Anyone who ha…

 

Anyone who has had the experience of going to a police station to file a complaint will have faced, among other attendant hassles, the experience of cop-playing-arbitrator. Whether it is a case of a minor accident on the road or theft or eve teasing, the first ploy of the bored looking man behind the desk is to offer, in lieu of action, kindly advice which amounts to “patch up and go home.” That is, if you are not perceptibly a member of the lower income group, or completely without connections, in which case you are interrogated within an inch of your life as if you are the perpetrator, and end up vowing never to enter a police station ever again. When the kotwal is playing the kind uncle and reducing your grievance to the level of farce, he is actually making sure that you are not interrupting his daily tumult – or tranquility as is more often the case – and all that laborious paperwork that requires words to be penned down, severely challenging his standards of literacy, can be avoided altogether. In the process one  returns sadder but wiser, having received a bouquet of homespun (gratuitous)  wisdom, invariably of the conservative mould, that has rich references to folk tales, mythology and religion, reminiscent of the moral science classes that you yawned through as a third grader.

 

I have often received similar valuable knowledge from taxi and auto drivers from the cow belt who have very strong opinions on the sanctity of joint families, respect for elders, the origin of the earth ( which rests upon a tortoise), and on working women who return after 7pm (naturally of loose character.)

 

But it comes as a shocker when senior law enforcers too choose to voice their deeply prejudicial and bigoted opinions and that too in serious cases.  The DIG of  Saharanpur has reportedly advised the father of a kidnapped girl to murder his daughter to restore his family honor if she has eloped with somebody. And for good measure to kill himself too. This is what he allegedly said: “I don’t have magical power to recover your daughter. But if your daughter has eloped then you should be ashamed of it and end your life. I would have committed suicide or killed my sister if she had eloped.” As far as the DIG is concerned, a daughter who is missing from her father’s home is better off dead, since she has lost her “honor” and brought ruin upon the family name.

 

Those of us who swear by the sanctity of the Ramayana and think that Ram is the ultimate maryada purshottam will of course agree wholeheartedly, since Ram himself had made Sita walk through fire to test her “purity” after she had been kidnapped. The DIG, no doubt a devout man, is simply voicing his traditional beliefs, no matter how repugnant in this day and age.

 

And what is a mere DIG when learned judges, eminently more qualified, take recourse to the same belief system.  While hearing a divorce petition filed by a man on ground that his wife is unwilling to relocate to his new place of work, the division bench of the Bombay High Court observed that married women should take a cue from goddess Sita, who followed her husband Lord Ram even during his exile. On earlier occasions we have also come across instances of judges advising rape victims to get married to their rapists expressing the hope that this will somehow sanctify their relationship and “restore” the woman’s honor.

 

That these two incidents have happened so close together is not coincidental; it is a symptom of the wave of orthodoxy and regression running through the country that blurs the line between personal belief and the letter of the law, between the temporal and secular and the religious. It is not that this trend has gone unnoticed in the legal fraternity. On 12th March, last year while addressing the legal fraternity during the Justice P.D.Desai Memorial Lecture on ‘Constitutional ethical values’ at Tagore hall in Ahmedabad the Chief Justice of Supreme Court of India Mr.S.H.Kapadia, advised the sitting Judges not to pass comments on social situations beyond those enshrined  in the legal principles enshrined in the Constitution. He also opined that sometimes Judges tries to impose their own values, own perceptions, likes and dislikes on society.

And more recently this year at the Justice YV Chandrachud lecture series 2012, Supreme Court justice B S Chauhan said, “Future lawyers need to equip themselves with knowledge and information if they want to deal with complaints relating to human rights violations.”

 

The sensitivity required to deal with human rights cannot be derived from the Laws of Manu, nor hoary interpretations of the mythologies. They emanate from the secular framework of jurisprudence as laid down in the Constitution. Our law enforcers and those who pass judgment would be well advised not to bring their ancient baggage of prejudice and bigotry to work.

