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Thank God For Independent Minds


Mohan Dixit, a young lawyer in Madhya Pradesh, was recently touring Bhopal when he came upon the sight of bulldozers tearing down homes. He couldn't bear the plight of the poor people whose houses had been razed to the ground to make way for a six-lane highway. He visited their slums at night, meticulously gathered data, and filed a petition. The petition was heard by a bench of the Jabalpur High Court, which ordered the state government to stop the bulldozing and provide immediate relief to those affected.

The friend who sent me this wonderful story adds: "I am speechless at Mohan's courage and diligent effort in this entire episode."

And here are Mohan's own words about a different episode. I am translating from his Hindi email: "Some days back, in connection with my work, I travelled from Ganj Basoda in Madhya Pradesh to Gwalior by the GT Express in an unreserved compartment. Also in that compartment were three persons, sitting together, who, from their clothes and appearance, seemed to be Muslims. When the train stopped at Lalitpur station, two UP police jawans entered our compartment. Ignoring the other passengers, they only questioned the three Muslims. When one of the three gave his name, the policemen asked him to produce his Aadhaar card. All three were questioned as if they were suspects. I saw tears well up in their eyes.

"I could not bear to see people being questioned just because of their religion. I stood up and with folded hands asked for forgiveness from the three. I told them: 'I am apologizing on behalf of the community whose members have harassed you for belonging to your religion, for I too belong to that community. My Hindu religion never taught me to frighten or intimidate anyone. My Ram teaches me to stand with the suffering, the deprived, the exploited, the weak. The Ram of whom Tulsidas has written wants me to be free from fear. Ram's friends were not rajas or maharajas. His friends were humiliated beings like Kevat, Sabari, Jatayu, Sugreev, Vibhishan, monkeys and bears.

"Having heard what I was saying, the policemen quickly moved away from our compartment. Passengers sitting near me supported what I had said. And when, as the train reached Gwalior, I picked up my bag to leave, those Muslim fellow-passengers hugged me the way a long-separated brother would."

Mohan Dixit seems to have done what his humanity urged him to do. "No big deal," he would probably say about fighting for the homes razed in Bhopal and also about his response to the mistreatment of the three men on the Grand Trunk Express. Because Dixit did what a citizen should do, we are heartened.

Also encouraging is the reaction of Dixit's co-passengers. Unfairness often descends from above, from those with power, but around us are compatriots who want everyone's dignity to be respected. Most people are delighted when someone sticks up for anyone unfairly treated. It is when no one raises a voice that the silence is interpreted as acquiescence in zabardasti.

"Is there any difference between Allah and Ram?" This question was asked by a helper who is assisting, in Delhi, a lifelong friend of mine who has been debilitated by serious illness and the death of his life partner. Answering her own question, the helper, a Muslim woman, said she thought there was no difference. Sharing her remarks with me, my friend added: "She voices the sentiment of India's majority. Avenging ancient history is the last thing on the minds of India's hardworking men and women."

India's judges often heed the call of compassion. Ignoring winds, waves, and pressures around them, including on social media, they can go to the heart of a matter. This is what Justice Suman Shyam of the Gauhati High Court seems to have done over prosecutions in Assam for child marriages.

Refusing to be hustled by the Assam government's recent decision to rush large-scale prosecutions for past offences, Justice Shyam seemed particularly upset by arrests, as part of this drive, under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act of 2012, which provides for prison terms ranging from seven years to life.

Last month, Assam's Chief Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, secured a resolution "to completely eradicate the practice of child marriage by 2026". In 2021, only 155 cases of child marriage were registered in the entire state in a year. In the last two weeks, more than 3,000 men (a large majority of them Muslim), have been arrested in Assam for marrying underage girls. Many of those arrested, perhaps a majority, are their families' sole breadwinners.

It is an open secret that Biswa Sarma, for some years the key BJP leader in the Northeast, is cultivating a national image of an uninhibited hardliner. His push for an almost immediate end to child marriage in Assam has to be set against a UNICEF estimate that at least 1.5 million girls under 18 get married in India every year, constituting a third of the global total. Data suggests that more than 31% of marriages registered in Assam involve the prohibited age group.

Several other states offer a similar picture.

Instead of feverish drives to enforce a well-intentioned law, what is needed is patient, imaginative and effective education - not just in Assam but across India. The rush to arrest "offenders" is causing, in Justice Shyam's words, "havoc in the private lives of people. There are children, family members, old people. Obviously [child marriage] is a bad idea... [but] at the moment the issue is whether they should be all arrested and put in jail." The judge made these remarks while granting pre-arrest bail to nine people charged under the POCSO Act, with a minimum sentence of 20 years in one of the cases.

Thank God for independent minds and humane hearts.