Modern jurisprudence in India can be compared with justice that prevailed during Lord Ram’s reign. While there are many differences with these ancient precepts, commonalities in both legal codes are interesting.
By Dunu Roy
Legend proclaims that Diwali marks the celebration of the return of Lord Ram to Ayodhya after his victory over Ravan and the beginning of his reign. Hence, embedded within the epic story of Ram would be the perception of what constituted justice and how was the law framed to deliver that justice especially within that vision of the ideal world of Ram Rajya.
We take as our reference source the Ramayan as related by Sage Valmiki for two reasons. He was a contemporary of Lord Ram and gave refuge to Sita when she was banished from Ayodhya. He was also a dacoit who was later converted by Narad Muni into a Ram devotee. Hence, his first-hand version of the epic is likely to be as objective as any other. The Valmiki Ramayan though, contains a huge number of verses in praise of sages, kings and gods so it is necessary to extract the relevant parts from the text.1
It is in the Uttar Kand of the Valmiki Ramayan, which deals with the actual reign of Lord Ram after his return, that we get a glimpse of what was just and ethical in those days. Thus, Lord Ram himself declares to a group of Brahmins who came to him for protection: “I speak nothing but the truth and the whole truth when I say that this entire realm and even my life are dedicated to the service of Brahmins.”2
Lord Ram also emphasises why the king must always be available to the Brahmins. He relates how two Brahmins came to Raja Nrig to settle a dispute about ownership of a cow but, after waiting many days for the king to appear, they leave after condemning him to live in a dark dungeon as a chameleon until he is absolved by Lord Ram. Interestingly, the Brahmins then settle the matter between themselves by gifting the cow to a third Brahmin.3
There is a corollary that when the high-born Nrig returns to his palace from a journey and learns about his impending incarceration, he immediately anoints his son to the throne and gets three underground chambers made, each one specially designed for one of the three seasons so that he can live comfortably through the period of his captivity.4
Three other stories illustrate the same mix of temporal and spiritual jurisprudence. When Lord Ram returns to his duties after a period of neglect (more on that later), he instructs Lakshman to bring to him all supplicants waiting outside. Lakshman goes to the gate twice, but returns alone each time as there are no supplicants. Lord Ram explains to him that when there is rectitude in statecraft, the fear of the ethical king prevents crime and the people protect each other.5
Lakshman is asked to go again and this time finds a dog, reluctant to enter the palace because of his low social status. Royal permission to enter is granted, and he complains that his Brahmin master has beaten him. The master is summoned and explains that, unable to get alms the whole day, he is irritated and beats the dog. Lord Ram finds the Brahmin guilty, but the dog requests that he be appointed chief administrator of Kalanjar a post that the dog occupied in a previous life so that the inhumane Brahmin would share a worse fate in his next life.6
In the third tale, a vulture and owl appear before Lord Ram to adjudicate who is the rightful owner of a nest. Lord Ram asks each of them to state when he had occupied the nest. The vulture says, since the dawn of humanity on earth. The owl says, since trees appeared on the land. The entire court declares that the vulture is lying. Lord Ram is about to pronounce the sentence when a voice from the heavens booms out that the vulture should not be punished because in an earlier life, he was a pious king who had fed a Brahmin meat by mistake and was now waiting to be redeemed by Lord Ram.7
The reason Lord Ram neglected his duties for four days, as mentioned above, is that he was greatly disturbed by the banishment of Sita. That story in the epic is more revelatory of juridical processes of that time than any other. In the earlier Yuddh Kand of the Valmiki Ramayan, which describes the battle with Ravan, Lord Ram had sent a message after his death to Sita through Hanuman saying: “To free you from the hands of the enemy, I forfeited sleep and with single-minded purpose built a bridge across the ocean, and have fulfilled my vow.” 8
Lord Ram then sends Vibhishan to bring Sita, but, as she approaches and faces him, he unexpectedly unlooses his anger: “Ravan disrespected me by abducting you and my revenge is complete… Today people have seen my manly valour and I am free of my oath…All my labours have not only been on your behalf. But by killing Ravan I have defended my character and my name and washed off the infamy of my dynasty. (But) you have cast doubt on your character…Which magnificent man, born into high family, would accept a woman who has lived in another’s home? … The purpose for which I freed you has been accomplished. You are free to go where you wish.” 9
