Defining democracy: the challenge on Independence Day

August 15, 2011

As India celebrates her 65th Independence Day, a potential spat between the government and members of so-called “civil society” raises important questions about the dichotomy in a democracy.

It is a tough balance between giving citizens the right to protest and making sure those protests don’t impinge upon the very rights a democracy guarantees.

Police on Monday denied permission for veteran social activist Anna Hazare to renew a fast to the death in New Delhi. Police say Hazare, who is campaigning for tougher laws against corruption, failed to meet certain conditions to conduct a mass fast.

While police conditions include ending the fast in three days and limiting the number of Hazare’s supporters to 5000, Team Hazare is relentless.

Kiran Bedi, a former police officer and an activist with Hazare, has said on local television the group is ready to court arrest, but will press on with the fast even if permission is denied.

Indeed, in a democracy, citizens must have the right to protest and make their voices heard. In that respect, Bedi’s argument holds.

However, the government’s arguments are not without credence. Several factors, including crowd control and traffic management, are also the responsibility of a democratic government. The police, therefore, has the right to impose certain restrictions on citizens, if they feel a particular action may threaten safety.

In the face of these compelling arguments, it is important to question if anyone should have the right to take to the streets, gather thousands of people and go ahead with a fast to the death, not just disrupting normal proceedings in the capital, but holding its citizens hostage and potentially threatening their safety.

That question holds even if one is fighting for a good cause.

How does one interpret democracy? Does it mean giving unlimited rights to citizens, or does it mean an elected panel ensuring the safety of its citizens? There has to be a healthy balance between the two for a democracy to be successful.

Team Hazare accuses Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government of betraying its trust and coming up with a subdued version of the Lokpal (ombudsman) bill, while the government maintains its stand of being committed to end corruption, without bringing the judiciary under the bill’s watch.

“Those who do not agree with this bill can put forward their views to parliament, political parties and even the press. However, I also believe they should not resort to hunger strikes and fasts-unto-death,” Singh said in a speech to the nation on Monday.

This needs to be noted. And for India to become the global superpower it hopes to, these internal issues need to be sorted first.

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