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Autocratic legalism in India: A roundtable


At a moment when democracy seems to be experiencing an unprecedented level of crisis worldwide, this roundtable focuses on one country, India, to ask what we can learn from its ongoing challenges. The participants take as their starting point Scheppele’s idea of ‘autocratic legalism’, in which constitutional democracies are ‘hijacked by … legally clever autocrats’ who turn democratic institutions and values against themselves. Does autocratic legalism capture developments in India, particularly since 2014? Does the concept help identify weaknesses or untapped potential in Indian democracy? Or does the crisis of India’s democracy reflect different patterns from the autocratic legalism emerging in other parts of the world? Participants consider these and other questions during a conversation that bridges disciplines, geography, and the academy–legal profession divide.

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  1. Oishik Sircar, Violent Modernities: Cultural Lives of Law in the New India (Oxford University Press 2021).

  2. Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Z Huq, How to Save a Constitutional Democracy (University of Chicago Press 2018); Mark A Graber, Sanford Levinson, and Mark Tushnet (eds), Constitutional Democracy in Crisis? (Oxford University Press 2018); Tarunabh Khaitan, ‘Killing a Constitution with a Thousand Cuts: Executive Aggrandizement and Party-State Fusion in India’ (2020) 14(1) Law and Ethics of Human Rights 49.

  3. Khaitan, ‘Killing a Constitution with a Thousand Cuts’ (n 2).

  4. Jean Comaroff and John L Comaroff (eds), Law and Disorder in the Postcolony (University of Chicago Press 2006) 30.

  5. Gautam Bhan, ‘“This Is No Longer the City I Once Knew”: Evictions, the Urban Poor, and the Right to the City in Millennial Delhi’ (2009) 21(1) Environment and Urbanization 127; Varun Gauri, ‘Fundamental Rights and Public Interest Litigation in India: Overreaching or Underachieving?’ (2010) 1(1) Indian Journal of Law and Economics 71; Shylashri Shankar, Scaling Justice: India’s Supreme Court, Anti-terror Laws, and Social Rights (Oxford University Press 2009); Anuj Bhuwania, Courting the People: Public Interest Litigation in Post-Emergency India (Cambridge University Press 2017); Deepa Das Acevedo, ‘Sovereignty and Social Change in the Wake of India’s Recent Sodomy Cases’ (2017) 40(1) Boston College International and Comparative Law Review 1.

  6. Kim Lane Scheppele, ‘Autocratic Legalism’ (2018) 85(2) University of Chicago Law Review 545, 548.

  7. Ibid. 549–556.

  8. Dee Smythe, Professor of Public Law and Interim NRF Chair in Security and Justice in the Law Faculty, University of Cape Town; Raquel Pimenta, Professor of Law, FGV Sao Paulo; Fabio de Sa e Silva, Assistant Professor of International Studies and Wick Cary Professor of Brazilian Studies, University of Oklahoma; Deepa Das Acevedo, Associate Professor, University of Alabama School of Law.

  9. Mayur Suresh, Senior Lecturer in Law, SOAS; Mohsin Alam Bhat, Professor and Executive-Director of the Centre for Public Interest Law, Jindal Global Law School.

  10. Kim Lane Scheppele, Laurance S Rockefeller Professor of Sociology and International Affairs and the University Center for Human Values, Princeton University; Arvind Narrain, Visiting Faculty, Azim Premji University School of Policy and Governance, and Co-founder, Alternative Law Forum; Rebecca John, Senior Advocate, Supreme Court of India; Bachittar Singh, University of Alabama School of Law Class ’24.

  11. Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019, Act No. 47 of 2019.

  12. Samanwaya Rautray, ‘The UP Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020, Explained’ (Economic Times, 14 December 2020). Accessed 01 May 2022.

  13. ‘The States Where Cow Slaughter Is Legal in India’ (Indian Express, 08 October 2015). Accessed 01 May 2022.

  14. Ajay Jadhav, ‘BJP Worker Removes PM Modi Bust from Temple after Criticism, NCP “Disappointed”’ (Indian Express, 20 August 2021). Accessed 25 May 2022.

  15. Mayur Suresh, Deepa Das Acevedo, and Mohsin Alam Bhat, ‘Authoritarianism in Indian State, Law, and Society’ (work-in-progress).

  16. Granville Austin, The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation (Oxford University Press 1966).

  17. P Padmanabhan, ‘Undemocratic Heart of the Indian Constitution’ in AR Desai (ed), Violation of Democratic Rights in India (Popular Prakashan 1986) vol 1.

  18. Abhinav Chandrachud, ‘Due Process’ in Sujit Choudhry, Madhav Khosla, and Pratap Bhanu Mehta (eds), The Oxford Handbook of the Indian Constitution (Oxford University Press 2016); Austin, The Indian Constitution (n 16).

  19. Deepa Das Acevedo, ‘Temples, Courts, and Dynamic Equilibrium in the Indian Constitution’ (2016) 64(3) American Journal of Comparative Law 555.

