Scripting Illegal Judgments: On Revenge and Justice in Cinema

The following post was originally written as a submission for a course on Law and Popular Culture taught by Lawrence Liang and Danish Sheikh, at NLSIU, Bangalore in 2013.

Introduction

“Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out. For as for the first wrong, it doth but offend the law; but the revenge of that wrong, putteth the law out of office.” [1]

Every law student worth that name must confront certain inevitable questions at the very outset of their legal education. What is law? And, what is justice? And when one is a week into law school, the lack of a precise answer to these questions, can be an unsettling moment, and perhaps also, a moment of absolute clarity.

Revenge is one of the most frequently recurring themes in popular drama, when ordinary citizens, who are wronged, take on the mantle of exacting personal revenge. Studying the socio-legal implications and significance of the politics of revenge, could fill several books.  There is no dearth of revenge-oriented films; a strong case can be made for the enduring cinematic appeal of the genre of revenge. However, this paper deals specifically with instances in popular film, when the citizen, decides to administer their own idea of justice, an alternate to the legal system and recourse to the law, because they feel victimized by two entities- the criminal and the law, and this results in the delivery and execution of judgments, outside the purview of the law, and more importantly, in contravention with the provisions of law.

In order to build upon this theory of alternative justice, born out of a fundamental dissatisfaction with the legal outcome, the researcher will analyse a selection of six films, based in different historical cultural contexts. Most Indian films, dealing with revenge, and wrongful convictions, deal with so many layers of injustice; including political, social and economic, that it is nearly impossible to isolate the bare failure of the legal system per se, while contextualizing the acts of revenge. Therefore, in order to build a semblance of a narrative, the samples under reflection comprise a selection of Western films which substantiate the theory of personal revenge and retribution as alternative justice when the existing system fails the individual, beginning from the most recent film to the earliest.

Revenge, Retribution and Justice

The ideals of retribution and revenge tend toward the reflection of a fundamental sense of ‘fairness, of balance and reciprocity’.  Retribution, on one hand, is the attempt to set right a wrong, within limits and in a proportional manner, akin to the ‘eye for an eye’ adage. Revenge, on the other hand, tends to right wrongs on a scale, far beyond mere proportionality.  The criminal justice system is essentially an institution of retribution, as the response to the crime is limited and proportional.[2] When somebody’s actions cause harm and pain to another, it is necessary that he pays for it. Although a punishment might not satisfy Utilitarian principles of governance, the punishment meted out to a victimizer is seen to be warranted merely as payment for the initial wrong.[3]

There exists a fundamental social assertion that the desire for revenge is unacceptable to civilized society, and that rejecting revenge is proof of civilization. According to Charles Barton, this delusion imposes a heavy cost on the victims of crime. The idea of revenge is so condemned even in legal situations, such as the discrediting of evidence given by the victim for being motivated by revenge,  that it appears as though revenge and justice are necessarily incompatible. Victims have to assert their desire for justice, as opposed to revenge, denying them personal retribution.[4]

This could probably stem from the premise that justice must be impartial. The aversion to revenge might stem from the need to not allow the victim to be the ‘judge, jury and executioner’ in their own case. However, Barton goes on to state that, although impartiality is of value, the distance and isolation, almost uninterested manner in which courtrooms administer justice, leaves victims dissatisfied with the process.[5]

Most acts of revenge in cinema occur when the legal system malfunctions, thereby giving the hero the moral license to exact revenge, without appearing ‘vulgar’. This has also been reasoned to deem from the intent to let the audience enjoy the film, and the act of revenge, without being guilty for the satisfaction, because the failed legal system, justifies the revenge, by leaving no other alternative.[6]

Since this paper deals with revenge exacted when the legal system fails, the question of the morality of such revenge must be considered. In some cases, the legal system is seen as painfully inadequate, whereas in others, the legal system as a whole fails. And in both instances, there exists a strong draw toward an alternative method. Thane Rosenbaum argues that there exists an inherent morality in revenge because there exists very little difference between justice and revenge, contrary to popular perceptions. [7]

The inherent paradox of revenge however, is that although the vision of the attacker or criminal being served with vengeance seems to be ‘deserved’ and rightful, but the larger social and mindset finds the idea of delivering revenge uncivilized and barbaric. The quintessential concept of not taking the law into your own hands, is indicative of the concept that it is the State’s duty and its duty alone to mete out punishment, in keeping with the theory of social contract.[8]

Within the genre of revenge tragedy, there is a clear distinction between murder and retributive justice; however with the assumption that a second death can right the first death, implying that blood spilt in revenge for a crime can correct the imbalance caused by the initial bloodshed. The scales must be righted. This theme forms the basis of the justice proposition in the media.[9]

While discussing cinema and justice, emphasis needs to be placed on the relevance of the maxim, “justice must be seen in order to be done”. When justice is visible, within the confines of a court of law, the judgment becomes that much more legitimate. However, because justice is not tangible, seeing justice done, is the seeing of an image associated with justice. [10]

Therefore it is necessary to examine what comprises the image of justice, to the popular perception, as well as that portrayed in cinema. For example, the visuals of the trial process are metaphorical in nature, alluding to the individual’s journey towards the ideal of justice.

The trial film-an instrument and conduit of popular legal consciousness – cultivates a desire for and perpetuates the strength of law’s authoritative endeavour by locating the promise of  law in the tenacity and proclaimed  self-possession of each  individual’.[11]

The concept of ‘memory-justice’ is intrinsic to the trial process, wherein memory ensures that crime is not forgotten, insisting upon retribution. This insistence is not founded on ideals like the upholding of democracy as much it is ensuring that justice is done, and viewed.[12] Booth questions whether memory justice results in a sense of ‘incompleteness’, because it is still not sufficiently within the ambit of law’s empire, and from one perspective, memory justice originates in an idea of revenge, or Baconian wild justice. Booth suggests that because the law judges the past in a manner that somehow does not seem to restore original balance, there is a realisation of ‘something important left undone’, in spite of the punishment meted out to the perpetrator.[13]

The following section of the paper discusses five films in light of this context, and examines how the ideal of justice, merges with revenge and retribution, all necessarily in scenarios in which the legal system has been insufficient, or failed in its entirety.

