The Ghastly Delhi Rape and Anna Hazare

In the past two years that I have been back in India, I have seen two spontaneous eruptions of large scale fury from the public against the deplorable state of certain affairs in India. One was Anna Hazare’s campaign against corruption. The other is the current outpouring of anguish by hordes of people daily in the centre of Delhi to protest the ghastly rape in the heart of Delhi, and its corollary,  the poor protection of women on Indian streets.

These two uprisings have a few things in common. They depict a society simmering with anger, a society fed up, with no recourse left but to demonstrate. Most importantly, they depict a society where the old cliche  “justice delayed is justice denied” is no longer a cliche. Laws and rules have become mostly impotent, and the criminal minded are growing more and more brazen in benefiting themselves.

Anna Hazare’s fasts, boosted by Kejriwal’s immaculate stage management, mobilized an incredible number of Indians across the country. A nation rose, fed up of being held hostage to venal officials and politicians in every rung of every possible government or quasi-government institution. Anna Hazare and Kejriwal demanded the creation of an extra-constitutional body that would punish the corrupt. Those demanding bribes, and those who bribed, would both be held accountable.

For a moment, it looked like a new beginning would come to pass. But it was only for a moment. In hindsight, many reasons have been given for the fizzling out of his euphoric campaign. His occasionally bizarre high-handed comments, the autocratic nature of some of the leaders of the movement, disunity among the key stakeholders, and seemingly inflexible demands. All of these flaws may be accurate, but one flaw that pricked the balloon of success was the “my way or the highway” demand for an extra-constitutional body to dispense justice on the corrupt. Who regulates and monitors the justice dispensing body? Would it be another body? Who monitors that monitoring body? In programming jargon, that would be called an “infinite recursive loop”. The “extra-constitutional body” gave the democratic government the ammunition it needed to ward off the enemy before the citadel fell.

If one were to dissect and simplify Anna Hazare’s campaign into a problem statement, it would read “The justice system is no longer working to punish the corrupt within an acceptable time frame.” There are many solutions besides an extra-constitutional body. A constitutionally acceptable solution would be to reform the justice system, with some tactical fixes that provide immediate relief while the longer term reforms take hold. Had Kejriwal and Hazare pushed for justice reform, it might have been a more palatable solution for the government to implement. The movement could have then used its popularity with the people to keep the pressure on the government to reform.

Similiarly, the gang-rape case in Delhi has thinkers and activists proposing various solutions. Some suggest new laws, others suggest stricter punishment such as castration, and some suggest fast track courts or at least a different court process for rape cases. While there is merit in our updating rape laws, police procedures, and security, we must also implement the third suggestion i.e  faster courts and quicker dispensation of justice. Quicker justice is now an absolute necessity. Passing any new rape laws is useless if the enforcement of the law is ineffective.

There are a combination of issues, societal and institutional, that are at the core of why such a crime was committed and how it went undetected. But one of the problem statements in the Delhi gang-rape case is the same as the Anna Hazare movement “The justice system is no longer working to punish rapists within an acceptable time frame.” Hence, the criminal minded feel emboldened to act according to their animal nature, safe in the knowledge that by the time any sentence is served, they have many years to continue living out their lives as normal. As per a recent One India News article, there are 2  sitting MPs and 6 MLAs with cases of crime against women pending against them.

The 3 Pillars of Democracy

Pillars of Parliamentary Democracy

In our constitution, as it is in any democracy, there are three pillars. The Legislative pillar frames the laws, the Executive carries them out, and the Judiciary makes sure that the laws are followed. But in our democracy, one of our pillars has been weakened by years of neglect. Hence we hobble when we could be running. We think we are running, with China just ahead of us. In reality we are hobbling. What is amazing that despite our impediment, we have been second only to China in growth. Imagine the possibilities if we could run, unschackled by the fetters we have cast upon ourselves..

Many would say that the assertions made so far are simply not true. India has an active judiciary, especially the Supreme Court. That is correct, but it’s time to look at the situation  another way. Why does the Supreme Court need to intervene into matters that are well beneath their purview? The Supreme Court Justices have far more pressing national matters than passing judgements on demolition of illegal structures in Delhi, or upbraiding the CBI, or getting involved in the Jessica Lal case. It’s like asking the CEO of ITC to review the performance of a mid-level employee and order the appropriate action. Laws need to be enforced at the level of court they belong, and in a reasonable timeframe.

