It is laudable that Basavaraj Bommai, the Chief Minister of Karnataka, recently called attention to the decline in moral values in society. According to him, “When there is no morality, action and reaction will happen.” That sounded promising, considering the moral decay that is more than evident in public life in India today, which may have set in a long time ago but appears to have intensified in recent years.
A prime example, which no doubt has a cascading effect on morality in society as a whole, is the criminalisation of politics. Over a third of the members of the Karnataka Legislative Assembly (77 out of 221 MLAs or 35%) elected during the 2018 state elections have criminal records. Of these, 54 face serious criminal cases like murder, cheating, forgery and kidnapping. While 29 (28%) of the 103 MLAs from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) acknowledged in their candidate affidavits that there were serious criminal cases against them, counterparts from other parties were not far behind: 17 (22%) of the 78 Congress MLAs and 8 (22%) of the 37 Janata Dal-Secular (JD(S)) also admitted to serious criminal cases.
An analysis of criminal prosecutions against elected representatives in the state in 2020 revealed that eight criminal cases against Members of Parliament (MPs) and 131 against MLAs were being heard by a Special Court, with the High Court of Karnataka monitoring the progress of the trials.
This clearly signals a morality deficit among those seeking to steer the affairs of state. Surely some moral policing is in order. After all, as the Chief Minister said, “One needs to behave in a manner that will not hurt sentiments. If sentiments are hurt, then action and reaction are bound to happen.” The escalating criminalisation of politics certainly hurts the sentiments of most, if not all, citizens and should accordingly kickstart action-reaction: criminal action-corrective reaction. But it appears not.
In August 2020, the state government, then led by BS Yediyurappa, decided to withdraw over 60 criminal cases implicating various BJP leaders, including sitting MPs and MLAs. The decision was reportedly based on the recommendations of a subcommittee headed by Mr. Bommai, who was then the Home Minister – against the advice of the Director General and Inspector General of Police, the Director of Prosecution and Government Litigation, and the Law Department. So much for Mr. Bommai’s commitment to moral values.
Fortunately, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties-Karnataka (PUCL-K) filed a public interest litigation (PIL) questioning the government’s decision and succeeded in getting an interim order from the High Court of Karnataka in December 2020, restraining the state government from withdrawing the cases. In August 2021 the Supreme Court of India (SC) passed an order stating that no prosecution against a sitting or former member of the Legislative Assembly or Parliament can be withdrawn without the permission of the concerned High Court.
Interestingly, on the same day, another SC bench warned that the nation is “losing its patience” while waiting for lawmakers to cleanse politics by keeping out potential candidates with criminal antecedents. Small wonder. Nearly one fifth (19%) of the candidates who fought the 2019 general elections faced criminal charges, including rape, murder and kidnapping; to make matters worse, the proportion of such candidates has been consistently rising, from 15% in 2009 to 17% in 2014. Nearly half of those elected to the Lok Sabha in 2019 had criminal charges against them, a 26% increase since 2014 and 109% from 2009. Approximately 29% of these cases are related to rape, murder, attempt to murder or crimes against women.
What is more, of the 78 cabinet ministers in the Government of India, according to a 2021 report, about 24 (31%) are charged in serious cases, including matters related to murder, attempt to murder and robbery.
While disposing of the PUCL petition the very next day, the Karnataka High Court made it clear that the state government must scrupulously follow the directions issued by the apex court. Mr. Bommai has presumably taken note of this judicial slap on the wrist and, hopefully, will take steps to make sure that lawbreakers cannot claim impunity as lawmakers. As he himself preached recently, “There should be morality. We cannot live without morality.” Quite right. If voters can be disqualified on grounds of “crime or corrupt or illegal practice”, as specified in the Constitution of India, it is evidently all the more important to disqualify those seeking votes on the same grounds.
Unfortunately, restoring morality to public life by cleaning up politics was not what the Chief Minister had in mind when he put forward his action-reaction theory. Instead, his homily on moral values and not “hurting sentiments” concerned one of several aspects of the private lives of citizens that the ruling establishment and their stormtroopers are evidently obsessed with, including interactions and/or relationships between men and women belonging to different religious communities.
It is difficult to imagine what moral values were violated or what “sentiments of society” could be hurt by two adult Hindu women voluntarily travelling in a car with friends who had offered them a lift and happened to be a Muslim couple. The Chief Minister was, in effect, endorsing the obnoxious behaviour of the gang of vigilantes who stopped the car and reportedly abused, assaulted and threatened the passengers, while also condoning that of his party colleague who escorted the two detained accused out of the police station after they had speedily obtained bail. No wonder the state has witnessed a spurt in reports of moral policing and communal crimes in recent weeks.
Interestingly, Mr. Bommai had taken a very different stand on another incident of “moral policing” in Bengaluru in September, which involved Muslim vigilantes beating up a Hindu man for giving a Muslim female colleague a ride home after work. After the police arrested the suspects within 24 hours, the Chief Minister had claimed that his government “deals with such incidents with an iron hand.” No invocation of moral values or hurt sentiments then. Clearly his belief in Isaac Newton’s third law of motion (for every action… there is an equal and opposite reaction), which has been invoked by several other Indian politicians over the years to justify violence, is selective.
The fact is that the Constitution guarantees all citizens the freedom to voluntarily get together and form associations or unions for a lawful purpose, and that this freedom is only subject to “reasonable restrictions… in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, public order and morality”. Public order here means public peace, safety and tranquility; it has nothing to do with any other citizens’ sentiments or ideas of morality. Moreover, any restriction of this right can be imposed only by the authority of law – not by random, self-appointed vigilantes.
If people have a right to form associations and unions they surely have a right to decide who to accept a lift from or travel in a bus with, who to go on a trip or to a restaurant or otherwise socialise with. In fact, in a series of landmark judgements in recent years, the Supreme Court has made it clear that the Constitution guarantees as a fundamental right the ability of every individual “to take decisions on matters central to the pursuit of happiness”. According to the court, “Privacy includes at its core the preservation of personal intimacies, the sanctity of family life, marriage, procreation, the home and sexual orientation. Privacy also connotes a right to be left alone. Privacy safeguards individual autonomy and recognises the ability of the individual to control vital aspects of his or her life. Personal choices governing a way of life are intrinsic to privacy…”
In fact, the court has even stated that “the right to marry a person of one’s choice is integral to Article 21 of the Constitution … Society has no role to play in determining our choice of partners.” In yet another judgement the court added Article 19 to the Constitutional provisions that empower two adults to “consensually choose each other as life partners” as a matter of right that “has the sanction of the constitutional law … (and) needs to be protected.”
All ministers, including the Chief Minister, are sworn into office on the basis of their promise “to bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India” and to “faithfully and conscientiously discharge (their) duties” and “do right to all manner of people in accordance with the Constitution and the law without fear or favour, affection or ill-will”. They are not duty-bound to factor in ill-defined sentiments and they are certainly not expected to justify aggression, abuse and/or violence on the basis of said sentiments or vague, partisan notions of morality.
What Mr. Bommai needs to understand is that it is the deplorable dearth of moral and ethical leadership – in both the country and the state – that has been eroding morality in society and hurting the sentiments of the majority of citizens who appreciate and embrace moral values. Normal, constitutionally protected interactions among adult citizens of any gender, religion, caste or other distinguishing factor are hardly the problem.
Ammu Joseph is a veteran journalist, media analyst and editorial consultant based in Bengaluru.