– Dr C.K. Mathew, IAS (Retd)
The rule of law: a simple enough premise, for established law is only a confirmation of common sense and decency as the guiding principles of an enlightened social life. It has come down to us over the centuries, a crystallisation of all the good things learnt through experience and wisdom. It determines boundaries to be imposed upon ourselves by ourselves, behind the lines of which we may with freedom exercise the privilege of critical examination of the others around us. It establishes well thought-out and accepted precedents which act as touchstones for the questions arising everyday around us. It finds acceptability in the hearts and minds of the average man with normal standards of decency and intelligence.
The rule of law begins, like all good principles of life, at home and in the family. It finds strength and sustenance when the father and the mother instill and nourish everlasting values in the child as it grows up in a world of love and care. However, it is enfeebled when the child steals a coin, and its parents laugh it off, or when he grabs a toy from the neighbour’s delicate daughter and is not reprimanded. It is further weakened when the father returns home from a drunken binge, or in the course of a domestic dispute, assaults the mother in the terrified presence of the cowering children. It is imperiled when the family bond is broken and every member is free to go his own way and the devil take the hindmost.
From the family to the society, it is only a garden wall away; the world outside can be seen from the drawing room window. Thus, when a grocer charges more or gives us adulterated foodstuff under our very nose, we only turn away our heads. Who has the time to make a complaint and follow it up? When an errant driver violates traffic rules and knocks down someone in front of our eyes and drives off, we shake our heads and go on our way. Who after all, has the energy to go after him and bring him to book? Thus, when some people commit crimes in the name of the very public who led them to their seat of office, or when public funds are siphoned away for private aggrandisement, we sit down and hurl imprecations at the state of our polity and the dismal levels of public values. We have no one to blame but ourselves. We have through years of neglect and apathy allowed the framework that holds us together to be picked and prodded at. We have dug holes in it and picked at them to make them wider and bigger.
The rule of law must, in moments of extreme distress, be jealously guarded, by the public representatives whom we vote and elect to power for this very purpose, and by all of us. In a world where the rule of law is weak and tenuous, if the lawmaker himself wavers and find it difficult to walk the razor’s edge, then there is no hope left. He and his constituents, along with all of us, must slowly fall away into the darkness of the overwhelming anarchy that together we let loose upon the world.
There it is, the guilty have been identified: the guilty are indeed all of us. And the punishment we must bear is the terrible knowledge that it is we who have brought this state of affairs on to ourselves. Is it too late, or is there any hope left? Is there anybody out there who is listening? For all that it takes to keep the darkness away are a few good men and women, who will stand like a rock and let the assault fall on their mighty shoulders and not flinch. We can stand behind them and grow in strength and then, behold, what a mighty force we shall turn into! Can we have a few good people stand up and show us the way?
(This essay is an edited version of an article of the author which appeared in the Times of India on January 18, 1997)