Eclipse at Noon: Shadows over India’s Conscience

(Excerpts from 15th D P Kohli Memorial Lecture by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, hosted by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Full speech available at

‘It was the best of times’, Dickens says in the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities, ‘it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair...’

I echo those lines time and again.

For us in India, in ever so many ways, this is the best of times.

Our democracy is in bloom. While in countries around us, democracy has taken bruising and even battering, our elections are in progress to elect the next Lok Sabha, the 16th in a row. Millions are participating in the proceedings with what can only be called elan. They know the process thoroughly and can be said to be post-doctoral experts in it. They know how to re-endorse earlier verdicts; equally, how to reverse them. They can return people and parties to office with generosity; equally they can throw them out of it without mercy. Illiterate they may be, and poor as well, but once in the booth, they are monarchs. We are a democracy with a highly powerful monarch – the voter.

And our media, is that monarch’s, the voter’s, which means our, security guard. Hats off to our media for performing that task with amazing diligence.

Our economy has some phenomenal successes going for it. I will not impose statistics on you. But this I will say and you will agree with: There is more prosperity now than ever before. More people own or rent ‘pucca’ homes than before. More people travel by road, train and air than before. More people travel for leisure than before. More people spend on entertainment than before. More people eat better than before, dress and buy goods and services better than before. Hardly anyone goes without footwear now, or a watch. And of course almost every home, even if it does not have other essential furniture, has a television. The middle class believes in using its money for raising comfort levels. Refrigerators are not seen as a luxury, nor small air conditioners or coolers. Almost every Indian has a mobile phone, if not two. Among those who do not use mobile phones, very few go without it because they cannot afford it.

Indian science has made a name for itself. From the micro and the nano to the mega, we make and use what we need. We inhabit space, course through it, with satellites that help us transact life own on earth better, more safely than ever before.

Our arts are at a peak. Be it the classical arts or the folk arts, be it cinema or literature, we are in an era of high achievement. The world – not just NRIs but other nationalities – looks to our performing artists with awe, invites them and celebrates their genius. Our writers are in great demand, are published and read more than ever before Our literary festivals attract the best writers from other nations. Our painters and sculptors, photographers and illustrators are highly esteemed in art circles, with high-quality catalogues being prepared for their expositions the world over.

Our judiciary, we can be truly proud of. It is independent and fearless. Its interventions in many matters have been crucial to the quality of life in our Republic. In all this, these have to be and are, the best of times.

This is our high noon.

And yet...

These also have to be the worst of times.

Our democracy is large, vibrant, but is also deeply flawed. Size and scale cannot and do not in themselves validate a democracy. There is something called quality also....

Money is at our democracy’s throat. Money can and does do worse. It can abduct, assault. It can finance hurt, it can fund harm, it can injure and manage to look injured. It can purchase death. Currency notes come into the election bazaar first in container and cargo quantities, then in truck-loads, going into wholesale, small retail and finally in attaché, thailaa, jholaa and jeb-sized portions, every five years at the least and often oftener than that. They originate either legally, through licit company donations or come from a myriad sources which, necessarily and unavoidably, go back to our natural resources such as mines, forests and land. Illegal transactions in all these yield harvests of black cash and this is disgorged on people in jhuggis, jhompris and jhopad-pattis, right amidst tonnes of garbage and, within inches of it, cook, wash, sleep and being human, procreate, give birth and die in. It is on these that politicians descend at election time, laden with cash and hooch, to buy votes. Dr Ambedkar had spoken of how this India may well explode and blow up our Constitutional edifice. Why and how that has not happened yet defies my understanding....

There is a memorable quote from Mark Hanna: “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is”.

I can tell you what you already know about the second thing. It is called bullying. It is an open secret that certain kinds of services are co-opted near election time by candidates. These have to be called, for want of a better phrase, goonda services. Goondas are part of society; they are one of us. They are a floating resource, to be hired, for a sum. Their skill is intimidation. Their wherewithal, via money, of course, and often via narcotics as well, is the illegal firearm.

But who is to check the collapse of true, far-sighted leadership and its degeneration into leaderbaazi? Leaders are too few now, leaderbaazes, innumerable.

Leading looks at the far horizon, leaderbaazi, in love like the house fly with its own nose, sniffs at the offal of instant gains.

Leading rises above the small, leaderbaazi wallows in the small.

Leading cherishes candour; its language is brutal, honest, frank.

