Posts Tagged ‘democracy’

The Seven Pillars of Authoritarianism

  • “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime” – Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary, United Kingdom, August 1914
  • “I have often felt a bitter sorrow at the thought of the German people, which is so estimable in the individual and so wretched in the generality…” – Goethe
  • “The river of fire flowed past the French Embassy whence, with heavy heart and filled with foreboding, I watched its luminous wake.” – Andre Francois-Poncet, Ambassador of France to Germany, quoted in William Shirer: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, an autobiographical account of the exploits of British army man T.E. Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole in the 1962 David Lean starrer Lawrence of Arabia) draws its title from the Book of Proverbs. In todays’ world, the growth of authoritarianism in liberal democracies across America, Europe and Asia bring to mind the fateful words of the British Foreign Secretary, except that what we are increasingly witnessing is the feeble flickering and extinction of liberal democracy across the globe. This is by no means a Black Swan event; rather it reminds one of the frog getting roasted in increasingly hotter waters till it is too late to avoid the scalding. The path to authoritarianism is paved with the cobblestones of the veneer of democracy. What explains the inability of significant sections of the population in many liberal democracies to learn from past history? The answers lie in the seven modern pillars that support authoritarian structures.

  1. The need for an authority figure

Voltaire’s famous statement “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him” can be paraphrased into its twenty-first century version “If a strong man does not exist, it is necessary to create one”. Human beings are exposed to authoritarian tendencies right from infancy – the family, education system, job hierarchies, religious dogma, fear of the police, etc. Independent thinking is punished at different stages of life, sometimes severely. Repeated chastisements, perceived or real, at the hands of an authority – father, teacher, boss at work, policeman, God – convince a very large section of humanity that it is better off submitting to a “superior” force. The myth of the need for a “strong” leader is built on the gradual erosion of religion as an institutional authority over the past four hundred years. With no traditional belief to cling to, the modern human has shifted his/her allegiance in the past few decades to either the different versions of Marxism or to those claiming to provide alternative spiritual paths.  The greater danger arises when this unquestioned submission to an authority figure transmutes into blind reverence, more so when the authority figure is a political leader. Dr. Ambedkar’s prescient warning of the dangers of going down this path find resonance in what goes on in a number of democracies around the world today: “Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”

  1. Narrative based on a mythical past and a glorious future

The majority group which brings the leader to power needs to have a point of reference in the past when it was a dominant force and exercised firm control over society. Centuries when other groups exercised political and economic power have created bitterness in the minds and hearts of this group. Hence the hearkening back to a past that was perfect, one where milk and honey flowed in the land of one’s birth. The invader is blamed for all the infirmities that apparently hobble the majority community and prevent the nation from attaining its true pedestal in the world. This emphasis on the perfect past is buttressed by the contention that a glorious future awaits citizens of a culture who are proud of their superior heritage.

  1. Cashing in on insecurity and fear of the “other”

The failure of the neoliberal framework to address the problems of inequality and joblessness has led to disenchantment with existing governing elites and the yearning for a messiah who can lead the flock to the Promised Land. The messiah paints a picture of the rosy future s/he will bring about. Since the objective conditions that obtain in the economy and society are unlikely to bring about any appreciable improvement in the economic conditions of the populace, recourse is taken from the outset to identify an entity which is the ‘enemy’ of the dominant group that the messiah claims to represent. This ‘enemy’ could be one outside the country’s border, such as a hostile neighbour. But history and current events point to many instances where this ‘enemy’ is a group within the country’s borders, which aligns with the perceived ‘enemy’. This group is often a minority population, based on race, religion or ethnicity, which is accused of having received favoured treatment from political dispensations of the past. To these are added other sections of the ‘discredited’ elite, often liberals, intellectuals and academics.

  1. Working towards the leader

The task of the leader to achieve complete control is facilitated by factotums who anticipate every wish of their leader. The system operates on a logic where the leader does not have to spell out his/her wishes. Very often, the leader may not even be aware of the undemocratic excesses that are executed in his/her name. With the media being muzzled or playing to the tunes of the ruling regime and its leader, the ‘truth’ is often hidden from view. The political and administrative machinery strains its sinews to project the image of the leader as omniscient and omnipotent, even without any compulsion being exercised on it. Such ‘‘workers’’ fall in three categories. The first comprises those who blindly revere the leader. Nothing s/he does can ever be wrong. In this grouping are often those who have the intrinsic need for domination by a strong authority figure. It is not surprising that many who started their lives as ardent Marxist followers reach the extreme right wing recesses of the polity in their later years, as their need for authority trumps the use of reason and skepticism. The second group are the rank opportunists, who have perfected the art of switching masters during their tenures in politics, the bureaucracy, mass media or other civil society institutions. In the third category fall those who fear the adverse consequences of opposing the diktats of the state or voicing their opposition to patently illegal acts by organs of the state or non-state actors. When these three attitudes permeate those in the ruling elite, a situation develops where the decisions of a small coterie at the apex will be blindly obeyed without the rationale being questioned. This may well see repeated flip-flops in decision making, as inadequately thought out policies are first rushed through, then rolled back and finally implemented in a revised, piecemeal manner.

  1. Only doing my job, not aware of the larger picture

The Eichmann syndrome is very much visible in sections of the bureaucracy, including the police, which reassure themselves that they are only following orders. What they conveniently overlook is that these orders often violate not only existing laws but also constitutional principles, as well as eternal human values, which are the bedrock of a democracy. The political theorist Hannah Arendt has termed this phenomenon the “banality of evil”. Adolf Eichmann helped organise the deportation and mass murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime. As I have brought out in an earlier blog (The Evil That Men Do Lives In Them), “…Eichmann was no more than a mediocre bureaucrat executing as efficiently as possible the orders he received from above. It is chilling to contemplate that the Holocaust was the product of the thoughtless actions of numerous individuals: there was never any reflection by them on the consequences of their actions, no stirring of what we term as “the voice of conscience”. The Magistrate who blindly signs a proforma detention order or the police officer who registers a case on directions from others without ascertaining the true facts are symptoms of this malaise. The history of the forced sterilisations carried out by the bureaucracy and police in different parts of India during the 1975-77 Emergency period is still fresh in memory.

  1. Looking the other way

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr. “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” A democracy unravels through the indifference and inaction of the bulk of its citizens who rationalise their failure to protest or stand up for the truth by pointing to their insignificance and their inability to make any difference to the current state of affairs. This preoccupation with the future of oneself and one’s near and dear leads to a situation where the violation of the democratic rights of others and the emasculation of independent institutions charged with safeguarding democracy do not raise even a whimper. Such silence is seen as tacit support by those who seek to alter the democratic framework of society and emboldens them to pursue their goal of absolute control. It is reflective of modern societies that their educated, “intellectual” elites have little acquaintance with the Constitutions of their respective countries, leave alone having heard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is as though overweening consumerism has consumed all the finer elements that comprise human existence.

  1. Destruction of the system of checks and balances                                             

            A major fallacy in many liberal democracies today is the mistaken perception that elections equal democracy. In actual fact, a democracy is better defined by the events that occur in the interregnum between two elections. Chief among the characteristics that constitute a democracy is the independence of institutions that act as a check on the arbitrary exercise of executive power — the judiciary, media and other statutory bodies that conduct elections and monitor the actions of the executive in different spheres. What marks out present day authoritarian regimes from those of the twentieth century, notably Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Communist China, is their ability to control and manipulate independent institutions within the facade of a seemingly functional democracy. Elections are held regularly, there is a judicial system in place and the executive appears to function within the four corners of a constitutional structure. Institutional capture by the state (what some authors have termed as colonisation of the state) is revealed in the insidious manner in which independent institutions function. Whether motivated by adulation (for the ideology of the ruling dispensation), fear (of possible reprisal by the state) or anticipatory collaboration (in the expectation of future rewards), institutions hitherto deemed to be independent comply with the wishes of the government of the day. Ultimately, it is individuals who determine the strength of institutions and their ability to withstand the pressures of the executive. When individuals are compromised, either through blind belief, fear or prospects for self-advancement, institutional health suffers. Such a development during the tenure of a particular regime has its deleterious effects, which continue into the future and imperil the continuance of liberal democracy in a country.

Epitaph for liberal democracy?

