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Murder most foul

Published : Apr 25, 2003 00:00 IST

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The murder of Haren Pandya, former Home Minister of Gujarat, represents a genre of crimes that could increasingly pollute public life and intimidate spirited Ministers and civil servants from discharging their duties fearlessly.

MY heart goes out to the family of Haren Pandya, the slain Bharatiya Janata Party leader from Gujarat who was done to death recently in the heart of Ahmedabad in broad daylight. I have never met him. But by all accounts he was an affable person, a young and dynamic politician with a bright future. As I write this column, the news is that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is closing in on his killers. Let us wish this premier investigating agency all luck in this difficult assignment. While we wait for further news on this unfortunate crime, we must ponder several aspects of the incident. It would serve to highlight some negative features of the polity, criminal justice administration and the community's response to happenings such as Pandya's murder.

Initial press reports suggested that Pandya lay in a pool of blood inside his car for at least an hour after he was shot, before he was noticed at all. This was scandalous, to say the least, for a bustling city such as Ahmedabad. It is difficult to believe that no one saw the crime as it occurred or the assailants fleeing the scene, until his personal aide came to the scene, on hearing about the incident from another individual. As a former policeman, I am, however, not wholly surprised at this as this is the normal setting against which police investigations begin and sometimes flounder, inviting all-round criticism. While this is true of many countries, it is especially galling in India, where public desire to help solve such crimes is of a depressingly low order. This kind of apathy not only frustrates the average police officer, but also induces or drives him to resort to questionable and unethical methods to ferret out the truth. Naturally, human rights concerns are raised here, once the police turn the heat on evasive witnesses who should be privy to many vital facts, either because they knew the victim or the suspects, or because there were other circumstances that pointed to their having been in the proximity of the scene at or about the time when the incident happened. I do not see any resolution to this problem unless the awareness level of the community is enhanced considerably. Except in rare sensational cases of national or international dimensions, such as the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, the willingness of the public to help police investigations is appallingly low. This reluctance to assist is often owing to the ham-handed manner in which the police treat witnesses. A modicum of effort has been made by the top brass of the police to alter police insensitivity. A lot more has to be done. Meanwhile, it is for community organisations to address the problem seriously and educate the common man on how to respond to crimes such as murder and rape where, without the citizen's support, there is very little that the police can do single-handedly.

I am equally exercised about the growing violence in Indian society that snuffs out men in public life who are courageous and stand for some values. These are the men who could bring about a qualitative difference to the current abysmal situation in the country. The sort of violence that was used to eliminate Pandya puts paid to all our claims to being a non-violent country that worships the Mahatma. The Mahatma symbol has been projected and exploited more by people who did not believe in non-violence than by those who still set much score by this difficult yet permanent value that makes Gandhiji different from other mortals. I am often amused, and sometimes incensed, to see a few people who indisputably have blood on their hands file past his samadhi on January 30 or October 2 year after year in a phoney public demonstration of their love for the Father of the Nation. This number is still small but the tribe is growing. Is there something that we can do to shame this small number of people who wield undeniable and invisible influence at the decision making levels in the bureaucracy, so that they keep off the samadhi at least on these two days of great import to people who strongly believe that power does not and should not come out of the barrel of a gun.

There are a whole lot of people in our polity who say that they abhor violence in politics and would do every thing to stem it. This public posture does not, however, square up with what they do in political recesses with a design to promoting partisan interests. The judiciary has done its bit to counter this. We have the Supreme Court's judgment in the hawala case and the Vora Committee report on how to counter the politician-civil servant-underworld nexus. There is a semi-permanent arrangement within the Union Home Ministry to monitor this nexus. All these have had only a marginal impact. We know that a sizable number of legislators have a proven criminal record. There are many others who are similarly culpable but have successfully avoided getting into police records, thanks to the political clout that they wield. It is this group that is more dangerous than the former, and it is the bounden duty of the media to expose them. Individuals cannot do this nor can small community organisations, as both can be browbeaten into silence. The Election Commission is vocal and its directions on the subject are no doubt welcome. But if the electorate chooses to ignore the criminal background of a candidate either because of a lack of a proper perception or is intimidated, nothing will change for generations. Imaginative indoctrination of the electorate against supporting candidates with a dubious record can meet with a measure of success. I cannot for the present think of any other way to strike at the roots of criminal activities by small-time politicians.

