Monday, December 28, 2009

The Inequalities of Equality?

The recent surrender by the Indian government to KCR's "fast-unto-death" raised a lot of fresh questions in my mind about the purpose of the Indian Constitution and the relevance of fundamental rights and the selective applicability of certain sections of the Indian (Ranbir) Penal Code .
Fasting unto death is by no means a new form of political agitation. The earliest and most quoted and probably the most inspiring of such fasts was that of Mahatma Gandhi. The British who wrote-in section 309 of Indian Penal Code back in 1860 did not deem it fit to imprison MK Gandhi because they maintained that his purpose was justified and the law should be employed judiciously. Over the centuries, our law makers have regularly debated on whether an attempt to suicide is really a criminal offense or whether it is a law meant for political misuse. The supreme court's verdict in 1994 making section 309 unconstitutional was reversed in 1996. Over the decades, a number of civilians and politicians have attempted the 'fast-unto-death' blackmail for various political reasons and very noticeably, while the politicians get their way, the civilians have been arrested and tortured even when critics have maintained that their causes remain just. I am talking about the likes of Medha Patkar and Irom Sharmila.
Irom Sharmila's case to me is particularly shocking and cruel. Her protest ,unparalleled in world's history of political agitations has evoked nothing but world wide horror at the treatment meted out to her. Her 10 year fast to protest against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act has been acknowledged just simply because of the excesses committed by the army in the state of Manipur under this act's protection. She has been imprisoned for the last 10 years under section 309 of the RPC (released periodically every year as required by law and then re-arrested), secured in a high security vault and has been force-fed through pipes and tubes. Even with support from the United Nations and human rights activists across the globe, there have been nothing more than empty promises assuring changes in the vague future from every prime minister since she began the fast in November 2000.
The issue of whether or not Irom Sharmila's treatment is humane is wholly different, but I am a little confused about the relevance of Article 14 in the Indian constitution, known to the common man as "Equality before Law" as part of every Indian citizen's right to equality."Article 14 of the constitution guarantees that all citizens shall be equally protected by the laws of the country. It means that the State cannot discriminate against a citizen on the basis of caste, creed, colour, sex, religion or place of birth." Is it a deliberate loophole that the constitution does not mention that a citizen cannot also be discriminated based on his/ her political influence?
Why did the government not only not arrest KCR for his attempt to suicide but also "gave-in" because they were "concerned" for his health. If they were indeed that concerned, why did they not force-feed him through tubes like they do to Sharmila? Can Irom Sharmila or anyone else on her behalf file a petition with the court for the upholding of our fundamental right to equality before law? I do not think there are any answers to these questions...but we can indeed draw some conclusions. This is just another glaring example of how we are is not true that all citizens are equal before the law. Some laws like section 309 appear more to be for the protection of the state than for the individual.


Priyank said...

Fortunately or unfortunately, there are so many Grey areas concerning the method of protests against the legislature and executive, which can never be termed as legitimate or illegitimate standing purely from moral or legal points or view. Maybe that is why the laws are 'inconclusive' and call for situational judgment of the people concerned.

Also to be noted is that neither of the response, ranging from Mahatma Gandhi to Medha Patkar, Sundarlal Bahuguna and now KCR, is related to the person on fast. The focus of response is the issue being represented by the fast.

So while the establishment may be blamed for stifling some of the genuine protests, the fact that some protests are heeded more than others does not mean that law has become dissimilar for different individuals. It is merely a recognition of the stakes involved in certain protests.

Maybe that is why Mahatma Gandhi's 3 day fasts were able to extract more mileage than the 87 day fast of Bhagat Singh and comrades.

Lakshmi said...

I cannot agree completely. The home minister himself said that their immediate concern was Mr. KCR's deteriorating health. They are not entirely powerless as they have managed to subdue one woman's voice by force-feeding her for 10 years. And her issue has more humanistic ideals as well.