The sense of relief at the arrest of Ashish Mishra in the Lakhimpur massacre vividly manifests the national urge for justice and compassion in a civilised society. You can see how the audience reacts when the bad guy gets his comeuppance in films. The political class had internalised this message and usually responded to the national outrage over such heinous crimes, realising that democracy cannot survive without political morality. There are no fixed criteria to judge the credibility of political parties but every citizen, irrespective of political beliefs and loyalties, expects the rulers to stand with the victim. It is truly shocking that voices didn’t emerge from within the RSS-BJP against the attempts to protect Ashish Mishra, the son of Minister of State for Home Ajay Mishra, even as they knew what the dominant national sentiment was.
Politicians have a knack for calculating losses and gains and they adjust their public posturing accordingly. While the disgruntled Lok Sabha member Varun Gandhi, who is unhappy with the top leadership for not giving him the importance he deserves, spoke out against the attempts to shield the minister and his son, Uttar Pradesh BJP chief Swatantra Dev Singh also said on Monday that power didn’t mean you could mow down people under your vehicle. That Prime Minister Narendra Modi didn’t send out an unambiguous message that such criminal tendencies will not be tolerated is disconcerting. The silence of Home Minister Amit Shah on the conduct of his deputy Ajay Mishra is no less disturbing.
The Prime Minister should have called Mishra’s bluff soon after the emergence of the ghastly video that conclusively proved that vehicles were run over farmers who were returning peacefully after the protest. That the minister was allowed to lie about the violence and the attack by the farmers and claim that his son wasn’t present at the spot created a sneaking suspicion of support he enjoyed from the Prime Minister and the home minister. This must be a great disservice to the exalted positions both Modi and Shah hold; individuals come and go but the dignity of top offices must be maintained at all costs.
No Prime Minister can afford – politically or morally – to be seen as standing with the perpetrators of crime. While Modi might have done an irreparable damage to his image by remaining silent on the heinous crime, the message he sent out by retaining Mishra as a minister too has not bolstered his standing by any standards. But for the sagacious intervention of the Supreme Court, the situation would have been uglier, deepening the cynicism among the people about the principles of accountability and justice.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi made an important point when he said the democratic processes of healing and hope should not be stopped and the opposition visiting the victims in such cases acts as a safety valve. A helpless citizen, whose son has been crushed under the wheel by powerful people, must not be left to believe that he is alone in the fight for justice. That despondency will demolish his faith in democracy and the system will have to grapple with abnormal levels of violence and distrust.
The two messages that every politician and bureaucrat must learn from this avoidable tragedy is: the state cannot be seen to be standing with the perpetrator of the crime instead of the sufferer of the crime and individuals don’t matter when the credibility of the system happens to be at stake. Democracy cannot survive if people’s faith in the system is shaken. No civilised nation can live with the perception that the rich and the powerful are above the law. Equality before law, as enshrined in the Constitution, is a principle that cannot be violated by any government. No matter how the rich and the powerful occasionally escape the clutches of law using their access to power and money, the state must ensure justice is seen to be done in a fair manner.
Mistakes have been committed in the past as well but civil society and the opposition must keep pressure on the governments to follow the principles of equality and justice. A deviation from this stance will invite unforeseen consequences for polity. Even the rulers and the ruling party members should understand this and behave democratically in times of crisis that threaten to impact the core values of our existence. Somebody running over four people and blaming the victims, instead of fighting guilt was one such crisis. The nation should have spoken in one voice at this critical juncture.