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A Roar of a Lion- Right to free speech, Right to Dissent, Sedition and Majoritarianism

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Justice Deepak Gupta's Fearless Speech 2

Of Roaring Lions and Squeaking Mice!

Francis Bacon had once described the judges as ‘Lions under the throne.”However decades later in the famous Second World War case of Liversidge v Anderson, where Lord Atkin delivered his powerful dissenting speech, he commented on the arguments of the lawyers and stated that this level of reasoning would have been acceptable to the Court of Kings Bench in the time of Charles I (a monarchy) but not in a democracy, sadly this reasoning was accepted by all of his brother judges. The subjective interpretation adopted by his brother judges who were then pleasing to politicians provoked a letter to Lord Atkin from Mr Justice Wintringham Stable. The letter expressed approval of Lord Atkin’s dissent, and then added:

“I venture to think the decision of the House of Lords has reduced the stature of the judiciary, with consequences that the nation will one day bitterly regret. Bacon, I think, said the judges were the Lions under the throne, but the House of Lords has reduced us to mice squeaking under a chair.

The time is right to celebrate the courage shown by one of our very own, Justice Deepak Gupta, who has roared like a lion in times where just speaking against the ruling Governments would amount to sounding of the death knell for some. In times where we have judgments after judgments trying to bypass the constitution in novel ways so that the mighty and the powerful may not get offended (remember the dissent of Justice Chanderchud where he talks of a fraud played on the constitution and present grant of adjournments in habeas corpus petitions in SC), in times where police is more active in catching hold of people who have written something on their Facebook wall or WhatsApp (under an extinct provision of Section 66A) rather than looking for rapists and murderers, in times where a lawyer if he knows the politician he becomes a judge or an advocate general, in times where dissatisfaction with the government will brand you as an anti-national, in times where freedom of speech is being attacked across the country and fight for human rights and civil liberties is undermined in every nook and corner, a sitting judge of the Supreme Court, and our very own, ‘son of the soil’ has had the spine to publically say THE TIMELESS TRUTH of our democracy.

The Hon’ble Judge expressed himself On September 7. The following are edited excerpts of his lecture.

Right to Dissent

There cannot be any democratic polity where the citizens do not have the right to think as they like, express their thoughts, have their own beliefs and faith, and worship in a manner which they feel like.

The right to freedom of opinion and the right of freedom of conscience by themselves include the extremely important right to disagree.

Thus, the right to dissent is one of the most important rights guaranteed by our Constitution. As long as a person does not break the law or encourage strife, he has a right to differ from every other citizen and those in power and propagate what he believes is his belief.

Every society has its own rules and over some time when people only stick to the age-old rules and conventions, society degenerates. New thinkers are born when they disagree with the well-accepted norms of society. If everybody follows the well-trodden path, no new paths will be created, no new explorations will be done and no new vistas will be found. If a person does not ask questions and does not raise issues questioning age-old systems, no new systems would develop and the horizons of the mind will not expand.

Whether Buddha, Mahavira, Jesus Christ, Prophet Mohammad, Guru Nanak Dev, Martin Luther, Kabir, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Karl Marx or Mahatma Gandhi, new thoughts and religious practices would not have been established, if they had quietly submitted to the views of their forefathers and not questioned the existing religious practices, beliefs and rituals.

In a secular country, every belief does not have to be religious. Even atheists enjoy equal rights under the Constitution. Whether one is a believer, an agnostic or an atheist, one enjoys complete freedom of belief and conscience under our Constitution. There can be no impediments on the aforesaid rights except those permitted by the Constitution.

The judgment of HR Khanna, J. in A.D.M. Jabalpur case, is a shining example of a dissent which is much more valuable than the opinion of the majority. This was a judgment delivered by a fearless, incorruptible Judge. Judges are administered oath wherein they swear or affirm to perform the duties to the best of their ability without fear or favour, affection or ill will. First and foremost part of the duty is to do one’s duty without fear.

Law of Sedition

It was enacted at a time when India was ruled by a foreign imperialist colonizing power. The British brooked no opposition and did not want to listen to any criticism. Their sole aim was to deprive the people of this country of their rights including the right to express their views.

