Monday, April 29, 2013

The mourning over J.S.Verma reminds us of the need for conscience keepers

What made Justice J.S.Verma exceptional? He was Chief Justice of India for less than a year and no epoch-making cases came up during those months. Yet his death last week saw the whole country mourning. Among those who gathered to say farewell to him at the Lodhi crematorium were L.K.Advani and Sonia Gandhi, Fali Nariman and Ram Jethmalani, social activists and public figures, heads of news channels and senior editors and of course brother judges and lawyers.

Clearly Justice Verma had made an impact that extended beyond the offices he held. The independence he displayed and the ideas he projected won him across-the-board respect. This was all the more remarkable because he became a judge, in the Madhya Pradesh High Court, only in June 1973. Some of the most important cases in the country's history had already been concluded by then; in the Golaknath case (1967), a 6:5 judgment of the Supreme Court had ruled that the fundamental rights provided by the Constitution could not be amended by Parliament, while the Keshavananda Bharati case (1973) had seen a 7:6 judgment reversing the earlier ruling but saying that although Parliament could amend any part of the Constitution, the "basic features of the Constitution" could never be abrogated. These landmark judgments and the subversions of the Court during the Emergency were all part of history when Justice Verma was elevated to the Supreme Court in 1989.

Among his best-known judgments was the so-called Visakha case, filed by women's organisations in Rajasthan to get justice for a Dalit rape victim who had been hounded by caste groups and even by lower courts. The Verma judgment, known as the Visakha guideline, defined sexual harassment at the workplace and laid out a roadmap to deal with it. That was pioneering work because Parliament had dithered on the subject and passed a sexual harassment bill only 15 years after the Visakha judgment. Because of initiatives like this Justice Verma came to be regarded as the conscience-keeper of the judiciary.

The importance of conscience-keepers is paramount. We are a nation founded on four estates. The moral estate was the first to lose its relevance. Then Parliament lost its values. Then the media lost is credibility. The judiciary, despite the corruption that has seeped into it, is the only estate that still plays a nation-building role. The Keshavananda Bharati case prevented a majoritarian party from taking autocratic control of the country as Indira Gandhi indeed tried to do through a series of constitutional amendments. We remain a democracy because of the judicial conscience of the 1970s.

In the subsequent period Justice Verma made judicial activism constructive and patriotic. It was his character that made the difference. He was always accessible, always identifying himself with the problems of the people. His legal scholarship was the envy of his peers. His integrity was the despair of politicians. His last activity was a kind of crowning glory. The Verma Committee's report after the Delhi gangrape case set a speed record and also became noted for the comprehensiveness of the remedial steps it proposed. That the Government proved too incompetent to benefit from it was the nation's loss.

Some day perhaps we will have informed studies that assess members of the judiciary and their contributions. Fali Nariman's autobiography (Before Memory Fades, 2010) has a chapter on "Some Judges of the Supreme Court". He identified three types -- judges with a political agenda, judges with a social agenda and judges without an agenda. The first (like Justice Subba Rao) and the second (like Justice V.R.Krishna Iyer) helped change the habits of mind of judges and influenced creative judicial thinking; the third, more numerous, were "significant for the development of the law in the country".

There were also judges with elastic consciences. Forget the money-crazy ones, but what about those who made a farce of judicial principles to curry favour with Indira Gandhi during the Emergency. We need new books assessing the contributions of A.N.Ray and M.H. Beg as well as H.R. Khanna and J.S.Verma. Understanding the nature of badness is as much a learning experience as admiring the quality of goodness.

Monday, April 22, 2013

When the voter is treated as a fool, beware the ire of the 99 percent

The larger picture casts doubt on the very viability of democracy in our country. As the world knows it, democracy is government of the ordinary people, by fairly elected people, for the good of all people. To some extent, we had that kind of democracy in the first few years of independence. What we have today is government of manipulators, by manipulators, for manipulators.

With every election the situation gets worse, not better. Munirathna Naidu, Congress candidate in a Bangalore constituency, wanted the returning officer to set all other tasks aside and process his nomination papers immediately. He threatened the officer: "If you ask [any clarifications] later, then remember the bomb blast in Malleswaram". The man was arrested, then released on bail. These are the types who become elected representatives of the people.

More bizarre was the case of Maharashtra's elected MLAs. A bunch of them assaulted a police officer inside the Assembly. A committee of MLAs has absolved them of assault charges and recommended a departmental inquiry against the police officer who is already under suspension. In the hands of thugs, democracy becomes a farce and lawbreakers rule. The voter becomes the ultimate fool.

