On November 16, Teesta Setalvad was invited to deliver the K.G.Kannabiran Memorial Lecture in Madurai by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties(PUCL).
The full text of the lecture cam be read here.
Land Acquisition, Forest Rights Act and Labour Laws
Apart from this assault on civil and political liberties, this regime –coming to power as it did backed by unaccounted money and capital has also gone about, in the two and a half terms in office –severely turning back hard earned labour rights, farmers and adivasis rights in terms of land acquisition and completely overturning Adivasi rights granted in the Forest Rights Act of 2006. This means that while politically a structure of homogenized upper caste militarised Hinduism is sought to be given official weight and currency—itself anti-Constitutional, hard earned rights of Indian farmers, Adivasis and forest dwellers are being taken away.
In 2016 itself, months after assuming power, the Modi regime tried to test the political waters by bringing in a Land Acquisition Ordinance to overturn a 2013 Law that had, itself re-visted colonial legislation that empowered the forest official and timber mafia to exploit forest dwellers and tribals. United Opposition protest put the Modi sarkar project to dis-enfrancise farmers and land holders on hold. At the Centre. Lo and behold, three states run and ruled by the BJP, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan simply passed state land legislations that took away the empowering measures of social audit, prior consent and adequate compensation.
The long overdue Forest Rights Act had begun, slowly to ensure that tracts of land guarded by the Forest Dweller –who also protected them against rampant de-forestation has been –in one fell stroke-rendered ineffective through an Executive Order of the Environment Ministry (then under Prakash Javdekar). The matter lies in challenge in the Supreme Court.
Brute killings in Jharkand as the state and centre collude to snatch away Tribal Land are another moot point.
Similarly labour laws, hard earned have been turned back with every effort being made to informalise the barely protected formal sector.
Apart from some of the specifical challenges for the rights movements showcased above there are imminent ones that I shall not go into, in detail.
Both the Maharashtra and Gujarat governments have attempted enacting laws that criminalises all criticism and dissent: The Gujarat Protection of Internal Security Act (GPISA) and a similar Maharashtra Law. . Both proposed laws will in fact be tools in the hands of the states to target any individuals or movements resisting government policy or action. Opposed by civil liberties groups, this opposition needs to be actually taken to the streets so that a mass movement in defence of democracy and civil liberties, emerges. In fact this remains, at the heart, the challenge to the Indian civil liberties movement. How to ensure that democratic politics itself enshrines genuine values of civil and political liberties and economic and cultural rights. Towards that end.
These proposed laws render any and all criticism of the existing political dispensation, especially the growing rage of the minority communities and Dalits against an increasingly intolerant regime, criminal.
Media and Corporate Capital
All these challenges become even more acute, and mass organization and mobilizations to contest them –and assert civil liberties –even more difficult with the composition of the Indian media undergoing a drastic change and corporate capital determining what we see, view and understand. In my interview with P. Sainath in September 2014 he explained this phenomenon,
“Convergence between Parliament, Big Business and Media: The interview also explores the complete domination of Indian Parliament by “more than millionaires” [the 2014 Indian Parliament has 353 of the 545 Members of Parliament worth Rs 10 million; when the last Parliament – 2009—had only 145 MPs worth Rs 10 million] and in turn these very individuals ( and their corporate business interests owning controlling shares in media). This enjoys a rare convergence, hitherto unparalleled that was witnessed in the brazen corporate campaign to spearhead Modi to power in 2014. (Sainath to Setalvad)”
There is a stranglehold on free thought, expression, association that is, most dangerously of all being constructed by this unholy nexus. The most exacting challenge of all, then the re-emergence of a genuinely democratic real media.
Ending on a Personal Note
I am honoured and humbled to have been invited to deliver this lecture. Kanna meant ever so much to each one of us down in the human rights field. I recall his joining us on the streets of Mumbai when we collectively staged a dharna for the re-instatement of the Justice BN Sriikrishna Commission (disbanded by the Shiv Sena –BJP government, widely accepted to have been perpetrators of the 1992-1993 pogrom in the megapolis (January 30,1993). I recall walking over to the home of HM Seervai one of our most erudite jurists at Churchgate after the dharna and the bearing amazing witness to their conversation! Kanna and Seervaikaka were as different politically and temperamentally as chalk and cheese but –being products of a profoundly seasoned generation –were wonderfully engaging conversationalists. In 2002, when Gujarat burned, it deeply affected Kanna too and he was part of the Concerned Citizens Tribunal-Crimes Against Humanity, 2002. He wrote a powerful piece for us, in the April-May 2004 issue of Communalism Combat, after the historic verdict of the Supreme Court in the Best Bakery Case. Titled, “A Question of Justice,” he severely reprimanded our Courts as only a person of his experience and understanding could do. I conclude then with the concluding part of that article authored by KG Kannabiran, because I believe, in a sense those words, say it all, when Courts of law abdicate their fundamental duty,
“What happened in Gujarat in March 2002, what happened in Mumbai in January 1993, and to members of the Sikh community in 1984 are genocidal trends and courts, as enforcers of International Covenants, ought to have taken serious note of these blatant transgressions of human rights and devised jurisprudential and procedural tools to deal with this situation. A magniloquent attack on lawlessness is hardly a substitute for doing justice to the wronged. A court which innovatively protected propertied interests by devising the concepts of prospective over ruling and basic structure could have devised a concept for disqualifying a chief minister or other ministers as having been constructively responsible for the carnage by redefining a writ of quo warranto for meeting these situations. If the chief minister Modi had been disqualified on the principle of constructive responsibility, Rule of Law would not have become the fugitive that it has become now. Bal Thackaray’s Mumbai is not going to be any different. Seeing Rule of Law fleeing like a fugitive could invite private justice and the terrorist may say, "I shall repay."