Interestingly, though sedition was an offence in the first draft of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) drafted by Lord Macaulay, somehow this did not find its way into the IPC when it was enacted in the year 1860. The IPC was amended in the year 1898 when Section 124A was introduced.

When Section 124A was first introduced, we were told that this provision was not to curb legitimate dissent but was to be used only when the writer or the speaker directly or indirectly suggested or intended to produce the use of force.

Interestingly, another reason given was that there was a Wahabi conspiracy by a man who had preached Jihad or holy war against Christians in India and therefore the need to introduce such a provision.

Though Section 124A was inserted for fear of Muslim preachers advocating Jihad or religious war, it was initially used against Hindu leaders. The first such case was of Jogendera Chunder Bose wherein in a newspaper called Bangobasi, the Editor objected to the English rulers raising the age of consent of sexual intercourse for Indian girls from 10 to 12 years.

Subsequently, the British used the law of sedition to curb any demand for independence said Gupta citing the case of Queen-Empress v. Bal Gangadhar Tilak.

I would also like to refer to the Father of the Nation Mahatma Gandhi, who in this city of Ahmedabad was charged with sedition. Appearing before Sessions Judge Broomfield, Mahatma Gandhi while dealing with the word ‘disaffection’ had this to say: “Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law. If one has no affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote or incite to violence.”

I think this brilliantly sums up what I want to say today that mere criticism without incitement to violence would not amount to sedition. However, the Mahatma was sentenced to undergo imprisonment for 6 years.

You cannot force people to have affection for the government and merely because people have disaffection or strongly disagree with the views of the Government or express their disagreement in strong words, no sedition is made out unless they or their words promote or incite or tend to promote or incite violence and endanger public order.

However, in present times there is no healthy discussion but only shouting and slanging matches, lamented Justice Gupta. If one does not agree with another, that person becomes an anti-nationalist.

There is no advocacy on principles and issues. There are only shouting and slanging matches. Unfortunately, the common refrain is either you agree with me or you are my enemy, or worse, an enemy of the nation, and anti-nationalist.

The constitutional validity of Section 124A has to be read in the context of Article 19 of the Constitution of India. Thus, advocating any new cause however unpopular or uncomfortable it may be to the powers that be, it must be permitted.

Sedition can arise only against a government established by law. Government is an institution, a body and not a person. Criticism of persons cannot be equated with criticism of the government….Criticism of senior functionaries may amount to defamation for which they can take action in accordance with law but this will definitely not amount to sedition or creating disharmony.

Police cannot deal with law and order problems but have time for sedition

Majoritarianism Can’t be Law

During the dark days of Emergency, an attempt was made by one party President to equate his leader with the country. I am sure that no one will ever try in future to equate a personality with this country of ours which is much bigger than any individual.

A majority government does not mean that minority voices should not be heard. Majoritarianism cannot be the law. Even the minority has the right to express its views. We must also remember that in India we follow the first past the post principle. Besides, he also stated that even Governments which come in with a huge majority do not get 50% of the votes. Therefore, though they are entitled to govern or be called as the majority, it cannot be said that they represent the voice of all the people.

The police always claim to be short of forces when questioned about the adverse law and order situation in various parts of the country. Trials in criminal cases of rape, murder and crimes falling under POCSO carry on for years on end because police officials do not have time to even depose before the courts but when it comes to sedition or Section 153A or implementing the provisions of Section 66A of the Information Technology Act (which has been declared unconstitutional), there seems to be no shortage of manpower and the police acts with great alacrity.

It is, thus, clear that there is one set of rules for the rich and the powerful and another set of rules for the ordinary citizens of the country. In a country which professes to live by rule of law, this cannot be permitted.

Thus, the law of sedition is more often abused and misused and the people who criticise those in power are arrested by police officials on the asking of those in power and even if a person may get bail the next day from the court, he has suffered the ignominy of being sent to jail. How the provisions of Section 124A are being misused, begs the question as to whether we should have a relook at it. Freedom of expression being a constitutional right must get primacy over laws of sedition. Sedition is a crime only when there is an incitement to violence or public disorder.

But the law as laid down in Kedar Nath Singh’s case regarding sedition is not being followed.

