December 11, 2019
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Dead, In Letter And Spirit

Democracy in India has today become a hollow sham and the State an instrument of terror and extortion.

Dead, In Letter And Spirit
illustration by Sandeep Adhwaryu
Dead, In Letter And Spirit
Shortly after the hijacking of the Kathmandu-Delhi Indian Airlines flight IC-814 in December 1999, the Indian government decided to emulate the Israelis and appoint armed 'Sky Marshals' to fly on all IA and Alliance Air flights. The cost of this extreme step, in terms of pay, allowances, expenses and revenue foregone by the two airlines, is enormous, and the responsibility thrust upon the Marshals is correspondingly great. How have they fulfilled it? The answer to this question was provided on June 23 in the Hindustan Times by Swati Chaturvedi, in a report titled 'Marshals, the New Terror of the Skies'. It gave details of five (out of 15) reported instances in which Sky Marshals misbehaved with the flight staff, often in obscene ways; insisted on flying business class despite the fact that this would effectively prevent them from performing any policing functions whatever; refused to go through flight security checks; reported for duty dead drunk; and in one case gang-raped an air hostess in Kalina, Mumbai. Till the time of writing, the report had evoked absolutely no response from either the NSG or the Civil Aviation Security Board, under whose aegis the Sky Marshals function. From this, one is forced to conclude that not only have none of the miscreants been punished, no punishment is intended either.

If one were to get a response from the government, it would go somewhat as follows: These are individual aberrations from which it would be wrong to draw any general conclusions about the cadres as a whole. The miscreants are being dealt with departmentally. Meting out harsh punishment, or giving undue publicity to it, would demoralise the rest of the cadres and impair their capacity to fulfill their responsibilities. Both the explanation and the reason for inaction are indefensible. To begin with, these are not aberrations but part of a systemic misbehaviour by a group of government employees that considers itself above all law, whether legal or moral. The frequency of occurrence tells it all. IA and Alliance Air operate no more than 210 flights a day. Assuming that Sky Marshals fly at least as many times a day as the airlines flight staff, after taking into account leave, sickness and time off, there cannot be more than a hundred to a hundred and fifty Sky Marshals in all. This means that a full 10 to 15 per cent of them have committed an offence against law within a period of a little over two years.

Such a high incidence of crime among those entrusted with the prevention of crime would have been impossible if the perpetrators had not been convinced that they would not be held accountable for their actions: that when it came to the crunch, mai baap sarkar would guard its flock zealously. In this belief, the Sky Marshals are not alone. Every single one of the 19 million central and state civil servants in India believes that by joining the government he or she has become a part of the State and is therefore above law. Instead of discouraging this pernicious belief, the central and state governments have done everything they could to reinforce it. Thus, they have constantly widened the scope of laws that India inherited from the British to prevent cases from being registered against civil servants without the permission of the crown until it has now become virtually impossible to prosecute civil servants in a court of law.

Pervasive lack of accountability stems from two other features. First, it's impossible for a bureaucrat or minister to sack a subordinate for unsatisfactory performance. Even a law that permits the government to retire a civil servant compulsorily after he reaches 50 has remained a dead letter. Second, there's absolutely no way in which a civil servant can be held accountable for an action that he takes in the course of his supposed duties that turns out to be malafide, taken by him out of personal motives or to please the boss.As a result, it is possible within the frame of Indian law for a civil servant to close down an individual's factory, shop or office, impound his imported or locally-purchased inventories, block the despatch of his exports, attach his house, or otherwise render him destitute in a matter of minutes with one stroke of his pen, without suffering a moment's fear of having to account for his actions personally in a court of law.

Over five decades of independence, the lack of accountability among those who wield State power over individuals has become institutionalised into a system of extortion by the bureaucracy that has no parallel in the democracies of the world. Today the poor routinely pay petty bureaucrats at the block, district and municipal levels a 'fee' for each and every piece of paper they obtain from him or her. The middle class has to pay much larger sums even to complete perfectly honest transactions. Letters to authorities seeking clarifications routinely get no response.

Far from curbing the arbitrary powers of the bureaucracy, and increasing its accountability to the public, every legal enactment and administrative procedure has done the exact opposite. The crown jewels of the resulting system of oppression are, of course, the National Security Act, the Public Safety Act, the Disturbed Areas Act, the Army (Special Powers) Act, and that Kohinoor of all laws, POTA. But beneath these, there is a raiment of lesser laws and administrative procedures that enables almost anyone in government to destroy the life, business, family and peace of mind of an individual without having ever to account for his or her action.

Indian democracy has thus become a hollow sham and the State an instrument of terror and extortion. Not surprisingly, ordinary people now live in a permanent state of insecurity. The poor have learned to find protectors with powerful connections. In a criminalised political system, these protectors are inevitably other criminals. As for the middle class, as Tarun Tejpal of and Shankar Sharma of First Global found out to their cost, it is utterly defenceless.
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