Justice subverted

Published : Apr 21, 2006 00:00 IST

If the rule of law is not comprehensively ensured, all the good work sought to be done will come to nothing.

"AMONGST the chief effects which are hoped for are to convince the Ryot that you will stand between him and the hand of oppression; that you will be his refuge and the redresser of his wrongs, that honest and direct applications to you will never fail to produce speedy and equitable decisions... " These words are a part of the instructions set down by Harry Verelst, who was a member of the Council of the Governor of Bengal; they were meant for the supervisors, who were the predecessors of the District Magistrates and Collectors. They were written in 1769, two hundred and thirty seven years ago.

They were written to guide the supervisors in the administration of their territories, which later came to be called districts. They were instructions that were followed by generations of British rulers and the establishment of the rule of law became the core and fountainhead of the system of governance that they established. There was much in what they did that was offensive and intolerable; but this basis, this grounding of governance in the rule of law is noticeable in the manner in which they ruled.

It was not as if it was something new. The administration of the empire ruled by Sher Shah and later by Humayun had the dispensation of justice as a major element, something that was formalised and made even more central to imperial rule by Akbar when he appointed the mansabdars to take charge of and administer the territories entrusted to them. It would not be wrong to say that systems of governance that were instituted by rulers in this turbulent, violent country had as a major feature the administration of justice. A system that, owing to the vastness of the country and the undeveloped state of communications at the time, meant that the mansabdars in Akbar's time and the supervisors in the time of the East India Company had to be given considerable powers, making them virtually viceroys in their territories. That these powers were well used, by and large, is borne out by the records of the times.

Even as recently as the first decade or so after the country became independent, the systems put in place by the departed rulers held; there was justice, there was order; true, there were political agitations and movements, but they were the manifestations of a whole new set of aspirations finding voice in an organised manner in a new democracy, in which this manner of expressing collective demands was possible.

With the passage of time since those early years, however, the pressures that this very democracy has exerted on the system of order and the administration of law have succeeded in causing it grave damage. In States such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar the collapse of the system is something that is rapidly becoming legendary. Gangsters have become Ministers and legislators; mafia dons dictate what should or should not be done to the police; the judicial system is swamped by mountains of cases, many of which are over two decades old. Not a single individual is safe anywhere; kidnapping is one of the most lucrative and flourishing industries of these States. Already many individuals have begun carrying weapons to protect themselves, and soon it will be common to have shootouts at street corners and killings in broad daylight.

Interestingly, the major policy documents that have been held up by different political parties as their Book of Common Prayer contains little or no reference to the maintenance of law and order. Such references as there are, are perfunctory and indicate the relative importance attached to this part of the process of governance.

The Common Minimum Programme (CMP) of the Congress-Left alliance that rules the country today, which has reams about all that it intends to do, has just this to say about the maintenance and strengthening of the machinery for justice and the rule of law:

[The Alliance undertakes] "to preserve, protect and promote social harmony and to enforce the law without fear or favour to deal with all obscurantist and fundamentalist elements who seek to disturb social amity and peace".

And later, in the body of the document: "The UPA will set up an Administrative Reforms Commission to prepare a detailed blueprint for revamping the public administration system. E-governance will be promoted on a massive scale. The Right to Information Act will be made more progressive, participatory and meaningful." There are two lines about the judicial system: "The UPA will take the leadership role to drastically cut delays in High Courts and lower levels of the judiciary. Legal aid services will be expanded."

This is all. And yet how very much more important justice and order are than all the rest is evident from one fact alone. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has been appealing for investment in Bihar, to people to have faith in the State, to Biharis to return to rebuild their State. All this because, over the years, the rule of law has been destroyed systematically. The police do not function; the courts are ineffective, and there are far too many frightening instances of the orders of the courts being brazenly flouted, not the least by the police themselves. And as a consequence, there is poverty, disease and economic collapse.

Uttar Pradesh is not far behind. A man who is accused in a murder case is out on bail and has been made a Minister. Another former Minister is in jail, accused of having conspired to murder his pregnant girl friend; and in jail he is reported to lead a luxurious life, with people attending on him, providing food of his choice, a TVset, cell phones and other facilities. Is it surprising that the State is virtually bankrupt?

It would, however, be wrong to dismiss the problem as one confined to these two States. Virtually, the entire country has been touched by the disease. In every State and metropolitan city, the system of order and justice has been corroded by unscrupulous forces who have taken advantage of democratic processes to do this.

A visit to a Sessions Court anywhere in the country is an eloquent statement of the importance the State attaches to the processes of law. It has been my misfortune to have to go to the Patiala House courts in New Delhi where I have been seeking justice in a matter for seven years now. Every visit is a harrowing experience. Gross overcrowding and the dreadfully squalid condition of the courtrooms testify to the position that justice has in the general scheme of things today. In comparison, the Ministries and other offices of the State bear evidence of the large amounts spent to keep them looking civilised, even sleek.

It will not do to have lofty goals for the betterment of the nation if the means to do so are mired in the destruction of order and the absence of justice. What kind of development is being planned where these are treated as a minor item in the priorities of the rulers? History has proved over and over again that good governance must start with the rule of law and justice. If that is not fully and comprehensively ensured, all the good work sought to be done will come to nothing. It is time that the leaders in the country across the board realised the abyss before which the country now stands.

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