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INDIA: In the absence of justice independence is a myth

August 15, 2011

INDIA: In the absence of justice independence is a myth

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) congratulates Indians on their 65th Independence Day. The world's largest democracy, has come a long way from what it was in 1947 - an impoverished and underdeveloped nation - to become the third largest economy in the world in terms of purchase power parity. While in the immediate neighbourhood and for the most of Asia, democracy could only make cameo appearances, India maintained its democratic framework of administration, and is pushing forward, trying to bring wide-ranging changes in its administration, which has the potential to enable Indians to realise more of the democratic dream the founding fathers of the country promised to the people on 15 August 1947.

Yet, it is a cruel paradox that this great march forward has not benefited the majority of Indians, an issue that has the potential, if it is not addressed properly, to challenge the very existence of the country and its democratic roots. In that, 65 years of independence has brought not many substantial differences to many Indians in their daily realties in life, particularly concerning the notion of justice, other than for a ritualistic change of guards in New Delhi and at the state capitals.

What Indians achieved 65 years ago is not just an end to the colonial rule. 15 August 1947 was the defining moment of the power of non-violence. Yet violence has remained the primordial nature of authority in India, sanctioned by statute, as it is in the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 or time an again put to use through the daily and manifold forms of torture perpetrated by the police and other law enforcement agencies in India, against which there is still no law in the country or any functioning accountability framework.

Freedom is meaningless in the absence of the right to be informed. Not merely through the avenues opened up by the Right to Information Act, 2005, a watershed legislation concerning freedom of information in India. Freedom to be informed also means proper investigation of crimes, irrespective of the accused person's political and economic influence. This freedom implies the right against extrajudicial execution and encounter killings; the right against disappearance and arbitrary and incommunicado detentions and the right and avenues to seek remedies against injustices.

Freedom and rights have a universal language, translated into exercisable and accessible realities by everyone. This however cannot be achieved without properly functioning justice institutions. Today, one of the most neglected and thus the least developed area in India is its justice framework. Having a few cases decided, thereby setting standards for international and domestic human rights norms need not imply that the jurisprudence laid down is translated into quantifiable and thus realisable rights to the people. Should that be the case, right to housing and freedom from forced and unjustifiable eviction would have been a reality to most of Indians since the Olga Tellis case. The reality of forced eviction, without at least just and acceptable compensations, and artificially created depletion of livelihood options to thousands of families living in states like Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh should not have happened in India. After the Prakash Singh case, unwarranted political interference in policing should have stopped. Since the D. K. Basu case, custodial violence should have been reduced to a bare minimum in India. The fact that it is not the case is amble proof to the reality that mere judgments need not bring in change. In that the social engineer's role of a court can be very much limited to reported cases, worthy of being footnoted later, than of any meaning should the country does not consider improving its justice framework as a priority issue to be addressed.

Freedom without justice lacks substance. What India, and through the Indian freedom movement, the sub-region has achieved 65 years ago, is just not the freedom to decide ones own destiny. It is much more than the mere liberty to remain free. The concept of freedom has engraved in it the notion of justice. Yet it is this very notion that India is yet to indentify and make it a reality for its citizens. What was achieved 65 years ago was not a ritualistic change of flags at the Red Fort. It was the freedom to cast the destiny of a state, that of its citizens and of its future generations.

Without justice, freedom and the celebration of Independence Day would remain mere rituals.


About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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