Nous Indica

The onion republic

IT is not just the economy that is in a serious state of disrepair, but the rule of law and governance as well.

The onion republic

Paradox: We have a system wherein the cops guilty of letting a heinous crime happen under their watch, commit another crime, and then get feted for it.

Rajesh Ramachandran

Rajesh Ramachandran

IT is not just the economy that is in a serious state of disrepair, but the rule of law and governance as well. The gunning down of the four accused in the Hyderabad gang- rape and murder case in the wee hours of Friday by the Telangana police only exemplifies the complete breakdown of the justice delivery mechanism in the country. The post-murder slogan-shouting and the public celebration of the cops, who ought to be treated as suspects, suggest a dirty set-up. What is lost in such an instance of mob endorsement is not just the principle of natural justice — it also represents a willing surrender of society’s right to question all acts of violence by the State. 

After all, the State derives its right to violence from society, which has over the ages framed definite and distinct boundaries for every act of State violence. Constitutional rights and wrongs cannot be allowed to be abused just because a few people burst crackers, shower flower petals or someone in the crowd lifts up a cop who has probably used disproportionate violence against an accused. All custodial murders ought to be treated in a similar fashion, without assigning a hierarchy of culpability according to the charges levelled against suspects. We live in times when former home ministers get jailed on rape charges, finance ministers for fraud. If the police shoot down alleged rapists today with impunity, citing self-defence, they may shoot down an alleged gangster or fraudster tomorrow, and then pretty much anyone else the day after. This is a scary scenario. The instant justice of the Wild West is best confined to Telugu movie scripts.

Of course, law and order is a State subject and the Hyderabad shootout should be dealt with at the State level. But this is a national issue too. The whole nation has been watching with bated breath the minute-to-minute developments in the murder of the Hyderabad doctor. Thus, the Union Home Ministry needs to intervene to find out exactly what happened. Why did the police open fire? Was it to cover up their negligence in letting the accused slip off from custody? Was it kneejerk reaction, or is it something worse? Did someone get trigger-happy? Did someone decide to dish out instant, on-the-crime-spot justice? Or was there something more sinister involving people other than the cops present at the crime scene? These are questions that affect the Indian State’s credibility. Society cannot lurch from mob lynching to mob justice, and that too at the hands of the law-keepers.

From the economy to law and order, the government is slipping on all fronts. Seven years after Nirbhaya, the Union Government has not been able to reform the police to ensure that a heinous crime such as the rape and murder of the Hyderabad veterinarian would automatically get the local police SHO sacked. Instead, we have a system wherein the cops guilty of letting such a crime happen under their watch commit another crime, of losing the accused in custody and gunning them down in ‘self-defence’ — and then get feted for all this.

The ‘shootout’ has for the time being taken the focus away from the big debate over economy that was triggered on Wednesday by two incidents: one, the Finance Minister’s callous remark in Parliament about onion prices and the other, the attack on the government by the recently bailed-out former Finance Minister. P Chidambaram has every reason to be peeved about his prolonged jail stay. Bail and not jail should be the norm in all cases in which issues of the flight of the accused, intimidation of witnesses and tampering with evidence are deliberated and decided one way or the other. However, more than Chidambaram’s credibility as a self-taught economist, it is his record as a member of a Cabinet which presided over policy paralysis and the banking meltdown that casts doubts over his pronouncements.

But Nirmala Sitharaman’s statement about onions was indeed uncalled for. This is one vegetable the proud vegetarians of the BJP ought to be wary of. It had cost them the keys to the Capital in 1998 and the party has never been able to recover from the onion shock all these 21 years. Sure, there are no General Elections in the offing now, but there is the Delhi Assembly election around the corner. The Finance Minister could have been more respectful while dealing with this bulb of misery before flippantly terming it an outcast in her kitchen. After all, this is not something that merely adds gravy to mutton do pyaza, it is also the soul of onion sambar and onion oothappam. So, she did not endear herself to the vegetarians either when she said, that too in Parliament, that she comes from a family that doesn’t consume onion and garlic. The caste connotations of this statement would get dissected a lot in the coming days. But more importantly, the statement displays a distinct disdain for the dietary preferences of the non-Brahmin kind.

First of all, the issue was onion and nobody asked about garlic, and Sitharaman’s onion-garlic response was inopportune. But beyond semantics, the issue showed up this Central government as no different from its predecessors it never tires of ridiculing — if there is a price rise, impose anti-hoarding measures, start importing and wait for the next crop. Onion sold by the farmer for Rs 5 a kg is being bought by the consumer at Rs 100 a kg. Between the producer and the consumer — the two most important ends of the agri-business chain — are the inefficient, greedy, manipulative, middlemen-bureaucratic links that corrupt and rob society. The government had an opportunity to intervene in the incompetent procurement, storing, distribution and retailing links and clean them up so that the producers get remunerative prices and the consumers get reasonable rates. But the government’s focus has been on implementing its politico-cultural agenda, which is better known as Hindutva, and not on efficient governance.

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