A rule of law by people's power

Last Updated 29 June 2020, 18:13 IST

The last few weeks witnessed an explosion of mass-protests across the United States, expressing anger, discontentment (by violent means in some cases) on acts of institutional racism against the African-American community with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor among many others.

Protests spilled over to different parts of the world in countries like the United Kingdom, France etc. India, in months before the pandemic struck, saw similar mass people-based movements, condemning the subjugation of minorities from the CAA-NRC combine.

There are three common linkages between the nature of people-led protest movements being seen across the world today: a) they are largely peaceful in nature involving a much wider representation of people across class, caste, ethnicity, race and gender; b) most of these have predominantly been led by women (at least for the larger part of the CAA protests seen in India), and c) all appeal for restoring “social justice” through grassroots based networks.

The political opposition in democratic nations across the world may learn from these movements to recognise how sustained people-based mass social movements through grassroot-level networks can help mobilise resistance against authoritarian regimes and progressively (re)instate a rule of law.

Recent arrests of women social activists Devangna Kalita, Natasha Narwal, Sudha Bharadwaj, to name a few, have drawn criticism from different quarters as instances of a conscious attempt to sanction dissent. Several social movements are countered vehemently (even by force) through institutional sanctions. Institutions do everything in their power to suppress civic freedoms and liberties - including a basic right to peacefully protest against law.

A conventional focus on building institutions can often leave many citizens feeling disempowered being expected to wait till “all-important institutions” reform while they continue to be at the receiving end of oppression from those very institutions.

To strengthen rule of law, what we require is a focus on strengthening people, not institutions. This warrants a difficult, dangerous task of developing grassroots-based community organisation at a very decentralised level, often through informal networks outside established institutions.

In India, rights-based legislations have often yielded the most transformation socio-political change in strengthening the state-citizen contract, allowing greater agency and accountability mechanisms for the citizen to keep the accumulative power of the state in check.

Illustratively, the Right to Information Act (2005) was a culmination of sustained collective action from organizations like Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) and National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI).

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act of 2006 helped acknowledge the rights of forest-dwelling communities across India. The making of the Act mapped out a dense interplay between different actors in the drafting process.

Social activists from the Campaign for Survival and Dignity (CSD) helped raise enough voice to convince the Ministry of Tribal Affairs to consider drafting a new law. Even NGREGA (2006) saw an intense interaction between different state and non-state actors (involving members of the civil society) that helped in actualising a legislation providing an opportunity for the socially-and culturally marginalised to develop new forms of claims to the local state apparatus.

Nandini Nayak’s 2012 thesis provides a fascinating account of activism around NREGA in rural Madhya Pradesh that allowed Bhil adivasis a chance to engage and secure livelihood opportunities directly from the state.

History, in different times and context, has therefore shown how, even in most established democracies, a failure to have formal institutions safeguarding rule of law is best substituted with an active, more aware and better organised citizenry. An engagement like this cannot be legislated for nor imitated from one city to another. People need to collectively build it bottom up in their own organic way.

People’s power

People’s power can strengthen rule of law in a more sustained manner while championing democratic processes and conduct in at least three ways. First, such demonstrated people’s-power can help neutralise the “top-down pressure” placed on courts and the police by the executive. Even compromised institutions can be forced into discharging their duties in accordance the spirit of the law - see how charges of murder were levied on cops involved in George Floyd’s killing as massive protests gained momentum to make the executive authorities to act swiftly.

Secondly, people power-based social movements allow an organic creation of alternative spaces that help shape a society where a rule of law can be respected. Any act of civil disobedience, of course, needs to have a strategic purpose and need some disciplining too for the engaged people to understand that the act of disobedience is done not with the intention to reject the rule of law but rather see it as a means of (re)establishing it, for a more just and progressive purpose.

And third, people’s power can help bring even the most brutal authoritarian leaderships to be defeated with far-reaching consequences that could not have been possible otherwise.

Public discussion, collective deliberation and social processes of participatory engagement opens citizens’ minds to a more progressive idea of society that looks at a different way of doing things.

People with similar progressive views need to organise themselves better today, learning to connect and engage with one another not on social-media platforms but in the real world.

Over time, as people build mutual trust, gain confidence and conviction both in themselves and in collective propriety, it allows new coalitions to be formed and ultimately become more confrontational with authoritarian regimes. More than ever, harnessing this people’s power is critical in reinstating a rule of law and demonstrating the resilience of Indian democracy against any regime which wishes to weaken that.

(Published 29 June 2020, 17:48 IST)

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