            It is significant that the written Constitutions of the two largest democracies in the world — the United States of America and India — start with the words “We, the people”. Implicit in this is the clear assertion that it is the people of the country who have resolved to govern themselves in accordance with the provisions laid out in their Constitution. Both Constitutions stress the liberty of the Individual. In fact, the cornerstone of both the Constitutions is the centrality of the Individual, as against the age-old practice of giving the privileges of the social order primacy over individual rights. Securing these rights requires a vigilant citizenry, aware of and watchful over any transgression on these hard-earned rights. As the foregoing paragraphs bring out, it is the individual who will determine the character of democracy. When the individual chooses to forego this privilege, won after centuries of arduous struggle, it can truly be said that the death knell of twentieth century liberal democracy has been sounded.

Jaane Kahaan Gaye Voh Din

What particularly disturbed me about the recent events linked to the anti-CAA protests in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi was the numerous reports of the high-handed behaviour of the police force with students and the public  as well as their studied inaction when armed goons were given a free run of the JNU in the heart of New Delhi. Even if they had indeed been subjected to assault and grave provocation in UP (as they claim), there was no case for the police to vandalise residential dwellings and intimidate family members of those who may have been protesting on the streets. It is a laid down maxim of law and order maintenance that only so much force should be used as is required to bring the situation under control. Nor was there any justification for the use of unchecked violence by the guardians of law and order within the precincts of two reputed institutions of higher learning. But the evidence on record seems to indicate a police force intent on “teaching a lesson” to anti-CAA protesters and instilling fear in students in India’s premier universities.

As someone who has often been on the streets in his district days handling crowds (and mobs), I often wonder how a district officer (executive magistrate or police) can so easily forget his/her relationship with the local people. An officer posted in a district (or city) is in a fiduciary position with respect to the entire population in his/her jurisdiction. That is to say, a relationship of trust must exist between the government functionary and those s(he) serves. Nothing can be more satisfying (and, indeed, gratifying) to go back to an area one has served in two or three decades ago and run into people who remember one affectionately. What this requires, above all, is a deep commitment to the people one serves. Even when some of them are angry and hell bent on destructive activities, the effort should always be to resolve the immediate situation as peacefully as possible (use of force being a last resort) and, thereafter, rebuild the citadel of trust and mutual existence.

Maintaining a peaceful atmosphere in an area requires the officer to abide by the glorious words enunciated in the Preamble to the Constitution of India which highlight the eternal principles of “justice, liberty, equality and fraternity” and the word “secular”, which has been debased in the present day. Contrary to what right-wing moralists think, “secular” means an equal respect for all religions and religious practices with the full right being given to all to follow whatever beliefs they held. The District Magistrate (DM) and the Superintendent of Police (SP) are present at occasions of all religions / sects / communities, not merely to maintain law and order but equally to share in the sentiments of the members of all communities. In my time as a DM, I participated in activities on the occasions of Ambedkar Jayanti, Shivaji Jayanti, Ganapati festival, Ramzan Id and Bakrid, apart from the Urs of local saints.

This close relationship with people of different communities had its dividends when external events threatened to derail amity between these communities. Apart from formal Peace Committee meetings at district and taluka headquarters, there was also an outreach by the district administration to leaders and opinion makers in various political outfits and religious denominations to gauge the mood in different sections of the public, as also to send across the message that a close watch was being kept on activities likely to be detrimental to the maintenance of law and order.

Which is where I am aghast at the turn of events over the past six weeks, in Delhi and even more so in UP. Independent reports seem to indicate that the police at the thana level were operating on the direct orders of their political overlords, with little control by district officers. Barring one or two instances, there was no interaction of senior district officers like the DM and SP with the media; in fact, there was little evidence of their presence at the scenes of action. Nor were the Police Commissioner (CP) of Delhi or his senior officers to be seen handling the situation at JNU: the absence of arrests after three weeks tells its own tale.

What is increasingly worrisome is the sluggish response of the law and order machinery to open challenges to its authority. In the case of the agitations against the CAA, the intelligence outfits ought to have been aware of the unease in sections of the public. Surely, additional force could have been mustered to deal with the developing situation. Were any efforts made by the district administration to engage with local leaders to work out a method for peaceful expression of the feelings of those aggrieved?

I also find it difficult to believe that the district administration cannot, through impartial but strict policing of a developing situation, control the negative fallout. Lists of history sheeters, rowdies and known troublemakers are available with every DM and SP. The standard practice before festivals and before likely outbreaks of violence is to take preventive action under the Criminal Procedure Code, local Police Acts and, where absolutely necessary, even invoke the National Security Act. Generally, even-handed action is initiated against such elements in different communities to ensure that vested political interests are not able to assemble armies of such elements.

The pernicious influence of tawdry politics on the police and executive magistracy was already visible to me two decades ago, when I returned to district governance after a ten-year hiatus. Transfers of even taluka officials were being managed from state headquarters (in a supposedly progressive state like Maharashtra) and district and sub-district officers had developed close relationships with Ministers and MLAs. But it has been an article of faith for me (and many of my colleagues in the IAS and IPS) that firm, principled leadership of the DM and SP (and, where applicable, the CP and police officers under him) can enable control of volatile situations even in troubled times like those we see today.

It is here that I note with dismay the almost total abdication of their duties by the magistracy and police in the unfortunate occurrences in UP, Delhi and Karnataka since mid-December 2019. Where the police and district administration should have tactfully handled inflamed public opinion and let it release steam, they adopted strong-arm tactics. That a tactful approach worked in all those states where the police were not under pressure from the government of the day only proves the point. Where the police should have stepped in firmly (in JNU) when cognizable offences under the Indian Penal Code were being committed, they chose to look the other way, so much so that not one attacker has been arrested so far. The brazen shooting incident in Jamia in the full presence of the Delhi Police on Mahatma Gandhi’s death anniversary stands mute testimony to the utter collapse of policing in Delhi.

A healthy democratic system is critically dependent on effective, impartial institutions that are committed to upholding the rule of law. Often, this requires officers to take actions that are not to the liking of those in power, even if the consequences for these officers are not pleasant. But the recent instances where the police have overreacted, in UP and Delhi (Jamia), and have been wilfully inactive (JNU) point to a deeper malaise where the administrative leadership is virtually non-existent. Such a situation is hardly likely to inspire citizen confidence in its police. It is not as though in riots in the past, the district administration and the police were not partisan or sectarian in their approach. But in comparison with the present day, we may well be left feeling nostalgic for even a flawed administration of the past, humming Raj Kapoor’s line “जाने कहाँ गए वह दिन”.




The Importance of Being Irreverent


A lack of respect for people or things that are generally taken seriously (Oxford English Dictionary)

Not showing the expected respect for official, important, or holy things (Cambridge Dictionary)

We live in truly dystopian times. Times when an M.F. Husain is exiled from his country for his art, a Wendy Doniger has her book pulped for apparently blasphemous content, a Perumal Murugan is hounded out of his town by outraged religious-caste groups and a Gauri Lankesh pays for her writings with her life. Apart from these, we have had valuable manuscripts in a research institute in Pune destroyed because of the apparently derogatory reference to a major historical figure and violent protests against a movie which depicted a queen who was only a figment of a poet’s imagination. That all this has happened in the past couple of decades is a sorry testimony to the depletion of a sense of proportion in a country where the population has thrived on a rich diet of multicultural jokes and where poking fun at communities and important public figures has been a staple component of Indian democracy.

These developments are hard to stomach for many of us who were reared on community jokes and developed a capacity to extract a good laugh out of any situation. We started young and at home: my father would keep us kids in splits with his imitations of office colleagues, relatives and prominent politicians. The school environment was equally refreshing: we played football with our principal, an Irish brother complete in his cassock, and revelled in his one-liners and his ability to wake up a somnolent noontime classroom by sweeping all our geometry boxes off our tables.

