Lipstick and Rouge
Posted on 1-October-2009
As Delhi struggles to ready itself for organising the Commonwealth Games 2010, to begin in just over one year from now, India's Home Minister, while opening twenty two new police stations there, delivered a homily to the citizens of the city on the need to improve their behaviour and in particular to start observing traffic rules. He was anxious to ensure that during the Games, Delhi looked less chaotic and disorganised to the outsiders than it usually is. The theme was later picked up by the Lieutenant Governor and then by the Chief Minister of the Territory of Delhi. When a little more than one year ago the same Lieutenant Governor, speaking on the need for better observance of traffic rules, lamented the attitude of people in north India towards rules and laws, his nose was bloodied by many important politicians including an important minister in the federal government, all of whom said he had hurt the sentiments of the people of north India. He is better protected this time not only because he is in company, but also because these homilies are meant to serve the deep craving of India's elites for recognition, approval and praise especially from the West. If these exhortations about observing traffic rules become really effective, the city will succeed in hiding one more of its warts from the thousands of foreigners who will descend on it during the Games.
To a man of broad and versatile intelligence like India's present Home Minister it would be obvious that the widespread violation of traffic rules in a city like Delhi is only a small part of the larger and the country wide problems of scant respect among India's citizenry for rules and for the law and their lax enforcement. He would also know how important for the general health of Indian society it is that these problems be dealt with. And, given the will, they can be dealt with. Besides, unlike armchair philosophers, he has the power and the authority to try and do something more than preach and exhort, though these have their importance too.
It is no exaggeration to say that the phenomenon of lawbreaking is universal. Governments have at all times and everywhere made and enforced laws for the purpose of orderly functioning of societies and collected taxes for the upkeep of public services. Except when people revolt against oppressive laws or extortionate taxes, it is the duty of citizens to comply with laws and pay their taxes, as these make for the welfare of the entire community. In more religious times than the present age governments called upon an omniscient and omnipresent God to help with the enforcement of laws. With the more or less complete retirement of God from this kind of public duty, the burden of enforcing laws is now carried exclusively by the police and the law courts. Even in times when God and His wrath were believed to keep people on the path of righteousness and virtue, many people could not be kept from trying to cheat Him: some of the people who trespassed went and asked for His forgiveness; others went to confessionals and yet others performed the Brahamanical ritual of prayaschitta i.e. penance. The prayer for forgiveness, the confessional and the ritual of prayaschitta was taken by many as licence for more wrongdoing. Those who would not thus stop at trying to cheat God, would even more unfearingly try to cheat the policeman and the law courts. They can be deterred from doing so only by the fear of being caught and of the penalties that would follow. The more strictly, efficiently and universally the laws are enforced in a society, the less lawbreaking.
In the case of India there are two idiosyncrasies which add complexities to the task of law enforcement. The first of these is the tendency of a very large number of people, perhaps the majority, to look upon the state and its instruments, namely, the police, the law and the law courts as "the other", "the outsider". Thus the first impulse of a large number of people is to close in to protect one of their own from intrusions by the police or the law courts when that person finds himself on the wrong side of the law. This tendency becomes even more pronounced when a crime is committed in observance of an "established tradition": e.g. burning a widow on the pyre of her husband or lynching a couple for marrying in violation of caste rules. The second is the widespread tendency to treat a "senior", "respected" or "important" lawbreaker more leniently than others. Perhaps this is the reason why more and more people try to acquire one kind of VIP badge or another: a unique kind of registration number for a car, a badge of office to display wherever, stroboscopic lights on their car, a surrounding retinue of followers, hangers on, or whatever. Those who are not able to flaunt such badges, flaunt their connection to some "VIP". Once one of my dinner guests and his wife, respectable people and erstwhile VIP's themselves, who while apologising for being late said they had been stopped by a policeman for some violation at a traffic light and they ended up bribing the policeman. When the conversation turned to traffic rule violations and the condition of traffic generally, the wife recounted how when once she had been stopped for a violation by a traffic policeman, she asked to speak to the head of the traffic department in the police there who was a nephew of hers. She was let off. No one in the company that evening expressed any surprise, almost certainly because such happenings are so commonplace.
There is a third, more disquieting tendency in Indian society: that of the affluent urban middle class which should have a greater stake than others in the maintenance of law and order to ignore or break the law whenever it is convenient and the laws that are thus broken seem to cover every field: traffic rules, the environment, preservation of wild life, encroachment on public land, bribery of public servants, medical malpractice, violations of company law, violation of municipal laws against conducting trade at their residential premises. Any issue of an Indian newspaper can produce a rich crop of examples of these. This attitude of the urban middle class has especially pernicious effects because its values and mores, its attitudes and habits set the standard which others less well off try to adopt. A general belief gets created that the laws are an unnecessary impediment to a person's progress through life. Politicians, especially minor politicians--woe betide an agent of the law who tries to question a major one!--not only violate the law but from time to time turn violent against enforcers of the law. In this atmosphere the law abiding citizen withdraws into his shell, not sure of being admired, let alone being emulated and perhaps self-consciously aware of being looked upon as an oddity.
Another equally worrying trend has been for law enforcement to actually decline in many cases. One set of examples from the area covered by the homily on good behaviour delivered by India's Home Minister, that is, vehicular traffic on roads, will demonstrate this point. Driving on the roads of many cities, including Delhi, at night is hazardous not only because of the blinding high beams of headlights of oncoming vehicles but also because of the number of trucks, tractors, rickshaws and bicycles that go around without tail lights of any kind, no reflectors at the back, only one or no headlight at all. Yet I remember that as recently as the decade of the 1970's no cyclist or rickshaw would move on the streets of even small towns of provincial India without an oil or battery-powered lamp at the front and reflectors on rear mud guards. Trucks and cars did likewise. Even bullock carts moved at night with a kerosene lantern hanging visibly at the back. All these people knew they would be fined if they were caught travelling without lights. Contrast that with the almost daily experience of seeing people nonchalantly jumping red lights while a group of policemen slouching at these crossings look on indifferently. As with traffic rules so with many other rules covering different activities.
For India to become a modern society governed by the rule of law, all this will need to change. For that three steps seem to be necessary. The first of these has to be a several fold improvement in law enforcement in a continuous and sustained manner and not merely through occasional week or fortnight long bursts of energy or token gestures such as observing an environment week, a week without the use of klaxons, a no littering week and so on. Secondly for law enforcement to be effective and worthy of respect from people it will have to be impartial and applied equally to all: VIP's and non-VIP's. For changing the attitudes with deep cultural roots which lead to indifference, contempt or hostility towards the secular law of the state a vast and long campaign of education of the citizenry is a must. Finally those who are in positions of leadership owe it to the society at large to set examples of personal good behaviour and respect for the law. If this does not happen and if the elites merrily go around destroying the fabric of law and order, the gains made by the first two of these three steps will keep on being nullified. So that the elites change their ways they might need to be re-educated.
Perhaps the Home Minister intends to follow up his homily on the behaviour of the citizens of Delhi while driving on its roads with other sermons on the wider questions of respect for the law, its observance and its enforcement. Perhaps he intends to initiate a series of steps meant to make India a more law abiding society than it is at the moment. If he does all this and sustains his activities in this direction over the long haul he will bring about a deep and lasting improvement in the health of Indian society. If on the other hand his main concern is merely with dressing up Delhi for the Commonwealth Games, all he will end up doing is to apply daubs of meretricious paint on the face of the city, to be washed away once the games are over.