The Year of Law

The state deliberately made sure that law remained a scarce resource, since its scarcity was itself a source of discretionary power. Protecting rights is not cheap, and a republic unwilling to pay up will suffer. Second, while there has been enormous progressive reform in the law, the sediments of caste, patriarchy, hierarchy and political deference to inherited social structure continue to deeply inflect the daily life of law. As many scholars have shown, these practices silenced and marginalised victims rather than protected them. Third, in the legal culture, the rule of law was replaced by all kinds of inchoate functions: from grandstanding populism to conflict management. What got lost in these legal innovations was the idea that law secures our liberty and equality by being a norm grounded in public reason; it is undermined if it is tethered to the capacious whims of judges who devoted enormous energies to problems they could not solve while ignoring ones they could. Fourth, there was differential access to justice. In the field of criminal law in particular, the disproportionate burden of the legal system fell on the poor. In some ways, India's elites protected themselves or worked outside the ambit of law.

The rude awakening of the past year has been that these elites will not be able to protect themselves anymore. It is easy to dismiss both the anti-corruption movement and the movement against gender violence as urban, middle class movements. After all, both violence and corruption have always been inflicted on the poor in even more horrendous forms. But this is exactly a silver lining. India's elites are recognising that their interests cannot now be protected simply through exit or creating enclaves: corruption will slow down their aspiration to growth, ineffective rule of law will bring violence close to them and resistance to unjust expropriation of land will make India's economic transformation more difficult. While as a coping mechanism, exit is still a strong and inevitable reality, there is finally a movement to exercise voice. But the common thread has been to, at least, begin thinking about what would it mean to craft law in areas still governed by an old colonial hangover.

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