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Trending: Call for Papers Volume 3 | Issue 2: International Journal of Advanced Legal Research [ISSN: 2582-7340]

Emergency In The Pandemic – Lock-Down & Civil Liberties

ABSTRACT

The past few months witnessed almost the whole world going under a lockdown. Military vehicles or police cars roaming around the roads and streets have become a common occurrence. The citizens are forbidden from leaving their houses unless utterly necessary and have been asked to not assemble in public places.

These measures might be necessary for mitigating the virus’ spread; however, these can become stepping stones for a far bigger danger. Many believe that this temporary suspension would lead to a world which would be a lot less democratic than it is today. These temporary suspensions can easily turn into permanent laws. 
Let’s look at how the suspension of civil rights in India under the garb of a pandemic is affecting its citizens.

INTRODUCTION

The country is looking at a shortage of testing kits as well as PPEs and in the absence of a cure the situation looks very grave. Such circumstances make the lockdown seem like the best solution to buy time while the government finds ways to decrease the virus’ effect and boost the healthcare system. This means we would have to give up on our civil liberties for some time so that the government can work in an effective manner. However, the fear is prevalent among people that once we relinquish our rights willingly, we would not be getting them back.
We will go through some individual events to understand how this fear can become a reality.

JAMMU & KASHMIR: THE TALE OF COVID-19 AND 2G INTERNET

Article 370 was abrogated from the Constitution of India in August of 2019 and left the state of J&K stripped of the nominal autonomy it possessed. The state which was now converted into two union territories saw a communication blackout as all mobile, telephone and internet service were shut down by the Government of India.

In January 2020, by order of the Supreme Court declaring the internet shutdown as unlawful and unconstitutional, these services were restored partially, residents could now access the internet but only at a low, 2G speed.[1] When the state (now union territory) was slowly coming out of the curfew like situation, a positive case of COVID-19 was discovered and a strict lockdown was imposed once again.
The doctors in J&K have been complaining how the slow internet services pose a challenge in their duties and how even simple tasks like downloading WHO guidelines take few hours at least[2]. The schools and colleges are unable to conduct online classes and the students have already suffered a lot because of the previous lockdown of August, 2019.

Petitions were filed in the Apex Court for restoration of 4G services by Foundation for Media Professionals and Private Schools Association, Jammu and Kashmir. They cited the issues people were experiencing in availing health services and also the difficulty of conducting online classes in absence of high-speed internet. It was submitted in Court that almost 27 lakh students of Jammu and Kashmir did not have access to education at present unlike the rest of the country.[3]

The Home Department of J&K by an order on April 15, 2020 extended the restrictions placed on the speed of internet and stated there have been no difficulty in availing health services and such restrictions have helped in curbing social media misuse.[4] This is a violation of basic human rights along with a violation of Article 14, 19, 21 and 21A of the Constitution.
This is one of the many instances that show how under the cover of a pandemic basic civil liberties and rights are being suspended.

ARRESTING JOURNALISTS AND ACTIVISTS: CRUSHING THE DISSENT

A leading non-profit organization, RSF released its World Freedom Index a few weeks ago. As per the index, India in regards to its press freedom is ranked 142 out of 180 nations.[5] We should look at this in the light of the fact that how the voice of dissent is treated in India. During the global pandemic India has been arresting its students as well as activists under the draconian UAPA[6] for their activism.
The priority of the country during this pandemic is not containing the virus but to charge the activists with terror charges. 

Kashmiri Journalists Peerzada Ashiq, Masrat Zahra, and Gowhar Geelani have been booked under UAPA, 1967 for allegedly posting anti-national posts, being involved in unlawful activities and working against sovereignty, integrity and security of the country.[7] The same law has been used to arrest student activists Meeran Haider, Umar Khalid and Safoor Zargar (who is also pregnant), alleging their connection with North-East Delhi’s communal violence of February, 2020.[8]

Last month Dalit activists Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha were directed to surrender before the Supreme Court of India on April 14, 2020. They were booked under the UAPA, 1967 just like the other activists for allegedly promoting unrest and violence during Bhima Koregaon protests in 2018. They were directed to surrender for promotion and incitement of violence at an event where they were not even present.[9]
This shows that even when the whole country is dealing with a threatening virus like COVID-19, the State is prioritizing the arrest of its activists and crushing any voice that dares speak against those in power. Specially, at a time when prisoners are being freed considering the threat COVID-19 poses in crowded places the Union government is arresting the dissenters and activists.

RIGHT TO LIFE AND RIGHT TO LIVE WITH DIGNITY

The countrywide lockdown in India came into effect from March 24, 2020 with the purpose of applying a brake to the fast growing COVID-19 positive cases. The people of the country were given merely 4 hours to prepare for the coming days. This led to the chaos and depression that engulfed the nation later.
By the order of the government every institution, office, shop and other workplaces were shut down with the exception of essential services including medical services. Due to this lakhs of migrant workers were left stranded in the cities, thousands of miles away from their homes with no work, no money and no food. And this became the cause for the longest journey of these migrants’ lives. They set out on foot from cities like Delhi and Mumbai to reach their homes in UP, Rajasthan, Bihar etc.[10]

These workers who are mainly daily wage earners ran out of whatever nominal savings they had and instead of dying from starvation chose to walk thousands of kilometers in the scorching heat to their homes. The death of a 12-year old a few kilometers away from her home in Bijapur who was walking from Telangana for continuously three days was one among the many.[11] This treatment of its own people by the government in this manner is a violation of Article 21 of the Constitution[12] of India which provides Right to Life and Right to live with dignity. No person should be presented with such a situation that they have to walk on foot for thousands of kilometers, especially when they are dealing with a pandemic as well. For these people the threat of death by starvation is more imminent than the virus’ threat.

