By Somasekhar Sundaresan
Modi’s recent dig at wealthy activists reveals the social stereotypes associated with wealth. Does the economic status of an individual really determine his/her treatment in our country?
The prime minister’s remarks about judges being fearful of the reaction of “five-star activists” while rendering justice has sparked a controversy. Speaking at a conference attended by Supreme Court judges, chief justices of high courts and chief ministers of various states, the PM is said to have exhorted the judiciary to stay “as fearless today as it used to be ten years ago”. “It is not difficult to dispense justice as per Constitution and law. But while doing so, judges must differentiate between perception and fact,” the PM is reported to have said.
Some have focused on the intrinsic element of economic capacity of a person approaching court being relevant for the PM – activists not leading a hand-to-mouth lifestyle somehow becoming less worthy of getting justice from courts. Others have said his reference to perception playing a role in judicial decision-making amounts to contempt of court. As always, there are multiple truths competing for space in the discussion.
As a popularly elected PM, the views on the economic status of a person seeking justice are not out of sync with the political reality of how the Indian society thinks. Ours is a society that pretends to comprise egalitarian individuals despite widespread economic and social disparity being an integral society reality. Deeply embedded in our psyche is the belief that most of the wealthy are undeserving of wealth and all the privileges that come with it. Yet, we celebrate our wealthy and crave to be wealthy even while externally sniggering and ridiculing the enjoyment of wealth.
It should not shock and surprise then any political leader seeking to communicate directly with this society (more so if it were directly over the heads of those in the room) should want to bring in an element of economic class and take a potshot at the wealth of those seeking justice. It can indeed be disappointing for the economically wealthy that a right-of-centre politician too feels the need to use a reference to class in this manner. But they can take solace from the Tamil adage about offering one coconut for the devil when one offers a hundred coconuts in the temple of God. The right wing would in fact relish snide remarks about “champagne socialists”.
Do the remarks constitute contempt of court? Coming from the head of the executive in the Republic of India, one can take it as a symptom of the inter-institutional tension designed in the Constitution. Former Prime Ministers too have expressed views against judicial overreach and judicial activism while judges have reacted with equal zeal to defend the judiciary – more recent example the exchange of views in a public forum between Union Minister Piyush Goyal and Supreme Court judge Justice T S Thakur.
The term “collective conscience” has in fact been officially and judicially recognised by the judiciary in handing down decisions in cases where society has pre-determined the need for conviction and the measure of punishment. Trials relating to Afzal Guru and Ajmal Kasab are prime examples. More recently, we learnt that to manipulate public sentiment, the prosecutor lied about Kasab demanding biryani when in jail (the prosecutor not just confessed but bragged about it). The fake biryani demand was aimed at getting public perception against the need for an expensive trial.
Standing up against this trend in our society is a handful of senior (and to society’s deep regret, wealthy) lawyers. An activist who can afford to spend time and resources of abolition of capital punishment or to care for the wretched lives of Guru and Kasab would mostly have a full stomach and the economic capacity to afford a fivestar lifestyle. However, equally, a brutal majority of “five-star” patrons strongly believed that they should have been sentenced to death without trial.
Therefore, does perception play a role in judicial determination of proceedings? Sure. Is this reality preyed upon? Sure, almost every retired judge has his share of stories about receiving anonymous letters. Is that bad for society? Sure. Does that last answer change depending on the economic circumstances of those seeking to influence perception? Not at all.
(This article was published in the Mumbai Mirror, Pune Mirror, Ahmedabad Mirror and Bangalore Mirror on April 10, 2015)