But our irreverence was well and truly honed by the atmosphere at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University. Rags like Kooler Talk and Spice indulged in sly satire and societies like the Wodehouse Society exposed an entire generation to how humour could be gently used to expose the asininity and foibles of the nobs of British society. Direct action was also forthcoming, as when tomatoes were hurled in protest at the participants in a fashion show and when that parliamentarian par excellence, Piloo Mody, was pelted with pieces of chapati when he entered the college mess prior to a late evening session with college students. Our riotousness continued during our post-graduation phase in the Delhi School of Economics: the male members of the class turned up in lungis for a morning class in econometrics. Unfazed by this, the venerable Professor continued as if nothing had happened. Our PG class also started SPOSIDS (Society for the Preservation Of Sanity In Delhi School) to counter what we saw as a curriculum that was out of touch with the real world.

This refusal to take life seriously was maintained after entering the portals of the hallowed Indian Administrative Service (IAS). The targets were politicians and pompous senior officers who took themselves a bit too seriously. Peccadilloes of officers and politicians were the staple at gatherings of younger officers. Along with this there was a certain scepticism about the zeal shown by the powers that be for their pet programmes. It was recognised that politicians were in the game for continued access to power and the bureaucracy for the collateral benefits of glory, perks and prestige, and, increasingly, rentier income. Since flippant notings on musty files were frowned upon, gossip sessions over innumerable cups of canteen chai with one’s colleagues and bosses provided opportunities to laugh over the shenanigans of ministers and other politicians.

Having grown up in and been exposed to such an environment throughout one’s student and working life, I feel a deep sense of sadness today on seeing the barrage of hatred and abuse that accompanies any attempt at humour. Like Irish and Russian jokes, we had our existence enlivened by gentle barbs at Sardarjis, Bengalis, Parsis and Malayalis. Cut to the present and, if we are fortunate not to be lynched electronically or physically, we can look forward to a court summons from distant Guwahati or Bhubaneswar: if you don’t believe me, see what Abhijit Iyer-Mitra had to face for his admittedly silly comments on a particular state and its religious icons.

The quality of irreverence is a sine qua non for a healthy democracy. Go back to the middle ages and you have astronomers facing the threat of the stake for venturing to claim that the earth moved around the sun, refuting Ptolemaic wisdom. Christian Europe moved through the Reformation to the Enlightenment only because of a questioning attitude to life. Soviet Russia and its satellites were toppled by the growing irreverence of their citizens, who were heartily sick of the ideological diet that they had been fed for between forty to seventy years. And Indian democracy has been immeasurably enriched by the likes of Shankar, Laxman and Abu, who exposed the foibles and failings of politicians with their cartoons — Pandit Nehru invited Shankar to make fun of him. Contrast this with China or North Korea, where a hearty laugh has probably not been heard for decades.

So what has gone wrong in India? Why have we started taking ourselves so seriously? The demise of humour was heralded, ironically, at a time when the Indian economy seemed to have finally cast off its somnolence and started to acquire some dynamism. Growth was booming, the middle-class Indian had started to extend his/her reach to distant Silicon Valley and women were (at least in urban settings) increasingly asserting their independence. Patriarchal attitudes were, however, not going to accept defeat so easily. The threatened Indian male ego retreated into the world of religious chauvinism and misogyny to protect its position. Liberalism and gender equality were seen as threats to the existing traditional order. Established social norms were slow to adapt to the changed economic environment. The situation was exacerbated by a growing divide between groups — educational, digital and economic.

A moribund education system has seen a young population going through school and college without receiving “education” as such, if by education one means the ability to use reason and employ critical and analytical thinking to assess issues. A crucial reason for this has been the gradual demise of liberal education, grounded in the realities of society. Add to this the preponderance of technical and management courses with multiple-choice questions and you have a generation which cannot present cogent arguments in essay form. With most jobs not requiring analytical abilities and with the WhatsApp-Twitter era in full swing, pithy bytes are more popular than lengthy written discourses. It is easier to spew vituperative bile when one has only 260 characters to play around with.

While one may understand, even if not stomach, the growing expression of intolerance by India’s “educated” classes, what causes more dismay are the responses of institutions charged with protecting the right to freedom of expression. The highest court of the land refused to stay the arrest of a journalist by the Odisha government. Granted, this person shoots off his mouth intemperately, but forty days in the jug for a minor misdemeanour was rather harsh. As if that was not enough,  the Indian government (run by whichever party is in power in any state) tends to throw the rule book at any dissenter. If the charge of criminal defamation fails to stick, the government moves on to imposing the far graver charge of sedition. When even this accusation seems flimsy and liable to rejection by the courts, governments take recourse to the sledgehammer of the National Security Act, as experienced recently by a Manipuri journalist,  whose only crime was to refer disparagingly to the Chief Minister. Of course, as a last resort, governments can use the draconian provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) which enables long periods of incarceration of the accused while the wheels of justice grind agonizingly slowly.

All these developments over the past two decades have seen censorship (both by the self and by others in authority) cast its ominous dark shadow over the democratic landscape. It takes threats from just a few crazed fanatics for an author to stop writing, a filmmaker to rewrite a script, a university to withdraw a teaching assignment to a reputed scholar or a journalist or a dissenter to face assault culminating in murder.

The attack on perceived “irreverence” has adverse implications for creativity, with deleterious consequences for the development of the economy and society. Newton, Darwin and Einstein would never have made their path breaking discoveries if they had been nervously looking over their shoulders all the time for potential assailants. More critically, it contributes to damaging the delicate framework of checks and balances that are the bulwark of a democratic society, leading to irreparable damage to institutions. If civil servants cannot freely give dissenting opinions, police officers cannot crack down on offenders, judges cannot give judgments unpalatable to the political bosses of the day and academics cannot critically examine the policies of the government, that day is not far when a sheep like, adoring population is persuaded to jettison democracy for the charms of an all-powerful leader. We must let that prescient lawmaker, B.R. Ambedkar, have the final words “in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship”.



Cutting to the chase

ये दाग़ दाग़ उजाला, ये शब-गज़ीदा सहर

वो इन्तज़ार था जिस का, ये वो सहर तो नहीं  “

This feeble blemished light, this dawn mangled by night,

This is not the morning we had all so longed for” (Faiz Ahmed Faiz)


Three incontrovertible facts emerge from the latest bovine related lynching in India’s lynch district of Alwar:

  • Rakbar Khan was in the dairy profession
  • Rakbar Khan was murdered on the night of 20/21 July 2018 within the boundaries of Alwar district
  • Rakbar Khan leaves behind a large family with no visible means of support.

I find it necessary to state the above facts because I am never sure nowadays when fiction will rear its Hydra-like head, especially with Twitter trolls on the prowl. There is a numbing sensation of déjà vu, as yet another bovine-related lynching enters the statistics. Notwithstanding the Supreme Court admonitions, the pious statements of union government ministers and the incessant analysis on TV and in print media, we, as a people, seem to be asserting that lynching is our birthright.

Why am I less than sanguine that things will change for the better? Six reasons inform my pessimism:

  • The role of the police is getting more and more questionable, especially in states like Rajasthan. One Gagandeep Singh in Uttarakhand does not a summer make. Sometime before the latest lynching, we were informed that the Rajasthan police have found no evidence against six of the alleged perpetrators of the Pehlu Khan lynching, although they were named by him before his death. It is also puzzling why the statement of the dying person was not recorded before a Magistrate under Section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code. If no evidence of actual commission of the offence is made out against the accused, there is every likelihood that they may be acquitted. Final result: one murder, zero conviction.
  • Apologists for the accused, in states from Rajasthan to Jharkhand, claim that those accused/convicted were not actually part of the lynch mob but were innocent bystanders. If the police discount both dying statements of the deceased and video evidence, there is no way anyone can be convicted. Even where the local police, as in the Kathua (Jammu) and Ramgarh (Jharkhand) cases, carries out a thorough investigation, justice is sought to be delayed by the demand for the investigation to be handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation.
  • A mindset has been encouraged in the general public that any apprehension in their minds about the commission of an unlawful act, especially related to cattle, justifies lynching. This has been exacerbated by the mindless enactment of laws in state after state outlawing the sale of beef. Regulations on cattle trade were also sought to be stupidly enforced but withdrawn once there was public outcry and judicial intervention. My friend Harsh Mander has pointed out that the Meo Muslim community in the Mewat region of Haryana have traditionally been in the dairy trade. The virtual pogrom against members of this community when they seek to acquire and transport cattle would seem to be a vicious campaign to deny them their livelihood. Add a potent mixture of love jihad to this and murderous mobs can acquire nationwide licence to kill.
  • Any effort to painstakingly put together data on lynching incidents, relating to causes, community background of the victims and actual convictions, is immediately dismissed by apologists of the ruling establishment as partisan. The latest to face this ire has been the IndiaSpend site for its documentation of the frequency of lynchings since 2010.
  • Well-meaning advice to the government on tackling this menace suffers from the same attribution of motives. Former civil servants are allegedly supporters of the previous ruling dispensation (never mind that they suffered under them) or are peeved because they were denied the loaves and fishes of office after retirement (never mind that no evidence of any such link is given in even one individual case). The feeling is that a lie, if repeated often enough, will be deemed to be the truth by the public.
  • Finally, the actions and statements of prominent members of the ruling party over the past four years have emboldened those who feel their actions are beyond the pale of law. Bland statements by the Prime Minister and Union Ministers on the law taking its course have cut no ice with the rank and file, who continue to issue irresponsible statements without being reined in by their leaders. The latest culprits are a Minister in the Jharkhand government and a senior ruling party functionary in the same state (in the Swami Agnivesh assault case) and a Union Minister (after the latest Alwar lynching).

