In a lecture delivered in 2000, the economist TN Srinivasan observed that "if one is poor in India', then 'one is more likely to live in rural areas, more likely to be a member of the Scheduled Caste or Tribe or other socially discriminated groups, more likely to be malnourished, sick and in poor health, more likely to be illiterate or poorly educated and with low skills, more likely to live in certain states (such as...Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, and also Orissa) than in others."
Professor Srinivasan was speaking of the variations in economic prospects across India. Twenty years later, and in light of recent events in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, especially, I'd like to offer a complementary thesis on variations on access to justice in India. Thus, if "one hopes for fair treatment from the police, the administration, and the courts in India", then "one is less likely to get it if one is a woman, a Dalit, an Adivasi, or a Muslim, lives far away from cities, is poorly educated, and does not speak English".
That there exists a deep class, caste, and religious bias in how justice is administered in India has long been known. But even by our always abysmally low standards, the recent behaviour of the police and the state administration in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh has been unprecedented. The lies and fabrications in the charge-sheets issued with regards to the riots in the capital in February-March 2020 have constituted, as it were, a continuing series of experiments in untruth. (see, among other reports, this one from Indian Express and this from Scroll.) These chargesheets have sought to demonize and stigmatize students and Muslims who preached and practiced non-violence, while ignoring altogether the provocative calls to violence by many right-wing Hindus associated with the ruling party.
If the Delhi Police has revealed itself to be partisan and communal, the UP Police has been partisan, patriarchal, casteist, and communal. Thus, the data of the government's own National Crime Bureau shows that registered crimes against Dalits grew 47% in recent years in Uttar Pradesh, while the state, although having some 16% of the country's population, accounted for more than 25% of crimes against women and girls. And these are almost certainly under-estimates.
In the past, the Uttar Pradesh Police Department has not (to put it politely) enjoyed a stellar reputation, but after Adityanath took over as Chief Minister in March 2020, the police has subordinated itself to the political class as never before in its chequered history. As an article in the excellent website Article 14 notes, the choice of this particular politician to run India's most populous state "marked a significant watershed moment in the advance of the BJP in the Indian republic, as it signaled an endorsement of a model of governance that openly and unapologetically targeted Muslim citizens and political dissidents as public enemies." Of Aditynanath's methods since, the same article continues: 'From his first days in office, the chief minister [of Uttar Pradesh] has not hesitated to use the instruments of governance to create and consolidate a state that draws on the concerns of vigilante groups and puts Hindus, especially the advantaged "upper" castes, first, and uses the law and the police to target, punish, defame, imprison and in some cases even kill Muslims and dissenters, as we chronicle."
The Adityanath administration's anti-Muslim bias was on naked display in its persecution of Dr Kafeel Khan, and the harassment and intimidation of those who protested peacefully against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Its casteist and patriarchal bias has been strikingly evident in its handling of the recent incident in Hathras. Of this incident, the Financial Times, arguably the most respected newspaper in the world, has written: "Caste-based gender violence has a long, ignoble history in India. It remains an emotive issue that can fuel political mobilisation. What is new is for authorities to brazenly array state powers against the murder victim's grieving family, and deploy the high-tech tools of a surveillance state to intimidate those who are championing their cause."
Before the pundits of whataboutery jump in, let me say straightaway that in other states of the Union, the police likewise answers largely or even entirely to politicians in power. The police in West Bengal is as much an instrument of Mamata Banerjee and her party as the police in UP is with regard to Adityanath and his party. In Congress-run states, too, the police often acts in a partisan fashion. Everywhere, the police tends to discriminate against women, low castes and minorities. But the savagery which has discriminated UP is probably unprecedented, and so has been the state's suppression of dissent and of the media. The large demonstrations in Congress-ruled Delhi in 2012 demanding justice for victims of rape would be inconceivable in any town or city in UP today.
In a properly functioning democracy, if the police or the administration abuses or misuses the provisions of the law, then other public institutions act as a corrective. However, in these matters our country is not even remotely a functioning democracy any more. As Justice AP Shah has recently observed "In India today, every institution, mechanism or tool that is designed to hold the executive accountable, is being systematically destroyed. This destruction began in 2014 when the BJP government came into power. There is a temptation to compare this with the blatant destruction that the Indira Gandhi government indulged in the past, but comparisons are odious. What we are witnessing today is a force in action strategically intending to render the Indian democratic [system] practically comatose, with all the power entrusted with the executive."
Justice Shah continues: "The National Human Rights Commission is dormant. Investigation agencies are misused at the slightest opportunity. The Election Commission of India appears to have been suspiciously compromised. The Information Commission is almost non-functional."
In such a situation, where the institutions meant to keep the state accountable and in check have collapsed, one would hope that the judiciary would at least stand up to be counted. Tragically, the Supreme Court and the High Courts have largely failed us too. Their unwillingness to hear important constituional cases such as those pertaining to the abrogation of Article 370 and the Citizenship Amendment Act has been depressing. That cases of celebrities are heard with alacrity while cases pertaining to the poorest and most vulnerable of Indians are postponed does the Supreme Court no credit. That the court has not yet restored 4G internet in all of Kashmir is a tragic acknowledgement of its own vulnerabilities. (For more on the Supreme Court and Indian democracy, see my article here).
The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh claims that the protests over the assault on a young Dalit woman and its mishandling by his administration are part of an 'international conspiracy' to defame him and his government. Truth be told, the Indian state has never required any foreign aid in this regard. It has been ready and willing to defame itself. This has long been a land where justice was always hard to access if one is a woman, or poor, or Muslim, or Dalit. Under the current regime, it has become even harder than before.
(Ramachandra Guha is a historian based in Bengaluru. His books include 'Environmentalism: A Global History' and 'Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World'.)
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