M D Nalapat

This past week, attendance at cinema houses has suffered because of two stories that have repeatedly been shown on television. The star of the first is the 86-year old Congress Party politician,Narain Dutt Tiwari, who has been Chief Minister of two states,a Union Cabinet Minister,and till a few days ago,the Governor of Andhra Pradesh. According to the channels, a charming lady from his home state of Uttaranchal used to arrange for other – and much younger – women from the same location to visit the Governor in his official residence.

Although protocol demands that each appointment be cleared by the Intelligence Bureau, this was not done.Instead,the lovely young ladies were escorted by an Officer On Special Duty ( very special duty,indeed) past the security checkpoints at the Raj Bhavan to the waiting arms of His Excellency. No entry was made in the visitor logs,and the Chief of Security was informed that the ladies in question were all “close relatives” of the Governor. Of course, the “close relatives” usually looked very different from each other,thus raising questions as to the gene pool they belonged to being 86, Tiwari did not follow the example of some other Governors, who met their “relatives” in 5-star hotels rather than in their official residences. Indeed,in Delhi, at least two 5-star hotels are known for the multitude of charming “relatives” that come for short periods – sometimes at night but usually in the afternoons) to meet “Uncleji” for what must surely be chats about the weather. Others rely on close friends to provide the venues needed for such refreshing encounters, meetings that do so much to preserve family values and the spirit of togetherness. Sadly for Tiwari, his contact got annoyed because a promised coal mine allocation did not materialise. She promptly got one of the “neices” to film Uncleji as he gave learned discourses in the bedroom to her and to two other “neices”, discourses where the practical mingled happily with the theoretical.

Some would say that an 86-year old who educated three “neices” at a time should be given a Sports Award. However, India’s straitlaced Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, took a somewhat negative view of the Andhra Pradesh Governor’s visible (on television) love for his extended family,and forced poor Narain Dutt Uncle (or Grandpa,more appropriately) to resign. Several other residents of Raj Bhavans across the country who have similar proclivities must be thanking their lucky stars that in their case,they kept their word about such trifles as coal licences,and hence have yet to become television stars.

The other story that has been making waves in India is more tragic than the loss of office. Ruchika Girhotra was a 16-year old tennis prodigy when she was summoned into the presence of the President of the Haryana Lawn Tennis Association,Inspector-General of Police Rathore,and allegedly groped. She resisted,and was plucky enough to give a written compaint against the top cop. After that,she was forced to leave school on a trumped-up charge,while her brother Ashu was repeatedly arrested by the police on false charges. The harassment grew so severe that Ruchika killed herself in 1980. A couple of weeks ago,after 19 years,a court finally sentenced Rathore to a term of six months for his responsibility in the tragedy. The mild sentence finally woke up the media,which led a campaign that seems set to ensure that Rathore (who was promoted to Director-General of Police,possibly for his groping skills) may spend the next few years of his life in prison. There are far too many instances of high officials exploiting their power to humiliate and assualt women,and the Rathore example may serve as a warning to such individuals.

However, after having slept for 19 years,the Government of India has woken up after the media furore to put in place yet more rules and legislation,on top of the draconian laws that already exist in India. The new laws would make arrest mandatory in every case where a woman complains of harassment, with no right to anticipatory bail. Last year,a young friend of this columnist was harassed for months by his wife (who left him after a love affair), because she filed a case of dowry harassment against him. Under the law in India,such a complaint means that the entire close family of the spouse can be arrested.

My friend’s 79-year old mother had a criminal case filed against her,as happened to his sister and her husband. It took a while before the falsity of the charges could be established, a period when the family lived in dread of being taken away to jail. The point is that laws are only as good as the people who enforce them,and in India the enforcement machinery is usually very corrupt.Hence the proposed new laws that will follow the Ruchika case will not end such harassment,as much as it will increase the ability of the corrupt to blackmail and intimidate,so as to get bigger bribes. After more than a decade of liberalisation, India seems to be returning to the Nehru era of tough laws indifferently or crookedly applied.

For the politicians,the passing of tough laws is an easy way out of the public displeasure created by reports such as the Ruchika Girhotra suicide. However,such laws are useless in the absence of a clean,transparent and effective administrative structure. What is needed is milder laws but better compliance.And this can happen only when the public become more alert and more demanding of better standards.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is a reformer,but some others in his Cabinet are not,and they have been forcing through rule after rule,law after law,since they came to office six years ago. Such administrative methods have resulted in a shrinking of the space for the public,which is once more at the mercy of the officials,the way they were during the time the Nehru family were in charge. Of course, even today the family is in charge,as Prime Minister Singh has to report to Congress President Sonia Gandhi,the current head of the Nehru clan.

Is there hope? There may be,and from the Nehru family itself. Rahul Gandhi,the 39-year old son of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi,is showing genuine reformist instincts. He was born into a new India,and has grown up in a more self-confident country. His associates know first-hand the dangers of choking the system through draconian laws,that may some day get applied against them. Rather than join the herd in pushing through new legislation and new rules that can only increase the flow of bribes, Rahul needs to nudge his party’s government into undertaking the systemic reforms that alone can prevent the abuse of power that took the life of 16-year old Ruchika Girhotra two decades ago. He needs to encourage civil society in India. As in Pakistan,an alert and informed citizenry is a much better defense against tyranny and misfeasance than a plethora of indifferently implemented laws.