Updated: March 6, 2020 7:56:08 am
If the costly toll of the communal riots in Delhi points to serial institutional abdications and political failures, its aftermath doesn’t seem to be breaking from that dispiriting story. Survivors and victims of the violence have been left to fend for themselves. Outreach by government and political parties has been far too belated, too little. It is into this bare and denuded landscape that public spirited citizens and civil society activists have stepped in, to lend a listening ear and reach out a helping hand. It would not have been out of place, therefore, to assume that someone like former civil servant and activist Harsh Mander — whose citizens’ group established a 24×7 control room in Delhi to respond to distress calls and who knocked on a judge’s door late at night to prod Delhi Police to ensure safe passage for ambulances to move the injured to bigger hospitals — should have been seen, in this difficult time, as a friend of the court. It is disturbing and disappointing that, on the contrary, the Supreme Court should deny a hearing to Mander’s petition for registering FIRs against those who made hate speeches, because of a speech he himself made in December in which he allegedly showed disrespect to Parliament and the court.
It is not just that the speech Mander made on December 16, 2019, at Jamia Millia Islamia was an exhortation to fight against a discriminatory and divisive citizenship law with non-violence and love. And that, far from expressing disrespect to institutions, it was an argument for protesting under the ambit of the Indian Constitution. The point also is that the apex court, which has shown a big heart and broad shoulders in so many moments when both were needed, now appears thin-skinned and quick to take offence when it ticks off Mander — “till we sort this out, we will not hear you, but will hear others”, it said. That’s a chilling signal from the highest court — that its criticism may be a reason to deny a citizen due process. The fact also is that the affidavit Delhi Police subsequently filed in court, accusing Mander of instigating violence by his speech, sounds bizarre and absurd, given its inability or unwillingness till now to register FIRs against the real instigators, those who made publicised hate speeches in the run-up to the Delhi violence.
Undoubtedly, the court has a difficult task in this moment. The CJI-led bench is right when it says “we don’t think violence can be curbed by court orders”. The police, too, has a set of challenges as it tries to hold the peace after its spectacular inaction. But there are some things the court can and must do in the aftermath. For one, it should prod an unresponsive police to bring the guilty to book and lend its considerable weight to calls for accountability. At a time when institutions seem to be failing the citizens, it should ensure that the state respects and protects their right to safety and relief and compassion. There are many guilty men of Delhi. Putting an activist with a formidable record of civic action in the dock in this moment seems to be a waste of the court’s precious time, and a travesty.
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