The right to life has now become the subject of academic debate, writes Olav Albuquerque

The right to life, enshrined in Article 21, has become a mere paper tiger, with several thousand succumbing to Covid, 26 of them in Goa due to lack of oxygen. But an intrepid Sindhi-turned-Sikh lawyer has given a new dimension to this right by arguing the right to protect one’s life and limb and the right to possess and keep a licensed firearm in self-defence is an integral part of the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution.

The right to walk into a store and buy a gun is a fundamental right in the Constitution of the United States but this contention was rejected by the members of the Constituent Assembly when one of their members, H V Kamath, sought to incorporate this right in the Constitution. So, the right to bear weapons was perhaps rightly banished with the freedom of the press.

Self-defence

Amritpal Singh Khalsa alias Jayesh Motwani, who embraced Sikhism in 2017, at the age of 25, has argued there is a deemed provision of grant of licence under the Arms Act, 1959, when any person feared his life was in danger or for the sake of protecting his crops. Amritpal argued his life was in danger because those whom he had argued against could plan to kill him. Two lawyers, practising in the Telangana high court were hacked to death near Kalvacherla village of Ramagiri Mandal in Telangana on February 17. Lawyers whose lives are threatened have a right to carry pistols to protect themselves.

His grievance was that the police commissioner of Thane did not dispose of his application within the stipulated time through no fault of his own but merely because the format given on the official website was outdated. A two-judge bench of the Bombay high court directed the Thane police chief to dispose of his application within the prescribed time limit (as expeditiously as possible but not more than six weeks).

But what makes Amritpal Singh an interesting person is that, as a devout Sikh, he asserted his right to carry his kirpan or dagger right into the courtrooms of the Supreme Court. He had to be given a securityman who accompanied him wherever he went, much to his chagrin. But that apart, he was allowed to carry his kirpan into the court rooms, accompanying his senior Mathews Nedumpara.

That aside, Amritpal has joined the Nihang sect to by enrolling in their Dal Path, which is a senior seminary, to fight against a ‘hatemonger’ who has publicised that this sect should be banned from carrying kirpans or other weapons after a policeman had his hand chopped off. The Nihangs are a martial sect of Sikhism, dating back to 1699. They wear blue robes and carry swords and spears with decorated turbans and pointed steel-tipped shoes.

Sectarian right

Of course, sporting weapons is a fundamental right of this sect which is associated with their right to practise, profess and propagate their own religion under Article 25. But becoming a Nihang is not easy because Sikhs have to enrol in a Dal Panth and get a licence recognising them as members before being taught how to wear old swords and spears with martial arts side-by-side. Nihangs are homeless wanderers who are seen to be pure, fearless, indifferent to worldly acclaim or discomfort.

Be that as it may, with the Central government filing a 218-page affidavit telling the Supreme Court not to overreach itself, amid criticism by some states, while saying that the “wisdom of the executive should be trusted” in times of national emergencies, such as the present situation.

There is no doubt that the judiciary does not interfere in issues of defence, labour or economic policies, but the Supreme Court has a right to question the government when thousands have died of Covid-19 with alleged lack of oxygen cylinders plaguing most states. By telling the Supreme Court to mind its own business, the Centre is in effect, committing contempt of court. This is why the 47th CJI Sharad Bobde had declared the government had the resources and the expertise to handle the pandemic and the courts should not interfere. Like his two predecessors, he chose not to resist the government.

Oxygen situation

The government’s handling of the pandemic has been far from reassuring, which was why Justice Dhananjaya Chandrachud warned the authorities against jailing those who asked for oxygen cylinders. Before Chandrachud got Covid, a bench headed by the then CJI Sharad Bobde was indifferent to the plight of the migrants who had to walk thousands of kilometres to reach their homes. This is what aroused the ire of iconoclast lawyers like senior advocate Dushyant Dave.

So, we have a situation where the pillars of democracy, like the judiciary and the media, appear unable to uphold the people’s right to life against government apathy. This is precisely what has led to three global watchdogs downgrading Indian democracy.

The three are Freedom House of the US, The Economist’s Democracy Index and V. Dem Institute of Sweden, which have branded our democracy as ‘partly free’, ‘flawed democracy’ and an ‘electoral autocracy’ respectively. This has led to the saffron apologists attacking these indices as “western liberal values” and these watchdogs as poodles of foreign governments to defend the Central government.

Right to life

These global watchdogs’ reports point out how the right to life guaranteed under Article 21 has been negated by the government refusing to furnish certain data asked by the Supreme Court, which in effect, implies the government is not accountable to the Supreme Court even when thousands die because the government frames its own policy. Just as the Election Commission thought it wise to ban the media from reporting what the judges said in court. Western liberal values? Perhaps.

Our right to life and liberty is intrinsically a western concept rooted in the American War of Independence of 1775 and the French Revolution of 1789. The right to life and liberty is the same all over the world so, to claim the holy Vedas have a different view of these rights would be ignoble.

We make a spectacle of ourselves by chaining journalists like Siddique Kappan to a bed or jailing priests like Fr Stan Swamy, or the environmental activist Disha Ravi. So, we can comfort ourselves by launching our home-grown democracy watchdog, which will give the country an outstanding rank as a republic unpolluted by decadent western values.

The writer holds a PhD in law and is a senior journalist-cum-advocate of the Bombay high court

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