Civil Liberties Movement in India : From Colonial Times to the Present

  • July 7, 2023

Book Review by Biswajit Roy


Civil Liberties Movement in India : From Colonial Times to the Present, by Nilanjan Dutta, Published by Setu Prakashani.


The Civil Liberties Movement in India (CLMI), despite its crucial role and glorious tradition during our freedom struggle as well as in postcolonial India in making democratic principles and constitutional promises meaningful in the lives of the millions, did not receive its due attention in our mainstream media, academia and political discourses. It has hardly been considered a subject for academic research in our country, mainly because it is a hot potato for the main stakeholders in our postcolonial representative democracy; governments, or, our political masters who flex their muscles inside and outside hierarchically organized parties. They invariably join the cries for civil-political rights in their opposition avatar, but forget them as soon as they become our rulers, irrespective of their hues and the scope of their writ, whether it runs at the central/federal level or in the states / provinces. 


Be they are located at the far right, center or the left end of the ideo-political spectrum, they always stigmatize rights activists and organizations as mischief-mongers, habitual doubters, even pawns of foreign powers and terrorist networks as soon as they criticize violations of the nationally and internationally codified rights and other misdeeds of their governments and ruling parties. Even the revolutionary far Left and ethno-religious insurgent groups who wage armed battles against Nation-States and governments run by mainstream parties do not spare the rights groups when they cross their paths and criticize them for violations of basic civil-political rights of the political opponents as well as larger human rights articulated in UN Human Rights Declaration in the conflict zones where they dominate militarily or run their proto-states.


Nevertheless, the travesty of top-down representative democracy across the world is more important since it claims to represent popular sovereignty on the basis of a so-called majority mandate obtained once in every five or four years. It is mostly fractured and highly manipulated as most of the ruling parties across the globe including in India thrive on exploiting social fissures and whipping up the worst emotions including murderous hatred, irrational fear and war-mongering herd mentality against internal ‘alien’ or ‘other’ communities and external ‘enemy nations’ while offering some cosmetic economic populism. Often they are harvesting electoral dividends of mass hysteria without caring for better implementation of republican values and democratic rights for the commoners irrespective of color- caste-creed- language or sexual orientations and better standard of living in harmony with universal human rights and mother nature. 


In our democracies today, there is a marked absence of regular institutionalized dialogue between the rulers and the ruled to ensure the former’s accountability and transparency between the two polls and absence of the voters’ right to recall our representatives midterm in case of their misdeeds. This has turned the ruling parties and their top guns into oxymorons; democratically elected authoritarians whose only mission is to regain power by hook or by crook. The pathology of power goads the parties and its leaders to absolutism and the instinct to retain it as long as possible by co-opting all kinds of vested interests in its fold while crushing the rivals, recalcitrants and rewarding the denizens of their echo-chambers. Gradually, the autocratic ruling party wants to swallow the entire society and the other organs of the Nation-State like the giant Amazonian anaconda of the Hollywood horror films leading to a Party-Society and Party-State. 


Many political scientists and other observers of global politics including those in the liberal democratic mainstream have noticed the resurrection of Fascist- Nazi and totalitarian tendencies among the ruling parties and their top guns– from Victor Orban to Recep Erdogan in Europe, Narendra Modi to Benjamin Netanyahu in Asia. Rights groups of different hues across the world are also facing these neo-Nazi/Fascist attacks in the name of former imperial glory, ethno-religious homogeneity, national pride, State security and prosperity. The cult of national hero or superman -worshiping around the likes of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Xi- Jinping and aforementioned others clearly underlines a prevalent phenomenon in global politics despite differences in their national and individual backgrounds. The variations notwithstanding, the ultra right-wing war cry is ‘one nation- one religion- one party- one leader rule.’ 


Paradoxically enough, this is also the age of borderless information highways and World Wide Web technology which is said to have spread digital democracy through smartphones and social media et al. But we are witnessing the rise of the worst  kind of control -freaks at the same time. An unprecedented nexus between the States and tech behemoths is now running the most secretive global and national infotech regimes for all pervasive mass surveillance, relentless propaganda of lies and half truths in order to control mass media and other public spaces and manipulate popular minds. Never before, our personal space has been encroached to this extent,  in the name of good governance, economic and cultural integration,above all, national security. All these are actually aimed at benefiting global and local supermen– the top guns in politics and economy as well as their cronies.  


