Back to the law of the jungle in pursuit of 'justice'

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Before the world had codified rules, it had the law of the jungle with anyone at liberty to seek retribution in whichever way one wanted. One of the first codified laws was the Hammurabi code of law in ancient Egypt, recalled for the barbarity of its ‘eye for an eye’ principle and for its inherent prejudice against certain socio-economic class of people. A bizarre practice was the ‘trial by ordeal’ according to which the accused was placed in a potentially deadly situation as a way of determining innocence. The Code notes that if an accused man jumps into the river and drowns, his accuser "shall take possession of his house." However, if the gods spared the man and allowed him to escape unhurt, the accuser would be executed, and the man who jumped in the river would receive his house. But even the Hammurabi code laid down the principle of "innocent till proven" guilty. The world, where evolutionary democracy gifted the people with more civilized and sophisticated systems of justice, seems to be moving behind to times of Hammurabi or even much before, to re-invoke the law of the jungle. 

Three Muslim students were recently killed in Chapel Hill by a man driven by religious hatred and a motive to kill them to punish them for violent acts of some. Following an highly offensive and abusive film made on the life of Prophet Mohammed, an enraged mob lynched US embassy officials in Libya two years ago, appropriating the right to punish some westerners for a film believed to have been made by a man with the obvious intent to hurt the religious sentiments of Muslims, even though the film warranted legal action for being an act of perpetuating and preaching hatred. Nearer home, in Nagaland, in an even more bizarre incident, a rape accused was dragged out of jail, paraded nude and finally lynched by a mob. The act is justified by some on grounds of the failure of the justice system to deliver in such cases. The failure of the justice system is undeniable but that cannot be the legitimate reason for justifying and defending intolerance and outrage to the point that it allows people to appropriate the right of committing wrongful and illegal actions in the name of delivering justice. The same misplaced sense of justice lies at the core of the brutal police actions of use of third degree methods to extract confessions from accused and sometimes kill them in custody. What is inhuman and uncivilized cannot and should not be condoned in the name of justice. Two wrongs don’t make a right and more importantly a genuine fight for justice cannot be based on principles of injustice or inhuman actions. 

The media appropriates the right of taking the high moral ground and becoming the arbiter of every wrong in politics and society to the point of taking extreme positions and becoming judgemental. Electronic media debates have become virtual panchayat adalats where every issue is thrashed often with the tilt of some panelists and moderators. Media does have the right to criticise the pace of justice delivery system, even point out loopholes in court verdicts but failure of the legal justice system has sparked such extreme anger and outrage that media has virtually turned itself into a platform where anybody can decide who is a culprit or an innocent. It is extremely easy to throw up words like anti-national and anti-social to stonewall voices of rationality. Outrage against a non-functional system that has miserably failed to deliver in a country where corruption, communalism and parochial interests are pushing the people to the brink is understandable but systems and institutions that have not delivered in years also due to the tacit complicity of the public, by way of their huge silence for long, cannot be set right overnight. 

One such case is the campaign against sexual violence which began vociferously after the Delhi bus gang rape, finally awakening the national conscious and bringing to centre-stage the debate on gender rights. An active campaign against failed legal justice system in such cases is legitimate but the bid to subvert that justice system further by donning the right to decide who is an accused and also appropriate the right to act against that accused is something much worse than the complete insensitivity to the issue. The restlessness to dispense with what is deemed justice, not by institutions but by an individual or a collective of people, is a regressive trend in a civilised society. 

The recent controversy shrouding the BBC documentary film on the Delhi rape case is once again an unfortunate symptom of this restlessness and bid to find quick fix solutions for everything. Many may not justify the film, depending on how one interprets legally or psychologically the revealed misogynist mind-set of the rape accused and his lawyers but banning it on grounds as bizarre as that the film is hurting the national pride is unjustified and has no legal or moral sanction. Two things stand at peril with the politicisation of the BBC documentary film on the Delhi rape case – one is the freedom of expression and second is the grave issue of sexual violence. Whatever the film says and aims to do, even at the risk of opening the issue of rape and rapists’ mindset to interpretation, the unnecessary controversy over the film and the knee jerk action of the government in banning the screening of the film has done more harm than resolve any matter. It has pushed the issue of rape out of focus and put the democratic right of free speech in jeopardy. What it has brought to centre stage is the irrationality of a nation trying to grapple with uncomfortable truths and shades of grey. What it has done is not salvage national pride but to tell the world that we are a country comprising intolerant loonies, to tell them that when our justice delivery system flounders we appropriate the right to carry on a ‘trial by order’ as Hammurabi’s code of laws laid down.

To the conscious citizens of the world and to the newbies who have just woken up and are filled with outrage over everything going wrong, there is need to ask important question. When legal justice systems fail us, why is it that we begin to demolish whatever little is left of the institution and seek ways to revert to days of Hammurabi, or much worse to the laws of the jungle? Why is it that our concern for rule of law turns us into lawless and intolerant beings? Why is it that we lose the patience to wait and carefully plan and build better mechanisms and institutions and a better world. After all, civilization and democracy are processes that have been evolutionary. What is good for the world does not and cannot come at the press of a button.