‘Right to Criticise Government’

I think our country, our Constitution and our national emblems are strong enough to stand on their own shoulders without the aid of the law of sedition. You may force or compel a person to stand while the National Anthem is being sung, but you cannot compel him within his heart to have respect for the same. How does one judge what is inside a person’s mind or in his heart?

In Chhattisgarh, a 53 years old man was arrested on charges of sedition for allegedly spreading rumours over social media about power cuts in the State. It was said that this was done to tarnish the image of the then Government running the State. The charge was absurd and again highlights the misuse of power. In Manipur, a journalist made a vituperative attack on the Chief Minister of the State and used unparliamentary language against the Prime Minister of the country. The language was intemperate and uncalled for but this was not a case of sedition.

Criticism of government by itself cannot amount to sedition. India is a powerful nation, loved by its citizens. We are proud to be Indians. We, however, have the right to criticise the Government. Criticism of the Government by itself cannot amount to sedition. In a country which is governed by the rule of law and which guarantees freedom of speech, expression and belief to its citizens, the misuse of the law of sedition and other similar laws is against the very spirit of freedom for which the freedom fighters fought and gave up their lives.

The shoulders of those in power who govern should be broad enough to accept criticism. Their thinking should be wide enough to accept the fact that there can be another point of view. Criticism of the policies of the government is not sedition unless there is a call for public disorder or incitement to violence. The people in power must develop thick skins. They cannot be oversensitive to people who make fun of them. In a free country, people have the right to express their views.

Everybody may not use temperate or civilised language. If intemperate, uncivilised and defamatory language is used, then the remedy is to file proceedings for defamation but not prosecute the persons for sedition or creating disharmony.

Judiciary Not Above Criticism

In fact, I welcome criticism of the judiciary because only if there is criticism, will there be an improvement. Not only should there be criticism but there must be introspection. When we introspect, we will find that many decisions taken by us need to be corrected.

Criticism of the executive, the judiciary, the bureaucracy or the Armed Forces cannot be termed sedition. In case we attempt to stifle criticism of the institutions whether it be the legislature, the executive or the judiciary or other bodies of the State, we shall become a police State instead of a democracy and this the founding fathers never expected this country to be.

Section 66A of the IT Act, which put restrictions on the freedom of expression in an online space, is still being used by the lower judiciary and the police, even after being struck down in the Shreya Singhal case.

It does not speak well of the Indian judiciary that the magistrates are unaware of the law of land, and day in and day out, we hear of magistrates granting judicial custody or police remand in relation to such offences.

Cyber Bullying

The recent trends have instilled fear in people when it comes to expressing their opinions on criticising governments in power. A very important aspect of a democracy is that the citizens should have no fear of the government. They should not be scared of expressing views which may not be liked by those in power. No doubt, the views must be expressed in a civilised manner without inciting violence but a mere expression of such views cannot be a crime and should not be held against the citizens.

No doubt, the views must be expressed in a civilised manner without inciting violence but a mere expression of such views cannot be a crime and should not be held against the citizens. The world would be a much better place to live if people could express their opinions fearlessly without being scared of prosecutions or trolling on social media. It is indeed sad that one of our celebrities had to withdraw from social media because he and his family members were trolled or threatened of dire consequences.

‘Nationalism is a Great Menace’

Gurudev Rabindra Nath Tagore had a view on nationalism, which is the anti-thesis of the view which many of us have. He, in fact, had not appreciated the Satyagrah movement. He, who wrote the National Anthem also held the view that ―nationalism is a great menace. I do not agree with those views nor did eminent leaders of that time but this did not make Gurudev Rabindra Nath Tagore less an Indian, less a patriot than any of his contemporaries. Merely because a person does not agree with the Government in power or is virulently critical of the Government in power, does not make him any less a patriot than those in power. In today‘s world, if any person was to say ―nationalism is a great menaceǁ he may well be charged with sedition.

If this country is to progress not only in the field of commerce and industry but to progress in the field of human rights and be a shining example of an effective, vibrant democracy then the voice of the people can never be stifled. I can do no better than quote the words of Gurudev Rabindra Nath Tagore:

“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high,

Where knowledge is free.

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments

By narrow domestic walls.

Where words come out from the depth of truth,

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection.

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way

Into the dreary deserts and of dead habit.

Where the mind is led forward by thee

Into ever-widening thought and action.

