(On the occasion of Diwali)
This is a day of celebration across large parts of the country, the day that commemorates Ram’s victorious return to Ayodhya after defeating Ravan in a great battle, a triumph of good over archetypal evil. Lamps will be lit across the country to dispel the darkness and to celebrate the event. People will for a short while forget their everyday travails, brought on by an increasingly corrupt and unjust system. But for the ordinary Indian, the light and the joy will only be temporary, not because many do not have electricity, but because the forces of darkness seem to draw closer by the day.
Evil in India—manifested as corruption and injustice— is not through the acts of a particular wicked man or woman, or even a set of them. There is, to use Hannah Arendt’s phrase, a certain banality about it in that it lies in the acts of ordinary people— your brother, neighbour, school friend or even, yourself. But its primary instrumentality resides in the trinity of politicians, babus, and policemen. Yes, there are contractors and realtors who bribe and manipulate them, but they are merely the parasites.
There has been a time, which is probably not fully gone, when evil came in this season of celebration in the form of terror — Surjit Singh Penta’s attacks in Chittaranjan Park and Greater Kailash in 1986, Umar Sheikh’s kidnap attempt in 1993, the terrible bomb blasts in Delhi in 2005, and the September 2008 bomb blasts, all aimed at depriving us of our celebratory spirit.
But these days it appears as the symbiotic set of twins, corruption and injustice. For the average person, the consequences of the two are no less lethal than the act of a terrorist and the destruction is far more widespread as compared to a bomb blast. We all know what injustice is all about, but corruption is a complex word and it does not only mean the giving and taking of cash bribes. It also incorporates the moral blindness of those who witness bribery and injustice and do nothing about it, or, worse, go out of their way to cover it up.
For generations of Indians, particularly at the lower end of the social scale, injustice has always been present, but corruption seems to have taken a new virulence. People say China is very corrupt, and there are those who argue that Pakistan is worse. But I doubt if there is any country where a policeman would demand money for the release of a body from a morgue, as indeed they often do in this country. The Bangalore NGO Janaagraha runs a website called ipaidabribe.com where you can see how widespread the process is and how it diminishes the dignity of the person who is often compelled to give a bribe to execute the smallest of tasks—getting a birth or death certificate, clearing customs, getting a verification form cleared by the police and so on.
A former Central Vigilance Commissioner even quantified it, claiming that one in three Indians was corrupt. From small things, the large ones grow and it is not surprising that the spread of corruption has now reached epic proportions as revealed by the CWG and Adarsh Housing Society scams. And with its mass still hidden like an iceberg’s is the humongous 2G spectrum scam.
The resources of the people diverted into pockets is not just about opportunity costs in terms of highways not built or projects shelved, but the non-existence of schools, colleges and health facilities destroys human beings in a different way.
The system that we have created is more insidiously evil than anything that Ravan could have thought of. After all, besides his enormous ego, he was only accused of kidnap. His modern day equivalents are not above murder, rape, false imprisonment and torture. Fish, they say, rots from the head, and so we have Indian Police Service officers like R.K. Sharma convicted of murder, S.P.S Rathore of molesting a young girl and driving her to suicide and K. Lakshamana of ordering the execution of a detained political activist.
You do not have to read Human Rights Watch’s report Broken System: Dysfunction, abuse and impunity in the Indian police, to understand how our criminalised police force functions; all you need to do is to read the newspapers in any part of the country. While the well off and even the middle class are able to bribe their way out of a mess, or to further their goals, those who lack any cash suffer the brunt of everyday injustice. FIRs are not registered, people are railroaded for crimes they did not commit, others are left rotting in jails as undertrials, daughters and wives are raped and children exploited.
Perhaps a most monstrous case is unfolding relating to the relationship between Amit Shah, the former Gujarat home minister of state and senior police personnel who are alleged to have murdered a petty criminal and then ordered the rape and execution of his wife so that she would not spill the goods.
Is there any wonder that the two persistent insurgencies in our region—that of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Maoists in India—thrive because of a sense of injustice, linked to corruption. Almost all counter-insurgency experts point out that the Taliban and Maoist dispensation of justice may not tread the orthodox path, but it is quick and effective and provides immediate relief to the poorest of the poor who otherwise bear the brunt of the exploitative system.
A major reason for the impunity with which corruption flourishes in the country is the lack of a deterrent. The reason for this is the complicity of the political class which heads the government. All cases of police and babu prosecution require government or political clearance. And that is where the rub lies. That permission never comes, or comes with the utmost reluctance, often with minnows being offered up instead of sharks, because the politician is only the apex of the evil triangle whose other poles are the policeman and the babu.
Sadly, neither the BJP nor the Congress seem to be able to resist the power of evil. But that is what evil is all about. Ravan, too, was said to have once been a holy man. And so we are witness to a major All India Congress Committee session where corruption may have been the backdrop, but it was never discussed. Remarkable, considering that the party’s functionaries and its governmental allies have been named as the villains of the respective cases.
If the Congress offers a tin ear to talk of rampant corruption, the BJP is morally deaf to the issue of the rights of an individual, especially if he or she professes another faith. So we have the party defend and indeed fete the likes of Amit Shah. Another manifestation is the approach of the Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s paternal organisation, whose functionaries are being charged with involvement in several terrorist plots and whose vacuous response is to suggest that it is an oxymoron to link Hinduism with terrorism.
Yet the key to eliminating these two soul-destroying evils in our country lies in changing the way our bureaucracy, police and judicial systems work. And, this may sound shocking, the only class that can change this are our politicians. Instead of attending Ram Lilas, they would be better off fighting the modern manifestations of the real thing.
This appeared on November 5, 2010