By Pradip Phanjoubam
Trust Manipur to push the idea of ‘radical democracy’ to absurd limits. In the same breath and in a related way, trust it also to debunk the liberal understanding of civil society. Under the circumstance, it is not a surprise at all that the ideas of the legalistic principles of de jure and de facto are also being pushed to grotesque limits.
It is not uncommon anymore, then, to hear of bands of so called civil society bodies taking to the streets and preventing the due process of the law in the democratic adjudication of issues of known affronts to public sense of justice and propriety.
If ‘radical democracy’ is in Charles Douglas Lummis’ words, about not leaving the important business of governance to the government alone, thereby constituting mechanism for a vocal civil society to be heard and taken into account by those in the government, then the prerogative of a civil society is for it to be ‘civil’ in the liberal sense of the word.
My attention is called to the manner in which a trial for an alleged rape case, or the TG Rape case, as it is coming to be popularly referred to currently. I have no knowledge of what is happening inside the court room, particularly since the trial is being held in-camera, therefore I am in no position to comment. In any case, doing so would have amounted to the serious, punishable, infringement of ‘subjudice’commentary.
What I am concerned about however is the media reports of how certain ‘civil society’bodies have pronounced the accused guilty and are demanding punishment even before the formal trial ends.
According to these reports, these activists, mostly meira paibis, even go to the extent of assaulting the accused while they were being taken to the court.
This is simply outrageous and it undermines all the legitimate protests the state has been staging against extra-judicial executions and tortures in custody. For indeed, what these activists seek also would very much amount to an extra-judicial punishment of those on trial. Rubbished in the process is the beautiful liberal notion of any accused being innocent until proven guilty. Punishment must be awarded only after all possibilities of innocence have been ruled out. Anybody would be tempted to think that the out of court violence reported is masterminded to intimidate and influence the judges in the case to give in to the mob’s demands and wishes.
It is quite possible the accused are guilty of the crime they are charged with. But let the law establish this and decide what the fitting retribution should be. This is what the rule of law is about. Debunking this can only result in a descent of the entire state into anarchy, a predicament already not too remote in Manipur’s case.
It would not be very wrong hence to say that in Manipur today, in many instances like this, what is demonstrated is that de jure, it might be the government which rules and courts of law which dispense justices, but de facto, both these responsibilities are allowed to a great extent to rest in the hands of our so called ‘civil society’ bodies.
Nothing can be more unfortunate. It reflects both on the civility standard of the public at large on the one hand, and on the other, the loss of moral legitimacy of the government that be. For in a way, it is because the government does not command the faith of the public in its capacity to dispense justice, that there is a tendency for the public to take the law into their own hands.
I am reminded of a Hollywood classic of the 1980s (or maybe 1970s) for Hollywood movies those days were not instantly released in India and sometimes took a decade before they came to Indian theaters after passing the Indian censors screening and acquire the certificate of being fit for the Indian public’s consumption.
I refer to “The Ten Commandments”, an enactment of the biblical story of Moses returning with the Israelite slaves he freed from the Egyptian Pharaoh. They camp at the foot of Mount Sinai on their long journey home, and while they rest, Moses follows a call from God and climbs the mountain.
On top, he encounters the speaking ‘Burning Bush’ which reveals itself to Moses to be God’s manifestation with the enigmatic “I am who I am” to Moses’ answering a bewildered query of Moses as to who he was. God then gives Moses the Ten Commandments, or laws, which he must enforce on his people.
Upon return, Moses finds the Israelites revelling, bingeing, worshipping heathen gods, indulging in sinful acts, etc. A horrified Moses calls upon the Israelites to come to him and sternly tells the assembly they must at once leave their evil ways and follow the ‘laws’ (the ten commandments) which he had just received from God. One among the crowd/mob shows his dislike for the new laws and shouts at Moses “we want freedom”, implying the new laws would curb their freedom.
Moses’ answer was remarkable for its anticipation of modern liberal jurisprudence. He said “there is no freedom without the law”. Indeed, there is no way freedom can be defined outside of the law. Freedom without the law would be anarchy. It also means making good laws is vital.
The traffic analogy is apt. Traffic regulations necessitate everybody to give up a bit of his freedom to drive the way he pleases, turn anywhere and whichever directions he fancies and at any time. The aggregate of the freedom each driver sacrifices, is the pool of traffic freedom everybody draws from, regulating and moderating traffic therefore making it possible for everybody to move together with the least hindrance. If some or all were to begin driving as he pleases in total disregard of traffic laws, there would be no traffic.
But even in this crude traffic metaphor, Manipur fails miserably. A lot many continue disregarding traffic norms and drive as they please, flaunting their falsely imagined driving skills in squeezing between vehicles in traffic bottlenecks, making the Imphal traffic a daily horror. Shameful!
Returning to the trial of the TG rape case accused then, let the trial be free and fair. If found guilty, let the convicts be punished severely by the law of the land. But let the matter not be placed in the hands of the mob outside the court room.
The issue is sensitive no doubt, as it should fittingly be. Gender justice is very much nuanced, and guaranteeing it cannot always be by the obvious tangible scales alone. This is so because a great deal of silent aggression is also involved in gender injustices institutionalized in the society. As for instance, debasing ogling by males, a carnal remark, a crude sexual gesture etc, can injure the female, and no law will take cognizance of these offences.
An overt offence like rape therefore is heinous, and the victim must be given the benefit of the doubt whenever there is an irreconcilable doubt. However, often the unscrupulous take advantage of this felt need for gender concession, bringing injustice to people considered putative gender offenders.
Just take the example of how some women break long queues outside the few ATMs in Imphal. Very seldom are these cases of damsels in distress, deserving preferential treatment. Often these female breakers of queues are brought there by their male relatives or friends to break the queues and save themselves trouble. What they do not realize, or pretend they do not realize, is that the trouble they save for themselves are borne unfairly by others in the queue.
In other words, very often these women break these queues on behalf of their male friends or relatives. This cannot be fair by any standard. By unduly taking advantage of gender concessions, these females should understand they undermine the faith the conscientious public, both males and females, place in the fight for gender equality.
It is time to mend ways in keeping with the spirit of the time. The fight for gender equality must be fought by both genders in unison. But redundant practices such as separate queues in routine matters, like outside ATMs or various ticket counters should be discontinued. Separate queues will be essential in some matters such as where body frisking is necessary, and these would have to be retained.
Let the fight for gender equality not be allowed to be misused by selfish people, particularly selfish females and therefore degrade the campaign. Let there be laws that address these issues of inequality, but once these laws are in place, let nobody be treated to be above them, regardless of whether they belong to any civil society organization, however powerful. Let our notion of civil society be reformed so as not be caught out of sync with the times.
The boundaries of identity around these civil society bodies also should be softened. In a recent workshop in Hyderabad, I was asked why the powerful civil society bodies in Manipur, in particular the powerful human rights defenders, never ever come forward to show solidarity with human rights violations in other places like Chhattisgarh.
The query further pointed out that the matter is of human rights and not any particular community’s or group’s human rights. Human rights in this sense cannot be segregated in water tight compartments. It is and must remain universal.
The only credible answer to this query is that civil society bodies, not just those of human rights defenders, tend to give too stiff identity boundaries around themselves so that they seldom are capable of seeing beyond the boundaries they envelope themselves in. In letter this may be okay, but the obvious limitation in the spirit of the larger project of human rights defending, should need no further elaboration.
Let our civil society be champions of the universal spirit of liberty and not allow themselves to be reduced to proxies of various vested interests to fight their wars by other means.