In its recent 'correction' in Dara Singhs' conviction and a judgement related to beating up a young Bhil woman and then parading her naked in the village, the Supreme Court has provided grounds to speculations that judicial standards are steadily declining
In the space of a month, two separate judgements from the highest court of India have contributed to the long list of steadily-declining judicial standards in the country.
The first is the Supreme Court's "correction" of parts of its original judgement upholding Dara Singh's conviction last week, which has aroused widespread indignation for the dangerous precedent it has set. It implies that anybody with the wherewithal to create a shrill ruckus in the media and intelligentsia can bend the Supreme Court to its will. While this is a perversion of every tradition of decency, the court must also share a portion of the blame for yielding to such ham-handed tactics.
The second relates to a Supreme Court conviction in the first week of January. The case relates to beating up a young Bhil woman and then parading her naked in the village. An observation in that judgement is sadly uninformed, historically inaccurate and lacks perspective.
In its judgement, the Supreme Court praised the tribals and emphasised that the current state of affairs, where tribals are being robbed of their forests and hills, must stop. Curiously, the judgement traces the current exploitation of tribals all the way to the Mahabharata period and says that Dronacharya set the precedent by asking for Ekalavya's right thumb to support its observation that tribals were historically always exploited. To quote, "This was a shameful act on the part of Dronacharya. He had not even taught Eklavya, so what right had he to demand 'guru dakshina'… the right thumb of Eklavya so that... (he) may not become a better archer than his favourite pupil Arjun?" Further, this episode constitutes the "well-known example of the injustice" to tribals.
It's quite interesting how the venerable judges used exactly one episode from the mammoth epic to draw this astonishing conclusion. A holistic judgement would consider how the tribals were treated in the entire epic, the attitudes of the general public towards tribals, and the history of tribal oppression in India at various points in history. Instead, the Supreme Court ruled that tribals have always been subjected to injustice.
Ancient India, since the establishment of different forms of Governments (for an instructive account, read, KP Jayaswal's Hindu Polity), has always made provisions for the fair and respectable treatment of tribals. For instance, The Arthashastra institutes elaborate laws for the preservation of different kinds of forests-majority of today's concepts of wildlife conservation that can be traced back to Kautilya's strictures for preserving the Abhaya Aranya, Nagavana and so on. It also stresses on the need to safeguard and grant a dignified life to the suppliers of honey, animal skin, elephants, timber, flowers, medicinal plants and other forest produce. Kautilya recommends awarding exemplary punishment to any person who harmed an innocent tribal in any form.
From a more pragmatic perspective, it made sense for a king to have tribals on his side for they had access to the remotest recesses of the forest and acted as guardians of a kingdom's border. Antagonising them meant definite defeat at crucial moments in a battle. Tribals were actually pampered by kings until as recently as the 19th century. Most kings had a separate "tribal force". A good example of this can be found by studying the Nayaka dynasty that ruled Chitradurga for about three centuries.
The inevitable conclusion is that tribals weren't always oppressed. Recent researches have traced the antecedents of many of today's tribals to various royal dynasties who fled into the jungles to escape the tyranny of Muslim rule in medieval India. An accurate estimation of the history of tribal oppression on a large scale can be traced to the British who began to usurp India's resources massively.
Dronacharya's act remains condemnable but holding that as a precedent for oppressing tribals is far-fetched. More importantly, Dronacharya's heinous act wasn't an injustice against tribals per se. The most crucial point is Drona's motive, which as the judges rightly say, was to prevent Ekalavya from becoming a better archer than Arjun. Had Ekalavya not been a tribal but a proper Kshatriya and given the same circumstances, would Drona's demand be any different? An epic like Mahabharata deals with the most fundamental human impulses and motivations. Avarice, lust, ambition and power are gender, caste and class neutral. Further, nobody, starting with Veda Vyasa to all commentators on the epic, ever regards Dronacharya as an ideal teacher, an important aspect that the honourable court has missed.
Injustice to tribals is a real and festering problem in India and needs to be tackled with the proverbial iron fist. But the iron fist, which is political will, is missing because in most cases those who should wield that will are themselves the perpetrators. Nothing short of exemplary punishment needs to be awarded to the human scum that paraded the poor woman naked. The sadder fact is that tribals are far more brutally oppressed in independent India and get little, if no justice, than they were in the time of Dronacharya.
The Supreme Court's conviction would've stood on its own merit without the reference to the Mahabharata, which is both inaccurate and unnecessary. A woman's dignity has been violated in a despicable manner and it deserves strict punishment. Would it be okay if she wasn't a tribal but say, a college student? It gets confusing: Are we seeking justice for a wronged woman or a wronged tribal woman? Is the need for justice amplified because one belongs to a certain group that has been presumed to be victimised forever?
But then we live in an age of social justice and blanket, thoughtless pity and glorification of anything that remotely sounds like it is oppressed. An age where victimhood is worn as a badge of pride, and has become the dominant public discourse. While it is understandable that courts do get influenced by the prevailing discourse, one wishes that they exhibit a stronger fibre to not cow down to those who raise blank noises. The law is supreme and doesn't require the approval of lobbyists to rule in favour of what is fair and just.