The fax- email demo­cratic repub­lic

DNA Sunday (Mumbai) - - SECOND - CAP­I­TAL SHAME in­box@ dnain­dia. net

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- so­rare 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

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