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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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 for their activism.
The priority of the country during this pandemic is not containing the virus but to charge the activists with terror charges.
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.
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. This treatment of its own people by the government in this manner is a violation of Article 21 of the Constitution 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. 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.
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.
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.” 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.
Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, Writ Petition (Civil) no. 1031 of 2019
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