The notice has been served to ‘the people’. The Justice Verma Committee, set up to review the present criminal laws relating to safety and security with an eye to amend them, has asked ‘all members of the public’ among others to respond with ideas, knowledge and experience, to assist the committee in reaching its objective. The notice has been published in many newspapers.
This mode of public consultation is not new. Parliamentary committees regularly serve such notices to the public. This usual practice has received unusual publicity due to the widespread focus and interest that has been generated in the context of the Delhi gang-rape. The government has touted this consultation as some measure of its response to public outrage. That the awareness of such consultations is abysmal is failure of democratic governance. By taking advantage of this lack of public awareness, the government has now shed a spotlight so bright such that a not-so-rare practice is appearing extraordinary. This is disingenuous at best.
The 3-member committee has asked that the public send in their comments by email or fax, by the 5th of January. Embedded in this hasty empathy is a deeper message – its attitude towards consultation in this aspiring democracy. It is indeed tragic that for the elite, the horizon of imagination about modes of consultation with an utterly poor and regularly sexually brutalised people, is limited to email and fax.
Unfortunately, when rapists target their victims, they do not discriminate on the basis of access to communication technology. Most rape victims and potential rape victims in the territory of the Indian Union do not have access to fax or email. It is not hard to predict that this bureaucratic invitation will evoke very few responses from the billion plus populace. Most of the submissions will be in English, a minority will make their point in Hindi. The culture set by parliamentary committees that explicitly state that submissions be made in English or Hindi has excluded and turned off the majority of the literate. Thus people, whose mother tongue in neither English nor Hindi will hardly write back. One must commend the Justice Verma committee’s adverts in that they do not explicitly mention any mandatory language of submission. But the Delhi-based political culture of active exclusion of non-Hindi vernaculars has already taken its toll in the form of voicelessness and resultant disengagement. No democracy worth its name can afford that. Still larger is the majority to which email/fax are alien, if not unheard of media. That does not give them any respite from being raped; neither does it stop them from having an opinion and rape legislation.
For a few decades now, a three-tiered pecking order of citizenship has developed with the English/Hindi literate, the literate in ‘other’ languages and the illiterate. If you know only Tamil, it does not matter how erudite you are or how eager you are to put your opinion through on matters of legislation, the blunt message of the government about your suggestions to parliamentary committees essentially is, thanks, but no thanks. The lesser that is spoken about the lack of governmental efforts to reach out to the illiterate populace about their opinion, the better.
How the state views the participation of people in making legislation in a participatory democracy gives out how it views such processes in the first place – an unnecessary but unavoidable ritual that is not to be taken seriously. Bureaucratism and alienation are ever handy to help snuff out even the last possibilities of life of the ritual. All this points to a deeper disease, a malaise that reduces consultative democratic practices to things done for the record, not for the people.
Humane governance thus loses out to the clerical efficiency to bookkeeping. It is not that the government has never tried to engage the people at large. The Bt Brinjal consultations, where Jairam Ramesh held court at various areas beyond Delhi to hear what people had to say, were a positive step towards inclusive consultation. This example has unfortunately not been followed up for other legislations.
People, who bear the brunt of every day atrocities, clearly are not qualified to comment well on these issues. Those who keep cases pending for years and award gallantry awards to supervisors of rape of inmates are. Access barriers and ‘expertise’ hence become methods of choice for shunting out popular opinion in a democracy — given that fundamental rights of expression become less violable under metropolitan scrutiny. A democratic state folds itself to fit the aspirations of the people. A heartless state expects the people to contort themselves to fit some alien definition of an engaged citizen, or else, not be counted at all.
Garga Chatterjee is a postdoctoral scholar, Massachusetts Institute of Technology