In Focus

 Law Abiding Citizen[14]

“I’m gonna pull the whole thing down. I’m gonna bring the whole ****in’ diseased, corrupt temple down on your head. It’s gonna be biblical.”

The film is the story of a man, Shelton Clyde, who sees his wife raped and murdered, along with his daughter within their home, and the events that follow this incident. While prosecuting the two murderers, the District Attorney, Nick Rice tells Clyde that he is accepting a plea bargain from Darby, the more vicious of the two murderers. We know that Rice wants to keep his conviction rate intact, and he tells Clyde that “some justice is better than no justice at all,” and that he does not want to risk an acquittal. He explains how Clyde’s testimony is unreliable, and the physical evidence against Darby has been excluded. Darby’s plea and sentence for three years is the best arrangement possible. [15] Rice’s response to Clyde’s protests about how Rice knows that both defendants are guilty, is telling, and representative of the quintessential lawyer psyche-“It’s not what you know. It’s what you can prove in court.”

The rest of the film is a sequence of horrific violent actions that Clyde Shelton takes avenging the killers of his family, and the legal system which denied him justice. He makes the accomplice killer die a slow, painful death and especially kills Darby by cutting him into pieces while filming the entire act. Salzmann explains how had these two killings been the end, Clyde’s closure could be seen as an extraction of revenge, and the gaining of revenge that the legal system denied him. However, Clyde also goes on to exact revenge against the very legal system itself.

When Rice arrests Clyde, Clyde represents himself, and uses fake precedent in order to secure bail. When the judge grants him bail, he mocks the judge for being stupid, and he vocally reiterates the legal system’s woeful inadequacies.  Clyde goes on to perpetrate, further acts of annihilation against the judge, the DA’s staff, Darby’s attorney, and other people from the department of justice.[16]

According to film critic Maryann Johanson, Law Abiding Citizen represents an ‘unpleasant streak that runs through the American zeitgeist today, the one that took root after 9/11’ which takes away the very elements that make America, what it is,  like Constitutional values, and the rule of law, to save America itself. While Shelton is enraged at the legal system for not being able to guarantee maximum punishment for wrongdoers, the district attorney, Rice is frustrated at with the system which has to sometimes, let the guilty go free because it is intended primarily to protect innocents rather than punish the guilty. [17] Why the two intents are divergent is a different debate in itself.

It is important to note, that Clyde would have accepted the judgment of the court had the case gone to trial. He wanted to have a voice in court, and the ‘principle behind the trial was more important than either judicial economy or a half-measure punishment.’ Law Abiding Citizen is  based in the public’s lack of confidence in the justice system.[18]

However, if the film is a story of a citizen who penetrates the social contract, and reinstates power in himself, away from those who have abused it, by perpetrating miscarriage of justice, who takes back a power he believes has been given up to those in charge, the violence that Clyde undertakes in a near psychopathic manner is the kind of behaviour that ends up giving more power to those in charge to control individual rights, as is seen by the district attorney’s response to concerns about Clyde’s civil rights in custody- ‘F*** his civil rights’.[19]

Law Abiding Citizen thus involves the warped nature of the justice meted out by plea bargains, the subsequent revenge by victims, and for retribution that not only defy the principle of proportionality, but have the power to destroy the very legal system that is meant for safeguarding public life.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street [20]

Image result for sweeney toddThey all deserve to die. Because in all of the human race, Mrs. Lovett, there are two kinds of men and only two. There’s the one staying put in his proper place, and one with his foot in the other one’s face. Look at me, Mrs. Lovett! Look at you! No, we all deserve to die! Even you, Mrs. Lovett, even I!”

Sweeney Todd, is a historical character infamous for his murderous razor as a barber, and has been interpreted, over the years, by several writers. The law and lawyers specifically have always been viewed from a negative perspective in the many versions of Sweeney Todd that have appeared in fiction, theatre and cinema. In the film under discussion, English director Tim Burton uses satire to place the legal system and rule of the law, in London as being corrupt and destructive, something that Sweeney Todd’s character aims to violently remedy.

A certain Judge Turpin abuses his power, wrongfully deporting Todd to Australia, and then rapes Todd’s wife, and uses the law to appoint himself the guardian of Johanna, who is Todd’s daughter. Turpin’s character is painted to be not only unjust and corrupt, but pure evil, as in the instance when Turpin sentences a child to death.

When he transforms into an absolute mass murderer, Todd announces his intent to kill his victims, thus: “The vermin of the world inhabit it [London]-But not for long!”  Although it seems that Todd’s resolve of murder is not entirely a desire for revenge. Instead, ‘it rests upon his moral judgment of the deserved lot of all mankind’.[21]

Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd is coldly overwhelmed by disenchantment with the system that ruined his life, family, and irrevocably destroyed his naivety. His rage and desire for vengeance is shown more as a by product of the legal system than the fuel to the murders he commits. Burton tries to make the audience identify with his violent protagonist, seemingly questioning whether we are blameless when our legal system unfairly and wrongly punishes.[22]

This film touches upon corruption, wrongful and mala-fide convictions, wrongful use of the law to serve personal ends, and generally an entire system which proves itself capable of destroying a man’s life, and being the cause of turning him into a mass-murderer. It explores whether when, the law fails, and a victim seeks vengeance, the extreme nature of that vengeance is also an indication of the magnitude of the systemic fault. However, as in all tragedies, it has an ending in which the protagonist too, suffers the fate of the antagonists. The fact that Todd mistakenly kills his wife, and the love of his life, believing her to be dead, the futility and waste of his vengeance comes through. The fact that Todd out to purge London of evil, linked with vengeance for wife’s death, ends up killing his wife and is killed himself, seems to be indicate the ultimate failure of revenge to achieve justice, and that is one of the several reasons why I believe Sweeney Todd to be one of the most relevant cinematic commentaries on the jurisprudence of justice.

