Posts Tagged ‘democracy’

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.