Eclipse At Noon: Shadows Over India's Conscience
Gopal Krishna Gandhi
(Full text of the 15th D.P. Kohli Memorial lecture)
I am grateful to Sri Ranjit Sinha, Director CBI, for giving me this valuable chance. And I take this opportunity to pay my compliments to another distinguished former Director of the CBI, an esteemed friend of many years, Shri R.K. Raghavan in whose tenure this memorial lecture series was instituted.
It is a privilege to be asked to give this lecture in memory of an outstanding police officer, administrator, the first and founding director of the Central Bureau of Investigation under its post-Independence dispensation. Shri D.P. Kohli was a remarkable professional and an epitome of integrity. CBI officers must seek to emulate him. I offer Shri Kohli’s memory my tribute, and his legacy my admiration. To the tribute that I pay to the founder, I join my salutation to those brave policemen and women who have faced crime, terror and intimidation in the course of their duty, so often laying down their lives in the process.
Not a day passes when India’s police forces do not court danger, even death, so that those they are meant to guard, including the Indian state itself, stay unharmed. I can never forget the young brave-heart, who is still very much in the police establishment, who was the motorcycle outrider in the Governor’s convoy in Kolkata one drizzly night. A road-laying crane had been parked in the dark without any warning lights and its iron cordon hung invisibly at neck-level right across the road. The officer, moving briskly on his motor cycle was caught across his neck by the cord and thrown into the air. He was up on his feet in seconds and by the time my car came up to him, he was, despite a severe injury to his helmeted head and neck, all ready to resume his duty.
If every citizen has this young policeman’s pluck and sense of duty, we would be a far happier and safer and stronger nation today.
With the honour of being asked to give this lecture, comes an opportunity to reflect on matters pertaining to the state of public ethics and accountability in our times.
‘It was the best of times', Dickens says in the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities, ‘it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair...’
I echo those lines time and again.
For us in India, in ever so many ways, this is the best of times.
Our democracy is in bloom. While in countries around us, democracy has taken bruising and even battering, our elections are in progress to elect the next Lok Sabha, the 16th in a row. Millions are participating in the proceedings with what can only be called elan. They know the process thoroughly and can be said to be post-doctoral experts in it. They know how to re-endorse earlier verdicts ; equally, how to reverse them. They can return people and parties to office with generosity ; equally they can throw them out of it without mercy. Illiterate they may be, and poor as well, but once in the booth, they are monarchs. We are a democracy with a highly powerful monarch — the voter.
And our media, is that monarch’s, the voter’s, which means our, security guard. Hats off to our media for performing that task with amazing diligence.
Our economy has some phenomenal successes going for it. I will not impose statistics on you. But this I will say and you will agree with: There is more prosperity now than ever before. More people own or rent ‘pucca’ homes than before. More people travel by road, train and air than before. More people travel for leisure than before. More people spend on entertainment than before. More people eat better than before, dress and buy goods and services better than before. Hardly anyone goes without footwear now, or a watch. And of course almost every home , even if it does not have other essential furniture, has a television. The middle class believes in using its money for raising comfort levels. Refrigerators are not seen as a luxury, nor small air conditioners or coolers. Almost every Indian has a mobile phone, if not two. Among those who do not use mobile phones, very few go without it because they cannot afford it.
Indian science has made a name for itself. From the micro and the nano to the mega, we make and use what we need. We inhabit space, course through it, with satellites that help us transact life down on earth better, more safely than ever before.
Our arts are at a peak. Be it the classical arts or the folk arts, be it cinema or literature, we are in an era of high achievement. The world — not just NRIs but other nationalities — looks to our performing artists with awe, invites them and celebrates their genius. Our writers are in great demand, are published and read more than ever before
Our literary festivals attract the best writers from other nations. Our painters and sculptors, photographers and illustrators are highly esteemed in art circles, with high quality catalogues being prepared for their expositions the world over.
Our judiciary, we can be truly proud of. It is independent and fearless. Its interventions in many matters have been crucial to the quality of life in our Republic. In all this, these have to be and are, the best of times.
This is our high noon.
These also have to be the worst of times.
