Dreaded gangster Shahabuddin walking ‘free’—released on bail granted by the Patna High Court—has sent shock waves across the country. If any doubt remained regarding the return of the jungle raj with the return of Lalu Prasad to centre stage, those have been removed. It’s also become impossible to give Bihar CM Nitish Kumar any benefit of doubt. Not a shred of fig leaf remains to cover his shame. Had his government not dragged its feet, the high court would not have granted the bail it felt the prisoner was entitled to. It’s easy to blame every thing on Lalu, but he is not the CM. Nitish can’t absolve himself of his responsibility. To add insult to injury, Shahabuddin lost no time in putting him in place as a ‘circumstantial’ CM. Nor did he find it necessary to behave with prudent humility. His motorcade—over 200 vehicles strong—passed through toll barriers unchecked, subduing lesser law-abiding citizen ‘shocked and awestricken’ with a brazen display of the privileges enjoyed by real rulers who are above the law. How prescient was Oscar Wilde who wrote more than a hundred years ago, ‘walls do not a prison make!’ A man whose writ ran unhindered even when he was not out on bail can’t be expected to conjunct himself differently when ‘freed’ presumably conditionally on a bail bond.
Lest our readers get the impression that we are targeting either the morally stricken, at least crippled, Nitish unfairly or are prejudiced against Lalu’s protégé (now patron?), let’s hasten to add that this is not the first or last case of its kind. The concept of rule of law and majesty of justice has been blown to smithereens not only in Bihar but also in UP and Punjab. Dreaded terrorists have got their sentences remitted by an exceptionally sympathetic executive. At times those released on bail order or parole have committed yet another heinous crime or the bird of prey with blood-stained talons has flown away—maybe unfettered.
Vikas Yadav may be the most high-profile of such cases, but it should not be difficult to recall dozens more strongmen who no one dare to identify as anti-social or criminals. Mukhtar Ansari and Pappu Yadav got elected as people’s representatives to claim special immunities and privileges. Whenever they come in conflict with law, the standard defence is they have been implicated in false cases by their political adversaries. Time has come to call anyone who buys this argument as an accomplice and an abettor. There should be no loophole left for the predatory sharks to slip through once convicted and their appeals dismissed by the Supreme Court.
But we digress. It’s not their individual cases alone that dangerously subvert the rule of law. The greatest threat to the edifice is posed by governments that abdicate from their duty of protecting the citizen from criminals. The disgraceful plea that the government of Karnataka submitted before the Supreme Court is the latest example of this. Wringing its hands helplessly, it watched rioters go on a rampage and shut down the IT capital of India. It was swiftly and suitably admonished by the apex court. Not long ago it was the Jammu and Kashmir government that was arguing that the execution of Afzal Guru would push the state beyond the brink. At different times, we have witnessed similar squirming by governments in Punjab and other states.
There are other disturbing developments. Vigilantes taking law into their own hands to punish whoever strikes their fanatical fancy or frenzy. The cow protection brigade in Haryana has quickly taken over from the violent partisans who wreaked havoc of during the Jat reservation agitation. Hate speeches made by elected representatives continue to flout the law of the land with impunity. Everyone seems to forget that the ‘absolute’ freedom of expression granted to them is confined to the House. Once they step outside, they must be treated like ordinary citizens. But can anyone image a police officer or a high-ranking civil servant trying to enforce law when someone like Azam Khan is involved? No political party or dynasty is blameless in this matter. That’s why despite the media clamour, party spokespersons have only fought like WWF champs.
One remembers with a twinge what one was taught decades ago in the law school: “The great humanitarian judge Krishna Iyer laid down the law—bail, not jail.” Jail demeans and corrodes, bail reforms. In times like these, one is constrained to ask shouldn’t the law of bail be reviewed in the context of hardened criminals with political clout? Should the courts not spare a thought for the victims and their families? Jail too has its uses.
The writer is Former professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University