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Monday, May 27, 2024

“In defence of Eastern Nagaland people’s organisation- A legal discourse”

In the Indian context, the entitlement to refrain from engaging in election-related activities, encompassing abstention from voting in general elections, stands as an indispensable facet of democratic liberty and individual self-determination. The Constitution of India, while affirming the citizens’ right to exercise their franchise freely, equally recognizes the prerogative to refrain from such exercise without apprehension of retaliation or legal repercussion. This entitlement finds manifestation in various provisions of the Constitution, such as Article 19(1)(a) which guarantees freedom of speech and expression, thereby encompassing the right to abstain from voting as a fundamental aspect of freedom of expression.

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By: Dr. Aniruddha Babar

“We are writing to you regarding the upcoming Lok Sabha elections scheduled to take place in our region on the 19th of April, 2024. We regretfully inform you of the Eastern Nagaland people’s collective decision to abstain from participating in this election.We humbly and respectfully beg to inform you that, people of EasternNagaland in the State of Nagaland under the aegis of Eastern Nagaland Peoples’ Organization had on 19th March, 2024 reaffirmed its commitment to the “Chenmoho Resolution”, wherein it was further reaffirmed and resolved not to participate in any Central and State elections against the failure to settle the creation of Frontier Nagaland Territory as offered and assured by the MHA on 7th December, 2023, i.e., to be settled before the announcement of MCC to the Lok Sabha 2024 by the Election Commission of India.” ~ Excerpts from Eastern Nagaland People’s Organization’s Letter to the Hon’ble Election Commission of India dated 1st April, 2024.

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In the Indian context, the entitlement to refrain from engaging in election-related activities, encompassing abstention from voting in general elections, stands as an indispensable facet of democratic liberty and individual self-determination. The Constitution of India, while affirming the citizens’ right to exercise their franchise freely, equally recognizes the prerogative to refrain from such exercise without apprehension of retaliation or legal repercussion. This entitlement finds manifestation in various provisions of the Constitution, such as Article 19(1)(a) which guarantees freedom of speech and expression, thereby encompassing the right to abstain from voting as a fundamental aspect of freedom of expression.

Additionally, Article 21, guaranteeing the right to life and personal liberty, has been interpreted expansively by the judiciary to include the right to make choices regarding political participation, including the decision to abstain from voting. Notably, the Supreme Court’s rulings in cases like PUCL v. Union of India have underscored the intrinsic link between the right to vote and the right not to vote, affirming that any attempt to coerce citizens into voting would contravene their fundamental rights. Furthermore, India’s commitment to international human rights norms, as articulated in instruments like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), further reinforces the right to abstain from participating in the political process as a component of freedom of opinion and expression. Consequently, the recognition of the right to abstain from voting as a fundamental aspect of democratic freedom is firmly entrenched within the Indian legal framework and resonates with the principles enshrined in international human rights law, thus affirming the importance of individual autonomy and freedom of choice in the democratic ethos of the nation.

Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution unequivocally guarantees to all citizens the freedom of speech and expression, embodying within its purview the right to abstain from verbal/non-verbal (through bodily action) articulation or expression, hence, the privilege to maintain silence or refrain. This fundamental right serves as a cornerstone of democratic principles, recognizing the inherent dignity and autonomy of individuals in their choices concerning political engagement. The freedom to abstain from voting is not merely a passive act but a proactive exercise of one’s conscience and beliefs in the democratic process. It signifies the recognition of diverse perspectives and dissenting voices within the fabric of democracy, fostering a culture of pluralism and inclusivity. By affording individuals the right to abstain from voting, the Constitution acknowledges the multifaceted nature of political participation and the importance of individual agency in shaping the course of governance.

Moreover, abstention from voting serves as a powerful tool for protest and dissent, allowing citizens to express their discontent with the prevailing political landscape or policies. It is a form of political expression that is as potent as casting a ballot, as it communicates a deliberate choice to withhold endorsement from any candidate or party. In essence, the right to abstain from voting is not a passive disengagement from the democratic process but an active assertion of one’s autonomy and political consciousness in the spirit of the Constitution of India. It underscores the principle that democratic participation is not confined to the act of voting alone but encompasses a spectrum of actions and expressions that contribute to the vibrant exchange of ideas and values in a democratic society. Therefore, the right to abstain from voting emerges as a fundamental aspect of freedom of expression, encapsulating the essence of democratic governance and individual liberty in India’s constitutional framework.

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Furthermore, the expansive interpretation of Article 21 of the Constitution, which safeguards the right to life and personal liberty, has been a cornerstone in affirming individuals’ autonomy in making decisions regarding their political engagement. Through a series of judicial pronouncements, the judiciary has underscored that this constitutional provision extends beyond mere physical existence of citizens and encompasses the right to lead a life of dignity, which inherently includes the right to make choices regarding political participation.

