When justice is just gas!

The court verdict on the Bhopal gas tragedy has kicked up the expected furore in the media and public. Forget the extent of culpability and the quantum of punishment of/for those convicted, but all of us in the so called ‘civil society’ too should plead guilty for, well, forgetting the tragedy as well as the victims for this long. The sudden concern and the copious flow of indignation, therefore, seems not only orchestrated but also outdated. If anything the judgement, if you can call it that, because the convicted are all at large now, is only a minor prick on the country’s collective thick skin! Trust the national numbness to stage a comeback once the dust settles. Yet, the verdict does raise larger questions about the concept of justice as also its relevance to Bharat, the much touted land of Dharma!

The term ‘justice’, as we use it today, is derived from western jurisprudence, primarily British and American. The Oxford Dictionary defines justice as ‘a moral ideal that the law seeks to uphold in the protection of rights and punishment of wrongs’. It, however, cautions that justice is not synonymous with law, as ‘it is possible for a law to be called unjust’. Yet despite the caution, in common semantics and legal parlance, law and justice are interchangeable. So if the rule of law prevails, justice is deemed to have been done. Even when some judgements fall short of delivering ‘justice’ or when jurisprudence refuses to be that prudent. Judicial corruption and bias often cause such willful ‘miscarriage of justice’. But there is an inbuilt tendency for judicial accidents because the whole legal edifice rests on twin pillars: Material Evidence, which can always be fabricated and Quantification, which is invariably subjective. Smart arguments can easily tip the scales, bind and even blind a judge. The spirit can quickly vanish into the space between the letters of law.

In my view, no verdict under modern law can be truly just. Any judgement that claims to dispense justice must cover two aspects: punishment of the guilty and alleviation of the victim. Strangely, the two are not connected, except in cases where compensating the victim is the punishment to the guilty. On the contrary, compensation does not preclude criminal liability which runs on a parallel track towards punishment. But retributive justice does not in any way erase the pain of the affected party except probably by way of dousing the anger to whatever extent. For even after the offender is punished, the victim still stares into a vacuum. Ironically and rather cruelly, the impossibility of the restoration of a lost life, livelihood or opportunities is one of the arguments put forth by the anti-death penalty brigade, besides the familiar pitch of an eye for an eye making everyone blind. So, if punishing the guilty is no compensation, neither can monetary or rehabilitative measures be adequate. Pray, what is the true financial value of the multifarious damage caused to the Bhopal gas tragedy victims? Yet, punishment and alleviation, residual justice though they are, remain the only consolation, if not fair compensation. Besides, they are also telltale albeit token gestures of a system that is at least clinically alive if not exactly kicking.

But justice looks all the more twisted when even that minimum retribution and compensation are vitiated. Those who succumbed or suffered in Bhopal on that fateful December morning of 1984 have found the subsequent protracted legal proceedings more toxic than the gas that got them. After every disaster, natural or man-made, comes the ritualistic official announcement of cash relief. In a political milieu where even corpses have to pay kickbacks, how certain can we be that the relief reached the affected in full besides the right people? More so in a mass massacre like in Bhopal which also involves enduring damage that spans generations? The 1989 award of 470 million dollars, which itself was elicited after much ugly haggling between an unrepentent Union Carbide and an impotent Indian regime, cannot certainly have lasted till 2010, when many are still suffering and many more are actually being born with the gas legacy in their genes!

But worse is the impunity with which the offenders have cocked a snook at justice at large and Indian law in particular. I say ‘Indian’ because I am referring to foreigners, the local ones having at least symbolically gone through the legal mill and drill. India is famous for its fatal fancy for foreign-born criminals who loot or kill and then scoot at will. Bofors-fame Quattarochchi could invoke his fraternal bondings, wade through our immigration and customs and fly the coop just when the investigations into his nefarious deals were at the peak. Uncle Sam’s son Anderson of Union Carbide was treated even better: a government aircraft gave him a lift from Bhopal to Delhi from where he took a routine commercial flight to the US as if he were an ordinary tourist. All this when his victims were dropping dead on the streets of the doomed Madhya Pradesh capital. Paki terrorist Masood Azhar of JeM outdid even the aforesaid Q & A when he got escorted by none less than the nation’s Foreign Minister to Kandahar. It looks another Q & As awaiting the elusive noose, (Q)Kasab and Afzal too can easily skip their paradise visit if only they can prove their foreign credentials!

But getting back to justice (was it ever there?), the Indian equivalent is Dharma, the divine order that keeps things in place. Of course, there is also karma which helps the unfortunates of Bharath swallow pain when dharma fails them. Though this approach to justice may seem escapist and fatalist it probably also stems from a realisation of the utter futility of mortal means. That said, a seminal article by former Chief Justice Markandeya Katju describes in great detail the ‘tremendous development in the field of law in ancient and medieval India’ and how they were obliterated by British rulers. In that piece, titled ‘The Mimansa Principles of Interpretation’ he asserts that these principles ‘are rational and scientific, and in some respects superior to the principles obtaining in Western law’ and goes on to advocate that ‘these be applied in appropriate cases even today’. From statutes to shastras, that’s a noteworthy leap of faith for a CJI!

In the Gita, Lord Krishna promises to intervene and uphold dharma whenever it takes a dip. Bhopal is yet another reminder that justice alias dharma delayed tantamounts to denial. This maxim is valid not just to the mortal lords of earthy courts but also to Him, ie, My Lord, of the highest court!

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Jawahar T R