Archive for May, 2015

The Tyranny of Trifles

In his interesting book on his travels from Turkey to Pakistan, “Stranger to History”, Aatish Taseer has devoted one chapter titled “The Tyranny of Trifles” to the ways in which authoritarian regimes seek to maintain their hold on power. As he puts it “The emphasis on trifles, and the hypocrisies that came with it, had been institutionalised, turned into a form of control over the people…” This is not surprising in many countries to the west of India’s borders, where theocracies and terrorism have sought, with varying degrees of success, to impose their writ on the populace at large. It is far more surprising, not to say disturbing, when this obsession with trivia lodges itself in as vibrant and chaotic a democracy as India. And yet, events in India, in recent months and years, point in the direction of attempts to establish a monolithic society, through use of different instruments of the state and society.

Actually, this trend towards straight jacketing thought and action has its roots in historical events. We can hardly forget the treatment meted out to the celebrated artist, M. F. Husain, for his pictorial depictions of Hindu goddesses, leading to his flight from India and eventual death in exile. The longstanding prohibition regime in Gujarat state has exposed the hypocrisies of state action: if people want to drink, they can gain access to bootlegged liquor, often of the lethal variety. The only ones laughing all the way to the bank are the liquor suppliers and the arms of the state machinery in league with them.

But it is the recent efforts to dictate what the individual citizen should see, read, study, eat and create (through the written or visual medium) that give cause for concern about the encroachment on the freedoms guaranteed to each and every individual by the Indian Constitution. Let us first take the unsavoury furore over the screening of the documentary “India’s Daughter”. To display its masculine might, the Government of India applied its not-so-sensitive suasive powers to black out the documentary from social media. The law of unintended consequences kicked in here with a multiplier effect: the uproar drew public attention and led to probably a thousand fold or more increase in the number of Indians who, through one method or the other, viewed the documentary. A similar phenomenon was witnessed when, probably exhausted by a protracted court battle and recognising the harsh reality of a supportive social and political environment, a leading publishing house pulped the works on Hinduism of the scholar Wendy Doniger. To be honest, I, and probably 99.999% of all Indians, had never heard of her till the controversy blew up in public. The result: many more Indians, out of sheer curiosity if nothing else, acquired her books (till they were available) or googled to read more about her. Doniger should be grateful for the free publicity undertaken for her by obscurantist groups determined that only a particular view on the myths and legends of India should prevail.

The efforts to impose a particular world view on the educational system are part and parcel of this attempt at social engineering. We have already gone through the tamasha of the meaningless replacement of German by Sanskrit in the Kendriya Vidyalaya curriculum. As I observed in an earlier blog, this will neither help the students nor serve the cause of Sanskrit. Students will merely do what is required to secure good marks and forget about this language thereafter. To think that this step will promote Sanskrit scholarship in India is akin to chasing a mirage. The same argument applies to Yoga as well: Yoga goes far beyond mere physical training and involves complete development of the individual. Imposing it on school students, many of whom are unaware of and possibly also unwilling to follow its discipline will only devalue one of India’s major contributions to the world. Then again, the teaching of the Bhagavad Gita in schools represents a very unidimensional approach to promoting ethical values and the spirit of pluralism that characterises a multicultural society. There is no recognition of the lessons that other religions can contribute to the development of a tolerant, compassionate human character. Within the Hindu religion itself, there is no one accepted book; some follow the Upanishads, others the works of revered saints and seers, like the Thirukkural and the Ashtavakra Samhita, while many others follow oral traditions without reliance on any one book or treatise. Ditto for the efforts to rewrite history with a northern, Hindu perspective intended to eulogise India’s “glorious” past. Short shrift is given to Ashoka and Kanishka and the spread of Buddhism, the promotion of religious syncretism by enlightened rulers like Akbar and the magnificent kingdoms of the Chalukya and Vijayanagara empires in South India; revanchist history would have it that Hindu greatness died in the ninth or tenth century CE, never mind that the Vijayanagara kingdom fell only in 1565 CE.

