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21 April 2017 Editorial


21 APRIL 2017

Ayodhya again

Babri Masjid demolition trials

UPDATED: APRIL 20, 2017 23:43 IST

The Supreme Court breathes new life into the Babri Masjid demolition trials

A nearly moribund prosecution has been given a new lease of life by the Supreme Court. By ordering a joint trial into two cases arising out of the Babri Masjid demolition in December 1992, and demanding that the trial court in Lucknow hear the matter on a day-to-day basis, the court has reinforced the importance of reaching a speedy judicial resolution in a matter that has already been horribly delayed. It was a mere technicality that resulted in the case relating to the actual act of demolition by numberless kar sevaks being tried in a special court in Lucknow and another relating to BJP political leaders being tried in Rae Bareli on the charge of inciting ill-will and hatred. The Uttar Pradesh government's failure to cure a technical defect in an earlier notification, and the failure of the CBI to challenge it at the relevant time, led to the situation of separate proceedings continuing for years. It is regrettable that a case relating to the promotion of communal disharmony, one that had a bearing on riots and reprisals in the following months, was mired in judicial stagnation and administrative apathy for a quarter century. The court order reinfuses life into this necessary prosecution and reinforces faith in the rule of law.

The Supreme Court has revived the charge of criminal conspiracy against senior BJP leaders L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharti and others, a small but significant change in the nature of the prosecution in a case that relates to the speeches they made, which allegedly incited the kar sevaks to pull down the mosque. In political terms, this is an embarrassment for the BJP. It has always maintained that the Ayodhya case against its leaders was essentially political in nature, but this charge now has a hollow ring with the Supreme Court itself reviving the conspiracy charge and fast-tracking the trial. As for Mr. Advani, this draws a curtain on his long political career; if it is true that he nursed ambitions about becoming the country's next President, this almost certainly puts an end to that dream. But more than Mr. Advani and Mr. Joshi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have cause to worry about how to deal with the continuance of Ms. Uma Bharti as a Union Minister. Given that the party had demanded the resignation of charge-sheeted ministers in the previous government, it will now face the uncomfortable predicament of one of its own facing a criminal trial. There is also the question about the propriety of allowing Rajasthan Governor Kalyan Singh, the man who was the U.P. Chief Minister on that fateful day in December 1992, to remain in the Raj Bhavan. While it is true that he enjoys constitutional immunity because of his gubernatorial office, he will be subject to the law the moment he demits office. There is no legal compulsion for either of them to quit, but the issue for a government that waxes eloquent about probity in public life is to ask if there is a moral case for their continuance.

Red, blue, ordinary

Beacons curb

Curbs on beacons is a fine start - but for an assault on VIP culture, more must be done

In a most welcome move, the Union Cabinet has decided to disallow the use of the red beacon on vehicles on India's roads. Starting May 1, only vehicles on emergency services, such as ambulances, fire trucks and police cars, will be permitted the use of a beacon - from now, a blue-coloured one. So-called dignitaries will no longer have the privilege of announcing their exalted status on the road by sporting beacons on their passenger vehicles. For this, the Central Motor Vehicles Rules of 1989 are to be amended, so that the Central and State governments lose the power to nominate categories of persons for the red-beacon distinction. As a symbol of an assault on India's over-reaching VIP culture, this is a good beginning. The flashing red beacon has become so closely associated with unchecked official power that in popular culture it is often all that is depicted to establish a character's place in the hierarchy. In fact, it is seen to be such a symbol of arrival in the country's power structure that at a workshop for first-time MPs in 2009, one of the main demands made was that cars with red beacons be allotted to them. Such demands have also made its very denial a low-hanging fruit for regimes seeking to establish their street cred as men and women of the people. For instance, over the last three years, governments in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, each of a different political hue, have limited the use of the red beacon.

But to meaningfully begin to dismantle India's VIP culture, doing away with status symbols such as red beacons is not enough. For one, this accessory is just one category among privileges that maintain a colonial-era overhang on the country's democracy, by publicly enforcing a subject-ruler separation. From pat-downs avoided at the security gate at an airport to a freer pass at the toll-gate on a highway, there are numerous ways in which the culture of entitlement is asserted. Such visible reminders of a feudal separation apart, the power of official proximity is experienced by citizens most intimately while accessing government services - from getting a bed at a state hospital, or a seat for one's child in school, to cutting the waiting time for, say, a passport or an Aadhaar identity proof. To be, or to know, ‘somebody' is far too often perceived as a requisite to getting one's rightful due in a political economy of shortages, sloth and rent-seeking. To refresh Indian democracy, the state needs to stop protecting MPs such as Ravindra Gaikwad who coast along on "don't you know who I am" bullying. But yet more importantly, it must also reform procedures and the work culture to provide a level playing field to citizens to get what is theirs by right.

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