Our democracy is large, vibrant, but is also deeply flawed. Size and scale cannot and do not in themselves validate a democracy. There is something called quality also. The monarch, the voter, is powerful but his power is constantly subverted by blandishment. Money is at our democracy’s throat. Money can and does do worse. It can abduct, assault. It can finance hurt, it can fund harm, it can injure and manage to look injured. It can purchase death. Currency notes come into the election bazaar first in container and cargo quantities, then in truck-loads, going into wholesale, small retail and finally in attaché, thailaa, jholaa and jeb-sized portions, every five years at the least and often oftener than that. They originate either legally, through licit company donations or come from a myriad sources which, necessarily and unavoidably, go back to our natural resources such as mines, forests and land. Illegal transactions in all these yield harvests of black cash and this is disgorged on people in jhuggis, jhompris and jhopad-pattis, right amidst tonnes of garbage and, within inches of it, cook, wash, sleep and being human, procreate, give birth and die in. It is on these that politicians descend at election time, laden with cash and hooch, to buy votes. Dr Ambedkar had spoken of how this India may well explode and blow up our Constitutional edifice.
Why and how that has not happened yet defies my understanding.
There is a memorable quote from Mark Hanna: “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is”.
I can tell you what you already know about the second thing. It is called bullying. It is an open secret that certain kinds of services are co-opted near election time by candidates. These have to be called, for want of a better phrase, goonda services. Goondas are part of society; they are one of us. They are a floating resource, to be hired, for a sum. Their skill is intimidation. Their wherewithal, via money, of course, and often via narcotics as well, is the illegal firearm
By an estimate which is slightly dated now, there are not one million, not four million, not ten million but at a conservative estimate, 40 million illegal small arms floating around all over the land.
The Election Commission has to be congratulated, thanked, embraced, for being as fearless as it is, despite all this. Our uniformed services, headed by the police and various para-military agencies, need to be thanked and saluted for keeping lawbreakers, law-twisters, law-manipulators and law-defiers in check.
But who is to check the collapse of true, far-sighted leadership and its degeneration into leaderbaazi ? Leaders are too few now, leaderbaazes, innumerable. Leading looks at the far horizon, leaderbaazi, in love like the house fly with its own nose, sniffs at the offal of instant gains.
Leading rises above the small, leaderbaazi wallows in the small.
Leading cherishes candour ; its language is brutal, honest, frank.
Leaderbaazi values popularity. Its language is candied sugar.
Leading has colleagues.
Leaderbaazi has fans.
Leading overcomes personal hatreds, rises above rivalries, leaderbaazi feeds on it.
Leading strides, leaderbaazi swaggers.
Leading will stop at a traffic light, leaderbaazi will cut it.
Leading will not swerve from principles, will not finick on detail.
Leaderbaazi will do deals on principles, provided the details of its convenience are protected.
We are, as I said at the beginning of this lecture, seeing the blooming of an election.
But let us not celebrate that without being aware of the fact that there is a strange stillness in the air.
Marine geographers have a word for it — the Doldrums. The word signifies a stupor, in which everyone and everything is listless, stagnant and immobilized.
Coleridge describes the state of the Pacific Doldrums in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:
All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, no breath no motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
The ship of our nationhood, during these election days, is meant to be moving. But is it moving at all ? No one quite knows, no one wants to speculate on where, towards what port, we are headed if we are headed anywhere at all.
One asks in Shailendra’s words and Mukesh’s voice animated by the one and only Raj Kapoor:
Kahaan ruknaa hai?
To find the answer with the humour and sadness of resignation:
Dictators have been wafted up by people voting democratically.
The ballot box can receive the faith of innocence and emit a genie. It can receive trust unseeingly, disgorge its betrayal unblinkingly.
That receptacle, now a machine, is neutral to the ethics of its arithmetic. It is concerned only with numbers.
And so, for aught we know, the painted ship will bestir itself and move into what , begging pardon of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, I would call Port au Pain.
Let us realize that the Doldrums feeling is true but is true only as a feeling.
In actual fact, beneath the surface stillness, there is a great frenzy astir, a frenzy to bring to India’s helm, the reign of an ethnic majority, of a sectarian bigotry, of a denominational autocracy. And all in the name , the very specious name, of ‘strength’.
