To block terrorism, look deeper

Financial Express, 3 December 2008

In good countries, democracies respond to events, and are able to reshape the State in response to challenges. The question that we now face in India is about how a fundamental transformation of law and order can be achieved.

This issue needs to be seen at two levels. The first level is the practical details of fighting terrorists. This includes issues such as:

Blocking terrorists requires a comprehensive look at law and order

These first level issues need to be addressed. But they need to be seen in the context of the deeper difficulties of India's justice system. Whether we look at laws, courts, police or lawyers, India's justice system is doing very badly on the core business of law and order, on ensuring the safety of life and property. The brute fact is that in most parts of India, women were safer going out after dark under British rule than they are today.

This deeper failure needs to be understood and confronted, for without deeper changes to laws, courts, police and lawyers, the best NSG in the world will have limited effectiveness. Anti-terrorism is not distinct from the justice system: for it to work well, the entire justice system has to work well. As an example, in the 1993 blasts in Bombay, we saw close links between the underworld, corrupt governments, and terrorists. To make such terrorist plots harder, the deeper problems of the underworld and corruption in government have to be confronted. Anti-terrorism starts with the beat constable. If he is not sharp, alert, well motivated and uncorrupt, then the flow of information from the ground level will be impeded. Blocking the bad guys in New York requires not just the FBI -- it requires a strong NYPD, strong courts, sound laws and strong lawyers as well.

Why has the justice system deteriorated when compared with British India?

Two important forces are at work.

  1. Political parties are involved in crime. Whether it is Congress, BJP, CPI(M), DMK, etc., all major political parties have blood on their hands. All of them have used the control of police to protect their own criminals. This inevitably damages the police as an institution. At the extremeties of this process are the Shiv Sena and the CPI(M), exponents of a fascistic fusion of violence and politics founded on supporters in the police.
  2. The second problem is the loss of focus of the government on law and order owing to the socialist ethos. After 1947, the activities of the State have steadily expanded. The State has shifted away from core public goods like law and order to an effort to use government programs to directly make some people happy. This inevitably turned into vote-bank politics where politicians compete on setting up programs that directly favour people of a certain caste or ethnicity.

Loss of focus on the core public goods of law and order

India has a very feeble government, that is capable of very little. By giving the government a sprawling agenda, and asking government to get involved in every perceived social ill or every narrow vote bank, we have spread our limited governance capacity thin. Each hour that the PM or Parliament spends on I&B or Steel or PSU banks, that have nothing to do with public goods, is one less hour that is spent on genuine public goods such as the justice system.

If the election commission said that conducting general elections would take two years instead of two months, there would be an uproar and the problem would get solved. But we have accepted a much greater scandal: a justice system where cases take 20 years to get resolved.

Most people in India are convinced that health, education and human development is very important. What has been forgotten is that the justice system is even more important. If the justice system does not work, then human development will not come about out. Whether we think about naxalites on the loose in over 100 districts, CEOs getting murdered by trade unions, BPO workers getting killed in Poona, Shiv Sainiks blighting Bombay, or terrorists in hotels: all these problems directly prevent the market economy from blossoming and giving us the GDP growth that can actually generate human development.

What gets measured gets done. In India, there is no data about law and order, which hinders accountability and the process of improvement. The police are often more dangerous than the criminals, so many crimes go unreported, which makes crime data untrustworthy. Internationally, "Crime Victimisation Surveys" ask households about crime they have suffered, their subjective perception of safety (e.g.: "At what time should a teenage daughter get back home?") and their view of the justice system (e.g.: "If you were the victim of crime X, would you go to the police?"). In India, we obsess on measuring poverty and health, but we do not have a Crime Victimisation Survey.

This is not a problem of rich versus poor. Law and order is not an elite concern. Poor people get the brunt of the bad legal system. It is the poor who suffer human rights abuses with extortion, bullying and torture by the police; who are denied justice using malfunctioning courts; who suffer the most when GDP growth does not take place. For India's development to proceed, we need to greatly shift the focus of the State away from welfare programs to law and order.

Back up to Ajay Shah's 2008 media page
Back up to Ajay Shah's home page