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Posts Tagged ‘democracy’

iran-full

I had to share this. Politicians are generally fools, and Mausavi is probably only marginally better than his opponent, but there is no reason to doubt his assertion that “these masses were not brought by bus or by threat, they were not brought for potatoes; they came themselves.”

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One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those books. This revelation came in the form of one of my earliest day jobs. Though I was sloping off to write stories during my lunch hours, I paid the rent in my early 20s by working in the research department at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London.

There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them. I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings and rapes.

Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had been displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they had the temerity to think independently of their government. Visitors to our office included those who had come to give information, or to try and find out what had happened to those they had been forced to leave behind.

I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job of escorting him to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.

And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just given him the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country’s regime, his mother had been seized and executed.

Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.

Link.

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Quite literally.

Amnesty International cited a case on March 7, when three members of the Morgan Tsvangirai-led faction of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) were ordered by intelligence officers to take down election posters.

According to Amnesty, the officials forced the opposition supporters to chew the posters and swallow them.

For those living in democracies like the US or India, such repression of free speech is unimaginable. Indeed, it may be tempting, in the light of such news, to view the daily complaints we libertarians make about infringements of freedom in the United States as somewhat flimsy. To me, however, this serves as a reminder about how important and precious our freedoms are, and the need to fight constantly to prevent them from getting eroded. As I’ve noted previously, once a certain level of freedom becomes unacceptable, the bar is lowered and the next act of censorship is not only easier but also more extreme. News such as those coming from Zimbabwe or China should not make us complacent but instead remind us of the importance of our vigil.

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I was a young lad once and like most kids was susceptible to the perceived infallibility of the written word. To give a relevant example, it wasn’t apparent to me that our civics text-books were less fact and more a bunch of Nehruvian platitudes. But even then, I often wondered about the role of the Constitution in a democracy. It seemed to be – contrary to the importance my book seemed to give it – little more than just a symbol or a guidance, not of much more significance than Gandhi’s “My experiments with truth”. After all, if the real authority was the democratically elected government, what role could a bulky book which no one reads have?

I was both right and wrong. I was wrong because I failed to realise that a Constitution is intended to be a check on what the government can do; it is a well thought out document that lays down certain core values which no law can violate. By its very nature it is much harder to amend the Constitution than it is to pass a law. In the US and other Western democracies, many laws – passed by the government of the day – have been deemed unconstitutional and overturned. The American government will find it impossible to ban a controversial book – without repealing the First Amendment, an unthinkability. Indeed the Constitution is a device for freedom, a vital muscle that makes a democracy tick strongly and prevents it from turning into a tyranny by the majority. We all know that mobs can be manipulated and fooled, not all of them and not for all time, but certainly temporarily. The Constitution keeps the flag of freedom flying at those times – it prevents the passage of parochial laws by extremist parties, it curbs populism, it can arrest collectivism.

Unfortunately, I was right in that none of the above is true in the Indian setup. The freedoms granted by our Constitution were peppered with so many caveats as to render them almost useless and successive governments have further eroded it through amendments that have taken away much of what remained. Today our Constitution is truly what it once seemed to me and probably seems to most other Indians – a mere symbol. And the real tragedy is that most people are unaware it can be anything else.

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