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Redirecting middle class anger

The middle class alone has the power to mount pressure needed to repair our faulty system so that it delivers justice to all Indians, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Dec 24, 2006 00:27 IST

Just what you need this Sunday: yet another column about the verdict in the Jessica Lall case! I recognise that you’ve probably had your fill of instant analysis, carping criticism, impassioned defence and joyous gloating — much of it in the pages of this paper. But bear with me.

First, let’s dispose of all the things that have been said about the verdict. As the cliché goes, one of the great things about India is that for every accurate statement you make about the state of affairs in our country, the exact opposite is also equally true.

So it has been with the Jessica Lall case. When the first SMS campaigns began and the early candlelight vigils were held at India Gate, it was an HT columnist who made the point that all the three cases held up by the media as instances of a gross miscarriage of justice, were not just urban but that all had a Delhi connection. Nitish Katara’s family lived in Delhi, Priyadarshini Mattoo studied at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Jessica Lall was murdered in the shadow of the Qutab Minar.

Since then, others have used this to discredit the campaign. Why is it, they ask, that the media only focus on cases where the victims are urban and middle class? Why not highlight the rapes of lower-caste women in rural India? Why ignore the murders that are a part of life in small-town India?

Others — many of them HT columnists — have responded by saying that, of course, these campaigns made it to the newspapers and TV channels because they had a certain immediacy for readers and viewers. But that does not, in any way, negate the moral integrity of the crusades. What would the critics have journalists do? Conduct a means test on bloody corpses and decide only to take up the case if the victim’s family lived below the poverty line? To say that there is a lot of injustice in India is accurate. But it does not follow that therefore we only focus on politically correct injustice?

A second controversy has broken out over the nature of the media campaign. The doubters have accused the press of playing prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner.

In their defence, many in the media have argued, passionately and forcefully, that the press’s job does not end with reporting the verdict of a trial court. If there is evidence of injustice, if even the judge concedes that the accused is guilty but that he cannot convict him because of a botched police investigation (as happened in the Mattoo case), then the media would be failing in their duty if they simply recorded the verdict and moved on to the next big story. Fairness does not lie in treating murderer and victim the same way. It lies in fighting for the trut.

My own position on all these controversies is straightforward. I agree that we tend to focus too much on urban issues, not because this is where the TRPs lie but because these are issues that affect the lives of most journalists. Let’s not forget that journos are human beings. We are more likely to identify with the pain of Chaman Lal Mattoo or the courage of Sabrina Lall because they are people from our world.

And yes, I buy the defence offered by the journos who led these campaigns: in a country that is so full of injustice, let us not belittle the few people who have the guts to stand up for justice and fairness.

Equally, the issue of public opinion versus true justice is a difficult one: there are no black and white distinctions here. Of course, the press should not turn into a lynch mob. And it is entirely possible, as some lawyers suggest, that judges are more susceptible to media campaigns than ever before.

But frankly, the issue of how judges dispose of cases has more to do with the judiciary’s own internal safeguards than it does with the media. Our job is to focus on injustice. If judges are swayed by the strength of our commitment, then I hardly think that you can blame the press for what is essentially a judicial failure.

And as for the stands the media have taken, it is silly to say that we have selectively crucified innocent people. If the press did not push for the re-trial of a man who had killed a woman in full public view, then we would have lost our right to claim to be any kind of watchdog for society.

If we did not demand that the High Court took another look
at an acquittal where even the trial judge said the accused was guilty, then we would have been gutless wimps, content to print hand-outs and to pay homage to the powerful.

But, these are not my principal concerns this Sunday. My point is that we may be missing the bigger lesson of the whole Priyadarshini-Jessica-Nitish saga.

When the BJP told us that India was shining and when the foreign press flocked to our shores to write about the IT and outsourcing booms and to examine the emergence of one of the world’s largest markets, they were all — in essence — talking about the same thing: the power of the Indian middle class.

Much of what the world sees as India’s successes over the last decade are directly attributable to the achievements and the growing clout of the middle class, a category whose number now exceeds the populations of many Western European countries.

In most ways, the controversies that surround the Jessica and Priyadarshini verdicts are about the middle class. Television is a middle-class medium. Both victims were middle class. The people who attended the candlelight vigils were middle class. As were the thousands who sent SMSes. So yes, they were middle-class campaigns.

But I suspect that we miss the true significance of these campaigns. For decades now, we have all lived with the sad realisation that the law courts will not always deliver justice, that the police will usually side with the powerful and that there will be one law for politicians and their families, and one law for the rest of us.

Much of the anger that fuelled the recent campaigns came from a sense that enough was enough: that the days when the powerful raped the system for their own pleasure must be brought to an end. It cannot be a coincidence that in all three cases, the murderers/accused are the sons of people who can manipulate the system. Manu Sharma’s father was a minister in the Haryana government; DP Yadav is a well-established cow-belt politico and Santosh Yadav’s dad was a senior officer in the Delhi Police who could sabotage the case against his son.

Take away the debates about media ethics and selectivity and you are left with one undeniable reality: the middle class is fighting back.

What middle class people are saying is this: if we are the envy of the world, then why is it that, in our own country, our daughters can be raped and murdered by the sleazeball sons of politicians and policemen?

I share that anger. But my fear is that our responses have been too episodic and too emotional. Priyadarshini Mattoo may have got posthumous justice. But there will be many other such murders unless we do something about the system as a whole.

We now need to demand accountability. It is not enough to secure convictions. Action must be taken against the policemen and forensic experts who tried to destroy the case. The Chief Justice must tell the country why it is so hard to secure justice in the lower courts.

We need to ask why cases take so long to come to trial. We need laws that prevent witnesses from changing their stories with the passage of time. We need to put at least some of the people who lied in the Jessica case in jail so that all witnesses in future cases know that we are a society that does not tolerate liars or murderers.

If we can use the middle class anger generated by these cases to make some systemic changes, then we will have achieved something that is lasting and truly significant. Moreover, any changes in the system, any moves to make the police and the courts more accountable, will benefit all of India. A better legal system, and a police force that knows that it is under scrutiny will ensure justice to every Indian, from the JNU student who is murdered to the Adivasi girl who is raped by the village headman.

The critics are wrong to sneer at middle class anger. For better or for worse, it is the middle class that is powering India’s progress these days. And it is the middle class alone that has the power to mount the pressure required to repair our faulty system so that it delivers justice to all Indians, whether rich or poor, whether rural or urban.

My problem is this: we, in the middle class, are too easily satisfied. We think that by righting two wrongs we have changed the system forever. In fact, the system is almost exactly as it was before we mounted our campaigns. And once this fuss dies down, it will be back to injustice as usual.

So, if we, in the middle class, are the envy of the world, then, for God’s sake, let’s get off our butts and try and change a law enforcement system that is clearly the shame of India.

Otherwise, we will have wasted this opportunity — for ourselves and for our children.

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First Published: Dec 24, 2006 00:26 IST