Congress Manifesto promises to 'restore freedom and liberties' in India

Greater civil liberties, more freedom of expression, fair investigations by police, and an end to internet shut-downs figure prominently in Congress' manifesto for 2024 elections
Many student organizations have come under scrutiny under current govt
Many student organizations have come under scrutiny under current govtParveen Negi/ EPS

One of the key aspects of the Indian National Congress's manifesto is the emphasis it has placed on "defending the Constitution" and "removing fear, restoring freedom." The manifesto rues the "tremendous damage" done in recent years to India's democratic institutions and freedoms and promises to restore "freedom of speech and expression including full freedom of the media."

"We promise to de-criminalise the offence of defamation and provide, by law, a speedy remedy by way of civil damages. We promise to end the arbitrary and indiscriminate suspension of the Internet. We will review the Telecommunications Act, 2023 and remove the provisions that restrict freedom of speech and expression and that violate the right to privacy."

The move comes in the wake of a perception that India has slid back in terms of personal freedoms and liberties under the current administration. India has seen substantial falls and erosions in its status in various such indicators during the period, including World Press Freedom Index (21 notches), V-Dem Liberal Democracy Index (slid from .57 to .34) and Economist Democracy Index (rank 27 to 51).

In a nod to recent controversies surrounding individual liberties, the manifesto states: "We promise not to interfere with personal choices of food and dress, to love and marry, and to travel and reside in any part of India. All laws and rules that interfere unreasonably with personal freedoms will be repealed."

On the contentious issue of privacy rights, the Congress manifesto promises to review all laws that interfere with the right to privacy and make suitable amendments to various laws to uphold the right to privacy. It also vows to uphold "the people's right to assemble peacefully and to form associations."

The manifesto also addresses concerns over Internet freedom, promising that Congress will pass a law "to preserve the freedom of the Internet and to prevent arbitrary and frequent shutdowns of the Internet."

It also promised to enact a law on bail that will incorporate the principle that 'bail is the rule, jail is the exception' in all criminal laws.

The manifesto devoted a special section to the revival of the media.

"In the last ten years, significant sections of the media have been robbed of, or surrendered, their freedom. Congress will help the media re-discover the freedom that they enjoy under the Constitution."

The manifesto pledges to "defend independent journalism by enacting laws to protect journalists from coercive action by the State. This includes restricting the powers of the government for surveillance of journalists, seizure of their devices and exposure of their sources."

It promises to amend the Press Council of India Act, 1978 "to strengthen the system of self-regulation, protect journalistic freedoms, uphold editorial independence and guard against government interference," and "to empower the Council to deal with the menace of fake news and paid news."

On transparency in media ownership, the manifesto states: "All media houses, irrespective of the size, will be required to disclose their ownership structures (direct and indirect), cross holdings, revenue streams, etc. through their websites."

It promises to "pass a law to curb monopolies in the media, cross-ownership of different segments of the media, and control of the media by business organisations," and to refer "cases of suspected monopolies to the Competition Commission of India."

On recent legislation seen as impinging on media freedoms, the manifesto states: "Many new laws (e.g. the Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023; Digital Personal Data Protection Act, 2023; Press and Registration of Periodicals Act, 2023, etc.) give unbridled powers of censorship to the government. The first named Bill will be withdrawn. The restrictive provisions of the two Acts will be amended or deleted to eliminate backdoor censorship."

On cinema, it promised to amend the Cinematograph Act "to provide that the Central Board of Film Certification grants graded certificates to according to transparent and reasonable criteria."

Investigating Agencies

An area of focus for the Congress manifesto is India's law enforcement agencies, which have imprisoned several key opposition party functionaries in recent months.

"We promise to ensure that the police, investigation and intelligence agencies will function strictly in accordance with law. They will be brought under the oversight of Parliament or the state legislatures, as the case may be," the Congress manifesto promised.

It also vows to "put an end to the weaponisation of laws, arbitrary searches, seizures and attachments, arbitrary and indiscriminate arrests, third-degree methods, prolonged custody, custodial deaths, and bulldozer justice."

The manifesto also pledges "complete investigations" into a range of alleged scams and failures, including "the Electoral Bonds Scam, the reckless sale of public assets, the PM CARES scam, repeated intelligence failures at the highest levels and corruption in major defence deals."

Parliament

Besides personal freedoms, the manifesto also promised to restore the fidelity of many of India's institutions, including the Parliament, Election Commission of India, the Central Information Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General, and the Commissions for SC, ST, minorities and OBC.

On the Parliament, it said many of the traditions have been eroded in recent years. The manifesto accused the current NDA government of doing "tremendous damage..by misusing the brute majority enjoyed by it in Parliament to make laws that violated the letter and spirit of the Constitution of India as well as the fundamental principles of law-making, namely, necessity, consultation, reasonableness and proportionality."

"We promise that the two Houses of Parliament will each meet for 100 days in a year and the great traditions of Parliament that prevailed in the past will be revived and scrupulously observed. We promise that one day in a week will be devoted to discuss the agenda suggested by the opposition benches in each House," it said.

It also promised that the presiding officers of the two Houses will be required to sever their connection with any political party, remain neutral, and observe the age-old norm that the 'Speaker does not speak'.

On the issue of simultaneous elections to Parliament and state assemblies, it said: "We reject the 'one nation one election' idea and we promise that elections to the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies will be held as and when they are due in accordance with the Constitution and the traditions of a parliamentary democracy."

On EVMs, the party is promising a dual-voting system in which records are kept in both electronic as well as physical format, with EVMs being used for faster counting and paper records used for subsequent verification.

In a bid to curb the chronic problem of defections by elected representatives, the manifesto states: "We promise to amend the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution and make defection (leaving the original party on which the MLA or MP was elected) an automatic disqualification of the membership in the Assembly or Parliament."

The promise comes in the context of many opposition MPs and MLAs defecting to the BJP.

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