December 28, 2012

Something rotten in the state

The future of India as a democratic republic lies in the path its citizens choose.

An old nursery rhyme “Who killed Cock Robin?” narrates the killing and burial of a robin killed by a sparrow. Once the murder is done, the rest of the birds take on a job each to ensure a proper burial is accorded to the bird. The blood is collected by one, the shroud stitched by another, the coffin made by a third, pallbearers appointed and the dove mourns as the rest of the birds and a bull fall sobbing and crying over the death of the cock robin. Nobody talks about who bears responsibility for the crime .

“Who killed our Constitutional Democracy?” should be a rhyme for this winter of discontent. The brutal gang-rape of a 23- year old girl and the events that transpired since then show how we fall down, sobbing and lamenting the death of law and order and of constitutional democracy. So who killed it? Was it the politicians whose servility to a higher order ensured they remain unchecked, while they accumulated their sins? Was it the judiciary that abdicated its responsibility to uphold the law? Was it the police who with their patina coated jobs, rusted and polluted whatever they came across? Was it the media, which for the ratings, screamed hoarse, until we were left with only its voice and opinions? Or was it us, the neo-middle class, the people who leave the voting to the poor and protest only when we are hit?

We ‘voted’ too, by not going to the polls. By letting the narrative of our politics be hijacked by voters who voted for the politicians who simply promised work, welfare and other incentives. The middle class was content to grumble, blame and protest.

Rusted chains

The gang-rape can be seen in two ways: One, as an indicator of how women were and are treated by men and other women. Two, as a symptom that portrays the myriad issues that exist within our society. We need to focus on broader issues within this context rather than just handing capital punishment to the men who grabbed an opportunity at night to rape a girl.

In our poem “Who killed our Constitutional Democracy?” the lawmakers collected the blood.

The Association for Democratic Reforms reports on the number of candidates elected or given a ticket despite a rape or a crime against a women charge are appalling. 260 candidates for the legislative assembly elections and 36 MLAs across India are charged with crimes against women, with six MLAs having rape cases against them.

Giving ministers and MLAs who have not just committed a crime but also violated a woman’s personhood a ticket to stand in the election is rewarding them for their behavior. We are then forced to protest and get beaten up, and go back to trusting these people to make laws, and reform our state security apparatus to protect us against the very albatross that hangs around their neck. Politics works on a very simple principle of ask and receive. Citizens ask, politicians give; politicians ask and citizens vote. This system only works if we are astute, aware and knowledgeable not just as voters but also as citizens.

The short term solution will be to have ministers with charges of rape and crimes against women barred from voting or having a say in bills pertaining to the issue. The Parliament should convene a special session and all laws regarding urban security and sexual assault (online and in person) should be revisited. The long term solution would be to bar candidates with criminal backgrounds from contesting elections. An effective reform measure would be to change the “first past the post system” to a run-off system. It would enable a more equitable distribution of votes and ensure that the winner reflects the true majority.

The police and the state machinery have dug the grave here.

The Supreme Court in its 2006 judgment on police reforms directed the separation of police and the political executive and advanced suggestions for streamlining the hiring and transfer process. Separate law and order and investigative sections were also to be established. Very little has been carried out in those directions by the states. Lack of incentives, political control over the police recruitments and transfer, caste and identity issues in the recruitment practices and the disregard for the well-being of the police at all levels by the government create little incentive to join the police force. Few measures are taken to ensure the longevity and satisfaction of the officials at the lower ranks. One-fifth of our police force exists only on paper.

Most of our police force comes from rural areas with little education and low sensitivity towards issues pertaining to an urban environment. Women often have to choose between getting harassed by the public (where they can at least depend on the support of a fellow citizen) or being harassed by the police while filing a complaint. The buck passes from the ministers to the officers, then to the lower rung of the police force, then to the non-compliant citizens and sometimes back to the ministers.

Mandates that include police reforms should be published in a public forum and given to the media. Police stations must be safe and the facility to report officers who harass made available. Every police district must be equipped with a 24-hour helpline for reporting sexual assaults and forensic labs should be available for tests in every city. Hospitals should be equipped with the proper female and male staff along with the technology to handle rape victims.

The shroud was stitched by the keepers of the law.

The judiciary which is supposed to function neutrally, functions in an environment propelled by the power and status of the litigants and the money which is made available. Dispensation of law is not just, balanced, inexpensive or time bound. 3.25 Crore cases are pending in different courts, some over several decades old, stand testimony to the delay in justice. Inspite of an increase from 21,000 cases to over 24,000 rape cases in six years, less than 25 percent were convicted. The delay, embarrassment and money that a victim might have to spend on pursuing a case often deter people from taking the legal route.

Supplementary ‘courts’ like Khaps,  community Panchayats and Fatwas often fill a void and dole out justice that almost never takes the victim into consideration. Justice delayed is justice denied. Criminals are considered innocent till proven guilty and they know that the proofs can bought and destroyed. There is a need to shift the onus of the proof on the accused and hold him guilty till proved innocent. Fast-track courts and sensitive judiciary are a must. It should be made illegal to perceive a sexual assault charge as an invitation for questions on previous sexual history of the victim, depth of penetration, position of rape and the detailed description of the incident itself. The victim should be given the option to answer on-camera, and a female lawyer must be present in relevant cases. Any lawyer found questioning the ‘honour’ of a woman, her family or harassing her for an answer should be debarred. A virulent mob screaming for death sentence to the culprits is not where the answer lies. Death sentence even in the ‘rarest of rare cases’ does not deter rapists. It might embolden them to murder the victim and nothing more. Directives are needed to strengthen the system to deter the crime.

The sparrow that shot the cock robin is us, the demos.

If we can challenge the court on our fundamental right to protest peacefully, why can’t we exercise the rights that have been bestowed on us? Voting is not only a right. It is also a responsibility. The voting percentage of the educated youth and people in the metros is less than 50 percent. This being the case, does the urban populace have a right to hysterically denounce parliamentarians when it has abdicated its right to vote against them in an election?

Today we have reached a point where the state has been hijacked by carpetbaggers and scalawags. We have to retrieve the power which was handed over in a platter to them. How should we go about it? Is it by going on strikes, protests that are violent or nonviolent, and self-flagellation by fasting? Or is it by constitutional means — actively participating in local, state or central elections, by knowing what our rights are and exercising them fearlessly, by knowing our responsibilities and standing by them? The future of India as a democratic republic rests on the course chosen today.

Photo: gfpeck

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