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”

(The post was first published in https://lawumbrella.wordpress.com/ )

 

Deven Khanna is a Lawyer, practicing at High Court of Himachal Pradesh, other H.P Courts/Tribunals and the Supreme Court of India, he is an alumnus of a National Law School. For any queries related to the articles, he can be contacted at 7018469792 or at [email protected] The personal blog is at https://lawumbrella.wordpress.com/

Environment

Govt Legitimizing and Legalizing Environmental Violations for Business by Amending EIA Rules: Activists  

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Himachal pradesh EIA Notification 2020 Amendments news

Shimla-While in statements, the politicians in power at the Centre and State Governments have been expressing concerns over environmental issues and ensuring the people that they are committed to protect and preserve the environment, the reality is contrary to it. The most recent evidence is the proposed 2020 draft amendments to the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification. With these amendments, the process of environmental assessment before granting permission to execute commercial projects, like hydropower projects in Himachal Pradesh, would be reduced to merely a formality.

Environmental activists and people’s organisations from across Himachal have written to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) to scrap the 2020 draft amendments to the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification proposed by it.

These activists and environmental protection groups are of the opinion that the EIA Notification, first issued in 1994 under the Environment Protection Act 1986, is a critical mechanism that regulates clearances granted to all kinds of development projects and economic activities in the country. It is one of the environmental decision-making processes that makes it mandatory for project developers to not just study the socio-economic, ecological and other impacts of a proposed project but also place them in front of the affected communities for their opinions and objections, thus, ensuring the process of a free, fair and informed consent. However, this notification has been amended and read down several times in the last two decades, in favour of ‘easing the norms’ for business. The latest draft continues to move in the direction of rendering the EIA process a mere formality. 

The submission made by HP groups states,

“In the context of the already vulnerable and sensitive Himalayan region, flouting of various provisions of even the present EIA notification has heavily impacted the local ecology and livelihoods of the people. The new amendments will only legitimize and legalize these violations and this will mean irreparable damage to the Himalayan ecosystem”. 

The key objections raised are around exemptions of a variety of projects from the mandatory  Public Consultation’ process as well as the dismantling of this process itself.

“The reduction of the time prior to public hearing from 30 to 20 days is also highly objectionable. In the given 30 day period itself, the information about Public hearings does not reach all the affected areas which are often spread out widely in case of mountains with some project-affected communities residing in remote and inaccessible terrains. Here accessing information takes a long time and reducing this time to 20 days will completely exclude such people from raising their grievances and suggestions in the public consultation. This is a clear attempt to block their participation in the environmental decision-making process”

said R.S Negi of Him Lok Jagriti Manch, Kinnaur. 

 

“It is shocking that the amendments include allowing post-facto clearance, which means that the project proponent can start work and before they have obtained environmental clearance. If the basic precautionary principle on which the EIA notifications is grounded is itself not followed it can lead to a disastrous situation for the ecology and local people. In this situation who is going to be responsible for the losses? If the project proponent is not in a position to pay for losses, will the MoEF&CC take the responsibility of losses? This provision will encourage project developers to bypass the process of environmental decision making. We absolutely oppose this amendment”,

said Prakash Bhandari of Himdhara Collective.  

The 2020 draft also dilutes the guidelines for monitoring and compliance of Environment conditions.

“Already the system of monitoring is weak, the conditions lose, the pollution control board and companies non-accountable, thus, leading to widespread destruction of local ecology and impacting health, lives, and livelihoods of project-affected communities. In the case of hydropower projects, for instance, the illegal and unmonitored dumping of muck along river beds, in forests and on common lands, has damaged pastures, disrupted the flow of the rivers, and caused massive disasters when floods occur. The proposed changes will give a free reign to those profiting from extractive and polluting projects,” 

according to Kulbhushan Upmanyu of Himalaya Bachao Samiti. 

It is ironic that on one hand, the global COVID crisis has thrown up several studies showing that pandemics like COVID emerge from ecological degradation and forest loss, and on the government is pushing for policy changes which will accentuate the environmental crisis that the country is already reeling under.  

“If the MoEF&CC wants to change the environmental laws, it should carry out countrywide regional consultations”,

added Uma Mahajan of Himachal Van Adhikar Manch.