So, the global Human Rights Movement (HRM) and the CLMI, though much weak, disoriented and fractured now, is still pertinent to our collective destiny in the trifurcated Indian subcontinent as the dawn of democracy is yet to lift the veil of darkness in the postcolonial lives of most of the people despite our Nation- States have passed their high noon with codified constitutions. 


A timely work on CLMI history   


Given this scenario, senior journalist and veteran human rights activist, Nilanjan Dutta has rendered a yeoman service to cause of the rights movement as well as those who are at its sidelines still yearn for realizing the high ideals of inalienable freedoms of individual citizens and  communities articulated in the UN Human Rights Declaration and other international covenants and national constitutions including in India. 


His seminal work– Civil Liberties Movement in India, from Colonial Times to the Present – is an important landmark in this field of historiography, published by Setu Prakashani, Kolkata. We congratulate both the author and publisher for their initiative and efforts. 


Dutta has proved that there is no Chinese wall between an activist insider and researcher from the academic world if they are broad-minded and objective. His scholarly work is a labor of love for 26 years, facilitated by a fellowship of the School of Oriental and African studies, University of London, Nehru Museum and other institutional support as well as inspired by forerunners including A R Desai, Gautam Chattopadhyay and Chinmohon Sehanabis. The book is a treasure trove for those who look for historical documents and references. The book contains photocopies of the letters and addresses by Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, B R Ambedkar,  Jaiprakash Narayan, K F Nariman and other keepers of Indian conscience and consciousness in the yesteryears. 


Under the British Raj, the CLMI was an integral part of our independence movement with its resonance being felt in the rest of the colonies, even in European metropolises. It brought politicians from disparate parties and ideologies in its fold from time to time – Nehru and Congressmen of his mould, Gandhian egalitarians like Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan,  even for a brief period, stern Statist disciplinarian Vallabhbhai Patel, liberals who disliked Gandhi’s mass agitations, revolutionary nationalists like Subhas Chandra Bose, Socialists like Jai Prakash Narayan and Rammonohar Lohia, Communists like Muzaffar Ahmed and SA Dange, even MA Jinnah and few others some from the Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha leaders like NC Chatterjee. Public figures from other fields including poets, authors, artists, legal luminaries, renowned doctors across the country participated in popular protests and background activities. 


Among them, Rabindranath Tagore not only took an exemplary role in voicing the agonies and outcries of Indians against British and other colonial repressions in India and abroad but also became a major rally point for galvanizing different opinions in common platforms to protect and expand the horizons of the CLMI. Being instrumental in organizing numerous protest meets and associations since the days of first partition of Bengal in 1905 and following years of Swadeshi movement, he became the president of Indian Civil Liberty Union (ICLU) in 1936 and vice president of National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) in England in his twilight years. Although he never approved nationalist terror or revolutionary violence like Gandhi, the poet always stood for civil-political rights of middle class political prisoners as well as peasants and workers who were shouldering the double burdens of the foreign yoke and Deshi feudals and capitalists. Far from being an ornamental head or dispassionate celebrity who lends his fame to a cause, his fervent but thoughtful intercessions on sufferings of the subjugated souls, both at critical moments in national and international history, and his visions about universal human rights, have broadened and deepened the historical-philosophical underpinnings of the rights movement between the two world wars and thereafter.   


The author has focused primarily on the formation of the state and national level issue- specific CLM platforms and long-term organizations during the colonial period as well as after the transfer of power. In a sincere effort to go beyond his Bengal base, the author has not only traced back earlier phases of the CLMI in other provinces, he has also provided an overview of rights-based issues and organizations from trouble-torn Kashmir to Manipur, Andhra to Assam as well as their pan-Indian coordinations from time to time.  Meanwhile, he interjected the narrative informing us about the theoretical debates among the various ideo-political strands within the Congress party and among the non-Congress forces including the Lefts during the freedom struggle and in postcolonial decades. 


