150 years after the American Civil War, 50 years after Civil Rights movement, the American justice and prison system is a fortress of prejudice and hate.
- On MLK Day: How a Racist Criminal Justice System Rolled Back the Gains of the Civil Rights Era (alternet.org)
- Poll: Opinion On Trayvon Martin Case Divided Along Racial Lines (npr.org)
- I Was Trayvon Martin (thedailybeast.com)
- Justice Hidden In A Hoodie (theglobalmail.org)
Indic Justice …
The on-going saga of the Ambani brothers’ dispute, brings home how deeply and completely Indic norms of justice and fair play have been lost. The Ambani brothers have approached the Prime Minister and are pressing their cases in the Supreme Court for justice. Such a form of dispute redressal is alien and remote to Indic thought.
The other apparently unrelated ‘event’ is the much promoted and publicised book, The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen, has no clue about justice (at least on Indic thoughts on justice). Apart from a few token mentions about Ashoka Maurya and Akbar Moghul, he has very little to say about Indic thought on justice.
But he speaks very volubly on Western thinkers and thought on justice.
The wise king delivers justice
To bring out the contrast, one has only to read the Biblical story of King Solomon’s justice (where two prostitutes claimed the surviving baby as theirs). The point worth noting is that this paradigm of justice centralizes solutions and concentrates power in the hands of some central authorities.
So, whether it King Solomon or Caliph Haroun Al Rashid (the King in disguise), or the Turkish Çapanoglu Ahmet Pasha (of the bell of justice fame which even a donkey could ring to summon the king for justice) – the model was the all-knowing King. Variations of the Donkey /Horse and the Bell of Justice story is localized and retold in various cultures.
Going back earlier, the Desert Bloc model of seeking justice was captured in the story of Tehuti-nekht (the oppressive overseer); a ‘sekhti’ (the poor salt-trader) the ‘clever’ Meruitensa (The Grand Vizier /Supreme Judge) and The Wise Pharoah Nebkanra.
The Duke of Venice perpetuates the myth of justice in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. The more than 120 Doges of Venice who ruled Venice for nearly a 1000 years, preserved the myth of justice during the Middle Ages.
In modern times, as republican democracy made Emperors and Kings redundant, the Smart Lawyer took over the justice function, in the garb of legal thrillers.
Perry Mason replaced The Wise Emperor as the fount of justice. John Grisham keeps company with many writers about legal-eagles, who go out to save the innocent from the hangman- and send the guilty into the dock. Like John Buchan, GK Chesterton, Wilkie Collins, et al.
Hollywood used the legal thriller genre with assembly line regularity – with successes galore, like Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution (1957), with earlier instances like Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich, or the screen adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), or the more modern Erin Brockovich (2000)and My Cousin Vinny (1992).
All quiet on the Indian front …
In more than 1000 Indic books, that record more than 10,000 years of history, there is no instance of any dispute reaching an Indic King.
The longest ancient epic in the world, The Mahabharata has no incident where a private dispute reached Yudhisthir (though a mongoose could lecture the King about sacrifices and yagnas). There was never any case of private dispute, recorded in the Ramayana, that reached Ramachandra (though a dhobi could ‘inform’ the king on bazaar talk about the Queen Sita). Even a poor Brahman, Kautsa, could reach King Raghu for help in the disbursal of guru-dakshina गुरु-दक्षिणा.
In yet another instance, rulers were warned against disproportionate punishment – through the Mandavya incident. Mandavya, was punished by Yama (the God of Death) for his ‘crimes’ as a child, of hurting insects. Through a chain events, Mandavya ended up, impaled on a trident /stake. After best efforts to remove the offending weapon, a part remains inside Mandavya’s body.
With a trident through his body, Mandavya confronted Yama. Mandavya, the sage, berates Yama for ‘criminalising’ children. Codifying the principle of juvenile justice, Mandavya exhorts “that no action committed by a human being till he is fourteen years of age shall be regarded as a sin which it would thereafter.” In turn, Mandavya curses Yama to be born as a shudra child – to learn about the ‘reality’ of life. Yama, born to shudra woman, became Vidura, Dhritarashtra’s court.
