Democracy’s crumbling pillars

Tags: Op-ed
Our founding fathers built such a democratic structure that its main pillars would together uphold the values of our “of the people, by the people and for the people” de­mocracy. They would also ensure a system of checks and balances, ensuring that no arm of the democratic process turned autocratic and anti-people. In the past week, so­mething happened that ma­kes one wonder about the health of our democracy. Ma­kes one wonder whether we are a democracy at all, or if we have surrendered to the rule of the mob.

Bal Thackerey passed aw­ay. He was a mortal, this was bound to happen. Mumbai shut down, many did so out of their love for Thackerey. One cannot deny the fact that he was a demigod for millions; they worshipped him. But there were many who observed the shutdown because they feared retribution from his fanatic and thuggish followers. The shutdown caused hardships for many. I returned from the US on the night Thackerey died. Like hundreds of other passengers stranded outside the airport, I too felt resentful. After a long tiring flight, it’s natural that one becomes insensitive and irritable.

Shaheen Dhada, a 21-year-old girl posted a comment on her Facebook page, voicing her irritation at the shutdown of the city. Shaheen’s friend Rinu Shrinivasan ‘liked’ her post. A local Shiv Sena leader of Palghar read Shaheen’s post on the social networking site and took umbrage. He decided to teach these ‘insolent’ girls a Shiv Sena-style lesson. After wrecking Shaheen’s uncle’s hospital, the thugs lay siege to the Palghar police station, demanding that the women be arrested and booked post haste or to be prepared to face dire consequences.

Surprise, surprise; the police took fright. After all, they were attacked by a mob of hooligans and had no option, but to pander to their demands. So, to placate the mob, the police arrested the two girls. Thank god, the mob wasn’t demanding that the girls be lynched. Yet, not only were they arrested, but on being brought to the police, the mob was allowed to rough them up too. The police was helpless. What else could they do in the face of a rampaging mob? Poor chaps!

Shaheen and Rini were booked for spreading hatred and creating animus in society. Now there are procedures and guidelines that every policeman is aware of regarding the detention of women and minors, who cannot be arrested between sunset and sunrise. However, that did not matter to the Palghar police. After all, there was a rampaging mob that was demanding action against the two young women. What co­uld the cops do?

The behaviour of the cops in this case is abhorrent, but what is more unacceptable is that when the two traumatised young women were brought in front of a magistrate to be arraigned as per stipulation, he too did not bother to ascertain the merits of the case and charged the two girls on the advice of the police, allowing them to be released on bail, as is the case with undertrials. Courts are supposed to ensure that the police don’t make illegal arrests and follow proper procedures. However, in this case, both the police and the concerned court did not protect the democratic rights of Shaheen and Rinu, and in the process, failed to discharge their prescribed duties. Both the police and the magistrate must be made answerable for their actions.

A policeman scared by the mob must be dismissed without delay. But with the state government dragging its feet in this case, it too seems to be afraid of taking on the Sena. Or are compulsions of electoral politics at play? The government should have first suspended all the senior policemen, before dismissing those who were directly involved in this miscarriage of justice.

The magistrate, who did not apply his mind to ascertain if the girls were indeed guilty of the charges brought against them, and if proper procedures were observed according to the rulebook, must also be made accountable under the law. An example must be set, so that in future, both policemen and the judiciary behave responsibly, and without fear or favour.

There have been several such cases, indicating the worsening health of our democracy, but there is hope too. The Shaheen Dhada arrest raised such an uproar nationally, that it forced the Union government to step in and order the state admininistration to right the wrong done to Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Shrinivasan. But, it’s not enough to withdraw the case against the two young women. The guilty must also be booked.

A mob of thugs must never be allowed to hold the democracy to ransom. But first, we must ensure that our democracy is healthy and all its institutions functioning.

(The writer is founder president, Mahatma Gandhi Foundation)

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