The year 2012 has started off with a series of rude shocks to those Indians who cherish the freedoms promised to the Indian citizens by the Republic. While most of the debate and discussions have been hi-jacked by this “protest” by the Darul-Uloom Deoband to the India visit of Salman Rushdie and this fatwa by the Madhya Pradesh clerics against Surya-Namaskara ; bigger threats to individual and organised freedom seem to be emanating from so-called independent institutions of our nation.

Though not unprecedented, the collision in time between the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections and the Rushdie visit allowed the mullah-brigade to wield disproportionate influence on the centers of power and opinion. Unlike the fatwa churning factories, the institutions of state have the constitutional sanction and more importantly the means to enforce their diktats on the people.

Election Commission & It’s Fatwas

I am using the term “fatwa” not just to single out the irrational sermons coming out of seminaries but also to flag every such notice, judgement issued by our institutions under the guise of upholding procedures, regulations and law & order. In their intent and more importantly in their fundamental urge to curb freedom, these actions are no different from issuing fatwas.

The Chief Election Officer (CEO) of Uttarakhand served a notice to Baba Ramdev on the information that political activities were taking place in his Yoga Shivir. The notice asked him show-cause as to why he must not be charged for violating the model code of conduct. The fact is that the Election Commission’s model code of conduct is applicable only to political parties and candidates and not to private citizens and organisations. The FAQ on the model of code of conduct uploaded by the ECI says thus,

Q:  What is the Model Code of Conduct?
A : The Model Code of Conduct for guidance of political parties and candidates is a set of norms which has been evolved with the consensus of political parties who have consented to abide by the principles embodied in the said code and also binds them to respect and observe it in its letter and spirit

[Emphasis added]

This is a dangerous precedent and if it gains mainstream acceptability, it might very well have paved a path for censorship of all political commentary and discourse during the elections. It’s a notable coincidence that these Ayatollah’s of ECI were also responsible for other medieval & mindless actions such as covering of Mayawati’s statues during elections.

Judiciary & Their Fatwas

Judiciary – one of the principal pillars of our Republic is not above such urges either. Now the beauty about the judiciary is that not only can it issue fatwas but also haul up individuals for condemning such fatwas. The Gujarat High Court’s single judge bench while pronouncing it’s verdict on the issue of the Lokayukta’s appointment called the Chief Minister and the Council of Ministers – Spiteful, brazen and irrational. The judge conveniently forgot that it’s own division bench was divided on this issue.

The judge also accused the State govt of putting democracy in peril. Irrational exuberance, outcomes of unchecked, arbitrary power or political bias, call it whatever you want ; but I call it a fatwa – where the judges run their mouth on matters not to clarify their judgment but to thrust the political and socio-economic narrative of their choice on the nation.

The comrades in the Delhi High court have gone miles ahead of their colleagues in Gujarat. The politiburo of the Delhi high court has also come out with it’s mission statement to “Block all such websites in India like China”. The run-away arbitrariness plaguing our institutions is just a symptom of the larger disease caused by a near-total breakdown of our system of checks and balances. The tone of the judgment raises many curious sounding but relevant questions, are those in the political executive who have a vested interest in curbing the freedom of social media using the PIL route to fire from the judiciary’s shoulders ?

We are told that in 1975 when Smt Gandhi imposed emergency she destroyed institutions which failed to fall in line. That was the case of the political executive overpowering other democratic institutions. Now we have an extremely weakened and a divided political executive. Institutions like the CAG have made significant contributions by their effective functioning.

Many other institutions however are blissfully transgressing and venturing into newer spaces and thereby enlarging their own sphere of influence. However, what stands out is that institutions that have capable leadership are functioning well while others have displayed symptoms of going astray. While the views of a theological group like the Deoband must be condemned it is equally important for us to be sensitive of the health of our institutions. Instrumentalisation and subversion of powerful institutions by vested interests is as dangerous as emergency itself.

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Manohar Seetharam

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