Monday, June 17, 2024

The justice of the state


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By Sondip Bhattacharya

The victims of corruption are fundamentally the poor. Both in terms of denial of resources meant for equitable distribution, and denial of the benefits of welfare schemes. The billions stacked away in secret accounts of overseas banks and tax havens represent taxable income meant for precisely such welfare schemes. The kickbacks involved in the manipulation of large public projects again represent the abuse of national resources. And when the Supreme Court steps in to track the illicit funds parked abroad, or to bring the perpetrators of “scams” to book, the government bizarrely opposes such orders and accuses the courts of being insensitive to “political economy”. The same government thinks it fit to take no action when its heavy industries minister is indicted by the Supreme Court for the suppression of cases against money lenders in drought-torn Vidarbha. The Supreme Court has led the way in galvanising the crusade against injustice to the weakest sections of society. There was a phase in the late-1970’s – mid-’80s when the court was accused by the then law minister of having “unconcealed sympathy for the Zamindars” and “the elitist culture of this country”. The court took the barb on its chin and thought it fit to drop contempt proceedings against him in an act of exemplary grace.

Over time, the jurisprudence has developed to such an extent that a simple letter of a destitute or a telegram of an undertrial is sufficient to set the law in motion. And the instances of the courts being “activist” in such matters are frequent. Most recently, the Karnataka High Court took suo motu cognizance of the malnutrition deaths in Raichur (and other districts) based on media reports. Separately, the High Court set aside a Government of India notification that paradoxically provided wages under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) that were lower than the wages prescribed under the Minimum Wages Act! The gross injustice of an enactment was corrected by judicial diktat.

However, the government is not shy to accuse the courts of crossing the clichéd “Lakshman rekha”, inviting a wry retort from the bench that had the “Lakshman rekha” not been crossed, there would never have been the Ramayana! The government equally thinks it fit to file an affidavit supporting the noxious figure of Rs. 32 per day as the fair cut-off to determine poverty, only to later concede that it is “provisional”. Do those who understand “political economy” survive on Rs. 32 a day?

Gandhi had said that the tears in the eyes of the weakest ought to drive our collective consciousness. This mantra applies to all institutions of democracy – the courts, the executive, the government and the media. Unless the media stays committed to the larger cause of justice, there is bound to be a lop-sided alignment of national priorities. Courts may end up getting absorbed with high-profile luxury litigations, such as that of two wealthy brothers who had special benches of the Supreme Court resolve their personal disputes post-haste, only to then have the brothers sing the tune of settlement and fraternity.

There are instances which reveal that farmer suicides that are born of cold-blooded desperation and not of depression, as perceived. Gut-wrenching episodes of farmers who have executed suicide notes on notarised affidavits on the morning of their suicide, just to ensure their heirs are not denied ex gratia compensation due to lack of identity. Drought not only acts as the proverbial ray of light that disinfects, but also shows us a mirror that reflects the stunning inequalities of our nation.

Somehow, in this endemic pretence, the truth must shine through. We must realise that there are role models beyond the Shahrukh Khans, soothsayers beyond the Lalit Modis. The idea of justice has to sit deep in all of us as citizens of this country, and ought to manifest itself in our daily lives. It is facile to believe the dispensation of justice or elimination of injustice is the premise of courts alone. Real justice is the justice of the state… as a whole. Institutionally, the government must share the responsibility of blazing a trail of equity and compassion. Other players such as the media must follow suit. Only then does jargon such as “good governance” cease to be just jargon.

Of course, the courts are vital pillars of justice and ought to be accessible to the weakest and the poorest. Here, the sub-sects of justice delivery owe a responsibility to these under-privileged segments of society. One has found that dispensation of criminal justice has often let down the poor. The reasons for this are the lack of access to competent and affordable lawyers, pliable witnesses who turn hostile under influence of fear and favour, insensitivity of the investigation agencies and the general lack of awareness. As such, the establishment needs to take stock. Better legal aid, better witness protection mechanisms, better training of investigation officers and an all round sense of consciousness of the need for urgent reform would assuage the ills of the situation considerably. For practicing lawyers, the willingness to act pro bono in select (and deserving) cases would surely correct the imbalance. More fundamentally, the willingness of bright, young lawyers to practise law in the courts would revitalise the system.

However, it appears that corporate seduction gets the better of them at most times.

Former chief justice of the Delhi High Court, Justice A. P. Shah, responded to the government’s decision to evict beggars from the streets of Delhi before the Commonwealth Games by observing that the streets that had room for the mafia and villains of society surely had some room for the homeless too. The death of over 25 residents of the Beggars’ Home in Kolkata brought the West Bengal Prohibition of Beggary Act into sharp focus. This law, far from rehabilitating beggars, provides for their detention in prison-like accommodation for being offenders against society.

Thus, the establishment still appears to view poverty as something to be criminalised, circumvented or otherwise cast away. It is this sort of myopia that results in gross injustice to the poor. Unless all stake-holders of democracy address poverty as a live, human issue and unflinchingly treat it with compassion, equality and equity, justice will remain illusory. The Constitution is meant for the upliftment of those who cannot themselves stand tall, and for the protection of those who have been vanquished. Not to make the strong stronger, and the weak, weaker. Treating unequals equally is as abhorrent to the notion of justice as treating equals unequally. INAV


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