Eminences of the Bench
Ponderous But Vulnerable
There is that vignette in Marquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch where the protagonist looks idly out of the window at the bay below and seems to see an array of ships lined there, not all the same but their make and model spanning the centuries gone by.
“Magical Realism” everybody said. Including the best and brightest of teachers in the universities of the world. All except the author himself.
Same was the pedagogic fate that befell the opening fare of A Hundred Years of Solitude—two Latino rampagers visiting an Indian village (Indian as in South America), and beguiling the natives with the mysteries of a magnet and a compass. “Magical Realism” yet again.
Till Marquez in an elaborate interview confessed to doing or meaning nothing magical but being squarely within the realms of the mimetic/realist tradition of fiction-writing. But just how?
On the first count, the composite image of ships spanning the centuries meant to suggest how in Latin American history, accreted layers of colonial oppression were ever embedded in the political semi-consciousness of the average perceiver as one historical whole—the gone-by never quite gone-by.
And on the second count, how the colonizing metropolitan West took hegemony to the hinterlands through technologies (magnet/compass) by claiming magical powers of redress for them, whereas at bottom meant to be deployed as mere instruments of domination. Nostromo, Nostromo?
Most instructive both these contexts, methinks, for those of us who seek to unravel the qualities of change and the complex of perceptions accompanying them now here in India.
The second first: haven’t we heard every day, every damn day you might say, for the last two decades since the Washington Consensus came to be embraced by our well-meaning nationalist avant gardes how the market, driven, deepened and rendered ever more sophisticated by infusions of gitzmos and gadgetries is guaranteed to annihilate our inherited ills of penury and perverse backwardness?
Only to find that this magical embrace has indeed remedied the penury of the mere millionaires, rendering them billionaires, and elevated some ten percent Indians to world metropolitan standards, while consigning millions more of mere indians to enhanced levels of hunger, disease, and desperation. To wit, the magnet and the compass have all pointed away from the well-being of those in whose name these were adopted, and towards those for whom they were actually meant.
Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. Those that have shall get. For the meek there is always heaven. As in the myriad Astha (faith) channels on television.
Now to the first: the just concluded Commonwealth Games saga has brought to light, if it ever needed to be so brought to light, the fact India continues to live and jostle among many centuries simultaneously. The slave-driver with the feudal lord with the colonial bureaucrat with the private entrepreneur with the latest whiz kid and his comprador buddies on Wall Street, the turfs now so rattled by the rough and tumble of democratic glare that none of these seems any longer self-sufficient, self-contained, or entirely safe from contention.
To a point where lately the Eminencies of the Bench, even on the Supreme Court of India seem open to question, and not wholly able to hold to the legacies of the past, as leveling agents of critique and resistance nibble at their grandeur of old.
On the positive side, the times press on many of them to raise an egalitarian voice in favour of mere rickshaw pullers, common vendors, children in slavery, dalits in thrall, women snuffed out in the womb, and in support of those who argue that laws of contempt are at bottom calculated to muzzle even expressions of the plain truth of things (Justice Shailendra Kumar, we salute you.)
For this our thanks and deep admiration. For we know that such transformations of the psyche, once they begin to happen even in some far corner and from some non-metropolitan Bench, may not be easily reversed. Much of this of course for the reason that increased doses of oppression in India are now also accompanied by a larger constituency for justice among vox populi. Can’t put down those NGOs, Rights activists, whistle-blowers, however you may try. The need for legitimacy requires that they exist.
But on the negative side, very negligible initiatives yet to address the bold questions that have been raised by the likes of Shanti Bhushan and Prashant Bhushan, the first an erstwhile law minister and Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court, and the latter an admirable Senior Counsel on behalf of a spectrum of inequities that plague the common citizen in city and hinterland.
It is to be noted that this father-son duo have actually submitted on affidavit to the highest court listings of what they consider to be substantive evidences of corruption engaged in by no less than eight or so past Chief Justices of that august body. And even raised questions about some determinations made by the current Chief Justice in relation to a corporate house.
An extraordinary circumstance in modern India, truly, glossed with his usual aplomb and magnificence of articulaltion by the redoubtable ex-Chief Justice, V.R.Krishna Iyer, who at ninety plus may yet be our most un-put-downable rebel. I quote him:
“Now it is left to the nation to move on this matter of paramount importance. This is an astonishing event—the rarest of the rare kind (justice Iyer’s dark humour in evidence in that phrase, since it is most associated with the law that stipulates that only the ‘rarest of the rare’ homicides qualify for capital punishment.) If India is not a coward, if its swaraj is not merely soft and formal but firm and phenomenal, an appropriately high-level investigation, with consequential follow-up action that is punitive and reformatory, is imperative. This is no time to hesitate or involve in an exchange of rhetoric. Nor is this the time for a guarded and diplomatic reaction. This is unprecedented: a succession of Chief Justices have been publicly accused by a Senior Advocate of standing, risking his career” (The Hindu, September, 21, 2010).
The all-important question is who will bell the cat?
Under the present constitutional dispensation in India, judges of the superior courts may only be impeached by parliament upon, first, at least 50 members of the Rajya Sabha making such a request to the Vice President of India. And after all due process, the removal from the bench by a 2/3rds majority of parliamentarians in both houses.
Such a thing was tried once; it did not work.
There is simply no other redress for now.
Here is the further fact: we know that whereas in that land of our “strategic partnership,” America, nominees suggested by the President have first to pass the test of severe grilling by the House and the Senate, wherein everything about the candidate, down to the colour of the undergarments is up for scrutiny, here in India of many simultaneous centuries, our Lordships happily and in close quarters appoint themselves through the secret proceedings of a Collegium which comprises just three brethren of the fraternity. And none of those proceedings open to question, or to the provisions of the Right to Information Act. A sort of Masonic conclave which thinks it is none of anybody’s business how one or the other brother—sister most rarely—is elevated.
This then remains one of those most ancient of ships in the harbour, resisting the transformative gadgetries of modern India. Like all modern gadgetries, of course, the concerns of India’s judiciary rarely bear upon the lives of the disenfranchised millions, since they have no wherewithal even to approach this august institution. But if ten percent India now makes a pitch for finding ways to clean those Augean stables, some day, some distant day, vox populi might be encouraged to mumble that the blind-folded Lady with the even-scales has come to some life, and the pronouncements that fall from her lips may be free of fear, favour, or taint.
Clearly, something has got to give. The accusers must either be proved wrong, or the wrongs they underscore be righted. And righted not just in the cases under question, but in ways that can bring the Institution of the Judiciary somewhat more into the ambit of a just and non-discriminatory democracy of which we are so proud.
These are days when the oldest of ships wrecked centuries ago are vulnerable to disturbance on behalf of inquisitive scuba divers and national agencies. And the findings reflect on the quality of lives then lived, and their times are often then evaluated and held accountable by modern day historians. Nor may the magnet and the compass these days entirely beguile whole populations.
Nothing would be more honourable and altruistic and wholly in the “national interest” than for the Eminencies on the Bench to recognize the signs of the times and to proceed as per the law and the requirements of transparency. Some may be hurt thereby, but India will surely stand to gain.
This writer, at the end of a talk on India given in 1984 to a group of American citizens in the suburb of Berabou, was asked the question: “how may we know the real Indian? Since there is no end of languages, religions, castes, regions, ethnicities, colours of skin, what-have-you.”
I recall saying that any real Indian will be heard to say two things: one, “I know, I know”; and, two, “not my fault, not my fault.” This across the length and breadth of the subcontinent, and across all communities and classes.
Who else but the unimpeachable brotherhood on the Bench may rescue us from this most Brahminical of legacies?