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The Last Straw: Civil Society Must Step in When Law is no Longer About Justice

The straw becomes lethal in the Stan Swamy story. When indifference and prejudice becomes a monstrosity of legal indifference, civil society must reinvent democracy as a new politics of caring.
The Last Straw: Civil Society Must Step in When Law is no Longer About Justice

Image Courtesy: Mint

Each citizen, as Havel once said about totalitarianism, must become iconic of protest from body language to symbolism. When indifference and prejudice becomes a monstrosity of legal indifference, civil society must reinvent democracy as a new politics of caring, says SHIV VISHVANATHAN.

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AN anthropologist watching the regime is struck by different styles and contrasts. The Congress oozes hypocrisy stemming from its socialism and lack of respect for the everyday demands of politics. It takes a kind of collective stupidity to think a Rahul Gandhi could lead an anarchic Congress. He can head a club or a boycott group, but lacks the intuition that politics demands.

The BJP oozes pomposity, confusing bureaucracy for morality.

It is still not able to tackle its sense of inferiority, its mediocrity which it seeks to hide behind the logic of number. It is marked by mediocrity. It has no claim to legend, epic.

Between pomposity and bumbling, the government forgets simple acts of generosity, tenderness and care. The straw becomes lethal in the Stan Swamy story, never knowing what an Urban Naxal may do with a piece of straw.

If Rahul Gandhi conveyed a sense of Pinocchio, Amit Shah and Yogi Adityanath and Modi convey a Frankenstein. They prefer inquisition to dialogue, feel holier than thou among Indians but convey a sense of inferiority when they confront rivals abroad. An obsequiousness with the latter is made up with intolerance in the former.

Between pomposity and bumbling, the government forgets simple acts of generosity, tenderness and care. The straw becomes lethal in the Stan Swamy story, never knowing what an Urban Naxal may do with a piece of straw.

One witnesses it in small things. When Stan Swamy, suffering from Parkinson was arrested, he asked for a straw to enable him to drink with ease. This request was treated literally as a security issue by the National Investigation Agency or not fully procedural. This request becomes troublesome. It could have been handled in one minute and forgotten. Instead, it becomes a cause of celebre, a Kafkaesque joke, the last straw. Between pomposity and bumbling, the government forgets simple acts of generosity, tenderness and care. The straw becomes lethal in the Stan Swamy story, never knowing what an Urban Naxal may do with a piece of straw.

Yet it is this missing humanitarianism that haunts the regime. The regime seems to read anyone who cares for the tribe as antinational and locks them up.

When decency is suspect, when humanitarianism is seen as anti-national, it is the regime that is revealing its true colours.

Chittrangada Singh writing poignantly about Sudha Bharadwaj shows that the ordinary tribal knows that he is helpless against big companies without the help of lawyers like Sudha.

One witnesses the same callousness in the harassment of the human rights lawyer and Dalit rights activist Surendra Gadling, a man known for challenging the police on extrajudicial killings. Yet these individuals are seen as problems for internal security. When decency is suspect, when humanitarianism is seen as anti-national, it is the regime that is revealing its true colours. In any decent society a Swamy, a Gadling, a Sudha Bharadwaj would be honoured. I think our civil society must hail them as prisoners of conscience, Gadling has represented Arun Ferriera, G.N. Saibaba in earlier cases.

The regime has no sense of the difference between a crude idea of law and order, as an extension of imagined security, and the link between law and justice, which is the hall mark of a decent society, where the law is not just about justice, but decency and dignity.

Why I am raising these issues when protests have left no imprint on the regime when the Supreme Court would rather give attention to Arnab Goswami and Amit Shah declares that Kangana Ranaut needed security.

I admit that everyone is entitled to rights but the BJP in its post-Orwellian style seems to think some are more equal than others.

One is forced to ask why is the law so cannibalistic about professionals who protect the integrity of the law? The regime has no sense of the difference between a crude idea of law and order, as an extension of imagined security, and the link between law and justice, which is the hall mark of a decent society, where the law is not just about justice, but decency and dignity.

I have seen the best of legal minds from Upendra Baxi to Boaventura de Sousa Santos explain this to the world.

Civil society has to challenge majoritarianism as anticipation of emerging authoritarianism. It has to challenge the language of technicality and procedural delay.

When the law is no longer about justice but is reimagined as a tool of terror and harassment, it is time for civil society to step in. I admit the reign of COVID and majoritarianism has made civil society helpless. The regime is arrogant enough to present RSS and Bajrang Dal as simulacra of civil society.

Civil society has to challenge majoritarianism as anticipation of emerging authoritarianism. It has to challenge the language of technicality and procedural delay.

Why does the prosecution need twenty days to file a reply on the Stan Swamy case? The prosecutor files a technical answer to a technical question. Decency does not matter. In a strange way, he reminded me of Robert Oppenheimer.

At a critical moment when the scientist was asked why did you make the Atomic Bomb. He said it was a technical answer to a technical question.

Our regime has similar proclivities where technicality hides a monstrous indifference to torture, seeking silence as a new language of minorities and marginal.

Civil Society must challenge this.

Each citizen, as Havel once said about totalitarianism, must become iconic of protest from body language to symbolism.

When indifference and prejudice becomes a monstrosity of legal indifference, civil society must reinvent democracy as a new politics of caring. This much we owe the Bharadwajs, Swamy’s, and Gadlings as the great Satyagrahis of today.

(Shiv Visvanathan is an Indian academic best known for his contributions to developing the field of science and technology studies, and for the concept of cognitive justice- a term he coined. He is currently a Professor at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonepat. The views are personal.)

The article was originally published in The Leaflet.

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