WITH EYES WIDE OPEN
D. N. Bezboruah
During the last 10 or 15 years, there has been a quantum jump in lawbreaking in Assam, not to speak of major crimes like murder, abduction, rape and trafficking in women and children. But apart from major crimes, the very urge to break the law has become a common phenomenon, both among the young and the not-so-young. It will simply not do to view this as a malaise of the times or the outcome of too much of television watching by the young. But what about the not-so-young? What about those in their 40s and 50s and even those close to their retirement? The tendency to break the law and to try to get away with it (without being caught, if possible) has become very compulsive among the young and the old alike, and it is high time we began to seek the reasons for this before the situation gets out of hand and Assam gets branded as the crime centre of the Indian Union.
Much has already been said about the abnormal increase in heinous crimes in the State. In a State where rape was something unheard of 50 years ago, we have had several instances not only of rape but of gang rape and rape followed by the murder of the victim. We have had any number of cases of abductions and heavy ransoms being demanded for the release of those abducted. We have had quite a few instances of tea garden magers being abducted and then killed. Much of all this has happened in the last 20 or 30 years. However, other heinous crimes like murder and trafficking in women and children have gone out of hand during the last five or six years. What we often tend to overlook is that there is a fairly close relationship between small acts of successful lawbreaking and worse crimes. The general tendency to break rules and laws arises in children (especially adolescents) from what they see of the attitude to laws among elders. Potential lawbreakers are likely to emerge in greater numbers in families where there is contempt for the law among elders. I have heard many adult citizens, who ought to be far more responsible, calling the law an ass in the presence of children. It is such statements that shape the attitudes of children to the law and to cavalier lawbreaking. There is no doubt that such tendencies are reinforced quite a bit by what children are exposed to on television. Whether it is Hindi films or English films on TV, the proportion of films projecting destruction and violence as well as lawbreaking is far greater today than what things were 20 years ago. So, in a sense, what children imbibe from their elders at home in respect of attitudes to law and the duty to be law-abiding, is often reinforced by what they get to see on television.
However, there is a far stronger incentive to lawbreaking than what children pick up from attitudes at home and from television. Perhaps the greatest source of growing disrespect for the law stems from the conduct of our lawmakers. Most children have an MLA or an MP who is either a relative or friend of their father. What is most conspicuous about their behaviour is their contempt for the law. This should seem surprising for lawmakers. In fact, one should see greater respect for the law among those who make the laws. However, the very opposite seems to be the prevailing attitude among lawmakers in India. Perhaps because a large number of them are not adequately educated, most lawmakers in our country consider themselves to be above the law. Perhaps the general attitude is: “Well, I was party to the making of some of these laws. We made them for others. We did not make them for ourselves. As lawmakers, we are above the law.” The real trouble arises because almost 80 per cent of our lawmakers seem convinced that they are indeed a class apart and above the laws of the land. Their children and the children of their friends somehow also believe that they too are above the law, especially when they are in the company of the lawmakers. They expect policeman to turn a blind eye on their misdeeds and infringements of the law the moment the me of a lawmaker is dropped. And that is precisely how democracies are not supposed to be working, because when one talks about the rule of law, the operative principle is that laws should be equal for all citizens, regardless of status or position. It is this attitude of partiality in the application of laws that has blunted the force of the law in our society. The general expectation in our society is that the custodians of the law should first look at who has broken the law before enforcing the law itself. Eight out of 10 parents get angry at teachers and custodians of the law, who apply the law to their children. To such parents the laws of the land work best when their own families are exempt from such laws! Such attitudes provide tremendous incentives to adolescents and children to ignore or break existing laws.
Two typical examples should suffice to form an idea of the general attitude to the laws of the land when our kith and kin are subjected to them. I call them typical examples because I am sure that almost all my readers must have had experience of similar situations at some time or the other. Recently, an adolescent motorist without a driving licence, jumped the red light at a street intersection. When a traffic policeman on duty tried to stop him, his swerved the car, brushed against the policeman and made his escape. Thereafter, he avoided the main roads and sought to make good his escape along less frequented by-lanes. But the policeman who had maged to note down the number of the car communicated this to other policeman on duty by walkie-talkie. Very soon the car of the lawbreaker was intercepted and the motorist arrested. When he was taken to the police station, his behaviour was most arrogant and he made much of his legal right to telephone his father for help. What did not seem to matter to him at all was that he had no driving licence, he had jumped a red light and when asked to stop, he had bumped the policeman on duty and tried to escape. There were three of four clear violations of the law. But none of this seemed to matter to the adolescent who obviously believed that breaches of the law could be easily smoothened out with a wad of currency notes. In fact, this might well have happened had not the injured victim been a policeman. When the father of the offender arrived with more than the expected sum of money, all that the officer-in-charge of the police station had to do was to repeatedly demand the driving licence of the motorist. Since it could not be produced, the motorist was put behind bars and asked to wait until he could be produced before a magistrate. He was beginning to get the desired taste of the law’s punch for three or four separate acts of lawbreaking. No one had any wish even to look at the money that his father had brought. This might not have happened if the victim had not been a policeman. The other case was that of an 18-year-old girl trying to buy liquor at a liquor shop. This happened when a woman police officer was doing her rounds and heard the altercation between the liquor shop owner and the girl. She asked the girl for some identification and some proof of age. Since this could not be produced, the girl was picked up and taken to a police station for due proceedings to be drawn up for someone below 21 years of age trying to buy liquor by falsifying her age.
Significantly, many of the minor acts of lawbreaking relate to driving offences (including the lack of driving licences), road accidents, the purchase of alcohol by underage users, conflicts arising from excessive drinking, attempts to usurp real estate belonging to others and so on. It is possible to deal with such acts of lawbreaking before petty lawbreaking burgeons into major crimes and lawbreakers turn into hardened crimils because of our failure to address such issues in time. Such petty lawbreakers can be brought back to lawful behaviour with counselling. It is also imperative that the custodians of the law should be able keep an eye on segments of our society that could easily take to crime for a livelihood due to lack of any qualifications for jobs. It is for this reason that any responsible society will go out of its way to reduce the number of school dropouts by ensuring better primary and secondary education.