The country, especially ecologically diverse yet climate-vulnerable regions like the Himalayas need a robust and strong environmental regulatory and governance regime that makes project proponents accountable and keeps the affected communities and ecological concerns at the centre of the EIA and environmental decision-making process. 

Notably, MoEF&CC had called for citizen’s comments before May 11 but this deadline was extended upto  June 30 and now August 11 as environmentalists and concerned groups expressed outrage that calling for public inputs on this critical law amidst the COVID led lockdown was unjustified. The MoEF&CC has in this period received thousands of objections highlighting the new draft as anti-people and environment.

The demand is to scrap these proposed amendments for the sake of the environment. 

Submission Made to Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change by Activists and Organizations

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Himachal: Tourist Activity Allowed, Read New Rules for Entering State, Quarantine, Plying of Public Transport

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Himachal Pradesh New Rules quarantine on entering state

Shimla: What appears to be a blunder amid continuous surge in COVID-19 cases in India as well as in Himachal Pradesh, the State Government has decided to open the borders and allow movement of all people including tourists without permission or E-Pass. Restrictions on re-opening would be limited to only containment zones.

As a matter of concern, tourists with an advance booking of a minimum of five days and COVID-19 test report obtained not earlier than 72 hours from an ICMR accredited laboratory, would not be quarantined anymore and they would not need any pass to roam around.

The visitors entering the State would have to register on COVID-19 portal (https://covid19epass.hp.gov.in/) in advance. It’s the same portal which was earlier used to issue e-passes. Anyone who wants to visit Himachal from other states or abroad will have to fill their details during registration but would not require a pass/permission from the State or district administration.

Only those arriving from high-load cities would have to follow the mandatory institutional quarantine. Relaxation can be given only in the case of death, pregnancy, medical urgency, elderly people, and children below 10 years or infants. Daily and weekend commuters entering and exiting the State have been exempted from quarantine requirements. It includes industrialists, traders, raw material suppliers, factory workers, project proponents, service providers, inspecting authorities etc. Also, persons falling in these categories are exempted from home-quarantine on arrival from other states.

The residents of Himachal Pradesh exiting the State to visit other states for a short duration for medical, business or official purposes and coming back to the State within 48 hours have also been exempted from home-quarantine provided they are asymptomatic.

Further, persons visiting the State for bonafide purpose of trade, business, job, project, service purpose, marriage ceremonies, commission agents, and ‘artiyas’ can enter the state with supporting documents provided they are not arriving from high-load cities.  

The orchardist, agriculturist, contractors, project proponents etc. would have to get all hired labourers registered on the same portal. They will have to arrange for quarantine facility for all labour brought from other states. The Government has also allowed sending such labour directly to the site of work (orchards, industries, farmlands etc.) provided they follow the guidelines regarding quarantine and social distancing.

Personals of the Armed forces and Central paramilitary Forces would not need registering on the portal and will be allowed to enter by showing their official identity card.

The decision is quite surprising considering the fact that the total of COVID-19 positive cases has crossed the 1000 mark and the rate of appearance of new cases is also on the rise in the State. The State government claimed that it had requested the Centre to allow the State to regulate the entry of people in wake of the rising cases in the State. However, the State Government claimed that the Centre declined this request. Moreover, the economy of the State has been hit adversely due to the lockdown, thus, zero tourist influx.

Therefore, under pressure to resume economic activities, at the same time, the State Government has given a huge relaxation in the lockdown and social distancing measures. The Government has removed the conditions of maintaining 60 percent occupancy in the state carriage buses. Now, the buses could run with 100 percent capacity, informed a  Spokesperson of the HP Transport Department on Friday.

“This will be subject to maintaining social distancing and that no standing passenger would be allowed in the buses during the journey,”

the Spokerspoers said.

Other conditions not related to maintaining 60 percent occupancy mentioned in the Department’s notification issued on May 30, 2020, will remain the same, the Spokesperson said. However, the inter-state movement of public transport would remain prohibited. Inter-state movement of taxis is allowed after obtaining permission from the concerned Deputy Commissioner.

On the situation in the State, Chief Minister Jairam Thakur yesterday said that all is well, and the cause of surge in cases is due to people returning from other States.