In the landmark case of PUCL v. Union of India, the Supreme Court elucidated on the intrinsic link between the right to vote and the right not to vote, unequivocally affirming that the latter is a corollary of the former. The Court expounded that any attempt to coerce citizens into voting would constitute a grave infringement upon their fundamental rights, highlighting the importance of respecting individuals’ autonomy in exercising their electoral franchise. This precedent serves as a bedrock in affirming the principle that abstention from voting is not merely a passive act but a legitimate exercise of one’s right to freedom of expression and political choice. Furthermore, the judiciary’s interpretation of Article 21 has been instrumental in recognizing the multifaceted nature of personal liberty, acknowledging that political participation is not just a privilege but a fundamental aspect of human dignity. By upholding the right to abstain from voting, the judiciary has bolstered the democratic ethos enshrined in the Constitution, emphasizing that true democracy necessitates not only the freedom to vote but also the freedom not to vote.

The principle of “voluntary” political participation finds solid grounding and extensive reinforcement in a multitude of international human rights instruments, significantly amplifying its significance and universality. Both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) stand as pillars of global human rights standards, firmly recognizing the inherent entitlement to freedom of opinion and expression as fundamental rights of every individual. Within this expansive framework of human rights, lies the unequivocal recognition of the freedom to abstain from involvement in the political sphere, thereby emphasizing the autonomy and agency of individuals in determining their level of engagement with political processes. The UDHR, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, articulates in its Article 21 the right of every individual to participate in the government of their country, directly or through freely chosen representatives, while emphasizing that this right should be exercised through periodic and genuine elections with universal suffrage and equal suffrage. Significantly, the UDHR also underscores the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, which inherently encompasses the right to abstain from participating in political activities based on personal beliefs or convictions.

Similarly, the ICCPR, a binding international treaty adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1966, reaffirms in its Article 25 the right of every citizen to take part in the conduct of public affairs, including the right to vote and to be elected, without unreasonable restrictions. Importantly, the ICCPR also underscores that the exercise of these rights should be based on the free expression of the will of the electors, thus recognizing the validity and legitimacy of abstention as a legitimate expression of political choice. Moreover, both instruments emphasize the principle of non-discrimination, ensuring that individuals are not subjected to adverse treatment or repercussions for exercising their right to abstain from political participation.

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In essence, the UDHR and ICCPR serve as international benchmarks, underscoring the intrinsic value and significance of the freedom to abstain from involvement in the political sphere as an integral component of broader democratic principles and human rights protections on a global scale.

In the context of the “Eastern Nagaland Peoples Organization” (ENPO)’s resolution to abstain from engaging in election-related activities until the fulfillment of their demand for a Frontier Nagaland Territory, it is imperative to discern the legal validity of such a stance within the framework of Indian democracy. ENPO’s decision reflects a deep-seated political grievance stemming from historical marginalization and blatant violation of constitutional rights of the people in the region. The demand for a “Frontier Nagaland Territory’’ is emblematic of ENPO’s quest for complete “Constitutional Justice’’ within the federal structure of India. The organization’s resolve to abstain from election-related activities is not merely a tactical maneuver but a strategic assertion of their political agency and collective rights.

While ENPO’s decision may appear confrontational to some, it is rooted in a legitimate desire for equitable representation and socio-economic development within the framework of Indian democracy. Furthermore, the legal validity of ENPO’s stance finds resonance in the principles of democratic governance and constitutionalism, which recognize the rights of deprived, invisible communities living in the dense jungles and rugged mountains of Eastern Nagaland to articulate their grievances and pursue redress through peaceful and democratic means. The ENPO’s abstention from “ALL” election-related activities serves as a non-violent mechanism to draw attention to their demands and compel the government to engage in dialogue and negotiation.

Furthermore, the decision reflects ENPO’s commitment to the democratic process itself, as it exercises its right to engage in political discourse and action within the bounds of legality and constitutionalism. In adopting this approach, ENPO seeks to challenge the status quo and stimulate constructive dialogue aimed at addressing the underlying grievances and aspirations of the constitutionally deprived Eastern Nagaland community. Thus, while abstaining from election-related activities may seem counterintuitive to conventional notions of political participation, it serves as a potent tool for amplifying marginalized voices and catalyzing meaningful change within the democratic framework.

As custodians of justice and guardians of constitutional principles, the judiciary has demonstrated a nuanced understanding of the nuances of Indian federalism, recognizing the imperative of accommodating diverse political aspirations within its ambit. In landmark pronouncements, the courts have underscored the inherent right of deprived, marginalized communities like Eastern Nagas to articulate their grievances through peaceful and democratic channels, without fear of reprisal or marginalization. This judicial acknowledgment serves as a beacon of hope for disenfranchised communities seeking to assert their rights within the democratic framework. By embracing the ethos of inclusivity and democratic pluralism, the judiciary has not only safeguarded the constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and political participation but has also reinforced the foundational principles of justice and equality enshrined in the Indian Constitution. Therefore, ENPO’s pursuit of Frontier Nagaland Territory and its decision to ‘abstain’ from “ALL’’ election-related activities represent a legitimate assertion of their political agency and democratic stand, deserving of constitutional protection and judicial recognition within the framework of Indian democracy.

