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Contemporary Paradoxes

Probably, we have a colonial heritage of subordination; we are good servants but bad masters. As servants, we meticulously carry out orders given to us in writing (which should be sealed and signed) while as masters we avoid giving directions; if issuing orders becomes inevitable, we seek justification in some manual or circular.


Socrates’ debate with the sophist Thrasymachus, narrated in the Republic, wherein Thrasymachus claims “Justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger”. Though strongly refuted by Socrates, this rings true even today. Glaucon, Plato’s elder brother, goes on to explain the Thrasymachean position in Republic II saying that one who pursues a life of injustice must at the same time be courageous and crafty, strong and shrewd, power-driven and persuasive. But most importantly, the unjust individual must be dastardly and deceptive, yet seemingly just. Unfortunately, this definition would perfectly fit most Indian politicians. 

The anomaly gets even more interesting when we note that most of our lawmakers are lawbreakers too; 233 Lok Sabha MPs (43 per cent) face criminal charges, with nearly 29 per cent being charged with serious crimes like rape, murder, attempt to murder or crime against women. 

One BJP MP faces terror charges and a Congress MP faces 240 criminal cases. Disturbingly, the number of MPs charged with serious crimes has risen by 109 per cent since 2009. The position in State legislatures is even worse. 

The malaise of criminality has now gone up by a degree; two cabinet ministers of the Maharashtra Government are in custody. A PIL has been filed, seeking to arraign a Union MoS in a murder conspiracy. 

Remarkably, one of the Maharashtra ministers has refused to resign and so has the MoS. Then, there was Jayalalitha who was sentenced to five years in jail, while holding the office of the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. The list goes on. As a small mercy, the obdurate Karnataka minister who had refused to resign in the face of the FIR against him for abetment of suicide has finally seen reason and resigned. 

To recapitulate, a contractor had publicly alleged that he was being harassed by the minister for a 40 per cent commission. Totally frustrated, the contractor committed suicide, because no official was prepared to listen to his story, much less help him. 

Despite recent reforms, a police station is not a place one visits except in a dire emergency. The reason is not far to seek; police stations that are supposed to be bulwarks against criminals are themselves, sometimes, dens of criminality. In the last few days, a rape survivor was again raped in a police station by the SHO, a woman was killed by policemen in a police station and another woman was tortured to within an inch of her life, again by policemen inside a police station. No worthwhile action appears to have been taken against the delinquent policemen and their supervisory officers. On the other hand, we have hyper-active police personnel who go careening thousands of miles, across the States, to catch someone who posts an objectionable tweet. 

Similar is the experience of a common man in a court of law; in most instances, his case would come up for a hearing when the remedy sought by him had lost its meaning. About 75 per cent of prison inmates are undertrials, who may be innocent, but are undergoing the rigours of jail because of a faulty legal system. The fault for such miscarriage of justice does not lie with over-worked District Courts alone but with higher courts also. The Supreme Court observed: “… the total number of criminal appeals in such High Courts which have been pending for 30 years or more is 14,484. Criminal appeals which have been pending for over twenty years and up to thirty years are 33,045; criminal appeals which have been pending for over ten years, up to 20 years are 2,35,914.” On the other hand, most courts grant an immediate hearing to politically well-connected people. 

As Goswami Tulsidas said in the Ramcharitamanas: “Like the Sun, the Wind and the Ganga, the powerful are never at fault,” which is the Indian equivalent of the Roman law maxim: “The King can do no wrong.” No wonder, being successors to kings of yore, lawmakers the world over believe that they are above the law. This belief is not restricted to Indian politicians alone; a police enquiry into the Partygate scandal in England revealed that the British PM and his ministers were regularly holding parties at the PM’s official residence at the time when Covid restrictions were in force in the entire country, and about 150,000 persons had been fined for flouting Covid protocols. Last year, the British Health Minister had to resign when he was found break- ing Covid-19 rules by kissing and embracing an aide (not his wife) in his office. 

These are dangerous portents: a democracy could degenerate into an oligarchy of the elite if citizens were unable to curb the irresponsible behaviour of the high and mighty, which is easier said than done. More so, because evasion of responsibility for unpleasant occurrences and claiming credit for successful ones is a uniquely Indian trait. For example; everyone under the sun, the Indian Government, the Punjab Government, the Pakistan Government, and the Pakistan Army, all rushed to claim credit for the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor for Sikh pilgrims. However, just a few months prior to the opening of the Corridor, when Navjot Singh Sidhu had broached this subject with the Pakistanis, he was branded as a putative traitor by almost everyone, including his own Chief Minister. Interestingly, the same dramatis personae had appeared in different roles, at the time of the Amritsar train tragedy. To recapitulate: Sidhu’s wife, a Minister at that time, had inaugurated Dus- sehra celebrations near the railway tracks, for which a large crowd had congregated. The crowd did not notice an approaching passenger train which ran through them, killing sixty people. Everyone, the organisers, the police, the Railways, the municipality and the Sidhus, all successfully shirked responsibility claiming that the crowd should not have trespassed on the railway tracks, which shows that (a) escaping responsibility is not very difficult, and (b) one’s reaction depends on the side one is on. 

Bureaucrats instinctively shun responsibility, framing rules in a manner that no action can ever be attributed to a defined person. Any decision on any file in any Ministry bears the signatures of half a dozen officials so that no one can deduce who was the moving force behind the decision. Mostly, the file would show that a decision was unanimous, absolving every- one of responsibility. If at all responsibility was fixed, it would be on the junior-most functionary who would be charged with presenting facts wrongly. The political executive, the Ministers, act through Departmental Secretaries, placing them outside the scope of legal responsibility. Probably, we have a colonial heritage of subordination; we are good servants but bad masters. As servants, we meticulously carry out orders given to us in writing (which should be sealed and signed) while as masters we avoid giving directions; if issuing orders becomes inevitable, we seek justification in some manual or circular. If precedents are not available, decision-makers would lapse into masterly inactivity. Following this tradition, Prime Minister Narsimha Rao while making the right noises, allowed the Babri Masjid to be demolished, leading to the communalisation of the Indian polity. 

Far from frowning upon attempts by the Executive to escape responsibility, the Courts, too, appear to be victims of the same syndrome, often using delay as a weapon for killing deserving but inconvenient cases. Some- times, Courts discuss and deliver verdicts on tangential issues, omit- ting more important disputed questions, like the Madras High Court judgement that made singing of Vande Mataram compulsory in schools when the question before it was awarding one mark in a question relating to Vande Mataram in the Tamil Nadu’s Teachers Eligibility Test. In the celebrated National Anthem case, a PIL was filed to restrain the use of the National Anthem for commercial purposes; however, the Supreme Court issued interim directions that made the playing of the National Anthem mandatory before all film shows. 

Public representatives, probably realising their own weak moral position vis-à-vis ordinary citizens, have recently passed a slew of legislation criminalising individual preferences in the matter of drink, diet, religion and marriage, designed to make criminals of ordinary citizens. As Ayn Rand had written: “There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.” 

Probably, citizens would, one day, attain enlightenment and fix responsibility where it belongs.