And here I must say that sections of the media have become trumpeters of what they see as the coming change. We had heard of paid news. But this is free advertising. The high noon of the free press in India makes its own eclipse-by-ink and through the small screen.
So, this best of times for democracy can become the worst of times for democracy as well.
Our economy is startling if you do not want to see its other side. If you see that side, you will see it is schizophrenic. Corporate greed has crossed all bounds, as has corporate tastelessness. We used to talk of black money as a parallel economy and so it continues to be. But Reliance is a parallel State. I do not know of any country where one single firm exercises such power so brazenly, over the natural resources, financial resources, professional resources and, ultimately, over human resources as the company of the Ambanis. From Ambedkar who spoke of economic democracy to Ambani who represents a techno-commercial monopoly of unprecedented scale, is a far cry indeed.
Who is to ask why, in such a situation, farmers commit suicide by the hour, dispossessed rural poor migrate across the country looking for livelihood like cattle in a drought do, looking for water, why infant mortality, infant malnutrition, childbirth related deaths of mothers and female foeticide remain the stubborn ogres they are?
Who is to ask that ?
Yes, the mobile telephone is a fantastic asset. But while we make the calls, someone makes the money. 2G Spectrum is a description that arouses deep pride, and deep distrust.
And as for Indian science, that pride of India, is there something missing, something amiss ?
I believe there is, and it is called a transparent and accessible science policy. Today, science policy is seen as something of a mystery, a State-secret, almost.
Its nurturing is as if in an SEZ, a privileged area, gated and cordoned off. This is singularly unfortunate because science has worked wonders for us, reduced drudgery, enhanced ergonomic ease, improved productivity on farm and fishing fields, saved lives like that of fishermen out at sea who, thanks to satellite warnings, can turn back when the weather grumbles into a storm or rages into a cyclone. And yet, science policy remains beyond the ken of us, simple folk, abstruse things like the 123 Agreement of course being high Sanskrit. I am reminded of a poem, a nursery rhyme, really, without a known authorship. It goes:
We have a secret, just we three
The robin and I and the sweet cherry tree
The bird told the tree and the tree told me
And nobody knows it but just us three.
Of the holy priest, it has been said that he holds the Divine Secret in his closed fist, his gyana-mushti. Time has come for the scientist to open his vigyana-mushti. We cannot be in awe of that closed fist.
Transparency apart, I wonder why it is that Indian science which has done such wonders for us, is yet to make an impact on what Nehru used to call the scientific temper. Superstition has increased exponentially in our country.
I value the affection and faith of those who tie strings and charms to my wrists for love and care of me. But the rings and strings on the fingers and wrists of our politicians are signs of their fear psychoses, insecurities and desperate placatings of benign stars or for the averting of evil eyes.
Such are the guilty consciences and insecurities of our political class that next to lawyers, the expertise most consulted by politicians is that of astrologers. If our political class look to big money for elections and to big planets for their safety and security, who do we look to ?
I spoke of the respect that our classical arts and our folk arts and, generally, our cultural heritage commands world wide.
But India has the foulest reputation imaginable in the world for the way its men in the national capital, particularly, gawk at, grope and molest women visitors from overseas. This of course is only another manifestation of the way huge numbers of the Indian male are pre-dispositioned vis-à-vis the female body. If a single artist from India were to experience anything like that in Paris, New York or Berlin, all hell would break loose in India, with our media bursting aortas and larynxes. But the country as a whole is being phlegmatic about this, as indeed it is , on the larger issue of respect for women.
Nirbhaya’s tragedy is unending.
This has to be the worst of times.
It is our noon, all right, but we are seeing a grahan of no ordinary scale casting a shadow over it. I use the word grahan or eclipse not astrologically but astronomically, as a shadow that obscdures the light of our collective conscience.
We are going through an ethical drought, a valuational famine, a desertification of the finer sensibilities of civilisational living.
Paradoxically, the number of Godmen and, to a lesser extent, Godwomen, is increasing in algebraic leaps. They even compete with each other, through giant hoardings, advertisement blitzes, carefully-orchestrated interventions in natural calamities, political crises and and road-shows. Some decades ago, there was the odd Dhirendra Brahmachari and Chandraswami. Now you find them behind every tree.
