Missing rule of law: How a district collector got away with defying the Madras High Court

By Jagdeep S Chhokar

"It is true that we failed to implement the HC order. But we cannot ensure the rights of people always. We had to prevent that procession."

These are the words of the collector of Tamil Nadu’s Vazhavur district, the senior most officer who heads the civil administration of the district. As reported by The Indian Express, this particular collector “admitted that the administration was unable to implement the Madras High Court order to ensure access to the public path because the priority was to prevent caste clashes.”

Missing rule of law: How a district collector got away with defying the Madras High Court

Madras High Court. Image courtesy ibnlive

Several questions arise out of this defiance of a high court order.

• Is the Collector the final authority to decide that “prevent(ing) caste clashes” is reason enough to deprive people of their rights?
• Is depriving people of their rights the only or the most efficacious way of “prevent(ing) caste clashes?
• Is it within the powers of a Collector to defy the orders of a high court?
• Is, or should, the approval or clearance of some higher authority be required before a Collector can go on to violate the orders of a high court?
• Shouldn’t some higher authorities have the responsibility of violation of the orders of a high court?
• Is anyone accountable for violation of the orders of a high court?
• Does the matter end with the administrative authority, the home secretary of the state, or does the elected wing of the executive have a role?

There could be many more questions such as ‘should the High Court or even the Supreme Court not take suo motu action on this defiance of the orders of a High Court’ but the list of questions has to stop somewhere. What does all this indicate?

It indicates that rule of law, one of the necessary concomitants of a democratic society, is missing from Indian society.

What happened in Vazhavur is not an isolated or one of a kind case.

Twenty-one Dalits and Muslims, including 20 women and children, was massacred in 1996 in Bathani Tola, a hamlet in Bhojpur district in Bihar, and all the 23 persons accused of perpetrating the massacre are acquitted by the high court in 2012.

The most ‘celebrated’ incident as it involved a celebrity, is of one person sleeping of a pavement dying and four getting injured by being run over by an automobile, and the only eye witness also dying in the wilderness. The eye witness, a police constable, is disowned by his family and also by the police! The trial court accepts the testimony of the eye witness but the high court finds him to be a “wholly unreliable witness.” The net result: The so-called law and order machinery is unable to find any proof of who was driving the vehicle! And the celebrity roams free!!

The latest instance, in addition to the tragic suicide of Rohith Vemula, a research scholar of Hyderabad University,is from Mirzapur district and is a deadly cocktail of grassroots democracy and absence of the Rule of Law. It has been reported that the minor daughter of a woman who won the election to the Block Development Council was allegedly gang-raped on 23 December 2015, by two men who belonged to the group of the candidate whom her mother defeated in the election. The woman had, reportedly, been asked to withdraw her candidature from the election and was threatened that she will be taught a lesson if she did not withdraw. The rape was apparently the lesson.

According to reports in the media, the woman went to the police station on 24 December to register a complaint along with her daughter and some other family members but the police did not take down the complaint and sent them back after giving assurances. Reports say that the girl seemed traumatized and humiliated, went into a depression, and hanged herself on the 25 December. It was only after the suicide that the FIR was registered and the two accused arrested. How will this case end is anybody’s guess.

The man who filed the petition in the Madras High Court holds a BA in English Literature and recently completed a teachers’ training programme. When the petitioner was asked if he will file a contempt of court application for the high court judgment was not being implemented, he said, “Do you think I will go and waste my money again?”

It is a sad day when an aggrieved citizen loses faith in the rule of law!

And that is why the rule of law is missing.

(Jagdeep S Chhokar is a former Professor, Dean, and Director In-charge of IIM, Ahmedabad. Views are personal.)

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Updated Date: Jan 22, 2016 19:20:38 IST

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