Unforgiven[23]

Unforgiven, self-explanatorily is a tale of memory and forgiveness; intrinsically linked with retribution, the issue of proportional justice, and as is wont, the inadequacy of the legal system. William Munny is a reformed killing cowboy, and at the onset of the film, we are shown how financial trouble leads to him deciding to go back to his killing ways, in lieu of a rather large bounty on the head of two cowboys for cutting the face of a sex worker in the town of Big Whisky.

The legal system is represented by Little Bill, the town sheriff and he sentences the two cowboys to whipping as punishment for the atrocity against the sex worker. This punishment is seen as inadequate by both the sex workers, and the owner of the brothel for different reasons. The sex workers do not deem whipping to being a just enough punishment for the ‘gruesome’ and permanently nature of the crime. The brothel owner, on the other hand is dissatisfied with the punishment because of the economical loss he faces with the scarred face of the concerned victim, and is therefore satisfied when he is awarded two ponies as compensation. Therefore, the sex workers decide to have justice administered they way, they deem fit, and announce the bounty on the perpetrators’ heads.

There exist two branches of revengeful justice in this film. One is that of the sex workers, in order to avenge their colleague’s predicament by deciding to pay for the killing of the attackers, a punishment clearly far beyond the scope of proportional justice. The second branch is when Munny’s friend Ned is killed by Little Bill, and  Munny avenges Ned’s death by killing Little Bill, a more direct and proportional retribution than the first. Moreover, another interesting aspect of the film is

This theme is perfectly portrayed through Eastwood’s character who himself is cynical of justice in the world. He says the incongruous line of “deserves got nothing to do with it” to Little Bill just before killing him as revenge for killing Ned, something Munny clearly did feel he deserved. Munny has developed this contemptuous stance towards justice through the events of his own life. A onetime ruthless killer of women and children, “the fact that no one ever brought him to justice for his past evil deeds, makes him think the delivery of justice purely random, a matter of luck.” [24]

Lipstick [25]

The film deals with the rape of a successful model, by a struggling musician, and the events that follow. After a musician, Gordon forces himself upon the model Chris McCormick, and rapes her in her room, the end of the act is witnessed by Chris’ thirteen year old sister Kathy. After the violent ordeal is over, and Gordon leaves, Chris reports the incident to the police. Chris’ attorney- Carla explains to her how conviction in rape cases is very low, and her best chance to get a conviction is to take the stand herself.

The film shows, how in the trial, a victim of rape “must overcome the prejudices of a society that always suspects that such a rape victim got what she asked for…Anne Bancroft, appearing as the ferociously determined lawyer for the victim, presents the case not only for Miss Hemingway, but also for all women.”[26]

In the trial, although Chris testifies in earnest truth, and despite the protestations to the effect that doing so will damage her career, the jury holds in favour of the acquittal because they are convinced by the defence counsel’s contention that the sex was consensual, and a result of Chris’ desires. Moreover, the defence also argues that even if it was not consensual, it was provoked by her, because she first appeared naked at the photo-shoot when the rapist saw her, and the overarching sexual nature of the photographs that a part of Chris’ profession.

After being laid off from work, at her last shoot, Gordon chases after Kathy, and rapes her. When Kathy tells Chris of what happened, Chris runs after Gordon’s car and shoots at him. She continues shooting at him, across his body, long after he’s dead, recalling the memories of her rape. After the police arrest her, Carla Bondi argues before the jury as to how Chris took the law into her own hands, because the law had failed her in the past. She is acquitted of the crime, so as to prevent the display of the failure of the justice department.

This films is important primarily because it exposes the failings of the jury system a system specifically in place to avoid individual bias, and partiality. The fact that a jury is easily convinced by the reasoning that surely the model is to blame for her rape, which in fact must have been consensual, merely because she is a model highlights how social prejudices and biases of juries are actively exploited by the case for the defence, especially for victim blaming in cases of sexual violence. Although Chris is denied justice in her case, when her sister is raped by the same individual, a man acquitted by the court, for that very offence, Chris decides that she will have to administer justice herself, if she wants to see justice done at all. We are shown the cold fury, evoked by the memories of her rape, as she empties bullets into Gordon, to attain closure, and revenge, and fundamentally, an alternative form of justice.  Also, the fact that the court later acquits her of killing Gordon, is akin to the legal system acknowledging the existence and rightfulness of this alternative form of justice.

King of the Pecos[27]

The film, made in the mid 1930s, is a quintessential ‘western film’ or what could be referred to as a ‘cowboy film’, starring Joseph Kane. At the outset, a ruthless businessman Stiles, accompanied by his lawyer Brewster and his employee Ash, gain control over important watering holes between the cattle markets in Kansas and Texas, to achieve their business ends. One of the watering holes-Sweetwater, is owned by a man, who lives there with his wife and son.  Stiles offers a thousand dollars to the man, in exchange for the land, and he refuses. Stiles’ men shoot him and his wife, beating up the boy and leaving him for dead. Ten years later, the boy who did not die, grows up to be a lawyer, and represents a class action by cattle owners, to challenge Stiles’ control over the watering holes, wherein the Court holds that, Stiles is only entitled to one of his water hole claims, only of Sweetwater. The classic irony of this judgment is an interesting one from the perspective of revenge. The fact that Clayborn, the lawyer, instituted the suit, motivated by the murder of his parents, and the subsequent occupation of their land, and the court holding that of all of Stiles’ illegal claims, only Clayborn’s land is legally Stiles’. The audience is therefore shown a very clear, heavy failure of the legal system, and its ability to deliver justice with accuracy, and fairness, although a larger look at the case, shows how the class action has been a successful suit.

After losing the suit, Stiles decided to use force, and orders that all the ranchers’ cattle be gathered, and Clayborn in response gathers the ranchers into a cattle drive. When the drive passes through Sweetwater, and Stiles refuses access, Clayborn and the others kill Stiles and the killer Ash in exactly the same manner in which Stiles had had Clayborn’s parents murdered those many years ago. The movie ends with Clayborn’s avenging of his parents’ murders, and the movie underlines how ‘he needed to use force beyond law in order to extract’ [28] that revenge.

