India’s Supreme Court was making a point before the republic’s rulers about the importance of the rule of law when it ordered the status quo in Delhi’s Jahangirpuri area on Wednesday, as the North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) was busy with its demolition drive. The directive of the highest court of the land, however, was apparently not enough to halt the bulldozers as the authorities claimed they were yet to receive the court order, and went on with the business for another one-and-a-half hours, razing houses and buildings. They also refused to listen to CPI(M) politburo member Brinda Karat, who reached the demolition site with a copy of the order. It took repeated interventions by Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana and Ms Karat’s physical presence in front of the bulldozer to ensure that the Supreme Court’s writ ran in the national capital.
The NDMC was purportedly acting on a communication by the president of the Delhi unit of the BJP that illegal houses and buildings occupied by the accused in the violence associated with the Ram Navami procession in the area must be demolished. This was not the first time that BJP-run governments and other authorities have found a useful ploy in the “illegality” of the structures when it chose to take on its adversaries. The first victim of the series was perhaps dismissed Gujarat cadre IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt, parts of whose house were razed. The Gujarat authorities were armed with a court order, but the Yogi Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh did not even bother about it before making it a norm in its first term to run the machines over the houses and properties of people who were accused of committing heinous crimes. The BJP government in Madhya Pradesh has recently followed suit after the violence during the Ram Navami celebrations earlier this month.
India is a constitutional democracy and the rule of law forms the basis of all governance. As per our constitutional order, there are legal means to punish people who violate the law. If people disturb communal harmony, they must be punished as per the law; if they destroy public property, they must be compelled to pay compensation as per the law; and if they occupy illegal structures, they must be made to vacate, again, as per the law. It is fully in the domain of the judiciary to pronounce a person guilty and prescribe a sentence; and the executive comes nowhere in the picture. When governments -- whether at the Centre or in the states --arrogate to themselves the roles of investigator, executor and judge, it could well sound the death knell of the rule of law.
Article 21 of the Constitution and the international covenants that India has signed have assured every human being of a life with dignity; any disruption must be according to the law. Any attempt by the executive to abrogate that right must be resisted through democratic means; and the courts play a very important role in it. The Supreme Court’s intervention in the Jahangirpuri case must be taken by all courts across the country as the gold standard whenever the rule of law is questioned anywhere, and the fundamental rights of the people are challenged....