Seeing the light

Courts rightly question red beacon culture. They should set an example by switching off their own.

Even as the Aam Aadmi Party has won a rousing electoral victory and become a register of the discontents of the common citizen, some of India's powerful are still arguing over who gets to flash the red beacon on their cars, to signal power and demand right of way. Under the Motor Vehicles Act, Central and state governments have codified what kind of beacon (red, amber, blue) various high officials are permitted to use, but many others are either demanding the privilege, or simply appropriating it. Now, a few months after it ordered the Centre and states to restrict the use of these lal battis, the Supreme Court has decided that they should only be used by "constitutional authorities and high dignitaries". The court deserves credit for attempting to check the rampant misuse of red beacons, but it is worth questioning why anybody, apart from police and ambulance vehicles, needs such a beacon at all. Its exclusive purpose is to signal pomp and consequence, and visible separation from the rest of us. Instead of looking clearly at what the red beacon represents, and disavowing it, the court seems to merely have edited the list of VIPs and asked governments to stop it from swelling further.

Constitutional authorities must remember that the operative word is "constitutional", not "authority". Our founding document rests on the equality of all citizens, and officialdom exists to serve the people. The court is right to observe that the red beacon is a vestige of the British raj. While it may have made sense for an imperial power to announce its lofty distance from the people, a democracy has no business carrying on these alienating practices, and estranging citizens from the "authorities". But in our hierarchy-based public culture, importance is communicated by establishing distance from waiting lines, from traffic, from security checks, from the regular stalls at theatres and stadiums, by alighting and exiting from special portals, by sealing oneself off, visibly, from the stresses of ordinary people. Representatives of the state set themselves up as sovereign exceptions. Orders of precedence are fought over. By contrast, in most other democracies, political leaders make a point of shunning ceremony, taking public transport, cultivating direct lines with citizens to the extent possible.

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