Moreover, ENPO’s decision to abstain from election-related activities resonates with a rich fabric of historical precedents within the annals of Indian political discourse. Throughout the country’s democratic journey, various social and political movements have strategically employed the tactic of complete election boycotts or abstention from voting, along with refraining from all associated activities, as a potent mode of dissent and a means to highlight their pressing demands. These instances span diverse regions and contexts, ranging from movements advocating for regional autonomy, linguistic recognition, tribal rights, to those protesting against perceived injustices, socioeconomic disparities, or systemic discrimination. For instance, the Telangana movement in the 1950s, the Assam Movement in the 1980s, and the ongoing struggles for tribal land rights and environmental conservation across different states stand as poignant examples of movements leveraging abstention from electoral processes as a tool for amplifying their grievances and asserting their identities. In each case, the decision to abstain from election-related activities served as a strategic assertion of dissent, a symbolic rejection of mainstream political narratives, and a rallying cry for the acknowledgment of marginalized voices within the constitutional, democratic framework. Consequently, ENPO’s adoption of this strategy aligns with a broader tradition of democratic protest and political mobilization in India, reflecting a nuanced understanding of the power dynamics inherent in electoral politics and the efficacy of non-participation as a means of political expression and advocacy.

In light of the foregoing analysis, it is unequivocally discernible that ENPO’s resolution to abstain comprehensively from participating in all election-related activities until their demand for the recognition of a Frontier Nagaland Territory is unequivocally realized stands as a legally legitimate stance within the intricate fabric of Indian democracy. This decision embodies not only a poignant expression of dissent but also reflects a conscientious assertion of their political aspirations, echoing the deep-seated socio-political grievances inherent within the region. By opting for abstention, ENPO signifies its commitment to pursuing its objectives through peaceful and democratic channels, thereby adhering to the foundational principles enshrined in the Constitution of India. Moreover, this stance finds resonance with international human rights norms, which emphasize the right of individuals and communities to advocate for their rights and grievances through non-violent means. Thus, ENPO’s decision stands as a testament to the resilience of democratic values and the efficacy of constitutional mechanisms in accommodating diverse political aspirations within the framework of Indian federalism. It underscores the fundamental principle that dissent, when expressed peacefully and within the bounds of the law, serves as a cornerstone of democracy, fostering dialogue, and facilitating the redressal of grievances. In essence, ENPO’s resolution embodies the spirit of democratic participation, reinforcing the notion that political engagement encompasses not only active participation but also the conscious decision to abstain when deemed necessary to uphold principles of justice, equality, and self-determination.

However, it is paramount to underscore that while the entitlement to abstain from voting epitomizes a fundamental facet of democratic liberty, it ought to be exercised judiciously and in consonance with the principles of constitutionalism and the rule of law. The sanctity of the democratic process demands that abstention from voting be motivated by reasoned deliberation and a sincere commitment to advancing the collective welfare. Moreover, the exercise of the right to abstain from voting should be accompanied by active participation in other democratic processes, such as civil discourse, community engagement, and advocacy for social change in the spirit of the Constitution of India. By channeling dissent and grievances through constructive avenues of civic activism, individuals can uphold the integrity of the democratic system while effecting meaningful progress towards addressing societal concerns.

Furthermore, it is incumbent upon political leaders and institutions to foster an inclusive and participatory political environment that respects and accommodates diverse viewpoints, thereby mitigating the likelihood of disenchantment and disaffection among the electorate. In essence, while the right to abstain from voting is an integral component of democratic governance, its exercise necessitates a nuanced understanding of civic duty and a steadfast commitment to upholding democratic norms and values.

It is imperative to underscore the paramount importance of the entitlement to abstain from engaging in election-related activities, a quintessential hallmark of democratic liberty and individual autonomy enshrined within the Indian ethos. The decision of the Eastern Nagaland Peoples Organization (ENPO) to withhold their participation in such endeavors until the realization of their demand for a Frontier Nagaland Territory resonates as a clarion call for justice within the hallowed halls of Indian democracy. This stance epitomizes not only a legally legitimate assertion but also a fervent cry for recognition, a resolute stand against the tide of historical injustices, systemic as well as systematic marginalization and deprivation. It represents the unwavering spirit of a people unwilling to be silenced, a testament to the enduring resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity. In the annals of democratic discourse, ENPO’s resolution stands as a beacon of hope, illuminating the path towards a more inclusive and equitable future. It signifies the power of collective action, the unyielding determination to forge a better tomorrow against all odds. Thus, in embracing this stance, ENPO embarks upon a journey fraught with challenges yet buoyed by the promise of a brighter tomorrow, where every voice is heard, and every aspiration is honoured. It is a testament to the indomitable spirit of Indian democracy, where the power lies not in the hands of the few, but in the collective will of the people to chart their own destiny. As such, ENPO’s “historic” resolution stands not only as a legal imperative but also as a moral imperative, a clarion call to uphold the principles of justice, equality, and liberty upon which the edifice of Indian democracy rests. (The author is the Director, Project Constitutional Justice, Tuensang and a Senior Faculty, Dept of Political Science, Tetso College, Nagaland)

 

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