As a nation, we must guard against becoming the sort of mobocracy that jeered, pelted and then guillotined members of certain classes on the streets of Paris in the months and years that marked the French Revolution after 1789. Our sense of justice and fair-play is far too often being influenced by the profile of an accused person.
The latest indicator of our slide in that direction is the unseemly controversy over whether or not those who were recently arrested in Hyderabad over alleged Islamic State links should be provided good legal defence. If we trust the judiciary, the investigating agencies and the prosecution, what could possibly be wrong with the accused getting a hearing in court?
It would be foolhardy to forget that the perception that Afzal Guru did not get an adequate defence in court has played on the minds of many of the young Kashmiris who now comprise a fresh wave of militancy. How could this possibly be good for national security?
One does not at this point need to go into the merits of the case against Guru, who was found guilty of participating in the conspiracy to attack Parliament House in New Delhi on 13 December 2001. Suffice to say that a very large number of jurists, other observers and the vast majority of Kashmiris are convinced that he did not get a fair investigation or sufficient legal defence.
In matters such as national security, perceptions are often even more important than facts. Philosophers from Aristotle on have emphasised how important it is that the state ensures that justice is done, and that justice is perceived to be done. The perception that the system in place will ensure one’s rights is critical to maintaining social harmony and political stability. We do not need Aristotle to tell us, but he does, that rebellion is the alternative.
Yet, arrogant self-appointed gatekeepers of national security are busy calling anyone who talks publicly of ensuring a legal defence for the accused all kinds of names. Such people are anti-national, they say. Not just that, they are supposed to be supporters of Islamic State!
Gone, it appears, are the days when it was dinned into journalists that they must use the word alleged about any crime that had not been proved in a court of law, however strong the evidence might seem. The word of an investigator, it now appears, is enough to hold an accused person guilty — and to attack anyone who thinks a fair trial would be a good idea. That the person is said to be a terrorist is good enough reason to lynch him on the spot, it would appear.
This sort of panic-mongering would be laughable if it were not so dangerous to the national security. For, without doubt, the best guarantee of security is social harmony and the general perception among all sections of people that their rights are safe. We may not like certain categories of people, but their rights are generally speaking as good as our own. The idea that certain kinds of people are presumably more (or less) patriotic than others is not only unconstitutional, it is anti-national.
The idea that 'eliminating' anyone presumed to be 'anti-national' makes for national security has been proved false. The extra-legal tactics of various arms of security in Kashmir, particularly during the late 1990s, have succeeded in spawning a new and far more dangerous generation of militants.
There can be no doubt that Islamic State is a great threat to India and the rest of the world. Over the past few days, its terrorists have wrought havoc in Istanbul, Baghdad, Dhaka and other supposed centres of Islam – possibly even in Medina last evening. This monstrous organisation must be combated as strongly as possibly.
The way to do it effectively is to uphold the values it despises – values such as justice, fair-play, sobriety and civility – even more strongly than before, rather than to junk them. That we should junk those values is what its strategists want. Knee-jerk counter-violence suits their ends.
So let us stop this hysterical nonsense. Justice is a key pillar of the Indian republic. Anyone who undermines the ideal that every citizen has an equal and inalienable right to justice is anti-national.
So is anyone who does not believe that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty in an impartial trial. There is a reason justice is portrayed blindfolded: She does not see the mood of the mob, or get swayed by it. She weighs the evidence without fear or favour.