The elections-related content on the website of the Association for Democratic Reforms makes for a depressing read. The organisation analyses the declared background of the newly elected MPs. This year, we have a bumper crop of criminals — I must say “alleged” criminals because, despite the multiplicity of cases against politicians, rarely is one convicted. It beggars imagination that our so-called leaders have so many cases against them — murder, attempt to murder, kidnapping and so on — and yet, as soon as they are elected, evidence disappears, witnesses turn hostile and the cases mostly go nowhere.
As these cases lead to no conviction, the number of politicians with cases against them continues to spiral. Forty-three per cent of the 17th Lok Sabha members have declared criminal cases against themselves. In 2014 it was 34 per cent. In 2009 it was 30 per cent.
Many will brush this off, on the ground that until convicted the accused deserves the benefit of doubt. This may be true as a legal doctrine, but tends to be a misnomer in moral conduct. A legal case necessitates proof of guilt before punishing the accused; a moral case is not the same. Courts, as an arm of the government, can punish only those found guilty beyond doubt, suspicion is not enough. Yet, at the same time, when there is suspicion of misconduct, should we ignore it to give people positions of responsibility, especially positions where they can get rid of the likely evidence against them?
This question becomes more problematic in a country like India, which has a colonial history and entrenched social systems that stigmatise whole groups. I heard the best illustration of this from a deputy inspector general of police based in Gorakhpur. During a conversation, he said to me, “Think of it this way. During the British period, the authorities released three tigers into the forests to terrorise the local population. Then came Independence, and those elected to power had these tigers. chained. Then, over time, newer leaders came to power who had no direct association with the freedom movement. They had been marginalised by both the British and the privileged classes, and they killed the tigers. But they still needed to overawe the people, so they stuffed the tigers and plugged batteries inside them, so they could have claws and a growl on command.”
This allegory has been playing in my head ever since, probably because of the moral complexity it expresses. At one point, our criminal justice system categorises whole groups as “criminal tribes”. We have a sedition law that was brought in to keep people from rebelling against an exploitative empire. These were laws, but not all laws are “good”.
But the destruction of the powers of that system — rather than its reform — also does no good. The concept of Rule of Law is that the law applies equally to all. But we had a system that was designed for unequal application. Now that system has been broken so comprehensively that we barely have any law at all, except a battery-controlled one that is in the grips of those who win positions of power by hook or crook.
“Not only must Justice be done, it must also be seen to be done” is an oft-quoted sentiment in the criminal justice system. In the case of our political actors, who can, with any conviction, say that this has been the case?
This Eid, I listened to the maulvi at my local mosque as he delivered his pre-prayer qutbah , or moral homily. He spoke of reward and punishment, and gave the example of a merchant who has to file taxes. He said that a successful merchant may one day be called by the tax authorities. If he has done well through honest and ethical means, he may receive an award. But if he has cheated on his taxes, the authorities would summon him to justify his accounts and punish him. The maulvi gave this example to emphasise our duties towards the State. He also suggested that people should also do their duty to God in the same way.
Sitting in the courtyard of the mosque, surrounded by hundreds of fellow Indians, I wondered if this example holds good in real life. On the national stage, we keep seeing people being rewarded despite crimes, and innocent people punished. All we are left with in the name of the State is a stuffed tiger operated by “alleged” criminals that we elect to lead us.
Omair Ahmad is the South Asia Editor for The Third Pole, reporting on water issues in the Himalayas;
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