Civil Society Awakes

16 Feb

BY M D NALPAT IN THE TIMES OF INDIA / FEBRUARY 16, 2010

Former director-general of police S P S Rathore’s encounter with the unfortunate Ruchika Girhotra may translate into years in prison. However neither the law nor its enforcers are responsible for Rathore’s fall. Both administered only the most feeble of wrist-slaps on the ex-DGP. The law ambled on for nearly two decades before finally delivering a short jail sentence, immediately nullified by bail. Had the matter been left to the law and the elephantine system that administers it, Rathore would have looked forward to more decades spent on appeal, with the case’s final disposal taking place around the time he celebrates a century of life. What tripped him was an alert media, assisted by a civil society finally beginning to awaken to its power.

Despite its many layers, the legal system failed to secure justice for Ruchika and her family. It is obvious action needs to be taken against abuse of power by officials and politicians. However, if this be attempted in the form of new laws further increasing the power of the authorities over the people, a new Rathore will not be stopped from inflicting pain on another family. Many individuals are expert in manipulating the law and procedures to their advantage, as indeed Rathore seemed to be before he came to the attention of television.

What is needed is not legislation even more draconian than many laws already on the statute books. Votaries of such a course need to visit the US, which has the distinction of the largest number of prisoners in the world. Since the 1970s, the US has eliminated discretion in sentencing from large swathes of the criminal code. As a result of mandatory sentencing, a flood of individuals have become prison inmates. In the US, as elsewhere, the jail is a university for securing mastery of crime. Experiences and knowledge gained from even a short stay are such as to remove from individuals any feeling of responsibility towards society, and to instill in them reflexes belonging more to a jungle than human civilisation. This may be why New Orleans was wracked by lawlessness during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, while much more populous Mumbai was tranquil during rains that vied with Katrina in destructive intensity.

True, the US has seen the end of certain categories of crimes. African-Americans are no longer lynched or beaten up. Harassment against women in homes and workplaces has gone down. But little of this is because of harsh US laws. Rather, they are the direct consequence of social movements led by individuals opposed to draconian legislation.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, neither legalisation of torture nor numerous other curbs on civil liberties prevented fresh cohorts of suicide bombers from emerging and seeking out victims worldwide. Instead, such measures have resulted in millions more becoming sympathetic to those seeking to snuff out the lives of Coalition troops. An example of knee-jerk legislation is the change made in visa policy as a result of David Headley’s capture by the FBI. Does it matter to a terrorist if he has to wait 15 days or 15 months before coming back to India? Can handlers not arrange a substitute passport, perhaps even an Indian one? Visa changes made by the ministry of external affairs would be as little able to prevent a terrorist act as the placing of tags on bank transactions above Rs 10,000 at each ATM. That measure did not seem to halt the accumulation of wealth by a Madhu Koda, or indeed by numerous other former chief ministers.

The past few years have seen a steady dilution of citizens’ powers vis-a-vis the official establishment. Consider the extraordinary discretion given to the income tax department. Today, even education is sought to be state-controlled, with private players having their institutions closed down after “inspections” lasting a few minutes, though their facilities are usually far better than those of state-owned education outlets.

It is a colonial reflex to believe that the government knows better than the citizen as to how best to improve his life. India is the home of Sanatan Dharma, a belief system that gave enormous freedom to each individual in the manner in which he practised his faith. If Indians do far better in the US than they do in India, the reason is that there they function in an environment that sees them as adults, not children in need of constant supervision. Laws are only as good as those implementing them, and even the most conformist statist would hesitate to call governance in India transparent and clean.

If there has been some improvement, this has been the consequence of liberalising laws, not making them harsher. As also of a much more active civil society no longer content with excuses, and which has an ally in television media. India needs less governmental supervision and more public oversight, so that institutions of governance cannot ride herd over individual rights by use of laws that were meant for a subject people but were still allowed to continue almost unchanged even after India became free in 1947.

The writer is a political commentator.

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/opinion/edit-page/Civil-Society-Awakes/articleshow/5576986.cms

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