The film is an extremely relevant commentary, because the victim, is also a part of the legal system, meant to deliver justice, as a lawyer, and the fact that Clayborn chooses to avenge his parents’ murders initially by destroying Stiles’ capitalist empire, by means of a legal suit, is an indication of how, even as a victim, Clayborn has ultimate faith in the legal system to do justice. However, when that legal system fails him personally, while technically upholding the cause he has represented as a lawyer, then the element of personal retribution enters. Still, the killing of Stiles is still in retaliation to the force Stiles exerts over his titled land- Sweetwater, but, in that instance the fact that Clayborn kills Stiles, at the place where he murdered his parents, in a manner reminiscent of the same, shows how although there is an element of direct proportion to his retribution, Clayborn, despite being a lawyer, has had to go beyond the law, and physically kill his victimizer in order to attain a sense of justice.

Conclusion

There exists a strong argument to support why punishment need contain an element of suffering in order to be considered just, therefore the social desire for revenge or such suffering, cannot be considered immoral, that a desire for such suffering is a reflection of the desire for justice. Although actual punishment follows the principle of proportionality, it still does not exclude the desire for suffering as an essential component of that punishment. [29]One perspective is that there is a need for legal systems to acknowledge ‘a moral duty to satisfy the needs of victims to feel avenged’.

The concept of plea bargains therefore, as seen in Law Abiding Citizen, undercut this need of the victim, and therefore, it has been suggested that it is necessary to somehow involve the victim in the plea bargaining process, because it is a crime against the victim, along with being a crime against the public at large.[30] The film explores the possibility of how an innocent man takes to extreme violence, cruelty almost matching that of his original perpetrator, not only to avenge his daughter and wife’s deaths, but to unconditionally avenge the lawyer, and the criminal justice system, which allowed the perpetrator to be set free, under a mask of justice. In Sweeney Todd, the idea of the law itself being represented by morally corrupt agents, as keepers of law and justice is an interesting angle as to why an ordinary, innocent citizen takes the law into his own hands, by means of his razor, specifically, in order to not only take revenge against the people responsible for his fate, but also to cold-bloodedly remove ‘evil’ men from the setup. In Unforgiven we see proportionality and the lack thereof while alternative justice is being administered in two separate instances. Lipstick displays the inherent failings of the jury system, and the consequences of wrongful acquittal, while highlighting the need for personal retribution as the ultimate, albeit last resort justice for the victim. King of the Pecos is a study in the finer nuances of personal justice, when individual justice is not in accordance with the communal justice meted out, and how a lawyer resorts to taking the law in his hands.

Thus,  a variety of settings in which the explicit and underlying theme is the failure of the legal system, paving the need for individual retribution, is indicative of how in fact the idea of justice, the theory of justice, and its practical and moral link with revenge and retribution is a jurisprudential question that merits deeper consideration, not only while understanding the films, but in understanding our criminal system, and decide whether the justice we aim for, is vengeance, retribution, or restoration. At a moment in time, when the Indian polity struggles to ideologically defend and oppose the sentencing and capital punishment for the offences of terrorism and rape, answering the question of what justice entails, and what justice is wanted, and what justice is necessary, is crucial.

 

Endnotes

[1] Francis Bacon, Of Revenge in The Essays or Cousels, Civil and Moral, of Francis Ld. Verulam Viscount St. Albans and The New Atlantis 14, (Jim Manis ed., 2007).

[2] Howard Zehr, What do Restorative Justice and Revenge Have in Common? (June 11, 2009), Restorative Justice, available at http://emu.edu/now/restorative-justice/2009/06/11/what-do-restorative-justice-and-revenge-have-in-common/, (Last visited on February 23, 2013).

[3] Steven Eisenstat, Revenge, Justice and Law: Recognising the Victim’s Desire for Vengeance as a Justification for Punishment 50(4) Wayne Law Review 1, 23 (2005).

[4] Charles K. Barton, Getting Even: Revenge as a Form of Justice, xv. (1999).

[5] Id. at xvi.

[6] Dean Hitesman, Setting the Stage for Justice in Revenge Genre Films, Picturing Justice (February 10, 2005), available at http://usf.usfca.edu/pj/revenge_hitesman.htm (Last visited on February 23, 2013).

[7] Thane Rosenbaum, Justice? Vengeance? You Need Both, The New York Times (July 27, 2011), available at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/28/opinion/28rosenbaum.html?_r=0 (Last visited on February 23, 2013).

[8] Id.

[9] Sara Elizabeth Rowe, The Scales of Justice: Revenge and Forgiveness in Early Modern Revenge Tragedy, 19 (Bachelor of Arts Thesis, Wesleyan University-The Honors College, 2008) [unpublished].

[10] Dennis E. Curtis & Judith Resnik, Images of Justice 96 Yale Law Journal 1727, 1729 (1987).

[11] Jessica Silbey, Patterns of Courtroom Justice, 28 (1) Journal of Law and Society 97, 116 (2001).

[12] W. James Booth, The Unforgotten: Memories of Justice, 95(4) The American Political Science Review 777, 779 (2001).

[13] Id.  at 786.

[14] Overture Films, Law Abiding Citizen (2009).

[15] Victoria S. Salzmann, The Film Law Abiding Citizen: How Popular Culture is Poisoning People’s Perceptions 41 South Western Law Review 119, 138 (2011).

[16] Id.,at 139.

[17] Maryann Johanson, Law Abiding Citizen (Review) (October 15, 2009), Flick Filosopher, available at http://www.flickfilosopher.com/blog/2009/10/101509law_abiding_citizen_review.html, (Last visited on February 23, 2013).

[18] Salzmann, supra note 15 at 140.

[19] Johanson, supra note 17.

[20] Warner Bros. Pictures, Sweeney Todd- The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007).

[21] Alfred Mollin, Mayhem and Morality in Sweeney Todd, 9(4) American Music 405, 406 (1991).

[22] Michelle Lipinski, Who You Calling Cutthroat? The Legal System, Legal Responsibility, and Sweeney Todd (February 20, 2008), Oxford University Press Blog, available at http://blog.oup.com/2008/02/sweeney_law/, Last visited on February 23, 2013.

[23] Warner Bros. Pictures, Unforgiven (1992).

[24] William I. Miller, Clint Eastwood and Equity: Popular Culture’s Theory of Revenge. in Law in the Domain of Culture 161, 195 (A. Sarat and T. Kearns eds., 2000).

