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Do our laws really matter?

india Updated: Jan 04, 2008 19:35 IST

It was the great German-American political philosopher Hannah Arendt who succinctly differentiated civilised countries from that of the totalitarian State that she had to flee from in the following manner: “And just as the law in civilised countries assumes that the voice of conscience tells everybody, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ even though man’s natural desires and inclinations may at times be murderous, so the law of Hitler’s land demanded that the voice of conscience tell everybody, ‘Thou shalt kill.’” But between the two extremes of such obedience to the law, there lies the serious danger of the law becoming a pointless entity, a window dressing for an empty shop, something that is there for the sake of giving the impression of being civilised — in the words of Mr Bumble in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, the law as “a ass — a idiot”. The initial reaction of the Mumbai police to last week’s case of mob molestation is just one galling example of the chalta hai mentality that has made the law in India as solid as the breeze in an open field. Whether it is the matter of issuing a complaint against miscreants or even as something as innocuous as getting one’s hands on information, the law is there on paper, absconding in practice.

The matter becomes more serious when one considers a class bias. The fact that scores of women are the victims of violence across the country is no secret to most of us. But what is shocking, once you think about it, is that the other fact about such crimes not even being reported doesn’t leave us — let alone those whose job it is to uphold the law — shocked. In fact, it is usually quite the contrary. And the ‘rule’ applies across the board. The usual reaction provided to the aam admi victim who has been swindled, attacked or threatened is ‘These things happen. Go home.’ That is why, regardless of the touching words of police personnel to the selectively concerned media, most people find going to the police a pointless exercise. The citizenry, however, is not blameless in this. The chalta hai phenomenon is endemic enough to have given rise to a particular kind of fatalism where ‘out-of-court’ settlements make more sense to the aggrieved than ones in courts of law.

All this sounds very high falutin to most of us. But it is this incremental allowance of unlawful things to be tolerated that has led to this ‘chicken and egg’ situation. It is we who think ‘it is not all that wrong’ to jump a traffic light. It is we who also don’t think much if we’ve had a few drinks and are behind the wheel. And it is we who then gasp in total astonishment when there is a crumpled car or people are driven over by a BMW that strangely turns into a truck by the time the incident reaches the court. The point is that in a country where every instance of law-breaking has the potential of being considered frivolous (and this depends mostly on who has broken the law, and on how horrible the consequences of the illegality is) by the people and the police, what chance is there of anybody either finding succour or deterrence in the law?