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Sunday, 30 October 2011

Anna and Mahatma

The mocking of lawyer-politicians by Anna Hazare and his team has transformed into a snubbing of the process of law. How would Gandhi have responded?

In the past week, leaders of India against Corruption have responded to charges of wrongdoing with characteristic belligerence. “Punish us if we are corrupt,” Arvind Kejriwal has said, “… But first pass the Jan Lok Pal Bill. We have not done anything wrong. People are with us.” On his blog, Anna Hazare writes: “Every member of ‘Team Anna’ had to face accusations and character assassination by the ‘gang of four’. Who are these people? Those are the very same people who are not in favour of Jan Lok Pal Bill.”

The word ‘conspiracy’ has been thrown about. It links, in the perception of IAC, three episodes. First, some months ago the Bhushans, father and son, were accused of accepting land from the Government of Uttar Pradesh under a scheme that used subjective, discretionary criteria. Second, Mr Kejriwal got a tax notice in reference to money he allegedly owed the Government and had — as per the income tax authorities — not paid before he resigned from Government service. Third, Ms Kiran Bedi was revealed as having inflated air bills and overcharged admittedly private organisations.

Strictly speaking, the Bhushan and Bedi cases are not illegal. The legality or otherwise of Mr Kejriwal’s case is still in contention. However, there is a question of morality hanging over all three instances.

Mr Hazare and his supporters, however, see it otherwise. In their view, this is part of a sophisticated operation on the part of the Government — one that marries filibustering with dirty tricks and has been evident since the early days of the Jan Lok Pal Bill agitation. No Government is innocent, and certainly the UPA isn’t. However, it is noteworthy how the Hazare team members have painted their position as one of artless, simple people, embodiments of folksy wisdom, up against a clever, calculating machine.

One doesn’t know who the ‘gang of four’ reference is to but it almost certainly includes two senior Ministers who also happen to be lawyers. Mr Hazare and his group have been particularly vehement in presenting themselves as people of conviction, different from the sorcery and wordplay of lawyer-politicians.

They have done this by adopting Gandhian tactics, semiotics and symbolism. It is some coincidence then that the man they have chosen as their inspiration — the Mahatma — remains India’s most celebrated lawyer-politician.

So was Gandhi folksy and frank or was he a shrewd lawyer? Typically, he could be both.

For better or worse, Gandhi was sold not on the letter of a new law but the spirit of a new awakening. It is sobering to recall that his Dandi March led to no legislation change. The iniquitous Salt Laws were repealed only by Jawaharlal Nehru’s interim Government in 1946. Having made his point, Gandhi had moved on. He hadn’t marched again and again for the same cause and was conscious of not allowing himself to be straitjacketed by one issue, one law, one blockbuster ‘solution’.

On his part, Mr Hazare arrived in New Delhi and presented himself as the uncluttered mind from the ‘real’ India, coming to a power-intoxicated, venal capital city to make a straightforward demand: End corruption, stop oppression, dis-empower the native colonialists — the term he used was “Kaale Angrez” or Black English — and accept the draft of a Bill prepared by the ‘people’ and therefore, ipso facto, superior to any legislation that could be drafted by allegedly discredited politicians in an allegedly compromised Parliament.

It didn’t stop there. The mocking of some lawyers (who happened to be politicians) was quickly transformed into a snubbing of the process of law. The contention that Parliament’s sovereignty and the timetable of parliamentary democracy needed to be respected was disparaged as pettifogging and as thrusting legal trivialities to thwart a popular upsurge.

How would Gandhi have taken this? He had the capacity as few others to switch seamlessly from the proverbial big picture to the sub-clauses of legal minutiae.

In The Last Days of the British Raj, Leonard Moseley recounts a spell-binding exchange between Archibald Wavell, then Viceroy of India, and (like Hazare) seeing himself as a simple-minded, straight-forward old soldier, and Gandhi and Nehru. On September 27, 1946, in the aftermath of the Great Calcutta Killing and with the Cabinet Mission Plan to leave India wobbly but somehow united coming under threat, the Viceroy calls the Congress’ top leadership for a now-or-never chat:

Wavell put the question frankly to Gandhi and Nehru: Will you give me the guarantee the Muslim League is asking for?

He was almost immediately plunged into the most difficult argument he had ever had with Gandhi, who chose this day to be at his most polemical. Gandhi, the Mahatma, on that evening chose to speak to Wavell purely and simply as a Congress politician.

‘Give me a simple guarantee that you  accept the Cabinet Mission Plan,’ asked Wavell.

‘We have already said that we accept it,’ replied Gandhi, ‘but we are not prepared to guarantee that we accept it in the way that the Cabinet Mission set it out. We have our own interpretations of what they propose.’

Said Wavell: ‘Even if those interpretations differ from what the Cabinet Mission intended?’

Replied Gandhi: ‘But of course. In any case, what the Cabinet Mission Plan really means is not what the Cabinet Mission thinks but what the interim Government thinks it means.’

Wavell pointed out that the interim Government’s opinion, as things were at the moment, would almost inevitably be pro-Congress and anti-Muslim League, since the League was boycotting the Government. How could it be unbiased?

Gandhi replied that he was not concerned with such bias. He was simply concerned with the legal basis of the discussion. Legally, this was a matter for the interim Government to decide. Once the interim Government was in power, such matters as the Muslim League’s ambitions and artificial anxieties could be voted upon; but not before …

Gandhi: ‘What the Cabinet Mission intended and the way we interpret what they intended may not necessarily be the same.’

‘This is lawyer’s talk,’ said Wavell. ‘Talk to me in plain English. I am a simple soldier and you confuse me with these legalistic arguments.’

Nehru: ‘We cannot help it if we are lawyers.’


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