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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 31 New Delhi July 21, 2018

Neither Anarchy nor Absolutism — Let Us Have Democracy

Saturday 21 July 2018, by Badri Raina


Two recent Supreme Court pronouncements restore with sentient purpose the principles of lawful, representative, democratic governance.

Two recent life-giving judgements of the truly honourable Supreme Court of India—one pertaining to deaths by lynchings, and the other to the imbroglio about governance structures in the Capital—deserve special attention.

First, the anarchy: A reference to anarchy was made by the Court in relation to the Delhi stalemate, and I will seek the honourable Court’s indulgence here to express a principled dissent. Where the Court seemed to suggest that the Arvind Kejriwal Cabinet had been behaving in an anarchic fashion in its contention with the administrator, we may be forgiven to characterise the Kejriwal mode of protest as civil disobedience, of the kind both Henry David Thoreau and M.K. Gandhi would have approved of. I had said elsewhere recently that team Kejriwal ought to be credited with foregrounding the primacy of mass-based, peaceful political resistance in an age of top-down administrative fiat. Time will tell whether the people of Delhi have seen the matter in the way the honourable Court has opined or in the way suggested here.

Anarchy, however, is a befitting description for the repeated and no-holds-barred mob-frenzy lynchings which the Court, in an earlier judgement, has resonantly dubbed “unacceptable”, reminding the state that it has an “obligation” to put such frenzy down with firm resolve and furnish protection to citizens, innocent or not, from the barbarism of self-appointed vigilantes.

As an erstwhile teacher of literature, I am here tempted to think that our most erudite judges must have had in mind that frighteningly memorable and instructive vignette in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar where the Roman mob, whipped into frenzy by Mark Antony, turns on a man named Cinna who they think to be the Senator; as the poor man pleads that he is not the Senator but Cinna the poet, the cry goes up “kill him for his bad verses”.

Such indeed has been our own zeitgeist of the recent few years. Any message from the irresistible University of WhatsApp has seemed to some to be the word of god, enjoining the “nationalist” faithful to hack and hew, regardless of fact or truth.

One is reminded of the reference Hillary Clinton once made to the snakes in the Pakistani backyard. Clearly, we cannot share that view of snakes because in our sanatan archives of thought, snakes too are revered, and indeed a whole day in the Hindu propitious calendar is given to their worship. So let us just say that those who sow the wind must reap the whirlwind. Rome had but one Mark Antony; contemporary India has a plethora. Think that not even the most gracious and noble Minister of External Affairs is spared, and that, with the exception of the perhaps well-meaning humanist Rajnath Singh, not one of her worthy Cabinet colleagues, not to speak of the honourable Prime Minister, has thought it fit to come to her aid on the disgraceful episode of trolling against her—all because, taking a humane and constitutionally correct view, she intervened in the shabby matter of the gratuitous and communal harassment meted out to an inter-faith couple seeking their right to a passport.

We are reminded everyday that these trolls have followers in very high places. Remarkably, none of these powerful entities seem in any hurry to unfollow the mobsters who think nothing of exacting vengeance on just about anyone who has a sensitive bone in her body. There is a traditional saying that when a girl of marriageable age keeps demurely silent when asked her assent to a match, she must mean “yes”.

Now that the honourable Court has pronounced on these matters, it will remain to be seen whether or not the executive will initiate measures to put an end to mobocracy of all kinds, and restore the citizens’ faith in the lawful, constitutional order.

Then the salutary reference to “absolutism”: if mobsterism defaces many nations of the world, the US included, so does absolutism. Much has been written about how extreme concentrations of wealth require corresponding closures of democratic practices and spaces so that popular, mass challenges to enshrined perorations about economic “development”—read extortion and grab—are first maligned as anarchy and then punished by the use of state power. In the world’s “oldest” democracy, the US, and the “largest” one, India, the centralisation of wealth has reached unconscionable proportions. When capital acquires this sort of concentration, it sees democracy as its worst enemy, although it never fails to legitimise itself by holding periodic elections.

We cannot say whether these sorts of thoughts were weighing on the minds of the honourable Supreme Court, but in opining that “real power lies with the elected government”, that the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi is only an administrator with no “independent” power of making decisions, that he must operate on the “aid and advice of the Cabinet”, that the elected government in Delhi does not need his “concurrence” on its decisions, that he must not be an “obstructionist”, and that he may refer to the President any issue of importance where he does not see eye to eye with the Cabinet, the Court has indeed struck a most salutary blow for democracy, ruling out any justification for “absolutism” within a republican-constitutional state.

Thus, in one case, the honourable Court has laid down that mob rule is not democratic rule, and in the other, rule by administrative fiat is equally obnoxious to the democratic order. Taken together, these two pronouncements restore with sentient purpose the principles of lawful, representative, democratic governance, which must always be accountable to both the laws of the land and to the people’s will determined through constitutional modalities.

The nation owes heaps of gratitude to the Supreme Court, and looks to see whether the executive and legislature still have any will left to compliment through their own transparent exertions the judicial act of democratic restoration.

One notes that sections of the complicit media continue to play games with the purport of these two watershed judgements. How one wishes the Court had something to say to that as well.


The author, who taught English literature at the University of Delhi for over four decades and is now retired, is a prominent writer and poet. A well-known commentator on politics, culture and society, he wrote the much acclaimed Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth. His book, The Underside of Things—India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011, came out in August 2012. Thereafter he wrote two more books, Idea of India Hard to Beat: Republic Resilient and Kashmir: A Noble Tryst in Tatters.

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