As prof. Ranabir Samaddar in his foreword has rightly called the book ‘an Indian Civil Liberty dossier’, we join him in hoping that the work would help the members of Bengal-based Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR) which Dutta belongs to and other like-minded organizations across the country to become ‘ thinking activists’.  Prof. Samaddar has also rightly reminded that the evolution of the rights movement focused more on political rights for a long period, largely ignoring the caste oppression and religious persecution as well as other social issues including education, health and women’s rights. The author has reproduced Ambedkar’s letter to KB Menon, the secretary of the ICLU, in which he declined to endorse its manifesto. “ On the other hand, you make no mention of the systematic tyranny and oppression practiced by caste Hindus against the untouchables, which is undoubtedly a matter of civil Liberties of Indians,” the father of Indian constitution wrote in 1937. 


Churning the history of CLMI since the mid-19th century to our times, the author picked up the lessons for present generation of activists : first, maintain constant vigilance the irrespective of colors of rulers, keep independence from any political party or camp, accept  high and low ebbs time to time but always hold high the traditions of plurality of views, ideologies among the fellow-travelers and constantly widen the social base of the movement by incorporating new issues and activities to make it really the representative of the people while attracting new activists by welcoming new ideas, visions and initiatives.  


Current National Scenario

The current book did not delve into the details of violations of civil-political rights during the ongoing BJP-RSS rule, enormity of which requires a separate chronicle. We offer here an overview to underline the gravity of the situation and urge the new generation of rights activists to ponder over the lessons of the CLMI history : come out of old ideo-political cocoons and decide the tasks ahead with tolerance to new ideas and initiatives and join hands together instead of intra and inter-organisational sectarian and personality-centric infights.  


The 21-months long Emergency regime in India, 1975-6 was considered an unpleasant aberration or a temporary nightmare which ended with its withdrawal and defeat of Indira Gandhi at the hustings which she accepted despite her autocratic mindset. In contrast, the RSS-BJP regime today has been perpetuating a hybrid of electoral autocracy and majoritarian populist politics based on communal polarization, a Hindutva variety of neo-Nazism– almost for a decade. The regime has been subverting the current secular, pluralist and democratic constitutional framework (notwithstanding its limitations and contradictions) with a missionary zeal to ensure permanent restructuring of Indian body polity that will make it a replica of over-centralised ancient Hindu empires. It will replace the fundamental rights of the citizens with fundamental duties to the State or the government, destroy the already weakened federal structure and balance of power among constitutional institutions– particularly, independence of Judiciary and Election Commission as well as the basic premises of regional diversity in the current parliamentary representation. Even if the highest Judiciary compromised public faith and esteem in its ability to protect the core values of our constitution on several occasions in recent periods, it is under severe attack for not succumbing to the complete control of the ruling dispensation over the selection of the judges. The EC which is more under the government control has demonstrated in recent years how the watchdogs become the lapdogs. 


Meanwhile the new parliament house has been inaugurated with a professedly lofty mission to make room for more elected representatives of the people in view of the population growth. But the mechanism of determining the number of MPs from the provinces, which is primarily based on proportionate share of population, is heavily tilted in favor of the Hindi heartland, which is culturally the most fertile support base for the Sangh Parivar’s Hindu-Hindi-Hindustan politics.


Beyond its electoral success, the Sangh Parivar has given legitimacy to an era of far -Right ideo-political culture that has made huge inroads in our political structure as well as larger society even outside its main catchment area. Nationalism is being redefined as the mantra for complete surrender of individuals and communities before the rulers, forced social – political homogeneity, extreme intolerance and hatred against all kinds of minorities, exclusionary citizenship, refusal to make room for political and social-cultural pluralism and xenophobic jingoism. Neither the Nation and State have ever been made synonymous to this extent nor the State and government of the day became so much indistinguishable. 


The makers of Indian Constitution, despite their many dilemmas and differences, assured citizens civil-political rights in the form of the freedom of expression, association, profess and practice of our faiths including atheism, however limited or restricted those rights may be with provisions for their suspensions on special situations. The Constitution gives us the right to equality before law and justice, irrespective of our racial and religious backgrounds, sex and socio- economic standing. The promises for the freedom from arbitrary arrest, custodial torture and deaths, detention without trial, extrajudicial killings and other forms of legal and illegal state violence as well as casteist and communal oppression by both the State and non- state actors – all are now considered the unnecessary hangovers of the freedom movement. All these have been consigned to the flames of Yagna for the awakening of the real soul and strength of the  Bharatmata of Sangh’s vision.


