Saturday, 23 January 2010

Hope at last for undertrials

Jagjivan Ram Yadav of Faizabad spent more than 38 years in jail, though his case was never heard in court. He fell into the black hole of being ‘under trial’. He was arrested in 1968 on a charge of murdering his neighbour’s wife, but the police did not have the evidence to commit him to trial. If a court had found him guilty of murder he would have spent 14 years in jail. Instead, he was simply locked up and forgotten.

Yadav’s 38-year penance is the worst possible indictment of the justice system. It is a crime almost worse than murder. He was virtually buried alive. It may be an extreme example, but a great many undertrials — arrested for petty crimes — spend more time in jail than their offence warrants because they are unaware of their rights and lack legal assistance. According to one estimate 70 per cent of the inmates in Indian prisons are undertrials waiting, sometimes for years, to face the court.

Against this background, the Union government’s decision to speed up the release of more than 1.25 lakh under trial prisoners comes not a day too soon. Law Minister Veerappa Moily has asked the judiciary to complete the process within six months. The mission will start on January 26 — ‘Law Day’.

The mission should be commended in the highest terms, but is it possible to secure the release of more than 1.25 lakh prisoners before July 31? The judiciary is stretched thin and understaffed. Given these circumstances it would be a tall order to meet the six-month deadline.

However, there is hope as the ministry has made the suggestions after consulting the CJI and chief justices of the high courts. It should be noted that the CJI had observed last August at a conference of chief ministers and chief justices that “If they had served more than half the sentence likely to be awarded for their crime, such undertrials could be immediately released on personal bond.”

While the release of these undertrials is to be welcomed, it cannot be a one-off gesture to ease the congestion in jails. This has to be about ensuring justice. Jagjivan Ram spent the prime of his life behind bars, and if we are to see an end to such crimes, there must be a failsafe mechanism to ensure that the system will not allow any more Jagjivan Rams to fall into the dark places from which there is no return.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Anna University's unholy liason

‘Happy men are full of the present, for its bounty suffices them; and wise men also, for its duties engage them’. Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle while penning the opening lines of Signs of the Times would not have had Anna University in mind but that seems to be the case in the light of a recent article by our staffer in Chennai. According to the report, second generation victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy along with college alumni have requested the authorities of Anna University to return Rs 5 lakh received from Dow Chemicals as sponsorship for an annual college fest. All attempts by the group to get in touch with the authorities have been in vain. Dow Chemicals currently owns the Union Carbide India Limited factory that caused India’s greatest — even on an international scale — industrial tragedy, which killed an estimated 10,000 people within 72 hours of the leak. Many thousands more have been affected by diseases related to the leak.

More than 25 years after the catastrophe little has been done for the victims and the region is yet to be detoxified, with about 390 tonnes of chemicals abandoned at the factory, contaminating the groundwater and posing a clear and present danger to the lives of people in the area.

Anna University, the report says, has been receiving the sponsorship from Dow Chemicals for the third straight year and has been stonewalling repeated requests to discontinue its association with the company.

It is disgraceful that an educational institution with the reputation of Anna University should take such a stand and bring disrepute upon itself. That the authorities have preferred to take the money and run rather than weigh the costs of an association with such a tainted company shows that they have no thought for their social responsibility or the impact on students. Their avarice becomes even more appalling in light of the fact that the gas tragedy is covered in the university syllabus under Professional Ethics. Whatever the institution believes, it certainly does not include ‘practice what you preach’.

Strict dress codes and regulating the use of mobile phones in the campus do not make for better citizens. For that you need a commitment to right behaviour. Since the management seems so clueless, perhaps when the next Professional Ethics class begins, it would not be a bad idea if the who’s who of the university attend it. Who knows, they might learn a thing or two, even this late in life.

Tharoor finds himself caught in blind alley

It’s a little over 240 days since former United Nations under-secretary Shashi Tharoor chose the Nehru jacket over the three-piece suit, and the heat and dust of India to Manhattan traffic snarls. In these 240 days, Tharoor and the controversies surrounding him have consumed 1,542 reels of newsprint (including the vernacular media) and a good 108 hours of prime time news discussions.

Though many might doubt the newsreel-media hour statistics, not many will disagree that Shashi Tharoor is among the most unconventional of politicians to chance upon the Indian political scene. How many first generation politicians among the present crop have entered the legislature through the hustings after a successful career outside the country?

But this uniqueness has become a double-edged sword hanging over Tharoor’s head. Surprise, by now, is Tharoor’s middle name right from his selection of political outfit. For all the Congress-trashing, Sonia-bashing views he has expressed through his writings, he joined the grand old party. It can be said that the choice of Congress as a means to sit in the hot seat of external affairs was a no-brainer given the Congress juggernaut in the 2009 elections. But he chose to face the electorate, not manoeuvre a ticket to the Upper House and a ‘backdoor’ entry to power. He also fought from Kerala, which traditionally does not favour ‘outsiders’ or celebrity candidates. So Tharoor is not a pushover but someone who knows the threads.

Despite all this, Tharoor is not in an easy place. At 53 he is too old for the much-hyped Gen Nxt in the party and too young for the old-school veterans who are masters at the game called ‘Indian politics’.

The thought of Tharoor hanging out with Rahul Gandhi & Co to be clubbed in the ‘Gen Nxt’ group would be similar to the hilarious scene from Munnabhai MBBS in which when Sanjay Dutt, as a freshman, enters the first year classroom all the students greet him, mistaking him for a professor. Moreover, with his loaded resume Tharoor is not the person who would be studying the ‘real’ India in the remote villages of Uttar Pradesh.

Though Tharoor could be bracketed with the likes of Abhishek Manu Singhvi and Manish Tiwari it seems that seniority, be it of a few hours as is the case in government service, is a factor that does not weigh in favour of the new-kid-on-the-block. His lateral entry seems to have not gone well with many in the party.

The last group to hang out with is the seniors who have ploughed their way to the top through the years. Tharoor is not their blue-eyed boy. They don’t take kindly to his twittering on about travelling ‘cattle class’ or visa norms or Nehru’s foreign policy. The last may have earned him a rap on the knuckles because he is maintaining a low profile but the question is: For how long?

Another reason for the hostility Tharoor is facing within the party is the flamboyance with which he has courted the media and the young urban middle-class using his social networking skills. By being just a click away from the public Tharoor has brought down the ‘multiple layers of obstacles’ with which a politician, more importantly a minister, cushions himself from the aam aadmi. Tharoor has deconstructed the liturgical jargon associated with government communication and policies in just 140 characters. His remarks and style of working have rattled a few old guns in the party and seem to be contrary to the image the Congress is trying to project — an image being carefully woven for Rahul Gandhi to take the sceptre in 2014.

Tharoor’s campaign and election victory gathered so much media publicity that he has become a more familiar name than three-time former Kerala chief minister and current defence minister A K Antony. But he has disappointed those who yearned for a change in government policy and thought he was the answer (not much has changed on the foreign policy front; the Centre’s outlook has not changed from UPA I — it looks to the US for everything and is ditching old allies like Iran).

Fame and power come but at a cost, and who would know that better than Shashi Tharoor who has entered a maze that will take him time to figure out.