November 23, 2001


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Dilip D'Souza

The figures say it all

Listened to the news on All India Radio some days ago. It brought waves of nostalgia. Partly because it was as insipid as always, but mainly because it threw all kinds of figures at me. You know what I mean. If you ever listened to AIR news at the height of Indira Gandhi's reign, for example, you would have heard such delicious newsworthy nuggets as: "The country produced 834,987,250 cubic inches of steel between April 21 and October 4 this year"; or "Rs 780 zillion is to be spent by the Government of Andhra Pradesh on the development of the city of Bambooabad".

Meaningless stuff quoted to us by bored newsreaders. We knew it was meaningless. Because if, for example, we ever happened to visit Bambooabad, just looking around would tell us that the only development that had happened there was of the lining of various city-father pockets -- 780 zillion rupees worth of lining. Nothing in Bambooabad itself would show any evidence of this money being spent.

So it went, for years and years.

Much the same when I heard the news this time. Except that now, I heard the figures from none other than our venerated prime minister, A B Vajpayee. AIR broadcast excerpts from his speech as he presided over a recent function in Punjab to commemorate Maharaja Ranjit Singh. In his trademark hoarse voice, the PM announced that a new highway was to be built between Ludhiana and Jalandhar (or maybe it was two other cities, only I don't care enough to find out which ones), that it would be called the Maharaja Ranjit Singh Highway, that it would be just as good as highways anywhere else in the world, and that -- here comes the number -- 4.5 billion rupees would be spent to build it. What's more, he assured his listeners that -- here comes a second number -- another 2.41 billion rupees would be spent on development work in various other Punjab cities.

Why am I certain that the PM's listeners don't even remember those numbers today, just days later? (The only reason I remember is that I yanked out my little pad and wrote them down.) Because they know, as I know, that the mere spouting of numbers does not produce either a highway or cities that are "developed" in any way. In fact, they know that despite oodles of figures that have been spouted at us ad nauseum in our 54 years, we still have lousy roads, dirty cities, regular load-shedding and more. The money has been spent, no doubt. But very evidently, not on the things the radio bulletins tell us they were to be spent on.

Indira would offer us figures because she hoped we would listen in awe to them rather than look around us at the evidence, visible everywhere, of her government's failures. Vajpayee offers us figures for the same reason. And this is why quoting figures -- the larger the better, always -- is the last resort of a government that's bankrupt: in ideas, in achievements, in stature.

You're wondering where I'm going with this? Here: my reaction to those numbers is not so different from my reaction to the new Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance. For if pronouncing large figures is one sign of a bankrupt government, promulgating POTO is another. It's that simple.

Why do I say this? Not because I believe it is a poorly defined ordinance; not because I think terrorism is a harmless summer breeze that should not concern us; not because I worry about the chance that POTO will be misused (though, like TADA that went before, I fully believe it will be).

No, what disturbs me most about POTO is that it tells me my government has no interest in actually applying laws, but every interest in the pretence that simply enacting more laws amounts to fighting crime. It tells me my government, like every one that has gone before, prefers smokescreens to actual achievement.

And it tells me these things because just as rattling off figures does not produce highways, creating laws does not fight crime. On the other hand, applying laws, firmly and without favour, does. And that, on the evidence of our 54 years, is something we remain peculiarly unwilling to do.

So while that remains true, the mere creation of this new law, POTO, is no guarantee that we will see a reduction in crime, whether it is terrorism or anything else. In fact, the only thing yet another law guarantees is that there will be no reduction in crime, whether terrorism or anything else.

Cynical, you think? But look at the evidence. Seventeen years later, we remain unable or unwilling to punish the murderers of 3,000 Sikhs in Delhi. Ten years on, we haven't been able to punish the men behind the gigantic stock scam. Fifteen years later, Bofors drags on with no end in sight: one prime figure in that murky episode that once boggled our minds was recently obstreperous enough as to die. Nine years down the road and we aren't even willing to acknowledge that we need to punish anyone for the slaughter during the riots in Bombay, let alone be alarmed that prime figures from that carnage are part of our country's government. Six years after he tried hard to stay out of the country so that he wouldn't have to explain the enormous cash stashes in his bedsheets, Sukh Ram remains a political colossus of Himachal, supported by the very men who bayed so loudly for his blood in 1995.

None of the crimes in this little list needs POTO -- either for them to be defined as crimes or for their perpetrators to be punished. They are crimes by virtue of being violations of our existing laws, as defined in the Indian Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code. Fine laws those are too. So why is it that we cannot punish those who violate them, these laws that exist in our land today?

And if the government we elect to ensure law and order is unwilling to enforce the laws we already have, why should we allow them to put still another law in our books? Why should we view their effort to do so as anything other than what it is: an attempt to pass off bluster as action?

As I said, it's not as if I am sanguine about terrorism and crime. Undoubtedly we are a much more unsafe nation than we were, let's say, 20 years ago. Thus, if strong laws are needed to fight crime, I have no objection to enacting and using those strong laws, the vital word there being "using". Going by how our laws have been used so far, I cannot believe my government particularly wants to fight crime. I cannot believe that anyone believes they do.

That is the problem with POTO. Not one of our governments has shown any interest in tackling the crimes our existing laws are meant to tackle. That record alone makes me sure this government has no interest in tackling the crime they tell us POTO is meant to tackle (quite apart from my belief that the firm application of our laws to all those who violate them will put an end to terrorism anyway).

So why do our venerated leaders want to pass this new law? Because terrorism -- that shadowy beast we can't even agree to define precisely -- is on everyone's minds these days (well, that and Mike Denness). Because this government prefers to turn us towards what it wants to call terrorism, and away from the neglect and chicanery that surround us, away from the criminals who make laws for us. Because it thinks we will be persuaded that a new law, rather than actually confronting criminals, amounts to standing up to terrorism.

We have long grown cynical about figures that are pronounced at us. I can't wait to see that same cynicism applied to pronouncements about new laws.

Dilip D'Souza

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