Few represent the depraved legislative culture of our times more dramatically than Ajit Pawar, the Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra. By the admission of his own party operatives, he is given to crude ways and crude jokes. "Nothing can happen in politics", he once said, "unless you are a thug". Unhappy with press reports about the sufferings of farmers, he told journalists in 2011: "You people must be banned... You'll understand when you are beaten up".

His latest adventure pertains of course to urination. He withdrew the offer to urinate into the dams only when he realised that "when there is no water to drink, it is difficult even to urinate". This is the man who was irrigation minister for ten years, oversaw government spending of Rs 43,270 crore on 426 projects (none of them completed) and ended up increasing the area under irrigation by just 0.1 percent. Where's that money? Where's the water?

A cursory glance across the country is enough to bring out a humbling reality -- that our democracy has passed the stage when it could be gently teased with phrases like "functioning anarchy". Today it is a scene of mounting shame. The "elected representatives of the people" consist noticeably of the scum of the earth. Among them are murderers in UP, blackmailers in Bihar, kidnappers in Haryana, rapists in Punjab. There is no sign of the situation improving if developments in election-bound Karnataka are anything to go by.

Munirathna Naidu was by no means the only candidate who considered himself above the law. Venkatesh Gowda, representing the one-and-only Yeddyurappa's party, also threatened a returning officer. He would teach the officer a lesson, he said, if he were not allowed to take out processions and to stage protests. He had earlier assaulted officials who had come to raid his office. It will be the death of democracy when men like this become ministers.

Even the terrorist bomb that exploded in Bangalore was quickly converted into a political bomb. The BJP said the bomb was targetted at its workers. The Congress said the bomb would electorally help the BJP. What did that mean? Did it imply that if a bomb went off near the Congress office that would electorally help the Congress? The disconnect between democracy and our politics could not be sharper.

Perhaps money tells the complete story. Money is the enabler and money is the goal. In two days alone currency bundles amounting to Rs 1.4 crore were seized by the authorities along with 500 cases of liquor. At the other end of the spectrum, affidavits filed by candidates revealed a picture that has become a feature of our democracy. Karnataka's Chief Minister's assets increased more than four times in the last five years; one Deputy Chief Minister's assets almost doubled, the other's rose by a couple of crores. Democracy of the few by the few for the few is flourishing. For now. The 99 percent are watching.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Army's right to rape and kill must go if Northeast is to be part of India

It was pop culture at its defiant best when the Nirvana band sang in 1993: Rape me, Rape me again/ Hate me, Do it and do it again/ Waste me, Rape me, my friend. Kurt Cobain who wrote the lines described it as " a life-affirming song... like she is saying. 'Go ahead, rape me, beat me. You'll never kill me. I'll survive this and I'm going to **ing rape you one of these days and you won't even know it' ".

For the pop stars of America, it was one more jab of fashionable militancy. For a lost generation of women in Manipur in 2004, it was a question of survival when a bunch of them marched to the gates of an army camp, stripped themselves naked and shouted, "Indian army, rape me!". They had been reduced to impotent anger by the rape of a local woman, Thangjam Manorama, by animals in uniform.

As always, it was with honourable intentions that army and paramilitary units assigned to the disturbed areas of Kashmir and the Northeast were given special powers and operational freedom above and beyond the penal code. But, as always, honourable intentions quickly turned into utterly dishonourable conduct on the ground. The Indian army, of which all Indians are proud, allowed itself to be maligned by its own excesses.

A 24/7 reminder of its atrocities and an astonishing phenomenon of our times is Irom Sharmila, described variously as the Iron Lady of Manipur and as Mengoubi, the fair one. Provoked into a protest fast in 2000, she is into the 13th year now, with her rather pathetic nose-feeding photograph becoming familiar in all countries of the world.

Her ordeal began with 'The Malom massacre', the shooting down by Assam Rifles of ten civilians waiting for a bus. Among those killed was an 18-year old girl who was a National Child Bravery Award winner. Her bravery was of no use before cowards with guns.

Outraged but helpless, Sharmila did the only thing she could: Deny herself food. The Government never tackled the basic problems behind her protest, but simply resorted to farcical ways to ensure that she did not die. She received support from political parties, youth organisations and international associations. Awards came, as did books and songs and plays. In her honour Pune University started scholarships to enable 39 Manipuri girls to take degree courses.