In Buddha’s childhood, an injured swan becomes a point of legal dispute with his cousin, Devadatta. The injured swan, Devadatta’s hunting /archery practice target, was claimed by Siddhartha. Some minister’s preferred Prince Siddhartha’s claim, due to his position. Since the hunt was not for food, but for pleasure, Devadutta’s claim over the swan was seen as weak. Finally the claim of the saviour was seen as superior to the claim of the hunter /captor. Replace the swan, with a slave, and the legal principle for any dispute between a slave-owner versus slave-liberator, is established. The same principle is evidenced in Artha-shastra in many shlokas.
The Tamil classic, Silappadikaram, is ancient Tamil drama about the perils of royal justice. Silappadhikaram is, a literary critic informs us is “a saga of the of the cult of the Goddess Pattini … the first ripe fruit of the Aryan-Dravidian synthesis in Tamil Nadu.” Who is Goddess Pattini? Once a widely worshipped Goddess in South India, now limited to modern Sri Lanka “Pattini was an angry deity, whose anger was directed at evil people and she is also associated with rational justice.” The destruction of the city by Pattini, the Goddess of ‘rational’ justice, is a warning against vengeful royal ‘justice’ – and instead move towards ameliorative Indic justice system.
Elango Adigal warns Indic kings from taking over and interfering with dispute resolution mechanisms. The Pandyan King, Neduncheziyan, in Silappadikaram, comes to grief, after royal intervention goes horribly wrong, resulting in miscarriage of justice.
It gets worse! No prisons …
Modern econometric modelling shows that for much of the last 1000 years, India has been a significant economic power – till the 1900. China and India, this analysis estimates, for the last 1000 years, accounted for 50% of the world economy. Statistical analyses showed India with a world trade share of 25% for much of the 500 years during 1400-1900. The interesting (historical) aspect of the criminal management story is the absence of any surviving mass jails in India prior to colonial India. Just how did pre-colonial India, one of the largest (and most prosperous) populations of the world, deal with crime and criminals?
But then crime rate in India must be really high …
Cut to modern India. With such an inheritance, India has the lowest prison population in the world. How can India have such a low prison population, with a poor police-to-population ratio and a crime rate which is not above the average – in spite of a large civilian gun population.
All the 5 indices (below) create a bias for a lawless Indian society and rampant crime. With these five indices, namely: –
- Police to population ratio (‘increase police force’)
- Prison population (‘put more criminals behind bars’)
- Capital punishment (‘kill enough criminals to instill fear’)
- Poverty (‘it is poverty which the root of all crime’)
- Gun ownership (‘more guns means more crime’)
against a stable social system, how does current day India manage low-to-average crime rates. More than 2000 years ago, Megasthenes a Greek traveller to India wrote,
Theft is of very rare occurrence. Megasthenes says that those who were in the camp of Sandrakottos, wherein lay 400,000 men, found that the thefts reported on any one day did not exceed the value of two hundred drachmae, and this among a people who have no written laws
Historically, trade in India is governed by शुभ लाभ ‘shubh labh’ – and hence Indians have not been major players in drugs proliferation (unlike Japan, the West in which traded Opium in Korea and China) or in slave trade.
In modern times, India is not a big player in spamming or in software virus – though a power in computing industry. In August 2008, a hoax story alleged that an Indian hacker, had broken into a credit card database, and sold it to the European underworld. Some ‘experts’ feared that this would spark of a crime wave across Europe.
The Indic model of justice, crime and law
Evidence of a different Indic system goes far back in history. To Lipit Ishtar, Hittite laws, Hammurabi et al. At least as far back as 4000 years back in history. Indian kings did not deliver justice. It was done at the local level by panchayats पंचायत. Indian justice systems did not rely on imprisonment or executions or the police to control crime!
The answer – the world’s most stable marriage system and the extended family-social structures took care of the wayward.
A recent Hollywood film on the Desert Bloc system of justice was the schizophrenic Breaker Morant – by Bruce Beresford. In the closing lines of Breaker Morant, when asked about his religion, Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant declares that he is a pagan.
When the execution detail comes to get Morant and Handcock, the military chaplain asks their religious affiliation. “Pagan.” replies Morant. “What’s a pagan?” inquires Handcock. Morant replies, “Well, it’s somebody who doesn’t believe there’s a divine being dispensing justice to mankind.” Handcock nods and says to the chaplain, “I’m a pagan too.” (extract from Wikipedia; accessed on 25th January, 2010).
I have always wondered how much the writer knew – and understood the import of that statement.
In India, under the onslaught of the Desert Bloc, Akbar-Birbal stories, Tenali Ram-Krishna Devaraya were used to create expectations of a Wise King. From then on, the Indic system of justice crumbled at a faster pace.
