To observe the Indian legal system and bureaucracy in resplendent ingloriousness is to witness the post-party smashing of empty liquor bottles in the hotels of Mumbai, the country’s capital of finance and frolic.
The bottle-smashing is required by the excise department, to whom it proves that as much liquor as the bottles contained was actually consumed on the premises. The smashing is preceded by a mess of paperwork and inspection. All this to throw a party. It also applies to domestic parties. It begins with visits to the excise office – there are many, you must find the right one for your area, and no online applications please – to get a liquor permit. You can then expect a visit from excise officials, who warn of prosecution risk, if you serve that scotch you carried through duty free. You will then get a list of neighbourhood liquor shops – only they can sell you the booze for the party. You get a little booklet, in which you enter the date of party and names of guests. You might get another visit during your party, to ensure you are in compliance of all requirements. At the end of it they will come, of course, to count bottles – in homes; in hotels, they smash.
Misrule of law
Mumbai’s smashed-bottles phenomenon tells you as much about the misapplication of Indian law. As does the Art of Living Foundation’s ability to take over the Yamuna’s floodplains. As does last week’s flight from India of billionaire-turned-burnout Vijay Mallya. As does the growing persecution of students, social campaigners, tribals and startups.
Democracies are defined by the rule of law, but India appears to specialise in making an ass of its legal system, allowing its manipulation at bureaucratic and individual will and – if you are powerful enough – whim. Of course, other emerging democracies do the same – Russia, Turkey and South Africa are standout examples – but that doesn’t make it any better for a country eager for global recognition. Exploitation of the law by the State isn’t new, the most egregious example being the promulgation of Emergency in 1977. But the manipulation now evident appears more blatant and arbitrary than ever, the vindictiveness taking on a new viciousness this century, with the current National Democratic Alliance government – instead of reviewing and reforming the assaults on the law – accelerating the precedents set by the United Progressive Alliance.
While liberal India is enraged by recent sedition cases against college students in Delhi, opposition was substantially muted three years ago when the United Progressive Alliance, in 2013, charged 8,455 agitators with sedition for protesting against the Russian-aided nuclear plant near the Tamil Nadu fishing village of Kundakulam. Same was the case in 2014 when 67 Kashmiri students in a Uttar Pradesh engineering college were charged with sedition for cheering Pakistan in a mess hall. So, things have come to a stage when shoulders are shrugged after foreign-exchange laws are dubiously applied against Teesta Setelvad, the woman who pushed for legal action in the 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim riots. So, there is barely a ripple over similar forex-violation notices sent last week to Indira Jaisingh, India’s former additional solicitor general, whose main offence appears to be that she is Setelvad’s lawyer.
You could say that the law is being subjected to foolish (broken bottles), vindictive (Jaisingh, Setalvad) and selective (Mallya, Art of Living) use. This isn’t a matter of categorisation for its own sake; it is a warning that if this kind of legal misuse accelerates – as is likely, since a precedent is always an invitation for repetition – the glue holding India’s democracy could start to lose its adhesiveness.
The foolish use of law is a particular threat to India’s job-creating, new economy, driven by new ideas and young minds. In Bangalore, the Road Transport Office has apparently not heard of a transport startup it cannot prosecute. It has chased down cheap motorcycle taxis, shared taxis and buses – all convenient app-based services that offer the city’s stressed commuters some options to gridlocked traffic and collapsing public transport.
The vindictive use of law is apparent against those who oppose the government, but the most brazen utilisation has been against the tribals of Bastar – caught between the State and the Maoists – and those who try to help them. No example is more illustrative than last month’s successful hounding of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (or JagLAG), an idealistic group of four female lawyers who defended, without charge, tribals arrested and locked up on the flimsiest of evidence. I say flimsiest because JagLAG found that although more than 95% of such cases over seven years ended in acquittal, the suspects were typically imprisoned for between three to six years anyway.
The selective use of law is particularly evident in the pursuit of Mallya and the recent kerfuffle over the Art of Living , which was allowed to circumvent multiple laws – environment, fire and safety violations were those that the government’s own lawyers admitted to in India’s top environmental court. The pursuit of Mallya has two indicators of selectiveness.
One, despite a Central Bureau of Investigation “lookout notice” against him, the Rs 9,000 crore he owes banks and the dues he owes a few thousand employees, Mallya skipped the country. How did he escape a government, many legitimately ask, that last year quickly stopped Greenpeace campaigner Priya Pillai as she headed to the United Kingdom to talk of tribal rights?
Two, much as he appears to deserve it, there are hundreds of other prominent defaulting companies, with such names as Adani, GVK, Essar, GMR, among others, according to a 2015 Credit Suisse report.
This week Finance Minister Arun Jaitley told the Rajya Sabha that Mallya’s accounts were not in order in 2004, yet he was considered solvent and bankable. Indeed, as one banker once told me, fellow chief executive officers would stand up when Mallya entered the room and call him “sir”. Many defaulters are likely being shown the same consideration Mallya once was.
Samar Halarnkar is editor of Indiaspend.org, a data-driven, public-interest journalism nonprofit