There are rare occasions in a country’s history when one event, one freeze-frame moment in time, encapsulates and captures its “weltanschauung” and prevailing state of affairs. Two recent examples in recent times are the protests by women in Iran against the mullahs’ hijab diktat, and the citizens’ movement in Israel for the rolling back of Netanyahu’s judicial “reforms”. Both depict a citizenry which values its rights and is willing to stand up for it. India’s moment came last week with the two minute video of the murder of Atiq Ahmed, but, unlike the inspiring events in Israel or Iran, this can only generate despair and a grim foreboding in all sane persons, who appear to be in an overwhelming minority these days.
This is not about Atiq or his brother Ashraf, known and convicted criminals who probably deserved to die- but at the hands of the law, not in the custody of those whom the law enjoined should have protected them, not by three front men probably working at the behest of more powerful and sinister forces whose names too shall be dedacted like most inconvenient facts are these days. This is about what the murders, and the subsequent reactions, tell us about India in 2023- its criminal justice system, media, police, politics and, most disturbing of all, its increasingly brutalised society.
Atiq Ahmed may have died on the 15th of this month, but his death warrant was signed and sealed on the 28th of February when the Supreme Court dismissed his plea for the Court’s protection, reposing full faith in the ability of the UP police- the same police which has killed 183 persons and injured hundreds more in “encounters” since 2017, uses bulldozers and not the courts to mete out instant justice, which had “encountered” Vikas Dube in very similar circumstances just a couple of years back. The Court’s faith in the state would be touching were it not for the fact that it is slowly becoming irrelevant to the legal system in this country, but doesn’t seem to realise it.
The Apex court is losing control of the justice system to the executive because it is hesitant to stand up to the executive in seminal matters. It is in danger of losing its primary job of being the custodian of the country’s Constitution, which is being increasingly interpreted, or by-passed or ignored, by the government and its agencies. It has failed to decide on cases which are vital for the survival of democracy and the rule of law- Article 370, reorganisation of Kashmir, Citizen Amendment Act, the challenges to the use of EVMs and the mandatory counting of VVPATs, the Electoral Bonds. It has not punished any official for violating its rulings, or politician for proven hate speech, or the police for delaying investigations into cases against ruling party workers and even legislators. It is unable to even ensure that its own recommendations for judgeship are respected by the government, or that Ministers who threaten retired judges are brought to book. Maharashtra continues to be in a limbo as hearings in the Court grind on interminably. Where is the urgency to decide these issues, even as another nail is hammered into the coffin of democracy each passing day by a government hell bent on a Hindu Rashtra? It is this reluctance to confront a rampaging government which emboldens the executive to take the law into its own hands and permit the Atiq Ahmed kind of “justice” with impunity. The endemic delays in deciding important cases ensures that illegalities become fait accompli with the efflux of time and are then difficult to reverse. The day is not far off when the Supreme Court and High Courts may become as redundant as the NHRC or the RTI Commission or the Lokayukts, if they do not start asserting their constitutional powers. Following on the heels of “Congress mukt Bharat” we may soon have a “Kanoon mukt Bharat”.
It has been reported that the three killers of Atiq Ahmed and his brother had come posing as media persons. I find this an entirely appropriate symbolism, because the media in today’s India is murdering the spirit of democracy and the rule of law every day. Not only does it amplify the government’s propaganda shamelessly, it also spreads hatred and fake news, something which the Supreme Court has noted (but not firmly acted upon). It no longer raises issues that matter to the people, ask questions of the executive or hold the government accountable, something which sections of it did even during the Emergency. It has, for example, completely blanked out reportage on Satyapal Malik’s explosive interview with Karan Thapar on Pulwama, and focuses exclusively on Atiq Ahmed’s criminality (which no one contests) rather than on the lapses and potential conspiracy which led to his murder and how it reflects on the Chief Minister’s claims on law and order in his state. It had earlier similarly ignored Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra and the Adani exposure. By throwing a mantle of silence and self-censoring news over the government’s doings it is betraying its mandate and duty to the citizens, and is hugely complicit in the autocratisation of the nation.
Finally, the response to the Prayagraj murders show how brutalised, bigoted and blood- thirsty our society has become. It is almost as if we have embraced a death wish, and like lemmings are hurtling towards a cliff. No sane democracy would have demonstrated the putrid reaction Indian society did to these murders: Ministers hailing the deliverance of “divine justice”, Whatsapp groups and Twitterati exulting at the death of a “Mafia don”, celebrations across RWAs and India’s vaunted and vacuous middle-class strata. There were no such exuberant celebrations when Vikas Dube was killed a couple of years back. And thereby hangs the real explanation for our brutalisation.
Dube belonged to the majority community while Atiq was a Muslim. The tragedy of Indian society today is that we view everything through the prism of religion- history, education, laws and justice, historical personalities, language, the arts and, increasingly, even the Constitution. Anything associated with the “other” religion or community is, by definition, evil and has to be cast out, erased, redacted, condemned by any means, fair or foul. There can be no legal restrictions on this newly acquired and God-given right of the majority community. And in order to exercise this “right to hate” we are more than willing to support a government that looks benevolently at this selective violence and bigotry, even if it means we live without jobs, food, healthcare, meaningful education or freedom. We have become like beasts who will give up everything of value to satisfy their basest appetites. Why?
Perhaps Samuel Johnson had the answer when he said: “He who makes himself a beast gets rid of the pain of being a man.” I think what Johnson is saying here is that it is not easy being a man, in the image of God. For that we have to be tolerant, empathetic, supportive of the weak, compassionate, imbued with a basic morality, free of hatred and prejudices, shun violence, respect others, display courage of convictions. Being a man involves some sacrifices and some pain. It’s so much easier to throw off these shackles, revert to the slime we crawled out of millions of years ago, and become a beast. The French have a very apt phrase for this unholy craving- “nostalgie de la boue” or a yearning for the mud. Therefore, we may well ask, in the words of WB Yeats:
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
I suspect we may not have to wait long for an answer.
Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains.
He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls.
He blogs at http://avayshukla.blogspot.in/
So insightful and thought provoking article . I wish my country comes back to it sense . You write so well wishing more power to your pen . Thanks
I have just started reading the articles and transcripts of your interviews (some past and current ones) and they objectively explain the state of our great democracy and its political leaders in contrast to what we see and hear in the media.
Your analysis is informative and brilliantly written. Thanks.