The Unnao episode is reminiscent of France before the French Revolution, when the common man used to be crushed under the despotism of the aristocrats. There are, alas, ‘law-makers’ in our country, who like the feudal lords of the past, exercise with impunity entitlements to violate the bodies for fleeting spells of pleasure and snuff out the lives of inconvenient fellow human beings. Prime Minister Modi came to power denouncing the dynastic system. The rest of us understood this as a promise of the truly democratic; for we are interested in how the democratic culture works in our lived experience rather than in how it sounds in the flourish of words.
Democracy is monarchy with the ‘welfare of the people’ as its redeeming principle. We shall be fooling ourselves if we believe that a Prime Minister is primus inter pares, or first among equals, even in the cabinet. No, he is a king; a king in democracy. The democratic king, unlike the dynastic monarch, is required to serve in empathy with his subjects and to be in solidarity with the citizens. This pro-people disposition should distinguish a Prime Minister if he is to be a democrat, and not a dynast. Think, for a moment, of the people in Kuldeep Singh Sengar’s village, which is more like his principality than a part of the Republic of India.
Every TV reporter who visited the villagers found them in the grip of fear. Not one dared to open his or her mouth, except to mutter support for the neta in syllables of nervousness. Yet, this is not felt as an aberration of democracy. The curse of the dynastic is its disunion with the people; not its class markers. One can be a democrat even while hailing from the aristocratic stock ~ as Alexis de Tocqueville was in France at the time of the Revolution. Also, a commoner can be a dynast in disposition if, on account of holding a politically powerful office, he distances himself from the people and becomes deaf and blind to their woes and torments. As regards the people, the only thing matters is if the link of governance between them and the ruler is intact or ruptured.
Or, if the ‘king’ is with the subjects in his disposition, despite his position. The deafening silence of the Prime Minister regarding the Unnao atrocity, which has caused a national outcry, is disappointing. But the Prime Minister is not alone in this. The apathy despite mute expressions of concern of various parties, in particular the Congress, is equally worrisome. Rahul may have ceased to be the president of the Congress, but that doesn’t mean he has to turn his face away from the agony of the people. Priyanka has limited herself to the economy of a tweet in this regard. Yet, this is an episode requiring an ‘outbreak’ of empathy and solidarity.
The responses of the BJP are limited strictly to the requirements of ‘damage-control’, which mocks its motto, “With everyone, for everyone’s development and worthy of everyone’s trust”. (Sab ka saath, sab ka vikas, sab ka vishwas). The significant feature about the Unnao tragedy is that it exposes the weakness of the major pillars of our democracy. The Executive and the Judiciary are meant to serve as the bridge between the Constitution of India and the life of the people. And if Gandhiji is indeed our Rashtra pita, that needs to be done with sensitivity to the helplessness and anguish of the most vulnerable among us, like the Unnao rape victim.
It is a shameful thing if a Prime Minister has to mouth the alibi, as Indira Gandhi did in the wake of the Emergency ~ “I did not know.” Ignorance results from indifference. Indifference is a function of elitist alienation. You are a dynast if you are blind and inaccessible to the suffering people, even if you hail from the lowliest of the low. This rupture in accessibility afflicts the Supreme Court. The rape victim’s desperate cries for help got drowned, we are told, by a deluge of complaints. How can the Chief Justice of India hear the terror-stricken cry of a teenage victim in an obscure village, when two hundred thousand voices are already clamouring for his attention? This is a lame excuse. Why has this problem remained unaddressed over the years? Because it afflicts only the common man, and not the socioeconomic elite? The very credibility of the Supreme Court is at stake here.
Is the Apex Court more responsive due to systemic compulsions and avoidable constraints, to the privileged, albeit unwittingly? Resource crunch can never be an excuse for compromising the inviolability of fundamental rights like the right to life. Fundamental rights brook no excuses regarding their implementation or availability. A ‘right’, subject to circumstantial conditions, is not ‘fundamental,’ but incidental. The justice even of God depends on accessibility! In a society marked by extreme socio-economic disparities and hierarchical imbalances, it is not enough that justice is envisaged as a ‘blind’ application of law, as in the traditional depiction of justice.
The idea that “dame justice” is blind is a pleasant fiction; else aberrations like forum-hunting would have not have prevailed and the powerful enjoyed de facto near immunity. It is to the plight of the ‘victims of the system’ like the Unnao teenager, if anything, that dame justice happens to be blind. Law, as law, judges ‘blindly’. If there is one thing that this chilling human tragedy illustrates, it is the need to enliven the practice of law with the heart-swell of compassion to approximate it to the pursuit of justice. The alternative is to get wearied, episode after episode, with the cliché, “Too little, too late.”
Governance is the incarnation of the Constitution: the abstract assuming flesh and blood, becoming an empowering reality in the life of the people. The Executive and the Judiciary are intermediaries between the people and the Constitution, translating a silent vision into an articulated way of life. Any rupture in this mediatory role undermines the wholeness of governance. Even as Prime Minister Modi proffers good governance, his legislative cohorts like Sengar remind us of the miles we need to go ‘before we can sleep’.
(The writers are respectively an Arya Samaj activist and former Haryana MLA and former Principal of St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, and a theologian committed to social justice and God-centred harmony of all faiths)