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Byline by MJ Akbar:Peace of Justice
If there is justice there will be peace. Nine men from Baroda were sentenced to life imprisonment by a special court in Mumbai for a massacre of innocents (known as the Best Bakery case) during one of the most terrible communal riots in our history, the Gujarat carnage of 2002; and every Indian can declare with pride that he or she lives in a nation that has not only democracy, but something more: institutions of justice that deliver in matters of honour, truth, life and death. A democracy is much more than counting votes once in five years. A democracy is about rights and wrongs each living day. The peace that democracy delivers, therefore, is a positive, creative, enhancing peace, not the peace of the graveyard that settles like a pall on nations condemned to dictatorship.
Democracy is about civil society and equality, of high courts as well as a scene I witnessed in a 7 a.m. Indian Airlines flight I took from Mumbai to Delhi on the morning of writing this column: an airhostess taking special care of an elderly Muslim man with a cap and a beard who was unsteadied by age as he walked uncomfortably into the aircraft. He was not at all wealthy; this could have been his first flight, perhaps taken for medical reasons. The airhostess gave him more help and attention than she offered anyone else. This is equality and civil society without prejudice in India. The Gujarat carnage is part of the truth; the airhostess is part of the larger truth. India is not secular because it is democratic. India is democratic because it is secular.
In a democracy, elections may be the court of first as well as last appeal, but there is so much space in between. Governments are unstable in a democracy, which is an excellent thing; but society is stable, which is even better. Governments are stable in a dictatorship, but society is unstable, constantly simmering under the pressure of a forced calm, and threatening to erupt at the slightest crack in the edifice. Those in power did everything they could to subvert justice in the Best Bakery case, using authority to try and undermine the judiciary and money to change the evidence. The police are a mighty force in India, and never mightier than when they attempt to become the law. Governments bullied and bribed witnesses who were poor and vulnerable: I would not be too harsh on the poor and vulnerable, for we have very little idea of what constant, daily pressure by the police can mean. The important, and vital, point is that justice survived the malfeasance of the system; perhaps that is the only point. The courts were assisted by the dedication and sheer, determined obstinacy of civil society leaders like Teesta Setalvad, who refused to be defeated by the acquittal of the accused by a court in Gujarat, and went to the Supreme Court. One of those sentenced to life imprisonment, Sanjay Thakkar, begged for mercy once the judgment was announced. He once must have thought that his mentor, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, would succeed in saving him from retribution. Thank God for Teesta Setalvad and the Supreme Court.
And thank God for a free media too.
There were two judgments on the murder of Jessica Lal, in which the prime accused was a rich thug called Manu Sharma, son of a former minister of the Union government of India, no less, Vinod Sharma. There is little purchase in naming the political party to which he belonged, for all parties are infected with this insolent, brutal Delhi plague. The facts are simple, and their simplicity itself is evidence of how Delhi’s ruling elite believes that it can get away with murder after it has got away with theft. Jessica Lal, a model, was shot dead in public in a restaurant owned by Bina Ramani. It was a crime of power, wealth, corruption and arrogance: power was the means to wealth, wealth was the source of corruption, and corruption is the reason for this murderer’s arrogance. The murderer took out a gun in full public view, shot Jessica dead and walked off. As simple as that. The case was widely reported. On 21 February additional sessions judge S.L. Bhayana acquitted Sharma. The judge was hapless if not helpless: he explained that the three key eyewitnesses had turned hostile.
The media delivered the second judgment on this case. It refused to accept the judicial verdict. One of the truths of Delhi is the fact that the police believe that they are employed not only to implement the law, but also to twist it according to their will. The media refused to let police get away with their lucrative indolence in this case. Every newspaper gave headlines that accused the authorities of corruption. No editor, of print or audiovisual media, consulted anyone else. Each editor reached his or her own conclusion, and the conclusion was similar. The stench of corruption was too strong for even the most cynical nose.
This anger was not limited to the police. It was also addressed to the New Class that has become a running, cancerous sore of Delhi. It consists of rich, political or pseudo-political (by which I mean hangers-on of political progeny) thugs who are brimming with black money, and who are convinced that they are a phone call away from safety if they get into trouble. Their cars are a menace on the streets; their behaviour a menace to social life; their criminal side a menace to life. They are the middlemen of deals, the scum that has become obese thanks to cuts from the billions that are spent by the government each year in purchases. Their behaviour might have been funny were it not so deadly. Many of them actually behave like villains from the screen, flaunting their power as if there is no accountability in Delhi’s ravenous jungle, and never will be. The media was also saying that Manu Sharma, a perfect example of this class, would not be permitted the luxury of indifference.
By Friday, the Delhi High Court had summoned the files of the Jessica Lal case from the Delhi police. This too was recognition of injustice.
Standards change; yesterday’s scandal becomes today’s morality; we stop asking questions in the name of friendship, or in the hope of a good time; the culture of consumerism becomes the primal law; your dress becomes your address. Sab chalta hai. Anything goes. Delhi is the world’s largest glasshouse: who shall throw the first stone? But there comes a moment when you no longer care whether the glasshouse remains intact or shatters. If that glasshouse is going to protect the killers at Best Bakery or the murderer of Jessica Lal, then it is time it got shattered into smithereens. Civil society rose in both instances. It threw stone after stone in the Best Bakery matter, rousing the conscience and the best instincts of the highest judiciary. It rose again in the matter of Jessica Lal, and the Delhi High Court has taken the initiative. But one stone was not sufficient in Best Bakery; and one stone might be insufficient in the case of Jessica Lal as well. The establishment has a very very thick hide, thickened further by the belief that the public has a very very short memory. The establishment has an invaluable weapon in time. The media woke up in the immediate aftermath of injustice. How long will it remain awake when the files wend their slow way through the courts, impeded by procrastination and fudge? Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty etc, but how eternal is eternal? The Delhi High Court has asked Delhi’s police commissioner to send a status report in four weeks and said it will hear the matter on 19 April. Six weeks is a pretty long eternity in media terms. We will see if media has the tenacity of a Teesta Setalvad or not.
The dead do not return. But they will haunt us until there is justice.
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