Once upon a time in India, its streets echoed with chants of “Bofors ke dalalon ko, joote maaro saalon ko (beat up the middlemen in the Bofors deal with shoes).”
Among these alleged middlemen Indian mobs wanted beaten with shoes was actor Amitabh Bachchan, a close friend of the then Prime Minister and a member of parliament from Allahabad. The leaders of the lynch mob claimed that the Bachchans had taken kickbacks for facilitating the gun deal with a Swedish manufacturer and details of the accounts in which this cash was stashed would soon be made public.
Bachchan, who quit politics because of these allegations, was, of course, not guilty as accused or vilified. He fought a long battle in courts across the world to get his name cleared, erase the taint thrown at him. Several years later, he would lament that he had to bear the stigma of being called a crook and a traitor for 25 years.
Bachchan should be grateful Bofors didn’t happen in an India where his wife Jaya is among those cheerleading demands for instant justice by mobs, through public lynching, without a trial. If her logic had prevailed then, if demands for beating up the middlemen with shoes had echoed in Parliament, raised to a shrill chorus by his own wife, such was the rage and anger against corruption in India back then that no street would have been safe for Mr Bachchan, especially if he were to take seriously his filmy fantasy of roaming around at night on deserted streets disguised as a vigilante with dyed-grey hair.
There are two simple points of this backstory. One, accusation isn’t guilt, and, thus, everyone should have the right to avail every legal option available to them under a country’s laws. Two, public sentiment should not turn our public representatives into cheerleaders of irrational, unconstitutional rage and mob justice.
Jaya Bachchan is a prime exhibit of the hypocrisy and ignorance of the angrier-than-thou in today’s India. The kind of people who, instead of doing their job in parliament, are just ranting about against the very system that protects their liberties, the ignoramuses ready to undermine the law with their maudlin outrage in parliament.
Citizens of banana republic unite
What will the courts do if the cops start doing their jobs? Are the police entitled any more than us to execute people in the name of instant justice? And, if our justice delivery system is really so bad, why aren’t the Jaya Bachchans, the Meenakshi Lekhis, Mrs Anupam Khers and Rajyavardhan Rathores talking about it in Parliament?
These are the questions that we ought to have asked after the brazen and questionable encounter of the four men accused of the murder and rape of a veterinarian in Hyderabad. Instead, we got into an orgy of ugly celebrations, cheerlead by the very people who should have raised these questions and expressed concern over India’s slide into lawlessness.
India’s politicians are preaching and screaming, while the preachers — Asaramas, Rampals— are serving time in jail for rape, murder and arson. Actors are leading mobs to criminality from the hallowed halls of Parliament, while leaders are just pretending to lead while being led by social media paid pipers. Cops are dispensing justice, while the courts are being accused of delaying and denying it. The media is cheerleading bloodthirsty mobs and the mobs have gone blind with bigotry and blind bhakti. We are intellectually now a banana republic that slips on its own thin skin.
This absurd situation has triggered a collapse of the collective intellect of the country, and public spectacles of absurdity. One day you have them all howling over the denial of legal assistance and fair trial to Kulbhushan Jadhav, an Indian sentenced to death by Pakistan on charges of espionage and terrorism. On another, the same set of people start demanding mob justice without a fair trial to suspects in their own country.
Nobody in this banana republic is telling us that the problem with India’s rape law is not that they are benign or lenient. In fact, after the Nirbhaya murder and rape, India became a country with one of the most stringent laws on rape. The existing laws were amended not just to define the meaning of rape and penetration but also to increase the quantum of punishment — even death sentences were prescribed in rarest of rare case. In addition, the process of recording the statement of the victim was made easier and absence of consent was presumed in a case where the victim states in the court that she did not agree to sexual intercourse. In fact, the amended law has been criticised by some activists for being gender-biased and open to misuse. (But that’s a different argument).
Why courts should skin the cheerleaders
To ensure justice — and this is different from preventing sexual violence — the extant laws need to be implemented with speed and fairness by all the concerned agencies. The police need to file reports, conduct a fair investigation and file the chargesheet within a stipulated time. Once that happens, the courts need to hear the case, deliver their judgment and get the punishment executed. If followed in letter and spirit, this would help everyone — the victims, the state and those held on fake charges.
If this is not happening today, it is a collective failure of the investigating agencies as well as the courts. And the executive needs to find solutions to this problem. But, instead of ensuring the rule of law, the executive is trying to hide its failures through quick-fixes like fake encounters and by endorsing criminal acts like mob justice, lynchings and summary executions without trial.
Also read | When will we go beyond drama to end rapes?
On Saturday, a day after the Hyderabad encounter, chief justice of India Sharad Arvind Bobde argued at a function in Rajasthan that “justice should never take the form of revenge.” He also accepted that the criminal justice system should reconsider its position and attitude towards time, laxity and the eventual time it takes to dispose of the criminal matter. He must address these problems by asking for more judges, faster trials and a just and fair system.
But, the CJI’s biggest worry should be the fact that the police is ready to usurp the judiciary’s role, at the instigation of the cheerleaders in parliament with the consent of an irrational, ill-informed mob. And, only the courts can do something about this criminal encroachment on its territory by extra-judicial agencies.
Only the courts can answer three critical questions.
One, if Parliamentarians exhort people to break the law, turn into lynch mobs, isn’t it tantamount to contempt of the constitution?
Two, if cops get away with extra-judicial killings on questionable grounds, isn’t it perversion of the law?
And three, if the courts silently endures this chorus of criminality by the executive, police and mobs, would the judiciary not become irrelevant soon?
Maybe they can start by reminding Mrs Bachchan of the merits of a justice system that believes in giving every accused the right to fair trial.