Monday, Aug 08, 2022

False Debates

What the country needs is not 'secularism'; it is simple rule of law. Secularism is part of the state's legal and constitutional obligation and would be automatically guaranteed by an even-handed application of the law.

In India, increasingly, the exception is the rule. In every sphere of governance, we see a pervasive unwillingness to impose or abide by the law. National policies contribute directly to the rising anarchy across the country. Governments then seek to treat these self-inflicted wounds by providing fitful and preferential relief to small and arbitrarily selected segments of the affected population and, in this, compound existing injustice with further inequity. If anything, the consequences are made significantly worse by the inefficiency and corruption of the delivery mechanisms for the distribution of this purported 'relief'.

The contempt for the law is not limited to the state and its agencies, and to those who exercise power through these. It extends to the overwhelming majority of citizens who will ignore, if not actively breach, the law at almost every instance when they feel they are not being monitored and would not be liable to penalties. The internalisation of law and of accepted social norms and mores, the hallmark of civilised societies, is becoming increasingly rare, with our educational systems, as well as the example of elders and the leaders of society, failing comprehensively to encourage or inculcate any desirable value system in our children.

While particular crimes occasionally engage the attention of the public and the media, these sections are equally and vigorously exercised in seeking to secure exceptions to the application of the law in 'special' cases, including violations by the power elite, in cases where violations are attributed to a variety of unsubstantiated 'root causes', as well as 'politically sensitive' cases — once again, arbitrarily defined.

More significant than the unwillingness reflected in our in capricious practices, is the incomprehension within the intelligentsia and ruling classes of the very notion of the rule of law and its role, not only in ordered administration, but in democracy itself.

Democracy is not, as is widely believed, the mere establishment of an electoral process and of consequent 'representative' governments that may do as they please during their term in office (though this is, in fact, what democracy has been reduced to in India). The electoral process is more fundamentally, the means to establish a 'representative' legislature that is intended to frame laws that are in conformity with the will of the people — which laws the government and its various institutions and agencies are then required to implement without bias or discrimination, and with complete even-handedness.

The degree to which India's present legislatures — at the centre and in the states — ignore or deal in the most perfunctory manner with legislative business, and the extent to which our laws are far behind the imperatives of a rapidly transforming age, are indices of the failure of Indian democracy. The fact that a large proportion of the current Lok Sabha and of the many State Legislatures comprises individuals with records of heinous crimes against them underlines the reality of the national contempt for law.

Politics, in fact, has become the ultimate ambition of all successful criminals, because it is in political success that they can effectively wipe out the entire record of past wrongdoing and secure absolute immunity against punishment. Their ambitions have, moreover, been eagerly encouraged and embraced by ideologically bankrupt political parties across the board, who have competed to give election tickets to the worst of offenders and justified the presence of criminals in Parliament and in State Legislatures on the grounds that the 'popular will' was a 'higher law' than the statute book and the Constitution. But this argument is, in fact, the ultimate repudiation of the purpose and spirit of democracy, of which the central and guiding principle demands that no one be placed above the law.

There are many false debates in this country, tracing its many ills to a variety of 'root causes', seeking solutions in whimsical notions of welfare, selective protectionism and 'secularism' which provide little relief to their target populations, but give rise to widespread resentment and allegations of corruption, inefficiency and 'appeasement'. What the country needs, for instance, is not 'secularism'; it is simple rule of law. Secularism is part of the state's legal and constitutional obligation and would be automatically guaranteed by an even-handed application of the law.

The Constitution has imposed certain obligations and duties on the state, guarantees for people of all faiths alike, without discrimination of caste, creed, class or gender. It is the failure of the state to deliver on the promise of the Constitution and the mandate of the nation's laws that has created the persistent and insidious inequalities, which are then exploited by unscrupulous politicians and parties for, communal and caste mobilisation. Crucially, decades of these process of communal and caste mobilisation have failed to empower their target communities or to deliver any benefits of development to these populations. They have, on the other hand, polarised communities, and lent legitimacy to other unproductive and violent ideologies of envy and hate— including the rampaging Islamist, Maoist and ethnic (tribal) fundamentalist movements across the country.

Similarly, it is the arbitrary exemptions from the law provided to the privileged or to certain politically volatile— often violent— sections among the less privileged that are the basis of the widespread sense of injustice, and of the collapse of the authority and legitimacy of the justice system, and would be more correctly identified as the 'root cause' of the pervasive sense of injury than any other failure of the state. Yet, we are constantly told, that we must create even more exceptions to the application of the law to accommodate these forces of violent disruption in order to address this sense of injury.

Recent reports suggest that a leading management institute in the country declined to conduct courses in administrative practices for legislators in Bihar on the grounds that they were uneducable. Far more productive than courses in administration, however, would be courses and training in democracy, its underlying ideology, an understanding of the Indian Constitutional system and the dynamics of a policy and legislative framework that is in conformity with the Constitutional mandate. Had the political leadership evolved even a modicum of understanding of the nature of such a framework, the rising disorders and their increasingly vocal justifications would not find their source in the heart of India's establishment and structure of national power.

K.P.S.Gill is a former Punjab DGP and is currently advisor to the Chhattisgarh government on Naxalite affairs. This piece first appeared in the Pioneer