I am not (as yet) a subscriber to conspiracy theories or to deep, hidden motives behind the actions of politicians who are not thinking beyond the next elections. But, as a citizen of the great Indian experiment in democracy and as an active participant in public service for over three decades, I feel I must stand up for the basic values and ideals that motivated me and my colleagues in the civil services to give of our best to the people of India during our careers. After seeing how things have evolved over the recent past and how justice has more often than not been denied to those at the receiving end of violence and injustice, I am firmly of the view that we must now come to the point. Justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done. With this objective, I offer my own two bits on what needs to be done to restore faith of the families of lynch victims in the rule of law:

  • Lynching, that is mob violence directed against a person or persons, needs to be codified in the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The issue is too grave and urgent to leave it to states to pass their own legislations. It needs to be specified that all persons comprising the crowd at a lynching site will be deemed to have acted with a common intention (as defined in Section 34 of the IPC) and will, as abettors, be liable for the same punishment as the actual perpetrators (presuming that culpability of the latter can be established in a mob situation). All such persons should be liable for the same punishment as prescribed in the IPC for causing death, grievous hurt, etc.
  • Sections 217 to 223 of the IPC must be rigorously invoked against police personnel who try to save perpetrators of lynching offences by doctoring/falsifying First Information Reports, deliberately destroying evidence, etc. Needless to say, police personnel who are present at the site of a lynching and do not use all the resources at their disposal for prevention of the lynching (which they are authorised to by law) should, in addition to the punishment for public servants mentioned above, also be culpable for the offence committed and punished accordingly. Removal of such elements from the police force would also send out a very strong message.
  • Section 51 of the Bombay Police Act, 1951 empowers the District Magistrate to fix compensation payable to affected parties in cases where unlawful assemblies result in death/serious injuries to persons. The compensation amount can be recovered from all inhabitants in a particular area or from specific classes of persons. Forcible recovery methods, as in case of land revenue arrears, can be employed to realise this compensation amount. Such a measure will not only discourage public participation in such offences but may also help in advance intimation being given to the police by parties who do not wish to be held liable. In the present case in Alwar, such compensation would provide much needed succour to a poor family which has lost its breadwinner.
  • Administrative responsibility must be fixed for such acts, especially where they recur in a particular area. In the present case, there are good grounds for seeking the resignation of the Rajasthan Home Minister under whose watch a series of incidents, which have shocked the conscience of all right-thinking citizens, have taken place over the past couple of years and whose police have not been able to convincingly bring to a final conclusion even one case of lynching thus far. More than just administrative responsibility, a case is also made out for the ruling party to take action against its Union Minister who has tried to draw a parallel between the spate of lynchings and attempts to defame the Prime Minister. The utterances of the Jharkhand Minister, who sought to deflect the seriousness of the assault on Swami Agnivesh by commenting on his character and antecedents, are equally reprehensible. Such statements by responsible state functionaries, who have sworn to function in accordance with the Constitution of India, reduce the sanctity of the rule of law.

Democracy is always a tender plant that needs to be nurtured carefully. The responsibility for its nurture falls most on those entrusted by the people of this country with ensuring their safety and security. The time is past for delivering homilies. Justice, in accordance with the rule of law, has to be delivered speedily and efficiently. Let not the present ruling dispensation go down in history as one which destroyed the people’s faith in democracy and the rule of law.


No Shades Of Grey for India

I am not, as you might think, advocating the banning of the erotic book and film which have titles similar to the headline of this blog. But I am getting increasingly convinced that operating in grey areas is something Indians revel in. The new millennium has offered adequate proof that Indians abhor convention and thrive on discretion. While departing from the former allows for abominable behaviour even in the temples of Indian democracy, adhering like blood-sucking leeches to the latter enables the growth of the rent-seeking economy and polity. Where laws exist, bend them to suit oneself and one’s clan (even if discreetly) and, where they are silent, may the devil take the hindmost, decencies be damned.

Let us start with the legislatures, the roots of democracy in India. Over the last decade, we have seen the top two legislative organs of the country, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, apart from a number of state assemblies, being held hostage by elected representatives. Rushing to the well of the House, disrupting legislative business, indulging in fisticuffs and even grabbing the Speaker’s mace have been par for the course. A very far cry from the conventions in the British Houses of Parliament, where the Speaker’s word is law and where, once the Speaker has risen from her chair, all members on their feet must resume their seats. Of course, the farce commences even before the assembly commences its first sitting. Karnataka 2018 is its latest and most dramatic example. After a rather dubious decision by the Governor, the Supreme Court (SC) stepped in to order an immediate trust vote on the floor of the House. Flouting established convention, the Governor departed from the established procedure of appointing as pro tem Speaker the senior most elected member, generally from the opposition, to conduct the proceedings prior to election of the regular Speaker. This was obviously done to smoothen somewhat the winning of the trust vote by the newly sworn in Chief Minister (CM). Unfortunately, for the BJP, the SC fettered the discretion of the pro tem Speaker such that the CM had to resign within thirty-six hours of being sworn in.

But conventions have died a painful death in India over the years, assisted by constitutional functionaries. At the behest of whichever party is ruling at the centre, Governors of states have twisted the provisions of the Constitution of India, notably Article 356A, to help dismiss elected governments of a political hue different from the centre. As India steps squarely into the era of hung Parliaments/Assemblies and coalition governments, Karnataka and, before it, Goa, Manipur and many other instances represent the जिसकी लाठी उसकी भैंस (he who holds the stick controls the buffalo) mentality that dominates the Indian psyche. “Show me the Governor and I’ll show you the government” seems to be the prevailing motto. This blog does not have the space to go into the Sarkaria Commission recommendations on government formation in the states or the SC rulings in the SR Bommai and Rameshwar Prasad cases. But common sense would dictate that, after a tiring, costly election process, that government is sworn in which has the best chance of lasting the next five years. When the largest party falls well short of a majority and there are not enough independents and members of other small parties to help it cross the half-way mark, the logical course of action would be to invite post-poll coalitions of other parties, which have affirmed their joint intention of government formation, and give them a chance to prove their majority on the floor of the House. The Governor does have discretion but, as a functionary who has sworn to uphold the Constitution, (s)he is duty bound to act in a manner which does not reek of political partisanship.

Governments of all political persuasions have never been respecters of conventions. Recently, the Income Tax (IT) department raided the Badami (Karnataka) resort owned by an MLA-hopeful of the Congress during the election process. Nothing wrong in this, except the timing! Did the raids by the IT department and the subsequent attention supposedly lavished on him by the Enforcement Directorate have anything to do with his recent switch of loyalties from the BJP to the Congress? This worthy, after many twists and turns in the saga, appears to be as yet with the Congress, but who knows what the morrow brings? There were also disquieting media reports that loyalty of some MLAs was sought to be bought by promising leniency in investigation of economic offences in which they were allegedly involved. With the reputation of central investigative agencies already at an all-time low, efforts at their subornation are a cause for worry.

