2023 should become a year of accelerated transformation towards a system where anomalies and injustices get uncovered and rectified seamlessly, writes Prof. Madhav Das Nalapat
Since taking over as the Prime Minister of India in 2014, Narendra Damodardas Modi managed to consign to the dustbin more than 30,000 laws and regulations that had not simply been preserved but added on to since 1947. Equal justice under the law is at the core of the democratic process, else the essence of “one man, one vote” would approach the status of a nullity.
Over the course of decades in journalism, encounters multiply, such as with a family where the spouse of a smallholder attracted the lascivious attention of the son of a big landholder, who was moreover the village moneylender. Being an only son with four sisters, every wish of the brat was akin to a royal command where his parents were concerned.
When monetary inducements failed to tempt the smallholder or his wife to barter away the virtue of the latter, it was child’s play (or in this case, the desire to play of a youth) to ensure that an obsequious policeman from a nearby police station locked up the husband of the woman who was being sought for the pleasure of the youngster, on the basis of an oral complaint made by a nearby landlord who had never actually ever been in contact with the accused, and who had been given a complaint scrawled by the policeman to sign.
Subsequently, the wife was told that the only way her husband would be released from the lockup (where he was being daily subjected to kicks and blows by the policeman and his colleagues) would be to succumb to the demands of the big landholder’s son. All that needs to be said is that once the couple were together again, they left behind their patch of land and shifted to a city, where a job in a store was secured on account of the smallholder being more than merely literate.
Given the relatively very low bar required for taking away in practice the liberty of an individual in India, such accounts of the misuse of colonial era laws in order to intimidate and harass others are often too numerous to recount even in a village, leave alone a panchayat. Fortunately, the High Courts and the Supreme Court often step in to rectify the abuses of the legal process that come to their attention, but these must only be a small fraction of the many acts of misuse of the law that take place.
Even in cases where an obvious miscarriage of justice has been discovered further up the judicial ladder, the penalty for those guilty is not always more than a possible verbal slap on the wrist. As a consequence of the lingering miasma of colonialism that continues to exude its reek of injustice, in too many instances, even those guilty of serially being responsible for deliberate falsification of charges and wrongful arrest seldom get subjected to anything other than a notional penalty. There has been an uproar among some at the way in which the homes of mafiosi are being bulldozed in parts of the country.
If such critics were made to encounter the victims, male and female, of the predators that mafiosi are, they would understand why political parties that shelter and defend such criminal elements are losing ground electorally to those that call for stringent punishment for the guilty.
The Indian Police Act (IPA) was promulgated in 1860 and is still in force. There has been much talk of police reform, and certainly this is needed, to prevent a force intended for public good to morph into an instrument rewarding private greed. More than a few who have had distinguished careers in the police service have pointed to changes in the IPA designed to give freedom to the police from political interference. The problem comes when what gets sought is not just avoiding interference but political oversight. With all its faults, the electoral system ensures a check on politicians, and every election and byelection shows how the voter in India has become more aware of the power inherent in exercising the right to vote.
Freeing any wing of the wings of government from oversight would create conditions for misuse of those powers rather than ending such an evil. What is needed is to ensure that transparency multiplies, and in the fulfillment of such an objective, technology has become a factor delivering substantial assistance. While such capabilities could be and sometimes are misused, the fact that a smartphone can serve as a video or audio recording would assist in documenting misdeeds, including by the use of the threat of one or the other provision of some colonial era law or regulation to intimidate an individual into submission.
The Supreme Court has acted in a welcome manner by permitting the live streaming of proceedings, and a similar facility needs to be introduced in every court in the country. During the days when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi once spoke to a visitor, an academic who dabbles in journalism, that his effort was to ensure that there would be online public tracking of every file, so that delays would immediately become evident.
Another task would be to reduce the number of stages that a file has to go through before a final decision gets recorded. Since Modi took over the Prime Ministership in 2014, there has indeed been substantial progress in such a direction, and the expectation is that such an ameliorative process will continue. In an era when opacity was the norm, files would inexplicably get piled up at the desk of a particular official or minister, and rapidly diminish were the right visitors to pay him or her a call.
Online tracking of the progress of files is becoming the practice in a rising number of operations, and that is indeed a welcome trend. Even in matters as routine, but in so many instances as important, as the delivery of a letter, the sender of a letter by courier or speed post is able to track its progress. The Indian postal service has been doing a lot more than the credit it gets, and the introduction of online tracking is among its practices that need to be generalised across the field of administration.
Consigning to the wastebasket regulations intended only for generating visits from those armed with a packet stuffed with currency notes, or ensuring the online tracking of files on matters of importance to the citizen, are some of the ways in which India can overtake its peers to be an economic and political model for the rest of the world.
Others are the courts, which need to ensure that the delivery of justice does not get clogged not just for months or years, but often for decades. In the 75th year of India’s freedom from colonial control, the task of those in charge of the various wings of governance is to ensure that 2023 becomes a year of accelerated transformation towards a system where anomalies and injustices get uncovered and rectified seamlessly.