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The Sankaracharya and the law

FEW IN India could have failed to experience a sense of shock and disbelief at the news that the Sankaracharya of Kanchi had been arrested and incarcerated on charges of complicity or worse in the murder of a fellow human being. Many of us felt extremely sad at the sight of the Sankaracharya in police custody. Some even felt a vicarious sense of humiliation that the head of a hoary and highly revered religious institution was being put through processes that are associated with those who are accused of heinous crimes. Such feelings are natural, and quite understandable in our country, because we hold religious persons in high respect, and find it hard to connect them with crimes and socially reprehensible conduct.

The reactions to the arrest of the Sankaracharya, particularly the agitation that has been started as a response to the arrest, have raised and brought into focus many questions of crucial importance to our society and polity. It is necessary to look at them and reflect on them before one allows oneself to be stampeded by emotions and the kind of frenzy that can blind reason and atrophy foresight.

Let us look at some of these questions:

1. Is there a distinction between an office and one who holds the office? If there is none, then what happens when an incumbent dies? What happens when, as in the case of an elected or designated office holder, he or she has to be removed on forfeiture of confidence or disabilities or turpitude? Will loss of respect for the office holder be regarded as loss of respect for the office? Or will it be necessary to distinguish between the two even to retain respect for the office?

2. Can a democratic society exist or survive without living faith in the equality of all citizens before the law? We fought our battle for Independence, among other things, to ensure equality before the law. Can one assure a regime of human rights without equality before the law? Can we ask for a common civil code and separate criminal and penal codes? Can there be separate criminal procedure codes and separate penal codes for people professing different religious faiths, or for the high and the low among practitioners of different religious faiths or ordinary professions?

3. Can we assume that any citizen is incapable of committing or being involved in acts that are termed criminal by the laws?

4. If this cannot be done, and if therefore, provision has to be made to establish whether there has been a breach of law that attracts penalties prescribed by the law, who is to decide whether a person accused of breach of law is in fact guilty or innocent? Is it to be decided by judicial process on the basis of evidence that fulfils uniformly laid down criteria? Or is it to be decided by a political party or through demonstrations and processes and threats of creating disorder and crimes of other varieties? If a heinous crime is committed, and the available evidence points in one direction, is the state to close its eyes because the person at whom the needle points is occupying a high position in society or in a religious institution?

5. Who is to determine culpability, guilt and the form and degree of punishment? Our laws lay down that every accused will be presumed innocent unless he or she is proved guilty in a court of law. The accused is not a criminal till the court convicts him on evidence.

Questions therefore arise about the manner in which the Sankaracharya was arrested, the time of the arrest, the treatment accorded to him while in custody. These include questions of legal procedure, rights of a suspect or accused, and questions of propriety and common courtesy due to people who are entitled to consideration for their age, health and social status. Some of these questions are legal, some humanitarian. But none of these overrides the main question that relates to equality before law. Whether, in the case of the Sankaracharya, any of these norms has been breached is ultimately a matter that can be determined only by impartial judicial scrutiny, and not by public agitation.

The authorities who have ordered the arrest of the Sankaracharya and are responsible for his treatment in custody are also on trial. They bear a heavy responsibility and will have to justify their action with evidence that stands scrutiny in a court of law. Public opinion will not spare them if it is proved that they acted without evidence and prompted by malice.

This takes us to the question of the agitation that has been launched. Some spokesmen of the agitation have declared that the agitation will be carried on till the Sankaracharya is released. This means that the agitators should have the right to decide on the innocence or guilt of an accused person. Some spokesmen have characterised the arrest as an insult to Hindu society. If the accusation is proved in a court of law, who will be considered guilty of insulting Hindu society? Some spokesmen ask whether leaders of other religious groups would have received the same treatment. It has already been pointed out that "religious" persons of different faiths have had to be subjected to the same legal processes as other citizens. Some spokesmen have asked for a separate law that will apply to religious persons. This demand raises many questions.

Can there be separate laws for different categories of citizens? Will there be different definitions of crimes for different people, different methods of determining innocence and guilt, different penalties and different judicial authorities? Or is it that some will receive immunity provided that they or some supporters declare that they are religious men? If one thinks that those who claim to be leaders of religious institutions should be above the law, one exposes oneself to the charge of promoting religious fundamentalism. If one wants to work up frenzy in support of such demands one is consciously or unconsciously undermining the basics of our polity and our equalitarian society, and becoming vulnerable to fundamentalist political ethics (dogma).

Lord Rama did not order action against those who tried to besmirch Sita's name with rumours. He wanted Sita to demonstrate her innocence.

RAVINDRA VARMA

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