By B. Raman
The announced plans of Anna Hazare, the social activist, to go on a fast unto death from August 15 in support of the demand of the anti-corruption movement headed by him for a stronger Jan Lok Pal Bill than the one introduced by the Government in the Parliament pose an executive and moral dilemma to the Government of Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh.
The executive dilemma arises from the fact that an attempt to commit a suicide for whatever purpose is a criminal offence under the Indian Penal Code and the Government is legally bound to act against the threatened fast, if necessary by arresting Anna Hazare either before or during his fast in order to save his life and to prevent a public disorder. The executive dilemma is enhanced by the danger that the act of saving his life might be interpreted as a violation of his right to protest and might lead to an even greater public disorder.
The moral dilemma arises from the fact that a fast unto death as a form of protest has been an accepted weapon since the days of Mahatma Gandhi. He used the threat of fast unto death on some occasions against the British rulers because he was left with no other way of expressing his protest over the failure of the British to concede his demands. It was a unique non-violent weapon used by Mahatma Gandhi under unique circumstances when India was under foreign rulers and did not have a democratic set-up which permitted dissenters to adopt various forms of ventilating grievances in a democratic manner without resorting to the ultimate weapon of a fast unto death.
Anna Hazare and his followers have been carrying on their protest in an independent and democratic India where various forms of democratic mobilisation and advocacy are available to them. They have been making use of these forms in order to educate the public on their demands and to bring moral pressure on the Government to accept the legitimacy of their demands. If the Government has not accepted the legitimacy of some of their demands, it is because it thinks that it will not be in the national interest to accept them and that those demands could be counter-productive.
A democratically-elected Government has the right to decide what is workable and what is not and what is in the national interest and what is not. If one is not in agreement with the views of the Government, one has the right to continue with the campaign of mobilisation and advocacy in the hope that the Government might be made to relent in its stand.
But one does not have the right to intimidate the Government into conceding one’s demands by threatening to use a weapon which might have been morally justifiable under the then existing circumstances during the British rule, but is no longer so under an independent and democratic dispensation. The Government has a legal obligation to prevent any attempt to commit a suicide and this obligation cannot be diluted because of the moral force of the demands of Anna Hazare and his followers for stronger action against corruption. Even a morally justifiable demand cannot be sought to be achieved through legally impermissible means.
Under our Constitution and our laws, every citizen has a right to protest, but not by adopting any means. While protesting, the existing laws have to be observed and any attempt at seeming intimidation avoided. The Government has to exercise its legal responsibility by preventing Anna Hazare from carrying out his threat to die through fasting. Whether that obligation should be exercised by arresting him before he starts his fast or by allowing him to fast for some time to satisfy his conscience and then arrest him is a matter for the Government to decide on the basis of its judgement regarding likely dangers to public order under different options.
It has to be admitted that there is considerable public support for Anna Hazare’s proposed fast because large sections of the public are not convinced of the sincerity of the Government’s proclaimed determination to end corruption. The executive responsibility of the Government to maintain law and order has not been matched by an exercise of its moral responsibility to convince the public of the sincerity of its determination to end corruption.
It is important for the Prime Minister even at this last moment to address the public on the issue of corruption through the electronic media and through a press conference devoted exclusively to public concerns over corruption.
An over-focus on the executive dimensions of the problem while neglecting the moral dimensions of it will maintain and exacerbate the existing tensions on this issue.