Is it possible that the State, which is supposed to protect the small fish against the big, may on occasion sympathise with murderous predatory fish roaming the territory? Is it possible that many may witness the hunt passively because it is politically expedient? One does not, of course, want to believe such things are possible, but the absence of other plausible explanations justifies considering it.
This is how Ved Vyas in his great epic, the Mahabharata, muses about an ancient fratricidal war that wiped out entire families. Truth, he finds, absolute truth, is the first casualty. In this epic, the family elders, great generals and diplomats and priests mutely watch the wilful dismantling of Rajdharma by the powerful. Their appalling, self-serving silence is broken by some of the smallest and most ordinary of creatures, which indict them for relegation of their Dharma. After all, it is hardly debatable that the state must exercise its monopoly of power to intervene swiftly and decisively while the butchering of men and the burning of women and children is going on. And the individual’s right to protection by the ruler must not be sacrificed to the god of popular sentiment.
Towards the end of the Mahabharata comes the tale of a strange mongoose sniffing around the area where a jubilant Pandava king, Yudhishthra (also known as Dharmaraj or the king of Dharma) has just performed the glorious Rajsuya Yagna signalling his arrival on the throne after a long war.
The lowly mongoose with half his fur of gleaming gold, comes to the site where the fire sacrifice has been performed and as the amused citizens watch, begins to roll in the ashes. While they are wondering at his strange behaviour, the mongoose stands shaking the ashes off his fur and cries, “Fie upon you, Dharmraj, for this your great Rajasuya Yagna is a sham! If you had really earned the blessings of the Gods, my remaining fur would have also turned to gold. Years ago, during a great drought I happened to be in the home of a hungry farmer and saw him and his family feed their last meal to an unknown starving beggar and court death. After witnessing this great act of self abnegation I rolled in the tiny patch where a few grains of the last meal lay scattered, and half my body that touched it turned to gold. I thought the rest of my fur would also turn to gold if I rolled in the remains of your regal Rajasuya Yagna. But nothing has happened. O Yudhishthir, you killed your Rajdharma when you killed your own brothers to get to the throne, so you may mount great and glorious rituals but they will not generate good will. Dharmaraj indeed!”
How the state failed in Gujarat
The mongoose’s ghost is roaming the streets of India once again in the shape of a woman called Teesta Setalvad. She is pursuing justice for the victims of the 2002 riots in Gujarat. In a country of over a billion she is among the few to ask the question the mongoose posed: Why did the state, despite its monopoly of power, fail in its most basic duty to protect so many from extreme violence and leave them to be slaughtered on the streets as the police watched mutely? She has, understandably, been facing the most suffocating pressures and ugly innuendoes for the past 13 years. But she and her brave band of supporters have not allowed that fratricidal carnage to be pushed out of public memory. Make no mistake. The criminal revision petition she has been chasing on behalf of Zakia Jafri is not just about the riots in a housing society where Zakia’s husband was dismembered and killed by a violent mob. It is about the much larger issue of Rajdharma or what the jurist Indira Jaising calls the Doctrine of Command Responsibility.
According to Hindu scriptures, final accountability for all great acts of sin or redemption, paap or punya, must lie with the leadership in the rajya; A raja becomes a raja only to uphold Rajdharma and to protect the people, not to do as he wills, says the sage Angiras to Mandhata.
It is not Teesta but Rajdharma, that is on trial. We need her just as India after the Mahabharata war needed that half golden mongoose.