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  Opinion   Columnists  06 Oct 2021  Patralekha Chatterjee | ‘Tit for tat’ is an attack on rule of law & democracy

Patralekha Chatterjee | ‘Tit for tat’ is an attack on rule of law & democracy

Patralekha Chatterjee focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at patralekha.chatterjee@gmail.com
Published : Oct 7, 2021, 1:10 am IST
Updated : Oct 7, 2021, 1:10 am IST

Mr Khattar does not stop with advocating 'tit for tat' as a strategy

News.
 News.

Democracy is about free and fair elections. But three words -- rule of law -- are equally critical. In a democracy, citizens get to choose their representatives through elections but what happens between elections is just as important because it is during this period that the rule of law, or its absence, can be gauged. And it’s the rule of law which determines how citizens relate to their leaders. The “rule of law” is not just a piece of legalese. It means everyone -- both the powerful and the powerless -- are equal before the law and that the processes that undergird the country’s criminal justice system must be followed.
Which brings me to three other critical words “Sathe Shathyam Samacharet” (tit for tat) recently advocated by Manohar Lal Khattar, the chief minister of Haryana, where the BJP is in power. In a video clip that has gone viral in the social media since Sunday, Mr Khattar is seen asking BJP Kisan Morcha workers to set up groups of volunteers who can “pick up sticks” in parts of Haryana.

“We will have to encourage upcoming farmer groups... In every district, particularly the northern and northwestern districts, we will have to raise groups of 500-700 kisan volunteers... And then Sathe Shathyam Samacharet (tit for tat). Pick up sticks,” Mr Khattar said, as reported in a major national newspaper and several other media outlets.

Mr Khattar does not stop with advocating “tit for tat” as a strategy. In the video clip, he can be heard telling the assembled farmers not to worry about bail, etc. “If you spend a couple of months… you will become a leader. You will learn much more than these meetings and become a tall leader. Your name will get etched in history,” the chief minister says by way of reference to doing time behind bars.
Predictably, the video clip kicked up a storm. Mr Khattar’s supporters say the Haryana chief minister’s remarks were cherry-picked, the clip was misleading and that the talk about raising volunteers was only in the context of countering “propaganda” about the three farm laws. But neither Mr Khattar nor his supporters have so far denied that he advocated “Sathe Shathyam Samacharet” (tit for tat) and the use of the “stick” to counter the farm laws’ critics.

How does “Sathe Shathyam Samacharet” sync with the rule of law?

Last year, the same Mr Khattar had thundered: “No one will be allowed to take law and order into their own hands in Haryana.” He was speaking on the sidelines of the “Progressive Farmers’ Conference and Discussion on Agriculture Ordinance” in Karnal.

A few months ago, the Haryana CM was waxing eloquent about his state being the “land of hospitality and the birthplace of Gita” and a “heart to heart connect” while inaugurating the corporate headquarters of Hyundai Motors India in Gurgaon. He talked about his state as “a land of possibilities, enterprise, research and innovation”, among “the most developed and industrialised states of India.” While hard-selling Haryana to South Korean investors, Mr Khattar introduced himself in Korean. The chief minister also ended his speech in Korean, saying: “I welcome you to the Land of Haryana.” Needless to say, there was no mention of ‘Sathe Shathyam Samacharet’ nor sticks before the Koreans nor any business delegation.

But here is the catch.

It is no longer possible to speak in different voices to different groups of people and let it remain a secret. Everything gets out.

You can’t advocate vigilantism and the language of the stick in one place and the rule of law at another and hope that no one would catch on.

The video clip of a SUV mowing down protesting farmers and the violence that followed in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri is front-page news. At the time of writing, the UP police has booked the son of India’s junior home minister for murder and criminal conspiracy over the death of eight people in Lakhimpur Kheri -- four farmers and a journalist. The government has announced a judicial probe in a bid to defuse tensions.

But even before this dastardly saga, there was the use of the language of threat that raises questions about respect for the rule of law. There is the widely-reported video clip of the minister of state where he is heard warning agitating farmers that he would discipline/fix them in “two minutes” even before Sunday’s violent clashes in Lakhimpur Kheri: “Face me, it will take just two minutes to discipline you fellows.”

There is a simple point here: you can’t have rule of law and its antithesis co-existing side by side without damage to society and the economy.

As Supreme Court advocate Vikram Hegde puts it: “The statements of political leaders are often interpreted by their followers to carry more than their literal meaning. When a political leader who is also in charge of the state machinery exhorts a group to go against another, there is an implicit promise that they will have the support of law enforcement. This is a recipe for a breakdown of law and order on which our society and economy stand.”

The social consequences of letting groups of people decide what justice should be has been written about at length. But it does not stop there. There are consequences for the economy as well in the long run. As Mr Hegde points out, businesses -- whether domestic or foreign -- like regulatory certainty and abhor slippage of power from the established law to reactionary elements and people who don’t respect the rule of law. The reason is simple -- this spells mayhem and unpredictability. That is bad for business.

We are seeing the use of criminal charges to crush dissent, extrajudicial killings, misuse of anti-conversion laws against minority communities, and the growing legitimisation of vigilantes.

What is most disturbing is the public acceptance of violations of the rule of law in parts of the country. If individuals and groups can be allowed to mete out justice in accordance with their subjective views, what happens to the rule of law? In essence, the principle of the rule of law means that people who hold a certain authority should exercise their power within the framework of laws and norms, rather than exercise their power according to their own preferences. Once the latter is allowed to work in favour of one group, there will be copycat actions. Every group will want to have its way. And that is the beginning of the end.

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