Photograph of Anil Chawla




Author - Anil Chawla

The last week of 1999 witnessed a high tension drama in the Indian sub-continent. A nuclear power was held to ransom by a small band of terrorists. The terrorists demanded release of some of their associates from Indian prisons and were successful. Government of India seemed to have no options and had been served with a stalemate. The opposition parties of India made some irresponsible noises but proposed no alternative course of action. For the media, it was a great 'story-opportunity' with drama, emotion and suspense, so they exploited it to the hilt. Now that it is all over and there is time for some quiet introspection, the country and the civilized world must sit down and look at all the questions thrown up by the crisis.

Government of India has released three terrorists in return for the safe release of hijacked plane and 155 hostages aboard. Of the three released terrorists, Masood Azhar is a Pakistani national, Mushtaq Ahmad Zargar was born in Srinagar (India) and Ahmed Umar Syed Sheikh is a citizen of Britain. All three were arrested by Indian forces and were housed in different prisons of India for more than five years as under-trials. Anywhere else in the world, five years is more than reasonable time for trial to be concluded for such heinous crimes as murder, terrorist violence, abduction, torture and armed rebellion. The standard rule of jurisprudence is that a man is innocent till proved guilty. By the same yardstick, the three released men can be considered to be innocent. If this logic is accepted, Government of India did nothing wrong in releasing three innocent men from custody. On the other hand, questions may well be raised about the state of law and order in India if people have to resort to terrorism to get innocent men released from wrongful custody.

This bizarre turn of arguments naturally puts Indian judiciary in the dock. As the world turns into a global village and as India seeks external assistance to fight the terrorist problem induced by its western neighbour, the country must realise that trials that go on for decades cannot be accepted. In the eyes of the world, an under-trial becomes an innocent man if he is not convicted within a reasonable time. A state that cannot prosecute terrorists and criminals within a reasonable time and with a reasonable degree of accuracy is considered to have failed in its essential duty as a state.

Lack of witnesses, non-cooperative witnesses, procedural wrangles, incompetent lawyers, overloaded judges etc. are some of the reasons given for slow progress of cases in Indian courts. The malaise is indeed very complex and needs the judiciary to work in tandem with the legislature to evolve systems to ensure that cases are settled quickly. Surprisingly, even the will to do this is missing from the judiciary as well as the legislature in India. The judiciary has emerged as the most conservative wing of Indian machinery of governance. It has made no attempts to reform itself, though it has sufficient self-regulatory and, to an extent, legislative powers under the Constitution of India.

It is possible for the legislature to bypass the self-regulatory functions of the judiciary and implement wide-ranging judicial reforms. Yet, nothing of the sort has been done. The Parliament did pass laws like TADA which gave wide powers to the police officers and provided for severe punishment in cases related to terrorism but TADA was subsequently repealed. The political parties who are making noises about the Government releasing terrorists are the ones who were responsible for repeal of TADA. After the hijacking incident, Bharatiya Janata Party (the ruling party in India) has demanded that a SUPER-TADA be enacted to deal with terrorism related cases. Laws that empower the police officers without a reform of the basic judicial structure and procedures, have had limited success in the past and it is unlikely that such piecemeal efforts will succeed in the future. It is high time that the Honourable members of Indian Parliament and state legislative bodies realise that their duties extend beyond making a din in the house and delivering lofty speeches.

In a situation where the judiciary and the legislature have failed in their respective duties, it is natural for people's expectations to turn towards the executive wing of the Indian state. During and after the hijack drama, the debate has essentially centered around the role of various ministers, the decisions of the Union Cabinet, the intelligence apparatus of the Government, the bungling by the staff and officers at Amritsar where the plane landed for a short while before being permitted to take off on its journey to Lahore-Dubai-Kandhar. Each of the above functionaries is a part of the executive. People expected each of the above to act in a perfect manner and be the ultimate in efficiency and commitment. Some of them did behave in a way that deserves appreciation. For example it is universally accepted that the pilot of the ill-fated plane acted in an extremely mature manner and the Indian Government as well as the hostages are all praise for him. On the other hand, various other functionaries can at best be described as sloppy. For the first two days it seemed that the Indian Government was dumbstruck and paralyzed. Inability to act with swift moves and take decisive action at Amritsar meant that a God-sent opportunity was allowed to slip.

By and large it can be said that exceptions aside the executive wing of the Indian state did not cover itself with glory in this hour of crisis. This is not a comment on the Prime Minister or any of the Cabinet Ministers who have limitations imposed upon them by the machinery through which they are forced to operate. It is a comment on the state of the machinery itself. There is no point getting a Formula One Racer to drive an old rickety 1958 model Ambassador car and there is just no way that one can evaluate the driver of such an old car in terms of international benchmarks of efficiency and speed. The machinery of the executive wing of India has lost sight of its primary objectives. Indian Government and its various undertakings and offshoots have become a large self-serving employment agency where majority of persons are recruited to service based on considerations other than merit and capabilities (Except in case of Armed Forces). Caste, gender, recommendations and connections play an important role in majority of recruitments as well as promotions. Supreme Court had tried to restrict the role of caste in promotions but the worthy Prime Minister of India wants to amend the Constitution to ensure that caste continues to be given due weightage for even promotions. An organisation where all the traditional motivational factors have been replaced by such extraneous considerations like caste cannot be expected to achieve any levels of efficiency and speed.

India has to learn a lot from the history of its old friend USSR that collapsed under its own weight. India is surviving because of the dynamism and entrepreneurial spirit of its people. India can possibly privatise its public sector units but there is no shortcut to improving the efficiency of the key institutions of governance. There is a limit to the employee welfare agenda that can be loaded on to the process of governance without affecting the efficiency of governance. In India that limit was crossed long ago. Indian state has ceased to operate in a reasonably efficient manner with respect to almost all key functions of the state.

The crisis precipitated by the hijacking of IC 814 of Indian Airlines, has underlined the shortcomings of the three pillars of governance - legislature, judiciary and executive in India. Luckily for India and the hostages, the crisis ended with no significant loss. It is however important to understand the signals that the crisis has thrown up. India needs to upgrade itself and improve the efficiency of each of its pillars of governance. There can be no globalization or prosperity or industry without an efficient judiciary or without laws that are properly enforced or without a working bureaucracy.

India must also learn from its history. India was always invaded from its western side by barbaric tribesmen. The present regime in Afghanistan looks at that history with pride and there are sufficiently large number of persons in Pakistan who agree with them and support them. Hijacking of the plane is a part of the war unleashed on India and the civilized world by barbaric forces. India cannot win this war by nuclear power. India will need to fortify and strengthen itself. Indian people as well as all those who are concerned about the future of civilized society must act to impress upon the leadership of India to shed some of the welfare agenda and convert each and every member of the Indian machinery of governance into an efficient and disciplined soldier. India must also improve its efficiency in all key functions of the state. Forces of civilization have lost a battle to the barbarians at the airstrip of Kandhar. But this was a small battle in the great war. The world must help India to be prepared for and to fight this war since the defeat of India at the hands of barbaric forces will be a major setback to the modern civilization.


5 January, 2000

Please write to me your comments about the above article.

ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and a management consultant by profession.

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