My karmabhumi Maharashtra has not lagged behind in this obsession with trivia. We had policing of public morals in Mumbai with the ban on bar girls; not to be outdone by the previous government, the present one has intervened in the eating and entertainment habits of citizens. An almost two-decade old state legislation banning slaughter of bulls and bullocks was dusted off and given sanction recently by the central government, run by the same political party that did not see fit to give approval to this legislation when it was in power for six years at the turn of this century. Incomes and livelihoods of thousands of farmers, butchers and traders have been imperilled by this move, with grave consequences for social harmony. The law of unintended consequences (referred to earlier) will kick in here, with enormous rent-seeking powers being placed in the hands of the enforcement machinery in the police and municipalities. The compulsion on multiplexes in Mumbai to show Marathi movies in the primetime slot, since modified to a slot in the matinee and evening period, will benefit neither the multiplexes nor Marathi movies, if multiplexes run to poor audiences. How to make the Marathi film industry more robust and in tune with public tastes (a la Tamil cinema, never mind the quality) may yield better financial dividends for all concerned.

But it is in the arena of religion that one witnesses the greatest attempt at trivialisation of what ought to be one of humankind’s deepest experiences. The ghar vapsi (homecoming) campaign of some hard-line majority community groups has sought to make a big issue out of conversion of people born in the Hindu faith to other religions. Ignoring the fact that the Hindu religion has no provision for proselytisation, efforts are being made to reconvert people of other faiths (almost always from the lowest pecking order of Hindu society) to Hinduism. There are very serious issues of inequalities in Hindu society arising from the caste system, eloquently articulated by Dr. Ambedkar, which deserve introspection among all sections of Hindu society. Instead of focusing on what needs to be done to promote equality in Hindu society, attention is (probably deliberately) being drawn to the dangers of “minoritisation” of the majority community: yet another instance of seeking to preoccupy people’s minds with irrelevancies rather than getting them to confront (and change) uncomfortable truths.

So does all this give cause for concern? Yes, to the extent that it displays bigotry and a refusal to acknowledge the pluralistic nature of Indian society. And yet, in a chaotic, throbbing democracy like India (unlike its theocratic and autocratic confrères elsewhere), one can draw hope from a number of factors, borne out by the changes in Indian society and by recent history. India’s burgeoning middle class is irreverent in its treatment of the absurdities that too often characterise political and social discourse in India. Indeed, the foibles of political parties and “religious” outfits are grist to the mill for cartoonists, commentators and bloggers like me. With its innate capacity for jugaad, the Indian public will find ways to circumvent illogical and absurd governmental decisions. Wherever possible, the aam aadmi or aurat will blissfully ignore whatever executive fiats are hurled at her. Finally, if her patience is exhausted (which it will be if governments expend their time and energies on irrelevant issues rather than on crucial matters of governance), the Indian voter will exercise her prerogative in the exercise of her democratic rights: she will change the government without bloodshed at the next available opportunity (the most apt definition of democracy by the philosopher Karl Popper).

Who will guard the guardians?

Let me tell you a true story. The protagonist and the locale do not matter; this happens to the poor every day in Bharat that is India. However, to make storytelling easier, let us call our main character Sunil, a name one could encounter anywhere in India. Sunil is a migrant who runs a very small shop, polishing the meagre gold jewellery owned by the poor residents of his locality. Since this is scarcely enough to keep body and soul together, he takes on the occasional, temporary job of driving private cars and auto rickshaws — very much a member of the huge unorganised sector in India.

It all started one fine winter morning when four hefty men barged into Sunil’s small shop and forcibly bundled Sunil into a private vehicle parked outside the shop. No one knew who had taken him away or where he had been taken. His mother, frantic with worry, called his close friends, who started the search for him. Almost six hours later, they located him in a police station away from his locality, detained for questioning in a jewellery theft case. A known jewellery thief, in the custody of the same police, was present there, testifying that Sunil had acted as a fence in melting stolen gold jewellery and reselling it. The local head of Sunil’s clan, all petty jewellers, also rushed to the police station to try and secure his release.

This is where the story takes a twist. The sub-inspector of police on duty claimed that Sunil had helped in the disposal of Rs. 25 lakhs worth of stolen jewellery. He offered to drop the case if Sunil arranged for the payment of an amount of Rs. 25 lakhs. After much bargaining, the sub-inspector agreed to give Sunil a day’s time to arrange for the money. In parting, he also let drop casually that Sunil should not think of approaching any influential person to help him; in fact, he should not even try to get any legal help in his case. Else, the policeman warned, he would arrange for Sunil to be implicated in a number of theft cases, which it would take him years to wriggle out of. The message coming through loud and clear, Sunil returned to the police station the next day with the head of his local jewellers’ association to negotiate the terms for his freedom. After a daylong haggling session, the sub-inspector finally magnanimously agreed to settle the case for Rs. 75000. Sunil raised Rs. 50000 from the local moneylender for immediate payment. A delay in settling the remaining Rs. 25000 saw another visit from the police, following which Sunil moved pillar and post to square his accounts with the police. A shaken Sunil decided to close down his jewellery business and concentrate on setting up a small eatery, apart from occasional driving assignments, to feed himself and his family.