Anybody who questions the ongoing reshaping of Indian nationhood, its parameters for prosperity and security and subversion of the constitution under the incumbent regime at the Centre is dubbed as anti- nationals, internal enemies or fifth column for the external foes. Hordes of dissenters; civil liberties and human rights activists are the front runners among them, have been thrown into the dungeons either under the Sedition-related section in the IPC, UAPA and other anti- terror acts while many others are languishing in jails without formal charges or trials. While the long-winding legal process has become the punishment for the accused, maiming and killing by state -sponsored killers and vigilante goons close to the ruling Sangh Parivar have also become commonplace. 


Gone are the days of Post-War Welfare states when home-grown political elites of newly independent countries took vows to serve their poor and hungry compatriots. The leaders of new nation-states like India, though professedly quasi -socialist and egalitarian, dithered over making rights to food and shelter, education, employment and basic health as fundamental. Instead, they made them part of directive principles for the State which made it imperative for governments to spend in so-called social sectors. But the ruling far right exponents of orthodox Hindutva and crony capitalism are tutoring us that these are merely some lofty ideals and promises made by impractical leaders of our freedom struggle. The cost to honor such welfare rights – particularly those meant to serve the poor and affirmative actions for Dalits and other historically disadvantaged sections of caste-ridden society — has become unbearable burdens on the government exchequer,  stunting national growth and prosperity. It is a proverbial Albatross around the neck of the nation-state hindering its better – placed citizens to make a leap forward to their cherished goal to join the club of global super-riches, consequently subverting India’s emergence as a superpower and assertion of its civilisational claim to be the Biswaguru or the global teacher. 


Nevertheless Leaders of the fractured and myopic Opposition parties, both national and regional, join the Civil Liberties- related protests only when they are hounded by the CBI and ED at the instance of the Modi-led Centre. The rights movement face the double whammy when the political forces which claims to be anti-BJP-RSS and champions democracy also do not hesitate to forget all democratic niceties in dealing with the political opponents and civil society critics including rights groups in their own backyards. Our collective experiences in Opposition-ruled states including Bengal under CPM and TMC vouch for it.                               


The Ideological Myopia in the Rights Movement


On the other hand, many activists who join the rights organizations to protest the abuse of powers by police and administration, incumbent governments and ruling parties in their states hardly know about the checkered history of the pan-Indian movement; its trials and tribulations, its long-term goals beyond immediate political exigencies and long-unresolved problematics. While admiring their roles as the watchdogs of Civil Liberties (CL), Democratic Rights (DR) and Human Rights (HR) on behalf of common citizens, we often find them using these words interchangeably without caring much about their forked historical trajectories among the Euro-American colonisers and the colonized people in rest of the world since the French Revolution and War of American Independence. So Far I understand, The CL is primarily,  aimed at safeguarding the oppositional space, or, as prof. Samaddar has pointed out, ‘right to do politics against the government of the day.  While the DR is much more than CL which has been widened as well as become complicated even contradictory with the evolution of both capitalism and ‘bourgeois’ democracy. Despite being touted by capitalists and accepted even by old school communists as mutually complementary, they have become two opposite socio-political processes with the inclusion of non-propertied classes and masses. The HR, particularly, the post-WWII UN charter– reflective of balance of power between Capitalist West and Socialist Soviet Bloc is more focused on basic existential rights of non-combatant civilians during the wars and civil wars like right to life, freedom from persecution and freedom for movement, even to oppose a tyranny as well as their basic socio-economic rights including right to food, shelter, medical care, employment and a fair standard of living irrespective of political systems.


Their sincere commitments and  courageous campaigns notwithstanding; there is a general reluctance among rights activists to go into the evolution of ideas and actions as well as   laudable achievements and gross mistakes of our global and national forerunners. Consequently, our understanding of the ambit and depth of contemporary debates on CL/DR/HR lack the historical perspective and insights needed to articulate and reflect on the global and national ground reality much better and galvanize different sections of the masses into broad-based platforms representing a rainbow of issues, ideas and actions. Apart from learning how and when the chameleons changed their colors, history not only helps us to realize how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, but also holds a mirror to self-righteous puritans of secular and Marxist varieties.


