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Caged Tiger

Reviewed by T T Ram Mohan

Published : Saturday, 23 September, 2023 at 12:00 AM  Count : 497
Subhashish Bhadra

Caged Tiger

Caged Tiger

It is time for archaic laws to be shelved for the country to function better, argues a new book�

When people talk of the heavy hand of the state stifling initiative and growth, they typically mean the many restrictions on economic activity that hampered, and to a lesser extent, continue to hamper business even today.

Subhashish Bhadra, a corporate professional who has also been involved in matters of public policy, has something wider in mind. He thinks the Indian state imposes numerous other restrictions that keep its people from fulfilling their potential: limitations on free speech, laws and law enforcement that tend to be abused, institutions that don't deliver.

In his book, Caged Tiger, Bhadra argues that we need to work on laws, regulations and institutions in ways that put us on par with standards in more mature democracies. The book's merit is that it brings together familiar material in one place and fleshes it out with useful data.

Bhadra dwells only briefly on the economic constraints - and rightly so. The more glaring controls and restrictions have been dismantled post 1991. Bhadra argues that we can do more but he's not terribly persuasive on the subject of dismantling the Minimum Support Price for certain crops and the public distribution system. His plea for a greater reliance on the market seems out of sync with the trend worldwide towards increasing public debt, a greater role for the state, the return of industrial policy and more stringent bank regulation.

Restrictions on freedoms

Bhadra devotes chapters to various restrictions on individual freedom, the potential for abuses on the part of the state, and institutions, such as the police force, and Parliament whose functioning could do with improvement. It's incorrect to suppose that these are all 'Indian' problems that reflect traits peculiar to the Indian state or its people. Many of the ills that Bhadra documents are to be found in western democracies as well.

One doubts, for instance, that Indian agencies, intrusive as they are, can match the surveillance capabilities of the National Security Agency in the U.S. Bhadra contends that the checks on misuse of such capabilities are better elsewhere. One is not so sure especially after the revelations made by Edward Snowden about surveillance in the U.S.

Nor is police brutality an Indian speciality. There must be very few places where the police do not have a similar reputation especially where the poor and minorities are concerned. Bhadra speaks in glowing terms about the London Metropolitan Police which is drawn from local people and is subject to judicial oversight. Alas, the reputation of the London Police is in tatters today. The book must have been written before the report of an inquiry into the London Police published in March revealed that the force was racist, misogynist and homophobic.

Bhadra talks about the many ills of India's electoral system, such as the use of money power, and the problems with the functioning of the Indian Parliament. Some solutions that Bhadra highlights for the improved functioning of Parliament are worth noting. In India, the Speaker has sweeping powers to decide what to allow and not to allow for discussion. We might take a leaf from the U.K. Parliament's book: for 20 days in a year, the Opposition gets to deciding the agenda. Members of the legislature in the U.K. and the U.S. can take a position different from that of the party without fearing expulsion. In India, defying the party whip can spell disqualification under the Anti-Defection Law.

Relics of the past

Bhadra is on firmer ground when he says that it is time for laws that are relics of the colonial era, such as those relating to sedition or contempt of court, to go. He is right in saying that bans on films, books, items of food etc on vague grounds such as 'offensive content' should go - this is one area where, perhaps, we are clearly out of line with western democracies. The guiding principle, he says, should be that bans apply only where constitutional rights are being violated.

The same goes for preventive detention and similar laws which Bhadra deplores as colonial legacies. After 9/11 and other episodes, governments in the U.S. and Europe have armed themselves with sweeping powers of detention in the name of fighting terrorism or protecting national security. India may have a higher proportion of undertrials in jails than other nations but the U.S. has more individuals in jail per unit of population. Fighting the law enforcement authority is prohibitively expensive in the U.S., so the overwhelming majority - nearly 90% - plead guilty and settle for a lower penalty than they would merit if found guilty by a court. The lower rate of conviction in Indian courts seems a virtue in comparison.

The way forward

How do we address the many shortcomings of the Indian state? Bhadra pins his faith on better awareness through education, citizens taking interest in communicating with each other, peaceful citizen movements and more responsible behaviour by individuals. There is little evidence of these in western democracies despite higher levels of education and living standards. India's experience suggests that the power of the ballot, exercised by large numbers of less educated people, may be a better disciplining device.
Courtesy: THE HINDU

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