Crisis in custody


Loudness of the lambs

The maiden attempt of the Atal Behari Vajpayee government to prove Islamabad�s involvement in the hijack of Indian Airlines flight 814 was dismal. The Union home minister, Mr L.K. Advani, provided circumstantial evidence that many Pakistani nationals were involved in the hijack. There was no evidence that the regime of Mr Pervez Musharraf had a hand. Few doubt, at home or abroad, that Pakistan is a prime suspect. However, the court of world opinion cannot convict on such slender grounds. India is in danger of eroding its own international credentials.

The flimsiness of the government�s case is perhaps a sign it has given up persuading the world and is seeking only to reassure its domestic constituency. Hence the recent fire breathing by the defence minister, Mr George Fernandes. New Delhi finds posturing before the Indian public easier than tying a military and diplomatic noose around Islamabad.

Diplomatically, India needs to move on three fronts. It needs to painstakingly piece together evidence of Pakistan�s involvement in the Kashmir insurgency and its links with international Islamic terror. Hurriedly put together press conferences and overblown rhetoric impress only the gullible. A sound case will require years of piecing together.

Second, New Delhi needs to become more active in international efforts to curb terrorism. Until the Eighties, India tacitly backed many groups that hijacked aircraft and planted bombs around the world. Kashmir and Punjab made New Delhi change its tune, but it still avoided global agreements or statements denouncing terrorism per se. More important, the hard kernel of anti-terrorist diplomacy is a network of detailed, bilateral agreements. India has only recently started signing such treaties. Third, India needs to revive the use of the judiciary in the domestic battle against terrorism. For years, India has allowed its security forces to fight these enemies by circumventing the judicial process. It is no surprise then that New Delhi is at a loss to make a legal case. Thanks to a plethora of preventive detention laws, the authorities have forgotten how to convict a terrorist before a bench.

Even before he seized power, Mr Musharraf was known to believe the Kashmir insurgency was a means to tie down, if not break up, a militarily stronger India. Pakistan�s ruler also believes south Asia�s nuclear weaponization means India cannot militarily respond to covert provocations. In other words, Pakistan can support terrorism without being overly concerned about India�s conventional military might. Also, if India did try to respond, the threat of a nuclear conflict would trigger international intervention � which would also rebound in Pakistan�s favour. Mr Musharraf recently laid out the nuclear argument again on CNN. This strategy motivated Islamabad�s Kargil incursion but was foiled by India�s policy of restraint. But the nuclear shield is also why Pakistan continues to support cross-border terrorism. If the hijack was indeed masterminded by Islamabad, it would indicate a plan to spread terrorism into an arena beyond Kashmir.

New Delhi needs to be wary of falling into another Pakistani trap. Islamabad�s reasons for encouraging terrorism are not dissimilar to the motives behind Kargil. Mr Musharraf would like the hijack to make the Vajpayee government look impotent domestically and irresponsible internationally. Indian bungling during the hijack has granted him his first goal. Statements like the recent one by Mr Fernandes that seem to imply India is prepared to fight conventional wars despite Pakistan�s nuclear arsenal may help Mr Musharraf arrive at his second goal. During the hijack New Delhi alternated between panic and paralysis. After the hijack the Vajpayee government is merging hotheaded impulses with a lack of strategy.    

New Delhi�s inability to frame and pursue a decisive policy to counter Pakistani animosity is a feature of the irresolution that has made a free for all of the Indian state. The technological achievement of nuclear power is not matched by the political determination that alone can harness that power in peaceful ways to serve the national interest.

India is under siege. It also betrays signs of being on the verge of collapse. Where else in the world would employees of the nationalized airline prefer the hazards of being hijacked to the protection of the state�s own security personnel? Far from ensuring safety, these worthies apparently make a nuisance of themselves, demanding additional liquor on international flights and bags of sweets on domestic trips.

I can believe it, after reading of the frenzy of duty free shopping even on a supposed rescue mission during the recent hijacking drama, seeing lorry drivers slip money to traffic constables or hearing about a security firm that is being sued for seizing the premises it was engaged to guard.

