Indianama

How India's justice system is giving in to the mob

As a paranoid nationalism takes hold, police and courts are pressured to discard the rule of law, and victims turn suspects. India is on a slippery slope.

I have, for the record, never been to Pakistan. I am acutely aware of how that nation's bleed-them-with-a-thousand-cuts policy works, how it has ended bleeding them instead and in the process changed their founding essence. I suppose that automatically makes me a nationalist.

But, here’s the thing: I am very keen to meet Pakistanis, and the few I have met make me eager to go there some day. Indeed, there is no country in the world I am keener to visit. My wife's old homeland lies there, and someday we will take up the offer made by a hospitable Pakistani to visit the old home towns of my in-laws and listen to qawwalis in the moonlight – under armed guard, of course. By now, you are thinking, this man is anti-national. File a sedition case.

This line of reasoning may sound ridiculous – to put it mildly – but that is how paranoid, insecure and angry people think, and there is every evidence Indians are beginning to nurture the same bizarre version of nationalism that has consumed Pakistan. As this process progresses, history and the world beyond tell us, the first thing to be sacrificed is the rule of law. The mob becomes the law.

Courting sedition

That is why a court in lush, prosperous Kodagu – a former princely state now integrated into Karnataka – will, instead of throwing it out, hear a petition on Saturday filed by a local lawyer, accusing former Congress MP and actor Ramya (real name, Divya Spandana) of sedition for, well, liking Pakistanis and their hospitality.

That is why Amnesty International India finds itself being investigated for sedition charges merely because it hosted an event where some in the audience shouted Kashmiri freedom slogans – never mind that the law and various interpretations of it emphasise that slogans can never be seditious unless accompanied by the threat of violence. That is why, earlier this week, when a mob in Palwal, Haryana, attacked a van suspected of carrying beef, the police intervened, and instead of checking if the meat was really beef, buried it because the mob demanded it, then stepped back to let them burn the van. As for the three men in the van – two of them Muslim – they were arrested, of course, and sent to jail. That is why all manner of recent atrocities have ended with the victims of criminality ending up as the accused.

Mob rule a slippery slope

When the mob dictates how the law will be implemented or discarded, societies start down a slippery slope. When the mob's motives are religion and/or nationalism, the moral high ground so vacated is almost impossible to regain.

We see that in Pakistan, where the police and judges, as a matter of routine, let off murderers who kill minorities on imagined blasphemies of Islam, slit the throats of their own daughters and sisters for what they believe to be the act of dishonouring families by exercising choice in marriage or life.

Further West, Turkey's rationality is fast slipping away, as a paranoid president uses vague and dubious laws to arrest journalists, judges and anyone who might not agree with him. This week in Turkey, a court ordered special issues of a socialist newspaper seized, the telecommunications regulator blocked access to two news agency websites and various editors and reporters were arrested and detained on either vague terrorism charges or held with no declared reason.

To our east, Thailand uses its lèse majesté (literally, injured majesty) law to imprison anyone considered to have insulted the king, which is why a man who insulted the king’s dog faces imprisonment (15 years), as does a taxi driver whose mocking of the king was recorded on a passenger's mobile phone, and an activist who dared cite research to question if a battle led by the king's 16th-century forefather had taken place.

In supposedly secular France, wearing a certain kind of clothing – let’s say it, Islamic clothing – is becoming illegal. The latest unreal case unfolded this week on a beach in Nice when armed police forced a woman to, well, unclothe, by removing the layer of her burkini that covered her head. In another case, a mother with children was made to take off her headscarf, as other beach-goers shouted “go home” and applauded the police. As internet memes pointed out, the French have no problem with a nun's habit or a full-body wetsuit (they might want to take inspiration from Scotland and Canada, where the police have approved the hijab as part of optional official uniform).

On the edge of anarchy

There are a few things in common in the cases and countries I mentioned. First, these are all supposed to be democracies with varying degrees of freedom. Second, these democracies are witnessing increasingly bizarre and illogical interpretations of criminality. Third, for whatever reason, the bizarreness is correlated with a decline in the democratic process. Fourth, that decline is clearly hastened as the justice system wilts in the face of the mob and its paranoia.

In India, it is rare that the police and courts side with the law and against the government of the day. Thus far, this has been made amply clear in places and among people on the fringes of what we could now describe as India’s “collective conscience”, which the Supreme Court once described as a reason to hang a man whose conviction appeared riddled with doubts. In the North East, Chhattisgarh and Kashmir, the Centre has almost never allowed the prosecution of security forces for murder, violating fundamental rights and other laws of the land.

When this collective conscience enters government policy, anarchy is just a step away. The Congress began this policy of appeasing the mob – opening the gates of the Babri Masjid, legislating its way past the rights of Shah Bano and millions of Muslim women – and dragged India to a point where the gates of hate can be forced open by anyone with an agenda and a backing mob.

Appeasing the mob

With the advent of the Bharatiya Janata Party, majoritarian mob rule is accelerating most visibly in the proliferation of vigilante organisations cloaked in religious rationale, from fighting “love jihad” to protecting the holy cow. Far from cracking down and sending a message that mob rule cannot prevail, police, courts and governments are increasingly either looking the other way or providing official sanction to the mob as the Maharashtra government has done by issuing volunteers with identity cards to monitor the beef ban. More than 2,000 applications, a large number from Hindutva groups, have poured in.

No good can come from Maharashtra's sanction to official vigilantism, which comes after the state tried to ban the consumption of beef, a move struck down by the high court. So, India is poised on that slippery slope. The courts will indicate, in the coming days, if they intend to hold firm or join the slide into the cesspit of paranoid nationalism. As for me, I'm off to befriend a Pakistani.

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