Country needs renaissance of values, says former CJ

Mahatma Gandhi said the task was to benefit the smallest and the weakest and wipe a tear from every eye, but today, according to former Chief Justice of India J.S. Verma, there is a tear in every eye. That, and what we can do about it, formed the main themes in Mr. Verma’s Besant Lecture, ‘A Vision of Free India—Is It a Mirage?’ delivered on Thursday during the Theosophical Society’s 137th International Convention.

Introduced by the Society’s International vice-president and his former Allahabad University classmate M.P. Singhal, Mr. Verma reminded the audience that at Karachi in 1931, the Indian National Congress specified the Fundamental Rights; Articles 38 and 39 of the Constitution explicitly require distributive justice to ensure the people’s empowerment.

Yet, Vietnam, for example, is doing better than India in meeting the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. A quarter of Indians live on less than Rs. 20 a day, and a plutocrat builds a 27-storey house with a rooftop helipad; certain lawyers charge tens of millions just for appearing. Mr. Verma recalled getting angry with slum children who were curious about his car, but when he visited their families, he looked out from their homes at his own, and saw a different world.

Jawaharlal Nehru, nevertheless, called himself the first public servant. Public protest is now the way the public tell those in office that they must act. It has also mobilised public anger against corruption, though Mr. Verma disapproved of the particular methods used; he did, however, contrast the Delhi protesters’ discipline with three attempts to justify violence. In 1984, Rajiv Gandhi said,

“When a big tree falls, the earth shakes,” in 2002 Narendra Modi said, “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction,” and in 2012, Delhi Police Commissioner Neeraj Kumar called anti-rape protesters’ injuries “collateral damage.” That is a term for civilian casualties in war, not for violence against one’s fellow-citizens.

A way ahead might lie in the example of the young protesters in Delhi, who, by spontaneously protesting the gang-rape of a woman on a bus, had shown that this is not a matter of citizens and government or us and them. It involved all of us. Ordinary people are the keepers of the Constitution, and Mr. Verma drew on Aristotle to say that the surest guarantee is the education of every citizen in the spirit of the Constitution. Yet, too often, those of us whose word counts, who have a duty to speak, and for whom silence is not an option, remain silent.

Granville Austin sees the Indian experience of constitutionality as dharmashastra , with the emphasis on morality, but law as institutionalised morality is now separated thence. Reunifying the two, said Mr. Verma, will provide the renaissance of values the country needs.

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