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Gujarat and the rule of law

10 Apr 2002


By Amrik Singh

The most urgent task today is to find a way of reinstating the rule of law... Every problem has to be solved with the country's interests in mind and not that of only a section of the people.

OF THE numerous contributions to the Indian polity that the British made, one of the more valuable ones was the establishment of the rule of law. In the bargain, we got saddled with the Anglo-Saxon brand of jurisprudence! That apart, there can be no doubt about one thing. Along with several other things, they imported the rule of law into India. What had been happening during the days of the Mughal decline required nothing less than that!

Before 1947, the British by and large adhered to the law they had laid down, as in their own country. There were occasional deviations: the manner in which Bhagat Singh's trial was manipulated is a case in point. To put it no more strongly, the only occasions when they deviated from the norm were when the imperial interests were under jeopardy. For our part, we have done two things since 1947. The first one was to bend the rules in the interests of one person or community at the cost of the other. When in 1949, idols were placed inside the mosque at Ayodhya, it was an early example of the kind of manipulation which has characterised the law and other machinery all these decades.

In 1984, when the police were `instructed' not to intervene when necessary and mobs were let loose on defenceless Sikhs in Delhi, the process of dilution was carried further. This was a prelude to the second stage of degeneration. The police were told in no uncertain terms not to act against the looters and killers. It took a decade and a half for the Government to set up a proper inquiry into what happened in 1984. Whatever had been done was a cover-up and little more than that. In consequence, no action was taken against those who had violated the process of law either on their own or under instruction from the authorities under whom they were working. Indeed, several of them won promotions and have, in some cases, retired. What the inquiry committee does will be academic therefore.

Nonetheless, it was a significant step that such a committee had been appointed. A good deal of the initiative to appoint such a committee was taken by L. K. Advani, the present Union Home Minister. He, however, seems to have forgotten the role he played in the appointment of the 1984 Inquiry Committee. Currently what is happening in Gujarat is another landmark in the misuse of state powers and a blatant defiance of the rule of law. In a sense, it marks yet another stage in the relentless erosion of the rule of law that has gone on during the last five decades and more.

People who belong to this generation will find it difficult to believe that under the British the rule of law was observed much more scrupulously as compared to the period since 1947. Except for those rare cases, as stated above, when their interests as rulers of India were threatened, they did whatever was within the ambit of law and seldom went beyond that.

That the situation was already moving in this direction even before 1984 should be evident from one simple thing. The Police Commission reporting in 1981 made a concrete recommendation which proposed that the Director-General of Police in a State should be appointed not by the Home Minister or the Chief Minister but through a specified, politically neutral mechanism. What is more, the tenure in each case should be fixed in advance and it would not be open to anyone to cut short an officer's tenure except for a valid reason. That the said recommendation was not implemented speaks for itself. The Gujarat events have put the problem of how the rule of law is to be ensured on the agenda again.

More precisely, what is happening in Gujarat is that the State administration has adopted a dual attitude. One is to ensure that the police are told discreetly when to act and when not to. In those cases where some police officers on their own chose to act in accordance with the law of the land, they have been transferred. In such a situation the Centre could have acted. But then the Centre will not act against those States which are politically aligned to it, more particularly when out of the lot, only two States belong to the BJP persuasion. Underlying everything is the related fact, which is both a cause and a consequence of what is happening. The present NDA Government will not fold up before its time mainly for the reason that every elected MP wants to complete his tenure and earn his pension. This may be putting it crudely but, given the situation, one does not know how else to put it. Those outside the BJP who are supporting the NDA Government will thus continue to extend their support for this overriding reason, however unpalatable it might be for them. The BJP came to power by picking up the Ramjanmabhoomi issue as its main slogan. The issue had been raised decades earlier but the party had ignored it altogether. Though the BJP was established in the early 1950s, it could not make much headway for the next three decades. Things however changed with the Congress' return to power in 1980. It was then that the Congress decided to play the communal card. Till then, it had more or less followed the Nehruvian line of approach and refrained from playing with communal fire. The defeat of the Congress in late 1982 in Andhra Pradesh as well as Karnataka changed everything. The first two elections to be fought under the Congress' new strategy were in 1983 in Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir. The target was the next general election which took place after the murder of Indira Gandhi and gave a landslide victory to Rajiv Gandhi. He, however, did not learn the lesson and he it was who got the Ayodhya gates unlocked. The rest is history. Since then, the Congress has been at the losing end and the BJP has been on the ascendant.

Second, that phase of politics seems to be drawing to a close. What is happening in Gujarat is a sad commentary on seeking to reverse the political trends by resorting to naked communalism. In the bargain, the polity is being hurt irreparably. The most urgent task today is to find a way of reinstating the rule of law.

Can some institutional mechanism be devised to fulfil this objective? Maybe after the indictment by the Human Rights Commission, there will be a further indictment by the Supreme Court. Something will have to be done to ensure that our law and order machinery respects the procedures as laid downDevelopments during the last few years have shown conclusively that the country is not willing to get communalised in the manner and to the extent the BJP wishes to ensure. To put it bluntly, no solution of the Ayodhya problem will endure unless the interests of both the communities are taken care of. The various solutions which have been touted do not take this dimension of the problem into account. The plain truth is that this country will never have peace if the Muslim community is humiliated or the Hindu community does not receive its due. Both the objectives can be ensured only when the process of politicising religion which started more than two decades ago is ended. The real problem lies there. Every problem has to be solved with the country's interests in mind and not that of only a section of the people.

The Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia was formed in 1993 to combat rising religious intolerance in South Asia and to campaign for peace and justice in the region. We are committed to working towards a just, non-violent resolution of the crisis we are currently living through. If you are interested in joining us in this work, please call 617-983-3934 or e-mail

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