Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Medieval Justice vs Modern Justice

A BBC headline caught my eye as I was following the story of the recent Bihar lynching; where the bodies instead of being cremated were left lying on the banks of the Ganga after nominally setting fire to their funeral pyres and were later observed being eaten by dogs. The BBC headline called Bihar a state “where lynching is the order of the day”. The BBC Correspondent by the name of Amarnath Tewary from Patna has filed this report and I mention the correspondent‘s name only because we should not dismiss a headline of this nature as the creation of a foreign radio channel. The BBC article gores on to say that vigilante justice appears to have become the order of the day in the lawless northern Indian state of Bihar.

But perhaps the BBC is being unfair to Bihar which is possibly on the mend though it still has a long way to go. According to all the information that we get to see and hear, the chief Minister Nitish Kumar acted promptly against the erring officials as soon as the incident was brought to his notice. Some other incidents of lynching that made it to the media in the recent past : the mentally retarded boy lynched because he stole a biscuit, the killing of Professor Sabharwal in Ujjain, the violence that erupted in Agra after a speeding truck ran over 4 youth, and the routine violence that is associated with Kanwwarias now almost every time they hit the pilgrim trail. And there could be many more.

The BBC web site itself talks about lynching in the context of the positioning of electricity poles; inter caste marriages, adultery and what not. The guiding philosophy in today’s India increasingly not the penal code but the Old Testament’s Mosaic Law– “An Eye for an Eye” and a Tooth for a Tooth”. But then, even the Mosaic Law was still quite humane with all its “ifs” and “buts” written in as safeguards

Accept it or not, India has two kinds of criminal judicial systems at play in the country and at the moment they do not connect. The first and most over arching one of course is the British imposed penal code. This supposedly is the only officially sanctioned system and has a hierarchy built up right from the session’s courts to the High Courts and then the Supreme Court. Then are the traditional Panchayats. These are not the Panchayats of governance that Mani Shankar Aiyar. I am talking of the traditional panchayats – typically the caste panchayats that his ministry is thinking of outlawing although they have been in existence much, much longer than his ministry has been.

Now a caste Panchayat might look abhorrent to the reformed modern mind, but caught between a anesthetized “modern judiciary” which has heaps of paper work and years of hearing before it can hand down a sentence which can then be appealed and vigilante justice which kills and shoots the first person in sight and only contributes to anarchy, caste panchayats operate within known and generally understood social norms, convene with minimal fuss and its verdicts are instantly enforced.

Am I making a case for caste panchayats ? Let me remove the word caste for it is politically incorrect etiquette and use the word traditional panchayats. Yes, I think there is a case for them. At one time, even the government tried to co-opt them by constituting Nyay Panchayats but like every thing the government co-opts and hands over to the Babus¸ the process failed. So I am not talking of the state sponsored Nyay Panchayat but the traditional panchayat which has teeth and authority. Admittedly, this is an institution more often than not guided by medieval norms which are reactionary and retrogressive but remember the so called “modern judicial system” that we so proudly flaunt actually dates back to the nineteenth century and whereas the penal code is cast in concrete so to speak, the social mores and norms evolve , albeit they evolve slowly.

If we have to escape vigilante folk justice which is totally mindless, we have to reform our judicial system. By paying attention to the modern judicial system alone , we have set up special courts, evening courts, Fast Track Courts, mobile courts, CBI courts and all sorts of other courts but none of this works for they are the legal system of the elite and the poor small fish who get caught in its net unless they can afford expensive lawyers are doomed. On the other hand, the traditional panchayats which require no lawyers, no costly court rooms, no paraphernalia have received little attention and attempts at modernization. Doesn’t the traditional judicial system deserve a chance with some inputs in terms of trying to bring it up to speed from its current medieval moorings ? If that is when the last time any attention was paid to it , is it any wonder that they are caught up in a time warp ? Whose fault is it ? Our or theirs ?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Religious Freedom : Should the US be Policing us ?

Every year at the demand of the US Congress, the State Department prepares and presents on behalf of the US President an interesting report. It documents the state of religious freedom around the world and of course from a human and civil rights point of view, it is a critical document since religious freedom is a key ingredient of human rights.

