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The cowards we worship
Jessica Lall’s murder is the murder of everything we thought we had become
Suhel Seth On that fateful night about seven years ago, a girl was shot dead in front of 400 people: men and women who are the ones society often hails and fetes. For their intelligence and their achievement. For their sense of fair-play and for their ability to distinguish between right and wrong. How horribly wrong we all were.
Jessica Lall’s murder was a heinous crime, but it nestled within the domain of crime. The acquittal of her murderers is a sin against humanity: the judge who delivered the verdict, the police force which could not prove the crime, the public prosecutor who could not get a conviction and, more importantly, each one of us will sleep a little less lightly. The acquittal is a testimony of the fact that in this country, the rich and the powerful get away with anything they wish to.
The case dragged on for seven years. Innumerable man-hours have gone down the drain and all we have at the end is a battery of smirking lawyers who managed to win an acquittal for their clients. What happens if they too suffer one day at the hands of insensitive yet powerful louts? Because that is what we have become. Louts who have not a care in the world and who believe that escapism is the way to duck accountability. The judgment is symptomatic of what ails our judicial system and it underlines that the time has indeed come to reform our judicial system and processes: to ensure that witnesses cannot turn away, because when they become hostile they help in letting a murderer off the hook, put him back on the streets.
Two of the accused have fathers who play roles in public life. Our ire should equally be directed at them. Manu Sharma’s father cannot be allowed to be in the Congress party and occupy a ministerial office in Haryana when his own son has been charged with such a serious crime. I know people will say he was not proven guilty. But this is exactly the point. Do we wish the India of tomorrow to run only on the strength (or apparent weakness) of its judicial system or has the time come for some serious introspection?
The vice president of a multinational bank mows down a guard in Mumbai and when caught, asks the ubiquitous question: ‘‘Do you know who I am?’’ Of course, we do and this is the response that society needs to deliver. We need to put men like Manu Sharma and his ilk on a shame-and-shun list. These are people who need to be ostracised. But will that happen? I am afraid not. And only because we are essentially a nation that is slowly feeding on a diet of cowardice.
We are scared all the time. We are scared to rock the boat, we are scared of the establishment, we are scared of the eventual social fallout and we are scared that we might suffer. So in our selfishness it is fine to allow the 75-year-old father of Jessica Lall to weep himself to death every time he is awake. Only because we must not suffer — either now or in the future. This speaks volumes of the value-erosion that we are slowly witnessing. An erosion that is happening only because very few Indians today have the courage to stand up and be counted on things that matter. So we will mourn an illegal demolition, we will shout against power cuts and excessive electricity bills, we will raise our voice against the Bangaru Laxman type of corruption, but when it comes to real issues affecting real people, we will turn away.
Jessica Lall had many friends. But only when she was alive. Her colleague at the bar, Shayan Munshi, also turned hostile. Corporate leaders, who had just arrived at Tamarind Court post a CII event, preach governance and ethics and yet none of them had the personal courage to own up to a crime they must have seen. There were senior police officers who, besides being transferred out of the state, have done nothing else. No one in the establishment has been brought to book and that is the real tragedy.
The police blames the citizen, the judiciary blames the law, the citizen blames lawlessness — each stakeholder sacrificing his or her responsibility and in the process creating an even stronger wimp land out of India. And like we forgot the BMW case and Priyadarshini Matoo or, for that matter, Nitish Katara and several other such cases, we will forget Jessica too. And like those who died in the Uphaar tragedy only to be grieved by their families alone, in Jessica’s case too, we will see a habitual forgetfulness set in that will make no one cringe.
This, to my mind, is the real fallout of a flawed system. Can we do anything about it? I believe we can. This paper has shown that courage in journalism is a powerful weapon: it is a powerful influence, it can shape opinions. Shape them so that they are stubborn enough to stand up to the pressures of the rich, the powerful and the insensitive. I guess, once again, the time has come for us to seriously examine the Jessica Lall case not as the murder of a hapless girl who refused drinks to some louts but instead as a murder of everything that we thought we had become. A nation at the cutting edge of knowledge; a nation that reeked of quiet confidence and a value system that we were slowly coming to embrace.
Jessica’s father is not the only man who weeps today. All of India must. Only because if we don’t shed tears and express anger and disgust, we will slowly be co-opted by a system which is wretched and corrupt.
With due apologies to Shakespeare, there is something seriously rotten in the state of India. And this time the blame lies not in our stars but in ourselves.
The writer is CEO of Equus Redcell Advertising