Tip for the cabbie By Jawed Naqvi Thursday, 16 Sep, 2010


Lawyers can be heroes like Atticus in Harper Lee’s celebrated classic on racism in southern United States. 

They can be villainous as were Indian advocates who defended an American company responsible for mass murder of thousands in Bhopal. Lawyers are also characters out of a Greek tragedy. 

In British India, they had their highs and lows. They dreamt of India and Pakistan becoming independent nations. But their efforts resulted in unexpected blood and gore. Still they proclaimed their enterprises a laudable hybrid of a peaceful anti-colonial revolution. 

Advocates of Pakistan promised a curious mélange of a secular state whose helmsmen were to be primarily liberal, enlightened Muslims. They seemed to be unaware that there were no liberal Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs or Christians on the horizon. 

The fabulous dream waned early when a supposedly liberal prime minister of Pakistani stock was seen issuing religious edicts to woo Muslim clerics by disenfranchising a minority community. 

Legal eagles of India pushed for a constitution whose idiom was lifted from societies that were struggling to overwrite their past as slave drivers, colonialists and overseers of genocide.

Congress leaders assumed their borrowed legal prescriptions would help erase India’s ancient and deep-rooted caste fault lines, which had spawned a more entrenched form of slavery and racism than the most virulent type of colonialism. India is still shackled by its ancient practices. 

The role of lawyers in post-colonial dénouement of politics in India and Pakistan has been like Job’s comforters, whose solace heightened Job’s agony.

In Pakistan lawyers helped Bhutto and Zia. In India, they defended Indira Gandhi’s dictatorship while arguing against her in a commission that probed her excesses. 

Bangladesh, we hear, has just passed a law making it an offence for army men to stage coups. Can we assume that until now it was legitimate for the military to plot overthrows? 

Pakistan too keeps plugging loopholes in its constitution every now and then to deter ambitious army generals from what seems to be a permanent itch to ‘serve the nation’. 

When India felt the heat from an imminent rebellion by its harassed people in 1975, it introduced a legal cover in the constitution by adding ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’ to its preamble.

Just as it is not easy to overturn prohibition in an orthodox polity (Pakistan, India’s state of Gujarat), it is difficult to delete populist slogans from the statute books. 

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s free-market advocacy comes with the hypocritical caveat that all this will happen in a legally socialist republic. He can sell the country’s economy down the river, but he dare not change the preamble. 

Similarly, Prime Minister Vajpayee fostered a communal ideology (honed into a more subtle art by the Congress) while serving a legally secular republic. 

In Alice in Wonderland, the queen was effectively judge and jury when she needed to command her subjects to be decapitated. There was no room for legal hypocrisy.

In modern democracy or for that matter in fascism legal requirements demand a sleight of hand. Hitler needed the Enabling Act of parliament to make him the fuehrer. Jews and gypsies were legally gassed. Americans legally practised racial segregation when they were questioning Hitler’s. 

Home Minister Mr Chidambaram was one of India’s leading corporate lawyers. He has represented Enron as well as a slew of mining companies in his career as a lawyer.

As home minister he now oversees the project of handling the civil unrest that has arisen as a result of the government’s land acquisition drive to turn over tribal land to these companies. 

That is not where the problem of a conflict of interest of the man who wears three hats — lawyer, ideologue for big business and minister — ends. 

The curious case of the Raja Sahib of Mahmoodabad saw him in all his three avatars. After a legal battle, the Raja Sahib inherited vast properties from his father who had migrated from India to Pakistan a decade after the partition. 

In 1996, the Raja approached Mr Chidambaram for help since he was the minister dealing with disputed property. 

Elections were called within a month of that meeting. But in 2002, Mr Chidambaram the lawyer opposed the Raja Sahib. We may assume that he had with him the privileged information he was privy to as minister. Mr Chidambaram lost the case. 

In June 2010, the Raja secured a loan to refurbish a fabulous hotel he had reclaimed from a businessman. Within days, Mr Chidambaram brought an ordinance (when parliament was going to meet in a few weeks!) to nullify the Supreme Court’s decision.

An Indian columnist accused him of overlooking a clear conflict of interest. Mr Chidambaram, the home minister, said he had no memory of having appearing against the Raja of Mahmoodabad. 

“Even if I had appeared in a case,” Mr Chidambaram told columnist Karan Thapar in a rejoinder, “it must have been a miscellaneous matter. Senior counsels are briefed in hundreds of matters and only a few are memorable cases. Asking a senior counsel if he had appeared in a case eight years ago is like asking a taxi driver whether his taxi had transported a person on one occasion eight years ago.” Supreme Court papers belie the lapse of memory. 

I asked a cabbie, who has driven me for years, about his own memory for passengers. He told me it was not easy to forget anyone who tipped him well, or for that matter those that had grossly shortchanged him after a good ride. In the cabbie’s experience lies a useful tip for India’s home minister. 

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.


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