In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s great novel Crime and Punishment, the hero Rodion Raskolnikov initiates a classic discourse on the sociology of crime and the logic of society that punishes the “criminal”. It was a common belief until the second half of the 19th century, when this immortal character was created, that a criminal is a cursed creature who deserves exemplary punishment, that too publicly.
Justice was often instantaneous with very few rights available to the person facing the “judge”. In many cases, a convicted person was stoned, beheaded or hanged to death in public view.
The changing face of the criminal, crime and punishment offers a fascinating insight into the evolution of society’s value systems. Acts considered criminal a few hundred years ago are not sanctioned today. Most societies do not punish extramarital affairs and LGBT people are not considered deviants. Similarly, the rights of an accused person to reasonably defend themselves have been recognized as part of natural justice. It’s like a state’s journey to civilization. A more civilized society means more compassion towards an offender. The purpose of the punishment changes from the destruction of the soul and body of a recalcitrant to enable him to become an integral part of the nation. Nation states that dominate the ladder of human development have abolished the death penalty. In India, courts grant such sentences in the rarest of circumstances.
Civilized societies have also recognized the rights of the accused under natural justice. Instant justice has become a thing of the past and a defendant has the right to counsel, their right to appeal a conviction is respected and a person is generally considered innocent until proven guilty. The sudden appearance of a bulldozer deprives a victim of any opportunity to avail himself of any of these means – vakil, dalil and call. He is simply doomed to watch an arrogant bureaucracy helplessly demolish his property.
In independent India, which is trying to modernize very rapidly, instant justice has been written off the books but is deeply embedded in people’s psyches. Ram Manohar Lohia, a dominant presence in this country’s political discourse until the late 1960s, called this trend “cruel cowardice”. He gave the example of the average Indian who dared not oppose the goonda of his locality but never missed an opportunity to kick the pickpocket caught at a bus stop.
The Indian state sometimes displays this tendency, but not as brazenly as it has recently. From my UP experience, I can agree that there has always been a complicit state that looked the other way when a “feared outlaw” was shot dead by police in an “encounter”, but such acts were rarely celebrated. With the exception of a brief period when Vice President Singh was chief minister and the state publicly touted the encounters, which were mostly bogus, governments are not known to openly acknowledge them. A state can only take remedial action, however reluctantly, when there is public outcry or judicial intervention. It was after a long hiatus that important political and executive officials began to speak publicly in favor of instant justice. The police have been given the role of investigator, judge and executioner and they really appreciate that. In recent years, hundreds of people who had not yet been found guilty by a court were reportedly injured in the legs and mutilated.
The most unfortunate part of the story is that a large number of people support this cruelty. A few years ago young people who had sexually assaulted and murdered a doctor were taken out of prison and killed by the police in a way that could have shaken the conscience of any civilized society. However, the people of Hyderabad celebrated this horrific violation of the law. Perhaps the traditional lure of instant justice has discouraged citizens from questioning the inability of the country’s justice delivery system to punish such heinous criminals in a short period of time. My memoir from UP contains many anecdotes of people taking to the streets and celebrating the killing or maiming of someone by the police who otherwise could not be punished in court. It shows both an attraction to instant justice and an acceptance of an outdated legal framework, unequipped to meet the challenges of modern life. The state also seems to welcome this uncivil acceptance, because making fundamental changes in police procedures, prosecutions and courts will incur expense, and instant justice is cheap. The time has come when the nation must choose between an expensive civilized justice system or a brutal tradition in which the police don the hats of investigator, judge and executioner.
Recent cases of the bulldozing of residential or commercial homes of people whom the rulers of the time believe committed unforgivable crimes have opened Pandora’s box from which come very uncomfortable questions about the character of the Indian state. . Instant justice makes an individual barbaric and likewise instant justice makes a society barbaric. The bulldozer culture transforms the Indian state into an uncivilized and barbaric state. If this is not stopped immediately, we will lose what little we have achieved through our wonderful Constitution over the past seven decades. Our journey to make our society democratic and respectful of the rule of law will turn into a nightmare.
Rai, a retired IPS officer, is the author of Hashimpura 22 May, a chronicle of the 1987 detention killings