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Rights, duties and everything overlapping that comes in between

Leher Kala writes: Every now and then there are heartening signs that Indian democracy is robust enough to publicly silence those armed with wily lawyers and accountants, the experts at exploiting loopholes that undermine laws and institutions.

Protest is disruptive by nature and, lest we forget, civil disobedience played a big role in India’s Independence.

The Madras High Court came down hard on Tamil superstar Vijay for challenging the levy of entry tax on his Rolls Royce Ghost (approximate cost, Rs 6 crore) imported in 2012. Dismissing the petition, the court directed Vijay to pay his dues within two weeks and imposed a fine of Rs 1 lakh as well. By all accounts Vijay is a car enthusiast, a hobby he can easily indulge with an estimated net worth of 56 million US dollars (Rs 410 crore). In a scathing order, Justice S M Subramaniam noted the irony that in his biggest hit Vijay played a champion of social justice, and has built a huge fan base as the face of the fight against corruption. “In a state where actors have become rulers, they are not expected to behave like ‘reel heroes’,” asserted Justice Subramaniam.

Every now and then there are heartening signs that Indian democracy is robust enough to publicly silence those armed with wily lawyers and accountants, the experts at exploiting loopholes that undermine laws and institutions. However, being hauled up for tax dodging is unlikely to make a dent in Vijay’s popularity, since the ambivalence Indians feel about taxation cuts across all income groups. In this God-fearing nation, the same people who will vociferously agree that robbing a bank is wrong, find nothing particularly immoral about being immensely rich, but scamming the government. The reasons are depressingly obvious.

The monsoon is raging right now and as usual the road outside my house has turned into a lake. I have waded through collapsing infrastructure to exit my neighbourhood for 20 years, every July. Basically, every citizen stews over the same issue, of finding no link between tax payments and benefits accrued. Whether we know it or not, we are guided by instinctive notions of fair play in everyday life. In this year especially, when memories of oxygen shortage linger, that we are obliged to continue with our civic duties feels enraging. It is the eternal quandary, what level of responsibility must each of us carry for our choices that impact society at large?

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A similar dilemma on citizens’ duties arose 2,500 years ago in ancient Athens. When Socrates was sentenced to death on the charge of corrupting the youth in 399 BC, his friends arranged his escape. He refused, saying that by choosing to live in Athens he had made a commitment to obey the laws of the land. Point being, after enjoying the various advantages of citizenship and community, violating regulations because they don’t suit a personal agenda is no way to live. Socrates chose death over being a fugitive on the premise that to break the law, even in reaction to injustice, remains an injustice. It was something to ponder on as I drove recently from Jaipur to Delhi. A journey that should take under four hours now takes eight hours since farmers have laid siege on the highway.

Protest is disruptive by nature and, lest we forget, civil disobedience played a big role in India’s Independence. But it has been over six months since the Centre enacted three agricultural laws condemning Delhi-NCR residents to near captivity. You can’t take a flight for fear of Covid and you can’t drive out because the highways are in pandemonium. The optics favour the farmers — kurta-pyjama clad, white-bearded, non-violent, simpletons — suffering 40 degree humidity, desperate to be heard.

What would Socrates say? Probably, that the truth is hard to come by and often painful to take. That a grievance may be legitimate but in a poor country there are interconnected, contradictory realities, none of which can be discounted. When an act of dissent goes beyond causing inconvenience, offsetting crises in other industries, there is a risk an already irate population may retaliate with tragic consequences, far worse than tax evasion.

This column first appeared in the print edition on July 25, 2021 under the title ‘Duties, rights and everything in between’. The writer is director, Hutkay Films

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