[25] Paramount Pictures, Lipstick  (1976).

[26] Vincent Canby, The Screen: ‘Lipstick’: Glamorous Film About Raped Model Arrives, The New York Times (April 3, 1976),  available at http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9A06EEDA1E3CE334BC4B53DFB266838D669EDE (Last visited on February 23, 2013).

[27] King of the Pecos (1936).

[28] Hitesman, supra note 6.

[29] Eisenstat, supra note 3.

[30] Rosenbaum, supra note 7.

 

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Saffron, Green and White Noise

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Image: Duncan C (Flickr)

Mr. Sonu Nigam, he of the erratic hairdos and of the voice serenading the heartbreaks of a generation, has recently been the subject of much controversy for tweeting that he does not approve of the “forced religiousness” when the azaan from a nearby mosque disrupts his sleep. Many people have accused him of pandering to the Hindu majoritarian psyche currently in  political favour fo singling out the religious practices of a minority community. When a maulvi responded with a fatwa awarding a sum of Rs. 10 lacs to anyone who shaves off  Sonu Nigam’s hair, Sonu himself shaved it off in response.

I cannot claim to know of the inner workings of Sonu Nigam’s mind, unlike most writers waxing eloquent on this subject, but I can discuss the issue that Sonu seemed to have touched upon, that of severe noise pollution currently legitimised in our country by the politics of our identities, to an extent that we have romanticised the noise as part of Indian culture.

Noise has power. In a country where people are continuously fighting for space, and airtime, and when sections of society are marginalised, noise serves as an important message to society, yes, we’re here. I would argue that there is a social function to be served by ensuring that certain sounds continue being loud, so that the fringe identities associated with that noise remain in the public eye (ear?). Noise serves the innate function of announcing the presence of elements in our society that we would rather pretend do not exist, so while we can remove them from our sight, they will always be within earshot. Women in boardrooms or in a court of law must be loud, because of how frequently they are manterrupted and mansplained to. Loud protest marches force authorities to take into consideration issues, which are simply not allowed to be heard in well-mannered ways. Which comes to the question of the elitism of silence. When the rules of etiquette were being formed by Victorian England, the well bred could afford to not be loud, because Britannia ruled the waves regardless.

However, this use of noise to assert identity is used to its extreme in our daily lives in India. Which is where I think Sonu Nigam might have a point. That religious institutions seem to be engaged in a competition of sorts, not just to occupy the vote bank and the public consciousness, but also the soundwaves; with each pandal and mandal competing for cacophony.

As a lawyer having worked on noise pollution disputes, it is extremely disheartening to see how aggressively people defend their use of noise pollution for religious and community activities. There is a special escalation of simultaneous noise sources during Ganesh Chaturthi, Navratri and weddings. With the multitude of festivals and funds available for them, hiring gigantic speaker trolleys blaring out everything from patriotic songs to Bollywood item numbers has become de rigeur. I am not making a value judgment on the content of the music, but it is difficult to legally defend these activities under freedom of religion when they are so far removed from any religious purpose. I am not sure what purpose it is intended to serve, except maybe assert power  by making a statement that one’s celebration is of more importance than statutory decibel limits or the health and well-being of fellow citizens.

Let’s not even get started on our national addiction to honking horns, whether it is a method of flirting, harassment or just a vent for anger, annoyance and frustration, never mind the fact that people with homes along major roads cannot hear their own voices talking at the dinner table.

It is understandable that in a nation inflicted with severe cases of air and water pollution, we tend to accord noise pollution negligible thought. However, it is important to note that in 1987, the definition of ‘air pollutant’ in The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act,1981 was amended to include noise.  “s. 2 (a) “air pollutant” means any solid, liquid or gaseous substance 2[(including noise)] present in the atmosphere in such concentration as may be or tend to be injurious to human beings or other living creatures or plants or property or environment”

The Parliament enacted the Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules, 2000 under the Environment Protection Act, setting forth the procedure for the designation of silence zones around residential, educational and hospital establishments, and prescribing the decibel limits for various zones such as industrial, residential etc. In 2005, in the judgment In Re: Noise Pollution, the Hon’ble Supreme Court heard a public interest litigation dealing with noise pollution instituted when “a 13 year old girl was a victim of rape (as reported in newspapers of January 3, 1998). Her cries for help sunk and went unheard due to blaring noise of music over loudspeaker in the neighbourhood. The victim girl, later in the evening, set herself ablaze and died of 100% burn injuries.” The judgment contained certain crucial directions which are rampantly violated because of  a combination of governmental and citizens’ apathy.  Some of these directions are:

  • “There shall be a complete ban on bursting sound emitting firecrackers between 10 pm and 6 am. It is not necessary to impose restrictions as to time on bursting of colour/light emitting firecrackers.”
  • “Vehicular Noise No horn should be allowed to be used at night (between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.) in residential area except in exceptional circumstances.”
  • “The States shall make provision for seizure and confiscation of loudspeakers, amplifiers and such other equipments as are found to be creating noise beyond the permissible limits.”

If this is an issue close to your heart (ear?), I urge you to install apps such as SoundMeter (They are not paying me for this endorsement …yet) in your smartphone and measure the sound pressure level from noise sources. Identify what zone your home or workplace falls under, and verify whether the noise is within permissible limits. If you think your complaint is valid, please contact the local pollution control board office; they are bound to inspect and take action against the same. This is a simple and affordable way of dealing with the nuisance of noise, as opposed to the largely ineffective method of tweet-based justice. A common thread of argument I have encountered when criticising noise pollution during Hindu festivals is that I have some sort of personal vendetta against Hinduism, and I am trying to lower the morale and spirit of Hindus being the sickular libtard that I am. I think we could all do with ensuring that our religious freedom is not ensconced within woofer systems, at the cost of legal compliance.

We are Medievale: An Ode to Paper

“We are medievale… how do I say it? From another time.” Mr. Lorenzo said with an almost apologetic smile. I could have hugged him.

