In India, ‘The Word’ spreads fast. Compared to the world, probably the fastest.
The Indian Society, known for its well-knit family structure and community strength all over the world, also plays a seemingly interesting role. The role of a judge— a very brutal judge. Its verdict seems to be of paramount importance to itself. It acts pretty much, in autonomy to the otherwise more organized judicial system. Unlike the latter, the Indian Judge has no hierarchy of courts or any well-drafted ‘constitution’ which influences its verdict. Rather, what influences it, is fake news and ‘The Indian Maryadaa(respect).’ It consists of 3 important players. First, ‘The Uncle or The Aunty,’ who opened the ‘case file.’ Second, ‘The Silent Spreader,’ formerly in the form of evening gossips at the famous Indian Chai Point, and more recently in the form of text messages on ‘The Indian WhatsApp Group.’ And, third and most crucial player, ‘The Indian Black Sheep.’
The Indian Black Sheep needs to make no effort to prove his innocence. The more ‘The Word’ spreads, the more guilty he is. There is no formal hearing. There is no regard for the law of the land or any fair trial. The Indian Courtroom has passed many innovative judgments over the years, almost all of them being life sentences. Let’s have a look at some of them.
In the year 2002, when the bloody Gujarat riots ravaged the state and tainted the image of the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi, almost the entire Indian media had already called him, “the architect” of the riots. Many leading national news media organizations had already coined phrases like “dictator,” “mass murderer,” “mass killer,” and even “Hitler,” even when no court in the country had passed an observation on this matter. Much later, in 2012, a Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team awarded Modi a clean chit on the riots and swept him clean of almost all charges. In fact, in 2019, the Nanavati-Mehta Commission said, “There is no evidence to show that these attacks were either inspired or instigated or abated by any minister of the state,” in its report, which ran 1,500 pages. Clearly, even today there is no dearth of abuses that are being hurled at the same person who rose to power in 4 democratic elections after this issue and is today the Prime Minister. ‘The Silent Spreader’ still haunts him every election on the Indian WhatsApp group. The public courts of India seem to have no regard for the judicial courts. Across India’s political spectrum, the extrajudicial punishments have been rampant. Irrespective of the political party that a politician may hail from, such societal judgments are bound to be delivered.
Corporate India too has not been spared from ‘The Word.’ Take the recent pandemic to illustrate how the ₹1 Trillion poultry industry was left famished. Somnath Shelke, a poultry farmer in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar, started receiving text messages on WhatsApp that baffled him. “Broiler chicken me korona virus ko paya gaya hai” (coronavirus has been found inside broiler chicken). The paranoia in The Indian Society spread fast. The Great Indian Judgement had been delivered and no amount of government agencies’ clarifications could save him. Before Shelke knew it, the trillion-rupee industry was reduced to cents, and his business shuttered. The meat industry should have otherwise remained insulated to the ensuing economic slowdown due to the pandemic. Meat, like other eatables and foods, came under the ‘essentials substances’ category. The fake news linking to the spread of the virus in chickens has cost the Indian poultry market over ₹1.6 billion a day. India, which is the world’s fourth-largest chicken meat producer now faces its worst crises. Amusingly, this isn’t the first time chicken meat has faced trial in the Indian Courtroom. When bird flu hit Maharashtra in 2006 and West Bengal in 2008, millions across the country gave up meat for weeks, even months. During the 2016 chikungunya outbreak, some associated the mosquito-borne disease with chicken due to phonetic similarities. To put these rumors to rest, the Union Health Ministry, the Animal Husbandry Ministry and the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) issued statements denying that the virus could be caused by egg or chicken consumption.
Another striking example is the case of domestic crimes in India. In this, the WhatsApp and Facebook Judge is very clear. He follows the principle of ‘guilty until proven innocent.’ Barely does the news of rape, female infanticide, or any other domestic abuse starts being reported, the accused arrested and put to some form of legal supervision, that a pseudo-liberal lobby, aiming to make a social media presence, starts reporting him guilty. Ignoring the social responsibility of upholding social immunity to both the accused and the victim, rural India ostracizes the victim, while urban India, welcomes blindly any and every name for the accused. There are enough examples of the accused committing suicide, only to realize that a detailed investigation either reveals that the victim was only playing the revenge game or the accused was someone else. If somehow the accused does courage himself off suicide, the society doesn’t spare him. Companies, in the effort to secure ‘goodwill in the market,’ do not award him a job unless ‘he is cleared off his accusations’ instead of promising job continuity subject to the verdict of the case as per legal proceedings. Apparently, it also turns out to be a loss of Maryada (self-respect) for his entire village or community. The case of mob lynchings is also closely related to this.
Our generation is exposed to unprecedented amounts of information. Sitting on our own palms in the form of phones and tablets is the sum total of an entire species worth of data realization. How we choose to use that data is democratized as well. Along with this tsunami of data, comes our inherent responsibility to use this data to serve the society around us. Information is a double-edged sword. Being informed is both self-empowering as well as contributing. Being misinformed, however, is equally detrimental.
The above examples, remind us time and again that in the quest of satisfying the ‘gossip’ and ‘troll’ in us, we forget the defamation and social out-casting the accused may be subjected to. This often goes to unjustifiably influence the court of law and the legal case. Often under social pressures, the lower judicial bodies like the Panchayats and District Magistrates may award the case to the one declared guilty by society, allowing the real violator of law to walk free.
There are courts. If we choose to believe in them then we must create the environment conducive enough for them to operate with the judicial independence they require.
Otherwise, why have courts?
Written by Sunay Mehta for MTTN
Featured Image by Vaibhav Aatreya for MTTN