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Sunday, October 17, 2021

On the altar of justice

Salman Khan had to be sacrificed so that we can rest easy about the impersonal majesty of the law.

Written by Alok Rai |
Updated: May 15, 2015 12:55:00 am
The sentencing of Salman is being used to mouth platitudes about the law, which does not distinguish between the high and the low. The sentencing of Salman is being used to mouth platitudes about the law, which does not distinguish between the high and the low.

This is not an article about Salman Khan. Enough has been written, and will be written, a mishmash of adoration and fascination with his wealth and success or, as in the piece by Pratap Bhanu Mehta in these pages (‘That “eat cake” moment’, IE, May 12,, about the moral anaesthesia that results from being so fascinated, so star-struck. Ever since Narendra Modi shed tactical tears about puppies being run over on the road, dogs have played a role in our public discourse — but singer Abhijeet’s remark, “kutta road pe soyega to kutte ki maut marega (if a dog sleeps on the road, he will die a dog’s death)”, must still mark a new low. The self-obsessed callousness of the privileged is a fertile subject, but it is not my theme today.

My own subject is the way in which the sentencing of Salman, after 13 long years, is being used by all to mouth pious platitudes about respecting the judgment of the court and about the majesty of the law, which does not distinguish between the high and the low, between the powerful and the powerless. However, all these platitudes are, quite frankly, nonsense. As for “respecting” the judgment of the court — which criminals who are unlucky enough to be convicted are so prompt to affirm — does one really have a choice in the matter? I believe that one must (and should, by and large) submit to the judgment of the court. It is the necessary precondition for there to be rule of law at all. Except in the special situations when it is better not to submit — as,famously, in the Gandhi-C.N. Broomfield trial, where Gandhi invited Broomfield to sentence him — because the law, as law, even when it is asinine, must assert itself. Before less literate judges start getting hot under their wigs, the asinine reference is Dickensian. Of course, the Gandhi-Broomfield example raises delicate issues regarding the relation between law and morality — but Salman can’t be made to wait much longer.


So, submission is good but “respect” is another matter. And it is only a contemptuous and contemptible inflation of the contempt law that has given judicial officers the illusion that they, not the institution they adorn and sometimes embarrass, are entitled to respect. Respect not only in the matter of their judgments, to which one must, willy-nilly, submit, but also with regard to the fatuous obiter which they are apt to pronounce all too frequently, as in the Article 370 case and, even more egregiously, in the absurd Babri Masjid judgment. But after all, even judges are, at the end of the day, only human, and their judgments sometimes remind us of this all too poignantly. And it is indeed these frequent reminders — human, all-too-human — that underlie the pious affirmations of the august and impersonal majesty of the law apropos the sentencing of Salman Khan, superhero.

The real significance of the public and media-fuelled fascination with the sentencing of Salman has to do with sacrifice. In this case, human sacrifice. This is how we have sought, since time immemorial, to invoke and the gods. The gods, we humans have often had reason to suspect, have better things to do than to bother with us. And so we seek to attract their attention by offering up things that we value. We can’t always offer up real human beings — let’s face it, the poor fellows who sleep on pavements hardly count, do they? But circumstances occasionally give us the opportunity to make good, and offer up a Salman Khan. Or a Sanjay Dutt.

Of course, we can’t manage “extreme prejudice”, as the delicate American euphemism has it, so we make do with lesser forms of duress, with humiliation of different kinds. Soon, we will be treated to details of the sparse jail diet, the fanless room, the hard or missing mattress, the bare cold (or hot) floor. The jail superintendent will have his moment of fame, and he too will mouth the appropriate platitudes about how the law is no respecter of persons, be they high or low, etc. Et cetera.

This is a lie that we are eager to be complicit in. Because minus this threadbare refuge, we will have to confront the reality of our condition. The killers of Hashimpura walk free. And while Ishrat Jahan is unmistakably, undeniably, dead — and Kauser Bi, and others too numerous to name — there is so much judicially endorsed innocence among those who were and are suspected of complicity in the killings, whether in pulling the triggers or supervising the “encounters”, that we are forced to live with the conclusion that the dead killed themselves. With police weapons, no less, and with the necessary and incriminating identity documents on them.

At a more general level, ours is a country in which crime and punishment, the ineluctable foundation of a system of justice, have come unstuck. Public crimes, crimes that are committed in the full glare of publicity, go unpunished, massacres are foretold, genocides televised. Yet rarely is nyone held responsible. On the other hand, punishment is meted out for crimes unknown and even uncommitted, or committed by someone in another country, another century even. Children are killed because, we are told, Allauddin “sacked” Somnath. Forced to live with such travesties, we eagerly offer up the occasional and ultimately trivial sacrifice to the increasingly ragged majesty of the law.

The writer taught in the department of English, Delhi University.

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