India’s not so dismal Justice Shah!

Justice A.P. Shah shares his initials with the first two letters of the adjective “apocalyptic” which aptly describes his M.N.Roy Memorial Lecture.

His prophesies of doom notwithstanding, India is not in so grim a condition as he suggests.

Yes there is a tumultuous clamour within the political landscape today. But is that not the norm of a free society? As long as a polity retains the legal capacity to control the consequences of social encounters between competing ideologies – which India undoubtedly possesses – dislike for a contrary point of view should provide no cause for apprehension or alarm.

Preference to one of a competing set of opinions and condemning the contrary as dangerous has little to do with the content of the opinion and is based exclusively upon the values the self appointed arbiter subscribes to. Justice Shah may be attaching little value to the legally enjoined political integrity of India giving preference to freedom to divide the country over its being kept intact as is constitutionally prescribed and hence worry about “attacks” on “institutions of learning” but how does he conclude therefrom that a view contrary to what he holds is dangerous or wrong and harmful for the country? What is misdescribed as an “attack” is actually the repulsing of an assault on a perception of India as envisaged by its constitution. A tolerant society without self-defence is doomed to destruction.

Reference to “online hate, abuse and threats” to a “21 year old university student” is clearly a case of cherry picking suggesting, wrongly, that one point of view alone is made subject of online harassment. Similar abuses and ad-hominem attacks apply to almost every point of view which is expressed. The partisan approach of Justice Shah sows a predisposition towards a particular point of view which robs his view both of balance and perspective.

UP finds a mention with a pointed reference to “harassment of Muslims” but are Muslims alone harassed in the country? What about the ethnic cleansing of Hindus from Kashmir or the murder of Swami Lakshmanananda on Janmashtmi by Christians in Orissa? Similar examples can be multiplied. India did not yet break into tumult nor into an uncontrollable frenzy or disorder! Is ignoring a large number of related cases which contradict one’s stated position not unprincipled and unfair ?

Yes, as Justice Shah said, we must be “wary of enforcing a single ideology on a country as diverse as India”. The comment was made in the context of Mohan Bhagwat’s call for a national law against cow slaughter. Notwithstanding Bhagwat, under the Indian constitution the state legislatures alone have exclusive powers to legislate on the subject which is the reason why many of the states have enacted no legislation on the slaughter of cows. Bhagwat is, however, entitled to his views. Committed as he is to freedom of speech, can Justice Shah deny Bhagwat the right to hold views which Justice Shah may not like? Or is he intending, through negative verbal remarks, to create an antipathy towards a contrary point of view not shared by him and imposing a “single ideology” on a country as diverse as India. In any event there is no prescription in India about what one may or may not eat and laws in place to deal with any form of intimidation or coercion.

Justice Shah referred to the Censor Board rendering Hanuman Chalisa silent because prayer was not answered but chose to ignore referring to the movie PK which dealt with fraudulent godmen (all of whom were incidentally Hindus) nor even to 3 Idiots where students were shown to be worshipping several Hindu Gods and even feeding a cow in a desperate attempt to pass the examination. I doubt if as liberal or expansive satirizing or mocking of religious habits of any religion other than Hinduism could have been dared by any director or producer of any movie in India. This is a tribute to its maturity, sense and large-heartedness.

There is nothing wrong with the retention of the offence of sedition, to which Justice Shah objects, as law must reconcile the right of private criticism with the necessity of securing safety and stability of state. Prosecution for sedition is in the interest of public order which is included in clause 2 of Article 19 of the Constitution. And his regret that defamation was not decriminalised does not detract from the fact the judgment the Supreme Court rendered was indeed a well reasoned one.

A prejudiced mind can easily stigmatise. And cherry picking facts to resonate with your belief system can only bring about a doctored reality. While becoming a Cassandra of doom Justice Shah forgot that what he felt was reality was actually one feigned, invented and imagined by him only. India needs no moralising discourses from Justice Shah or others.

Officialdom, Law & Gobbledegook

A recent judgment of the Supreme Court upholding the offence of defamation has justifiably attracted much comment for its magniloquent style.

Interestingly The New York Times had carried an article on May 21, 1944 called The Case Against GobbledegookThe author Maury Maverick protested “vague, pompous, repetitious English and the two gun bandits who use it.” What provoked Maury was the the language of officialdom and was mild compared to the Supreme Court judgment. Maury’s reaction would surely have been more indignant had he read the judgment but what he wrote is yet very relevant.

“No one”, said Maury, “regarded tyranny of words funny.” Anyone, he said, “who is thinking clearly and honestly can express his thoughts in words which are understandable and in very few of them. Lets write for the reader and not ourselves.”

The word “Gobbledegook” was coined by him. Explaining the invention he said, “First the word: It is long, sounds foreign, has four stories. You walk up without the benefit of the elevator. Second its definition: talk or writing which is long, pompous, vague and involved… Perhaps I was thinking of the old bearded turkey gobbler who was always gobbledegooking and strutting with ridiculous pomposity. At the end of the gobble there was a sort of a gook.” Gobbledegook “means not only big foolish words but wasted words.”

Those who do not “talk English” were called Gobbledegookers – “like the oracles or Panchhan Lamas sitting on top of the Tibet mountains in their monasteries talking nonsense to common people 7000 feet below.”

Scorning “long-winding heart-breaking wordiness”, Maury described speech as “a very important part of a person’s conduct. He must be held morally responsible for his words just as he is accountable for his other acts.”

Unless one utters words easy to understand, said Maury, how shall it be known what is said?

Maury’s article will apply both to officialese and legalese. Obscuring official language will deter popular participation in and the understanding of governance. But the need for clarity will be even more in judgments which communicate the law. In the absence of clarity about law both adherence to it and enforcement of accountability to it will be a casualty and paradoxically in the purported enforcement of law will be its erosion. And while law can be an ass it should never be allowed to become a clown.