 

 

 

 It comes as a…

 

It comes as a welcome relief that the Union Law Ministry is taking steps to do away with the archaic and obsolete laws that clog our legal system, some of them over a century old that have not kept pace with changing times.

The law has been the subject of satire and derision since ancient times. Aristophanes’ Wasps (422 BC) lampoons the Athenian law courts. And Sukumar Ray the great Bengali satirist wrote a poem, popular to this day, about a country with 21 ridiculous laws that drove its citizens insane. Sneezing without a ticket, growing moustaches and writing poetry were among some of the crimes listed that would attract harsh penalties. The law represents power and attracts humor especially when it is obsolete and bizarre to the point of being malignant. Our own legal system is not without its jawdroppers.

Very recently in Bombay, the police in a misguided attempt at playing nanny arrested partygoers on the suspicion of drug abuse, and not finding any decided to slap them with a jail term and a fine anyway, invoking an archaic law from 1949 that makes it mandatory to buy a permit for “one who desires to purchase foreign liquor and country liquor for possession transport, use and consumption.” The offence can attract a maximum fine of Rs 50,000 and imprisonment up to five years. The magnitude of the penalty equates drinking to the same grade of crime as assault and rioting. Needless to say, this state law, though hardly ever used, is a potential tool of repression in the hands of the local police in Maharashtra who sometimes use it as an excuse for extortion and bribery.

Mr Bumble in The Pickwick Papers calls the law an ass when he is informed that “the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction” and she is incapable of individual choice. If we consider the hundreds of thousands – of Indian women who are trapped in abusive or broken marriages by archaic divorce laws and a dysfunctional court system, nothing much has changed. Convenient for alimony dodgers. Most forms in India still ask the applicant to fill in their father’s name — 
unless the applicant is a married woman, in which case she is supposed to write 
her husband’s name. The Sanskrit word for husband, “pati,” means owner. 
Socially, as it is considered disrespectful for a woman to utter her husband’s name, that vital detail goes missing during compilation of the voter’s list and this is the reason why many women are not included on voters lists.

We have a complex web of religious laws with separate regulations for each of our religious groups, each covered by different civil laws. Not a single administration since independence has dared tamper with these laws for fear of offending the religious sentiment and vote banks, bending over backwards to accommodate them. Hindu women still cannot ask for ancestral property to be divided 
so that they get a separate share. Parsi women have no right of adoption independent of their husbands. Parsis are also forbidden to adopt children outside their faith. A Muslim can divorce his wife merely by uttering the word “talaq,” or 
divorce, three times in front of two witnesses. Muslim women were granted the right to seek divorce in 1939, but a Muslim woman’s share in ancestral inheritance is still half of her brother’s. 

The Aircraft Rules, 1937 bans people with epilepsy or psychological disorders from flying. The airline companies find these rules convenient to disembark elderly and disabled passengers and not provide facilities like ambulifts and aerobridges. Indeed, why suffer extra expenses?

 

Stamp duty is paid in every real estate deal and it varies from state to state. As a result black money flows into the real estate sector. If you can’t cough up a substantial amount in cash you can’t buy a roof over your head. Are we encouraging tax evasion and a parallel economy? But then, according to another law, accepting a bribe is not considered corruption unless taken by a government 
servant. 

 

The number of archaic laws that need to be superannuated are staggering – running in the thousands. Our government’s functioning is often on the basis of a borrowed judicial system from a colonial era that results in a venal system – one enshrouded in secrecy leading to malfunctioning and corruption. Ayn Rand said, “There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible to live without breaking laws.“

 

 If preservation of redundant laws benefits vested interests then the introduction of unnecessary laws is also a creation of the same powers that be and for the same reasons. At the same time that the Law Ministry is magnanimously announcing that it will scrap outdated laws it is trying to introduce a 4.5 percent subquota for “minorities – an euphemistic Indianism for Muslims – in government jobs, schools and colleges. In a country already splintered over religions, castes, sub castes, and pressure groups out for their pounds of flesh, in an orgiastic quota fest, this is a “pernicious” move, to borrow a term closely associated with another precious gem from the past – the Indian sedition law.