In the prevailing gloom over the functioning of the legislature and the executive, the performances of the Election Commission of India (ECI) and the SC give cause for cheer. In what was a bruising election, the ECI ensured the free exercise of franchise, though the role of muscle and money power in influencing voters is still a disease that requires remedy. The SC moved swiftly to check efforts to influence legislators and its eagle eye ensured that no attempts were made to monkey around with the trust vote process.

In the final analysis, however, it is the moral fibre of individuals that will determine the development of healthy practices in a democracy. We had the newly sworn in BJP CM of Karnataka announcing a farm loan waiver, transferring key police officials and seeking to augment his party’s strength in the trial of strength by nominating a legislator from the Anglo-Indian community (until restrained by the SC). We had the top legal functionary of the Central Government, the Attorney-General, foregoing his beauty sleep to appear in the predawn SC hearing and advancing ludicrous arguments that effectively encouraged horse-trading (man-trading??). We had the newly-elected MLAs apparently so vulnerable to inducements and threats that they had to be shepherded like preschool children, with no guarantee that they will not play truant in the coming months. To this date, government formation by the JD(S)-Congress combine has been bedeviled by the chase after lucrative portfolios. We had electronic media representatives treating this entire episode as a chess game and speculating on who will bring money and muscle to bear on government formation. And, finally, there is the ordinary citizen, inured to the reality that, to get ahead in life, you need to jump the red signal, help your wards cheat in examinations and part with mamool to grease your way through government. Where is the sense of shame and probity in all these individuals, and countless others? One senses no sadness or weariness in witnessing the repeated drama, just another Roman circus for the masses.

At least for the near future, we seem to be in a situation where it may be necessary to codify important conventions to get over the Indian aversion to following commonly accepted norms. There is already a code of conduct for elections. Similar codes need to be evolved for, among other things, procedures of government formation at the centre and in the states, conduct of legislative business, appointment of governors, powers of investigative agencies once elections have been announced and conduct of private activities of legislators that conflict with their public roles. These codes need to be implemented rigorously with salutary penalties for their infringement which could range from public shaming to loss of office.

However, nothing will really change until the educated thinking classes assume the responsibility for setting our derailed democracy back on the rails. Let us not forget that a diverse group of thinking Indians, seventy years ago, drafted one of the most glorious modern-day Constitutions. Keeping it alive, and enriching it further, is, alas, a task our present generation has failed in miserably. Karnataka is the latest manifestation of the terminal disease afflicting our democracy, which needs skilful doctors, not butchers. We ignore this at our own peril.


Boys will be boys

Girish Karnad essayed the role of a young, idealistic dairy technologist in Manthan, an inspiring movie on the politics of starting a dairy cooperative in Gujarat. The local overlord, played by Amrish Puri, attempts to win over Karnad by offering him choice liquor, which our young man firmly refuses. Puri then, with a sarcastic laugh, states that he is very fond of idealists, since they are bound to lose their idealism one day. I don’t know how many of the actors on the prosecution side of la affaire JNU, our recent box office hit on television, have seen this movie. Even if they haven’t, they would probably have done well to have taken a leaf from Puri’s book and treat the entire JNU episode as another case of boyish spirits which merited at most a mild rap on the knuckles and a word of reproof, with a knowing nod of the head, that “boys will be boys”. By throwing one of the more draconian sections of the Indian Penal Code at the students of the University, the government of the day unwittingly conferred a distinction on these students and willy nilly dragged itself into a controversy that led to international condemnation as well as a suspicion in the public mind that there was a political agenda behind the entire imbroglio.

My generation passed through the portals of higher education during the days of the Emergency of 1975-77. Even prior to that, there was considerable ferment in idealistic sections of the student population. The exploits of Che Guevara in Latin America, the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war protests in the USA and the distant rumbling of the Naxalite uprising in Bengal were all beacons of hope for sections of youth that had come face to face with the unravelling of the post-independence Nehruvian consensus. Scores of students from the neoliberal environment of Delhi University left their studies to pursue their dreams of a classless society. Severe state repression and the vortex of violence the movement spawned led to a fairly early disillusionment with the Naxalite movement and the homecoming of the chastened prodigals. Their future careers in academia or the civil services (almost the only two job openings at that time) would have been severely jeopardised had the then Government of India not had the sagacity to overlook their youthful enthusiasm and withdraw possible prosecutions against them. Many of these potential “revolutionaries” went on to outstanding tenures in the civil services and the academic world, especially as teachers in the university that is at the centre of the present controversy (some have moved from Trotsky to the Temple, but that is another story). There was (and is) a deep humanism and liberalism informing the approach of many of them to social, political and economic issues. The Emergency represented the darkest phase of Indian democracy, but it also had one redeeming feature: it sensitised the youth of my generation to democratic values of freedom and human dignity and developed in many of us distaste for authoritarianism of all hues. Freedom to us meant freedom of thought, speech, association, profession of any religion (or no religion) and culinary choice, to name the prominent ones. Colleagues of mine in the Indian Administrative and Police Services stood up to excesses of different political formations when they attempted to trample on the constitutional rights of ordinary citizens in the name of religion, caste, ideology, ethnicity or region.

I stress this cherishing of fundamental human values, because I am aware of the educative role of the university in developing the thinking individual in each of us. It is made all the more poignant in view of the recent calls by many highly qualified persons to students to concentrate on their studies and not on politics during their stay in the university. Proponents of this school of thought seem to view the role of institutions of higher learning as producing technology zombies of the sort popularised in the Dilbert comic strip, rather than alert, aware citizens who will participate actively in the ongoing process of social transformation. Unfortunately, this betrays a highly technological view of the roles of discussion and dissent in public discourse. Any discussion on issues relating to the human condition and efforts to better it are inevitably political in nature. It would appear that significant sections of the intelligentsia still view the development of the critical faculty in individuals from an authoritarian perspective. Probably, this has its roots in the parental and social (including educational) environments which stress conformity rather than curiosity. From personal experience, I can certainly aver that independent modes of thinking and functioning evolved only when I entered college. Nor can I claim that my true education came from the classroom: rather, it was the product of hours of discussion after class on diverse issues ranging from politics to social issues and values.

V.S. Naipaul characterized India as a land of a million mutinies over forty years ago, easing somewhat the resentment of Indians over his earlier reference to the country as an area of darkness. If Naipaul was right then, we would have to term this as the land of a billion mutinies now. Assertions of identities by disadvantaged castes and communities, not to mention the struggles of the female half for their rightful place in the Indian sun and the refusal to be denied their economic opportunities, have led large sections of the population to question the traditional, patriarchal social structures. The university has served as an avenue for upward mobility and for questioning the existing power structure. Any political party which seeks to assert the monopoly of its ideology and restricted worldview over institutions of higher learning, through manipulation of teaching processes and educational curricula, is pursuing a chimera. As Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan affirmed in a recent speech at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai “The first essential is to foster competition in the marketplace for ideas…This then leads to a second essential: Protection, not of specific ideas and traditions, but the right to question and challenge…it is by encouraging the challenge of innovative rebels that society develops.” Governments learn this lesson far too late – the Congress government in 1977 reaped the consequences of the denial of free expression to the student population in higher education institutions for twenty months.

Ultimately, the Argumentative Indian will have his say. Having had his say, he will then move on to the basic business of earning his livelihood. Governments in a democracy need to provide a pressure valve to a population, many of whose members still suffer from myriad economic and social deficiencies. Ignoring this reality can prove fatal for a government when it next goes to the hustings. The first requirement for a successful, popular politician is a keen sense of irony laced with good-humoured forbearance, a quality sadly lacking in most of the political class in India today. The first generation of Indian political leaders was jailed by the British; the second generation of political leaders was jailed by the Congress. It would be truly ironic if the third generation of leaders of independent India were to emerge from those currently being jailed by the present government. Who can tell, every cloud may have a silver lining!


Centralization – The bane of governance in India

Any newly born nation nurses a sense of insecurity, more so since the nation state is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history. There are also enough doomsayers hovering around with their dire prophecies. The Indian nation-state has had more than its fair share of such pessimistic prophets in the early decades after independence. It also had to contend with the aftermath of the Partition and the amalgamation into the Indian Union of over five hundred princely states, not all of them exactly ecstatic about the prospect. There was, therefore, an overwhelming opinion in the then leaders of the Indian government that, given the daunting challenges faced by the nascent Indian state on the economic, social and political fronts, a strong centre was a prerequisite for not just the development of, but even the survival of India as an independent nation. Not surprisingly, the Indian republic came to be categorised as “a unitary state with federal features.”

