Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Ever vigilant

A new book by two Washington Post journalists (Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin's Russia and the End of Revolution; Peter Baker and Susan B. Glasser; Scribner; 2005) recounts how Mr. Putin has systematically subverted all institutions in Russia that are capable of challenging his authority. An article based on the book appeared in today's Post and can be found here (registration may be required). The article is a must read; specially for those among us who have forgotten - or never cared to find out about - the excesses of emergency. I was reminded of this when someone, waiting with me for an incoming train that was delayed, wistfully spoke of the efficiency in public services during the emergency period.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely - without exception. And, in a democratic setup where democracy is mapped uniquely to the conduct of an electoral process, people forget that elements such as a free press, rule of law, separation of powers etc. are equally important. It is easy to let these institutions and forces decay - specially when vested interests adopt salami tactics and chip away slowly at various peripheral points to ultimately destroy them. In order to ensure that we - or those who come after us - don't live through another period where even habeas corpus is suspended, where elected representatives don't assume that their election means a license to govern autocratically, we need to be ever vigilant.

The habeas corpus (literally, produce the body; this writ tests only whether a prisoner has been accorded due process, not whether he is guilty; a safeguard against illegal imprisonment originally formalized in the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 in England) issue is an extreme example but it is important as a reminder of how much was given up in personal freedom not too far in our past.
On April 28th 1976, 4 of the 5 senior-most Hon'ble Justices of the Supreme Court of India overruled decisions from as many as 9 High Courts in the country in the matter of ADM Jabalpur v Shivakant Shukla [(1976) 2 SCC 521]. They were the then Chief Justice A.N. Ray, along with Justices M.H. Beg, Y.V. Chandrachud and P.N. Bhagwati. The lone dissenting voice was that of Justice H.R. Khanna of whom the New York Times remarked: 'surely a statue would be erected to him in an Indian city'. Justice Khanna paid the price for his dissent. He was next in line to become Chief Justice of India. He resigned when his junior, Justice M.H. Beg, superseded him (for an account of how the 4 Hon'ble Justices tried to use elegant prose to cloak their blatantly craven pronouncement, see Jos. Peter D 'Souza's account in PUCL Bulletin of June 2001 here).

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