Sunday, October 09, 2011

Duty or revenge, no one is above the law

On a sweltering afternoon on September 29th principal district judge S. Kumarguru began to hand out sentences. There was a hushed silence in the packed courtroom in Dharmapuri, Tamil Nadu. He began at 3.30 but could not finish until 4.40 because he had to read aloud the names of 215 government officials. Among those convicted were 126 forest officials, 84 policemen and 5 revenue officials. Seventeen were convicted of rape and they were sentenced from seven to 17 years; others received from one to three years on counts of torture, unlawful restraint, looting and misuse of office. Had 54 of the accused not died in meantime, the sentencing would have taken longer.

Early on June 20, 1992 four teams of government officials descended on the adivasi hamlet of Vachathi, near Sathyamangalam forest, also home to the dreaded brigand Veerappan. They assembled the villagers beneath a neem tree and let loose a reign of terror as they searched for smuggled sandalwood. They picked up 18 teenage girls and dragged them into the forest, where they raped them repeatedly. They only brought them back at 9 pm. Claiming a haul of sandalwood from the riverbed, the officials then put 133 villagers in jail.

How does the human mind begin to cope with this soul-numbing news? My first reaction was horror at the rape of teenage girls by men in uniform. Second, was a feeling of relief and catharsis when punishment was meted out to powerful men. The third emotion was outrage at those who allowed the case to drag for 19 years. Then questions arose in my mind. How could this happen in the first place? And was this not as serious an act of corruption as the 2G scam? And why was the nation quiet?

The last time I had felt similar emotions of revulsion was in reading about Ashvatthama’s night time massacre of the sleeping Pandava armies, which had turned the mood of the Mahabharata from heroic triumph to dark, stoic resignation. Ashvatthama was a fine young man but he was totally transformed by his father’s brutal murder. Many of the officials in the Vachathi raid were also fine young men, but their personalities changed during the losing battle against the infamous outlaw Veerappan and they got caught in a Mahabharata-like escalating cycle of revenge. How else do you explain it?

The 65 year old Angammal, whose daughter had been raped, also spoke of vengeance. “It is sweet revenge for us”, she said, “to see those who raped our daughters being sent to jail.” Only the state is allowed to take revenge in civilized societies and we call it punishment. Some think that revenge is neurotic but I believe that the “thirst for revenge” fulfils a legitimate human need. If a good person suffers, then the bad person should suffer even more--this idea is embedded in the human psyche. Wanting to punish a villain is ubiquitous in literature and movies because it brings profound moral equilibrium to the human mind.

The statement of the senior-most official convicted, Mr. M. Harikrishnan was striking. The retired Conservator of Forests claimed that the officials “had merely been doing their duty”. The judge obviously disagreed and awarded him three years in jail “for causing evidence to disappear”. The Nazis who were tried at Nuremberg for killing Jews also had claimed in their defence that they had been doing their duty.

The Vachathi case is “one of the worst examples of the abuse of power in Independent India” said P. Shanmugam, who is one of the heroes of this story. As president of Tamil Tribal People’s Association, he worked tirelessly to bring justice for 19 years. But the real issue is this: how does one prevent such abuse of power in the future? I believe this will only come about if those charged with enforcing the law do not see themselves as above the law. To perceive oneself below the law needs a cultural change, especially in the police. The best feature of this court judgement is that senior officers have been punished for crimes committed by their juniors. Cultural change begins at the top. This is why we need Anna Hazare to continue his fight against corruption.


Anshul Arora said...

Shocked to read it, Sir. And justice being delayed by 19 years is even more scary...that's why we need to bring our judiciary in timebound frame

Anonymous said...

Well, punishment is not a revenge but a deterrence for potential criminals. Without a system of punishement,there is neither a fear of reprisal nor an incentive for upholding the law of the land.

Dipjyoti Baruah said...

This is unquestionably the most disgusting piece of abuse of power carried out by the one's meant to keep the rule of law in the disguise of "just doing our duty". Although India has been advancing exponentially in almost all the fields, the one field it lacks far behind is in identifying and aptly punishing the one's found guilty in an act of crime. This too comes with a twist. Stating frankly, if the one accused is a commoner, than he is entangled in the never ending loops of Indian Judiciary to his disdain, whereas if the one accused is somehow (remotely) or directly related to the one appointed to maintaining the rule of law (with, of course, an inclination to abuse the power entrusted to him for the good of people), he too is entangled in the same never ending loops of Indian Judiciary, but not to his disdain, but to his relief, because that's what he exactly wants, to stretch the case that he's accused in for years on and finally forgotten in the sands of time.

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Ashish said...

I very much liked the idea of punishing the seniors to bring about a sea change in thought process of those who are too powerful to be corrupt.
Too much power breeds corruption and this is where the check is needed.

A_N_Nanda said...

How can one punish a senior fellow for the dastardly act of the juniors? In that case a father should be taken to jail for his son's misdeeds! It may be a case of divine justice. If you've seen the movie "Gehrai" (Hindi)you can realise this: for the crime of somebody the girl visited by the spirit of the dead criminal is punished! We definitely need quick justice but not the hasty one.
A N Nanda

goldennifty said...

good one

Boodhooram Ignoramus said...

'To perceive oneself below the law needs a cultural change, especially in the police.' i am a commoner and i agree with you from my experience.

Anonymous said...

@Holding oneself above the law:
This is ancient tradition: Both Rama and Krishna were admonished by their enemies on deathbeds for dastardly acts. The men they killed were the rulers of an independent state with a different culture. How did they assume the right to judge and punish their victims? Secondly, these killings were for an ultimate end of gaining something. Would they have gone around and meted out such justice just for the sake of it?

Both aim of both Rajasuya and Ashwamegha ceremonies was to attack and win the neighboring kingdoms, regardless of how virtuous those kings were. This is purely predatory practice. Where is justice in it?

The pandavas won the war essentially by murdering all Kaurava generals through deceit. Did they subject themselves to any punishment/penance for this adharma?

@Doing the duty:
In Mahabharata too, only the kings had the luxury to wonder which way to go. The fate of their generals and soldiers alike was sealed with that one decision: They were not supposed to defect or desert based on their own perception of what is right.

In a battlefield, the rightful side may not win. Yet, the victor always punishes the captured soldiers of the vanquished; as a preemptive action. All kins of the vanquished kings were systematically eliminated to prevent a future uprising.

Anonymous said...

While I agree with your general thrust, perhaps there is a little more than meets the eye. The villagers were involved in smuggling activities hiding caches of sandalwood in their fields--they were complicit; they might also have attacked first. Only the rapes of the teenage girls is clear-cut (if unfabricated evidence has indeed been presented) and should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.

See what some of the convicted have to say: said...


Nice Post Great job.

Thanks for sharing.

anshul said...

nice to read this ....really interesting......


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