The most unfortunate stumbling block is the ideological myopia prevailing in many Rights groups. The inheritance of the shibboleths including those about state-formations, class structures and relations, socio-economic changes and revolutions justifies intolerance to new insights into fresh challenges thrown up by the late bourgeois world. We are yet to fathom the implications of globally connected digitized, service-oriented economy and new hybrid structures of power-sharing among nation-states- supra states- global and national corporate giants to control flow of finance capital, technologies as well as natural resources and labor forces. The unprecedented mass surveillance and manipulation systems run by remotely controlled technologies have strengthened the secretive nexus resulting in 24×7 multi-dimensional violations of basic rights of 99 percent of the global people. We now live in a post-Kafkaesque world where the global and national control-freaks run invisible armies of paid hacks, spywares installers, eavesdroppers, proliferators of massive lies and trolls in the virtual world. But we must also admit that most of its young foot-soldiers are co-opted from our urban middle class homes.


In the physical world too, the state-corporate nexus has made huge inroads in our societies. In the age of internet, social media and smartphones, the capitalist State and non-State ideo-political apparatus have undergone sea changes and its collective instruments of cultural hegemony or manufacturing of the public consent have become all -pervasive and penetrative in every section of the people. The educated middle class including professionals, even many belonging to upper middle class related to the landed gentry, were the torchbearers of almost every nationalist and leftist resistance against the colonial and post-colonial violation of rights including those of the poor and marginal communities. In contrast, today the middle class as a whole has become enamored to the State-Corporate vision of aggressive and destructive ‘development’– indiscriminate industrialisation, mining, hydro-power generations, urbanization, webs of national and international physical infrastructures at the cost of wanton destruction of ecological balance, violations of rights to life and livelihoods, even property of the rural masses, specially of those communities who are dependent on nature.


Majority of  them hardly bother about plunder of common natural resources– land, forests, rivers and seas have become so-much monopolized and commercialized that access to water for drinking and bathing or to put up a shanty over one’s head have become major human rights issues triggering daily bloodshed across the globe. 


The macho bikers and DJ revelers who are roving around with ear-splitting sounds in our cities may sport trendy T-shirts with Che Guevera’s face printed on it. But most of them are reluctant to join any collective or organized resistance to the old or new power-centers. Meanwhile, a good section of the rural and suburban non- middle class youth too have also become fascinated in an upwardly mobile, gadgets-driven consumerist and atomised life-style. On the other hand, organized working class movement is completely in disarray and demoralized. There is hardly any meaningful nationwide movement despite relentless attacks on hard-earned basic labor rights. The restructuring of global capital movement,  job-division in production, marketing and supply chains spread over continents have led to the fragmentation of the old class– once centralized in and around our major cities– and its gradual replacement by armies of disorganized and migrant laborers.  


Despite the myriad complexities that the activists experiencing in organizing ground-level resistance in such a situation, our tendency to understand the world in old-styled black and white binaries– as if states and societies are stuck in a black hole of the memories of revolutionary decades– often leads to dogmatic reactions, simplistic formulations as well as political opportunism and double- standards. Instead of informed discussions and civilized debates; ugly rancor, haughty factionalism and narrow-mindedness have triggered multiple organizational fractures within the CLMI. Consequently, its collective strength has weakened and its influence in the public sphere is now more marginalized. All these malice needs to be addressed honestly and holistically by the insiders like K Balagopal. Unfortunately, the former general secretary of Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberty Committee and later the founder of Human Right Forum, Balagopal is no longer with us.


Describing him as ‘one of the finest theoreticians’ of contemporary CLMI, Dutta has quoted him in the context of the APDR’s criticism of Maoist killings of political opponents during Lalgarh and debates between late Maoist leader Kisenji and Rights activist Sujato Bhadra. Insisting on the independence of the rights movement from any political party or camp, Balagopal had also urged to acknowledge the different streams of thoughts that have made the CLMI a confluence of ideas – liberal democrats, socialists and Marxists and current impacts of rights movements for Dalits, tribals or indigenous and marginal communities, women and LGBT groups, climate refugees and fights against ecological destruction. The book may inspire soul-searching as Balagopal wanted, among younger rights activists who have come across such new social-political trends.  


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