India’s remarkable rise in recent years notwithstanding, a controversy now roiling the country is a metaphor for the civic and institutional degeneration that continues to cloud its prospects to join the ranks of the developed democracies. It is a tale of impunity for the powerful that, by puncturing a hole in the much vaunted claim of the primacy of the rule of law in India, offers a cautionary corrective to the irrational exuberance about that country. Ruchika Girhotra was an aspiring 14-year-old tennis player in August 1990 when she was sexually molested by the president of the provincial tennis association, senior police officer S.P.S. Rathore. On Dec. 21, 2009 (19 years later!) Rathore was convicted of the offence, sentenced to six months imprisonment with a $250 fine, but granted bail pending an appeal. In the meantime, Ruchika was expelled from her school attended also by Rathore’s daughter, subjected to vilification and harassment, and committed suicide on Dec. 28, 1993. Family members who pursued her case were repeatedly harassed and abused. Rathore, promoted to the top post in the state of Haryana and awarded the Police Medal for distinguished service (since stripped), retired in 2002. The criminal injustice system clearly failed the vulnerable and traumatized young girl. Especially dispiriting is firstly just how many individuals and institutions that could and should have protected her went instead with the flow; and secondly how instantly credible the sad saga is in modern India. The most serious pathology is deep-rooted corruption that robs civic life of public virtue. The World Bank estimates that corruption amounts to five per cent of the world economy, well over $1.5 trillion. The effects of corruption are most destructive and savage in developing countries. In many Asian countries, the No. 1 issue fuelling public anger is public-sector corruption involving politicians, civil servants and law enforcement officers. In independent international surveys by disinterested and reputable organizations, China, India and Indonesia usually rank among the worst on corruption scores. They are notorious for influence-peddling politicians, money-seeking bureaucrats and bribe-dispensing entrepreneurs. The generally high rankings of Singapore and Hong Kong underline the importance of public probity in escaping the poverty trap. It would be difficult to exaggerate the revulsion of ordinary Indians to the pervasive venality of public life. Petty corruption is especially endemic at the lower, clerical levels of administration — precisely the point at which the ordinary citizen comes into daily contact with officialdom. People are forced to pay bribes for securing virtually any service connected with the government, even that which is theirs by right and law. Corruption also undermines the war on international terrorism. Terrorists, like drug traffickers, gun runners and people smugglers, can move between countries with the help of poorly paid, ill disciplined and corrupt border officials. The second pathology is the systemic rot that has penetrated deep into the police service. A country discharges its responsibility to protect citizens through security forces. Of India’s three groups of security forces, the police are largely corrupt, inefficient, distrusted and everywhere; the paramilitary forces are brutal, ruthless, feared but called out of barracks only periodically; and the armed forces are disciplined, efficient, respected and generally insulated from the public, albeit with qualifications. Last year, just outside Delhi in Noida, an angry mob attacked the police for criminal dereliction of duty in refusing to investigate serial kidnappings of children. Over a three-year period, 38 children had been reported missing; 22 were sexually abused and killed. These cases came on top of public outrage at police incompetence-cum-complicity in a couple of high-profile murder cases which were then righted by India’s activist judiciary. They are widely believed to be anti-poor, anti-women, anti-Muslim and anti-outcastes. Torture is as routine as corruption is endemic. The police perpetrate some crimes themselves, shield criminals, refuse to register complaints against criminals, fabricate false cases against innocents, use beatings as their favourite technique of investigation and frequently resort to illegal detentions at police stations. There is an unholy nexus between police, politicians, and armed criminals. Police are often asked to drop investigations against political allies and harass, intimidate and coerce opponents. Recalcitrant police are “disciplined” by transfers to remote areas or trivial tasks; pliant officers are rewarded with plum postings and accelerated upward mobility. The third pathology is the excruciating pace of India’s legal machinery. In 1982, former Supreme Court justice V. R. Krishna Iyer famously remarked that “Once you start a litigation, please execute a will, naming the person who will continue the case in court.” The number of cases pending in India’s courts runs into tens of millions. Part of the explanation for the multiplying backlog lies in the citizens’ faith in the judiciary compared to other branches of government, part in the politicization of the judiciary at all levels, and part in its corruption at lower levels: justice delayed can mean pockets filled. The frustration with the glacial pace of the judiciary and the costs and corruption associated with it sometimes drive crowds into taking the law into their own hands and lynching suspected offenders because they fear that criminals will bribe and bully their way out of the justice system. The silver lining in the otherwise distressing Ruchika case is that the expanding middle class is fighting back against abusive officers and politicians through the press and courts. TV footage of Rathore grinning nonchalantly after his conviction and lenient sentence was galling enough to sting civil society into protest action and shame authorities into remedial measures. The thirst for justice is driving the demand to reopen old cases, give a stiffer sentence to Rathore, and call to account public and school officials, politicians and magistrates who allowed and facilitated this case to fester for so many years. The sound you can hear in India these days is of politicians scampering for cover from an outraged public. The government has announced that Rathore’s police medal will be withdrawn and is threatening to cut his retirement benefits. Additional, more serious charges are being laid against him. Inquiries have been launched into the school’s culpability in expelling Ruchika. Broader governance reforms are also being demanded of criminal justice procedures and institutions as well as police accountability to apprehend the perpetrators and protect the victims, especially children. The case could be a gamechanger in the moral rebalancing of the system from the powerful towards the vulnerable. Ramesh Thakur is director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs, distinguished fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation, and professor of political science at the University of Waterloo.
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