  20. Mayur Suresh, ‘The Slow Erosion of Fundamental Rights: How Romila Thapar v. Union of India Highlights What Is Wrong with the UAPA’ (2019) 3(2) Indian Law Review 3(2) 212.

  21. Khaitan, ‘Killing a Constitution with a Thousand Cuts’ (n 2).

  22. Mayur Suresh, Terror Trials: Life and Law in Delhi’s Courts (Fordham University Press 2022).

  23. Seema Mustafa (ed), Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India: Writings on a Movement for Justice, Liberty and Equality (Speaking Tiger Books 2020); Ziya Us Salman, Shaheen Bagh: From a Protest to a Movement (Bloomsbury Publishing 2020).

  24. Arvind Narrain, India’s Undeclared Emergency: Constitutionalism and the Politics of Resistance (Context 2022).

  25. Constitution of India art 22(3), ‘Nothing in clauses (1) and (2) shall apply—(a) to any person who for the time being is an enemy alien; or (b) to any person who is arrested or detained under any law providing for preventive detention.’

  26. Choudhry et al., The Oxford Handbook of the Indian Constitution (n 18) Chap. 42 (‘Life and Personal Liberty’), Chap. 43 (‘Due Process’), Chap. 44 (‘Criminal Law and the Constitution’).

  27. Ibid. Chapter 43 (‘Due Process’).

  28. Ibid.

  29. Khaitan, ‘Killing a Constitution with a Thousand Cuts’ (n 2).

  30. Mayur Suresh, ‘The “Paper Case”: Evidence and Narrative of a Terrorism Trial in Delhi’ (2019) 53(1) Law and Society Review 173.

  31. Anubhav Vashishtha, ‘Mob Lynching: A Crime That Exonerates the Offenders in India? (Outlook India, 05 August 2020). Accessed 01 May 2022.

  32. The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967 s 43D(2) (extends the time for filing of chargesheet); s 43D(5) (rendering it almost impossible for persons chargesheeted under UAPA to get bail); ss 15, 16, 17, and 18 (substantive offences).

  33. Indian Penal Code s 124A; Siddharth Narrain, ‘“Disaffection” and the Law: The Chilling Effect of Sedition Laws in India’ (2011) 46(8) Economic and Political Weekly 33.

  34. Khaitan, ‘Killing a Constitution with a Thousand Cuts’ (n 2).

  35. Gyan Prakash, Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point (Princeton University Press 2019).

  36. ‘Karnataka CM’s Apparent Endorsement of Moral Policing Triggers Controversy’ (Indian Express, 14 October 2021). Accessed 01 May 2022.

  37. Christophe Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil, India’s First Dictatorship: The Emergency, 1975–1977 (Hurst Publishers 2020).

  38. Saumya Kalasa, ‘Karnataka Police Dressing Up in Saffron on Dussehra Sparks Controversy; Siddaramaiah Questions Bommai’ (News, 18 October 2021). Accessed 01 May 2022.

  39. Arundhati Roy, ‘India: Intimations of an Ending’ (Nation, 22 November 2019). Accessed 30 March 2022.

  40. Rangin Pallav Tripathy, ‘Why the Supreme Court’s Assault on the Right to Protest Is Fundamentally Undemocratic’ (, 07 October 2021). Accessed 01 May 2022. See also Naomi Barton, ‘What Happens When You Try to Protest against the Supreme Court?’ (Wire, 07 May 2019). Accessed 01 May 2022.

  41. See, generally, Harish Khare, ‘The Ramana Effect: The 48th CJI Has Restored Judicial Spirit and Spark’ (Wire, 17 September 2021). Accessed 01 May 2022; Ashish Tripathi, ‘CJI Ramana: A Determined, Courageous Reformer’ (Deccan Herald, 22 August 2021). Accessed 01 May 2022; Manu Sebastian, ‘Chief Justice NV Ramana’s Six Months in Office — New Rays of Hope in Judiciary’ (Live, 30 October 2021). Accessed 01 May 2022; Srishti Ojha, ‘“I Don’t Want Any Sealed Covers, Keep It with You”: Chief Justice of India Ramana’ (, 15 March 2022). Accessed 01 May 2022.

  42. Naomi Barton, ‘Juvenile Victims of Police Violence in Delhi Speak of Paying the Price for CAA Protest’ (Wire, 22 December 2019). Accessed 01 May 2022; Sagar, ‘How Detainees Were Denied Legal Counsel, Medical Help at the Daryaganj Police Station’ (Caravan, 25 December 2019). Accessed 01 May 2022.

  43. Nupur Thapliyal, ‘“Inefficient”, “Poor Standard”, “Lackadaisical”: Critical Observations Made by Now Transferred ASJ Vinod Yadav against Delhi Police Probe in Riots Cases’ (, 10 July 2021). Accessed 01 May 2022; ‘ASJ Vinod Yadav Transferred: 12 Instances Where the Judge Took On Delhi Police in Riots Probe’ (Wire, 07 October 2021). Accessed 01 May 2022.