What is a blot -- yet another blot -- on our democracy is that despite the non-stop protest by Sharmila and her supporters, and despite the continuing killings that trigger mass demonstrations in Kashmir, nothing is done to address the issue. Army bosses often say that their operations against militants in the border areas cannot go on without the protective shield of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Even if we accept that argument, does it follow that abuses of the Act should be condoned? Most ironically, despite all these many years, the Army's operations in the border areas have neither put down the militancy nor improved India's position in the troubled areas. In fact, the operations have demonstrably generated hatred among the local peoples against India whom they see as a different country. So what is the point of AFSPA?

This is why the Supreme Court's anguished strictures against the Government have not come a day too soon. An expert committee had found that seven persons were killed in Manipur in fake encounters in six cases. That this committee comprised three men of exemplary credentials -- Justice Santosh Hegde, former Chief Election Commissioner J. M. Lyngdoh and retired Director General of Police Ajay Kumar Singh -- gave its findings rare authority.

The Supreme Court said, "We can't tell you how sorrowful we are. What is the use of sitting here? Everything appears meaningless... How many times this court laid down guidelines. We want to proceed further and these things should not happen in future".

A lame-duck Government will not proceed further. The people's only hope is that the Supreme Court will. The Hegde committee recommended the withdrawal of the AFSPA. That would be a welcome starting point. Enough is enough.

Monday, April 8, 2013

From past elections and past mistakes political parties learn nothing

Confusion is a weapon in politics. When you are confused about what to do, do
something to make others even more
confused. Say things that are at once sensational and contradictory until your
opponents start scurrying around to
find the meaning of what you are saying. That is battle half won.

The Congress is an old hand at this game. But this time it deserves our sympathy.
It is tasked with the
responsibility to sell a product that many markets have already rejected. But
mother's love is a formidable force.
So the question is: Go to battle with Rahul Gandhi leading the akshauhini and face
inevitable reversals or look for
ways to reconcile mother's love with reality?

Basically Rahul Gandhi must be a nice guy. He even manages to say a right thing or
two occasionally. He performed in
an easygoing style before corporate chieftains who praised him lavishly. But
corporate chieftains praised Narendra
Modi even more lavishly. They praised Mamata Bannerjee also at one point. This is
purpose-oriented praise and must be
seen as such. What Rahul had to say were inanities: India is not an elephant, it
is a beehive... I was born with a
DNA... There were no fresh ideas, no action plan. And no recognition of the
unalterable fact that history's biggest
scams mauled India during his father's and then his mother's watch. Unless he
exorcises this past by addressing it
boldly, his hype about the future will only remain ghost-writers' dreams.

The reality of politics is harsher. We got a taste of it when Digvijay Singh made
what looked at first like a
critical statement against the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh leadership. Their
functioning as twin power centres had
failed, he said. It was time therefore for Rahul Gandhi to become the sole power
centre as Prime Minister.

Was Digvijay Singh, said to be Rahul Gandhi's mentor, knocking out other prime
ministerial hopefuls by saying that the
Sonia-Manmohan pairing would not be repeated by, say, a Rahul-Chidambaram pairing?
Before we could figure that out,
another ranking Congressman changed the whole scenario.

Janardan Dwivedi, who never utters a syllable unless it is official party gospel,
said the Sonia-Manmohan team was
something unique and could be "an ideal model for the future." Other party satraps
rushed in to endorse that view.
But Digvijay, the mentor, stuck to his position, thus creating a Great Moment in the
history of Politics by Confusion.

So what's going on? It cannot be that the Congress is finally recognising the
unwinnability of Rahul Gandhi. That
would be a repudiation of mother's love and hence inconceivable. So, anticipating a
poor performance in the next
election, is the Congress trying to save Rahul Gandhi's face by putting poor
Manmohan Singh up front as a shield? Or
is there a plan to project Manmohan for now and, if the party were to win a credible
number of seats in Parliament,
then ditch him and put Rahul on the gaddi?

Calculations and confusions are important for the Congress because it is likely to
benefit in this election from the
weaknesses of the BJP. In Karnataka at any rate, it will win because of the
terrible record of the BJP Government.
But the early moves of the Congress in the State show that it is not learning
anything from its fortuitous advantage.
The opportunity to win the trust of the people may already be lost. Senior leader
Siddaramaiah was looked upon as
the most credible among Congressmen and a government under his leadership was
something many people in the State
longed for. But as soon as elections were announced in the State, the party
appointed as its strategy committee's
chief a discredited former Congress leader who had acted like a bull in a china shop
whenever he tasted power. That
this man was Siddaramaiah's nominee dashed all hopes about the lone remaining
Congress leader. The party has since
been busy trying to give tickets to other renegades, corruption kings and party
hoppers. The colours may change, but
the tragedy of our democracy will continue.