diverse and often mutually antagonistic constituents to cohere together as a nation, India needs democracy as its operating framework. Trying anything else would cause extreme disruption, as some group or the other seeks noninstitutional means to right a deemed wrong. Institutional means of shared, transparent decision-making is the only way all of the country’s diverse groups can feel they are getting their legitimate due within the larger collective and that the advance of the larger collective is indeed to their own advantage. And that institutional framework of shared, transparent decision-making is democracy, currently under assault from diverse quarters, of which AFSPA represents one.
Let us stop the pretence that AFSPA is all about the periphery. The law, in conjunction with other processes, is bleeding the core of India’s already anaemic democracy.