There are thousands of Sunils across the length and breadth of India who have to confront the criminal justice system on a daily basis. I refer here to the three arms of this system: the police, the jails and the courts. Even where they are not invested with special powers, the police represent a very repressive arm of the state. Small wonder, then, that most ordinary citizens give them a wide berth, notwithstanding encouraging slogans on police vans like “With you, for you, always”. Nearly all public institutions in India have a strongly extractive (and extortionist) nature: the police, with its immense powers, are only an extreme example. Once a common man enters the chakravyuha of this system courtesy a criminal case, getting out is a herculean task, especially for those with limited means and no influence. Investigations are rarely completed and charge sheets are often not filed in the prescribed 60 or 90 day period. If the unfortunate “accused” is not able to raise bail, he remains incarcerated for months (and sometimes years) on end in jails that breed criminality. The new entrant into this system is exposed to hardened criminals and, with a police record against his name, may find it easier to join their group if and when he is finally released. This may take many years, given that the wheels of justice grind so slowly in India. Paying even a hefty bribe is seen as preferable to getting entangled in the coils of this system.

So what needs to be done to ensure that Article 21 of the Constitution of India becomes a reality, rather than a dream, for the aam aadmi, with his right to life and liberty being safeguarded? While there have been a host of reports on improving the criminal justice system, some suggestions to guard the ordinary citizen against unnecessary arrest and incarceration are being given here. When the commission of a cognisable or non-cognisable offence comes to or is brought to the notice of the police, a First Information Report (FIR) should be registered online, with the Aadhaar (unique identity) of the suspect being entered; where there is no such Aadhaar number, the Aadhaar identity should be obtained within twenty four hours. The FIR will go into a database which has details of every single individual who is being arraigned before the criminal justice system. Where the individual is committed to police or judicial custody, the database will keep track of the custody period so that bail can be offered; where the individual is not in a position to arrange bail, the case should be pursued expeditiously through the investigation stage and filing of chargesheet to final disposal by the court. This is imperative since the 2012 report of the Law Commission of India has observed that over 66% of those in India’s overcrowded prisons are undertrial prisoners. A time limit should be set for conclusion of trials and for hearing of appeals on conviction or acquittal, say, one year for offences punishable with imprisonment upto three years and two years for offences punishable with imprisonment for more than seven years.

National Crime Records Bureau statistics show pendency in courts, as of end-2010, of over 12 million cognisable offences under the Indian Penal Code and other local and special laws. With the backlog of cases increasing over the years, there would be well over 15 million cognisable criminal cases pending in Indian courts as of 2015. Not only does this confirm the adage “Justice delayed is justice denied”, it also enables the wealthy and influential to subvert the processes of justice, leading to a gradual erosion of faith in the rule of law among the general public. Measures like increasing the size of police forces, establishing an independent investigative agency, improving the quality of public prosecution and speedier trials, as well as using modern technology in a range of areas from forensic investigation and digitisation of police records to videoconferencing for judicial/police remand and use of online systems to speed up judicial decisions are all welcome and will contribute to the effective delivery of justice. But, in the final analysis, it is the actors in the drama — policemen, prosecutors, jailors and judges — who will determine the quality of criminal justice. Unless there is total dedication and commitment in all these players, no amount of sophisticated technology or superior monitoring systems will make any noticeable difference. The Roman satirist Juvenal employed the term “Who will guard the guards themselves?” in his Satires in the early years of the millennium, although he used it in a different context. This concept, in the context of accountability of power, is generally ascribed to Plato’s Republic, where the main character talks of men being responsible for their own actions. This swarajya, where each citizen, but especially those entrusted with governing others, are aware of their responsibility in sustaining and nurturing a free society will, in the final analysis, determine the contours and directions of democracy in India in the coming decades.