Imagine for a moment what a society in India could be like if rules were followed, laws were upheld, and those who broke rules and laws were held accountable. Unruly traffic would significantly decrease. Who would want to pay a hefty fine, or definitely go to jail, for breaking a red light or driving rashly? The culture of bribery would nearly end. Which police constable or low level government official would take the risk of losing their job and livelihood for the sake of a quick buck, if they were to know that they would definitely be prosecuted within 6 months? The culture of lawlessness that has permeated into the day-to-day life of India would eventually be wiped out. It may not happen overnight, but it will happen. Today, bribing a traffic cop in the US is unthinkable. Why is that so? Because although it began with an efficient court system that made bribing just not worth the risk,  the concept is now so firmly embedded into popular thinking that the idea of bribing  is almost non-existent. The first thing that one thinks of when pulled over by a traffic cop is how to defend one’s action that no rule was broken. If it does not work, then one may try to sweet talk the cop. The final step may be to use emotional appeal, through tears or a creative sob story. Nowhere in that spectrum does the idea of bribing the cop even arise. Nor does the cop ask for one, because he/she knows that if the victim complains, there will be definite severe repercussions.

Justice - Some Facts and Figures

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has spoken many times of quelling urban migration, of building an economy where people like “Nirbhaya” should not have to leave their villages and migrate to cities just to earn a living. But consider this: If a poor villager is to stay back in his village, he will need some land to live on, and perhaps some more land to farm. However, India is currently in a situation where the protection of property rights is virtually non-existent. A rich or powerful person can merely occupy a poor man’s land, be it his home or his farm, and there is no guarantee that the poor man will get his land back in his lifetime. Why then should a poor man take the risk of staying back in his village, when his basic rights, as enshrined in the constitution, are not protected adequately by the courts? In the urban cities, tenants refuse to vacate. If the property owner is forced to file a case against the tenants, it could take 20 or 30 years for the courts to deliver judgement. As a result, tenants have become thieves, protected by the shadow of a beleaguered civil court system.

So what can one do? What is the solution? Commissions on judicial reform have been created multiple times by past governments. Some recommendations have been implemented, many remain. Essentially, the solutions boil down to

Judges per Million

  • Fix the ratio of judges:population. The ratio (number of judges per million people) in the US is 130, in Canada it is over 75, in the UK it is over 50. In India, the sanctioned number is under 15 at the moment. The real number is even further worsened by the fact that 25% of the sanctioned judges seats is vacant. The Supreme Court even issued a directive to the Union Ministry of Law in 2002 that the subordinate judiciary be increased from 10.5 per million people to 50 per million people within a  period of 5 years. Have more diversity amongst the judges, definitely more women.
  • Simplify the judgement recording and delivery process. Remove all the archaic language and legalese requirements so that judges can draft a judgement in a day or two, if required. There is no need for lengthy judgements running into hundreds of pages.
  • Computerize the courts. I am a regular visitor to the lower courts in Kolkata due to various cases of mine pending now for as long as 10 years.  When I step into the courtrooms of the judges court, it feels like I have stepped into a bad period drama, and not even Merchant-Ivory can scrub it up to acceptable norms. The court clerk writes in longhand in some long winded journal. All dates and next steps can be changed with a few bribes in the right places. Anyone can get all the court related information on any case with a bribe, there is no concept of privacy or security. The courts are crying out for a technology upgrade. Mr. Nilekani, are you listening?
  • Provide more funding and more financial autonomy to the judiciary. Less than 0.1% of GNP (there was a recent article in TOI which claimed that the spend is now 0.01% of GNP) is spent on funding the judiciary. The judiciary needs more money for many reasons. There was a time when it was a matter of prestige to be a judge in India. They were well paid, got benefits, and were highly respected. Today, only some of the benefits remain. We need to incentivize our people to become judges again. The judiciary needs money if it has to expand the number of judges, provide new courts, upgrade the infrastructure (including technology).
  • Enforce new rules that prevent litigants from delaying cases. Stay orders, incorrect address strategies, changing of plaints, number of appeals – all of these need to be limited in some form or the other.
  • Implement fast track courts for certain categories of issues where there will be immediate benefit. This is a tactical solution until the long term reforms start to bear fruit. Categories such as Rape cases, Property protection cases, traffic courts are good candidates to start with.

India has come a long way with the financial reforms implemented in the 90s. There is a growing belief that India will regain its former glory in this century. The reality, however, is that no democracy can hope to survive in the long run if the third pillar, the judiciary, is not effective. For India to truly take its place as one of the great countries in the world, it has to foster a culture of law-abiding citizenry. Among the many things it needs to sort out, the court system is one of the most crucial. As long as we do not bring our focus to reforming the delivery of justice, we can only hang our heads in shame that we were not able to redeem the memory of “Nirbhaya“, and pray for a miracle that will prevent many more “Nirbhayas” in the future.

There are many concerned individuals, or groups, that are advocating reforms. Here are links to a few.