Some of them, going by their elaborate attires, look like trees. There is an apt phrase for them : Dharma-vanijyakas, merchants-of-religion.
This should have been the age of wisdom, it has turned out to be the age of foolishness.
This should have been the season of light, it has turned out to be the season of darkness.
One of the great blessings of our Republic, which goes towards the making of our high noon, is the freedom and stature of our judicial system. The independence and high calibre of our judiciary is, as I said, to something to be proud of although sometimes it can shock us by turning the clock back and mirror the Taliban or the most retrograde of Khap Panchayats by judgments like the recent one on Section 377 of the IPC. One area of utter darkness , is our prisons. Changing their name to Correctional Homes is a step in the right direction but it can be very self-fulfilling. The fact remains uncontested that our Correctional Homes are bursting with under-trials, many of who may well be not guilty. While I know some officers do all they can to make these Homes civilized, society as a whole cares a two bit for what goes on within those walls. I would have thought some of our VIPs who have spent spells of varying duration in these Homes would have come up with some innovative ideas for reform. But no, their priorities are obviously different.
Under a recent imaginative amendment to the Cr P C , certain categories of undertrials can be enlarged on a personal bond, ‘Can be’ is one thing, ‘have been’ is another. Why should this provision not be used ? Cussedness, is the only answer.
I must come now to a related subject.
We may be the land that has given birth to the Buddha, Mahavira and Gandhi. The world respects us for the doctrine of non-violence that is associated with those names. But let us not deceive ourselves into believing that we are a non-violent people ; we are not. We are as violent as any, only more, in the refinements we have wrought on our violence, the embellishments we have given to it, the manicuring and pedicuring we have done on that beast called custodial torture. Every city and town has jails, thanas and lock-ups and every jail, thana and lock-up has cells into which the miserable wretch to be tortured enters like some animal may enter the slaughter-house. Torture, in one degree or another, seems to be part of an entrance ritual, a rite. This is a blot in our national life that can only go if the police establishment comes up with the leadership needed to stop it ; not otherwise.
The issue of under-trials and of torture cannot be taken up in isolation without acknowledging a major fact. I am sorry if what I am going to say comes as something of a startler:
A major wedge of the eclipse over India’s noon is the debilitation over the criminal justice system in India. It has all but collapsed.
There has been a steady, and now a steep, decline in the ability of the system to deal with crime. The machinery grows, crime grows. But the latter, remaining one step ahead.
Attempts to preserve the legitimacy of the system, however, have produced ironic phenomena such as scapegoating , which amounts to saying ‘Go find someone, anyone, but there needs to be a conviction’. I cannot but deplore another side-effect of panic legitimizing, namely, the tendency towards social control and control of political differences through the use of criminal law. This is the single most deplorable misuse of an instrumentality, which makes null and void all claims for democratic dissent and institutional independence — the hallmarks of a Republic that is wedded to the rule of law. This leads to strange and disturbing anomalies such as building layers on existing, troublesome layers and thereby leaving the latter intact.
The result is there is the CBI where the police cannot work, the SIT where the CBI is also feared to be compromised Or, narco-analysis where routine investigation has lost its way and so the ghoul called torture and the impunity that sanction gives to agencies of state remain as they are. There has been too much side-stepping and too little addressing.
And too much action by reaction, by which I mean, too much store being placed on social latencies, as distinct from judicial discrimination. How much in an Aarushi verdict or an Afzal hanging is influenced by yesterday’s, today’s and tomorrow’s possible headline ? Is some social appetite being gratified by legal recourse ?
Is popular applause a player ?
Is popular disapproval a player as well ?
Are the approval and disapproval of bosses a factor ?
In other words, are fear and favour, players ?
Here, I might be permitted the liberty of some frank opinion-sharing.
Let there be no doubt about one thing : The CBI has a very mixed image. Not all of it is flattering. It is seen as Government’s hatchet, rather than honesty’s ally. It is often called DDT— meaning not dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, the colourless, tasteless, odourless insecticide it should be, but the Department of Dirty Tricks.
