Why this culture of impunity

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Patricia Mukhim

Humans evolved from the primitive stage of, ‘might is right’ to the worship of nature, of gods and goddesses and then to the stage where they subjugated themselves before kings and rulers. In England kings were believed to be divinely appointed hence people subjugated themselves before these monarchs. At the time governance was thought to be a divinely ordained responsibility and people had no right to question how their kings or queens ruled. The rulers in turn provided justice and protection to the subjects in return for their obedience. It was a quid pro quo.
Then came the period of enlightenment which started from the mid 17th century to the end of the 18th century when there was a shift from religious based ideology to the age of reason or scientific enquiry. This age of enlightenment ushered in the social contract theory propounded by Thomas Hobbes. This theory is essentially an agreement made amongst individuals to bring about an organised society. It is also the forerunner to the idea of the ‘state’ – a system of government which had authority over a geographical area. This move from a stateless society to a more orderly one, when citizens respect and obey the rules laid down by the state, by signing a social contract, is the beginning of the rule of law. This social contract obliges the citizens to respect and obey the state in exchange for stability and security. The shift from a primitive existence of ‘might is right’ to that of an orderly society is monumental and it prefaces the political life we have today where humans are guided by natural laws ostensibly so that they proceed towards a developed social and political life.
Hobbes believed that in the absence of a state, human beings would react to each other with savagery since humans were equally able to kill each other and thereby live in a constant state of insecurity. They would therefore crave for law and order for their own protection. They would also agree to place someone in authority to tell them what to do. Hobbes suggested that a number of people would appoint a king for the sole purpose of ordering their lives and for that to happen the arbitrary power of individuals would be taken away from them and vested in one person – the ruler. This ruler would have absolute right to make whatever laws he wants and owes no responsibility to the individuals other than to maintain law and order. Hobbes was therefore an apologist for an authoritarian form of government.
From the Hobbesian age we progressed to the age of democracy where one single ruler was replaced by a set of elected representatives of the people called “public servants.” There are many claims and counter-claims about the genesis of democracy as it is practised today but the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted in 1788, provides the world’s first formal blueprint for a modern democracy. India adopted the Westminster model of democracy, ironically borrowed from a colonial power that held sway over it for over 200 years. India is not a natural democracy. It is a country that was ruled by rajahs and maharajahs; it practiced and continues to practise a caste system and hence was hierarchical in nature. The tribes within the country had a different social arrangement from that of the mainstream polity. This diversity of faith and societal organisation continues to be a thorn in the flesh of this country even as different groups assert their rights over others and defy the prescribed laws that come with democracy. It is my belief that India has never been a full- fledged democracy since there are still so many inequalities in society and not all citizens have equal rights.
In a country steeped in patriarchy it would be wrong to surmise that women enjoy equal rights as men. This unequal and unjust system is exposed in the way women are objectified. This objectification makes it easy for men to rape and molest women and now, increasingly young girls. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has belatedly given a call not to politicise rape cases. But the fact that politicians are perpetrators or rape and cock a snook at the rule of law, a la Kuldeep Singh Sengar a BJP MLA from Unnao, Uttar Pradesh who raped a 17-year old minor girl, cannot but take away the stench of politics from the crime of rape. Had Sengar been arrested after the minor girl’s father lodged an FIR against him and had the rule of law taken its due course there would not have been any reason to turn the case into a political football. But the law was aborted in this case because Sengar is an MLA of the ruling party. On the contrary the father of the minor girl paid a price because the law enforcers turned on him instead. What greater injustice can there be? It took a nationwide protest before the Allahabad High Court ordered the CBI to arrest Sengar and proceed with the investigations.
In this country today we are seeing a culture of impunity which is frightening because the social contract signed by the citizen ceding her rights to the state is now broken by the state. Increasingly we see individual states failing to maintain law and order – a state subject. In militancy/insurgency affected states there are para-military and central reserved police forces by the thousands because the state police have been compromised or have become political tools. The police too forget their training once they are deployed for law and order duty. They serve the political class and treat all others as second class citizens because that is perhaps the only way to climb the up the promotional ladder. We no longer hear of officers like the recently deceased EN Rammohan and KPS Gill who left behind a legacy. Although Gill has been put through the wringer for human rights abuses and encounter killings, the fact remains that extraordinary situations require extraordinary measures. The Punjab insurgency would not have been contained without those harsh actions. That’s the price people in insurgency hit states anywhere have to pay. In insurgency affected states, the normal law and order protocols don’t work. However, using the military too is not an option. This is India’s greatest shame – to use its military to kill its own people.
It was to avoid militarisation of the civic space that in 1994-95 onwards when insurgency hit Meghalaya real hard, some of us started a people’s movement – Shillong We Care – and stood up against the militant outfit – HNLC. It is true that the then Government too gave police a free hand to tackle militancy. Indeed, if militancy had been allowed to escalate then as it had in Manipur and Assam we would have lost many more lives to collateral damage. The military would have been called in and human rights violations could not have been averted.
Today we are witnessing a climate of impunity gaining ground in Meghalaya. There are regular reports of arson in Mawprem area (West Shillong Constituency). Shops are gutted, petrol bombs are thrown at selected houses and at vehicles but no arrests are made. At first we thought these to be election-related criminal activities but they persist even after the elections. Why? If the criminals are arrested we would be in a better position to understand why these cases of arson happen and who is orchestrating them. In this one also feels that the Dorbar Shnong ought to be more assertive and take responsibility for the crimes that happen within their jurisdictions. Isn’t that why there is supposed to be regular police-public interface to facilitate community policing? However, community policing is possible only when the community is cohesive – not fragmented. The idea of community in Mawprem is now a fiction.
If communities begin to fragment (tribal, non-tribal) in other areas of the city as well, we will only have further deterioration of law and order. The climate of impunity requires a certain climate in which to thrive. Politicians should not interfere in arrests made by police. Politicians should desist from using criminal elements during elections because these are Frankensteins that cannot be pulled back like the genie into the bottle. They will continue to be used as mercenaries. The police ought to be reminded too that their role is to secure the lives of the public and not that of politicians and the powerful only. People today feel vulnerable when criminals roam free. The MDA Government has a huge task to rebuild the image of the police in Meghalaya.
(Courtesy: The Shillong Times)