  1. Forum for Fast Justice: A forum in Mumbai created to raise awareness of the issues with the judiciary and to push for judicial reform.
  2. A recent op-ed in Times of India on the need for Judicial reform post the tragedy of “Amaanat”.
  3. Justice Barred: A piece written in Tribune India on Mar 15th 2012.
  4. Blind to what, Your Honour?: An article in Times of India by Addl Solicitor General of India, Indira Jaising, on the kind of reforms, judicial and otherwise required to prevent such rape crimes from happening in the future.
  5. Need for a smarter & faster judicial process: A fellow blogger’s view on the state of the judicial system in India.
  6. Some statistics on the justice system in India.

A visit to Kanheri Caves in Mumbai

Kanheri Cave

A cave at Kanheri, Mumbai

While browsing the Mumbai suburbs on Google maps one day, I noticed a vast expanse of green called “Sanjay Gandhi National Park” stuck plumb in the middle of the greater Mumbai mainland. Intrigued, I researched further and found it to be quite popular with the locals in the Northern suburbs. After some online searches combined with some non-Quoraesque Quora with colleagues, I discovered that the park was home to leopards and some ancient Buddhist caves called Kanheri caves. Notwithstanding the cats, the caves, and the park itself, was worth a visit, I was told.

A heron in Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Garden

We decided to check out the caves on the long weekend of MahaShivratri. Big mistake. We got to the park by 9 am only to discover hordes of people , mostly poor, queuing for a bus ride to the caves. Cars were not allowed and the government was sponsoring bus rides to Kanheri for all. Quite shocked to see such a resurgence in Buddhism in Mumbai, I asked a local park official what the commotion was all about. He informed us that there was a swayambhu (spontaneous) Shiva lingam in the Kanheri caves and we had stumbled into a national pilgrimage event in local Mumbai. So we contented ourselves with a glimpse of a heron in the Mahatma Gandhi memorial garden in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and headed home.

Some months later, and wiser, we set out early morning on a Sunday, – perhaps the only time every week when Mumbai is once again a civilized city – to visit Kanheri once again. As we entered the park at about 8:45 am, it was like entering an oasis. Once can see signs of encroachment, a few shanties here and there, but the greenery was vast and overwhelming, especially after being hurled through the crippled roads and haphazard concrete of Mumbai for the prior few months.

The caves were about a 15 minute drive into the park. The park was definitely popular with locals. There were joggers, cyclists, couples on bikes, walkers all along till we got to the caves. One could park the cars at the entrance to the mountain sides that contain the over 100 caves, some small and some major, that were built from 1st century B.C till 11th century AD.

The touring area had been developed reasonably well with railed pathways and stairs for all ages. Yet, one could turn the visit into a moderate exercise by walking up the hills rather than taking the easier pathways. The caves were obviously used by monks for meditation, but it seems highly likely that the monks had lived around there, sponsored by local kings at a time when  Buddhism flourished in India post Ashoka.

Each cave contained statues of Buddha in various different styles, some cut into rock, some of Buddha as Avalokiteshwara,  or on a lotus, or lying down, indicating the different eras when the caves were built.  Seeing the various statues, I thought of the derision that is sometime poured on devout hindus for practicing idol worship. Yet, other religions create their own idols, be it in sculpture or painting, so why point fingers at a people practicing worship in their own way?

Buddhist art in Cave 67 in Kanheri

One of the caves looked like a dining hall, some other caves looked like they might have been used as places to sleep, and some were clearly meant for meditation.  There were about 110 caves dotting the hillside, but caves 11, 34, 41 and 67 were marked as must-see  for their size and for the artistry. Cave 67, for instance, had 1000 sculptures of Buddha. Cave 34 had a colour painting, but it was on the roof and hard to spot in the darkness.

Walking in and around the caves does create a sense of history and awe, given that that Buddhist monks walked on the same ground some 2000 years ago. However, completely unexpected was the visual treat one gets as one climbs up the hills. Dense greenery, stains on a mountain hinting at an impending waterfall once the monsoon kicks in, a solitary white temple eaten up by trees, the wonderful vistas of Mumbai city in the backdrop of lush green hills.  Most wonderful of all, a cooling breeze smelling of fresh air, drying off a sultry Mumbai. It was, of all things, the hardest thing to leave behind as we wound our way down before the noon heat kicked in.

A few helpful tips, not available anywhere on the net unfortunately.

  • You can drive all the way to the caves, or you can park at a couple of spots along the way and walk the rest. Car costs Rs. 80 per person.
  • Alternatively, there are buses available at the entry point of the park to the caves.
  • The entry point on the Western Express Highway is at the junction for Borivali station.
  • Unlike in the Canary Islands, one has to pay the government here. Rs 5 entry to the caves for Indians. Separate price for foreigners, not sure how much.
  • Cameras, with flash, are allowed but I would not recommend using the flash..