Of course, there is much to take pride in, but it is mostly in the individual sphere. Something must be moving in the right direction if Infosys� market value stands at Rs 47,000 crores and Satish Chandra can buy out Rupert Murdoch from Zee TV. But if private wealth were the only index, India would have been at the top of the global heap in the Thirties when the Nizam of Hyderabad was reckoned to be the richest man in the world. Progress and stability must have a wider definition.

The state must be a dynamic entity, able to lead, direct, defend and cater to its citizens� needs. Only the magic mantra of one man one vote does not a democracy make. Alexis de Tocqueville�s view that democracy is not meaningful without strong supportive institutions of state and G.D.H. Cole�s emphasis on the �mental and moral relation of man to man� are both more relevant. Our institutions, from municipal to judicial, are in a state of advanced decay, and human relationships are fast becoming a purchasable commodity.

Everything is up for grabs. Quis custodiet ipsos Custodes? Who is to guard the guards themselves? Echoing down the millennia, Juvenal�s cry applies to more than just a corrupt and vicious police force. It indicts a state whose guardians are destroying it by deed and example even while their words ring with lofty sentiment. It is only too likely that Pakistani forces, or forces abetted by Pakistan, are behind the outrages � sabotage, explosions, murder and now hijacking � that afflict India.

The evidence of fake currency notes indicates a more sophisticated offensive. But such assaults on India�s existence will not be contained by shrill rhetoric that reduces a grave threat to tired polemics. There is nothing in what loud-mouthed politicians are saying about the Pakistani challenge that will impress even the neutral Western diplomat who told me that the organizers of international conferences wearily set aside half an hour for Indians and Pakistanis to have a go at each other before moving on to more serious matters.

The war of words between New Delhi and Islamabad has become an international circus. But because India is the bigger party, the West � which has its own reasons for overlooking Pakistani offences � is able to interpret New Delhi�s tirades as proof of hegemonistic ambition. Wiser at home, we know that no New Delhi government has the stamina even to extract legitimate political dividend from military achievement � whether in Kashmir in 1947 or in Bangladesh in 1971.

In the absence of action, all this pussyfooting about what Pakistan is supposed to be up to only betrays a paralysed administration�s sense of helpless desperation. If the government has proof, it should lay it without delay before the appropriate international authorities. Only a meticulously documented white paper can exonerate India of the charge of crying wolf for domestic reasons. Both would be for the record.

The suspicion of politicizing even such a grave threat arises only because the mob has emerged as an awesome factor in Indian life, a monster that every politician must pet and pamper. The tyranny of the majority does not refer here only to the parliamentary system�s reliance on headcount, but to the power of the multitude in a literal sense.

The uproar in Bangalore over a newspaper article that mentioned Mohammad in the context of Dante�s Inferno illustrates this once again. Mobs make policy. After the Shah Bano case, the ban on Satanic Verses, the demolition of the Babri Masjid and last year�s attacks on churches and chapels, no one should be surprised if the Divina Commedia, unread and virtually unknown, is also proscribed to win favour with the protesters.

It is not that this government inclines to a particular faith: the problem is that all Indian governments incline to anyone with brawn and ready to flex it. Far from signifying fondness for Muslim ritual, the rash of iftar parties in the capital speaks of craven placation masquerading as secularism. Those same hosts would entertain Diwali, Dusserah and Christmas guests with as much exuberance if the festivals were thought to have a bearing on votes.

This debasement of public life is reflected in almost every official action. Of course, we must offer thanks that the hostages were rescued and the aircraft saved. It is undeniable, too, that the government�s critics would have been even more vociferous if more passengers had been hurt. That is the way it is.

What bears noting is that those crucial eight days and the aftermath exposed fissures and jealousies, a lack of resolution or unity, and an absence of both political will and operational capability. The organized parade of Kargil widows to counter the understandable if disconcerting public hysterics of relatives of the hostages was a cheap gimmick that again revealed an absence of gravitas at the top.

The rebuff from Britain and the United States over declaring Pakistan a terrorist state was another unnecessary humiliation that exposed New Delhi�s lack of confidence. In 1991, the US state department spoke of �continuing credible reports of official Pakistani support for Kashmiri militant groups engaged in terrorism�.

