Curtailment of Freedom in the name of Corona —— Prem Verma

Prem Verma

Convenor, Jharkhand Nagrik Prayas
Ranchi, Jharkhand

Sitting in my 3-bedroom apartment I am ordered by the Government not to move out if I want to be safe from Corona. I feel suffocated with my freedom of movement curtailed. Being socially active, I am made to feel as if not interacting with people is the greatest virtue since it protects my life. What kind of life am I protecting and is it worth? Especially when a large poor population of this country does not enjoy the so-called ‘social distancing’ – the stated remedy for this Corona Virus. Cramped in their one-room habitat this large deprived majority can only pray for social distancing of the gods that protect them.

Slowly without our realization one by one our freedom is getting eroded by making us afraid of the demon Corona. Don’t move. Stay at home. Don’t assemble. Don’t criticize – the Government is doing the best for you to keep you alive. You cannot go to work – work from home. Go digital – no social mixing. Obey what the Government tells you. If you disobey we will arrest you. You have no right to information – we will tell you what we think you should know. And so on.

PUCL, whose founder Chairman was Shri Jayaprakash Narayan, has already sounded the warning bell by declaring : 

“this imposition of a lockdown has resulted in a virtual abrogation of many of the civil liberties  guaranteed under Article 19 of the Constitution including the right to mobility, right to reside anywhere in India, right to organise and peaceably assemble, right to carry on any trade, occupation or vocation………….  It is also vital that the current curtailment of civil liberties is limited to the duration of the present crisis and not a moment beyond that. On the contrary there is currently a live danger of a “new normal” being created and used by government agencies to expand restrictions of civil liberties and human rights. Continued and widespread surveillance should always be avoided. The patterns by which this particular virus spreads cannot be made a justification for putting in place a surveillance system that will last and be applicable well beyond this time of medical crisis.” 

When can freedom of the individual be sacrificed for the so-called common good? This is a question that has arisen every time an autocrat promulgates a decree for curtailment of freedom justifying the same for the common good. Indira Gandhi justified the Emergency by proclaiming that all the opposition leaders were arrested because they were a hindrance in her goal for uplifting the poor. The more the lucrative and high-sounding goal the better the justification for abrogation of freedom and human rights. Under this false logic the Government of the day puts on a garb of benevolence and assures us that what restrictions are imposed are for our own good and the Government is there to ensure that they are not misused. We like ignorant fools are ever ready to subjugate ourselves to the autocratic and seemingly benevolent leader and thus we offer our freedom and human rights in exchange for an utopia that never comes.

Mr. Selam Gebrekidan writes so forcefully in the New York Times on this subject:

“We could have a parallel epidemic of authoritarian and repressive measures following close if not on the heels of a health epidemic,” said Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights.

As the new laws broaden state surveillance, allow governments to detain people indefinitely and infringe on freedoms of assembly and expression, they could also shape civic life, politics and economies for decades to come.

The pandemic is already redefining norms. Invasive surveillance systems in South Korea and Singapore, which would have invited censure under normal circumstances, have been praised for slowing infections. Governments that initially criticized China for putting millions of its citizens under lockdown have since followed suit. 

This pandemic has given an opportunity to Governments all across the globe to make laws, pass ordinances and orders infringing on democratic and human rights and suspending all avenues of appeal. People are brainwashed to believe that such curtailment is for their own good in combating Corona for which no proof is available or visible.

Florien Bieber writes in foreignpolicy.com :

The pandemic offers dictators—and democracies alike—an opportunity for abuse.

When the virus recedes, many countries will be far less democratic than they were before March 2020. In times of crisis, checks and balances are often ignored in the name of executive power. The danger is that the temporary can become permanent.

Freedom of assembly, a fundamental right, has been severely restricted almost everywhere. But free movement is far from the only right being infringed on.

Measures like closing businesses, enforcing social distancing, and keeping people off the street, including curfews and bans on gatherings, are needed to control the rapid spread of the coronavirus. But there is a serious risk that these efforts are leading to a new wave of authoritarianism.

In India free movement of people across district and State borders has been severely restricted in the name of Corona Virus and families have been stranded at various locations unable to reach their places of residence. All this is being enforced with police and paramilitary deployments giving an impression that we are at war with our own people. This is how freedom in all its forms gets sidelined and human rights violations become the norm. Fear of Corona results in looking for a savior and the Government of the day fits that role with the promise of delivery provided you follow their instructions beyond the limits of law and justice.

I refuse to live in fear. I refuse to live a life where freedom in true sense is being bartered for a false sense of security. The virtual imprisonment of migrants all across the country is a blot on the democracy for which our forefathers fought the British.

As JP echoed in some other time : “Freedom with the passing of the years, transcended the mere freedom of my country and embraced freedom of man everywhere and from every sort of trammel – above all, it meant freedom of the human personality, freedom of the mind, freedom of the spirit.”

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