Some scholars assert, perhaps rightly, that our region which implies the entire subcontinent, had no concept of law in the modern sense before the colonial ingress. Then what was it that organised the society? An ancient society such as ours wouldn’t have survived the vicissitudes of time if it had no law. But what ruled and kept the society in a state of equilibrium wasn’t law. It was rather a complex set of traditions, customs, conventions and norms evolved over a long span of time that regulated all aspects of life. All this was based on the notion of race, caste and class due to specific historical conditions that defined our social evolution.
Interaction and intermingling between the indigenous people [who came to this land as aliens at some point in time] and aliens especially the so-called Arya resulted in a unique historical situation whereby emerged what has been ruling our society and still holds sway at some level in a surreptitious manner. The law, the semblance of law to be exact, born of race, caste and class hierarchies created structures that encouraged segregation and exclusion with emphasis on hereditary division of work. Notion of castes based on ‘Varuna [colour] created special rules which applied to each caste that governed its internal and social life. Each caste was forced to act and behave according to its specific code.
Codes designed for different castes had one thing in common; emphasis on exclusion and segregation. But social life needed interaction and cooperation the absolute minimum of which was allowed in the interest of survival. Immutable castes in society existed like separate islands connected only by waters of necessity.
Another significant feature of life was absence of notion of human equality. It wasn’t even much discussed as a theoretical possibility. Rather the opposite of it was hailed as the human ideal the concrete evidence of which could be seen in the existence of castes. Since division into castes was based on the religiously backed concept of innate inequality among humans, there no question of people being equal before law. This concept of inequality was so ingrained in Indian psyche that as late as 19th century a person like Sir Syed Ahmed who supported the British and advocated modernity protested when he was summoned by a court in a case and had to stand there with men who he thought were plebeians called ‘Arzal [lowly/ mean]. He requested the judge not to make the ‘Ashraaf [patricians] stand alongside the commoners in full public view. Remember Sir Syed was a Muslim and his religion had no concept of castes. So people weren’t equal before law. You were as good or bad as your caste or profession dictated by your caste.
Universality of law was something unthinkable and its uniform application simply could not be imagined. Since each caste and group was to be governed by laws specific to it, it became almost impossible for the state to evolve and design laws applicable across the board.
Ruler’s word was the law. For the same offence for example people from different castes and professions were dealt with differently. An upper caste person could get away even with murder but a low caste one got persecuted for minor things such as crossing a Brahmin’s path. Such dichotomy made it difficult if not impossible for the people to have loyalty and allegiance to the state notwithstanding its composition.
A state which blatantly favours a few to the disadvantage of many cannot buy loyalty or allegiance of common people regardless of the fact whether they are subjects or citizens. That’s one reason why people never came to the aid of rulers when they were attacked and decimated by foreign invaders in our long history. A state with discriminating laws relied on intimidation and coercion for appropriating surplus and creating resources which forced people to alienate from the state and its assets. The state was simply a predator that would devour anything and everything the people had earned through blood, sweat and tears. The people rightly thought that the state’s assets were what was taken from them without their consent. Hence they would love to plunder it whenever an opportunity arose. Interestingly it were the British from across the sea who occupied the region and introduced the concept of law that had uniform application, with some exceptions of course. Such an act unheard of in the subcontinent ensured the generality of law and equality of subjects before the law which was never practiced before here in this land of paradoxes. That’s why the previous generations which lived under the colonial rule fondly talked of ‘ Gora Raj [ the white man’s rule]’ as they had experienced the rule of law and dispensation of justice in a modern judicial framework. But still colonial rule triggered another kind of process of alienation from the state: Coercion and at times state terror was used to make people fall in line. The people made to acquiesce to the dictates of the new colonial power structure respected the state out of fear of retribution, not love.
Conditioned psyche takes long to be deconditioned and get rid of deep-rooted group habits. Given half a chance the uncontrollable urge to grab state assets and break law is a carryover from the historical past shaped by the forces not accountable to the people in any way.
Defacing public buildings for instance which in no way benefits the public or the culprits, points to the wanton urge to demolish what appears as enemy property due to perennial estrangement from power structure. Laws being discriminatory in their nature are rendered suspect and are thought to be selective in their application in our post-colonial state. So much so that laws that are designed for the common good are violated with impunity by both the powerful and the powerless. The powerful for the privilege of being powerful treat the laws as a nuisance and thus break them. And the powerless unconsciously feel that laws made by the powerful are intrinsically inimical to their interests and be violated whenever there is chance to do it.
Traffic laws which are necessary for regulating complex contemporary life and human safety are flouted as if they are not meant to regulate the flow of traffic but rather are a serious impediment to unrestrained movement. If we take red light as a metaphor we must remember that an individual or a group that is in the habit of jumping red light can get away with it once, twice or thrice unhurt but one day there would surely be a crash and violator punished. The state and the people are no exception. — firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, February 8th, 2021