Leaderbaazi values popularity. Its language is candied sugar.

Leading has colleagues.

Leaderbaazi has fans.

Leading overcomes personal hatreds, rises above rivalries, leaderbaazi feeds on it.

Leading strides, leaderbaazi swaggers.

Leading will stop at a traffic light, leaderbaazi will cut it.

Leading will not swerve from principles, will not finick on detail.

Leaderbaazi will do deals on principles, provided the details of its convenience are protected.

We are, as I said at the beginning of this lecture, seeing the blooming of an election.

But let us not celebrate that without being aware of the fact that there is a strange stillness in the air.

Marine geographers have a word for it – the Doldrums. The word signifies a stupor, in which everyone and everything is listless, stagnant and immobilized.

Coleridge describes the state of the Pacific Doldrums in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

All in a hot and copper sky,

The bloody Sun, at noon,

Right up above the mast did stand,

No bigger than the Moon.

Day after day, day after day,

We stuck, no breath no motion;

As idle as a painted ship

Upon a painted ocean.

The ship of our nationhood, during these election days, is meant to be moving. But is it moving at all? No one quite knows, no one wants to speculate on where, towards what port, we are headed if we are headed anywhere at all.

...Dictators have been wafted up by people voting democratically.

The ballot box can receive the faith of innocence and emit a genie. It can receive trust unseeingly, disgorge its betrayal unblinkingly.

That receptacle, now a machine, is neutral to the ethics of its arithmetic. It is concerned only with numbers.

And so, for aught we know, the painted ship will bestir itself and move into what, begging pardon of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, I would call Port au Pain....

In actual fact, beneath the surface stillness, there is a great frenzy astir, a frenzy to bring to India’s helm, the reign of an ethnic majority, of a sectarian bigotry, of a denominational autocracy. And all in the name, the very specious name, of ‘strength’.

And here I must say that sections of the media have become trumpeters of what they see as the coming change. We had heard of paid news. But this is free advertising. The high noon of the free press in India makes its own eclipse-by-ink and through the small screen.

So, this best of times for democracy can become the worst of times for democracy as well....

We used to talk of black money as a parallel economy and so it continues to be. But Reliance is a parallel State. I do not know of any country where one single firm exercises such power so brazenly, over the natural resources, financial resources, professional resources and, ultimately, over human resources as the company of the Ambanis. From Ambedkar who spoke of economic democracy to Ambani who represents a techno-commercial monopoly of unprecedented scale, is a far cry indeed....

Who is to ask why, in such a situation, farmers commit suicide by the hour, disposessed rural poor migrate across the country looking for livelihood like cattle in a drought do, looking for water, why infant mortality, infant malnutrition, childbirth related deaths of mothers and femle foeticide remain the stubborn ogres they are ? Who is to ask that?

Yes, the mobile telephone is a fantastic asset. But while we make the calls, someone makes the money. 2G Spectrum is a description that arouses deep pride, and deep distrust.

And as for Indian science, that pride of India, is there something missing, something amiss?

I believe there is, and it is called a transparent and accessible science policy. Today, science policy is seen as something of a mystery, a State-secret, almost.

Its nurturing is as if in an SEZ, a privileged area, gated and cordoned off. This is singularly unfortunate because science has worked wonders for us, reduced drudgery, enhanced ergonomic ease, improved productivity on farm and fishing fields, saved lives like that of fishermen out at sea who, thanks to satellite warnings, can turn back when the weather grumbles into a storm or rages into a cyclone. And yet, science policy remains beyond the ken of us, simple folk, abstruse things like the 123 Agreement of course being high Sanskrit. I am reminded of a poem, a nursery rhyme, really, without a known authorship. It goes:

We have a secret, just we three

The robin and I and the sweet cherry tree

The bird told the tree and the tree told me

And nobody knows it but just us three.

Of the holy priest, it has been said that he holds the Divine Secret in his closed fist, his gyana-mushti. Time has come for the scientist to open his vigyana-mushti . We cannot be in awe of that closed fist.

Transparency apart, I wonder why it is that Indian science which has done such wonders for us, is yet to make an impact on what Nehru used to call the scientific temper. Superstition has increased exponentially in our country.

I value the affection and faith of those who tie strings and charms to my wrists for love and care of me. But the rings and strings on the fingers and wrists of our politicians are signs of their fear psychoses, insecurities and desperate placatings of benign stars or for the averting of evil eyes.

