Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Crime and Punishment: Punishing Goans, anti-Goans, outsiders; and judging ourselves

A couple of weeks ago, a prominent member of Goan society verbally assaulted and hounded out another individual from the anniversary party of the Times of India (TOI) newspaper. The Goan accused this other person of being ‘anti-Goan’, of selling Goa and manipulating the truth surrounding the irresponsible and illegal operations of an industrial house in the State. Subsequently, this news was then circulated electronically, and the actions of this Goan lauded, as patriotic, and as having rightfully punished the desecrator of our land. For those of you who have your ear pressed to the rumour mill, you already know which incident is being referred to and the names of the persons involved. The rest of you will without doubt soon figure it out. And yet, there is good reason why no name is being mentioned in this column. The identities of those involved don’t matter in this case, what matters was the action that transpired, the public legitimacy that was subsequently accorded to it and most crucially, the kind of society that we would like to form ourselves into in this period of crisis and transformation.

When society is sentencing a criminal, we should bear in mind, that it is not just the criminal who is being judged, but society itself. How this society deals with the offender is an indicator of the morals and values that the society cherishes and holds as sacred and relevant, as ideal for its future generations. What is the problem with the event described above? To begin with, this individual Goan took it upon himself to judge this other person, and then execute the verdict that he had deemed fit. There would perhaps have been no problem if this Goan had decided to cold-shoulder and ignore this ‘anti-Goan’. This would have been an acceptable personal mode of action, of non-cooperation. There would have been no problem had our Goan friend encouraged others to ostracize this individual. Once again, using the power of logic and persuasion, and moral conviction, to increase the space of this non-cooperation. Deciding to take matters into his own hands, for the rest of us, was only the first of the problems. How does this action differ from what precedes a mob-lynching? Not very much it could be argued. Lynchings normally begin this way, one man against an other, one man marked as public enemy and popular justice meted out to this individual marked as the public enemy. The popular approval that this action received is some indication that had this event taken place in the marketplace, or on the street, this ‘anti-Goan’ may in fact have been lynched. He should thank his lucky stars.

On the other hand, our brethren have in fact been engaging in some amount of popular justice, having burned down the home of Mahanand, hounding his wife out of both her marital and natal home. We should bear in mind that Mahanand has merely confessed while in police custody. Such confession is not binding in a court of law, and the man, no matter how heinous his crimes, deserves a chance to be heard in a court of law, with the options for understanding, clemency and mercy that the legal system offer. The more enthusiastic among us however, are already demanding capital punishment for this man. On what basis has this decision been made? Newspaper reports alone? In such case why do we even need the court system?

It is in contemplating this position that we could possibly see the sense in the maxim presented above, When society is sentencing a criminal, we should bear in mind, that it is not just the criminal who is being judged, but society itself.

What is the kind of society that we would like to create at this moment of crisis and transition? Is it a society that is dialogical, based on processes, respectful of life and non-violent? Or is it a society that encourages vigilante actions, where each of us arrogates to ourselves the rights to independently judge our neighbour?

There is much myth making about Goa. That it is a peaceful society, not given to violence. As with many other popular myths about Goa, this too fails to represent Goa accurately. And yet it is also true that Goan society is not marked by the levels of violence we find in other societies. Living in a transitory moment in history however, we have the unique opportunity to determine the kind of society we want for our future generation.

In many parts of the country the institutions of the State have been systematically broken down to allow for an anarchy within which the mighty profit. From the collusion between the political establishment and the business lobby, we know that this is taking place in Goa as well. Yet the criminal justice process still works. In the case of Mahanand and other such episodes, we should exercise restraint and allow the law to take its own course. Principles of natural justice require as much, that both sides be allowed an opportunity to present their case. Humanity requires that we curb our blood thirst, realizing that if it were a tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye, the whole world would land up being blind and toothless.

In the case of dealing with the violence to our land and the people perpetrating this violence, a social ostracism may not be a bad idea. And yet this cannot be the only option. Too much is made of free will. Most of us also operate within structures of power, and clearly the framework of power in our State is corrupted. If there is any violence to be directed, it should be violence that we force to State to openly direct at us. As of now, it deals out this violence surreptitiously. Let us force this violence out into the open, and then, in full glare of the world, let them be accountable for it. In doing so, we will also be correcting the system. This is the primary need of the hour, and yet one that we constantly fail to address. To fail to do this, even while we ostracize the petty individuals involved in the desecration of our land, is cowardly and duplicitous. The episode at the TOI party indicates as much. TOI has been known to offer Goan properties for sale, a fact that some Goans have had problems with. The venue of the party was the property of a mine-owner. The venue is also rumoured to be a CRZ violation. In such a scenario how do we justify actions of popular justice against a single individual, no matter how distasteful this individual’s actions in fact are?

It is because we are implicated in a corrupt system, because the same system will then go on to judge us, that we must be wary of the kind of system that we are sanctioning through our actions. The ideal action in these times therefore, would be that addressed towards cleaning up the system, and valuing it where it exists in order.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 20 May 2009)

1 comment:

cajetan vaz said...

excellent observations.
hope the thinking finds favour with more who blow the whistle.