WE have been told that Haren Pandya was done away with by the underworld. Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani's statement was to this effect in Ahmedabad, during his visit immediately after the event. I am sure that he had the benefit of briefing by responsible officials. Given his sense of propriety and utter integrity, we presume that CBI findings will confirm this position. One should, however, remember that most of the political violence arises out of the strong rhetoric employed by important men holding high public office. Many of them use objectionable language in public platforms, incendiary language that can ignite passions in those who have no stakes in life. Such language is often intended to derive political mileage and is not employed out of a desire that violence should actually be applied against political adversaries. However, the distorted message that is unfortunately conveyed is that grassroots cadre could use highhanded methods without inhibition or fear, and that they could reasonably expect immunity from police action. This is, therefore, an indirect and unwitting encouragement of violence by party cadre against their opponents. A factor that promotes such violence is the knowledge that the police will not act against a ruling party functionary, and whatever he does in violation of the established law will be glossed over. What is forgotten is that the same police will train their guns against him the moment he sits in the Opposition. It is this simple fact of bureaucracy that becomes the major argument in favour of a neutral civil service and a law-abiding, objective, police force. It is exasperating that even this uncomplicated plea for a police that has unfettered operational freedom has fallen on deaf ears. Police reforms on these lines have become an elusive chimera.

Pandya was murdered with the help of firearms. It is possible that sophisticated shotguns were used, going by the fact that many supposedly did not hear the shooting. This raises the whole issue of availability of firearms for criminal use. Unlike in the United States, the subject has surprisingly not evoked any major debate among the public in India. This is unfortunately owing to the fact that existing regulations in India have introduced a certain complacency all round. The rules under the Arms Act are fairly comprehensive and stiff. Also, traditional weapons are the more preferred ones for committing a crime, although the scene is changing with easier modes of transport and ideas generated by Hollywood and Bollywood movies whose enchantment with violence is detestable and pernicious. It is also a fact that in the U.S., arms licences are more easily available though there are stern regulations, including a waiting period and a thorough background check. In our country, straightforward applications for possessing a gun are invariably turned down, and this sternness is not wholly unsustainable if one considers that gun-related violence is not all that high for a citizen to demand arms for his protection.

Against this backdrop, what should be of concern is the increasingly free availability of illegal firearms, especially in some of the northern States. How does one handle this dangerous situation? Is a more liberal licensing policy the answer, so that there is a greater accountability among licensees? The one key argument of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the U.S. is that by denying law-abiding citizens the right to own an arm for self-protection, you are placing the underworld, which will anyhow procure weapons of their choice, at a tremendous unintended advantage over the former. I would support a public debate once we know what kind of weapons the killers of Pandya used and how they came to possess them. There is a lot of abominable corruption in the licensing process, and in one northern State, not long ago, the CBI was investigating a racket among officials involved in the system. Can we permit this venal behaviour to continue?

Let us hope that the men guilty of gunning down Pandya are tracked down and arraigned before court. I am sure, going by the importance of the case, the CBI will lay the charge-sheet soon. Is that then the end of the story? Can we rest content that justice has been done? Not at all.

I have a special plea here to the judiciary. This case should be heard quickly and disposed of, if only to send a signal to the criminal world that they cannot frustrate the legal process with the help of clever defence lawyers. If there is no demonstrable speed, the fast evaporating faith in the judiciary will only get exacerbated. The higher judiciary has a distinct role in monitoring the progress of such cases and insisting on its lower formations doing their job swiftly. I am not for denying justice to those accused of the murder by short-circuiting well laid down procedures. What I am seeking is that they should not be allowed to use successfully diversionary and dilatory tactics with the help of any powerful lobby that may be backing them. That such a lobby could exist is gleaned from the fact that Pandya, as Home Minister in Gujarat, had driven the government machinery hard to cut the real estate sharks down to size.

Finally, I am conscious that I could be accused of an overkill of an isolated case of murder and blowing things out of proportion. I am equally aware that I have taken liberty with some facts and drawn many presumptions that may be totally off the mark when the investigation finally unfolds itself. Nevertheless, I have chosen to write at length on the case without waiting for the denouement, because the murder of Pandya represents a genre of crimes that could increasingly pollute public life and intimidate spirited Ministers and civil servants from discharging their duties fearlessly. The judiciary is the last bastion of hope to many of us who demand a clean, value-based society. If, however, it also fails, I predict perdition from which our lives cannot be salvaged.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Apr 25, 2003.)

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