May 4, 2001


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Ashwin Mahesh

Amar Chitra Tehelkatha

Once upon a time, there was a small kingdom in the heart of Bharat, ruled by the Bhayankara prince Paadhiraja. The prince had been fortunate to ascend the throne at a time of relative calm and great economic opportunities for his people. He travelled the world proclaiming the prowess of his subjects, and exhorted traders from faraway lands to visit his prosperous nation. His courtiers and drummers too spread his messages far and wide; in a few years, traders from every corner of the world began to arrive in the renowned kingdom seeking their fortunes.

Many in the city were in thrall of their fame, and welcomed ever increasing numbers of traders and their wares. Goods from Nippon, the west, and elsewhere arrived regularly at the brimming ports, and with their increasing wealth, the people travelled the world. The granaries of the new world, the orchards of the Antipodes and the fashions of Gaul were regularly on display on the majestic streets of Isore, the Bhayankara capital. Biographers prepared great accounts of the king's achievements, and of the people's genius for prosperity, recording the unprecedented fame of this state.

There was, however, much that lay beneath this Elysian veneer. The opulence of the state was mostly in its cities; the peasants and countless laborers in the countryside remained mere spectators to this transformation. With each passing day, they observed with a combination of fascination and horror the changes around them. The splendor of the world passed by their doorsteps, and yet they remained too indigent to afford these riches, and unable to comprehend how this could be. Understandably, they did not share the merchants' great love of the king; indeed many among the poor regarded the ruler with suspicion, and even some distaste.

And so it came to be that in the hamlet of Jaastipur, a few villagers accosted the local minister, demanding an explanation. "Why is it, sire," they asked, "that we upon whose toil our kingdom has grown to such glory are not able to share in the rewards? Why are our king and his courtiers wealthy beyond imagination, while we remain mired in poverty? Why are our lands gifted to the traders from afar? Why are we unable to afford the plentiful food we grow? Why are our forests disappearing, while we have little wood for our homes? Why are our children sick from the water, when the springs of a thousand glens flow through Isore? Why, sire, are we still poor, and growing poorer still with each passing month?"

The minister promised to investigate their worries, and assured them they had the king's attention. Many months passed, however, and the villagers received no word from the capital. Once more, they gathered in agitation and this time many in the crowd spoke in great anger, scolding Paadhiraja for his callous ways.

Very soon thereafter, the king's ministers arrived, bringing with them the vast documents of the court, containing the record of the state and its dealings with citizens and foreigners alike. At the great confluence of the trading routes at Sarvampur, the villagers' numerous questions were gathered by the king's soldiers, and brought by the armful to the ministers. In all, 17,000 problems were listed, covering every aspect of the lives of the poor. A million laborers and their families gathered on the banks of the river, and awaited the answers to their myriad troubles.

To their great dismay, the advisers declared that villagers' questions far too numerous and detailed for immediate attention. Rather than attempt to answer each in turn at the meeting, which would be impossible, they promised to examine the questions at length, and devise solutions to the majority of them. As they departed, disgruntled villagers cursed their names, and hurled abuse at them, but with the army looking on, many did not dare resort to violence. The few who did were arrested quickly by the soldiers and whisked away from the gathering.

A few weeks later, Paadhiraja declared the session at Sarvampur a resounding success. Speaking on the steps of the capital building in Isore, he saluted the grandeur of his reign. "Such is the majesty of our kingdom", he roared, "that the most ordinary villager can accost the king's mighty courtiers and demand to be heard." He then praised his ministers for their remarkable attention to the plight of the poor, and gifted each an immense swath of land. "This, I grant you", he said with touching thankfulness, "with the gratitude of the crown".

That week, the six thousand families who had lived for generations on the land the king gifted away were forced into the shanties outside Isore. During the violent resistance to their displacement, six of them, including two children, were killed by the soldiers. A few vocal dissenters were accused of raping women they had never set eyes on; the judges declined to grant them bail. At trial, many of those arrested were convicted of numerous charges based on perjurious testimony and imprisoned for lengthy periods, and others were fined heavily.

Among the prosperous merchants, a few were troubled by the dramatic events, and quietly sought an explanation. How is it possible, they asked their friends among the ministers, that even as we celebrate our prosperity and grandeur, many of our citizens live in such contempt of the state and receive so little of the wealth we create? The king's representatives, however, were indignant at the implication, and refused to see the villagers as victims. "Such rascals have no regard for the law", they declared. "The conduct of the state is in complete compliance with the laws, Paadhiraja is beyond reproach. Why, we will give you the appropriate documents, and you can verify this yourselves!"

Intrigued by this assertion, I looked. As evidence of propriety, I found documents that declared two energy projects on the west coast to have obtained every sort of environmental clearance required by law; indeed so uniform was their honesty that the two clearances were identical copies! Another document virtually guaranteed a power producer that its energy would be bought at three times the average price, and that disputes shall be resolved in foreign courts. A third set of documents purports to streamline growth in the Bangalore-Mysore corridor, and to ensure this, non-existent developers have been afforded land at the unusual price of Rs10/acre per year.

A fourth document, this time stamped with the authority of the Supreme Court, calls protesting citizens to answer charges of contempt of court stemming from disagreement with verdicts rendered in the Narmada Dam dispute, and of potential involvement in incitement to murder, no less! A fifth document ...

In free societies, the purpose of law is not merely to be in compliance with it, even dictatorships achieve this pitiful standard. Instead, the statutes of the land must serve a viable and valid public interest, for the betterment of many and the encouragement of all. For too long, we have asked only if deviant behavior is clearly outside the bounds of law; this has led to challenging appearances rather than actuals. There is, I assure you, no law against wrapping three crores of rupees in bed-sheets at home, or one that prohibits stuffing a few thousand rupees from unchecked sources into the innards of one's clothing. Whether these will pass scrutiny for honest intent, however, is less certain.

Mandatory environmental clearances for large projects, transparency in soliciting and signing purchase agreements for various infrastructure programs, the proper cognisance of First Information Reports in the courts, these are not themselves ends we seek, only the means to the good society. The standard for protecting the public interest isn't an insistence by the forest or highway department that no negative impacts will occur. Mere claims of compliance do not mitigate the impact on those whose interest is sought to be protected by the requirements. Signed statements from the executive and the judiciary asserting their veracity are a mockery of reality.

There is an idea of India that lives in some of us, fostered by the imagination of what our nation can be, and splendid in its dearness to our hearts. With this inspired view, we seek the good society, radiant in its affirmation of the common good and justice. This quest rests poorly in light of our nation's dispossessed and marginalised sections. It behooves the informed, you and I, to protest how easily they are belittled by the laws, by the appearance of concern, and by the mere suggestion of a State that acts in their interest. Their vigorous disagreement can often be thwarted by legalese that exploits their ignorance, by deliberate indifference to such maneuvering, and by State-led economic or physical violence against a select few among them.

This isn't democracy; it isn't even government.

Ashwin Mahesh

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