“The situation in the State was quite under control. There is a sharp increase in corona patients in the State as over two lakh people from different parts of the country have been brought back to Himachal Pradesh. The people of the State need not worry as the Government is fully aware of the situation,”

Again, he compared the number of cases and fatalities in India with the rest of the world to claim that the spread is contained effectively.

“Number of death due to COVID-19 in the fifteen most developed countries with a population of 142 crore was about five lakh, whereas in India having a population of 135 crore, about 17,000 had lost life due to Corona till date,”

he said.

The State Government said that hotels and restaurants/dhabas would have to follow guidelines issued by the Department of Tourism from time to time. The restaurants and dhabas are allowed to serve food by operating only at 60 percent of their seating capacity. The HPTDC lifts in Shimla city have also been allowed to operate.

On the other hand, the hoteliers are not in favour of opening hotels due to the fear of COVID-19 spread. The Hoteliers & Restaurant Association, Shimla, had written to the State Government a couple of days ago suggesting that tourism activities in the State should not be allowed for the coming few months.

The Association in a written submission had given the following reasons to not open tourism activities (unedited):

  1. Corona cases are increasing at an alarming speed in India and a world at large. As per expert opinion, Corona pandemic will be at peak in the month of July/ Aug. 20
  2. In the summer season, we get bulk of our visitors from Punjab, Delhi, Gujrat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu. As most of the areas in the above States are gravely infected and are in the red zone, we should not invite them to visit Himachal and put our public at risk of Corona.
  3. The railway which is the popular mode of transportation for the tourist is not operating till August 12, 2020, and airlines have also suspended their operations till July 15.
  4. As most of the Corona patients are asymptomatic, despite taking all precautions and social distancing, we will be putting the life and health of our hotel staff at grave risk, if they come in contact with them.
  5. At present, there is no vaccine available for the cure of Corona, so there is a fear psychosis amongst the population and they are concerned about their health and safety and would not like to venture out from their homes and stay in hotels.
  6. For the above reasons, we don’t expect many tourists to visit Himachal in July and August 20, It will be financially unviable to open hotels.

The Association had suggested that touristic activities in hotels may be permitted after the rainy season is over, sometime in September or October.

Himachal Pradesh is witnessing a rapid rise in COVID-19 case since the day the Government opened borders for its residents who were stranded in other States. So far they required e-pass and had to go through mandatory institutional and home-quarantine. However, now, with borders opened for all including tourists without obtaining any permission, the people of the State need to be prepared in case the outbreak gets out of control.

In such a scenario, people can’t solely rely on the Government and will have to follow social distancing rules strictly to protect themselves.

Click to Read Full Notification 

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Lahaul-Spiti: Haughty Minister Allegedly Heckling Tribal Women Who Dared to Deny Him Entry in District Over Quarantine Violation

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Lahaul-Spiti tribal women booked

Lahaul-Spiti-Support is pouring in for the tribal women of Spiti after the local administration initiated police action against nearly 200 women for protesting against Himachal Pradesh Agriculture Minister Ram Lal Markanda for violating the local quarantine rules early in June. Locals said earlier only some specific protestors were being identified and booked. In response to this embarrassment, Markanda tried to give it a political color by alleging that oppositions had conspired this protest. So all women from each household gave a list of their names to the police identifying themselves as protestors. Following which these women were booked.

On June 9, hundreds of representatives of Mahila Mandals apart from some youth and other residents including employees of the State Government from Spiti carried out an agitation to protest the violation of the ongoing self-imposed lockdown in the region amidst apprehensions of the spread of Corona pandemic in the region.

The women had gathered at the gate in Kaza and did not allow Markanda and his convey of over a dozen of vehicles to enter district without following community rule regarding mandatory quarantine.

They wanted Markanda and his cavalcade to follow the rule like everyone else. Markanda did not agree to it and had to return to Shimla following this demonstration. However, instead of respecting the decision of the locals, now he is after the protestors. The ego of the haughty minister seems to be so big that the police was made to book a woman in almost every family in Kaza. This action is highly unacceptable if democratic values are considered.  He forgot that he is supposed to respect the mandate of the people who had elected him. Instead, as alleged by the women, he wants a written apology.

