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.