Thursday, February 03, 2005

INDIA: Knights of law and order

+ Why have we never witnessed a similar uproar over much worse cruelties to and crimes against children of lesser gods and humans? We read about children bought and sold, beaten and burnt, abused and abandoned. But none of these cases has led to a media-magnified public outrage and protest of the order even on the eve of elections. Did it not strike anyone as curious that the first instance, which provided so much fuel to the anti-Lalu campaign, was followed by two more kidnappings of schoolchildren in quick succession? +



HUM HINDUSTANI: Knights of law and order
Sri Raman

The campaign on the kidnapping may not make much difference to Lalu’s constituency. Sections of the media, however, made it appear so effective that even the Congress, an ally of Lalu’s Rashtriya Janata Dal at the national level, was influenced. Party president Sonia Gandhi promised pressure on the RJD government for better law and order

The law-and-order issue has increasingly become the last resort of the opposition in many Indian States. This is happening especially in elections, where the opposition cannot identify, or seeks to avoid, other issues. It has happened in the run-up to elections round the corner in three states in north India.

This may seem no cause for serious concern. The spin given to the issue by some political parties and players, however, does warrant such concern. It does all the more so for the support for them from sections of the middle class and the major media that affect a superior disdain for ‘politics’ and ‘politicians’ of the country’s parliamentary democracy.

As you read these lines, voters in the three states — Bihar, Jharkhand and Haryana — are casting their votes to elect new assemblies and governments. In all the three, the issue of law and order is being raised in a big way. And it is being raised in the biggest and most sinister way in the biggest of the three, Bihar, witnessing the most significant of these Assembly contests.

This, of course, should not surprise anybody. Bihar, after all, presents the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its far-right ‘family’ (parivar) — besides those sections of the middle class and the media — the man they hate most, and they love to hate most. Lalu Prasad looms large over Bihar and its election.

A disclaimer is due at this point. None of what follows should be seen an attempt to deify Lalu. They all demonise him and make it sound like national consensus. This column prefers to look at him as a politician (with all his warts) of a certain camp and with a certain constituency. It is his anti-parivar camp and constituency that have made him the favourite foe of the BJP and its political and other friends.

The campaign in Bihar over the last two weeks has come to focus almost exclusively on a case of kidnapping. A second (and, I promise, the last) disclaimer. This column does not defend the kidnapping of schoolchildren of any social class. The political and media uproar over the alleged abduction of a student of an elite school in Patna (Bihar’s capital) and the organised protests by his peers in red-coat-and-tie uniforms, however, pose a question.

Why have we never witnessed a similar uproar over much worse cruelties to and crimes against children of lesser gods and humans? We read about children bought and sold, beaten and burnt, abused and abandoned. But none of these cases has led to a media-magnified public outrage and protest of the order even on the eve of elections.

Did it not strike anyone as curious that the first instance, which provided so much fuel to the anti-Lalu campaign, was followed by two more kidnappings of schoolchildren in quick succession?

More curious, in retrospect, was a consequence of the campaign. With it vanished the issues raised by the interim report of the Justice UC Banerjee Committee, appointed by Lalu as the railway minister, on the infamous Godhra incident that led to the Gujarat carnage of 2002. The report had come out on the eve of the election, triggering a controversy over its timing, and dominated the pre-kidnapping phase of the campaign.

The report came as a serious embarrassment to the BJP and its ally in Bihar, the Janata Dal (United) of former railway minister Nitish Kumar, faulted by the committee in its findings. The red-faced BJP-JD(U) band resorted to the utterly ridiculous plea that a discussion of the public document would violate the election code. It was even claimed that it would be communal propaganda to talk of the fallout of the Godhra fire for Gujarat’s largest minority!

Come to think of it, the talk of law and order was forthcoming from the BJP that has, to date, refrained from taking any action against Narendra Modi who presided over a pogrom without precedent in India.

The campaign on the kidnapping may not make much difference to Lalu’s constituency. Sections of the media, however, made it appear so effective that even the Congress, an ally of Lalu’s Rashtriya Janata Dal at the national level, was influenced. Party president Sonia Gandhi, went to the extent, during her public rallies in Bihar, of promising pressure on the RJD government for better law and order.

Law and order need not be an opposition issue alone. For an exception that proves the rule in this regard, we must turn to the south Indian state of Tamilnadu. Chief minister Jayalalitha here has always revelled in her reputation as a ruthless keeper of law and order. It is on a law-and-order issue that the BJP, her ally until the last parliamentary election, has now broken with her.

Jayalalitha always identified herself with the party on the Ayodhya issue. She received lavish praise from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Modi for her anti-conversion law. She, however, has incurred the wrath of the parivar for mysteriously ordering the arrest and trial of a religious leader earlier close to her, the Shankaracharya of the Kanchipuram Mutt.

Given her record, it is disbelief that greets her when she defends herself by invoking the principle of equality before law. The parivar has no such problem. The law governing its perspective on public order entails no principle of social equality. Or even a pretence of it.

The writer is a journalist and peace activist based in Chennai, India