Thursday, 18 May 2017

HORSES FOR COURSES .

  Horses and the IAS have never been on the same page or the same paddock, as it were. Their relationship is somewhat like that of Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un: wary apprehension on the one side and undisguised contempt on the other. Until the 1980's horse riding was compulsory for all IAS probationers incarcerated in the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration at Mussoorie, and if they failed in this activity they would remain Deputy Secretaries for life, with no parole. The " raison d'etre" for imposing such a vigorous activity on people whose greatest physical exertion in later years would comprise of nothing more than bending over backwards ( the                   "sir-namaskar aasan") or brushing files under the carpet, was aptly summed up by Mrs. Indira Gandhi when some stout probationers represented to her that the sport should be made optional. She is reported to have said: " An officer who cannot control a horse cannot control a crowd."
   And so, since no one, not even a pedigreed mule from Rohtak, argued with Mrs. Gandhi, uncounted generations of probationers were condemned to throbbing posteriors, cracked skulls and hyphenated legs which would have made any Shakespearean buff cry out in delight- " Yonder cometh a bloke in parenthesis !" We also acquired a healthy respect for these formidable quadrupeds, standing six feet at the fetters, loaned to the Academy by the Indian Military Academy or the Army Remount Corps and retaining all the contempt which the Army has for bureaucrats, even the budding ones. Riding became the biggest obsession in the Academy, second only to the urgent need to identify potential spouses from those states where one wanted an allotment but had not succeeded. In the process it threw up a whole collage of personalities, incidents and tales that we can now look back on with amusement, confident in the knowledge that our days of crowd and horse control are now well behind us.
  Take, for instance, Hazari Singh a retired Army Havildar, half dragon and half bear trap, our riding instructor. His avowed mission in life was to demonstrate that IAS probationers were the lowest form of invertebrates, and that it was a pure aberration in the Darwinian law of Natural Selection that such genetic mutants should be astride an animal as splendid as a horse. He lost no opportunity to constantly reaffirm this to us. If someone handled a horse roughly Hazari Singh would let out a roar in a voice that could be heard in Dehra Doon: " Aaram se, saar, that is an expensive animal, not some cheap trash selected by the UPSC!"
  For the smart alecks amongst us he had a trick up his sleeve: an eight year old, midnight black mare named Jaya whose memory, even today, induces incontinence among hard boiled Collectors and deep fried Secretaries. If Hazari Singh perceived any one of us to be a bigger streptococcus than normal, that lost soul was ordered to mount Jaya. Thereafter that poor sod was like clay, and Jaya the potter: she could ( with Hazari Singh's fond blessings, of course) do anything with him as she pleased, for she had a mind that was immutable, even by the standards of the female of the species. Madhavan mounted Jaya one day- and disappeared for two whole days! Even today, well into his dotage, he becomes incoherent when asked where Jaya had taken him.
  Varun Maira, who possessed a remarkable resemblance to a sack of potatoes, was once ordered to do a three feet jump on Jaya. The lady preferred carrots to potatoes, and at the last possible moment when Varun, like a lumbering 747 had committed himself to take-off, Jaya stopped! Varun continued over the jump in a perfect parabola, sans Jaya, and landed heavily on his head. Any apprehensions of a possible brain injury were dispelled by a smirking Hazari Singh: " No problem, saab, there is nothing inside that head that can be damaged!" He proved to be extremely prescient, I must admit, for Varun's subsequent career graph has been impressive- he retired as Chief Secretary, a post in which, as we all know, brains are considered to be a liability!
  About that time I had, with great difficulty, persuaded a comely female in Lucknow to agree to marry me. It was touch and go and therefore it was incumbent upon me to go to Lucknow every couple of months to ensure that she didn't change her mind. It was not easy to get leave unless one obtained a medical certificate from the Doc. On one such occasion I showed the Doc some bruises and cuts on my knee and asked for three days' leave over the weekend. " How did you get these ?" inquired the Doctor.
  I had acquired them while trying to scale the wall of the Ladies' Block the previous night but honesty was certainly not the best policy at the moment. " I fell off a horse, sir," I replied, in the tone of that stupid English King who lost his kingdom for doing something similar.
  " Ah !" said the medico with a glint in his eye, " the riding ground is swarming with germs ( I don't think he meant us probationers). You should immediately have three tetanus shots over the next three days. No leave, I'm afraid, can't take a chance." In those primeval days AT shots were given on the posterior, with a needle as thick as an RSS lathi, and so I spent the weekend lying on my stomach. Fortunately, my fiancee didn't change her mind, though now she wishes she had.
  And finally, there was George Mehra. He was straight out of a Zane Grey western, always with a cigar stuck in his mouth, and when he walked past you one could distinctly hear the testosterone sloshing around inside him. George was/is a satyr- half horse and half man- and loved riding: he was the only one among us who was on first name terms with Jaya. He spent eighteen hours a day in the saddle, even taking short naps there. Hazari Singh gave him the supreme compliment by announcing that he was a mis-fit in the IAS! For once, though, he was wrong. In later years George was to become famous when, as Collector of a notorious district, he personally beat up a politician on a main road for passing comments about his wife. Nobody tangled with him for the next thirty years after that . Maybe Mrs. Gandhi was right, after all ?