Sita is deeply affected by this public humiliation but her defence is: “My mind has always been with you but my body was imprisoned by another. What could I do? When you sent Hanuman to see me why did you not send your message of rejection then? I would have abandoned my life then and there. And you would not have had to do so much useless labour and put so many lives in danger.” She then asks Lakshman to prepare the pyre and enters the fire, praying to the fire god, Agni, to save her if she is virtuous and pure. 10
Lord Ram becomes aware of the facts of the matter, such as they were, when he asks the Sage Agastya later in the Uttar Kand the reason why Ravan abducted Sita. Agastya explains that Ravan, wishing to escape from the cycle of birth and death, was told by Sanatkumar, the son of Prajapati, that those who die by the hands of Hari (Vishnu), even in anger, are able to achieve this end. It was this desire to attain salvation that led Ravan to seek death from Hari’s incarnation (Ram), and Sita’s abduction was merely a pretext for battle.11 Agastya also mentions that Ravan took great care to protect Sita in Lanka. 12
Later, months after returning with the unscathed Sita, Lord Ram realises she is with child and happily promises to fulfil her desire to visit the ashrams near the Ganga. Thereafter, he proceeds to the court to hear reports from the informers and jesters. He insists that they tell him what the people are saying, good or bad, about Sita and his brothers. It is then that Bhadra reports that while people praise Lord Ram for his valorous deeds in defeating Ravan and subjugating the demons and animals, they also ask how could Lord Ram bring Sita back to Ayodhya and consort with her when she was seated on Ravan’s lap? Bhadra further adds: “Now we also have to suffer the misdemeanours of our women because our king sets the example.” The rest of the court agrees with Bhadra. 13
Lord Ram summons his brothers to repeat the gossip and says: “You know that in order to prove her virtue Sita had entered the fire and Agni had saved her while Vayu had vouched for her innocence, as had Chandra and Surya, while Indra had placed her in my hands in front of all the gods, and my inner soul said she is pure. But now all the people are condemning me. When, from fear of dishonour, I can sacrifice myself and my brothers, what is Sita?” He instructs Lakshman to yoke his chariot and leave Sita in the forest near Valmiki’s ashram which, being near those on the banks of the Ganga, would also fulfil his promise to her. 14
These examples may now be examined to see what they tell us about justice in the reign of Ram.
- The first precept appears to be that the temporal state is ethically dedicated to the service of the high-born because they can spiritually hold the state to account.
- The second is that the honourable state that firmly dispenses justice in this ethical manner also generates fear in society and prevents transgression.
- The third is that the state, in order to maintain its honour and satisfy public sentiment, must come down with an iron hand on all who bring dishonour to it.
- The fourth is that when a person is accused of transgression, she has to prove her innocence rather than the accuser having to prove guilt.
- And the fifth is that even if guilt is accepted, punishment may be moderated by past or future behaviour in another life that seeks salvation.
We can now also explore modern jurisprudence in India to analyse what may be the differences and commonalities with these ancient precepts.
In Part II of the Indian Constitution, all rights and responsibilities of the citizens of India are guaranteed. They are the basis on which justice has to be dispensed. But from time to time, the State also legislates laws to protect the “security” (or honour) of the nation-state and these are used to restrict the freedoms to be enjoyed by citizens. The balance between freedom and restriction constitutes the ethics of justice.
The first of these legislations was the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, (UAPA) introduced in 1963 and passed in 1967, to set out “reasonable restrictions” on the fundamental freedoms to protect the sovereignty and integrity of India. It is apt to note that the territorial integrity of the nation was actually threatened by China in 1962 and the first no-confidence motion was moved against the Nehru government in 1963 by former Congressman Acharya JB Kripalani.15 The UAPA, however, remained relatively unused until 2004.