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I love paper.  When I travel, I collect metro tickets, concert flyers, paper maps and postcards. So many, many postcards. Of all the things I like to shop for, paper products features somewhere around the top. There is a small drawer in my childhood desk which contains empty notebooks and notepads. Bought with much hope and anticipation with the stories and poems I would fill them with. That drawer also contains fountain pens, ink cartridges and an inkpot. One of those pens was an expensive present by the love of my life. Under my bed, are stowed away hundreds of wedding invitation cards, classified by size and quality of paper. We are indeed medievale.

I wanted to buy a bookmark yesterday, and my friend told me no longer needs one, since he does most of his reading on the Kindle. I steadfastly and sentimentally continue to be a paper book girl, despite how economic and convenient an E-Book reader is. I can’t bring myself to convert somehow. For the past couple of weeks, I have been on the lookout for the perfect daily planner for 2017. While Google Calendar is great to have clean synced records of my schedule, I tend to rely on my diary to keep me organised. It so happens that I am currently travelling through Italy. This afternoon, as we walked off a fantastic pasta meal, we chanced across a tiny shop display with dozens of pretty notebooks. If I wanted to be cliched, I would generously use the word ‘quaint’ to describe it. We entered an arched high-ceilinged room where a middle aged gentleman was hard at work at binding the spine of a diary. There were piles of breathtaking notebooks, planners and photo albums with colourfully patterned covers in various sizes.

Deep inside one of the rows of “Agende” or diaries, I found mine. Covered in a beige cloth with floral lotus embroidery. Smelling of fresh thick paper and dried glue. I struck up a conversation with the gentleman at the desk. I told how thankful I was for finding his store, and finding my perfect diary. He introduced himself as Mr. Lorenzo and told us how his father started the store fifty years ago and now he runs it with his brother Marco. They make all the books by hand in that very store. They also reside in the room behind teh workshop. The display and sale area was a very small fraction, and the majority of the shop contained shelves full of paper, and fabric. I loved the whole setup so much I decided to buy another planner, for my boss. Mr. Lorenzo said about how much he loved working with paper, and that they were medievale. In that moment, I connected with him, a complete stranger, an unspoken moment of acknowledgment and understanding.

His brother gave us a bunch of lovely antique Florence postcards, a beautiful calendar containing artwork of bird species, and an antique map of Florence, for free, just because.

When I got back to my room tonight, I opened my diary, and the bookmark was placed naturally and eerily enough on the page of my birthday. My friend was positively shocked at this. I don’t believe in omens usually, but by God, this is a sign.

Thank you Mr. Lorenzo, for this afternoon, and your work, and for painstakingly keeping the art of paper alive in this LCD world.

If you’re in Florence, please visit Legatoria Ridi. 🙂

Pussy Grabs Back

I would have marked this post as NSFW for language, but looks like the definition of public decency has changed quite a bit over the past couple of days. And I thought that this meme on the interwebs was delightful.

After the recent expose that Donald Trump was caught elaborating on how he grabs women by the pussy, the US news cycle has been dominated by little else. There seems to be much ado about how Republican office-bearers like Paul Ryan and bigwigs like Mitt Romney, McCain and Jeb Bush are withdrawing their support for Trump’s Presidential candidacy.

First, can we PLEASE stop acting like the Trump tape is taking us by surprise, and this overarching sentiment: as if by saying the word “pussy” he appears to have somehow revealed that he is a misogynist. I am genuinely tired of all the pundits acting like he’s now crossed some sort of line. Donald Trump never crossed the line. He has always resided permanently on the other side of the line, in a place where female bodies are the primary source of revenue and enjoyment, a culture which spares no female body from exploitation: physical, visual and public, and something which Donald Trump has never had any qualms bragging about throughout his election campaign. I am therefore nonplussed by and find it hard to take anyone seriously who is surprised by this recent revelation. I am convinced it’s only because the word makes people uncomfortable.

Also, let’s give ourselves a break from acting like these noble Republican leaders are doing a decent thing by denouncing Trump because of his comments. They are the leaders of a party which has consistently supported Supreme Court judges  who are positioned against women’s rights, has used its Legislative strength to block funding for institutions like Planned Parenthood and perpetrated a hateful rhetoric against women’s right to choice, maternal leave and equal pay. That’s how democracy functions, so the people get what they elect. But, please let’s not make Ted Cruz suddenly appear like he’s the one who cares about women. Male politicians, literally or through legislation have always been grabbing pussy.

Donald Trump is threatening to bring up Bill Clinton’s sex scandals against Hillary in the next debate. Most Hillary supporters find it understandably outrageous that she should be dragged down for the sins of her husband.  I would agree, if not for the fact that not once, has Hillary stood by the Cause, when the perpetrator was her husband. The dynamics of their marriage are irrelevant and frankly none of our business. But as a person whose Presidential candidacy has tied itself with feminism, I find her lack of acknowledgement and engagement with her husband’s victims, and her active dismissal of their accounts in the past, are antithetical and insulting to the Cause she espouses. Again, his behaviour does not and should not reflect on her, but she actively chose to stand by it, and more importantly has used his time, public image and words to support her Presidential bid, including Bill Clinton’s romantic speech at the Democratic Convention. Far too many victims of powerful male figures are dismissed and disparaged by their female spouses, to let this one go. This attitude is reflective of an extremely dangerous workplace phenomenon, which Hillary Clinton has failed to address so far. So, she isn’t allowed to be excluded from this narrative.

Nobody, nobody, nobody has come to the podium with clean hands.

Which brings me to why this is relevant to me, as an Indian. As we applaud our central government for its Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao campaign, and celebrate our impending status as a global economic power, thanks to all that development, while simultaneously expressing shock and outrage at how Donald Trump is disgusting, it is important that we remind ourselves of the kind of horrors we have elected back home as well. We’re going to have to seriously examine our own complicity in electing misogynistic politicians across the political spectrum, from all parties. Here’s a sample list of deeply troubling remarks made by our elected representatives, inlcuding our Hon’ble Prime Minister referring to Mr. Shashi Tharoor’s late wife Sunanda Pushkar as a “50-crore girlfriend.” Let’s not even get started on the Women’s Reservation Bill, which still refuses to be passed in our Parliament.