This perception, howsoever valid it might be, must change. I will make bold to say it will change, because the popular mood in the country in the matter of corruption has changed. The post-RTI India is an altogether India. Every village in India has heard of the RTI and, what is more, it has used RTI, sometimes frivolously, sometimes perversely but, in the main part, transformationally and cleansingly. The RTI-trained public is no longer going to take corruption as a standard feature of the administration. It will expect, prod and make the CBI be an instrument of change. The CBI is going to play a big role in the future of India’s public integrity, India’s administrative ethics and India’s valuational self-image.
It is important, therefore, that the CBI establishes a partnership with the people of India. At present, the CBI and the people of India are poles apart. The CBI is clothed in opacity, then ornamented by secrecy and finally perfumed by mystery. Thus has to change. For a short time, the CBI came under the RTI Act. The heavens did not fall during that time. But the triple wrappings of opacity, secrecy and mystery made it move to be taken out of the purview of the RTI Act. This is a great pity. The CBI is about investigations into corruption and certain crimes. It is not a security or intelligence agency. And even if some aspects of its investigations needed protection against disclosure, there are enough provisions under the RTI Act’s exemption clauses to have come to the CBI’s aid. But to remove the CBI from the purview of the RTI
Act altogether is, to my mind, not just un-transparent but unwise and ultimately harmful to the CBI’s future as a people’s partner in the resistance to corruption and crime. The CBI has nothing to lose and everything to gain by partnering the people of India.
Especially when the CBI has to contend with the politically powerful, it can only gain by having an overarching partnership with the ultimate rulers in a democracy, the people.
This is where the question of its autonomy comes in. Let me say at the outset that I want the CBI to be spectacularly autonomous. Spectacularly, but not sensationally. Let me explain. I would like the CBI not to be under the Government for then it would have no autonomy, but I would like it to be accountable to the Republic. You might ask ‘But the Republic is a vague term ; be specific’. And so, very well, let me say I would like the CBI to be under the Lok Pal, just as the Army is under the Defence Minister. Our Defence Forces are our ride because they are so very specialized, skilled and singular. But they are under civilian control. The Director of the CBI, like an Army or Air Force or Navy Chief, should be totally independent professionally but not a loose cannon.
The Director CBI should be a phenomenal instrument, not a self-operating robot. He and his Bureau should be guardians of the law, never a law unto themselves. The government’s apprehension is that an autonomous CBI could become a reckless CBI. In this apprehension, all political incumbents of office are on the same page. What is not said in as many words but is clearly at the back of this thinking is that the Director of a totally autonomous CBI could become an independent centre of power, a demi-God with a moral whip. And then the allied thought: Supposing such a Director then goes on to become popular with the public — unthinkable !
The fear is not unfounded but is, I believe, given currency to evade the issue of autonomy. The India which could speak its mind to Mrs Indira Gandhi’s emergency in no uncertain terms and defeat that formidable Prime Minister in the elections is not going to let a police official who grows too big for his halo get away with it. Just as no dictator has a chance of surviving his or her excesses in India . No self-styled strong politician in India can pass off as Bharat-ka-Rakhvala unless he is Khud-ki- Seema-Rakhnevala. That being so, no police official, howsoever strong will be allowed to convert his strength into a monopoly over power, by the people of India. Let me return to the subject of investigations. CBI investigations are often directed against very senior government officials and politicians who wield great influence. They have to be handled judiciously and without fear or favour. This is why the CBI requires autonomy and an assurance of protection against the capriciousness of highly placed individuals. Unfortunately, but predictably, successive governments have been reluctant to sanction that order of autonomy.
And this is where, as a citizen, I would say ‘Thank God for the Judiciary’. Thanks to vital Supreme Court interventions , since the 1997 Hawala case, the CBI has come to have a certain modicum of autonomy in operations. And yet, there are anomalies like the Single Directive which requires government permission to conduct preliminary enquiries against officers of the rank of Joint Secretary and above, government sanction for prosecution and government permission to prefer appeals against Court acquittals.