A view of Mumbai from Sanjay Gandhi National Park

More photos on my flickr page:

A story from a receding era (with photos)

My aunt recently visited Mumbai and we used the opportunity to go search for my great-grandfather’s (my grandmother’s father) house near Metro Cinema. My great-grandfather was a zamindar in Andhra, but his passion was portrait art. He set up home in Mumbai to pursue his passion and love of the arts and culture.

I had heard many stories about the house in Mumbai being graced by the presence of great artists such as Balamurali Krishna and cultural stalwarts such as K.M. Munshi. But the story that is my favourite is of my grandparents in that house.

My grandfather was young, unmarried, and on his way to study law in England. On his way to England, he stayed at my great-grandfather’s house in Mumbai before boarding the ship to England, where he met my grandmother. Rather than board the ship to London, he went back to his home in Andhra Pradesh.

His father was perplexed at seeing his son at his doorstep at the time when his son should have been getting seasick on the Arabian Sea. My grandfather told his father that he had met the girl he wanted to marry and had changed his plans about going abroad. My grandfather’s father was now in two minds. On the one hand, he was unhappy that my grandfather was not going to England. On the other hand, he was happy that my grandfather liked a girl who was a friend of the family and a welcome choice.

Soon, my grandfather was back in Mumbai with his parents for a formal alliance meeting with my grandmother’s family. My grandmother’s parents were also quite happy about the potential alliance and were looking forward to putting their best foot forward and securing the marriage. Urban legend has it that my grandmother, who was supposed to act demure and retiring, opened the door to my grandfather’s family and, to the horror of her parents, looked at my grandfather and exclaimed “What! You’re back so soon???”

That, luckily, did not deter my grandfather. Thus, he gave up his education in England to be with my grandmother. The rest, as they say, became the future.

My aunt had visited the house last in 1975, but despite that, we found the house quite easily. It was a lot more decrepit that in the 70s, which was to be expected. The current residents were quite intrigued to meet us and actually allowed us in to see the house. Very few things had changed. Large rooms, old mosaic floors, the quarters for the domestic staff now being used as additional rooms.

Below are 2 pictures taken at the same location. The first is of my grandparents soon after they were married. The picture should date back to the 1930s.

The second picture is of my aunt and I taken a few weeks ago in front of the same staircase.

Some pictures of the home.

Driving across the world: a Transworld Expedition

At the party mentioned in the previous post, I came across Nick, a Frenchman who has decided to drive around the world. He is now in Mumbai but leaving shortly for Kolkata, then on to Bangladesh and eastward till he is back in NYC.

Some great stories. Take a look.

Mumbai: Where are the Mumbaikars

I went to my first get together in Mumbai last weekend. Very similar to a New York or London set up with a couple of differences. Meet in a bar, but no deafening music till much later at night. Some delicious finger food and since it was a farewell, the hostess actually fed us all dinner.

I was struck by the sheer number of expats that I met, and continue to meet, since my move to Mumbai. I met up with five people who knew me back in New York. There were people who had moved from London, Europe, Hong Kong, Singapore, Washington DC.

I have now attended meetings at the Indian exchanges, and a few other multinational companies. At every meeting, there’s at least one or two people who have moved from the US or UK or Europe. I hear American euphemisms such as “this is not a mom and pop shop”, or “that’s the way the cookie crumbles” or “let’s take it offline” being bandied about as the conference room bay windows show large crowds circling the streets of the Mumbai Mantralaya or the High Court.

Someone commented, with surprise, on my lack of an American accent despite so many years abroad. I thought of all the euphemisms I heard and wondered what’s worse: Indians who go abroad, never acquire an accent but speak in American colloquial form (yo dude, what’s up man) with a thick Indian accent, or Indians who sport an American accent although they never really left Byculla and then sport Indian phraseology (It is most likely not possible) with a rich Brooklyn twang.

Monsoon on Colaba Causeway

I went searching for the holy grail of Indian Chinese in Mumbai, Lynx Pavilion, and wandered off the wrong way on Colaba Causeway.

As I was walking down the causeway, Moses stopped parting the waters, and down came a gush of the Indian monsoon. Although one does see thundershowers of this kind in NYC as well, it was still wonderful for me to savour an Indian monsoon after so many years.

The causeway is packed tighter with vendors than the Lincoln Tunnel with vehicles during rush hour. The hawkers have mini-stalls with tarpaulin and plastic roofs extending out. Although there’s a lot of complaints against street hawkers in India, it’s thanks to these hawkers that one can continue walking along the pavement even in the most torrential rain. As one walks under this “one roof of the world”, one can hear the rain blistering down on the tarpaulin. It feels like as if one is walking dry under a giant waterfall.

Perhaps I should record this sound and sell it as one of the many natural sounds for therapy. Sitting next to “Morning Birds” or “Sounds of Nature” in one of the yoga stores in the Catskill forests would be “Monsoon on Colaba Causeway”.