Is it that Indians were ‘saints’ and did not have private disputes? Were they so civilized that they could solve all disputes by talking to each other? Is it that Indian kings were not bothered about delivery of justice!
“Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the Act depriving a whole nation of arms, as the blackest.” (Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, in An Autobiography: The Story of my Experiments with Truth.)
Gun ownership has long been suspected as the main reason behind the crime rates in the US. The most recent argument against theory is spate of bank robberies possibly – which dilutes this argument, at least partially. Estimates of the national stock of guns in the US varies between 40 million to 50 million households which own 200 million guns.
To make sense of gun-control, a look at the world’s second largest gun-stock can be useful. Recent estimates show that India is the second largest gun owning population in the world- with 4.6 crores (46 million) guns. Mos these are illegal – and unlicensed. In the hands of the poor. Made by thousands of small factories dotted across North and North-East India.
One report report states that UP alone has 900,000 licensed fire arm holders and 1,400 arms dealers. Another report estimates more than 3 lakh illegal firearms in New Delhi alone.
Guns – Made in India
India has a large domestic cottage industry in gun manufacture. Centred around UP, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, these manufacturers supply guns to the underworld and the general population – at a cost of Rs.1000-2000 (US$20-US$40) per unit.
The other place where these guns are being manufactured – and creating mayhem is in North East India. The North East is also the porous border where drugs from the Golden Triangle are smuggled into India, for transit through the Mediterranean, through small Indian fishing boats. This drug-related violence is camouflaged as a separatist and secessionist movements.
Return on investment
The ‘economic’ logic of using these guns for crime is overwhelming. ‘Invest’ Rs.1000 (US$20) and make a ‘snatch’ of Rs.10,000 (US$200). UP, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh are less than 48 hours away, from any part of the country, by train. Train tickets cost less than Rs.200 (US$4). The cost of these guns ranges between Rs.1000-2000 (US$20-US$40).
With such cheap guns, available in plenty, India should be overwhelmed by crime. These illegal firearms can be easily disposed – and hence ‘safe’.
A journalist figures out that
“These days kattas are much in demand because unemployment is increasing. So to survive, people have taken to these crimes. It’s easy money. You buy a gun for Rs1,500, and use it to snatch away Rs10,000-15,000,” he says.
Gun-making is a kind of cottage industry in towns across Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh
Heart of darkness
UP, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh were the heart of the British Raj – where land was taken away from peasants and handed over to ‘zamindars’. These ‘zamindars’ in turn rented out this land to the peasants – and with the excess produce paid the British Raj. This ‘injustice by the ‘zamindars’ theme was played out in countless Indian films, till a decade ago.
India’s all-time biggest block buster, ‘Sholay’ was inspired by this same theme – but with a benign
‘zamindar’. With land reform, migration to urban areas, the edge of this injustice has been blunted – and this theme is now a rarity.
Unlike Europe, agricultural land in India was owned by the peasants till the arrival of British colonialism. Serfdom and landless peasants were a colonial British creation.
Apart from UP, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, the development record and law and order situation is far better in other states, which had mixed administration, with local kings and colonial administrators. These areas did not see this land ‘re-distribution’ to such an intensity.
Is the current law and order problem in UP, Bihar and MP a colonial legacy?
A million militias
The War of 1857 carried on for about 4 years – and it were these small ‘workshops’ that turned out the munitions. After the end of the war, the British ensured that no Indian was allowed to own guns – except if allowed by his White masters.
These ‘workshops’ were later used by the ‘zamindars’ to arm their enforcers to extract ‘dues’ from the peasants. The peasants in turn also bought weapons from these gunsmiths to protect themselves against the agents of the Raj.
The spectre of Muslim gunsmiths
Muslims gunsmiths dominate this business – as can be seen from these reports. But the Indian Muslim, has like the rest of the country, not used these firearms dangerously. This is a strong argument against the oppression of the Muslim in India argument.
How long would it take to create a religious jihadi militia? That too, at such a low cost.
But what is the question …
Which brings us back to the central question? Is there a causal link between gun ownership and crime? Are these directly related and proportionate?
How can India have such a low prison population, with a poor police-to-population ratio and a crime rate which is not above the average – in spite of a large civilian gun population. The answer goes back to Lipit Ishtar, Hittite laws, Hammurabi et al – 4000 years back in history.