The Rule of Law, Justice, and the subtlety of Dharma

On the face of it one would imagine that when the rule of law prevails, justice has been done. In such a society, things should hold together because it is apparently adhering to dharma. Let us pause to think:

What is the rule of law? They are recorded regulations that can be referred to, put together with a view to streamlining the chaos inherent in the process of living. Justice is deemed to have been done when the rules in the law book are applied to the process of living as a citizen of the society at various levels. Justice can be benign: you follow the rules and thereby allow for the operation of a just society; or justice can be functional: you apprehend the violators of the rules and charge them as per the law. It all appears fairly straightforward. Faith in the rule of law and the belief that justice is done when these rules are followed is, hence, tremendous. But faith and belief are transient and also intangible. On the ground, there is much agony, discord and dissatisfaction even in societies that follow the rule of law, even when justice is shown to prevail.

Let me take some examples:

Ajmal Kasab, a twenty-something year old [?] young person was executed a couple of days ago by India for having carried out a terrorist act on its soil. Many innocent persons died, and many more have been maimed for life – physically and psychologically – in the attack that Kasab and his cohort undertook four/ five/ six years ago. Kasab was executed after a due process of law. His hanging was seen by many as justice done, if not justice delayed. Yet, the execution has provoked some vagrants to threaten brutal acts against more Indians. Apparently, they view Kasab’s execution as an act of injustice and hold all of India culpable.

More than a decade ago, Ashley Jones, now in her twenties, shot dead her grandparents and her aunt and stabbed her 10-year old sister. She then took money from her dead grandfather’s purse, and drove away in his Cadillac. The immediate provocation for Ashley’s act was that the family objected to her choice of boyfriend. The prosecuting lawyer said that it was because “Ashley’s conscience has not developed… her inner voice does not counsel her”.  The girl was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. She is one of seventy-plus teenagers in America who have been similarly condemned to spend their lives in prison. Like many others, I have questioned the ‘justice’ in a justice system which could judge with such ruthlessness.

Some years ago, UN took up a resolution calling for the abolition of life imprisonment without parole for children and young teenagers. The vote was 185 to 1, with the United States the lone dissenter. A few days ago, India was among a minority of the countries that voted against a UN General Assembly draft resolution which called for abolishing the death penalty [it must be mentioned, however, that India’s negative vote was on the principle of the right of sovereign nations to define their own legal systems and hence cannot be taken as an indication of the country’s stance on death penalty as such]. Why are perceptions of justice so outrageously divergent? Why is there a volatility lurking barely beneath the surface even when the rule of law prevails? Is it because it fails the essential test of dharma: that which holds together?

Dharma is defined as the principle of cosmic order. It is for all time. Since life and living are subject to the vagaries of geography and history, the rules of law differ from place to place and from time to time. And justice is as justice does: it is the tangible and nebulous human acts of omission and commission that determine how the rule of law is interpreted in the pursuit of ‘justice’. But the principle of Dharma is not confined by geographical boundaries and historical time. In a dharmic world order, when Kasab’s guilt was never in doubt, his execution would not have been delayed so long. But I err. In a dharmic social order, Ajmal Kasab and Ashley Jones would not have had reason to become what they had.

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