December 28, 2015

India: Epic culture of retribution (Latha Jishnu)

Dawn, December 28th, 2015

The idea of justice and retribution has bitterly divided India yet again. The age-old culture of settling scores with bloodletting as the primary impulse is ingrained in the Indian DNA from the time of the 2,500-year epic Mahabharata. It has once again come to dominate the discourse in the country where the prime minister speaks of making reparation for the injustices of a 1,200-year-old history and old hurts are aired afresh, making the most vulnerable of its citizens the victims of this hardening of the national temper.

The latest to be penalised are children. A few days ago, there were angry demonstrations, fiery and venomous debates on TV and shrill opinion pieces in newspapers in support of a law that would make children as young as 16 liable to be tried as adults for ‘heinous crimes’. (It’s another matter that no court in the country has been able to agree on what constitutes heinous crime). The law was passed after Rajya Sabha, the upper house of India’s parliament which is supposed to be composed of men and women of wisdom, was stampeded into giving its assent to the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill .

Although the main opposition Congress Party and the regional Trinamool Congress had reservations about lowering the age for criminal proceedings, they gave in to what they called ‘public sentiment’. Under the new law, the age of children who can be tried in the regular courts of law has been reduced from 18 to 16. And it puts India just a step away from countries such as the US, Iran and, lately, Pakistan which execute children as young as 16.

Examine: Rights groups rap India over harsher terms for minors

It’s a capricious law. Three-member juvenile justice boards will determine whether ‘heinous crimes’ of 16 to18-year-olds were committed with a child-like mind or an adult understanding and then let the law take its course. But that’s how arbitrarily matters are resolved in these emotionally charged times. The spur for the law was the release from custody of a juvenile who was involved in the brutal rape of a young physiotherapy student Jyoti Singh exactly three years ago in New Delhi. It was a case that shook India and caused revulsion across the world. The juvenile was 17 at the time of the crime, a street child from an extremely poor background who had been hired as a cleaner by the driver of the bus in which the grisly incident occurred.

He was convicted and after serving the mandatory three years was all set to be freed when the hard-line stand of the ruling BJP and the lynch mob frenzy of the media turned the Juvenile Justice Bill into a test case of society’s resolve on retribution. TV channels paraded Jyoti Singh’s parents who said they had not got justice for their daughter and hordes of protesters echoed this view because the juvenile had served just three years in prison while the adults involved had been awarded the death sentence.
Children have become the latest victims of the idea of retribution, a recurring theme from the time of ‘Mahabharata’.

Media which likes to play judge, jury and executioner in life and death cases, threw all scruples to the wind by painting the juvenile as the one who was “the most brutal” of the six rapists, a fact not corroborated either by the juvenile justice board interrogation records or by police. Worse, some of the media contravened the law by revealing the juvenile’s religion. Reports claimed that he was offering namaaz regularly and was coming under the influence of jihadists in the remand home. No further grounds were needed to make the juvenile the horrible ‘other’ by feeding popular anxieties. The demand for the offender’s hanging and castration harks to an ancient past in which retribution is a powerful theme, recurring from the time of Mahabharata.

The epic tells the story of a power struggle between cousins of the ruling dynasty that is fuelled by searing hatreds and finds outlet in horrifying acts of revenge. Rivers of blood flow in this great war, sparked by a score of rivalries and acts of depravity and injustice, the flashpoint being the attempted disrobing of Princess Draupadi, wife of the Pandava brothers in public by the rival Kauravas. It is this sordid act which prompts Bhima, one of her husbands, to swear bloodcurdling oaths of revenge and precipitates the war. In the popular view Mahabharata is the story of the struggle between good and evil, a belief fostered by the popular TV serial of the 1980s-90s, but a far from convincing thesis since everyone perishes in the carnage. Hindus believe it contains deep religious and metaphysical meaning and the Bhagvad Gita, which forms the core of the Mahabharata, is their sacred scripture.

For the BJP which has been pursuing its Hindu supremacist agenda, subtly and overtly, the Mahabharata itself has become a key tool to test the waters. Culture minister Mahesh Sharma has been saying that lessons from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Gita should be introduced in schools to teach the younger generation India’s ‘cultural values and traditions’. Sharma’s cry was also taken up in parliament by a clutch of BJP members just as the Juvenile Justice Bill was being debated. A startling endorsement comes from a Supreme Court judge, Justice A.R. Dave, who wants Mahabharata and Gita to be taught to six-year-olds. He says, without irony, that it’s the best antidote to problems of violence and terrorism in the country!

It is remarkable that politicians and even judges of the secular republic of India should want to stuff the minds of its 21st-century kids with the quaint values of a hoary past. The Mahabharata is a Brahmanical text shot through with caste and class inequities and above all propagates the idea of war to settle injustice. As a great poem that recounts tales of human turpitude and valour it is, perhaps, unequalled although the Greeks might beg to differ. New editions of the epic come out regularly to delight children as a ripping yarn. But as a prescribed text for “learning how to live life” as Dave puts it, the epic offers questionable values. Children know the difference.

The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi.