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What is the Indian State's duty to citizens?

June 09, 2011 15:51 IST

Rajeev Srinivasan on the cavalier nature of the Indian State's actions against its own citizens

The Ramlila Maidan massacre raised some questions in my mind about the responsibility of the Indian State. If the State causes harm to citizens through its action -- or through its inaction -- how can the citizen get redress? What is the due process of law? If there is such, why isn't anyone using it to claim compensation from the State?

These may well be obvious questions with obvious answers, but I get the feeling that there is a distinct difference between the way the Indian State and, say, the United States, deals with these issues. My conjecture is that the US (by and large) has a government that is intended to look after its citizen's interests, whereas the Indian State was designed by imperialists to loot and pillage citizens: it continues as a predatory State.

There is also the concept of tort, which I don't understand very well, but I think it means that injury suffered by someone based on the negligence (not malice or breach of direct contract) of someone else is also cause for reparations. If I am not mistaken, the American State takes pains to ensure, for instance, that its public civil works -- such highway construction -- are as idiot-proof as possible. You have to go to great lengths, and be a determined idiot (of the Darwin Award class), to fall into a ditch left unprotected by road builders in the US. Not so in India, obviously.

In any case, there was not only negligence, but also actual malice aforethought in the Indian State's 'police action' (what a come-down for that dignified term!) against Baba Ramdev's 50,000 yoga practitioners -- including women and children -- sleeping peacefully in tents in a maidan, which they had a permit to access.

The incident is pregnant with ironies, of course. It happened on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. It was also a repeat of a similar tear-gassing of sleeping, peaceful demonstrators in Bahrain recently during the Arab Spring. There was also the analogy with the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre in 1919, that seminal incident that showed the Indian public that the imperialists simply despised them as untermenschen (sub-human): here too, I am told that all entrances but one to the maidan were sealed off as the police baton-charged the sleeping protestors, who incidentally hadn't protested anything so far.

I once wrote in these columns how singular events were tipping points in history that molded the views of generations: I mentioned Jallianwallah Bagh; also Gallipoli for Australians; and I thought the Fall of Saigon would have been one such for Americans. (I was wrong on the last, as they have now graduated to the fall, any day, of Kabul). It is possible that the Ramlila Maidan assault may be seen in days to come as one such event, or it may not, but the question remains: who pays for human suffering?

This is not an idle thought, as every day hundreds of Indian citizens die from what is evident government negligence. Just to pick a few random examples of people I had some direct relationship to:

  • Two days ago, a young couple I knew drove their car off a bridge into a monsoon-swollen river near Alappuzha. Her body was found fifteen miles downstream; his was still in the car stuck in the mud just below the bridge. There were no railings on the approach road to the bridge.
  • Two years ago, a kind and well-respected old teacher I knew since childhood was out for his regular morning walk on the sidewalk of a broad avenue. A government milk truck, backing up and going the wrong way, climbed the sidewalk, hit him from behind, and killed him on the spot
  • A few weeks ago, several 6-year old children in a school bus drowned in Trivandrum when the bus toppled into a stagnant canal which had no railings to prevent such a fall

Whose fault is this? Who gets punished so that such tragedies do not befall families and individuals again? The answer, so far as I can see, is that it is nobody's fault, and that nobody gets punished. Those who have lost life or limb, or their kin, are simply supposed to grin and bear it and chalk it up to fate.

This is no way to run a civilised nation. The Indian State is increasingly ingenious in its attempts to extract taxes from citizens -- but along with that comes a reciprocal obligation to ensure that it protects the same citizens from harm, provides them with basic infrastructure, and so on. But that part of the bargain does not seem to occur to the predatory State, not surprisingly because it was designed simply to squeeze the most taxes out of the public. Why do you think the chief bureaucrat in a district is called a Collector? What do you think his job was to collect?

The way the State recompenses citizens is whimsical and cavalier. The State failed to protect 170 citizens from being killed in Mumbai in 2008. I am not sure what the compensation was that was paid to those killed. But this I know: when several drinkers of illegal hooch in Kerala died of methyl alcohol poisoning, the generous State gave them Rs 5 lakh; whereas Major Sandeep Unnkrishnan who died fighting the terrorists on 26/11 got Rs 3 lakh.

Is there someone whose desk the buck stops at? Who is in charge? Is it possible to file a class-action suit against the Prime Minister's Office, the home ministry, and the Delhi Police, charging them with numerous malfeasances in the Ramlila maidan assault: a) inadequate notice to disperse, b) assault and battery without warning, c) wanton destruction of private property, d) injuring the religious sentiments of a group, and so on?

Even though the colluding media has virtually caused an Iron Curtain to descend on the details of the aggravated assault -- as it happens always when a 'certain community' is at the receiving end -- I hear via twitter that at least one middle-aged woman, Rajbala, 51, has a spinal injury, and has slipped into a coma.

Who made the decision so quickly to send in storm troopers? Did they consider other alternatives, such as whisking Swami Ramdev away and putting him under house arrest? Why were such hair-trigger decisions not made on 26/11 so that further deterioration in the situation could have been avoided?

In other words, who is to pay for the State's negligence or malice? Until the day comes that every bureaucrat and every politician weighs the personal cost to themselves of hurting citizens' rights, India cannot call itself a civilized nation. It remains a colonial predatory State, meant for the benefit of the few at the cost of the many.

Rajeev Srinivasan