COVID-19 and Violations of Democratic and Human Rights: The India Experience

Professor Abdul Shaban, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, India.

The health emergency and bio-disasters which COVID-19 has wreaked, saw the governments across countries violating the democratic and human rights of their citizens. There are a few countries in Africa that do not have statutes and laws in place for the management of disasters like COVID-19 and as such they can dictate their wishes to the citizens. Countries like India, which have significantly developed laws and statutes to take care of any emergency also saw the democratic and fundamental rights of the citizens compromised. There are many reasons for this compromise, and some of these are (a) citizens being considered as recipients of the government orders not as partners in the decision making process, (b) the implementing agencies – elected members, bureaucrats, police and even courts being negligent of the problems of citizens, (c) weak political oppositions and civil society groups to challenge the government decisions, and (d) a poor and uneducated masses who are fundamentally concerned for their survivals rather than civic and democratic rights.

The enforcement of the lockdown was sudden. This severely affected, especially, the poorer sections of the society. The Prime Minister, Chairman of Disaster Management Authority of India, which has sweeping power over Indian territory under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, on 24th March 2020 announced the first lockdown from 25th March for 21 days (till 14th April 2020. This has been extended in 4 phases till now till 31 May 2020). The curfew was implemented using Section 144 of Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) 1973. Section 144 prohibits the assembly of four or more persons in an area and every member of such ‘unlawful assembly’ can be booked for engaging in rioting. Given that a large section of the citizens in India survive on daily wages without any saving, and also a section does not have enough savings to have provisions for 21 days, they queued before the ration shops and also started moving to safer places. This resulted in several arrests and beating by the police.

Further, the sudden implementation also compromised the livelihood (right to life under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution – one of the Fundamental Rights). The poor response of the government to provide daily provisions and rations to the poorer section has created a disastrous situation for them and especially for migrants in urban areas. They are now desperate to move to their homes in villages but their movement is constrained by government restrictions and any assembly by them results in arrest and beating. This further compromises their Fundamental Right under Article 19(1)(e) in the Constitution to reside and settle in any part of India. Further, the compulsory closure of industries, markets, and shops without any proper compensations of losses they suffered have compromised their right to carry on any occupation, trade or business guaranteed under Article 19(1)(g) of Fundamental Rights. It needs to be noted that the Fundamental Rights of citizens under Part III of Indian Constitutions can only be suspended in case of an emergency caused by external aggression, armed rebellion, or war. Further India is also a member of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which it acceded and ratified in July 1979. Various provisions under ICCPR article prohibit governments to compromise the rights of the citizens. Such are the Article 6 (right to life), Article 7 (prohibition of torture), Article 11 (prohibition against retroactive criminal laws and penalties), Article 16 (the right to be recognized as a person before the law),  Article 18 (freedom of thought, conscience, and religion). We have seen a compromise of all these rights of a large number of citizens. The worst being faced by the migrants in urban areas. Thousands of these migrants are now walking hundreds of kilometers for their homes with small children, women, and disabled.

Indian has become a land of contradictions. With rooted democracy and good statutes, it has seen poor implementations of the same in this COVID-19 crisis. The Central and State governments need to urgently implement the corrective measures to stop the violations of democratic and fundamental rights of the citizens.