Interesting though it is as a subject, this article is not focusing on the political aspects of centralisation but rather on the impact on governance of such centralisation of powers. It needs to be made clear that concentration of powers is a vice that affects every political formation, indeed every organisation that operates in the public and private spheres in India. It is also an accepted axiom that each level of government is in favour of devolution of administrative and financial authority only upto its own level. Thus, while state governments, especially of different political persuasions from the government at the central level, have harped, right from Tamil Nadu in the late 1960s, on greater devolution of powers to them, they have been conspicuously silent when it comes to devolving powers to local governments. The three experiments in democratic decentralization in the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka have been aborted over time to protect the economic and political interests of state-level politicians. The implications for governance, especially at the level of the aam aurat/aadmi, have not been exactly salubrious.

There are both charitable and uncharitable explanations for the propensity to centralize economic and political powers. The “charitable” ones include:

  • the colonial mindset, prevalent to this day, that the natives are not fit to govern themselves. Politicians and bureaucrats, at central and state levels, never tire of relating horror stories about the misdemeanours of local governments;
  • the mistaken assumption that centralisation of financial powers and procurement decisions lead to savings;
  • the continuing faith in the efficacy of a Soviet-era centralized planning system, where the know-it-all bureaucrat sitting in a cubby hole in Mumbai/Delhi hands out schemes and money to the public.

There are also some “uncharitable” reasons for this love for centralisation:

  • the realisation of the state-level politician that his continued existence depends on justifying his utility to the system. This politician is aware that the emergence of powerful grass root leaders is a threat to his future in politics. This phenomenon, observed in the Indian National Congress since the 1970s, has since percolated to every political party. Devolution of powers to local governments would also obviate the need for top-heavy governments at the central and state levels, thus rendering many politicians jobless;
  • the bureaucracy being seen as a vehicle for guaranteed, lifelong employment, without any accountability for performance. There is the rather patronising belief that bureaucratic interventions can solve all problems, hence the operation of Parkinson’s Law with a vengeance in the Indian government system: staff expands to create more work, with, in fact, a diminution in efficiency. Increasingly, public service has also become a self-service system and a foolproof mechanism for rent-seeking, the stress being on kimbalam (illegal gratification) rather than sambalam (salary), to use Tamil terminology.

Centralisation can take the form of intervention in procurement contracts, discretionary distribution of scarce resources (land, public funds, primary schools, colleges, universities, etc.) and formulation of policies from above imposed on those whom schemes are intended to benefit, as well as the imposition of rigid guidelines which the “street-level bureaucracy” is expected to follow in letter and spirit. The damage resulting from such a system can be long-term, often resulting in serious misallocation of resources, with concomitant effects on economic development. Drawing on my three decades of experience in the civil services in India, I have identified six major consequences of centralized decision-making:

  • Corruption: Lord Acton rightly observed “…absolute power corrupts absolutely”. In the Indian context, we can safely say that absolute centralization corrupts absolutely. Primary education has been one major casualty; ministers deciding where and when schools are to be run, and by whom, have spawned a multi-million rupee black market in school education. The same pattern has been emulated in the case of higher education, with even more profitable results. Influential politicians and their backers run huge education empires today, often of extremely dubious quality. Maternal and child nutrition is another area where the Supreme Court Commissioners have documented a number of instances of state governments sidestepping the Supreme Court guidelines to award food supply contracts to monopoly contractors, ignoring local self-help groups. Recent actions of the central and most state governments indicate a tendency to favour individual contractors over local groups in food supply, ostensibly on the grounds of improved nutrition, although the evidence of years of centralized monopoly supply strongly indicate otherwise (as verified personally by yours truly at anganwadis (day care centres) in rural Maharashtra). It can always be argued that no corruption has been specifically established but then Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion: the antecedents of these contractors and their political connections leave ample room for suspicion.
  • Faulty policy design: Decisions in Delhi often do not work in the gallis (streets). The examples of three major policy initiatives of the previous government which continue under the present government show how top down policy making can stymie the best of intentions. Take the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee programme (MGNREGA). Designed to provide 100 days of employment to each member of the rural population who seeks work, the scheme drew on earlier examples such as the Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS) of Maharashtra, which was intended to provide on-demand work at times when there were no work opportunities in agriculture. The problem with the MGNREGA lies in its design. Unlike the EGS, the MGNREGA is implemented across all districts in a state regardless of whether the prevailing economic conditions warrant such a wage programme. Common sense would dictate that there would be few takers for such a programme in a district like Kolhapur in Maharashtra with its extensive irrigation facilities and well developed agriculture and ancillary activities. It takes me back to 1989 when a precursor central programme, the National Rural Employment Programme (NREP), was implemented across all districts of Maharashtra. We found it almost impossible to get labour for this programme in a district like Parbhani in Maharashtra, where rural employment was abundantly available in the irrigated agricultural areas. In such a scenario, the local bureaucracy ends up subcontracting the entire programme to local contractors, who then use machinery to carry out the work, defeating the very purpose of the programme. Food security and education are again two areas where the ambitious universal thrust of the programmes does not take into account the glaring deficiencies in the public distribution and education systems in most states. Nor does it appear that the budgetary provisions the Government of India is making and that state governments are likely to make will enable universalisation of these two programmes.
  • Inefficiency: In my days as an IAS probationer, it was drilled into us that, as District Magistrates, we should assume a proactive role in firmly tackling violence between or directed against communities. The recent judicial commission report on the Muzaffarnagar violence of 2013 has faulted the district administration and the local police for inaction in preventing and subsequently containing violence during the riots. My surmise would be that the District Magistrate and the Superintendent of Police were looking over their shoulders for directions from their higher-ups on how to deal with elements that obviously had powerful political backing, instead of moving swiftly to nip the trouble in the bud through preventive arrests and a show of force. Centralisation in times of crises deters prompt, effective action. Yet another example comes to mind from a sector I am familiar with. The Directorate General of Hydrocarbons (DGH) was set up to regulate petroleum exploration and production activities in India. Over the years, a paranoid mindset in government agencies and the “intelligentsia” has led the DGH to refer every investment decision involving private operators to the Petroleum Ministry for approval. Contractual timelines for approval of proposals were blithely ignored while the mandarins in government wrestled with the decision process. That golden mantra of centralisation, referral to a committee, ensured that natural gas prices took years to be finalised. The final solution has satisfied neither the companies nor the command economy socialists in the intelligentsia, while the chimera of market-determined gas pricing recedes further into the future.
  • Demotivated street bureaucracy: Centralized programmes lay down rigid guidelines with almost no scope for exercise of innovation by those actually responsible for ground-level implementation of these programmes. Accompanying this is the tendency to distrust the lower bureaucracy, doubt their commitment and make scapegoats of them for faulty policy design. Complex and arduous reporting requirements tie up field staff in paperwork, not giving them time to attend to their clientele. It is no wonder then that there appears to be little enthusiasm for meaningful programme implementation with a specific focus on outcomes. The sense of a larger purpose in their professional life and of engaging in a noble mission is never inculcated in grass root workers. We observe this in the large majority of teachers and health and nutrition workers. No encouragement is given to primary level workers to use their initiative to resolve local problems, nor are small amounts of money made available to them to meet their basic infrastructure requirements or to experiment with ideas that can contribute to the success of the programme.
  • Disempowered communities and individuals: Programmes handed down from above almost never draw on the problem solving abilities of local communities. It is evident in the very designation of the recipient of the scheme as a “beneficiary”, effectively ruling out her participation in the design and implementation of the scheme meant for her. An overburdened, often disinterested bureaucracy is largely concerned with delivering the inputs and completing its targets, with no emphasis on either the processes of implementation or the desired outcomes.
  • Damage to democracy: The process of centralized decision making is, in the final instance, detrimental to the development of an aware, active citizenry that can contribute to the democratic process. As passive recipients, people are deprived of the capacity to participate in decisions that significantly impact their lives. When programmes fail to deliver the desired results, the consequent disenchantment often drives the disempowered into the clutches of demagogues who promise them the earth and capitalise on their fears to undermine the democratic framework of society.