More than 190 women were booked under Sections 341 (wrongful restraint), 143 (unlawful assembly) and 188 (disobedience of public order) of the IPC. These charges also include not maintaining social distancing while protesting. Markanda said he believed that the women were politically motivated, and now, as it appears, he is trying to set an example to discourage such dissent in the future.

However, as a matter of fact, Lahaul-Spiti had managed to remain COVID-19 free until June 30 – the day first two cases were reported in migrant labourers working for the BRO. Spiti has still not reported even a single case. It was due to the initiative and proactiveness of the locals who had framed their own rule regarding entry and quarantine. All residents of the region had agreed to follow the same also asked everyone to adhere to these rules.

“We have been following our COVID-19 rules as framed by our local committee, comprising members from local monasteries and community leaders, much before the state framed the rules. Our rules are applicable to all people, including our family members, who are returning to the area for the first time since the pandemic,”

Mahila Mandal President Sonam Dolma told news agency IANS.

The COVID-19 tally has crossed 1000 mark in the State but Lahaul-Spiti district is still doing far better than others with only four cases till July 2.

Instead of filing cases against them, these residents deserved to be appreciated for preventing infection entering into the district at a time when most of the other districts were reporting COVID-19 cases. The display of unity and understanding of democracy by these tribal women is outstanding. Rest of India should learn from these tribal people.

Support Pours in For Tribal Women

These women are receiving support from other organizations and activists.

In this row, close to 20 women, representatives of various organizations, women’s groups, as well as, concerned individuals from across Himachal recently issued a joint solidarity statement in support of these women.

The statement said that the residents have highlighted that even before the imposition of the lockdown there was serious concern amongst the tribal community of Spiti about the pandemic given its remote geographical location and socio-economic vulnerabilities.

Given the tribal lifestyles and dependence on each other for their livelihoods, social distancing within the community was close to impossible. The absence of public health facilities would have meant that any spread of COVID would have unleashed a threat to the very existence of this tribal community, the representatives said in the statement issued.

The representatives said that in this scenario for the last four months, the local people, especially the Mahila Mandals, have worked relentlessly to facilitate quarantine of residents returning from outside, making masks and also guarding against people from outside the region visiting the region. The local committees had resolved that each and every person entering from outside would have to observe 15 days quarantine.

It needs to be noted that the women were already agitated by the continued pressure of some members of the Tribal Advisory Council to bring laborers from outside to the area, the representatives said.

“Despite being well aware of this context, the local administration instead of attempting a dialogue with the protestors has initiated police action against women who were simply asking that the local resolutions be duly followed and respected”,

said Ratan Manjari, leader of Mahila Kalyan Parishad, Kinnaur

The representatives said that the women have made it amply clear that they had no political motives and neither anything personal against the Minister. The representatives alleged that not only summons were issued selectively against some women representatives of Mahila Mandals but they are also being heckled to issue an apology and harassed by the administration daily.

The representatives alleged that some departments have also issued show-cause notices to their local women staff who participated in the protest. Apparently, cases have been registered under IPC sections 341,143 and 188.

“We condemn this harassment of the tribal women by police and the local administration. Whereas across the state legal action was initiated against those violating the lockdown, when local people made the demand that lockdown rules be followed in their area, the police has, in turn, initiated action against them. This reflects the double standards, high-handedness and patriarchal nature of the government agencies and the State. We also believe that this unjustified action of the police is to create fear amongst the local community”

said Himshi Singh of Himdhara Collective Notably, Spiti is a schedule V area and the constitution empowers the communities for self-governance.

Further, the women of the region seem to be well aware that if there is a COVID outbreak then they, who already bear the burden of care and nurturing work in the family and community, will be burdened even further, the representatives said.

 “It is rather unfortunate that women are expected to be present to welcome political representatives but when they have a genuine issue to raise about the actions of the same representatives they are silenced and repressed. In such a scenario how will women even be considered equal citizens of our democracy?”

said Vimla Vishwapremi of Parvatiya Mahila Adhikar Manch.

The open statement has demanded that the charges against the tribal women of Spiti be dropped and that their harassment and repression by the local administration be immediately stopped. The local administration must acknowledge and support the participation and leadership of the local tribal community, specifically the Mahila Mandals, and work together to maintain the safety and security of the region, the representatives said in the joint statement.

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