2009 is ending for the country with with a sad, gut-wrenching feeling. No, it’s not the economy, the stability of the government, or the failure of the monsoon. It is an inner tumult brought on by the haunting image of Ruchika Girhotra, being played and replayed on TV and newspapers. The 14- year old molested by a senior police officer and then pushed to suicide by the systematic and brutal persecution of her family.
To add to the bitter taste of the rising bile is the other image being repeated — the smirking face of the man who perpetrated the act, S.P.S. Rathore, formerly of the Indian Police Service. There are other faces, too, some as yet not in focus, which reveal, to use Hannah Arendt’s term, the banal collection of people — policemen, school teachers and politicians — who were accessory to the terrible act and its cover-up. The policemen participated in the false arrest and torture of her brother, the school expelled her for little cause, other policemen watered down the charges against Rathore, bureaucrats who passed the buck on the case, and, above all, the politicians, who protected him in the knowledge that he would be in their power and do their bidding.
The entire system was thus involved in the evil act of destroying the Girhotra family. This was the system created by Nehru, Patel, Ambedkar and Gandhi, our upright and just founding fathers. Their heirs have become anything but that. Some like Lalu Yadav, Mayawati, O.P. Chautala have at least been charged with wrong-doing, but there are others, like Narendra Modi and Bal Thackeray who have gotten away with incitement to murder, and many, many more in the top rung of our political system who are corrupt and violent, but manage to escape the rigour of the law in much the same manner that Rathore did for 19 years—by suborning the system and through the assistance of friendly colleagues and babus.
The one thing that emerges from the case as it has unfolded, is the unstinted support that Rathore got from the political class. This was important since the political class is our master-class. Successive Chief Ministers in Haryana refused to take heed of reports of Rathore’s wrong-doing and actually promoted him.
Their cynical logic was simple. A compromised cop like Rathore was ideal for their own purposes, which in many instances, too, went beyond the bounds of the legal. For a politician, a crooked and morally compromised policeman is worth his weight in gold. He is able to use him as currency to get a lot of things done—intimidate enemies, fix elections and overawe rivals.
Is it any surprise that senior police officer R.K. Sharma, convicted for journalist Shivani Bhatnagar’s murder, was dismissed from service seven years after his name came up in the case? That another police officer in Rajasthan is absconding, allegedly for the past 13 years after raping his orderly’s wife, a simple village woman. And the son of another policeman, convicted of rape in the same state, has jumped parole and vanished. A senior Punjab police officer, Sumedh Singh Saini has been charged for the wrongful confinement and disappearance of two individuals and their driver. The list is extensive, and no doubt, just the tip of the iceberg.
If unchecked, it is this moral degeneration, where the custodians become the criminals, that will define the India of tomorrow, not our growing economy, scientific and technical prowess, and the like. There will be little point in attaining material success if we lose our soul — not in a religious sense — but as Plato and Aristotle saw it, the essence of our being, or that which makes us human. In almost every culture, this is defined by compassion, love and an unambiguous understanding of what is right and what is wrong. It has been marked through history by the ending of slavery, advances in gender justice, the outlawing of torture and an end to what used to be “cruel and unusual punishment.”
It is the inbuilt moral compass that has guided human civilisation to the present, that which persuades people to fight oppression and defy persecution. Morality is not, or should not, be a peripheral issue. For Gandhi, of course, it was always central. But even for hard-headed realists like Ambedkar it was the key. It was not for nothing that Babasaheb pointed out that minus constitutional morality, the structure of governance created by the constitution would not work. This is the morality that was undermined systematically by Indira Gandhi, to begin with, and has since suffered all-round damage.
How does the system go about rectifying the current state of affairs? Certainly, the Union government that controls the all India services needs to be far more pro-active than it is. As of now, the tendency of the government is to protect, rather than prosecute wayward officers. Taking the excuse that honest officers would be harassed, the Union government has a rule that requires central sanction for their prosecution. This rule needs to be drastically modified to exclude people accused of murder, rape and other such heinous crimes.
But the real onus for changing things rests on those who will have to undertake this task — the political class. And here, the lead must be taken by the party that began the rot—the Indian National Congress. The Congress is the mother party of our political system. It took the country to great heights, but it also brought it to its nadir. In just about a decade after the death of the tallest Congressman, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi brought on the Emergency. The Emergency’s atrocities—forced sterilisations, illegal arrests and harassment—were relatively minor. What was more damaging was the lasting legacy that Indira left— her party’s democracy subverted, the judicial system undermined and the bureaucracy corrupted with power.
The Congress party thus has a historical responsibility to regenerate the system. Some recent signs do suggest that the party seems to have become aware of this. The raids on Madhu Koda and the exposure of his misdeeds have been attributed to this rethinking. Another sign is the refusal of the party to touch Shibu Soren after the recent Jharkhand elections, and more recently the quick decision to axe Narain Dutt Tiwari as Governor of Andhra Pradesh. But all this is too subtle and indirect. There is need for the party to frontally confront the issue of political immorality and its spillover into the administration and police machinery. There is really just one approach that will work—zero tolerance of crime, especially on the part of those charged with upholding law and order.
But the people of the country cannot and must not depend on the goodwill of a political party alone. Civil society and its key arm—the media—needs to play a systematic role in exposing injustice and unjust persecution.
India has great pretensions of being a moral nation, no doubt a hangover from the fact that Mahatma Gandhi led the freedom movement and that the Buddha, Mahavir and Nanak had walked the land. But in the last thirty years we have shredded whatever was left of that legacy. The system has become, to put it bluntly, immoral, unjust and corrupt. Those who comprise it, and especially those who lead it, need to do something about it, and fast.
This article appeared in Mail Today December 31, 2009