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Monday, December 31, 2012



American media has been blaming the patriarchal nature of Indian power structure for the crimes against women. It loses no opportunity to show India in a bad light consistent with the general psyche of a nation suffering from Indophobia. There is a certain amount of truth in it, yes. But … Is it a characteristic of Indian society alone? 
Take for example, in this world’s most advanced society a female intern succumbs to providing sexual favors to the world’s most powerful man. The man continues to enjoy public acclaim and even goes on to lead the campaign of a future incumbent. While the woman is relegated to a quiet corner – a butt of lewd jokes.
When Will They Be Without Fear?
Empowering women had been a very recent phenomenon in the societies that lay to the west of India. Here, the accent since the earliest times had always been on protection as a means to empowerment. The gruesome incident in the capital that stirred the nation’s conscience is not due to the lack of empowerment but the failure of institutions meant for protecting the citizens.
From the historian’s perspective, India had a clear punitive regime for the perpetrators of crimes against women and an adequate organization to ensure its administration. Let us look at the provisions in traditional jurisprudence that goes back to pre-Christian times.
Manu Dharma Shastra on Rape
The seminal law text of Indian antiquity prescribes corporeal and capital punishment to those having sex with an unmarried woman against her will. The text prohibits rape and gives no protection to the upper castes as in the case of other crimes. The punishment is mutilation of fingers even if it is committed against a slave or a bonded servant. You will see the recognition of the crime as the basest and the privileges of birth and station cease the moment one perpetrates the act.
Arthashastra on Rape
Arthashastra, a treatise on Indian polity and statecraft recognizes rape as a crime that requires very stringent action against its perpetrators. Different punishments are prescribed for the crime depending on the victim: Amputation of middle and index fingers for raping a girl who had attained puberty, amputation of a hand if the girl had not attained puberty and death if the girl dies as a result of the crime. In the case of Gang Rape, even if the victim happens to be a prostitute, the punishment is equally stringent to all those involved in the crime. If one reads between the lines, one can notice that the accent is on protecting the most susceptible.
Further, the treatise describes a large and elaborate police and judiciary system. Significantly it delves heavily on an efficient informant system to proactively protect civil life. Of course a large portion deals with issues like espionage and rebellion, an equally large part addresses protection of property and life of people. Most importantly, the treatise recognizes the common axiom – A Policeman is as good as his informant system.  
The popular literature and folk tradition always condemned the violators of woman’s ‘honour’ as villains and they were almost always depicted as demonic aliens and the act received the severest punishment. It was only since the middle-ages that rape is used as a political instrument in conquered territories and a license given to the rulers to subdue the subjects – a concept alien to India. But the civic life continued to be dictated by the traditional law. Of course there are a few examples of despotic lords wielding the power over the subject populations – of both sexes – with no regard for their life or propriety. 
However, during the Islamic rule, the traditional law was not applied to the ruling class. Unfortunately, the landed gentry of rural India still carry the legacy of those times. Current ‘democratic’ polity is to a great extent made up by them and almost entirely dependent on the numbers they mobilize. The cause is not the patriarchal nature of the society but a state of anomy that pervades it.
On the surface, the cause appears to be a consequence of the corrupt system with the police being a co-beneficiary. That puts the blame squarely on the law enforcers as willing partners in the perpetration of crimes against women. The media is shouting hoarse about the inaction or positive connivance of police with the perpetrators. But do the police have a choice?
The blame cannot be placed at the doorstep of the police station but the failure of successive governments in building a sufficiently large and responsive force. Today the same understaffed police institution is responsible for internal security, crisis response, bandobasts, VIP security, political intelligence etcetera. If you look at the schedule of a station house officer in your neighborhood, the demands on his time and that of his force – if you still want to call that so – leave him with absolutely no time for any proactive role in protecting the neighborhood in his charge. Nature of his roster, unreasonable demands on his time, lack of infrastructure and complete lack of transparency in performance evaluation and reward system have lead to dilution of pride and basic values on which the institution was built. There is no provision for developing a proper informant network except in regions affected by insurgency and when there is a need for political intelligence. And, the need for survival in the system has forced him to evolve an alternate normative structure that looks away from his most fundamental role in an organized society. No wonder, any demand for action in the right direction elicits a belligerent response and even violence against those who dared touch his dormant conscience.   
I am not stating something new. The Indian Police Commission – gathering dust for decades – agrees with the above assessment and its recommendations are very specific for the way forward.
And, they are consistent with the traditional wisdom that can be elicited from Arthashastra that had successfully guided the leaders for centuries.
What are they?
Stringent punishments aside,
Fundamentally, “there is an urgent need to increase the size of police force and a substantial investment in improving the informant system with a clear focus on neighborhood peace.”
Then, why weren’t they implemented?
The singular reason given by successive governments is the lack of fiscal resources.
From the times immemorial the largest source of state revenue had been the tax on agriculture. In a country as large as ours, the largest contributor to GDP is not taxed. Here, I’m not talking about the marginal farmer who will never reach the lowest tax slab.
A reasonable demand on agricultural income is imperative to bring in a rational tax regime and improve federal investment in the basic services required in an organized society that is essential for the success of India’s democracy. But will they, the landlords with large holdings that influence the voting pattern and form the largest block of our legislating bodies, allow it?
Only a tax-payer will have interest in ensuring that his money is well spent.

1 comment:

  1. A good article. I liked it. You show insight into how polity and public institutions in India changed over time.