Recent trends in the pattern of budgetary transfers from the central government to the states give more cause for concern. Devolving more untied funds to states will place more unbridled discretion for patronage in the hands of unscrupulous politicians and bureaucrats. State governments have, in any case, never been enthusiastic promoters of democratic decentralization. With little accountability for the manner in which public money is spent (or rather, misspent) and with little fear of being brought to book for their misdeeds, it looks as though, in the words of the Harvard University economist Lant Pritchett, India’s “flailing” governments will continue to flail away.


Intolerance…for the rule of law

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (S.G. Tallentyre)

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines tolerance as “willingness to accept feelings, habits or beliefs that are different from your own.” A related definition is “the ability to accept, experience or survive something harmful or unpleasant.” Acceptance is the word common to both definitions: this implies accommodation by the individual of the acts or thoughts of another, even though they may conflict with his deepest convictions, indeed with his very way of life. The limits of such tolerance are set by the legal framework; the Constitution of India, while enunciating the inalienable freedoms available to every resident of India, has also circumscribed these to the extent necessary to protect the rights of other individuals and to preserve the essential social fabric of the country. All other laws are subordinate to the Constitution; over the past almost seven decades the superior courts have struck down a number of legislative enactments which were deemed to violate the basic structure of the Constitution. Implicit in this process is the recognition that a democracy is run by the rule of law and the final arbiter of any act, whether by word or deed, is the judiciary.

It is, therefore, with a sinking feeling that one observes the steadily growing tendency of different groups to ignore and often show their contempt for the rule of law. Indian society has, like any other society, displayed strains of intolerance towards socially disadvantaged sections, based on caste, religion and gender, to name just three categories. In recent times, the shabby treatment of the noted artist, M. F. Hussain, and the politically motivated attacks in Maharashtra on newspaper editors and academic institutions that were deemed to have insulted the memory of the warrior king Shivaji were instances of intolerance that made headlines. What is disturbing in India’s history over the past many decades is the resort to violence against helpless individuals and the perceived failure of the law and order machinery to protect them or bring the perpetrators of violence to book. Most recently, the mob violence in Muzaffarnagar in 2013 and the lynching of a man in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, in 2015 for allegedly consuming beef have been followed by the execrable act of lawyers indulging in violence against a student leader accused of the crime of sedition. What these three incidents starkly bring out is the brazen disregard for the operation of the rule of law. In all three cases, apologists belonging to the currently ruling dispensation have sought to ex post facto justify the perpetration of violence. More dangerous even than the display of intolerance towards fellow human beings is the utter contempt for the rule of law that these actions reveal.

Democracy is traditionally believed to rest on four pillars: the executive, legislature, judiciary and the press. With the spread of representative democracy and the growth of the internet, many commentators add a fifth pillar in the form of civil society. The 2011 Arab Spring is a vivid reminder of the power of public opinion and social media in shaping the course of events in a country. How has India fared in terms of the performance of these pillars and what are the lessons to be learnt if the tender plant of democracy is to take firm root in Indian soil?

Organs of the government, especially the police, have often displayed distressing levels of partisanship in handling conflicts between different communities and in protecting life and property. Indira Gandhi’s “committed bureaucracy” has been a spectator to, if not a participant in, India’s worst communal conflagrations — Delhi (1984), Mumbai (1993) and Gujarat (2002). The executive arm of the state is generally intolerant of criticism and the Indian executive is certainly no exception to this rule. But what marked out the latest incident in the public eye, the JNU case, is the extraordinary interest shown by the highest levels of the government in what were statements by youth in its usual phase of excited fervour. What could have been handled as a local incident and dealt with (if at all necessary) as a disciplinary matter by the University has been allowed to blow up into a controversy which has attracted national and international attention. Having committed one error of judgment, the executive compounded its problems by failing to act firmly against those who attempted to browbeat judicial institutions and interfered with the course of justice.

The second arm, the legislature, exemplified by Parliament at the national level, has, in recent years, often generated more heat than light. It has also dragged its feet on crucial legislation over the past decade, with parliamentarians more interested in winning battles of lung power than contributing to legislation that will promote economic growth and development. Over the years, legislations on a unified indirect tax system for the entire country, rationalization of archaic land laws and establishment of anti-corruption watchdogs have languished. A colonial era sedition provision, introduced in India after the 1857 mutiny, is still extant, although the mother country, the United Kingdom, dispensed with this statute over five years ago. Although no less a person than Jawaharlal Nehru espoused the sentiment (as far back as 1950) that this obnoxious provision should vanish from the statute books, independent India still retains this pernicious law that is freely available for abuse by insecure governments. To my knowledge, no honourable Member of Parliament has made any attempt to get this section in the Indian Penal Code repealed.

The one bright spot in the firmament of democratic institutions has been the legal system, though there is, obviously, the issue of the interminable judicial delays which frustrate the delivery of justice and tend to make the ordinary citizen cynical about the rule of law. This has to be qualified by the caveat that, while the judiciary, especially the higher judiciary, has been the one beacon of hope for the common man, the fraternity of lawyers has sometimes conducted itself with an appalling lack of dignity. Jokes about lawyers’ habits are commonplace in all democracies but the legal fraternity in India has, in recent years, besmirched its reputation with behaviour that is more suited to a beer hall than to a bar association, as witnessed in recent incidents on court precincts in Chennai and Delhi. In the recent case involving the production of the student leader arrested for sedition in the magistrate’s court, the nation and the world were witness to ugly scenes of alleged assault by “lawyers” on the student leader (a matter which is still under investigation), with the police apparently standing by as mute witnesses. Surely, lawyers, if the assailants were indeed lawyers, ought to be aware that the law must take its course.

The fourth pillar, the press, has been an increasing cause of concern in recent times. The print media, under threat from the electronic media and now social media, has generally tended to focus on avenues like advertising revenue, with lesser concern for factual reporting and issues of social concern. The electronic media, with almost no exceptions, is engrossed with sensationalism and “breaking news.” Even more disturbing is the tendency for news channels to act as adjudicators of legal issues, especially cases currently under investigation by the law enforcement authorities. Judgments have virtually been passed on most news channels in the high profile case involving Indrani Mukerjea. In the JNU student leader case, unverified audiovisual evidence has been casually bandied about by certain news channels. Value judgments on the patriotism of individuals and their actions have been passed without leaving the matter to be decided by the appropriate judicial forum. If the press was felt to be compliant during the Emergency years of 1975-77, there is now reason to worry whether it is complicit today with certain segments of society that seek to impose their narrow sectarian, nationalistic view on the country.

The biggest hope for a healthy, flourishing democracy lies in a questioning, independent civil society that accommodates a diversity of views and encourages discussion and dissent. No less a person than Raghuram Rajan, the present Governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) observed in a lecture in October 2015 at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai that societal self-interest lies in the protection of the right to question and challenge, for only through encouraging the challenge of innovative rebels does society develop.  The growing partisan shrillness of discourse and the recourse to vituperative, often libellous language in the social media is a sad reflection on the deteriorating standards of public debate in a country that has produced outstanding thinkers like Ambedkar, Nehru and Rajaji. It should occasion no surprise when we have commentators in recent days opining that students should go to universities to study, forgetting the important role of universities and other institutions of higher learning in fostering the spirit of questioning in individuals and equipping them to contribute to political and social development in their future lives. While it has been heartening to see the large number of those who have taken a stand against the attempts to straitjacket thinking and debate, there is no denying the growing numbers who refuse to use hard facts to bolster their viewpoint, relying instead on emotion and unverified information to push their worldview as the only acceptable one. When they lose out in the battle of words, as is bound to happen when reason does not inform argument, they descend to the use of swords.

