Lakhimpur, a question of human dignity

The law should be always above the politics of the day. However, in the UP model, the law is only an instrument of political power
Express Illustrations by Amit Bandre
Express Illustrations by Amit Bandre

A local court in Lakhimpur in Uttar Pradesh has rejected the bail plea of Ashish Mishra, son of Union Minister Ajay Mishra, in the case over the murder of four farmers and a journalist. A few have been arrested in connection with the incident. The allegation is that the farmers and the journalist were killed by a convoy that deliberately ran over them and the accused had caused it. The video of the scene has shocked our mass conscience. The fact that a few BJP workers too were killed is quite sad and perturbing. After the incident, the UP Law Minister Brajesh Pathak visited the families of the BJP workers, while not caring to meet the families of the farmers who lost their lives.

An elected government and the ministers running it must act in terms of the Constitution and not merely based on their political beliefs or inclinations. Such an ethical metamorphosis is an imperative, given the letter and spirit of the oath that a minister takes as per the Constitution. Jawaharlal Nehru, on the eve of Independence, opined that after the country attains freedom, though there would be a Congress government, it won’t be controlled by leaders of the Congress Party. This distinction should apply to every dispensation, irrespective of its political colour.

However, during the time of democratic crisis, this fine division becomes blurred, and the very government gets identified with the political party. Worse, even the political parties get reduced to an individual and the individual is glorified and equalised with the nation. Recall the slogan “India is Indira; Indira is India” formulated by D K Barooah, the Congress leader, prior to the Emergency (1975–77). At present, political idolatry is re-emerging in the country. It leads to a situation where Cabinet ministers act merely as political leaders with partisan interest, as it occurred with the UP law minister. This is an indication of democratic degeneration. Tarunabh Khaitan of Oxford University says that right from 2014, the Central government “consistently sought to erase the distinction between the party and the state by incrementally, but systemically, seeking to undermine or capture mechanisms that seek executive accountability”. A reflection of the process is also discernible in states like UP, Assam and Gujarat. A significant impact of this democratic destabilisation is clearly manifested in the uprooting of rule of law in such states.

The Lakhimpur incident narrates a changed idea of law enforcement that negates the tenets of constitutionalism. It tells us about much more than mere criminalisation of politics. It was in the Manoj Narula case (2014) that the Supreme Court said that “criminalisation of politics is an anathema to the sacredness of democracy”. In the judgment, the court emphasised the significance of constitutional morality and good governance. The court said: “The faith of the people is embedded in the root of the idea of good governance which means reverence for citizenry rights, respect for fundamental rights and statutory rights in any governmental action, deference for unwritten constitutional values, veneration for institutional integrity, and inculcation of accountability to the collective at large.”

The Lakhimpur episode, along with several other incidents ranging from Unnao to Hathras, not only shows the increasing crime rate in UP, but also the regime’s attitude towards it. According to a report by the National Crime Records Bureau, UP has recorded the highest number of murder cases in India (3,779) in 2020. Process of law often takes a back seat. It required the admonition of the top court even for arresting the accused in the Lakhimpur incident.

It is in the very same state that journalists are arrested and incarcerated for doing their job, by invoking draconian laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Those who protested the Citizenship Amendment Act and the farm laws too had to face a similar predicament. False encounter killings and vigilantism has become the new normal. Almost every gathering of people with an agitational gesture was labelled unlawful, with Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code invoked. Activist Harsh Mander has pointed out that out of 139 persons jailed in 2020 under the National Security Act, 76 were accused of cow slaughter. Alleging ‘love jihad’, many couples were arrested. The state that instigated or abetted or justified heinous crimes like murder and rape was keen to brand personal intimacy a serious offence. Selective use or misuse or non-use of law, in accordance with the temporal requirement of those in power, is the new UP brand of justice.

States like Assam and Tripura followed suit. Recall the killing of two people in police firing in Darrang district in Assam. The video of the official photographer thrashing the corpse of a man points to the situation in our troubled times. There is no human dignity without true democracy. As jurist Ronald Dworkin opined, “equal concern and respect” are the hallmarks of rule of law. Liberty, equality and fraternity are non-negotiable facets of egalitarianism.

In constitutional democracies, rule of law rejects arbitrariness of power, as classically explained by the jurist A V Dicey. The law should be always above the politics of the day. However, in the UP model, the law is only an instrument of political power. Lakhimpur speaks volumes about the failure of a legal system, and of politics along with it.

Kaleeswaram Raj
Lawyer, Supreme Court of India
(Tweets @KaleeswaramR)


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