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Don't let noise become the voice

We must not let our vibrant - albeit imperfect - democracy be tarnished by irrational behaviour of certain elements. Abhishek Singhvi writes.

india Updated: Jan 03, 2013 22:14 IST

Public participation is a sine qua non of a democracy. But population growth and the rise of nation states have made Athenian-style public participation impractical. So we need to move towards more indirect forms of engagement.

From public hearings mandated by town planning statutes to environmental project hearings, in India today we are witnessing diverse forms of public participation; its significant avatars being the Lokpal Bill movement, the Aam Aadmi Party, Team Anna and the outpouring of anger over the rape of a 23-year-old girl on December 16.

There are certain pre-conditions for public participation to be a success. First, it has to be people-centric and not motivated by personal agenda. A renunciatory approach is of paramount importance. Second, it requires a high degree of consensus on content, methodology and approach. Diverse voices and internal dissensions can be fatal.

Individual competitiveness rarely succeeds in such movements. Third, such movements must have good support structures, for instance, an independent press and judiciary, Right To Information Act etc.

The first lesson from the Delhi gang rape case is that a genuine sense of outrage galvanised the system into action in a direction and pace that is credible. There have been four arrests in a week, fast-track courts are on the anvil and there is a near-certainty of conviction of the accused within six months, which by itself is unprecedented.

However, we need better enforcement of existing structures than legislative changes. The government is looking at a slew of measures related to security of women: increasing the number of night buses, presence of bus marshals, crackdown on private and public vehicles with tinted windows, increasing the number of PCR vans and special units monitoring crimes against women.

Second, public participation has started a debate on crime against women and this can lead to structural changes. Nothing can bring back the rape victim, who died in Singapore, or Subhash Tomar, the constable who was injured during the protests and later died in Delhi. For the protesters, the only satisfaction now would be quick and effective punishment. The future, however, will benefit both from preventive and punitive changes being proposed now.

Legislative changes leading to substantial police, judicial and legal reform are bound to follow soon. Better service conditions for policemen, a higher judge-population and population-police ratio, notification of successors (judges) at least a month before an incumbent retires, time limit for completion of trials in cases of crimes against women, substantive changes in statutory provisions to expand the definition of rape and to enhance punishments and so on and so forth are also bound to occur as early as the budget session in February after the Verma Commission files its report.

However, there are also some uncomfortable questions: can these measures be put in place by pressing a magic button? Can any protester, if she is given the power to run the system, change the system overnight? Does police bashing help the cause that the public seeks to promote? Wouldn't the thousands of policemen, who were deployed at India Gate, be better utilised for preventing crimes? How can this public participation in violence be justified? Is the life of Tomar any less precious than any other life?

The police's job of arresting the culprits is over. Reform - executive and legislative - is not their preserve and it will take at least a few months to be operational. If the Delhi Police has bungled a sub-divisional magistrate report, the home ministry inquiry will fix responsibility in a few days.

Till then, will hysterical anchors on 24x7 media decide whether Tomar died of a non-induced heart attack or by use of some external force? Did the residents of Newtown, US, after the recent tragedy or those of London after the Metro explosions seek en masse resignations of senior police officers or administrators?

India is probably the only country that has emerged from the yoke of imperialism to have blossomed as the world's largest vibrant - albeit imperfect - democracy. We have enhanced a vital component of that democracy - ie public participation - of which we should be proud.

However, let that facet not be tainted by irrational, unproductive and digressive behaviour of certain elements. By doing so, we will only belittle our democracy.

Abhishek Singhvi MP, jurist and former chairman, parliamentary committee on law. The views expressed by the author are personal.