All generalisations have exceptions and the generalization that I am about to make has its exceptions too but let me say it plain: The standard politician does not and will never like an autonomous CBI. There is an irony in this. The politician in office has been elected by the people, the people would by an large like the CBI to be free of political control, but the politician is loath to let go. The politician, especially the politician in office, would want to continue to employ various methods to intimidate or influence CBI officials and would therefore be guilty of diluting CBI independence. To put it in conversational Indian-English, our politicians will be like that only. The glib manner in which one hers politician of lmost every party say that if voted to office or voted back to office they will see to it that so-and-so will be in jail shows how they take the system for granted. Such politicians would want the CBI to be its hatchet, falling on whom he wants it to fall, when he wants to fall, and with the force he wants it to fall with. This is no surprise. After all the politician in office wants to use all the compulsories and optional of power available to him. But why should the CBI not resist that ?
Just as officials have their pet loves and pet hates among politicians, politicians have their favourites and their bête noire- s among officials. There is justified criticism of CBI highhandedness and lack of sensitivity to loss of reputation of senior members of the bureaucracy against whom needless enquiries can get initiated.
Whether to settle personal scores against political adversaries or to force independent civil servants to fall in line with an unscrupulous Executive, pressure does get to be exerted over the CBI. No political party is a saint in this matter. But the CBI cannot afford to be complicit in this capriciousness. It must resist the unethical overtures.
Talking of complicity, there is the temptation to bring down reputations of civil servants through unethical leaks to the media in real time during the course of investigations. This is despicable. If the Director and his deputies do not themselves get swayed by sensationalism, they can resist this temptation. They must realize that the author of today’s faucet leak can be the subject of tomorrow’s shower.
In the transition between today’s CBI and a truly autonomous CBI under a Lok Pal, the CBI should be able to say ‘No, sir’ or ‘No, madam’ to the politician giving the CBI a wrong signal, a wrong nod, a wrong pat or a wrong wink. I would even say, if a LokPal turns out to be made of the same common clay as politicians and becomes whimsical , capricious or tendentious , that day the CBI should be able to say the same ‘No’ to that august personage. And that is when partnership, transparent and strong, between the CBI and the people will strengthen it. The CBI should be able to say another ‘No’ as well, that is, to in-Service lollipops or a post-retirement cookie in the shape of a post-retirement job. The CBI has to be the nation’s inner monitor. But it can be that only when it has an inner monitor within itself as well.
When it does that routinely, a major slice of the eclipse over the Indian noon will recede.
We need an autonomous CBI, not a self-seeking behemoth. But the fear of such a monster should not be used to perpetuate the status quo.
What I am advocating is true, not nominal autonomy with appropriate accountability to the Republic, not accountability to the power centres of the day plus more accountability to the powers to be behind those power centres plus even more accountability to the unseen influence-wielders on the powers behind the power centres . This delicate balance between autonomy and accountability calls for sobriety on the part of the CBI and civility on the part of the State.
The State in a liberal democracy has to have institutions of conscience. The CBI is an institution of conscience. It cannot be gagged when the State wants to wish something away, made to scream when the State wants to declaim something. A conscience works according to its own dynamics, not at someone else’s dictates. If it does the latter, it is not a conscience but His Master’s Voice.
At the same time, a conscience should not think it is a loud speaker. A conscience that becomes too fond of its own voice, loses its value, its appeal. It loses its efficacy, because it is then self-serving
CBI officers need to be respected by the community, not held in some kind of awe or fear. And respect has to be earned, not commanded.
From time to time there have been complaints of lack of integrity among CBI officials themselves.
Disciplinary action, including criminal action, has been taken against delinquent officials. This has had only limited impact. Instances of CBI corruption continue to be reported, even against senior CBI officers. This is more than sad because this is a case of the doctor falling prey to a contagious disease by his own ways.
These are Golden Jubilee thoughts the CBI may like to ponder.
These anxieties are part of the eclipse that is creeping over our golden noon.
It is said one should never watch an eclipse without shading the eyes, lest they get scorched. Let us shade our eyes, by all means, but let us not avert our eyes from the shadow over our consciences, if only because it is our own wooden obduracy , our inertia and our smugness that is casting it. And if we are to see it end, it is we have to do something about it.
In the preparation of the portion on the criminal justice system and the CBI in this lecture, I have benefited from dialogues with Smt Usha Ramanathan, Sri R K Raghavan, and Sri Nikhil Dey. I acknowledge their assistance gratefully. But they do not necessarily share all the views expressed by me here nor, indeed, those held by each other.