We all need to introspect and decide how much we prioritize the rights of half the population when we vote, in India or the US; and how much pressure we put on our political class to reform itself. If women’s rights keep getting sacrificed at religious and economic altars at every election, they’ll just keep grabbing us by the pussy. Pussy’s got to grab back.

On Nazionalism

Artist: Satyajit Ray

Several people, far more articulate and experienced than me have contributed excellent pieces on the current madness gripping our country, wherein an elected government is authorizing sedition charges against its citizens, in a university setup. A thread of conversation I have witnessed over the past couple of days is that, “But X did not shout anything anti-national! He wasn’t being seditious.” or “This statement was not  anti-national.” What this argument does is legitimise state action against what can be considered anti-national, which is a highly problematic stance to take when being anti-national is not a crime under any statute book in the land, and sedition itself is a crime mired in injustice and historic misappropriation. In such a scenario it is imperative to remember that questioning the nationalism and questioning the idea of a nation state, philosophically and politically is possible. Writing a history paper in my second year of law school, on Rabindranath Tagore and Nationalism made me first consider these ideas and I was convinced by the end of the paper.

I reproduce some of those thoughts below, written by our Poet Laureate a hundred years ago, about the very same nation.

“The last Sun of the century sets amidst the blood-red clouds of the West and the whirlwind of hatred. The naked passion of the self-love of Nations, in its drunken delirium of greed, is dancing to the clash of steel and howling verses of vengeance. The hungry self of the Nation shall burst in a violence of fury from its shameless feeding. For it has made the world its food.” – Rabindranath Tagore, ‘The Sunset of the Century’, Nationalism.

Nationalism as a political term, in which people sharing a common geographical boundary, with some sort of politico-cultural significance is a relatively modern idea, although basic nationalism from a cultural perspective has existed since the dawn of society. (Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism). Nationalism could be identified as the feeling of a sense of belonging to a particular ‘nation’  which has a common origin, and the desire to keep that nation as pure as possible, and wanting to establish  and/or  maintain  a separate, independent state. (Henk Dekker, Darina Malová, Sander Hoogendoorn, Nationalism and Its Explanations, 24(2) Political Psychology).

In Tagore’s vision, to move along the path to a real human goal, a new centre of unity was need, a shared heritage, the Family of Man. To achieve this, it was imperative to end national and ideological rivalries, and position universal ethics, to form a transcendental humanity.(Sisirkumar Ghose, Rabindranath Tagore, 1986).

According to him, fundamentalism was not limited to religious and communal discord. It spanned across, as an attitude of hate towards others, on the pretence that it upheld the sacred nature of some community. Also, brute physical strength seemed to be the determining factor in deciding who was superior. This sort of incompatibility, leading to hostility between the East and West, was obviously a kind of fundamentalism. (Swapan Majumdar, Fundamentalism Versus Tolerance: Tagore’s Stance on the Communal Question,2000). He referred to nationalism as a ‘bhougolik apadevata’ meaning a geographical demon.(Seema Bandhopadhyay, Rabindrasangite Swadeshchetna, 1986).

Tagore always advocated the ideals of humanism, holding them more sacred that any other doctrine. Hence, in ‘Desher Kotha’ (Of Country) he says, “Monushyotto ke nation alotter cheye boro boliya janite hoibe -Humanity must be privileged over nationality. (Rabindranath Tagore, Desher Kotha, Rabindra Rachanaboli).

The Nation, with all its paraphernalia of power and prosperity, its flags and pious hymns, its blasphemous prayers in the churches, and the literary mock thunders of its patriotic bragging, cannot hide the fact that the Nation is the greatest evil for the Nation… (Rabindranath Tagore, Nationalism).

 

To 2015; you, great year, you.

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It’s the last day of 2015. Before I begin to wish my friends and family a happy new year, it’s time to reflect on the greatest year yet. 2015 is always going to be special and not least because I’ll always carry it in my email signature, on my letterhead. Mrinalini Shinde, B.A. LL.B. (Hons.), NLSIU, Batch of 2015. When I joined law school in 2010, 2015 seemed  distant and futuristic. And now it’s almost gone. So I beg your pardon for my sense of bewilderment.

One year ago this time, I was helping my classmates prepare for a new year party for 400 people at a farmhouse outside Bangalore. Right now, I am sitting at a desk in Cologne, absolutely alone, just to spend some quality time with myself, a slice of pizza and maybe some Korean drama. I wouldn’t have known a year ago.

For far too long, I used to doubt myself all the time, about everything. Confidence isn’t a quality I was born with. It’s a party trick, that gets a tiny bit better every time you go out. I would keep questioning whether my career was going to work out, whether I was making the right moves academically and professionally; what is expected of me versus what I was doing.  2015 didn’t magically erase those doubts, nor did it suddenly transform my life. However, it gave me the opportunity to meet some very special people, travel and learn a lot about the environment and its politics and for that I am grateful. I am still as clueless and unsure as before, but it’s not in a bad way any more. So, for that I must thank you, 2015.There are so many amazing people doing their bit to advance the human experience. There is so much to keep learning, all the time. Let’s just say, that I sleep better now. 🙂

2015 was when I argued cases before judges for the first time, and worked with transport engineers and biologists on collaborative projects. My first job, with a workplace which keeps me grounded, where my clients ranging from distraught farmers to abused wives teach me to try answering the question that was asked on my first day in law school: “What does law mean?”

2015 taught me what Shakespeare meant when Polonius advised Laertes in Hamlet, that “Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, Grapple them to thy soul, with hoops of steel;”. It’s when you’re no longer in a pressure cooker of a university campus, but spangled across the expanse of the country, when you know who you always want to hang with. I scoff at those who scoff at the meaningfulness of electronic interaction. It works well if you care to make it, and I am thankful to Facebook, Whatsapp, Hangouts and Skype for almost not allowing me to miss my friends (you know who you’ll are). I honestly don’t know how I’d survive a day without you all.

