Crime flourishes because there is no deterrent, moral or physical
On Tuesday, a bunch of students burnt several compartments of the Shramjeevi Express in Patna. The reason? They were not being allowed to break the law i.e. travel ticketless on the train. Such clashes are common all across the north where bands of young hooligans effectively hijack trains for their own use, assaulting and intimidating any passenger who dares to protest. Another firebrand and a rabble-rouser-turned-minister, railways minister Mamata Banerjee reportedly told a news agency that nothing could be done about such incidents and that “these things happen almost daily”.
When I was young, there was a story, almost certainly apocryphal, about a dacoit about to be hanged. When his last visitor, his mother, entered the condemned cell, she expected tears and remorse. Instead, she was confronted by an angry son who blamed her for his fate. “Remember, when I first stole a needle?” the son asked. “If you had only slapped me then, I would not be here,” he said. Instead, unchastised, the young boy moved up the cycle of criminality to the point where he reached the death cell.
When you torch a train because you cannot travel ticketless as a student, where do you land up? Most likely, in criminal gangs, or Maoist dalams, or unemployed, because the kind of education you have picked up makes you unemployable anyway.
But what does this say of the system that systematically condones the arson and violence? And sends the message that mob crime is exempt from the force of the law. It only encourages the kind of organised mob rule that the Maoist movement represents.
Why speak of unspeakable Bihar? Look at New Delhi, the capital of the republic. For two days, auto-rickshaw drivers held the city to ransom. They beat up any of their colleagues who dared to break the strike, and the authorities stood by. What was their demand? That they be exempt from any law even as they cheat passengers and pollute the air.
Clearly, there is little correlation between crime and punishment in India. What we are down to is that it is the exception not the rule that crime is punished. You would have to be remarkably unlucky to be caught for murder, or if caught, convicted, given the shoddy investigation procedure and the possibility of being able to bribe forensic expert or the investigating officer.
And even if convicted, your punishment hardly fits the crime. Across the country, we have a lot of bleeding hearts for the murderers, rapists, extortionists and common criminals. They are not their associates or families, as could be expected, but our lawmakers — MPs, MLAs, ministers and babus. Every year, in the name of our sacred Independence Day, Republic Day or Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, they remit, or even commute the sentence of these worthies. Their hearts bleed for these criminals, while not a thought is spared for the victims who may be alive, scarred and traumatised for life.
The most recent example of this comes from Andhra Pradesh. Last week, only a Supreme Court injunction prevented the state government led by Y.S.R. Reddy from releasing 1,000 convicts who were serving life sentences which could only have been for the most heinous crimes.
But there have been instances in Haryana and Punjab as well. No doubt some among the 1,000 planned to be released were close to those in power. Or is it simply that the dead no longer have a vote, while the living, even criminals have one?
How many of the ministers and legislators would like to employ the people they have just released from the jail? Or live next to them?
In the Indian culture it would seem, the fault of the crime lies on the victim (his or her karma), so why blame the poor perpetrator? He is merely an instrument of forces beyond his/her control. So, after a token genuflection to the universally accepted dictum that wrongdoing
must be punished, our philosophers find a way to relieve the criminal of his karmic penalty.
Crime must have consequences. There must be action — a scolding for a child who steals a pencil, a fine for someone who violates traffic laws, a term of imprisonment for a hooligan who burns a train or bus, a longer one for a rapist, and death for someone who intentionally takes another’s life.
If there are no consequences, social order as we know it will dissolve. The compact between the state and the individual rests on the assumption that the state alone has the monopoly of violence, which it exercises for the purpose of collective self-defence, or in the act of dispensing justice. But if individuals and mobs get away with murder, the system begins to crumble.
Crime wears the cloak of justification in some places — people denied justice for the Gujarat massacre, the destitute deprived of their rights in the jungles of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, the brother whose father is assaulted or whose sister is disgraced —take recourse to violence. In most cases, however, it is simply criminal and even nihilistic.
People undertake acts of unspeakable brutality without the slightest flutter in their conscience. What is worse, the relatives, brothers, fathers and mothers of rapists, murderers, terrorists actually step out to justify the acts of their wards — as distinct from enabling them to get the best legal defence which ought to be the right of everyone, including a terrorist. There is a moral black hole there which is systematically sucking the country in. Like actual black holes, it is difficult to detect, but its event horizon can be determined by the enormous pendency of cases that ensures that justice is delayed, and hence denied.
Democracy must rest on the ethical foundations. Nation-building, to use a somewhat grandiose term, requires a life-long effort by the constituent members of a nation. The primary responsibility to uphold the system lies with the political class, and the main custodians of this system must be the police and the administration. This is not something that can be privatised.
But if you look at the problem of crime and punishment in India from any angle, you will see that these very pillars of the system are the ones that are the problem. Is there any hope for this system then? Difficult to say, but the only process that will work is that of self-correction. The revolutionary way of the Maoists is a non-starter.
The political class needs to draw the right lessons from the spread of organised mass-violence that Naxalism represents. In essence, it is a response to the failure of our system in not being able to provide employment, development and, above all, justice.
The dispensation of justice — which in terms of law and order means ensuring punishment befitting a crime — must become completely blind to status, caste, numbers, or politics, if this country’s de facto oligarchic system is to evolve to a truly democratic one.