In Charles Dickens’s famous novel Oliver Twist, Mr Bumble says, “If the law supposes that, the law is an ass, an idiot.” The law is not only an ass it is also a bloodhound.
Who among us has not borne the brunt of the idiocy of law? How many have may also have been victims of a witch-hunt? Cops who wielded the rifle earlier are now facing the wrath of retaliation by another party.
A home minister hounds another in opposition and sends him to prison, and then the wheels of fortune turn, he comes out of jail and takes vengeance when he ascends the throne by imprisoning the former home minister. Justices try themselves in cases of sexual harassment and corruption charges. Lynchings in the name of the cow, khap panchayats, Shariat laws, staged police encounters, male chauvinists and priests defying court orders and barring menstruating women entering temples, judges declaring ‘contempt’ when someone points out they are violating their own oath of office… the aberrations are not a few in number.
On top of that, the media vultures have taken over an investigation, feasting on a poor dead actor while trying to tear out the flesh of his living, bereaved girlfriend. Are we becoming a country of kangaroo courts with a menagerie of agencies unleashed? Has unbridled bureaucratic power and ridiculous rules and regulations gone berserk?
A couple of incidents
Let me recall a couple of incidents. When I imported a small nine-seater Swiss Pilatus aircraft from Cape Town in South Africa in 2002, I decided to fly it across Africa and the Middle East to India along with my pilot. The flight over great African forests and mighty deserts promised to be a great adventure. It turned out to be an exhilarating trip but soon ended in a nightmare when we landed at 1 am in Mumbai airport.
Almost immediately, a customs squad surrounded us and led us to a remote bay. After filling up reams of papers, the customs sleuths suspiciously rummaged the aircraft for any contraband hidden in the plane and finally at 5 am, the papers were stamped that we were clean. Then we filed a flight plan for Bangalore and while taxiing to take off around 6 am, a customs jeep along with the airport police rushed to intercept us, as we were rolling onto the main runway.
An official came up and said he had forgotten to check the logbook and fuel tank metre to calculate the fuel that was remaining in the tank when we landed from Dubai, our last airport. He said, on that remnant of fuel of a few litres, a customs duty had to be paid because it was imported fuel coming into the country. We were led back to the parking bay. We lost a few more hours in this red tape and by which time we completed the formalities of paying a couple of hundred rupees in customs duty, the pilot had crossed his flight duty time limitation and we had to stay put in Bombay for one more day. The official just shrugged his shoulders and said, “Laws are laws.”
When I narrated this incident during a public launch function of the aircraft in Delhi, and bemoaned our asinine laws, chief guest Ramakrishna Hegde, the then commerce minister in the A.B. Vajpayee government and a great raconteur, with a straight face, said: “Captain the law is not just an ass, it’s a mule at times.”
He then told the story of a group of foreign tourists who were visiting a famous temple in Karnataka. Knowing that visitors could only walk barefoot in the temple, they left their shoes in the car. As they were about to enter, the guard stopped the foreigners, who responded that they had already taken off their shoes. “The guard said you cannot leave the shoes in your car. And he pointed to a placard which said ‘Leave your shoes HERE.’,” Hegde ended, amidst laughter. Cleverly and eloquently, Hegde had conveyed the moral of the story to the officials who unfailingly but eagerly applied their rules but rarely applied their minds.
When law enforcing agencies become handmaidens
Such stories may drive home a point and entertain. But when law enforcing agencies are caught in the vortex of politics and go overboard, either under coercion from political masters or with an eagerness to please them, the story can turn macabre and ruin the lives and wreck the careers of people, as is the case now with the arrest and jailing of Rhea Chakraborty. Allegations ranging from abetment of suicide to murder have now morphed as a narcotics case.
Julio Ribeiro, one of the most venerated former police chiefs, recently said in a television interview, “The poor girl has sadly become a pawn in the game of rival politicians and overzealous agencies willing to do their masters bidding.” He pointed out that in her impetuosity of youth, she may have erred in procuring drugs for her deceased boyfriend or may have consumed them herself. The narcotic agencies arresting the actress (who is cooperating) in such unseemly haste, instead of focussing on busting the drug cartel and arresting the kingpins of the drug trade who are allegedly supplying Bollywood stars is a travesty of our justice system.
If the Central investigating agencies were seen to be blatantly pandering to the BJP in the Sushant and Rhea case, in the Kangana Ranaut episode, the Shiv Sena has been brazen, callous and not very intelligent by demolishing her office in swift vigilante retribution for verbally attacking the party and its supremo. True, the actor is known to be provocative and may have been intemperate too. By aligning herself openly with the BJP, she has also exposed herself to charges of nursing political ambitions, making her motives suspect.
But despite that, Shiv Sena leaders cannot take offence personally and abuse their office, using the state’s civic and law enforcement bodies as their private militia to bulldoze Kangana’s office. And in one stroke, the Shiv Sena under the new chief minister has plundered its goodwill it had earned assiduously over the last year of being a good and impartial administrator overshadowing its former unsavoury reputation of being a fanatical party of hoodlums.
When cases such as the murder of Gauri Lankesh and killings of other rationalists and intellectuals – M.M. Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare – and the death of Sushant Singh Rajput span two or more states, an overarching oversight by an agency like the CBI and other Central agencies may be needed. But can we forget that it is supposed to have a higher fidelity to the oath of office and constitution, rather than allegiance to a particular ruling party? But how does an accused or victim get justice when the state intelligence and police are seen to be beholden to the ruling party and the Central investigating agencies are suspect of being handmaidens of the ruling party at the Centre?
What the long arm of the law can do
Let me conclude and illustrate what the long arm of the law can do. In the Kannada play of the late and legendary master Hirannaya Lanchavatara – a scathing parody of corruption in our society that ran uninterrupted for six decades – a cop arrests a farmer cycling to a neighbouring village and hauls him to the station. Asked by his inspector what the offence was, the cop replies that the cycle had no lights. The bemused inspector responds, “But it is broad daylight!” Pat comes the reply, “True. When I asked the farmer where was he headed, he said he was going to the next hamlet and would be back late night after his errands. He had no lights mounted and I imagined he would be riding back when dark without light. So nabbed him to prevent an offence.” The satisfied inspector collects a fine and lets off the farmer.
Even as COVID-19 cases continue to rage and daily deaths mount, the country is facing the worst economic crisis in 75 years and the looming threat of war with China, are we so depraved and morbid to watch unhinged television anchors day after day spewing venom and dishing out Bollywood mush? And are our politicians so callous and irresponsible to neglect matters of state to participate in a witch hunt against a couple of stars?
Captain G.R. Gopinath is an author, politician and entrepreneur who founded Air Deccan.