Once upon a democracy

There are checks and balances in a democracy that ought to kick in when there’s any abuse of power

At times, it’s good to remind oneself of how checks and balances are supposed to work in a democratic society. Say you have a political party that’s elected with a solid majority. A government is formed, ministers are appointed and they begin to conduct their business, supposedly for the good of the nation.

Let’s imagine, for argument’s sake, that the minister who controls the national law enforcement forces and the police in the capital city orders the police in the capital to go and arrest a person in another major city for the ‘crime’ — as the minister sees it — of organising a widespread protest against some of his government’s policies. What happens then? Or, rather, what should happen then? Well, the police officers in the capital city should examine the merits of the case and politely send the minister a letter pointing out that the person hasn’t actually committed a crime under the national penal code and therefore no action is possible. The minister would seethe but there the matter would end.

Honourable men

In a slightly different scenario, say, the minister persuades the police to launch an arrest procedure and the cops enthusiastically go to a competent magistrate and ask for an arrest warrant. The honest magistrate, having sworn an oath to the Constitution and not to the protection or furtherance of his career, would look at the file and laugh at the police officer. Politely or rudely, he would ask the officer to take this sheaf of absurd charges and leave. The policeman and the minister would seethe, but there the matter would end.

Say, a different minister, or the same one, decided to target a loosely allied group of activists engaged in a genuinely non-violent struggle for tribal rights in different parts of the country.

Let’s say, one day, the head of a national enforcement agency got a call: ‘I want you to arrest the following lawyers and activists from this tribal rights movement,’ followed by a list. The director of the national enforcement agency, an honest and honourable man or woman, clear in her or his allegiance to the Constitution and rule of law, would point out that there were no grounds to arrest these lawyers, educators, doctors, poets and priests.

The voice at the other end of the phone may then inform the director that when his agents arrested such and such person, they would find such and such documents on his computer, documents that would implicate everyone on the list of violent conspiracy. The director would laugh: ‘Sir, with all due respect, my agency and I can’t be party to these types of underhand, illegal actions. Also, if something has been planted on the man’s computer, it would be detectable and we would end up being internationally humiliated.’ And there the whole sleazy operation would collapse.

Proper proof?

If the director were morally hollow enough to launch such an operation, his agency would come up against the beady eye of the courts where stern and vigilant judges would simply say: ‘Well, you cannot incarcerate these accused without producing proper proof. These people can remain under investigation but free to continue their normal lives. The only ones who will serve any jail time are the ones you manage to convict in a fair and transparent trial. We will not allow innocent people to be punished before a fair trial.’

Through all these obviously conjectural scenarios, the other strong pillar of democracy — the media — would have been working overtime to uncover the truth and bring it to the public’s attention. This ultimate component would strengthen all the other checks and balances and prevent any elected or appointed official from inflicting their nefarious agenda on the body of the nation.

Of course, what is outlined here is an ideal scenario and not what we’ve found in failed, disgraced regimes such as the South and Central American dictatorships of the 20th century, the Uganda of Idi Amin or Apartheid-era South Africa, to cite just a few examples from around the world.

Ruchir Joshi is a filmmaker and columnist.

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