Such are the guilty consciences and insecurities of our political class that next to lawyers, the expertise most consulted by politicians is that of astrologers. If our political class look to big money for elections and to big planets for their safety and security, who do we look to ?

I spoke of the respect that our classical arts and our folk arts and, generally, our cultural heritage commands world wide.

But India has the foulest reputation imaginable in the world for the way its men in the national capital, particularly, gawk at, grope and molest women visitors from overseas. This of course is only another manifestation of the way huge numbers of the Indian male are pre-dispositioned vis-à-vis the female body. If a single artist from India were to experience anything like that in Paris, New York or Berlin, all hell would break loose in India, with our media bursting aortas and larynxes. But the country as a whole is being phlegmatic about this, as indeed it is , on the larger issue of respect for women.

Nirbhaya’s tragedy is unending.

This has to be the worst of times.

It is our noon, all right, but we are seeing a grahan of no ordinary scale casting a shadow over it. I use the word grahan or eclipse not astrologically but astronomically, as a shadow that obscures the light of our collective conscience....

Some decades ago, there was the odd Dhirendra Brahmachari and Chandraswami. Now you find them behind every tree...There is an apt phrase for them: Dharma-vanijyakas, merchants-of-religion.”...

The independence and high calibre of our judiciary is, as I said, to something to be proud of although sometimes it can shock us by turning the clock back and mirror the Taliban or the most retrograde of Khap Panchayats by judgments like the recent one on Section 377 of the IPC....

One area of utter darkness, is our prisons....The fact remains uncontested that our Correctional Homes are bursting with under-trials, many of who may well be not guilty....

We may be the land that has given birth to the Buddha, Mahavira and Gandhi. The world respects us for the doctrine of non-violence that is associated with those names. But let us not deceive ourselves into believing that we are a non-violent people ; we are not. We are as violent as any, only more, in the refinements we have wrought on our violence, the embellishments we have given to it, the manicuring and pedicuring we have done on that beast called custodial torture. Every city and town has jails, thanas and lock-ups and every jail, thana and lock-up has cells into which the miserable wretch to be tortured enters like some an imal may enter the slaughter-house. Torture, in one degree or another, seems to be part of an entrance ritual, a rite. This is a blot in our national life that can only go if the police establishment comes up with the leadership needed to stop it ; not otherwise....

The issue of under-trials and of torture cannot be taken up in isolation without acknowledging a major fact. I am sorry if what I am going to say comes as something of a startler : A major wedge of the eclipse over India’s noon is the debilitation over the criminal justice system in India. It has all but collapsed. There has been a steady, and now a steep, decline in the ability of the system to deal with crime. The machinery grows, crime grows. But the latter, remaining one step ahead.

Attempts to preserve the legitimacy of the system, however, have produced ironic phenomena such as scapegoating , which amounts to saying ‘Go find someone, anyone, but there needs to be a conviction’. I cannot but deplore another side-effect of panic legitimizing, namely, the tendency towards social control and control of political differences through the use of criminal law. This is the single most deplorable misuse of an instrumentality, which makes null and void all claims for democratic dissent and institutional independence – the hallmarks of a Republic that is wedded to the rule of law....

The result is there is the CBI where the police cannot work, the SIT where the CBI is also feared to be compromised Or, narco-analysis where routine investigation has lost its way and so the ghoul called torture and the impunity that sanction gives to agencies of state remain as they are. There has been too much side-stepping and too little addressing.

How much in an Aarushi verdict or an Afzal hanging is influenced by yesterday’s, today’s and tomorrow’s possible headline ? Is some social appetite being gratified by legal recourse?

Is popular applause a player?

Is popular disapproval a player as well?

Are the approval and disapproval of bosses a factor?

In other words, are fear and favour, players?

The CBI has a very mixed image. Not all of it is flattering. It is seen as Government’s hatchet, rather than honesty’s ally. It is often called DDT - meaning not dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, the colourless, tasteless, odourless insecticide it should be, but the Department of Dirty Tricks...

These anxieties are part of the eclipse that is creeping over our golden noon.

It is said one should never watch an eclipse without shading the eyes, lest they get scorched. Let us shade our eyes, by all means, but let us not avert our eyes from the shadow over our consciences, if only because it is our own wooden obduracy, our inertia and our smugness that is casting it. And if we are to see it end, it is we have to do something about it.

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