Friday, 12 May 2017

LESSONS FROM A JUDICIAL DEADLOCK

                                             

   The face-off between Justice Karnan and the Supreme Court has rapidly deteriorated from a Punch and Judy show to a Three Stooges burlesque with juridical invectives and challenges being hurled about with gay abandon by both sides. There has been very little public discussion of this, presumably because this needless drama is perhaps seen as an internal matter of the higher judiciary. Nothing could be further from the truth. The judiciary is the one remaining key-stone of our sorry democracy, when all the other three pillars have begun to crumble, and therefore the citizens have a right to involve themselves in this theatre of the absurd for two reasons. One, the likes of Justice Karnan hold, literally, the power of life and death over us and their behaviour, conduct and mental equilibrium concerns all of us. Second, in the absence of any other checks and balances on superior court judges, the Supreme Court’s ability or will to rein in a maverick judge has to become a subject of scrutiny by the nation. The question has to be asked: After all, how safe is the average citizen from a judge who has been defying the highest court of the land for months now, a judge who has ordered the registration of cases, seizure of passports and even imposed prison sentences on no less than seven Supreme Court justices ? The SC has now sentenced him to six months in jail for contempt but the unspoken question that haunts many of us- is Justice Karnan a one-of-a-kind aberration or are there more of his like embedded in the system?
   This unfolding drama, it has to be admitted, is partly the result of the judiciary’s own hubris and over-reach. The Constitution provides adequate safeguards to preserve the independence of the judiciary, but over time the Courts have added more layers of protection, to a point where the judges today have become almost divine entities. They are accountable to no one but themselves, they cannot be questioned, they appoint themselves, they are immune from any prosecution or investigation unless they themselves approve it, they are immutable and inviolate. The Contempt of Courts Act provides the final coating of teflon which the public or the media can penetrate only at their own peril. They have conferred on themselves almost a supernal status, and this has now boomeranged on them and come back to haunt them. It is precisely this celestial immunity which Justice Karnan has been using to cock a snook at the Supreme Court, trading arrest warrant for arrest warrant, medical examination for medical examination, passport for passport ! And, at least for now, the Supreme Court has been unable to find a way out of this “ chakravyuh”.
    This is not the first time that a superior court judge has gone wayward. In the past too there have been charges made and questions asked, the details of which it would be prudent not to elaborate here. But I do not recollect any tangible or substantive action being taken in any of those cases. There has recently been the case of retired Justice Katju, in which fortunately a way out was found by his tendering an apology. But these instances only  reinforce the feeling and aura of invulnerability among them, making them, literally, a law unto themselves. All the required ingredients were in place and Justice Karnan was simply waiting to happen, as inevitably as the being created by Dr. Frankenstein when the potion was just right.
