Little fear of law & order system

A common factor connects the several separate incidents of mob molestation of a teenage girl in Guwahati graphically captured by video footage, the brazen diktat issued by a khap panchayat (village council) forbidding women to venture out of their homes without a male escort or use mobile phones, and incidents involving celebratory gunfire in Uttar Pradesh, which recently killed and maimed several children. This common factor is growing disrespect, bordering on contempt for the law. It’s quite clear the perpetrators of these heinous acts which have shocked the conscience of right-thinking members of society, entertained no fear of law enforcement authorities or the justice dispensation system.

Pervasive disrespect of law which characterises contemporary Indian society is a natural outcome of the low priority accorded by the Union and state governments to the important issue of maintaining law and order, the primary duty of government. Currently, the country employs a mere 143 police personnel per 100,000 people against the UN norm of 222 and 200-250 per 100,000 police personnel employed in developed OECD countries. And with a substantial per-centage of police squads deployed for VIP security duty, it’s unsurprising that even in state capitals such as Guwahati, beat policemen are a rare sight and gangs and mobs have almost total freedom to run riot.

Moreover it’s hardly a national secret that the majority of the country’s police force is under-trained and demoralised because of poor pay, lack of housing facilities and the omnipresent threat of transfer because of rigid government control of the police. Several National Police Commission reports, notably of the Rustomjee Committee (1975) and the Justice Malimath Committee (2003), which suggested major police reforms have been cold-storaged by the Central and state governments.

The low priority given to law enforcement by government and society is compounded by neglect of the justice dispensation system. Curiously, despite being one of the few nations worldwide to levy a justice tax (ad valorem court fees on civil litigation), contemporary India offers its citizenry a mere 12-13 judges per million people compared to 107 in the United States, 75 in Canada and 51 in the United Kingdom. As a result, over 30 million cases are pending in the country’s chaotic courtrooms labouring under archaic procedural laws causing routine delays of a decade between filing and disposal of civil and criminal suits (appeals excluded). Consequently within the criminal and anti-socials’ communities, there is little fear of speedy trial, and intimidation of plaintiffs and witnesses is the rule rather than exception.

Police and judicial reforms coupled with strict accountability have become an urgent necessity for orderly governance of the nation. But for these reforms to be implemented, the pressure will have to be exerted by the country’s influential middle class and intelligentsia — which have the most to lose from spreading anarchy — upon the compromised political class which is patently comfortable with the status quo.

India’s Arab spring opportunity

During the bloody french revolution of 1789, writer and philosopher Pierre Vergniaud warned it could “devour each one of its children”. This prophecy came true and almost all the leading French revolutionaries — from Robespierre onwards — went under the guillotine, eventually leading to a coup d’etat and the military rule of Napoleon Bonaparte. Democracy returned to France many decades later.

If present-day Egypt does not tread cautiously and learn from history, it could meet with a similar fate. There also, Hosni Mubarak’s hated 30-year dictatorship was toppled by a mass upsurge, part of the ‘Arab Spring’ that swept the Muslim nations of north Africa and the Middle East, a little over a year ago. The spark was ignited in Tunisia but the fire rapidly spread to Libya — where the long-tenured Muammar Gaddafi met his nemesis — and other parts of the Arab world. However, Egypt, the most populous nation (83 million) in the region and the most influential in the Middle East, is likely to shape the popular movement of other Maghreb countries.

The once-banned Muslim Brotherhood has emerged victorious in the recent election in that country, with Mohamed Morsy winning the presidency, narrowly defeating Ahmed Shafik, a retired air force commander and nominee of the 19-member Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military junta which has ruled the country during the past 16 months of turmoil. A tense stand-off between Morsy and SCAF is currently taking place, each jostling for control. SCAF has made sure real power remains in its hands, with the new president denied control of foreign policy, defence, and even the budget.

India’s trade and commerce ties with Egypt were established centuries ago and renewed after the two nations wrested independence from British rule in the 1940s. President Nasser and prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru developed close links and launched NAM (the non-aligned movement). Now Delhi has a new opportunity to revive its lapsed influence in Cairo by helping to establish a friendly democracy in the dominant nation of the Arab world. India’s unexpectedly long experience of running a secular democracy could be intelligently used to advise and help the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsy to transform into a genuinely secular political party working for the progress and betterment of all Egyptians, including women and the beleaguered Coptic Christian minority. Through promotion of soft power (music, dance, cinema) which is already popular in Egypt, and its own record of protecting the equal rights of India’s 150 million Muslims, New Delhi is well positioned to aid and advise President Morsy and SCAF to convert long-suffering Egypt into a stable democracy.

The flowering of friendly democracies in the troubled Middle East upon which India is heavily dependent for crude oil supplies, is clearly in our national interest. Perhaps India could make common cause with Turkey, Indonesia, and Bangladesh — all functional Muslim majority democracies  — to guide and help Egypt to follow their lead.