Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Straight Talk: Why Fear The Law When The Law Fears You?


As the large SUV suddenly overtook my car from the left and sharply cut in front, missing my left fender by millimetres, I got a glimpse of the driver and the corpulent young man in fancy dark glasses sitting next to him, clad neta-style in a white kurta.

I drew alongside this monster of a vehicle at the traffic light, rolled down my window, looked up and voiced my protest only to get withering "I'll fix you" glares in return from the bouncer of a driver and his ward.
This was enough to stop me from going further lest I become a victim of road rage without hope of any justice – for such is the power venal interests have come to possess and the kind of assumed authority they exude. It is at once intimidating and unchallengeable. The SUV had everything that the law should have taken note of but obviously will never dare to -- banned dark window panes all around and a number-plate in letters so small one could hardly make them out even up close.

Off the road, India abounds in swanky neighbourhoods full of houses of the rich and powerful who have encroached upon footpaths (if they exist at all), converting them into mini gardens or sloping car parks. One would not be so bitter if citizens at least got the kinds of facilities that they pay tax for – at the very least efficient public transport, medical and garbage collection systems and a water supply that does not have to come off tankers.

India is close to becoming an appropriated state, taken over by the rich and powerful and their retinue of fixers and bullies. It has already become a place where well-connected, well-heeled murderers of innocents like Jessica Lal, who are supposed to be serving long sentences, make a mockery of the system by getting parole at will -- in one instance for writing an examination on -- hold your breath – human rights. It is a country where the well-heeled and well-connected can run over several people asleep on a footpath and get away with it. At worst, they may get a short jail sentence and in many instances extended bail, which is almost as good as a pardon.

Then what does one make of a judiciary that is all fire and brimstone one day, only to go soft soon after the din has settled, allowing all the accused in the 2G or the fodder scam to stay out of prison, seemingly forever?

We have had some unedifying judgments that hurt the poor most – the Bhopal gas tragedy which killed thousands and affected the health of more than half a million people has seen its perpetrators either die in their beds or live normal lives on bail after conviction and out of prison for years on end. Also, contrast the court-ordered settlement of less than $500 million Union Carbide paid for this disaster with the over $18 billion British Petroleum has been fined for the environmental consequences of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill-off the Gulf Coast of the United States in which a mere 11 workers died. The latest is the meagre relief that the Supreme Court awarded to the families of those killed in the Uphaar theatre conflagration and unsurprisingly, no prison sentences for those criminally responsible for the inferno beyond the few months already served. Contrast this with the $34 million that Infosys agreed to pay for violations of visa rules, which one may add led to no fatalities!

It might sound like an exaggeration, but we need to recognize that we could be well on our way to becoming like Mobutu's Zaire or Papa Doc's Haiti with its ruffian Tonton Macoute gangs.

We need to ask ourselves how we got to a state where the majority is disempowered while a minority gets away with everything from murder to loot. The kind of swift justice that sent powerful people like Jeffrey Skilling of Enron or Rajat Gupta of Goldman Sachs to prison for years after quick trials is simply non-existent in our country, not because we cannot have such a system but because the vested interests our country will not allow it to take root.

Sadly, the powerless majority is constantly reminded that, to those in the charmed circle where power and money meet, it is always a case of "why fear the law when the law fears you?"

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