Redeeming the Republic!

There is little dispute that the Indian Republic is in crisis. Corruption is rampant, soaring inflation is unchecked and governance has collapsed. The three main current rival political dispensations castigate one another. The BJP is accused of not checking communalism, the Congress of not checking corruption and the Aam Admi Party (AAP) of not checking anarchy. However all three political groups might be accused of a common failing. And that is, the failure of each group at one time or the other, of not strictly observing the law. Communal rioting, corruption scandals and anarchic law and order situations can all occur only if some law or democratic procedure is violated. The primacy of law as the guarantor of governance and democracy therefore is indisputable.

Sixty-four years ago India formally became a democratic Republic. How did it become a Republic? It adopted a Constitution to govern the nation. To survive and thrive as a Republic it must therefore follow the Constitution and all the laws contained therein. This is the simple one point measure to ensure that there is good governance and a healthy democratic system. And it is the failure to observe this simple axiom that is the root cause of all the ills that plague the nation under different political dispensations. Consider the current crisis.

The recent excesses of the Delhi State government have evoked the oddest responses. The media and opposition parties clamour for the resignation of errant Law Minister Mr. Somnath Bharti who gave illegal orders to the police, is accused of leading a mob of vigilantes to intimidate and harass foreign nationals, and is facing criminal charges in a court of law. He was defended and actively supported through mass protest by the Chief Minister. In the circumstances the demand for the Minister’s resignation is pathetically inadequate. The Delhi government should have been dismissed days ago. But no opposition party or media channel, except The Statesman editorially as well as Mrs. Kiran Bedi, have made this demand. This failure to voice the obvious is symptomatic of the nation’s apathy and permissive attitude towards the observance of law. Then why complain about India’s lack of governance?

Since the Delhi government could not be carried on with the provisions of the Constitution, what with its chief executive defying authority and the law on the streets, it was incumbent on the President to dismiss the government and impose President’s rule. The Lieutenant Governor (L-G) was grievously derelict in responsibility for not submitting a report to the President recommending this. Instead the L-G sought an escape route for the CM and sent him hot food while he protested on the street. The President should have pulled up the L-G and if required dismissed him.

The reactions of several senior media analysts and social scientists to all these events were absurd. They sought to justify the AAP antics describing these as revolutionary and game changing. One even described these as “new battle hymns” of the Republic. All this gibberish by those committed to secular policies can be explained by their anxiety to ensure that AAP blocks Mr. Narendra Modi from assuming power after the next general election. One commiserates with their anxiety but rubbishes their apology for AAP antics. The fact that over 50 lakhs members have enrolled in AAP nationwide creates huge vested interest in the success of its endeavors. But the anxiety nevertheless is misplaced. Members have been drawn to AAP because there is scent of change in the air. As mentioned earlier Mr. Kejriwal did not create the change. Change created him. If he fails to perform he will be dumped. The change will not stop. Others will replace him.

The approach of the Anna Hazare movement and AAP was from the very start described by this writer as flawed. The agitators as well as their supporters in the media deluded themselves by the belief that Mahatma Gandhi’s movement was being replicated because of fasts and mass protests in the street to defy the law pursued by the activists. The Mahatma’s strategy may have been pure genius for fighting the colonial power ruling us. It is irrelevant in today’s sovereign and independent Indian Republic where its laws are framed by its elected representatives. That is why I had suggested to the Team Anna activists during their very first protest fast to update Mahatma Gandhi instead of imitating him. How might Mahatma Gandhi’s strategy be updated?

This can be done by using law as a weapon to counter the government and not by breaking it. If bad laws need to be scrapped it must be achieved through legal means. If new laws need to be enacted, it must be accomplished through legal procedure. Not only can law be used through dissemination of views through free speech, by resort to courts of law, but even by use for public protest. One may draw attention to two occasions when this was done long before globalization and the media revolution that have transformed communication. In 1978 on Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary 3000 activists descended on the nation’s largest government owned five star hotel to protest the deployment of more public funds for another five star hotel instead of using the resources for providing drinking water and electricity to slum dwellers in the city. The activists came as owners of the hotel and as customers to drink tea. Their volume choked the hotel’s functioning. But no law was broken. An infuriated Prime Minister sought arrest of the leader and launched prosecution. After three years the activists won the case because the court ruled that no law had been broken. It was the first and perhaps the only time that a public protest in favour of disinvestment had been launched.

On the second occasion a spurious government policy to dole out money to the ruling party workers in the name of giving bank loans to poor entrepreneurs was derailed and failed by activists who repeatedly stormed the nodal bank conducting the scheme, ostensibly seeking application forms to obtain loans. Their sheer numbers paralyzed the bank’s operations for days. Once again, since no law was broken the police could only detain and later release the activists without filing any case. The choice for the bank was to either stop all applicants or allow the activists who crowded the premises.

Even the vigilante attacks of Mr. Somnath Bharti could have been made much more lethal provided sufficient homework and preparation had been made. Any individual can make a citizen’s arrest of a person committing a non-bailable cognizable offence. Article 43, of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 states: “Any private person may arrest or cause to be arrested any person who in his presence commits a non-bailable and cognizable offence, or any proclaimed offender, and, without unnecessary delay, shall make over or cause to be made over any person so arrested to a police officer, or, in the absence of a police officer, take such person or cause him to be taken in custody to the nearest police station.” Just a few days back a restaurant waiter in Britain attempted to make a citizen’s arrest of former Prime Minister Mr. Tony Blair for being a war criminal due to his role in the war on Iraq. He was dissuaded after Mr. Blair reasoned with him. So it might be seen that law as a weapon can on occasion be used with potent force even for mass action to counter the government.

What should not be tolerated in democratic functioning is to sanction violation of law to justify protest. This view will be disputed by many and will be hard to accept. But this is the new way forward to further the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi in a sovereign democratic nation. Therefore instead of attacking the personalities of rival politicians it would be more rewarding to focus on the single issue whether leaders observe the law in the pursuit of their political objectives. This single axiom will restore the health of the Republic. If an umpire commits an error of judgment the game of cricket is not abandoned but criticism voiced against the umpire subsequently. There can be no cricket without rules of the game. There can be no Republic without the laws of the land. Needed most is not great innovative vision but the simple will to implement existing law. Will any leader summon the requisite will to fulfill this simple task? 


More by :  Dr. Rajinder Puri

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