COVID-19 Could Reinforce Authoritarianism in India

Mantasha Ansari

We the humans created society because living together is better than isolation and confinement. We also created the state to make our lives better. The state is for citizens. The citizens are not for the state. During the coronavirus epidemic, there is growing risk that the state's authoritarian leaders will suppress us and grab more power. The state will become more authoritarian. In India, traits of authoritarianism are residing in the minds of police, politicians and people who are willing to surrender their liberties.

On March 24, the Indian state released Kashmiri leader Omar Abdullah from 232 days of illegal lockdown. On the same day, it ordered a countrywide lockdown for 21 days to counter the epidemic. The release of Omar Abdullah and imposition of lockdown show that authoritarian states can use brute power both in peace times and emergencies like the coronavirus.

Citizens too will surrender their freedoms and civil liberties. The fact that Indians, without demanding personal protective equipment (PPE) for doctors and nurses, took to clapping from their balconies during the Janata Curfew called by the government at 5:00pm of March 22 shows that people are ever willing to surrender their liberties. On March 29, eight days later, nurses and doctors, were told by the state that it would take another 25 days for PPE. In authoritarian systems, people clap for the political leader, not for other citizens like doctors.

Authoritarianism, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, is a "principle of blind submission to authority, as opposed to individual freedom of thought and action. In government, authoritarianism denotes any political system that concentrates power in the hands of a leader or a small elite that is not constitutionally responsible to the body of the people."

"Authoritarians are good at things that require mass action without public input," observed American columnist Michael Gerson in The Washington Post recently. The economic misery unleashed by the Indian government in the wake of the 2016 Demonetisation and illegal crackdown by police in different parts of India since the beginning of the 21-day lockdown since March 25 reveal that the government did not get public input before taking these decisions. As a result, millions of migrant workers in Indians towns were left jobless instantly.

Using this public health crisis, the Indian state has begun usurping unprecedented powers. On March 23, the Yogi Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh invoked the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 to arrest social activist Dr. Ashish Mittal for a recent, perfectly legitimate and legal protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Student activist Umar Khalid too was arrested. On March 23, Uttar Pradesh was already under lockdown declared by the state government. While people are in the lockdown, the state is in a vengeance mode.

In another case of how the Indian state is using brute power is the Delhi Police's removal of the Shaheen Bagh protest site, a matter pending before the Supreme Court. On March 24, policemen forcibly removed the site. We can understand that in the epidemic's wake, police could remove a couple of protesters who were still there. But there is no reason to destroy the protest site itself. The Shaheen Bagh movement has been a thoroughly constitutional protest movement in India's post-Independence history. On the morning after the imposition of 21-day lockdown, cops also dismantled art installations and graffitis both at the Shaheen Bagh site and the Jamia Millia Islamia university.

The coronavirus outbreak reveals not only the crisis of our health system, but also the crisis of the Indian political system. Citizens are at the lowest priority, while myths, statues and religion are at the top. The Indian state used Rs 3,000 crore to build a statue for Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and has earmarked Rs 3,941 crore for the National Population Register (NPR), which is totally unnecessary because every Indian now has an Aadhaar card. The government could use the Aadhaar records and conduct a census, necessary to obtain socio-economic data. It could use the money for building hospitals and schools for the poor. But the government's priority is different: while people can't get food, the government will spend Rs 20,000 crore to build a central vista and a new parliament.

During the lockdown period, our personal freedom is being reduced by the Indian state. Taking advantage of the coronavirus epidemic, policemen are attacking citizens. There are numerous reports from different cities of how policemen have forced citizens to hold ears and do sit-ups, squat, or frog-jump. This is just inhuman. "Baton-waving policemen were making them crawl, or duck-walk, or frog-march. The symbolism was unmistakable. 'You are being reduced to animal status, to your bare life,'" wrote a journalist. He added: "Those images of bestialisation. Humans trying to get back to the security and familiarity of faraway homes in strange and uncertain times… were being brought to their knees."

The citizens who went out during the lockdown are guilty of violation of the law. But police thrashed citizens even when it was perfectly legal to go out, for example to obtain food and medicine. In the Indian system of governance, police don't have the power to give punishment. The police forces are violating citizens' fundamental right to dignity guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. In a country where even non-payment of wages to a worker is a violation of Article 21 – as noted by the Supreme Court in several judgments – police cannot give punishment except through a court of law.

Authoritarian leaders are never focused on the delivery of basic services such as water and food, or schools and hospitals. Under them, institutions of the state begin to work to please the leader. For example, in a human emergency like the coronavirus epidemic, the Indian state has decided to give copies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's speeches to those affected patients to read while quarantined at home. Instantly after the lockdown began on March 25, hundreds of thousands of migrants were rendered jobless and began marching towards home, but the government leaders, notably the minister for information and broadcasting Prakash Javadekar, were busy watching the television serial Ramayana.

The spread of the coronavirus teaches us a few lessons. People cannot look up to authoritarian leaders for support at critical moments. The democratic states must build schools and health infrastructure. Basic services cannot be left to private companies. However, schools and hospitals built by private sector too should not be taken over by the state simply because it has failed to deliver at a critical time. In the district of Bhilwara in Rajasthan, a district collector passed an order under the Rajasthan Epidemic Diseases Act 1957 to seize shops, hotels and hospitals. In a free society, this cannot be allowed.

The risk is that authoritarianism is becoming part of the Indian state, which now thinks that we are not supposed to breathe outside our homes. While we understand that there is some need for lockdown to prevent the epidemic from spreading, we should bear in mind that even China, where the disease broke out, did not lock down the entire country, but only the province of Hubei. There is need for social distancing, not lockdown. We should not allow police and other arms of the state to seize our civil liberties.

There is also a need for constructive balance between power and responsibility. Unless citizens speak up, the state will use more of power and less of responsibility. This is why Indians protested against the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi. A large number of Indians are poor and uneducated. They do not know of their rights. If non-governmental organizations do not speak up for the helpless and marginalised communities, police in different states will not learn that they don't have the power to beat up citizens. The best way to curtail authoritarian habits of the state is to educate the masses about their constitutional rights.

Otherwise, the risk is that society itself might move towards despotism. By the time Indians wake up, when the coronavirus has gone, we will all be part of the police state. Police are not using unconstitutional power in India alone. In the UK too, police have used excessive power. In this context, the former UK Supreme Court Justice Jonathan Sumption said in a recent interview: "This is what a police state is like. It's a state in which the government can issue orders or express preferences with no legal authority and the police will enforce ministers' wishes." The former judge added: "We should not be surprised. But we have to recognise that this is how societies become despotisms."

Mantasha Ansari, University of Lucknow

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Apr 13, 2020

Mantasha Ansari

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