Friday, May 04, 2007

India's Lawless Legislators: Life reflected in Cinema

Do you wonder why there are so many films in India focusing on the politicians as the villains? Sometimes you would think as to why the film media has to portray them in such a bad light. But the truth is, almost every scene we see in these types of films are basically a reflection of life. Truth reflected back on the screen. Corrupt politicians, subservient police, caste distinctions and elections gone awry...all not just fantasy or fictional work to thrill the audience, but a deliberate showcase of the status quo of Indian politics.
A glimpse of a case in point: Mukhtar Ansari - Here are some excerpts from this article on Wall Street Journal, POLITICAL CONVICTIONS,Lawless Legislators Thwart Social Progress in India,Malnutrition, Polio; A 'Superior' Jail Cell for Mukhtar Ansari, By PETER WONACOTT, May 4, 2007; Page A1
Mukhtar Ansari with police - Picture courtesy: Tribune India
GHAZIPUR, India -- Since late 2005, Mukhtar Ansari has been confined to
this ramshackle town's jailhouse, accused of conspiracy to murder. That
charge and 27 other criminal cases lodged against him over 19 years
have done little to derail a long political career.
In 1996, months after being charged with firing an AK-47 at the local
police commissioner, Mr. Ansari was voted a member of his state's
Legislative Assembly, the equivalent of an American state senate. In 2002,
while facing a charge of illegal arms possession, he won re-election by a
wide margin.
Now, the 40-year-old Mr. Ansari is running again for re-election in
Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state. He's expected to sail back
into office in elections next Tuesday, thanks to a potent mix of divisive
politics and political largess. His brother, Afzal, locked up with him
in the Ghazipur District Jail, is a member of India's national
parliament in New Delhi.
Police accuse the brothers of masterminding the assassination of a
political rival and five associates. Both deny all charges against them;
neither has ever been convicted of a crime.
Many countries, including the U.S., have lawmakers who run afoul of the
law, and it's not uncommon in developing countries for those fleeing
the law to find sanctuary in political office. Brazilian legislators, for
example, have been accused of entering politics to take advantage of a
law that grants them immunity from criminal prosecution in office.
Few countries, however, can match India's numbers. Following the 2004
election, almost a quarter of the 535 elected members of India's
national parliament have criminal charges registered against them or pending
in court, according to the Public Affairs Center, an Indian elections
watchdog. Half of those with charges pending against them face prison
terms of at least five years if convicted.
For some insular communities in India, criminal charges carry much less
of a stigma than in other countries, or even more mainstream parts of
India. Such charges may even be an asset, since tough characters can
help bond together people of the same faith or caste, especially if that
person is seen as one who will help resist bullying by other groups,
says Rashid Alvi, a Congress Party member of parliament from Uttar
. "They will elect the hardcore criminals if they think it will teach a
lesson to the other castes," says Mr. Alvi. "It's the idea of who cares
if he's a rogue, he's our rogue!"
For alleged criminals, political office is alluring: If they haven't
been convicted, they can remain in office, even while in jail. And if
convicted, politicians often manage to hold onto their jobs while an
appeal is lodged. India's justice system grinds so slowly that cases may not
be heard for years. Meanwhile, police escorts deter their foes -- often
other legislators -- from trying to kill them.
Prior to the elections, slightly more than half of its 403 legislative
assembly members, including Mukhtar Ansari, faced criminal charges. In
the first six phases of the elections, there were 48 constituencies
offering four or more candidates with criminal cases pending against them.
The criminal justice system remains vulnerable to political pressure.
Political rivals often direct charges against each other, and work to
withdraw cases against supporters. Still, many of India's legislators in
legal trouble faced criminal charges well before their political
careers began, according to I.C. Dwivedi, former director of police for Uttar
and now the state's head of Election Watch, an NGO. "They were
criminals first and politicians later," he says.

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