Saturday, January 21, 2012

Why do we make stupid laws?

There is a front page story in today's Times of India that talks about our policy and law makers doing a rethink on what has become notorious in India s Section 498(A). Under this law, a wife can file a dowry harassment case against her husband and ALL his relatives and once the FIR is registered, it becomes a non-bail able offense. Now, the powers that be are thinking loudly through carefully distributed stories in newspapers that a man who is accused of harassing his wife for dowry need not go to jail; he could pay a fine to atone for his sins. There is no doubt that activists who represent the so called fairer sex will be up in arms and claim that these new proposals to amend the dowry law are a throw back to feudal paternalism.

The fact is, despite increased literacy and claims of Indians becoming more progressive, there are hundreds of thousands of women who are still harassed and tortured by their in laws and husbands for dowry. There is another fact: ever since this Section 498(A) came into force back in 1986, thousands of women have abused the provisions of this law to "harass" the husband and his family. The simple common sense thing to do would be to take note of both the facts and make a law that is sensible and fair. It says a lot about our society when it takes about 27 years and thousands of abuses before we even start acknowledging the fact that the law as it was drafted and passed was daft. The idea was great: the custom and practice of dowry is a curse and modern India must be ashamed of how even educated husbands and their families take dowry as a birthright and torture a woman who fails to satisfy their demands. The law, as we all now know, has proven to be stupid because women continue to be tortured for dowry even as innocent husbands and their families continue to be framed by scheming women.

Our problem is with our obsession to be doing the good and the politically correct thing when we deal with social and economic problems. We inevitably end up with stupid laws that don't help anybody. Let me give another example of how our zeal to do the good thing can create monster laws. The Parliament- if it gets to work- will soon start debating the Communal Violence Bill. Under this proposed law, Hindus will always be the guilty party if there is a riot. Under this law, any Muslim or Christian can accuse a Hindu-bigoted or not-of insulting minorities. Like in the case of 498(A), the "offense" will be non bailable. Now let's us examine facts again. There is no doubt that minorities are usually the victims of riots and persecution-just as women are victims of dowry harassment. So the intention is noble. But if it is passed, this law will be even more stupid and dangerous than the dowry law. The fact is there are Muslim dominated areas in India where other minorities are persecuted and worse. The recent events in Kashmir are a telling example. Then again, even a fool will not deny that you will find bigots amongst Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs. What is to stop bigoted Muslims from filing false cases against Hindus-just as scheming women have been filing false cases against husbands? Like with the dowry law, we started out with the idea of doing the good thing, but end up destroying society. These stupid laws don't stop what they started out to do: they only create divisions and mistrust. I know of husbands who constantly worry about what might happen if the wifey files a 498(A). We will all know of Hindus who will wonder and be fearful of a bigoted-or with some agenda- Muslim, Christian or Sikh who might file a case against them if they said publicly that any Muslim who supports Hafeez Saeed of LET represents the intolerant and barbaric strain of Islam. Why not have a law that doesn't distinguish between religions, communities and genders?

The proposed Land Acquisition Bill and the Forest Rights Bill are two more examples of stupid laws. There is no doubt that many companies in cahoots with corrupt politicians and bureaucrats grab land from poor farmers. But will a law that makes every such deal illegal help? What about farmers who really want to sell out and move on? And of course the Forest Bill. Our do gooders think we all exploit tribals and forest dwellers. So the inevitable stupid law is to ban any other Indian from owning land in places inhabited by forest dwellers. What if forest dwellers want their children to move on towards a more rural or even urban life? And who will stop Benjamin transactions where our same law makers will acquire the same lands through subterfuge?

Are we going to be eternally condemned to live with stupid laws just because a few do gooders think that the road to hell is never paved with noble intentions?


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