In half-made countries like ours, violence lies just below a tenuous facade of order. It is unfortunate that we notice this only when the façade cracks, as happened last week when a mob of ruffians savagely attacked a Swiss couple in Fatehpur Sikri. Or when Muslim cattletraders and dairy farmers are beaten to death in public. Or when baby girls are brutally raped and murdered. And even when these horror stories surface, millions of Indians remain in denial and take to Twitter to say things like ‘exceptions do not make the rule’ and ‘bad things happen in other countries too.’ If only instead of shameful justifications they would demand loudly that political leaders stop subverting the rule of law by manipulating it for political purposes.
Next week marks the anniversary of one of the worst episodes of politicians colluding with the police and officials to allow the massacre of innocent Indian citizens. As has happened in this coming week for more than 30 years, the newspapers will be filled with commemorative advertisements remembering Indira Gandhi on her death anniversary. But, the murder of more than 3,000 Sikhs in the days that followed her assassination will go un-mourned. Is this because it shames us to remember that this pogrom was organised by ‘secular’ Congress politicians to avenge the murder of their leader? As someone who was in Delhi in those terrible days, I find it hard to forget those piles of burned bodies lying in the streets, those burned out husks of trucks on roads leading out of the city with corpses in rigor mortis at the wheel.
If in the aftermath of that pogrom Rajiv Gandhi had shown the wisdom to allow at least a measure of justice to be done, it would have strengthened our fragile rule of law. He chose instead to justify the violence, and not a single senior politician, official or police officer has so far been punished for criminal dereliction of their duties. Since most Indian citizens remained unmoved by what happened, sufficient public pressure never built up to strengthen the rule of law.
Today, it is the turn of Congress leaders to give pious lectures every time cow vigilantes murder innocent Muslims or nameless ‘right-wing killers’ murder leftist intellectuals and journalists. And now it is the turn of BJP leaders to justify savagery in the name of ‘nationalism’ and ‘Hindu pride’. The horrible irony is that neither of our two major political parties appears to notice that violence usually leads only to more violence and that, in the end, it begins to affect everyone.
In totalitarian countries the rule of law is imposed by soldiers, who shoot dead those who dare to break it, but in democratic countries like ours, it should be the job of civilian policemen to impose it. The sad truth is that our political leaders have interfered so often in police matters that our finest police officers (and there are many) hesitate to impose the rule of law strictly when they know that their political bosses want it broken. In countries that are real democracies, there are enough checks and balances in place to prevent this from happening. In India, we have for too long thought of democracy as something limited to being able to vote every five years for a new government. If there is to be a ‘new India’, this must change.
It is not hard to do. Hundreds of thousands of words have been written in many, many official reports about what needs to be done to give our police forces more protection from political pressure. Why do they continue to lie buried in the bowels of the Home Ministry? Whenever this question is asked there comes the standard response that law and order is a state subject. It is and it is not. When the chief minister of a state and the Prime Minister come from the same party, they work as a team. So when Muslims are killed in Rajasthan for no reason and when foreign tourists are brutally attacked in Uttar Pradesh, it is as much the Prime Minister’s responsibility as that of the state government. What happened in Fatehpur Sikri was so shameful that the Minister of External Affairs had to intervene, so there is no question that the Prime Minister can do more.
In democratic countries, strict imposition of the rule of law is as important as regular elections. We know this because we have lived through times in which polling booths were regularly ‘captured’ at the behest of politicians by gangsters. When gangsters discovered that this was something they could do for themselves, they gave up being gangsters and became politicians. Some sit in Parliament and some in state Assemblies, so what hope is there for the rule of law? And, yet there has to be.
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