   The dilemma the Supreme Court has found itself in is a constitutional one. A superior court judge can only be removed by impeachment by Parliament. This was tried once but was aborted: a fractured Parliament, riven by caste, regional and political rifts will always ensure that this clause can never be implemented.The Supreme Court 0stensibly has found a way out of this imbroglio by sentencing Justice Karnan to imprisonment for six months for contempt. But since he retires next month this amounts to his removal, and questions have already been raised by  many legal authorities whether this is unconstitutional. Knotty legal questions still remain: removal from service usually entails forfeiture of pension in government- will he be entitled to a pension now when he retires? Will he be disqualified in future from any service under the government ? Is the SC order in conflict with the constitutional provisions ? How robust and objective is the collegium system of appointment if it selects judges who show scant respect for even the Supreme Court? Will Justice Karnan now play the Dalit card and create further rifts within the judiciary itself? I have a feeling we have not heard the last on this matter.Justice Karnan has already moved a petition asking the SC to recall the order for his arrest, and the Court has agreed to hear it. In all probability a via media will be manufactured, the errant judge will be allowed to retire( perhaps prematurely to avoid more of his broadsides) and all will be well in Camelot again- till the next Justice Karnan surfaces somewhere else. It is time to address the real malaise and not just apply a band-aid.
  I am reminded of a mythological tale I heard in the remote Sainj valley of Kullu district in Himachal during one of my treks many years ago. Many centuries ago( so the local legend goes) the valley was ruled by a giant “ rakshas” known as Rakti Beej. He had been given a “ vardan” by the Gods that he could not be killed, for every time a drop of his blood fell on the ground a new Rakti Beej would sprout from it. Secure in his invulnerability, Rakti Beej set about killing all the Gods one by one! Finally, they appealed to MahaKali to save them. She grabbed Rakti Beej with two of her hands, cut his throat with the other, and collected the falling blood in a cup with the fourth, preventing it from falling on the ground. Thus was Rakti Beej finally defeated. Absolute power can be a double-edged sword, as even the Gods discovered !
    Unfortunate as this episode is, it presents us with an opportunity to devise a process by which judges who cross the line can be eased out of service without nuking the system. In most well administered countries moral pressure and the force of public opinion itself are enough to make a delinquent judge quit on his own. In recent times Lord Dennings, a British judge, stepped down after charges of racism were made against him. This, however, is unlikely to happen in India for two reasons: first, public criticism of a judge is stifled by the laws of contempt and hence the force of public opinion is missing, and secondly, we as a nation have no sense of moral responsibility. Therefore, we need to invent a  system to ensure that this type of situation never recurs, and that there must be a way to remove recalcitrant judges other than by way of impeachment alone. We need to revisit, for example, the Judges Inquiry Bill ( 2006) which proposed a committee of judges to enquire into cases of judicial misconduct. Parliament torpedoed this Bill on the ground that judges cannot be a judge in their own cause. So how about adding a couple of non-judge legal luminaries to this committee ? Surely this is not an unsurmountable impediment ? But for this to happen the judiciary must acknowledge that too much protectionism is not healthy for its own body fabric. It must accept that judges too are mortal and not infallible and that when they err gravely there must be a process to discipline them and remove them from service without having to invoke the brahmashastra of impeachment. The judiciary cannot evolve such an alternative system by itself- it must come down to ground and sit with the Executive to find the solution. And it must accept that too much power ultimately self- destructs, and takes all with it.






Friday, 5 May 2017

CLUELESS BBC LOCKS HORNS WITH RHINOS

        [This piece was published on the op-ed page of the New Indian Express on 3.5.2017]