However I have always wondered what business it is of the US Congress to track in such a formal way the state of religious freedom around the globe when there is a lot going on that needs investigation that could be traced back to the US itself. Also, while the US government is more than happy to pontificate on what other countries should or should not do, one wonders what it does when the report reveals some chinks in its own chequered armor

The report for the year 2006 was released on September 12th and in its introduction it states explicitly that:

The purpose of this report on religious freedom is to document the actions of governments--those that repress religious expression, persecute innocent believers, or tolerate violence against religious minorities, as well as those that respect, protect, and promote religious freedom. We strive to report with fairness and accuracy on abuses against adherents of all religious traditions and beliefs. The governments we report on range from those that provided a high level of protection for religious freedom in the broadest sense (those that "generally respected" religious freedom) to totalitarian regimes that sought to control religious thought and expression and regarded some or all religious groups as threats.

I find it amusing that our Left leaning parties which are so vocal about a treaty whose provisions are ambivalent at best and whose actual implications are yet to be really known digest this annual policing act where the US State documents the "actions of governments" explicitly impinging on the sovereignty of individual nations.

I think that this sort of a document is extremely useful but it should have been more appropriately produced by the UN Commission on Human Rights and presented by the UN Secretary General to the General Assembly. After all human rights, civil liberties and religious freedom are of concern to the whole world and is not just a foreign policy determinant for the US. Besides in the voluminous document, one country's record is not documented - the United State's own record is missing. It looks like the State Department has assumed that all is well and will always be well in the US and so it does not require any surveillance. To me that it is nothing but big power arrogance.

India generally gets a clean chit. The report states that the policy of India's National Government continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion, during the period covered by the report. The report indicated problems in some provinces of the country. Some state governments enacted and amended "anti-conversion" laws with police and enforcement agencies not acting swiftly enough to effectively counter societal attacks particularly against religious minorities, said the report.

Despite Government efforts to foster communal harmony some extremists continued to evade due to ineffective investigation and prosecution on charges of attacks on religious minorities, particularly at the state and local level, added the report. The full report is meticulously researched and while it is a valuable tool for research and advocacy, the fact that a foreign government has gone around snooping around the world is not a pleasant thought.

One interesting finding that should leave President Bush red in the face is that in Iraq, which is effectively under US occupation, the state of religious freedom has gone bad. Religious freedom has sharply deteriorated in Iraq over the past year because of the insurgency and violence targeting people of specific faiths, despite the U.S. military buildup intended to improve security. Violence is not confined to the well-known rivalry between Sunni and Shia Muslims. To top it all, ironically, many Christians are facing worse times than under Saddam Hussein's secular regime.
Saddam viewed Christians as non-threatening and elevated a Christian, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, as the public face of his regime. Following Saddam's ouster last year, many Christians were heartened by an interim constitution that guaranteed basic religious freedom. But as violence increased, including kidnappings of some rich Christians and beheadings of others who worked for the U.S. military, some Assyrians demanded creation of a "safe haven" in land currently governed autonomously by Iraqi Kurds, effectively rubbing salt into the wounds of George Bush who wears his Christianity on his sleeves.

Although this annually produced document is an extremely useful document and is largely credible, researched and factual, the question remains - the US has its own warts and what is the ethical basis for it to peep over other countries' shoulders. It was only in August of this year, just last month, that President Bush issued an order decreeing that Article 3 of the Third Geneva Convention - which prohibits the humiliation or degradation of prisoners of war - should apply to the CIA's detention and interrogation programme at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. Groups like Amnesty international have a campaign going against the human rights abuses perpetrated by the US itself.

And thus the perennial question - since when can the pot call the kettle black? Or have the rules changed along the way and it is now for big brother to set the rules and the rest of us just fall in line?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Dev Anand's Life : Romancing at 83

At 83, even the most flamboyant of celebrities retreat from public life, but if you are Dev Anand, the evergreen hero of Indian cinema, it's never too late for love I have not watched too many movies of Dev Anand. I one remember and the one that possibly he will be remembered for is Guide, his and brother Vijay Anand’s adaptation of R.K. Narayan’s legendary novel of the same name. a couple of others that I have seen like Des Pardes and Johnny Mera Naam wont find any mention any where and the films he makes now are so mindless that one would be hard put to even recall their names. I guess that after Guide, the last movie of any worth that he made was Hare Rama, Hare Krishna, which captured the mood of the hippie generation pretty well. Of course there are the many old movies of the black and white generation that made Dev Anand what he was and which I haven’t seen because they are difficult to get hold of.

What to me is inspiring about Dev Anand is not the kind of movies he makes today or the ones he made earlier but the fact that the man has the zest and verve which have long left many of his contemporaries who may be still alive but in virtual retirement. Also the wonder that looking at the abysmal quality of his films today, he still has backers who put up the money to fund his films knowing that is hardly any distributor will ;pick them up today as he hardly has any market left. Even die hard fans would prefer to watch his earlier classics for which he is justly part of the old Bollywood trinity along with Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor. Anand, considered the epitome of the suave, urbane gentleman, was seen as one of the most handsome men in Indian cinema and looked strikingly similar to Hollywood hero Gregory Peck.

And now, Dev And is releasing his autobiography “Romancing with Life’ on the 26th of September and the inaugural release is being done by no less a person than Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh. Unless many ghost written works released in the name of celebrities, this is a work that has actually been penned by the writer. The autobiography is a hardcover tome with 495 pages being published by Penguin Books and apart from being his personal memoir the book is bound to also capture immortal nuggets of the Indian film industry of which Dev Anand has been a part of fifty five years. Effectively this autobiography will offer a snapshot of the entire history of post independence Hindi cinema till today. Dev Anand is still making movies and his latest venture is Love in Times Square which he has put on hold at his publisher’s urging.

Depending on how you look at it, Dev Anand’s current film related pursuits can be ridiculed considering that hardly any one watches them or from another lens, his life is worthy of admiration and emulation , for his passion and determination to keep his boots on for as long as he can and remain active and productive. I prefer to look at it as a pursuit to be admired a good and worthy life is lived for its own sake and success alone is no longer the only determinant of fulfillment. Asked where he gets all the energy from at his age, the actor said, 'I never feel old as I have retained all the elements of youth. My work gives me all the energy and I am excited about all the things I do. I have gained a lot from life and have no regrets.’ I’m excited all the time about the things I do. So I feel young. Young people feel excited all the time,' he said. 'And what compensates me for my youth is my wisdom, my experience, whatever I have gained from life so far.’ Don’t you forget the world when you are busy writing an article. Well I compensate my age with my wisdom and my experience and I can go on for 100 years……… “What an example for sagging knees and tired arms that want to quit on life and simply give up…..

Friday, September 14, 2007

Saving the Indian Soldier

Many years ago, I began my working life with the Indian Air Force. At that time, the armed forces were the pride of the nation and people looked upon servicemen with a rare respect and honor. It was the dream of many young mean to be part of the Armed Forces as officers or as soldiers. The civilian population typically loved the serviceman with the same ardor worth which they disliked the police which they viewed as an instrument of corruption, coercion and harassment. In times of trouble – be it riots, floods or earthquakes or any thing else, there was no one else you would like to have on your side than the army man.

The civil administration knew this and called on the army with unfailing regularity to its aid. The police was perceived to be biased and riddled with caste and religious prejudices and often known to be politicized; the army was above all that in being every thing that the police was not – secular, disciplined, apolitical and fair. Every body loved a soldier and many wanted to be one and partake of all the love and affection.

That was then. Today it seems to be a different world with hardly a day passing without allegations of fake encounters, sexual harassment, rape, illegal confinement and what have you being hurled at the once venerated army from all sides. Things have come to such a pass that what once considered an extreme aberration is now splashed about as headlines in the international media to such a length that denials are now passé. Even the government has decided to take notice of allegations of fake encounters leveled against security forces in Jammu and Kashmir and the Court of Enquiry had been instituted in a number of cases. The Indian Army of course has a hoary history with the origins of some of its units going back to the East India Company. However after 1857, when the crown took over the governance of India, they basically set up two kinds of security agencies. The first one was the police to look after law and order and look after their interests with in the country’s borders. The Indian Police Act of 1861 which still provides the legislative backbone for the police was enacted around this time.
The second security force the British created was the Army for external warfare. The army saw action in the British Afghan wars, Anglo-Sikh wars and many others and of course in the First and Second world wars. Post independence the Army was engaged in operations in Kashmir following the tribal invasion in 1948 and then of course in 1962, 1965, 1971 and in a limited way in the Kargil operations.