In addition to this, a group of migrants were sprayed with a disinfectant solution containing sodium hypochlorite (main ingredient in bleach) in the State of Uttar Pradesh. This disinfectant solution is used for cleaning floors and is hazardous to the human body.[13] This again is a violation of human rights and a right to a dignified life. The Central government after more than a month of lockdown started ‘shramik special’ trains for workers.[14]

However, the workers were still walking to their homes as the number of trains was not enough to accommodate all the people in one go and without food and money these people were scared that they would not survive a day more in the cities. Also, they did not have money for the tickets of shramik trains and whatever claims the government made about shramik trains, the tickets were not free. I had personal encounters with many migrant workers during the period of lockdown. I, as a volunteer of ICLU, was involved in migrant relief work. ICLU in collaboration with GNLU and RMNLU helped many workers to get to their homes free of cost and also provided for ration or immediate help to the workers.[15]
The treatment of its own people by the government in this manner is a violation of their rights and under the garb of the pandemic the government is shirking from its responsibility to provide adequate necessities to its citizens.

CONCLUSION

India is the largest democracy in the world yet being the largest doesn’t expressly mean the best. “We proclaim ourselves as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.”[16] Whatever rights or freedom we willingly relinquish now, we would not get them back so easily once this crisis is a thing of the past. We have to remember that the government does not give up its power easily and willingly.
After reading about the various examples of India, the dangers can be seen clearly. This pandemic can lead to a further decline in the democratic character of our country. The government is using this as an opportunity to suspend various civil liberties and we must ensure that this does lead to the rise of an authoritarian state. 

REFERENCE  

[1]Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, Writ Petition (Civil) no. 1031 of 2019
[2] Vaid, Dharvi. “COVID-19 crisis prolongs Kashmir lockdown.” dw.com.
https://www.dw.com/en/covid-19-crisis-prolongs-kashmir-lockdown/a-53088317 (accessed April 23, 2020)
[3] Talwar, Sanya. “SC Seeks Centre’s Response On Pleas Seeking Restoration Of 4G Connectivity In J&K.” LiveLaw.in. https://www.livelaw.in/top-stories/sc-seeks-centres-response-on-pleas-seeking-restoration-of-4g-connectivity-in-jk-155552 (accessed April 23, 2020) 

[4] Live Law. “No Hindrance To COVID-19 Control Measures Due To 2G Net : J&K Admin Extends Internet Speed Curbs Till April 27.” LiveLaw.in.
https://www.livelaw.in/top-stories/jk-admin-extends-internet-curbs-2g-till-april-27-155306 (accessed April 23, 2020)
[5] Reporters without Borders. “2020 World Press Freedom Index”. rsf.org.
https://rsf.org/en/ranking (accessed on April 23, 2020)
[6] Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967
[7] John, Karuna. “Journalists are not terrorists, journalism is not a crime.” sabrangindia.in https://sabrangindia.in/article/journalists-are-not-terrorists-journalism-not-crime (accessed April 23, 2020)
[8] The Print. “Delhi Police books Umar Khalid & Jamia students under UAPA for Northeast Delhi violence.” theprint.in
https://theprint.in/india/delhi-police-books-umar-khalid-jamia-students-under-uapa-for-northeast-delhi-violence/406259/ (accessed April 23, 2020)
[9] The Wire. “’ Witch Hunt’: Activists Speak Out Against Anand Teltumbde, Gautam Navlakha’s Impending Arrests”. thewire.in
https://thewire.in/rights/anand-teltumbde-gautam-navlakha-arrest (accessed on April 23, 2020)
[10] Biswas, Soutik. “Coronavirus: India’s pandemic lockdown turns into a human tragedy.” bbc.com
https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-52086274 (accessed on April 23, 2020)
[11] The Financial Express. “12-year-old girl walks 150 km from Telangana village to Bijapur, dies short of home.” financialexpress.com https://www.financialexpress.com/india-news/12-year-old-girl-walks-150-km-from-telangana-village-to-bijapur-dies-just-short-of-home/1935247/ (accessed April 23, 2020) 
[12] Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, 1978 AIR 597
[13] Al Jazeera Media Network. “Indian migrant workers sprayed with disinfectant chemicals.” Aljazeera.com
https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/newsfeed/2020/04/indian-migrant-workers-sprayed-disinfectant-chemical- 200406104936658.html (accessed April 23, 2020)
[14] Press Information Bureau. “Railways start Shramik Special Trains to move migrant workers, pilgrims, tourists, students and other persons stranded at different places due to lock down.” Pib.gov.in https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1620027 (accessed May 15, 2020)
[15] Sanobar Fatma. Live Law. “ICLU and Law students work together for migrants.” Live Law.com,
https://www.livelaw.in/columns/iclu-and-law-students-work-together-for-migrants-158311 (accessed June 16, 2020)
[16] Murrow, Edward. “See it Now”. CBS program, March 09, 1954.

Author: Bhanu

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