The concept of watches is crucial to the safe and proper operation of a ship, especially when it is on the high seas. Different officers on board the ship are assigned different duties to ensure safe operation and navigation of the ship. Officers and men carry out these watch duties related to the routine of the ship in areas ranging from the bridge and the deck to communications and engineering. Failure to report untoward incidents and take immediate remedial action can lead to collisions with other seagoing vessels, seizure by hostile elements and even the sinking of the ship with consequent loss of men and material.
The ship of state is similar to a large seagoing vessel. In a lighter vein, it has been observed in the Yes Minister TV serial series that “the ship of state is the only ship that leaks from the top”, a reference to the tendency of top politicians and bureaucrats to divulge vital information to the media when they want to press for or stall a particular policy or course of action. But, more seriously, there are striking similarities in the two organisational structures, exemplified particularly in the maintenance of law and order by the state. I single out the law and order function because of the immediate consequences on the lives of ordinary citizens of the failure of the state to protect the right to life and property of the average citizen. The state here ranges from the topmost political executives (the Prime Minister, Chief Ministers and Home Ministers) right down to the lowest administrative functionary (the Taluka Magistrate and the officer in charge of a police station). It will never do for any functionary (political or administrative) at any level of the chain of command to claim that (s)he is not responsible for events leading to loss of lives and property. The credibility of the ship of state suffers serious damage when such events occur and leads to lasting scars and bitter memories in those at the receiving end.
I am motivated to write this piece by the reams of paper and the volume of verbal (often vituperative) discourse in the print and electronic media on the culpability of specific personalities for incidents that occurred while they were at the helm of affairs in the Government of India and different state governments. Unfortunately, nearly all the discussion has centred on partisan finger pointing and blame fixing rather than on the responsibilities cast on the political and administrative echelons to ensure safety and security of the populations living in their respective administrative areas. As examples, we have the decadal upheavals of 1984, 1992-93 and 2002, all of which represented conscious, tragic failures of the state to uphold the rule of law. More to the point, these represented instances where the state (from top to bottom) consciously abdicated its role for a certain period of time, in contrast to many other post-1947 incidents where the state machinery was found wanting in dealing with sectarian strife, but where the stigma could not be said to have spread across the entire governance strata and where those at the top could be accused of inaction but not of wanton neglect of their basic duties.
1984 represented the first major case where the state truly fiddled while the country burned. The anti-Sikh riots post the assassination of Indira Gandhi saw the national capital turn into a jungle as, probably for the first time after partition, mob rule prevailed on the streets of Delhi for the better part of three days. December 1992 saw both the Government of India and the Uttar Pradesh (UP) State Government benignly sitting by while a centuries-old mosque was demolished by right-wing activists. Immediately thereafter, we had the situation of the Maharashtra Government failing to control the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition and allowing mobs a free run of the streets of what was then Bombay. And, of course, we have the still hotly debated 2002 Ahmedabad riots, when one community was targeted for acts committed elsewhere. More recently, we have instances of recurring violence in Assam and the riots in Muzaffarnagar in UP.
It is not the intention of this blog to attempt to lay the blame for these unfortunate happenings at the doors of one or the other persons or organisations: the criminal justice system is supposed to take necessary action, even though there are serious questions on whether the guilty have been brought to book. What concerns us is the utter failure of the state to discharge its responsibilities and the failure of various administrative and political functionaries to live up to the oaths they had taken to the Constitution of India. Such occurrences not only leave deep scars on the psyche of the survivors but also instil in them a fear about the basic capacity of the government of the day to guarantee their fundamental right to life and liberty.
Three pernicious factors in the state and its machinery have led to this sorry state of affairs where we are unable to stop such upheavals at regular intervals: Partisanship, Corruption and Weakness.
Partisanship refers to that tendency where the functionary charged with the maintenance of public order is unable to rise above the pulls and pressures of caste, ethnic and religious loyalties to discharge his basic duties in a fair, impartial manner. (I have deliberately used the male gender to refer to the functionary, since a preponderant proportion of the acts of commission and omission are committed by males, although it is unfortunate that women are now getting infected by the same virus). The lower echelons of the police force and the magistracy take their cues from the higher levels of the political and civil administration. It has been repeatedly observed, for example, that districts in which the topmost officers like the District Magistrate and the Superintendent of Police set a personal example in fairness and impartiality rarely experience violent or long lasting eruptions of lawlessness. A ready example is the peace in then Bombay City in 1984 when the Chief Minister and Police Commissioner made it clear that no violence against a specific community would be tolerated.
Corruption is the insidious cancer that eats away at the body of the state machinery. Centralised posting and transfer powers have ensured that pliant (and often corrupt) officers and men are posted keeping caste, ethnic, religious and other similar factors in mind. The transfer auction industry creates a system where resources have to be gathered by those getting postings of their choice to repay the favours done to them. Easy sources of illegal revenue range from the traditional avenues of gambling, prostitution and illicit liquor to the post-modern riches of minor and major mineral mining, transportation, narcotics, straightforward extortion and collusion in underworld killings. This weakens the authority of the local officer to enforce the law in his area of operation. More than two decades ago, the presence of matka (gambling) dens and illicit liquor joints in a district were a pointer to the presence of unlawful elements; competition between rival groups was often the starting point for sectarian trouble, though the immediate provocation could be anything from eve-teasing to a streetside altercation after a minor accident. With access to immense wealth, criminal elements now rule the roost in many areas of the country — they do not even need to find politicians to support them, since they are themselves active in the political arena.
Weakness in law enforcement is an offshoot of the first two factors. Officers and men with inbuilt prejudices against certain communities can hardly be expected to be even-handed in handling sensitive situations. The problem is compounded further when such personnel are also compromised through their financial dealings with corrupt and criminal elements in their local areas and their readiness to do the bidding of the political masters who have secured for them their lucrative postings. With the system of centralised transfers, many such officers and men are not even bothered to follow the orders of their superior officers — indeed, they can probably arrange for the transfer of inconvenient officers, or, in some instances, for their elimination.
We are going to see a new government take up the reins of office in Delhi in the next week or so. At this juncture, it might be apposite to remind the incoming government that no excuse for failure to protect the life and property of ordinary citizens will wash with the public. We also have silly solutions being advanced in Assam like arming certain groups to protect themselves. Apart from promoting armed conflict among different groups, such suggestions (if they emanated from the government of the day) reflect a bankruptcy in governance. A government countenancing such ideas has no business to continue to rule. It is the primary duty of an elected government to provide security to its citizens as they go about their daily business. The comparison with a naval vessel can again be made, with one important difference. The captain of a ship stays with it to the last, even going down with it when it sinks. We certainly hope the ship of state never sinks. But its captain, the leader of the government, has to, at all times, secure the safety of the occupants of his ship.