The proposal mooted by Kapil Sibal, a leading lawyer and now Minister for HRD, Union Government, has come not a day too soon. A fundamental postulate of our Criminal Procedure Code is that “Ignorance of law is no excuse”. That is, one who unwittingly transgresses the law cannot plead that he should not be punished just because he is not aware that his act is proscribed in the statutes; no, even if he proves his ignorance he is deemed culpable in the eyes of law.
But our educational system which keeps children in schools for 12 long years — if not more — does not impart the minimum functional knowledge of law that is indispensable in the prevailing legal environment. It is ironical to note that both our educational and legal systems were conceived by Lord Macaulay who is looked upon as the villain of the piece in ushering our educational system! But it is not accidental. Education and Law are normative social sciences and they were deliberately confined to the elite during British rule. And, worse, both continue to be as they were — under the control of the state.
In other words, it is the state which imparts an education which does not teach the laws that it stipulates everyone must conform to. So every trial partakes of the grotesque nature of Franz Kafka’s story ‘The Trial’ in which the hero is tried for an offence which he did not commit through laws and procedures that he does not understand!
An offshoot of this situation is a burgeoning population of lawyers and vested interests in mystifying the text of the statutes and perhaps in protracting the trial process: even an educated man with a strong common sense is at a loss to comprehend what the charge against him means, and how his act is an infringement of the law cited. Even a Professor of English needs a lawyer to defend him, to explain to him what the legal document says.
Often, justice as agitated for by lawyers in successive courts of law and delivered by the Supreme Court or the penultimate benches of a high court after decades of protracted litigation is far from what common sense and conscience tell us. I sense that both the plaintiff and the defendant leave the court on the day of the judgment with a sense of having been short-changed. Of course, the judge is bound by the letter of the law, the cannons and conventions in their interpretation and the ultimate criterion of objective evidence.
The havoc wrought by this criterion of objective evidence is that justice has been divorced from conscience and aligned to the letter of the law and the evidence is often tailored and programmed into the trial process. It is the lawyers who have the field before them to mutilate, tear apart, distort, stretch to elastic limits and pounce upon a small hole and enlarge it for the culprit to escape conveniently.
As a famous Tamil writer said in reply to a question on why he should not go to a court of law against a film producer who had patently plagiarised one of his well known novels, “If we go to a court of law it is lawyers who triumph eventually (and, not the plaintiff or the defendant or the judge)!” The situation was not this bad before the advent of the British in India. The proverbial definition of an educated man in ancient India was ‘one who knew the four Vedas and the six sastras’, the former showing the pathway to liberation from the mundane world and the latter being a guide to our conduct in and through this very mundane world.
The lawyer-turned HRD Minister’s move must be a beginning towards demystifying law, spreading the knowledge of law far and wide through formal education and thus preventing unwitting transgressions of law in the first instance and equipping everyone to defend himself when he is wrongly caught and arraigned.
(The writer is a former Professor and Head, Department of Education, University of Madras.)