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Saving the rule of law

In a society that glorifies lawlessness and protects the rulebreakers, the rule of law is left toothless and vulnerable in doing its job

Saving the rule of law
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Recently, a dreaded gangster had killed eight policemen on duty at Kanpur, flagrantly challenging the law. He was chased by the police and was finally reported to have been killed in an encounter. The media abounded with debates on whether it was a real encounter or an extrajudicial killing meant to draw curtains on a possible nexus between organised crime and politics. Leaving the merits of the case to legal experts and journos we can do well by mulling over a serious question as to why gangsters thrive, until one day when fate finally turns unkind to them. Equally important questions are: is the law only for common men who can be picked up in a jiffy and thrashed in police lockups just for violating lockdown rules? Are some people immune to justice? Can't we have zero tolerance for gangsters and ensure exemplary rule of law well before it ends up as a grand farse?

Fear of law is supposed to work as a deterrent against crime. But unlike in advanced countries, the jurisprudence of our land treats an accused as innocent until proven guilty; the criminals can confidently say 'catch me if you can'. Elaborated procedures and mandatory requirements in prosecutions, a legacy of the colonial judicial system, provide ample opportunity for the accused to play with law and 'manage' to get away. Even when Nirbhaya's perpetrators could find an advocate to defend them against their heinous crime, it will not be a herculean task for gangsters to engage the 'best' attorney who would successfully storm the trial with all the legal weapons in his armoury to get his clients off the noose. Moreover, the 'awe-inspiring' image and notorious reputation of the gangsters never fails to unnerve the witnesses. Eyewitnesses turning hostile and the accused getting away is an old story, and it takes years to purse the matters in appeals in higher courts and the dons continue to rule the roost, expanding their power and influence. Millions of cases are pending in courts even as lakhs of petty thieves languish in jails as undertrials for more time than what would have been the actual sentence for their 'crimes'. A pity indeed. Moreover, when convicts with life imprisonment for cold-blooded murders come out of jail just after ten years for 'good conduct', awaited by relatives with garlands outside the prison, it is futile to expect 'bahubalies' to be trepidatious about the law. The much-awaited judicial reforms could come as a whiff of fresh air but that's too ambitious a hope for radical change, as the basic tenet of law that 'let a hundred criminals escape lest an innocent should be punished' continues to prevail.

Why can't police, the mighty organisation responsible for maintenance of law and order, flush out the gangsters? My law teacher once told me jocularly during my training at Mussoorie as IAS probationer ages ago, that the police handles a situation in two ways: one by the presence of mind and the other with the absence of body. Though pun intended, we cannot well blame the police for their failures without understanding the predicament they are in. The written law enables them to book the offenders and prosecute whereas the 'unwritten law' subjugates them to political forces and dissuades them to assert, especially when the accused happens to be enjoying substantial political patronage. In some states, criminals enjoy the hospitality of local lawmakers and the despondency reaches the height when the police seek the help of an MLA to perform their duty. A policeman is neither a '007' nor does he have a license to kill. As government servants, they work under a hierarchical system of control who's head is finally an elected political leader — a minister who for all practical purposes controls their postings, promotions, rewards and punishments. Besides MPs, and MLAs keep summoning police officers unofficially for 'various' reasons. How free the police is a moot question. The priorities of civil servants and those of political bosses need not always be harmonious, not to mention fortunate exceptions and unfortunate collusions. Police reforms could be a solution to give more teeth and freedom to the force. However, as it can always be a double-edged sword, a cautious approach is helpful.

The underworld exists as a parallel institution, primarily due to the dichotomy between a democratic polity and an undemocratic society. Our society is still evolving where the basic values of democracy i.e., rule of law, rationalism, secularism and human rights are yet to be internalised fully. When elections in a democracy are fought with the help of caste, religion, money and muscle power, its naïve to expect dons and gangs to disappear overnight. Underworld dons are venerated as they can make or mar things owing to their effective control on institutions, state machinery and resources. English-speaking white collared criminals who control financial institutions and siphon off thousands of crores of public money to fill their coffers, also belong to the same fraternity. As dons wield a lot of power, they are often a dependable source of support for politicians, business giants and some self-serving public servants; a symbiotic relationship and an unholy nexus. Even the media which is supposed to be the watchdog of democracy prefers to look the other way. Often people prefer to approach a don instead of a government officer for they believe the former can get things done without fail. People are forced to believe in 'jugaad lagao' as the 'end' seems to justify the 'means' instead of the other way around. Obedience to the law is seen as weakness whereas defying it is glorified as strength and as a quality of leadership.

There is no instant remedy to address the malady of gangs and dons. But it is not a state of despair either if only we could revive the same determination and spirit exemplified in matters like controlling the pollution in Delhi or banning public smoking. We need to indoctrinate our citizens with the true values of democracy which cannot be done by ballot box alone. More than educating people about their rights, it is important to train them about their responsibilities so that at least they stop electing gangsters to legislatures, to begin with. We need a strong and collective awareness in society against the underworld. This is possible only when the Institutions of governance delivery mechanisms are set free from unwanted political interference. The 'unwritten laws' cannot be allowed to override the written laws of our land. What we need is not more laws or legislations, but sincere enforcement of existing laws. Boosting the morale of our institutions and their functionaries is an immediate requirement. Finally, its high time we redefined the boundaries of the executive and the legislature to keep the elected leaders from becoming 'Tsars' of democracy. Let no one tell the law what it should do; let everyone help the law do its job.

The writer is a former Additional Chief Secretary of Chhattisgarh. Views expressed are personal

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