However, post 1971, the army has slowly lost its direction as the distinction between the work the police did and the army was increasingly being called upon to do began to blur. With the nuclearization of the neighborhood, conventional warfare has become an unlikely possibility. At the same time with increasing unrest and insurgency with in the country’s own borders and the conventional police unable to cope, the temptation to turn to the Army to do the same policing jobs was high and the establishment succumbed leading to a collective schizophrenia in the Army.

The soldier’s induction and training are all geared towards annihilation of the “enemy” who is not one of “us”. This is reinforced by the British engineered cantonment system where the Army is largely invisible to the common man and is exposed only in military parades and as a savior in times of calamity. This limited exposure added to the aura and the mystique of military life. Once that mystique disappeared with increasing exposure to the civilian population, the fear and reverence for the soldier slowly began to evaporate.

With conventional warfare unlikely in view of the developing strategic scenario, the political as well as the military establishment both need to think of reinventing a modern role for the Armed Forces in view of India’s larger geo political positioning and emerging identity as an economic power. Using it as a quasi police force to quell internal insurgencies is not will only lead to more repression as the Army’ psyche is to defend the nation against external threats and asking them to battle their own country men produces an internal contradiction in the soldier’s mind which is not easily resolvable.

Vinoba Bhave -Social Entrepreneur or Sacred Fool ?

A couple of days ago on the 11th of September was the 112th birth anniversary of a man who has now become so obscure that even the usual speech and garland the statue routine that we are so used to was dispensed with. In fact, it has been that way for many years now. Recently he appeared in the news because the well known author V.S.Naipaul has lambasted him in his book " A Writer's People" soundly calling him a “fool parody of Gandhi”. Yet in his time, he made it to the cover of TIME magazine, won the Ramon Magasaysay award for community leadership in its inaugural year(this year P.Sainath received it) and has been called one a great social entrepreneur by the Asoka Foundation along side the likes of Florence Nightingale. And to top it all, he was posthumously awarded the Bharat Ratna.

Was Vinoba a fool or an eccentric entrepreneur? By the time, I came to know about him, he was past his prime and was derisively known as the “Sarkari Sadhu” the state approved holy man who could be brought forward to bless unpopular and controversial decisions. I remember two. When Mrs. Gandhi imposed the emergency in 1975, and was vehemently opposed by JP, Acharya Kripalani and a few other surviving Gandhians, she promptly paraded Acharya Vinoba Bhave who declared that the period of emergency was actually Anushashan Parva, a time of discipline. But because by that time, Vinoba Bhave was more or less considered senile, his pronouncement carried little clout.

On many other occasions, Hindu sants would go on an agitation demanding a ban on cow slaughter. This was some thing that Vinoba Bhave too was passionate about. But while the other sants were generally hostile to the government Vinobaji after a couple of days of token fast would be assuaged with some vague assurances and a glass of lime juice and often because Vinoba Bhave had a much higher stature than the typical Sadhu, the back of the agitation would be broken.
But there was a lot more to Acharya Vinoba Bhave than the eccentricities of his old age. He was the original Padyatri”, a man who was deeply learned in Eastern philosophy and skilled in mathematics. His utter simplicity of manner and dress belied the fact that he was at home in 18 Indian and foreign languages, including Persian, Arabic, French and English

Bhoodan is Acharya Vinoba Bhave’s lasting contribution, though in retrospective analysis, it was a movement that failed. But it is the sheer effort of the man that and the nobility of his motives that attracts attention. Writing as far back as in 1953, when TIME put him on its cover the magazine says that his popularity ranked next to Pandit Nehru in the post Gandhi era.

Vinoba Bhave and his followers vowed to collect 50 million acres of land from India's landlords by the simple process of "looting with love." The largest single gift was 100,000 acres from a maharajah. The smallest was one fortieth of an acre donated by a Telengana peasant who owned only one acre himself. By the time the Bhoodan movement petered out, Vinoba had walked 13 years, over 36,000 miles, accepting over 4.4 million acres of land.

Vinoba was a communicator, a simplifier, a translator of Gandhian thought. Though he had not one bit of Gandhi's humor or charisma, he could convince anyone. Bandits laid down their weapons at his feet and repented. As he himself said of himself and perhaps most of us – “Though we are small men we can stand on the shoulders of giants and perhaps see a little farther……” In today’s times, when so much of the unrest in our country is about land rights and unequal land distribution and the agitation is being fuelled by Naxalites and proponents, it is a pity that Bhoodan has not been given another chance.