In the meantime, the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) had been introduced in 1985 to address the insurgency in Punjab. It defined terrorism as an act of “using bombs, dynamite or other explosive substances or inflammable substances or lethal weapons or poisons or noxious gases… in such a manner as to cause… death of, or injuries to, any person or persons… or loss of, or damage to, or destruction of property…” In contrast to accepted law until then, it restricted the grant of bail, and gave enhanced power to detain suspects and attach properties; and made a confession before a police officer admissible as evidence. The Act had a sunset clause for renewal every two years and was finally allowed to lapse in 1995 due to serious allegations of abuse. 16
TADA was briefly replaced in 2002 by the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), in response to the attack on Parliament, perceived as a threat to the nation. As with TADA, POTA allowed confessions admissible as evidence in court; but conversely, it did not have a provision for preventive detention, further included fund raising in the definition of terrorism, enabled government to list terrorist organisations and permitted prosecuting agencies not to disclose the identity of witnesses. At the same time, decisions on bail petitions or the verdicts of the POTA courts could be appealed against in High Courts. However, allegations of abuse were again raised and the Act had to be repealed in 2004.17
That was when the UAPA was “strengthened” to substitute TADA and POTA. It was also amended in 2008, 2012 and 2019. While “unlawful activities” continue to refer to acts of secession or challenges to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India, the Act accords absolute power to the Union government to declare any activity as “unlawful”; and there is no sunset clause for expiry of the Act.18 “Terrorist acts” have been added to include offences that threaten economic security. The Act has criminalised not only fund raising but also membership of and support to a terrorist organisation. The time for filing charge sheets has been increased to six months from three.19 The accused can now be kept in custody for extended periods of time without bail.20 Worst of all, the accused has to prove innocence instead of the prosecution proving guilt. 21
To this list of legislations could be added the Public Safety Act 1978 (PSA) and the National Security Act 1980 (NSA). The former has been used indiscriminately in Kashmir to facilitate preventive detentions of “suspected militants”. Each person arrested under the PSA has been accused of committing multiple offences. Most of the first information reports (FIRs) are also “open” ones referring to “and others”, thereby leaving the way open for more people to be arrested for the same offence without naming them.22 The NSA has been used to target civil rights activists in Uttarakhand for publishing a booklet on AIDS, charging it to be a moral offence to society, and for arresting civil rights activists in Assam for compiling incontrovertible evidence of army atrocities, but alleging that it threatened the sovereignty of the country. 23
The track record of these laws is dismal. As many as 67 percent of the cases under the UAPA ended in acquittal or discharge in 2016, compared to 18 percent that ended similarly under special and local laws (SLL), a category of laws applicable nationwide and which encompasses the UAPA. On average, 75 percent cases under UAPA have ended in acquittal or discharge over three years ending 2016.24 In the latest round of arrests in the investigation into the north-east Delhi riots, the FIRs are suggestive,25 repetitive 26 and biased.27 In one year in Uttar Pradesh, 160 Muslim men were arbitrarily arrested under NSA. TADA had a pathetic conviction rate of 4 percent, even though more than 76,000 people were detained for years on end.28
We can now return to our earlier question of whether these legal developments have any similarity or variation with the legal code that prevailed in Lord Ram’s time.
- The first precept of the State being ethically dedicated to the service of the high-born does not hold any longer in theory, but practice reveals that those who question the State for its failure to serve society are not able to obtain judicial relief.29
- The second precept of the State generating fear in society to prevent transgression is becoming more and more manifest as the numbers who are being arbitrarily persecuted under the security laws grows by the day.30
- The third precept regarding the State’s use of an iron fist to satisfy public sentiment and maintain honour is not only visible in the manner in which security laws are being amended but how new laws to control public media 31 and individual relationships32 are being proposed.
- The fourth precept of the accused having to prove her innocence is implicit in the manner in which the UAPA is worded,33 as also in how citizenship laws have been framed,34 and the striking down of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act 1983.35
- The fifth precept that when guilt is evident, punishment may be moderated by past or future behaviour is manifest even today in how violators of civil rights,36 communal organisations37 and purveyors of hate speech38 are not prosecuted/released by the courts.
Are we then entering the golden age of Ram’s kingdom once again?
—The writer is an ecologist, engineer and founder of the Delhi based Hazards Centre
1“SachitrShrimadwalmiki-Ramayan”, translated by Chaturvedi Dwarkaprasad Sharma, publisher Ramnarayan Lal, Allahabad, 1927
2Vol.10, 66th sarg-canto, 640-644
3Vol.10, 53rd canto, 563-574
4Vol.10, 54th canto, 574-578
5Vol.10, 1st additional canto, 607-613
6Vol.10, 2nd additional canto, 613-625
7Vol.10, 3rd additional canto, 625-639
8Vol.8, 116th canto, 1235-1246
9Vol.8, 118th canto, 1255-1262
10Vol.8, 119th canto, 1262-1270
11Vol.9, 2nd and 3rd additional cantos, 448-463
12Vol.9, 4th additional canto, 475
13Vol.9 43rd canto, 511-516
14Vol.9, 45th canto, 521-527