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The basis of governance

Print edition : Mar 25, 2005 T+T-

Indian historical experience shows that there can be no good governance without order, security and dispensation of justice.

THROUGH the centuries, India has passed through periods of turmoil and of relative stability. Akbar's reign was a period of stability, and the administrative system he fashioned and put in place made it possible for the empire to be ruled well, because it provided the two essentials of good governance - security and justice.

Everything flowed from that; the collection of revenue, the building of roads, irrigation ponds, madrassas and tolls. Travel and trade flourished because there was security, and brigands, bandits and robbers were summarily tried and punished. This system lasted well into the centuries after Akbar. The trials were often hardly trials and punishment was often harsh; Philip Mason recalls a story told by Bernier in the 17th century. Bernier had called on a Mughal officer, who was a friend. In Mason's words: "Two criminals were brought in. The officer at first took no notice, but after some time raised his head and addressed them each with a simple statement of fact: `You committed highway robbery with violence at such a place on such a date.' There was a pause but no reply. One was sentenced to have his hands and feet lopped off, the other to be disembowelled, both to be left in a public place to bleed to death. They were taken away, dictation continued." Mason, commenting on this, says, "This kind of justice was admired because the people felt so strongly the need for public order."

He goes on to say that when the English came their methods were usually milder but more consistent, swift enough but sufficiently informal. "An inquiry was held, usually in the village of the crime; it was held by the ruler - the Indian (sic) word means the man who gives orders. When he was satisfied, he gave an order and it was carried out. There was not much dissatisfaction in those first years with British criminal justice."

He also points to what had been achieved in the half century before 1857; "Immense territories had been assimilated and were no longer preyed upon by bands of roving horsemen; suttee [sati] was forbidden, thuggee finished, gang-robbery reduced. The peasant knew what he had to pay (as revenue)." And, based on this, other developments came up. "Roads were in their infancy, but palankeens [palanquins] were giving way to wheeled carriages, and progress was being made. The next few years were to show great advances - the Grand Trunk Road from Calcutta to Peshawar; the Bombay-Agra road; the Bombay-Calcutta road - over 3,000 miles of metalled surface... The Western Jumna canal, 450 miles long, was watering five thousand villages, the smaller Eastern Jumna was complete, and work was in progress on the Ganges canal, which was to be twice the length of the Western Jumna and irrigate four times the area. When the Ganges canal was finished it would be the most extensive in the world" (The Men Who Ruled India, pages 141-142).

The example of Charles Metcalfe, who was Resident of Delhi from 1811 to 1819, is relevant here. In Mason's words, "In England men could be hanged for a forty-shilling theft; the United States permitted slavery for another 50 years. But there was no hanging in Delhi and no selling of slaves. Capital punishment was ended by Metcalfe as a matter of principle; he was convinced of the fallibility of all human judgment and in particular of the verdicts in Indian courts... He forbade the slave trade and the burning of widows; he collected swords and spears, beat them literally into ploughshares and returned them to their owners. He first discouraged, then stopped flogging, for he rejected the vindictive aspect of punishment and was sceptical about reformation... . Revenue rose from forty thousand pounds in 1803 to one hundred and fifty thousand in 1813. That could happen only where peace was felt to be secure"(emphasis added).

But seeing beyond all this, Metcalfe writes, in a note, prophetically: "Our dominion in India is by conquest; it is naturally disgusting to the inhabitants and must be maintained by military force. It is our positive duty to render them justice, to respect and protect their rights and to study their happiness. By the performance of this duty we may allay and keep dormant their innate disaffection..."

These instances are being cited merely to make the point that brave statements about development plans and raising the gross domestic product (GDP) must be preceded by security, order and justice. We have those who have been elected to civic bodies in Kashmir issuing a servile apology to terrorists, asking for forgiveness for having contested the civic elections. There cannot be a more damning indictment of the security in that part of Jammu and Kashmir than that.

But perhaps we need to leave that aside; the situation in Kashmir is different from that in other parts of the country. That said, is it really all that different? There have been a spate of kidnappings in Bihar; all right, we can console ourselves by saying that it is Bihar, after all, what can one expect. But then we have a kidnapping in Kolkata, and a tragic kidnapping in Horshiarpur where the kidnapped boy was killed. Four young people from Bihar who had come to Mumbai for jobs are attacked by local goons who wanted their hafta and one of the four youths has been dreadfully injured when the goons poured kerosene on him and set him alight. A Delhi University lecturer, Syed Geelani, is shot in the capital city, he says it is the police who shot him.

Travel in trains has become a fearful prospect; there have been a number of cases of passengers being attacked, thrown out of trains, of being robbed. The breakdown of law and order seems to be spreading all over the country; practically in every State there are cases of murder, fraud and other crimes by persons in high office being detected, something that leads one to wonder how much of it is not being detected, how many of our powerful and well-known personalities are guilty of similar crimes or worse, and are subverting the stability of the country from within.

Akbar saw it, and the British, even though they were a colonial power saw it; without order, without security and the dispensation of justice, there can be no governance. Some of their ways of ensuring this may be open to question, even condemnable; we have Bernier's story of Mughal justice, and we have Elphinstone, who foresaw an India which the English would perforce have to leave, ordering the ringleaders of a plot detected `among the Brahmans' to kill all Englishmen to be blown away from the mouths of cannons. According to him, this form of execution had "two valuable elements of capital punishment; it is painless to the criminal and terrible to the beholder."

One is not advocating such methods to ensure security and order, but one is saying that order and justice are pre-requisites for the ambitious development plans this government has, or, for that matter, any government takes on itself to execute. If this is accepted as a proposition, then it is necessary to find out how it can be ensured, what changes in the security and judicial structures need to be made to allow the plans for improving the lives of people to have some effect.

Perhaps this is what the Prime Minister needs to look at first in his mission to reform the administration. What it is that a good administration must provide first, to make everything else possible. Order, security, the effective dispensation of justice. He must be aware of what has happened to the police forces in practically all the States in the country - how they have been politicised, how all of them, from constables to the Director-General of Police know that they have to be close to the present rulers to get on in their careers.

The brave refusal of Bhaskar Chatterjee, the Financial Commissioner for Urban Development, to approve land use changes wanted by some powerful builders in Faridabad and Gurgaon and his subsequent suspension by the Chief Minister for taking the principled stand he did is, sadly, not very common; most of those in key positions defer to the political executive both in the States and in the Centre. This is another aspect of the same basic requirement for good governance; principled decisions, without which there can be no security or order.

One thing is certain; if this part of the structure of governance is not reformed drastically, and reformed first, everything else will come to nothing. Such principled police personnel that exist will realise there is little point in their persisting in doing what will inevitably mean their ruination, and the few Bhaskar Chatterjees we have will also disappear.