   Britain exterminated all its wildlife a hundred years ago, it still slaughters six million pheasants every year for “Sport”, and its last remaining carnivore( if you can call it that), the fox, will be doing its own Brexit within a decade. So its a bit rich for the BBC to be advising us on how to conserve wild-life, which is what it has had the gall to do in a recent documentary, KILLING FOR CONSERVATION, a short film ostensibly about efforts to protect the one-horned rhino in Kaziranga. Strangely, though, in this 20 minute misrepresentation the reporter ( Justin Rowlatt, BBC’s South Asia correspondent) completely upends the focus- from wildlife conservation to a flawed view of human rights! Short on facts and woefully lacking in perspective or understanding of what wildlife conservation entails, he is outraged by the killing of poachers ( he terms them “extra judicial executions!”), the eviction of illegal settlers from within the Kaziranga National Park( KNP) and alleged tortures for which he has no shred of evidence. To me he appears to be a bit schizophrenic, for while acknowledging that “ man is the most vicious predator” and that Kaziranga “ is an incredible story of conservation success”, he still goes on to find fault for just about everything the Park authorities do, and condemns them ( and the WWF, for good measure!) for their success.
   Lets just recapitulate the context here. Kaziranga National Park is vast, 900 sq. kms of the most difficult and inaccessible terrain, of which 228 sq. kms has been exclusively set aside for the protection of the Greater One Horned Rhinoceros ( Rhinoceros Unicornis), the horn of which fetches upto Rupees twenty million in China. Two thirds of the world’s population of these rhinos are in Kaziranga. The efforts of the KNP constitute one of the greatest conservation success stories in the world: the rhino population has doubled in the last 22 years- from an alarming 1164 in 1993 to 2401 in 2015. But the poaching has not stopped- 151 rhinos have been killed in the last 10 years, 89 in just four years between 2013 and 2016, something which Mr. Rowlatt was not bothered to find out. In fact, there has been a sharp spike in poaching in these years, which cannot but be a cause for concern.
  The BBC, in the throes of liberal humanism, castigates the KNP management for arming its forest guards and for permitting them to shoot at poachers within the Park boundaries. The documentary makes no mention of the fact that poachers are armed with AK-47 rifles or that insurgents of outlawed factions have also taken to poaching the rhinos for the enormous sums that can accrue to them. ( Ironically, the BBC itself covered another story recently to show how money from drugs and wildlife poaching follow the same trail to fund terrorism !).
  Yes, 55 poachers have been killed inside the Park in the last four years- that is the price you pay for breaking the law, and that is the price the nation extracts for protecting one of our most valuable natural heritages. The documented study of major parks in Africa has established that poaching has considerably declined in areas where forest staff were armed and authorised to “ shoot to kill”. Any genuine lover of nature would be happy that the Assam govt. has had the decisiveness to so empower its forest staff. The BBC film stresses, again without any solid proof other than statements of a few relatives of those killed, that innocent local villagers often stray within the Park boundaries and are shot. This is dishonest reporting. In the first place, the Park’s boundaries are defined and well known to the locals- there is no question of their “ straying” into it. Secondly, why should an innocent person go into the park at night, which is when most of the encounters have taken place ? And finally, according to the Park’s Director, only 4 of the 55 poachers killed since 2013 were local villagers- all the others were outsiders, clinching proof that they were there for the money and had no business to be there.
  The same lack of diligence and journalistic ethics is on display when the BBC reporter highlights the eviction of families from within the Park boundaries by force. He does not mention that all due legal processes were followed and that a large number of these families were illegal squatters ( an endemic problem in Assam) with no rights to the land. The reporter is wrong when he portrays the evictions as illegal, but I agree that the displacement could have been handled differently, with better planning and vision. Experience has shown that Conservation/ Protected Areas succeed in their objective only if the local ( especially displaced) villagers are co-opted into the effort. There is an inevitable loss of livelihoods and usufruct rights when such Areas are notified and governments must have proper plans in place for their rehabilitation. A stellar example of this is the Great Himalayan National Park in Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2014. The affected villagers here were given training and financial help in eco-tourism, handicrafts, vermi-composting, raising nurseries for medicinal plants, and provided sale outlets. They now derive gainful employment and incomes from the tourists/ trekkers that the GHNP attracts in ever-increasing numbers. They have now developed a vested interest in preserving the Park’s bio-diversity and natural uniqueness and have become stakeholders. This is the way for the Kaziranga authorities to go. Do not relinquish the gun, but don’t depend on it exclusively.
   The BBC documentary is irresponsible and misleading journalism, but so is the Govt’s reaction to it. It has blacklisted the reporter and barred him from entry to any of our Protected Areas. It has also sought to revoke his visa. This is not only overkill but also censorship. The battle of ideas should not be fought in passport offices or with bans but with facts, full disclosures and counter points. It does not behove the govt. to be churlish or bear a grudge- this puts it on the backfoot and makes it appear defensive. Kaziranga is doing a fine job of protecting one of our natural icons and one ill informed reporter with a bias should not detract it from its course.