The day of judgment

Robbing the poor

Human nature, when in a good mood, takes pride in saving a fellow being from impending tragedy. A good case can now be made for saving a person — including one with an inhuman record — from continuing farce.

It is time we organised a mass petition to end the presumed trial of Sajjan Kumar for inciting murder and mayhem during the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi 28 years ago. For nearly three decades he has escaped justice through one legal feint after another, abetted by authorities. This happened again last week. Why pretend? Send a simple message to the victims of 1984: Abandon hope, all ye who enter the Indian judicial maze.

As politics buzzes towards another general election; as conversation and opinion polls chase each other along an entertaining circumference; as reasons advance and propositions retreat; as issues climb on the graph of voter-impact, and reasons get dissected with a surgeon’s scalpel, one gut cause for popular anger seems to have eluded the attention of pundits and their hangers on: justice.

The wide spectrum of justice can breed paradox. Take the tragedy of mid-day meal deaths in Bihar. The rage of the poor is obviously legitimate. The principal and cohorts who poisoned impoverished children with insecticide are not mere criminals driven by greed; they have, at some sub-conscious level, a pathological hatred for the dispossessed, as if the poor do not deserve more than a dustbin. But at least one consequence seems bizarre. Bihar’s teachers have gone on strike after the episode, arguing that serving meals is not part of their duties. They, too, claim to be victims of injustice.

Is there a rational connect between both grievances? Yes, collapse of government. The Supreme Court orders governments to provide meals in schools. The state government has neither the infrastructure, nor the will to create one. It makes no effort to match intention with ability. This is not a question of money. The cost of a meal is only a small percentage of resources needed to finance administrations that have bloated across the land.

No state government can afford to accept this truth, for that would be political suicide in a democracy. So it does what it has learnt to do, encourage a practice built on compromise and theft. A meal scheme for children needs a professional process that can be held accountable. Instead, government throws some money at teachers who are allowed to do what they want. There are cuts along the way as money travels from capital city to district headquarters, and then to the principal. Everyone is not as brutally dishonest as those in charge of the Chhapra school, or there would have been such calamities more frequently. But the system is wont to treat the poor as sub-human. The poor, they believe, eat dirt in their homes; why should they get any better in school?

Horrifying tragedy

A horrifying tragedy has exposed death by poisoning. There is a greater horror that has not hit the headlines: the slow poisoning of hundreds of thousands of children who are getting rotten food, just short of visible worms and insecticide. Slow death does not make news.

Injustice is not new in India. What is new, and long overdue, is demand for redress. Tribals have been marginalised for centuries, ever since they lost political control over their natural habitat in the green belt of forests along the midriff of India. Feudal India had no time for them, except occasionally as security slaves. Colonial India had no time for anyone except compradors. But even democratic India was indifferent or exploitative. The tribal demand for justice is being heard through guns.

Others have not turned to violence — yet. The poor still have some faith in democracy, and express their anger in elections. But a ruling class tends to treat time as an endless resource. Within the folds of time is an ignition box, which must be defused or it will explode.

Corruption is another synonym for injustice, for it is robbery of people’s resources. Corruption is not exchange of wealth between the rich; it is the people’s money accumulating in limited pockets. The teachers in Bihar were not paying for meals from their salaries; they were siphoning off money collected from taxes. Those mobile companies who bought spectrum at deflated prices were also stealing from the national purse.

Justice is neither expected nor offered in a dictatorship, which is why it becomes such an intense demand when a dictator falls. But justice is intrinsic to democracy. An ordinary crime is punished through law; political culpability meets its fate in elections. When justice is denied, it lingers in the mind; you can dull its edges, as in the Sajjan Kumar case, but it will haunt you from some corner of the national conscience. Every election is a judgment on justice. The verdict may not be perfect, but it works.

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