  44. ‘Congress Shares Video Showing Vehicle Running Over Farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri’ (India Today, 05 October 2021). Accessed 01 May 2022.

  45. ‘Aryan Khan Granted Bail after 25 Days in Custody, to Walk Out of Mumbai’s Arthur Road Jail Soon’ (Economic Times, 29 October 2021). Accessed 01 May 2022.

  46. Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 s 2, inserting proviso to Clause 2(1)(b). Accessed 01 May 2022.

  47. Ensaaf, ‘Crimes Against Humanity in Punjab: Dinkar Gupta’. Accessed 01 May 2022. Note that the speaker adds: In 2021, Dinkar Gupta was made the Chairman of Punjab Police Housing Corporation and Iqbal Preet Singh Sahota replaced him as the DGP of the Punjab Police.

  48. Ensaaf, ‘Crimes Against Humanity in Punjab: Suresh Arora’. Accessed 01 May 2022.

  49. Ensaaf, ‘The Last Killing: A Film by Ensaaf’. Accessed 09 May 2022; Ensaaf, ‘The Last Killing’ (film). Accessed 09 May 2022.

  50. ‘India: Repeal Armed Forces Special Powers Act’ (Human Rights Watch, 18 August 2008). Accessed 09 May 2022. This article includes a link to a report published by Human Rights Watch discussing the draconian laws enacted by the Indian legislature by labelling specific areas as ‘disturbed areas’, therefore creating a legal exception by neglecting to hold accountable military personnel who violate human rights of the local population.

  51. Jaskaran Kaur, ‘A Judicial Blackout: Judicial Impunity for Disappearances in Punjab, India’ (2002) 15 Harvard Human Rights Journal 269; Ram Narayan Kumar et al., Reduced to Ashes: The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab (Final Report 1, South Asia Forum for Human Rights May 2003) 53–62, 104–121.

  52. Rifat Fareed, ‘India Arrests Prominent Kashmir Rights Activist under Terror Law’ (Al Jazeera, 23 November 2021). Accessed 09 May 2022; Intifada P Basheer, ‘When It Comes to UAPA Arrests, Kashmir Leads the Way’ (Outlook, 06 August 2021). Accessed 26 May 2022..

  53. Human Rights Watch, “WE HAVE NO ORDERS TO SAVE YOU”: State Participation and Complicity in Communal Violence in Gujarat, Report 14(3C) (April 2002) 4.

  54. Kaur, ‘A Judicial Blackout’ (n 51) 291.

  55. Ensaaf, ‘The Disappearance of Human Rights Attorney Sukhwinder Singh Bhatti’. Accessed 09 May 2022; Ensaaf, ‘The Murder of Human Rights Defender Jaswant Singh Khalra. Accessed 09 May 2022; Kumar et al., Reduced to Ashes (n 51) 16–21, 24–31, 73–74, 85–88.

  56. Achyut Mishra and Fiza Jha, ‘Pratap Bhanu Mehta on “Kashmirisation of India”, Gen Hooda on Challenges Post 370’ (Print, 06 August 2019). Accessed 09 May 2022.

  57. Scheppele, ‘Autocratic Legalism’ (n 6) 548.

  58. Hannah Ellis-Petersen, ‘Disha Ravi: The Climate Activist Who Became the Face of India’s Crackdown on Dissent’ (Guardian, 17 February 2021). Accessed 09 May 2022.

  59. ‘That even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth—this conviction is the inarticulate background against which these profiles were drawn. Eyes so used to darkness as ours will hardly be able to tell whether their light was the light of a candle or that of a blazing sun.’ Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times (Harcourt, Brace and World 1968) ix.

  60. See generally ‘Karnataka CM’s Apparent Endorsement of Moral Policing Triggers Controversy’ (n 36).

  61. Rajmohan Gandhi, ‘Inclusion of the Word Fraternity in Preamble Is of Historic Importance and Contemporary Relevance’ (Indian Express, 22 October 2020). Accessed 09 May 2022; Rowena Robinson, ‘In Search of Fraternity: Constitutional Law and the Context of Housing Discrimination in India’ (2015) 50(26–27) Economic and Political Weekly 54.

  62. Jignasa Sinha, ‘“Thought We Would Never Get Out … Faced Social Trial”: Natasha, Devangana, Asif Walk Out of Jail’ (Indian Express, 17 June 2021). Accessed 09 May 2022.

  63. Aditi Ghosh, ‘Asaduddin Owaisi Reads Out Preamble to the Constitution at Mumbai Rally’ (NDTV, 29 January 2020). Accessed 09 May 2022.

  64. Apoorva Mandhani and Debayan Roy, ‘Explained: This Is What Modi Govt Has Done to Scrap Article 370, 35A in Jammu and Kashmir’ (Print, 05 August 2019). Accessed 09 May 2022.

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Correspondence to Deepa Das Acevedo.

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Das Acevedo, D. Autocratic legalism in India: A roundtable. Jindal Global Law Review 13, 117–140 (2022).

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  • Autocracy
  • Democratic decline
  • Constitutionalism
  • India
  • Crisis