Need for a Consensus on Basic National Issues
Dr Mohammad Manzoor Alam
As we celebrate our 60th year of independence with justifiable pride over our achievements, we also witness an overwhelming sense of insecurity among a sizeable section of our society. It is insecurity bred by a mortifying sense of denial of justice.
Every society runs on an unwritten consensus on certain significant values that stand unquestioned in all conditions. The security of everyone’s life, limb and property are universally recognised as non-negotiable. These values are enshrined in our Constitution, elaborated upon in our laws, and remarkably well interpreted by our judiciary.
In principle, our state (run under the august Constitution) represents the same values as our society. But, in fact, the situation is radically different as far as the state’s performance is concerned. I am reminded of the great poet T.S. Eliot’s lines:
Between the thought and the deed,
The motion and the act,
A shadow intervenes.
There is a clear breach between the high thinking represented by the Constitution and the impeccable merit of laws on one hand and their implementation on the other. Quite often what the citizen, especially the "little citizen", (in the words of the former Election Commission chief, James Lingdoh) gets at the end of the day is not what our Constitution envisages or what our laws promise.
Despite our great Constitution and our proverbially "long-armed" laws the crowd ends up intimidating the mighty state. We have seen this umpteen times in Ayodhya, in Mumbai riots of 1993.... This has become a pattern. However, let me hasten to add that there are points at which this pattern is broken, like death and life-term (as well as relatively shorter sentences) in the case of Mumbai blasts or death sentences to two Muslims in Gujarat riots over three decades ago.
This runs against the grain of the Constitution, which talks of equal protection under law. About 250 people died in Mumbai blasts which were promptly investigated, hundreds of innocents tortured and jailed before being let off for want of evidence. The state government pursued the case relentlessly, and we know how many people have been awarded death sentences, how many got life terms and varying prison terms.
But how many got a single day’s prison term in Mumbai riots? None. Was the offence less serious in this case? Compared to 250 deaths in the blasts, 1,000 people died in the riots, 2,000 got seriously injured, and property damage in the riots was thousands times greater. So, which one is more serious? Which one is a greater challenge to the authority of the state and the rule of law? Of course, the riots.
To be fair, the courts would have meted out a harsher punishment to the riots criminals even though they are not Muslims. However, the courts proceed only when the administration launches the prosecution, files proper inputs before the courts. Yes, I must admit that the judiciary has the power of over-reach and it can take cognizance of things on the basis of newspaper reports and other inputs.
It is quite clear that the problem lies in the executive rather than the judiciary, which means that the political class is not true to the Constitution. Dalits, tribals, the minorities and the common mass of poor people clearly don’t have the protection of law that we take for granted. Why? Because we don’t have a political consensus on this issue. Or for that matter, on other serious issues like food security or security of livelihood.
We know that by now communal riots are part of the election strategy for a section of our political class. India expert Paul Brass has clearly identified this class as RSS and its affiliates.
The worst part is that the state machinery breaks down at such moments and fails in its primary duty of securing the life, limb and property of the weak. It may even be on the side of the aggressors and continue to harass the victims long after they are attacked. When it comes to action we see a lack of political will to enforce law because there is no political consensus on such basic human rights issues.
Advanced societies developed a consensus on rule of law two centuries ago. On the other hand, we rightly punish the Mumbai blasts perpetrators but don’t act on Shrikrishna Commission Report, which shows that at the root of the blasts were the Mumbai riots in which the city burnt for 10 days. Even an investigation was not required because the riot organisers had been publicly claiming that they had burned down the city. We are silent over the crimes of the Ayodhya gang whose mischief led to countrywide riots, which was part of the sequence of events leading to Mumbai riots and blasts.
We know that a Dalit can be killed with impunity, police can fire on poor people without provocation, a priest can be murdered, events like Ayodhya and Mumbai can be staged without fear of punishment. All this is because we don’t have a consensus on the point that whoever is the victim, he/she is a citizen of India, and the state has a responsibility of preventing and suppressing such events as well as of punishing the aggressors.
Victims’ kin are not even compensated for the loss of life or other losses in a standardised format. We have been pleading for making the compensation for 1984 anti-Sikh riots the benchmark for all compensation in similar cases.
All this is not good for a society. Justice, fair-play and rule of law are not luxuries that we can go without. As the demand for prosecuting Mumbai riots accused is getting stronger we begin to hear strange arguments against it. The Shiv Sena mouthpiece Samna warns that it must never be attempted, because the blast culprits were anti-nationals while the rioters were nationalists. That brings to mind TS Eliot once again:
of hideous intent
Let us be honest to ourselves and move ahead. Let us build a political consensus on these issues.g