Thursday, September 29, 2011

Karnataka’s Judicial Hall of Infamy

These are testing times indeed for the office of the ombudsman, the Lokayukta, in Karnataka.

Only recently, Justice Shivaraj V Patil was forced to step down as Lokayukta after a fine piece of journalism, by the Bangalore Mirror, revealed that he had obtained a plot of land in his wife’s name, which he had ought not to as a judicial officer. Another piece of investigative journalism, this time by the New Indian Express, reveals that former Lokayukta Justice N Venkatachala had converted a residential site allotted to him in Judicial Layout in Bangalore, into a tennis court, in full violation of land norms – a minor violation of course, compared to some scandals doing the rounds in the nation’s judiciary.

It must be remembered that Venkatachala was N Santosh Hegde’s predecessor – the man behind the investigative report on illegal mining that felled a chief minister and jailed a powerful minister. In fact, many wondered whether Hegde would be able to emulate him, such was the aura he had created while in office.

A former Supreme Court judge, Venkatachala brings to memory the daring officer who brought about a sense of respect and dignity to the office of the Lokayukta, which was granted little powers (or none in certain cases), by his raids on offices of corrupt government officials. T N Seshan's contribution to the Election Commission can be judged as a suitable corollary. Understandably, he was the media’s darling: the image of a diminutive Venkatachala standing in front of a humbled government official, caught for graft, remained, until recently, etched in the public’s psyche. It is difficult to say whether it would remain so. However, a comparison of the contributions of the officers to the famed institution is beyond the reach of this article.

While the violations committed by him may not rank alongside the famous (or infamous) 2G Spectrum or Commonwealth Games scandals, what is worrisome is the rather ham-handed approach to norms by the very authorities who need to ensure justice. On that notorious count, Venkatachala joins Justice P D Dinakaran and Justice K G Balakrishnan for being in the news for all the wrong reasons. The incident also holds out disillusionment for the common man in abundance; if the judiciary cannot be trusted to be clean, who can we entrust with the onerous task of cleaning the Augean Stables of the nation?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A chance encounter with a 'guerilla'

PS: Incidents, characters, references and descriptions in this blogpost are real and not imaginary

Vanakkam sir, enge poganum (where do you want to go)?” asked an autorickshaw driver the moment he stopped in front of me after I hailed him. Being multi-lingual is something I pride myself about, hence, that this person could guess my ethnicity easily took me by surprise. You would have been better off as a diplomat, my friend, I thought as I said, “Indian Express Circle,” and boarded the rick.

If rocket science is the most complex task to assimilate and implement, then striking a conversation with an auto driver, in my opinion, comes under a diametrically opposite end. Issues such as the Indo-Pak relations on and off the cricket pitch, the latest celebrity to land in controversy, price-rise – an issue that would strike a chord with anybody – serve as cue cards for such situations. Hence, I casually enquired, “Is this a four-stroke vehicle?” despite knowing very well it to be one. “Yes, sir,” he replied. “The latest model from TVS Company. Costs only Rs1.4 lakhs. Don’t they look cool?” Not wanting to look daft at the bit of information thrown at me, I merely nodded.

Starting a conversation may not be difficult, but sustaining it is. Here, I am reminded of the famous cartoonist R K Laxman, who had once commented that he looks up to the nation’s politicians for inspiration. Unsurprisingly, the conundrum that is Tamil Nadu politics, with Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi as its protagonists, came to my aid. I said: “Has the electorate in Tamil Nadu rejected the corrupt politics of the DMK at last?” Responses to this question have either been characterised either of glee or disappointment, depending on whose side the respondent’s allegiance lay. However, the first signal that my conversation with the driver (henceforth X for simplicity) wouldn’t be normal came in his response. “It is good that the DMK has been booted out. I was long awaiting his government’s dismissal. But of what good will Jayalalithaa be? She isn’t going to mean much of a difference to us.”

In a world where anything and everything obtains a partisan hue, his response came to me as a whiff of fresh air. What X said next perked up my ears like that of a dog. “Amma and Kalaignar are going to have the shock of their lives when he returns to full glory. The two will be taught a lesson for merely issuing cursory statements in support of distressed Tamilians in Sri Lanka.”

