Fellowship of the siren

In wondering why judges should be entitled to beacons and sirens, SC asks the right question.

The white Ambassador, crowned by a red beacon and armed with a shrill siren, has right of way on Indian roads. It parts the sea of vehicles for the very important people riding in it, and sets them apart from the mere citizens bound by traffic rules. Only a deeply hierarchical society has use for such symbols. In a country where democracy is a battle in progress against the inequalities inherited at Independence, a stubborn culture of VIP entitlement continues to thrive. It is, therefore, heartwarming that the highest court of the land has questioned this unfair exemption.

What is more, while doing so, a bench of Justices G.S. Singhvi and V. Gopala Gowda also turned the beacon of scrutiny inward. "How does the Centre permit Supreme Court judges to use sirens? We would like to know the rule concerned," they asked on Monday, while hearing arguments on a plea that seeks to restrict such rights to constitutional authorities. In April, the same bench had asked state governments to ignore earlier orders on this issue. In 1993, the Allahabad High Court ruled that all high court judges were entitled to carry red beacons on their official cars, an order prompted by traffic constables stopping HC judges in Lucknow.

The judiciary has set the right example by hinting that it is willing to discard the armour of unnecessary privileges before it uses its wisdom and authority to prod the deepening of democracy elsewhere. Under Indian law, only the vehicles of constitutional authorities and "high dignitaries" are allowed to sport this insignia of state power. The latter term has been interpreted liberally by many governments to entitle a vast army of officials. The judges were sceptical that a beacon could aid in a government servant's work, and said that even a ministerial berth ought not to come with this perk. Now that the SC has spoken, it is time for ministers, bureaucrats and government officials who share the fellowship of the siren to rethink too. Why should the country's elite measure its power by how much it is exempted from rules that apply to a common citizen? Being stuck in a traffic jam might not be empowering, but stopping for a red light is immeasurably good civic sense.

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