A series of outrages two years later prompted Washington to threaten to identify Pakistan as a sponsor of terrorism. Masood Azhar�s Harkat ul Ansar was branded a terrorist organization. One explanation for Washington refusing to go further, or to draw the logical conclusion from abundant Central Intelligence Agency reports, is that it will not countenance any move that might underscore India�s regional supremacy. Another is the apprehension that pressed to the wall, Pakistan would succumb to Islamic fundamentalism.

This prevarication may not seem outrageous in view of India�s own ambivalence over terrorism, condemning some groups while condoning others. In spite of Sushma Swaraj�s categorical mention of Osama bin Laden�s malevolence towards India, New Delhi chooses to be critical about US action against him.

The real point, however, is that there is no reason why India should attach any significance to British or American views. Israel did not allow Western positions on the Palestinians to inhibit it in countering terrorism. It recognised that Britain and the US have their own agenda, rooted in national self-interest. So must India.

The need was never more pressing. Reports suggest that trains, too, might be under threat. The special relationship with Nepal is turning out to be a liability. Far from affording protection, our borders invite intrusion. It would be presumptuous to suggest that the wise men in New Delhi are not aware of these dangers. But people want more than presumed awareness. They want evidence of concern and assurance of positive action.

It is not reassuring to find a ruling party that ostentatiously swears by swaraj pleading cap in hand with the Western powers on a matter that so deeply affects this country�s very survival. The world cannot and will not save India from Pakistani mischief. India must save itself.    


Ladies at home

Sir � The Ladies� Home Journal has celebrated the accomplishments of a hundred most important women of the 20th century, but the selection is flawed (�Don�t you know, talking about a revolution�, Jan 3). The journal has not cared to include �everywoman� or the ordinary woman who has transformed several constructs of gender. And why not the nameless Asian girl child? After all her travails and agony, she still grows up to provide secure and caring homes for the very men who oppress her. Without her, the story of the Indian woman is not complete. Of course, it cannot be seriously expected that the ladies peopling the brilliant world of the home journal would understand.

Yours faithfully,
Anuradha Choudhury, Calcutta

Judge thyself

Sir � The biggest blots on the judicial system even after we have left behind the 20th century are cases like that of Ajoy Ghosh, languishing in jail as an undertrial for 37 years (�In limbo�, Dec 9). This has led to his schizophrenia and wasted away a whole life before the eyes of society.

The concept of equality in justice has been rendered a myth in our country by the inordinate delay in the disposal of cases and the following of judicial procedures involving great expenditure. That people with little access to resources are put behind bars while bigwigs get away scot free indicates there are serious lapses in the judicial system.

The irony of the judgment regarding undertrials is that it suggests the entire judicial system needs to be judged. Ghosh�s problem would not have been existed had there been a stipulated time for the production of chargesheets against the accused.

The concern expressed by the chief justice of India over the paucity of judges in the courts is doubly relevant. The right number of judges make not only for the speedy disposal of cases but also for the quality of judgment.

Yours faithfully,
Soma Sen, North 24 Parganas

Sir � The judges have voluntarily framed a code by which they will be bound to submit a declaration of their assets. This is undoubtedly a good step since the judiciary was increasingly becoming the object of allegations of financial impropriety. Some bar associations even boycotted judges suspected to have participated in doubtful financial deals.

In the recent past, several judges have been charged with delivering lopsided judgments. It would be best if judges avoid accepting invitations to private functions and designations in clubs and associations.

Yours faithfully,
Abdul Fateh Kamruddin, Hooghly

Sir � The prime minister�s decision to initiate judicial reforms to revamp the judicial system in the country is timely. A lot of people feel that under the present system judges and lawyers enjoy immense powers and protection.

The system may be simplified so that informed persons can fight their own cases without having to hire lawyers. In the age of reprography, it should not be difficult for the courts to furnish copies of judgments to litigants on the day it is passed without long winded application procedures.

There is no point in long summer vacations for judges when government and private offices are at work. The press and the public must be free to comment on judgments: that is one way to check judicial activism. And the sale of numbered stamp papers would prevent the backdated sale of stamp papers.

Yours faithfully,
Subhash Chandra Agarwal, Dariba

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