Thursday, December 08, 2016

Dharnas, Bandhs, and the State

Exhibit A

From The Tribune
“Today she was standing in the queue since morning. There was a huge rush outside the bank. The bank guard allegedly pushed her when she tried to enter the bank. She fell down near the main door of the bank and fell unconscious,” Parvinder said.
He said that all family members immediately reached the spot and rushed her to a nearby private hospital where doctors refused to admit her, citing her serious condition. She was later rushed to the CMC Hospital where doctors declared her brought dead.
Following her death, her kin brought her body back outside the bank and blocked the Shingar cinema road.
Protest was on outside the bank for over two hours.
I used to consider such public protests a nuisance.  And they are.  In many cases, the demands are unjust and the costs are imposed on unsuspecting, innocent third parties.  If the road is blocked, or if there is a Bandh (a city shut-down), suffering is inflicted on many who had nothing to do with the initial provocation.  Sometimes, they are little different from a blackmail.

But if we consider the lack of effective institutions and processes in India to redress a grievance, these protests are more understandable.  If the police and the judiciary acted quickly and efficiently against an unjust act, and if there were effective mechanisms to resolve disputes between two parties, people would feel much less inclined to take to the road to voice their frustration.

During the so-called freedom struggle, Gandhi was well-known to go on hunger-strikes against the British or against a rioting populace.  He claimed it was a penance and not a blackmail, but obviously a penance could (and should) have been done in private without it becoming a public show.  It was a coercive gesture against a regime which was considered unjust and cruel, or against a circumstance which was too hard to address through law or debate.

I fear that though India is supposedly free from the British, our judiciary and police is still essentially of a colonial nature.  It is inaccessible to the common individual.  The police routinely regard a common man and his grievance as a nuisance rather than a call to duty.  The judiciary is impenetrable and takes ages to make any decision which can be easily and routinely reversed in a higher court.

In short, the common individual has little recourse when there is a severe injustice.  For common injustices and humiliations, Indians just take it in their stride.  It is not that we are genetically servile, but our institutions are designed for servility.  We are supposed to beg for favors rather than be assured of a process that works.  That is also why Indians are so loath to pay taxes.

The fundamental, essential duty of a modern state is to dispense safety and justice between disarmed individuals.  Other public services like roads, infrastructure, healthcare, are important but secondary to the primary objective of providing law-enforcement fairly and effectively.  If that is absent, citizens lose faith in the state and we drift toward anarchy.  If there is no faith in the state, there is thereby little motivation to contribute one's fair share in the form of taxes.

Tax-evasion is breaking a law.  But when all other laws are being broken, how and why can you expect a citizen to follow the tax laws specifically?  As a country, we must strengthen the law-making and the law-enforcement mechanisms in general.  Any specific strengthening (the promulgation of a draconian new law) is only going to be a further injustice.  Selective law-enforcement is synonymous with injustice.

Hence, these protests and public blockades are an expression of the frustration boiling over.  It is when the ordinary humiliations give way to extraordinary ones that people take to the road and start screaming and crying.  If the relatives of the dead woman were assured that the law was on their side, they would not resort to exhibiting the dead body in the middle of the road.

As it is, they were subjected to at least three severe injustices, all in the course of a day:
  1. The draconian demonetization of 86% of Indian currency in circulation, and the necessity of standing in a queue for days to get one's own hard-earned money.
  2. The alleged manhandling by the bank's guard and lack of immediate medical attention.
  3. The refusal of the hospital to treat the woman.
I can imagine their anguish.  In a failed state, nothing is off the table.

Exhibit B

From the "Enforcing Contracts" statistics on World Bank's Ease of Doing Business  around the world:
Average length time to enforce a contract in the CAPITAL of India is 1420 days: almost 4 years.
One can imagine the plight of people in a town or village.  And these are for civil wrongs.  One can imagine the glacial pace of correcting a criminal wrong.  In my estimation, criminal cases drag along usually for two decades.

One can either wait for two decades, or take to the streets.  What would you do?

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