We do not need the Chief Minister of Delhi to sleep on a pavement for us to know that there are some fundamental flaws in Indian democracy. So in my humble opinion, it was a silly thing to do. But, as I have expressed grave misgivings about the Aam Aadmi Party long before the shenanigans of last week, I have no intention of writing yet another piece on their juvenile antics. Instead, since it is Republic Day, I intend to use the occasion for some stocktaking. Where does India stand today? What are the achievements? What are the failings?
In our short journey as a modern nation state, we have nurtured our democracy so well that its roots today are strong and deep. This is our biggest achievement. With a general election months away, we can spend a smug moment revelling in the thought that if people are as sick of the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh government as they appear to be, they will have a chance to boot it out. If despite deep disappointment and despair, Rahul Gandhi succeeds in the pretension that he is the new face of our oldest political party, then he is a bigger leader than this columnist has given him credit for. And, if his main challenger succeeds in winning enough seats for the BJP to acquire a desperately needed new look, then good luck to him. May he succeed in making real the dream of prosperity and governance that he has sold so well in his campaign.
Whenever I take stock of India’s failing, the first thing that comes to mind is the failure of our criminal justice system to keep up with the times. Last week, this failure became more horribly obvious than usual because of the rape of the young girl on the orders of a village kangaroo court. Where were police? Why are they never around to stop these barbaric things from happening? Would there still be this kind of primitive justice if India’s real courts had more firmly imposed the rule of law?
To find answers to these questions, I went to see Harish Salve. He is not just an outstanding lawyer but one who has shown the courage to speak frankly about things that go beyond his immediate brief.
When I asked him why the Indian justice system had failed to keep pace with the needs of India’s people, he said, without a moment’s hesitation, that the biggest problem was that there were too few judges. Most western democracies have around 200 judges per thousand people. In India, we have 11. And, there are vacancies, Harish pointed out, but who wants to become a judge if at the end of your career you do not have enough money even to buy yourself a decent home? Judges are paid peanuts even by Indian standards, so the first thing that must improve are their salaries.
The second thing that needs to be curbed is the passion Indian officials have for litigation. Harish reminded me that nearly 80 percent of the cases that clog up the justice system have the government as the litigant. Most of these cases are the result of officialdom’s inability to provide minimum standards of governance like, for example, computerising land records so that litigation becomes unnecessary. Harish suggested setting up commercial courts to deal with corporate cases as a way of taking pressure off the system. And, he said, discipline needed to be brought urgently into the system by giving lawyers deadlines and enforcing them strictly.
Reforming the criminal justice system has to be at the top of the next prime minister’s priorities because no democracy can function as it should if there is no rule of law. This cannot be imposed by street fighting as the Law Minister of Delhi tried to do recently, it can only be imposed by ensuring that the criminal justice system works effectively. It has been sick for a while now without any government doing anything to make it better. When I asked Harish Salve why nobody had done anything about it before, he said that most governments preferred not to spend the money needed to bring about the reforms. It is because of this that governments have been able to trample all over important judgments and remain derelict in their own duties by dragging citizens into court cases that they know will go on forever.
If this state of affairs continues, we will see more and more vigilantism of the kind that the Kejriwal government has perfected. And, we will continue to see kangaroo courts deliver their primitive, inhuman forms of justice. A good beginning today would be to try the rapists from Bengal publicly in a fast track court and sentence to death those ‘village elders’ who ordered the rape as punishment.
Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh