The death of an activist in Gujarat following his arrest and the recent arrest of social workers in Uttar Pradesh gives rise to a number of questions
It makes us wonder whether there is a place for civil society in the country that claims to be the world's largest democracy. The recent incident in Gujarat -- ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party ( bjp ) -- that has resulted in the death of an ex-serviceperson. Followed by the manhandling and arrest of social workers in Uttar Pradesh also under bjp rule, seems, however, to indicate that when it comes to dealing with members of the civil society, the Bharatiya Janata Party apparently becomes impatient.
What is even more exasperating is the prime minister's reaction to both incidents. His failure to react amounts to his condoning them. In one case an activist has been killed. In another a group of activists belonging to an Almora-based ngo called Sahayog, have been jailed.
In the first case, we shall have to go to Umbergaon, a fishing village in Gujarat situated at the border of Maharashtra in India. About 100,000 fisherfolk live here. There is a proposal to construct a large commercial port in this area. A similar such move to set up a port next door in Maharashtra was dropped. Needless to say the fisherfolk led by Pratap Save, the retired colonel, protested against this. The police swooped in on them and arrested 47 persons. Save sustained a head injury and had to be transferred to a hospital where he died during surgery. Local people allege that he was beaten in custody.
As for Sahayog, the ngo had released a pamphlet on aids , entitled aids aur hum . A few months later they were suddenly attacked and then arrested on the charge of publishing obscene literature, offending the sentiments of the local people and breach of peace. They were paraded handcuffed and with a crowning insult to civil liberties they were placed under preventive detention under the National Security Act.
The treatment of respected activists as porn-pushing criminals and to top it all a security risk and a threat to the nation speaks very poorly of the process. If Sahayog had indeed offended sensibilities there were better ways of handling the situation. They could have been asked to leave the area peacefully. In the case of Col Save what happened is simply not acceptable. For a democracy it is vital that there be certain checks and balances to the decision-making process. Activists play a vital role in providing these checks and balances. What they do -- their protests and struggles -- is part of the process that will go to form a just and sustainable future for the nation.
The nation is facing a dilemma. And if the prime minister has to win back the confidence of the nation he must cancel the detention of the Sahayog activists. Otherwise, any claim of being the world's largest democracy will sound hollow.
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