“Whom are you referring to?” “Vaiko?” “Dr Ramadoss?”

“No,” he turned back to look at me and said with an air of finality, “Velupillai Prabhakaran.” That his auto just passed over a crater-like pothole, sending the jitters up my bottom (and his as well) did not matter to him.

At that instant, I felt he was:

Hallucinating

Entirely cut off from the media for a long time, or

Doing a deadly cocktail of marijuana and hashish that could put all of Palestine to sleep

UFO, Elvis sightings, move aside – I felt I was on the cusp of a revelation as shocking as NOTW’s spot-ball fixing scandal. The journalist in me encouraged me to sustain the conversation. “Surely the entire world knows that Prabhakaran was killed by the Sri Lankan army, for which we even have ample evidence.”
“Sir,” X said, seriousness suddenly clouding his face. “That isn’t true. The Lankan army were unable to capture him. Since they could not accept defeat, they fabricated evidence to hush things up. Look at the Osama capture episode. Why was the US army in such a hurry to dispose his body? What credible evidence do we have about his death?”

I made a mental note to strike off the second assumption I had made about X. “Why don’t you look at this way? Retaining his corpse would certainly pave the way for more unrest. The immediate disposal of their corpses ensured that violent passions were not inflamed,” I speculated.

“Sir, I am surprised that educated people like you,” he paused as if to rub the sarcasm in, “fall for such conspiracy theories. Do you know the Sri Lankan president himself lives in the constant fear that our thalaivar (leader) would one day mount a full-fledged attack against his government? That Sri Lanka would be eventually liberated? The Tamil film director Seeman conveyed this to us at a gathering in the city attended by thousands.”

If ever there was a fact to unsettle my argument against X, it was this. A B-grade film maker, whose products ranged from the utterly intolerable to the laughable, being likened to a Che? Even imagining his beret clad visage on a tee seemed revolting. It did not matter to X whether I was listening to him or not. “He told us that the thalaivar, whom he had met in person in Sri Lanka, had assured that he would make a resounding return after consolidation of resources. He had also asked us to be peaceful. That was why you did not have any protests or bandhs in Bangalore. Else half of the city would have been up in a conflagration.”

“I agree that the Lankan government has been responsible for many heinous atrocities,” I said, attempting to steer the conversation to safer waters. “But you cannot deny that the LTTE does not have its hands clean. At its heyday, it owned and operated a navy and an air force, not to mention its involvement in smuggling. Do you know that the LTTE once attacked the Indian Naval base in Sri Lanka?”

X reacted as though he was expecting me to raise this point. He turned around in a flash a third time; I thought he would whip out an AK-47 and embed a bullet in my brain. We were doubtless travelling on the road, but my emotions were going aerial; my vitals, I felt, were doing frequent trips to the ionosphere and back, getting bound off some Chinese spy satellite or the remains of the ISS. “You are absolutely correct, sir. When our hands are entirely tied down, and when our opponents do not adopt the fair means to fight us, I do not think we were wrong in our covert activities. Have you any idea of how many of our women were molested and raped by their army? We could have reciprocated in kind, just that we were restrained by our beloved leader.”

The stress on the words ‘we’ and ‘their’ in this one sentence convinced me that X could be an LTTE sympathiser, or worse, a hardened guerrilla. Did he have a bomb tucked away in his belt? Or a gleaming Kalashnikov? I suddenly wanted to jump out of this rickshaw, run like a madcap in the main road, even if it meant getting run over by an overloaded BMTC bus, whose driver was busy handing out change to a commuter, or a garbage truck. I did have a laptop with me, but any hopes of countering him on a topic that I was so poorly informed about were doused when I found out that I had forgotten my data-card. How about non-violence, ahimsa? I reflected. That gleam in his waist that I was able to make out only partly put paid to such hopes, instantly. Decision making could never have gotten easier.

When I realised that I had reached office, I felt that god was answering my prayers on a direct hotline. Whether X was on a high, I cannot say for sure, but his meter definitely was. It read 110, at least forty bucks more than the actual fare. “Is this how you treat a fellow Tamilian?” I asked rather brusquely. “I am sure that your meter has been tampered with.”

X gave one long look at me. “I will not accept any money from you,” were his last words before he rode away.