In 2020, we saw the erosion of secularism, in which are inherent the right to choose our food & life partners, writes Olav Albuquerque

The year gone by has witnessed the succumbing of the judiciary to state power with the insidious whittling down of secularism, which encapsulates the right to choose our own food and life partners. Section 13 of The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, (FPTCA) 2020 takes away the farmers’ right to approach the courts while the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill, (MPFRB), 2020, criminalises those who convert after marrying. The MP law imposes a jail term of 10 years with a fine of Rs 1 lakh for inter-faith couples who convert.

Sub-divisional magistrates who, in gist, are revenue officials with judicial powers to conduct inquiries into dowry deaths or murders in police lock-up, have now been given the power to decide farmers’ disputes or ascertain the veracity of inter-faith conversions after marriage. As government employees, their roles have been enhanced, while the judiciary’s role has been blanched.

UAPA misused

The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), which has grown out of the repealed Prevention of Terrorism Act and the Terrorism and Disruptive Activities Act, has been used against dissenters who may not be terrorists. The repealed laws were often used against a certain minority community, which was why they were repealed.

The UAPA has been blatantly misused against students and civil liberties campaigners, to thwart their fundamental rights. In Goa, those who have protested against double-tracking of a railway line to turn this tiny State into a coal hub for Adani have been detained.

Opacity over transparency

Secularism has been whittled down, to project India as a Hindu majoritarian state while retaining the charade of being a socialist, secular and democratic republic. Opacity has supplanted transparency, with just five of the 30 sitting Supreme Court judges declaring their assets.

Be that as it may, the Prime Minister Cares Fund (PMCF), set up to receive donations to fight Covid, has been placed outside the ambit of the RTI, which is an absurdity because it is set up by the state with the Prime Minister as its de facto head while the President is only a figurehead. RTI activists are thwarted from finding out who has contributed to the PMCF and who are its beneficiaries, reducing this sunshine law to a farce.

The UP Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religious Ordinance, 2020, or the “love jihad” law has been replicated in Madhya Pradesh, with a jail term of 10 years plus a fine of Rs 1 lakh awaiting those who deny their states’ diktat of whom not to marry. A Moradabad couple was harassed by the police, despite their insisting there was no forced conversion. The woman was sent to a shelter home and miscarried, while the man was jailed. A teenager who walked his girlfriend to a pizza joint was arrested just because he belonged to a different religion.

Anti-cow slaughter laws

Laws passed to assuage majority religious beliefs blatantly flout minority rights. Maharashtra has already passed anti-cow slaughter laws while Karnataka is seeking to pass a similar law. Goa Chief Minister Pramod Sawant has declared he will ensure livestock will be brought into his tiny state for slaughter in the designated abattoir because Goa already has a shortage of beef.

There is no doubt cow slaughter infuriates the majority community because the cow is deemed to be holy in the ancient texts with Krishna and Shiva being revered as the protecters of cows and bulls. The task of the judiciary is to balance conflicting rights of upholding majoritarian religious beliefs versus the minorities’ right to choose their own food. In any case, it is ridiculous to permit cow slaughter in some States and not in others because India is a union of States. You are a citizen of India, and not of a particular State.

Religion is really the opium of the masses because when a hapless Dalit girl was raped and cremated by the police in the wee hours at Hathras in Uttar Pradesh, a journalist was detained under the UAPA on the ground he was a member of the banned Progressive Front of India and was out to foment communal discord. That the CBI has charge-sheeted the accused has now vindicated the activists’ stand. Politicians with limited knowledge make religion-centric laws which is against the spirit of the Constitution.

Right to life

The judiciary, which is tasked with striking down laws flouting the basic structure of the Constitution, has chosen to uphold the wisdom of the Government as evidenced by the statement of a judge who asked: “How can we stop them from walking?” during the hearing of a petition seeking directions to district magistrates to ensure these labourers reached their homes free-of-cost.

The right to life includes the right to know what laws are passed for our benefit even if the farmers claim they are a total misfit. The farmers’ right to life has been ignored by successive governments at the Centre and the States, with official studies rationalising the farmers’ suicides on the specious reasoning that suicides across other occupations were more than that of the farmers. The three farm bills were rushed through Parliament by way of an ordinance, with no record of any talks with farmers’ unions before they were passed.

The right to protest against laws we detest with the government calling us pests was ushered in January 2020 at the Shaheen Bagh site. Those protesters were belittled by a loudmouth news anchor who proclaimed his nationalism which is the last refuge of the scoundrel because under the guise of nationalism, all crimes become virtues. So, Shaheen Bagh has been supplanted by the Singhu border of Delhi where thousands of farmers continue to brave the biting cold.

Whether the Government of India has usurped “we, the people of India” to decide what we eat, which god to worship and whom to marry will emerge in this New Year.

The writer holds a PhD in law and is a senior journalist-cum-lawyer of the Bombay high court.

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