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The State of the Union

Vikram SoodSome images endure. Like the one near the memorial to our fallen war heroes, in New Delhi. This is the photograph of that horrible December 2012 day in many newspapers.

It shows six men in uniform, their laathis raised high and about to strike at two prone unarmed protestors. This image of senseless brutality by the state, was more an image from Colonial India against Indians seeking independence than from a Free India.

Sociologists may ascribe societal reasons for this misogyny arguing that in India and indeed the subcontinent, wealth, land and a woman is the exclusive property of the male and all three are his to use embellish, improve, exchange and discard or abuse as he chooses. Partly yes, but the sad reality is that there was an inevitability about the events of December 16.

Delhi police baton charge
Delhi police baton-charge a lady during a protest calling for better safety for women following the gang rape of a medical student in December last year

This breakdown did not happen overnight. The signs had been there for some years but we chose to ignore them hoping that this malaise will somehow go away. The markers of this breakdown were visible in the events that led to the brutal rape in a bus and eventual death of that young physiotherapist in New Delhi. From the time the young couple left the theatre till the time they ended up at Safdarjung hospital, there were at least a dozen violations of the law and numerous cases of societal neglect and apathy as the two lay naked and bleeding on the road side.

When the young went seeking redress and sympathy, the state pummelled them with water cannons, tear gas and baton charges. The hierarchy was playing the blame game and there was clearly evasion of responsibility. The state had gone into stupor and for days there was no sympathy except self congratulation from the portals of power. Our young leaders were not to be seen and the senior leaders were silent, barring the repetitive gaffes. We had not learnt any lessons from the chaos and paralysis of Mumbai November 2008.

What happened for the next few days was a confirmation that the State, unable to implement its own laws, was paralysed. If this is how we are going to respond to what was a local crisis how would this state react when there is a national crisis. One shudders at the prospect.

The arrogance with which the law of the land has been regularly violated ranging from transgressions on our roads to illegal constructions to cover- ups of the Priyadarshini Mattoo, Jessica Lal and Bhanwari Devi murders and the Ruchika Girotra suicide. In a country where in the 1990s there was a backlog of 25 million cases, where it took up to 20 years to settle, Bibek Debroy had calculated that it could take 324 years to dispose of these cases. The figure would only have increased. The brutes in that bus were confident that they would get away with murder, literally.

Murder is now routine and corruption is folklore. Both show a disdain for law and order and weaken democracy. Add intolerance of all kinds that is gathering momentum these days, and we have a lethal mixture. We can now have gangland style shootouts with cops of a neighbouring state involved at a farm house owned by a wealthy person whose tainted wealth may have political colours too. This was reality imitating the Gangs of Wasseypur, except that this shoot out was in the country’s capital and not in a small town in Bihar.

Populist and patronage politics that began in the 1970s only created entitlements without responsibilities and weakened the rule of law. If India has to remedy this and progress, we must have a strong liberal democracy. This requires three elements, says Gurcharan Das, citing Francis Fukuyama, in his book “India Grows at Night” India must have a strong authority that allows quick and decisive action, a transparent rule of law to ensure legitimate action and is accountable to the people. These ideals had inspired our founding fathers, were never easy to follow and we let this slip away badly.

The people need speedy justice delivered not just fast track courts. They need that the rule of law is visible and the state is able to ensure this. The state must reassert authority without being authoritarian and be kind but without feet of clay. This is not going to be easy and the fear is that we might get distracted in the satisfaction that the rapists will have been punished and we have a new law.

The writer is a former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) 

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