Democracy in India, like the nation state, is a concept that has been put together since 1947 and has (despite various gloomy prognostications) lasted over nearly seventy years, in contrast to most other countries that achieved independence around the middle of the twentieth century. The people of India have chosen their governments at the national level sixteen times since independence and have ushered out the incumbents on eight of these occasions. But the right to bloodlessly change governments (Karl Popper’s fundamental classification of a democracy) is hardly the only characteristic of a democracy. It is the rule of law which guides the functioning of a democracy in the interregnum between elections. Seen from this viewpoint, the “five pillars” of Indian democracy can be said to have secured barely passing grades. Nor, regretfully, do most Indians show tolerance for the words and actions of their fellow humans, whether from India or outside. The rule of law apparently applies only when one is wronged, not when one wrongs one’s fellow human. Two examples will suffice: progressive writers in Bengaluru choosing to boycott the Literature Festival because one of the organisers had differing views on the Award Wapsi controversy and the intolerance shown by Left parties to political dissent in Bengal over their 34-year rule. Respect for the individual’s right to freedom of expression, consumption and decision (three freedoms which are being questioned at various levels today) is still to be ingrained in the Indian democratic psyche. Till this tolerance becomes a matter of habit, we cannot claim that our country functions on the principle of the rule of law.





Killing Mockingbirds – A Twenty First Century Syndrome

It is not often that a writer hits the bestseller list with her first novel. Harper Lee achieved that with her masterpiece “To Kill A Mockingbird”, which describes the racism and social inequality prevalent in the 1930s in the American South. A black man, Tom Robinson, is falsely accused of raping a white woman from one of the most wretched white communities on the fringes of society. The prevailing animosity of whites towards blacks, seventy years after slavery was formally abolished, manifests itself in efforts of some members of the white community to lynch the accused. In the ensuing trial by an all-white jury, Tom is sentenced to death, despite a brilliant defence put up by his white lawyer, Atticus Finch. Atticus is able to discredit the evidence of the rape complainant very comprehensively, although this does not lead to a verdict of acquittal. Despairing of getting justice in a system weighted against his community, Tom is killed while trying to escape from jail. The father of the complainant, a down and out reject of society, seeks to avenge his humiliation at the trial by attempting to kill Atticus’ children, losing his own life in the process. What the novel highlights is the number of innocents who are caught in the web of this bigotry and hatred. The author likens these to mockingbirds, which cause no trouble to humans and give pleasure through their singing. Hence the injunction of Atticus Finch to his children never to hunt mockingbirds. Tom Robinson, like many others in the novel, is the mockingbird caught in a vortex not of his making but of which he has to reap the grim consequences.

Twenty first century India is in some ways (and unfortunately increasingly so) reminiscent of the American South of an earlier generation. In recent times, women, children, householders, truckers, scholars, writers and journalists have been at the receiving end of lynch mobs for just trying to live their lives as they deemed best, without in any way interfering in the lives of others. The provocation (as so termed by vigilante groups) can be linked to a certain worldview about “culture”, which gives no space to diversity of individual behaviour, intellectual thought and even dietary practices. Women in Mangaluru (and elsewhere) have been targeted for expressing their individuality in ways which in no sense constituted any violation of the law of the land but “offended” patriarchal mindsets of some groups. Violence against women has been a longstanding feature of Indian society (protestations of its veneration of women notwithstanding) – what is disturbing in recent years has been the concentration of violence against women seen as bucking traditional mores and behaviours expected of women – whether it is association with the opposite sex, visiting places (e.g. pubs) seen as male prerogatives or even establishing their financial independence through gainful employment. Freedom of expression (enshrined in Article 19 of the Constitution of India) has been sought to be curbed extra-legally ever since the forcible exile of M. F. Husain two decades ago. Then we had the unedifying spectacle of hooligans from the Nationalist Congress Party (in power in Maharashtra at the time) vandalizing the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune  and destroying priceless manuscripts to protest the research support it is supposed to have given to a “controversial” book on the Maratha ruler, Shivaji. More recently, writers like Perumal Murugan in Tamil Nadu have been pressurized to disown their writings which some social groups objected to, apart from the as yet unsolved murders of three rationalist scholars over the past two years. The last straw on the camel’s back has been the recent incidents of mob violence against members of minority denominations by socially dominant groups enjoying political patronage, ostensibly on the grounds of offending religious sensitivities related to alleged beef consumption.

There are two disturbing aspects to these developments that make all right-thinking, sober Indians reflect on (and despair of) the direction that Indian society seems to have taken. The first refers to what the political theorist Hannah Arendt has termed as “tribal nationalism” in her book “The Origins of Totalitarianism”. As she puts it “(Tribal nationalism) can be easily recognized by the tremendous arrogance, inherent in its self-concentration, which dares to measure a people, its past and present, by the yardstick of exalted inner qualities and inevitably rejects its visible existence, tradition, institutions and culture…tribal nationalism always insists its own people is surrounded by “a world of enemies”, “one against all”, that a fundamental difference exists between this people and all others. It claims its people to be unique, individual, incompatible with all others and denies theoretically the very possibility of a common mankind…”. The concept of an Indian nation is barely seventy years old. National pride was sought to be rekindled during the two hundred years of British rule by hearkening back to a pre-Muslim conquest glorious past, as though to deny the existence of history after 1192 CE (the Battle of Tarain), which marks the start of Muslim political ascendancy in India. It is unfortunate that, today, history is sought to be rewritten on the same basis, ignoring six centuries of social and political evolution which influenced the mosaic that is present-day India. It is even more unfortunate that this ersatz history has had its impact on certain sections of society, especially those exposed to a limited worldview founded on prejudice and a marked sense of inferiority, leading to a conviction that the majority community must assume its “rightful” place in the country. The “other” then becomes a convenient scapegoat for all one’s shortcomings and no effort is spared to impose a majoritarian worldview on all other communities.

The second aspect, and this is one that can be fatal to the very existence of a democracy, is the lack of respect for and observance of the rule of law. The police and security forces have, on a number of occasions, been swayed by partisan considerations in the maintenance of law and order and in the prosecution of criminal offences. Matters have not been helped by a creaking judicial system that takes decades to punish the guilty, if at all they are brought to trial. It is not surprising, therefore, that two tendencies manifest themselves: (a) using every loophole in criminal investigation and judicial procedures, those with money, influence and power delay, or thwart, the course of justice; (b) in frustration, those denied justice take the law into their own hands. A sense of impunity develops where the absence of the fear of deterrent punishment encourages vigilante groups and mobs to go on killing sprees; India’s experience is testimony to numerous such cases.

All sections of the state and society in India bear some of the blame for this sorry state of affairs. Political parties in India have always operated on the basis of expediency and short-term political gains. Right from Indian independence, the political class has used divisions of religion, caste and language to further its agenda of survival. With the cynicism (or should I say, realism) of thirty years in government, I would say the Indian political class amply justifies Goethe’s description of “estimable in the individual and wretched in the generality.” While there must be many politicians who are unhappy with the state of affairs today, it is rather optimistic to expect a statesmanlike response from them to promoting communal harmony and refraining from using sectarian propaganda to further their political prospects. The media has tried to highlight the various instances of intolerance and hatred; unfortunately, in the babble of voices and utterances in print, electronic and social media, no reasoned debate on issues based on factual evidence is possible, with battle lines already drawn in advance. There are only two silver linings in an otherwise rather dark thundercloud: the judiciary and independent citizens in different spheres of society. The courts have upheld a number of individual freedoms and have, especially at the highest levels, sought to jealously guard their independence from executive encroachment and ensure that the basic structure of the Constitution of India is not tampered with. Even more heartening has been the fearless response from people representing a wide spectrum of opinion, cutting across gender, community, religion and caste barriers.

Ultimately, the India that the framers of the Constitution dreamed of (and that every right-thinking Indian aspires for) will be realised only when two prerequisites are met. Firstly, reason has to guide actions, rather than blind emotions arising from intolerance, hatred and a sense of inadequacy. Every Indian has to put the past behind and focus on the path ahead. Today’s situation has to be taken as a given, to be improved on, rather than ventilating past grievances and manufacturing unrealistic future scenarios. Secondly, every individual and institution in the country has to abide by and promote the rule of law. At the individual level, this requires adherence to laws and regulations. At the institutional level (especially the executive and judicial arms), this requires the fair and impartial administration of these laws and prompt delivery of services to the aam aurat/aadmi to address common needs that are often the source of frustration and anger. Above all, at a time, when the world is wracked by violence and destruction linked to religious and ethnic differences, there is a special responsibility cast on the inhabitants of the world’s largest democracy to set an example of compassion, love and humanity for their brothers and sisters in India and across the globe. In this context, it is apposite to end with portions selected from the masterpiece of the immortal bard, Rabindranath Tagore:

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.