2015 was also the year of maximum travel. For work, leisure and friendships. Of backpacking on a budget through Sri Lanka with the gang to exploring the forests of Nagarhole and Bandipur with the greatest fam there is. Of catching up with childhood friends in strange cities and making amazing new friends from places I am yet to visit.  Of taking your best friend pillion on your shiny Scooter around the city, because why not.To falling in love with a new country, its vistas and its eccentricities; Deutschland you’re pretty amazing, you are. Of exploring the rural backyards and continuously questioning and acknowledging your privilege as you encounter one humbling experience after another.

2015 made me cry. It taught me a lot about myself and how I deal with the many manifestations of love. It made me more vulnerable, forced me to take new risks, keeping my guards up, also letting them down, and exploring the limits of morality and liberty which I didn’t know existed.

2015 has been rather politically significant. We’re always going to recall the first year of a new government, an old ideology wearing new saffron suits, of finally placing emphasis on questions of sanitation and solar power in  public discussion. I was lucky enough to be a miniscule, insignificant part of the movement leading up to the Paris Climate Agreement, and we have to now decide how posterity will judge 2015 in this regard. It’s been a year of extremely polarised global politics, with terror attacks and airstrikes, all of which are destroying innocent lives, one rhetorical sentence at a time.

So yes, 2015 you’ve been quite the handful. I will be grateful for you. But more grateful to every single person who I have met, good, bad and …(beauty is a social construct), and all those who have continued to be my strengths and my weaknesses.

As fireworks start going off across the world to mark the new year (WHY? Do we not have enough smog and child labour already? For details, please see the judgment in Ravindra Bhusari and Ors. in which yours truly has been named as an advocate, trying to get rid of this horrid custom), I am going to bake myself a pizza from scratch and kick back with a mindless drama-binge. Happy new year, 2016 is going to be amazing but you know I’ll always love you, 2015.

*insert Mrin hug here*

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Place de la Republique, Paris

 

 

 

 

Hawa Hawai: Why Licence Plates Don’t Cure Smog, Clean Fuels Do

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Image by Peder Sterll, Flickr

 

New Delhi is the world’s most polluted city measured by PM2.5 , which are tiny, toxic particles that lead to respiratory diseases , with an annual average of 153 micrograms per cubic meter, according to the WHO’s stats for 2014. Nine other Indian cities are also part of the list of 15 most polluted cities in the world.  What is wrong with us, India?

So one of today’s dramatic headlines is World’s Most Polluted City Plans Odd/Even Cars on Alternate Days. The New Delhi administration is planning on introducing a ban on half of cars every day, alternately, based on odd and even number plates. 

On one hand, this move is being applauded by a  section of  society, recognising it as  a bold and proactive move to curb air pollution in the  capital. On the other hand, the move is being criticised for causing inconvenience and achieving no real change in the status quo.

The move isn’t an innovation as many believe but an actual method tried across several cities inclusing Paris, Mexico City and Beijing, in order to curb daily emmissions in cities. However, the method has proved to not be ineffective but worsened the air pollution levels in the long run.

This is because the class which does predominantly use cars, and if it is seen as an indispensible form of transport, will imemdiately switch to buying two cheaper cars, which translates into two car with lesser fuel efficiency and more emissions. This was observed in Paris, Santiago, Milan, Santiago and Mexico City. Moreoever, companies with disposable income offerred their employees company cars with the required number plates with no change in status quo. Also, this led to a thriving market in fake number plate manufacturing. So, even asuming people in New Delhi don’t buy newer cars, do we genuinely believe that the Jugaad Capital won’t ensure that everyone has a set of two licence plates, odd and even? Is there any realistic way of enforcing this rule?

Moreoever, when Paris did it, it made public transport and bikesharing absolutely free. Also, the ban was not applicable to electric and hybrid cars. But the rule was struck off almost immediately because it cost the city 4 million euro, and led to immense dissatisfaction within the public.

So, when the city of Delhi, whose lungs are burning, and mouth dark black from all the smoking introduces such a measure, we need to be very skeptical. And this holds true for most cities in India. We have not invested in our public transport to able to provide our citizens with a viable, safe and accessible system which they can trust in. Whether we care to admit it or not, public transport is the avenue of the lower socio-economic strata because they simply have no other choice. Upward mobility in India is traced by this route: walk-bus-rickshaw-Honda Activa-hatchback car-sedan-SUV. Our public transport is so deplorable that private vehicle ownership has social aspirational value. Therefore, trying to suddenly fill this cavity with a ridiculously superficial solution like alternate day odd-even licence plate bans, is misguided and of no realconsequence, apart from opening one more pathway for corruption.

As a lifelong enthusiast of public transport, you would assume I would be delighted by this “anti-car” move. To be honest, I find it disheartening that such a crucial issue is being reduced to such an inefefctive policy decision.

There are solutions which work. For example, creation of Low Emission Zones (LEZs) which ban inefficient vehicles from city centres, forcing drivers to upgrade their cars, and have proven to be extremely successful in Europe. Penalise thsoe who are continue to run outdated lethal machines, instead of forcing them to buy cheap ones from olx or gaadi.com.

More importantly, making the city public transport friendly is crucial if we want to cut the smog.Few ideas off the top of my head.

  • Take away the laal-batti cars of all the ministers and babus, and give them State sponsored public transit passes.
  • Make every point on your map accessible to every point. Despite Bangalore’s pollution situation, it has been my experience that it has managed to master intra-city connectivity; if only people cared enough to use it.
  • Integrated multi-modal transport which ensure that people are not deterred by distances to main stations. Regularly plying buses or electric vans from neighbourhoods to the nearest metro station, and a bus stop every 500 metres.
  • A massive overhaul of the current cars, by criminalisation of possession of polluting vehicles.
  • A PUC check which actually means something apart from paying Rs. 100 to the official.
  • Increasing the number of female employees in public transport to half of all total employees.
  • Better use of technology and social media to inform people of their best possible transit routes, timetables in all languages.
  • Making our cities more pedestrian and bicycle friendly. People should be able to walk and ride their cycles without wondering whether they will reach home alive.

So unless we’re willing to all commit to a change in our consumption patterns, the smog’s here to stay. Shouldering the responsibility to take actual harsh and effective measures, to decrease both pollution and socio-economic disparities is necessary as opposed to maverick superficial measures like this licence plate scheme.