Last week Indian democracy hit a new high and plumbed a new low. That this mix of good and bad happened just days after the anniversary of India’s 70th year of independence was coincidental no doubt, but also served as a timely reminder on the importance of hanging on to the democratic principles bequeathed by the founding fathers.
The good news is that Indian democracy is very much alive and vibrant, but the bad news is that the country still has a long way to go.
First the Supreme Court unambiguously ruled in the instant triple talaq case that law prevails over faith. And then, a nine-judge constitution bench delivered what is probably one of the most seminal unanimous judgements, by ruling that privacy is a fundamental right under the Constitution of India. The two together stamped a new benchmark for the world’s largest democracy, creating a new basis for its further enrichment.
Unfortunately, the country’s social order failed itself in the very first test. Just a few days later the conviction of Dera Sacha Sauda chief and self-styled godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh for raping and sexually exploiting two disciples unleashed a violent reaction.
Undoubtedly the administration of Manohar Lal Khattar was caught napping and should be duly blamed (something that is becoming a habit, given the anarchy that flourished last year in Haryana after the Jat community took to the streets to demand reservations), but the larger social message was not missed—the protesters did not care for the rule of law. The violence was an utter travesty of the path-breaking ideas underlying the two judgements.
There are two ways to look at these tumultuous events: either as a half-empty or a half-full cup. The former is a cynical pursuit. If one views it in the latter perspective, then there are indeed many positives to be drawn from the events of last week.
First, obviously, Indian democracy has made huge strides in the last seven decades but it is still some distance from embracing the rule of law. It should be a moment of pause for the country and its polity as to why even after 70 years of democratic governance exceptionalism triumphs; the IOU politics which has fostered vote banks based on caste and religion are now beginning to haunt the nation as it strives to transition to a rules-based society.
Second, in the majority verdict in the instant triple talaq case the Supreme Court found the practice to be violative of the fundamental right under Article 14 (equality before law) of the Constitution of India. It has very unequivocally upheld the rule of law over faith.
In the process, the apex court has created room for a national debate on personal law cutting across religions focusing on the inevitable gender bias they propagate, sending a clear message for politicians to rise above their partisan positions. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta, vice-chancellor of Ashoka University, pointed out in his column last week published in The Indian Express, Parliament has always avoided a debate on this prickly subject. “The big question is," as Mehta rightly asks, “Is it now possible for our politics to calmly discuss issues of personal law reform and gender justice across all communities without communalising our politics."
Third, in the big decision on privacy, the apex court has once again shown amazing courage as well as foresight. Not only did it overrule its own previous judgement which paved the way for imposition of emergency and confiscation of social freedoms, but it also placed the ongoing privacy debate in a very contemporary context recognizing that pervasive technology has blurred the line between what is private and what is not.
Unlike the takeaways articulated by a section of misguided privacy warriors who reduced the verdict to an indictment of their pet hate—Aadhaar or the unique identity programme of the government—the judgement has provided unprecedented width and depth to the idea of privacy. It has, on the one hand, candidly acknowledged the need of any modern state to extract personal data, but at the same unequivocally held that every individual has a right to privacy—this can only be transgressed in exceptional circumstances and the enabling law will have to meet the standard of a “fair, just and reasonable" procedure.
In the final analysis, it is clear that the apex court has provided the wherewithal for India to undertake a welcome makeover of Indian democracy. It is now entirely up to the people of India. The violence in Panchkula is a grim reminder of the costs of a bad choice.
Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.
His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus.
Respond to this column at email@example.com