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Immunity from justice

Immunity from justice
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First Published: Wed, Jan 19 2011. 08 27 PM IST
Updated: Wed, Jan 19 2011. 08 27 PM IST
The only reason Anil Verma is a free man is because of the kind of passport he carries. The British police want to question him over allegations that he assaulted his wife Paromita Verma, but they cannot. Anil Verma is the seniormost trade and economics official at the Indian high commission, and enjoys diplomatic immunity.
According to British and Indian newspaper reports, in a quiet part of north London not far from where I live, one day last December the Vermas’ neighbours saw Ms Verma leave the house in tears. She was bruised, blood dripping from her face. The police could do nothing with Verma due to his diplomatic status. Press reports reconstructing the circumstances suggest that Verma was upset over a Christmas tree Ms Verma’s relatives had given their family, and he then allegedly hit his wife.
The British Foreign Office wants Verma’s diplomatic immunity removed so that the law can take its course; India has declined. It wants the Vermas back. Ms Verma does not want to return. With her five-year-old child, she is now reportedly in hiding, and has sought permission to remain in Britain. When Indians seek asylum in Britain, the requests are usually rejected, but this case will be sensitive, because she will possibly try to show how she won’t get justice in India, and how she fears the power her husband enjoys within Indian bureaucracy.
Like patriarchs in an Indian joint family, government officials have stepped in, exhibiting the sickening tendency of doing all they can to conceal embarrassing family secrets. Senior officials who spoke to the Vermas warned them that they’d be sent back, and scolded Ms Verma for going public with the story. The officials are concerned about the image of India abroad. If a trial takes place, indeed, British tabloids would revel in publishing lurid details. Such publicity, India’s image makers reckon, is bad— but is it worse than the image of a nation that admonishes its victims and tells them to shut up?
That’s how elders behave: Ostensibly they try to bring peace between a warring couple but their real worry is the family’s “honour”. In the past, Britain tended to ignore such cases because of the misguided belief that such neglect showed respect for different cultures—and also reinforced the smug self-satisfaction that its own culture was superior. It took a spirited and sustained campaign by organizations such as Southall Black Sisters to draw the government’s attention towards horrendous violent crimes – including murder—being committed against women in the name of protecting the family honour. Britain can no longer ignore such crimes, whether committed by Britons or foreigners. (On 17 January, a Glasgow court denied bail to Surinder Singh, a Sikh priest from India, who is charged with sexual assault on a 12-year-old girl.)
And so it goes in India: The state protects the powerful against the powerless; the one with clout over the one without—because its reputation is more important than the victim’s rights. Think back to 1984, after the Bhopal gas disaster, when the Indian state insisted that the case be tried in India, and prevented the victims— most of them poor—from seeking justice individually.
The honour the state wishes to protect is its own—like the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, the Indian officialdom seems to think that an attack on one is an attack on all. To be sure, the Vienna Convention ensures diplomatic immunity for good reasons—so that diplomats can operate without harassment or interference. Many diplomats have misused immunity—traffic offences, exploitation of domestic help, and smuggling of luxury items, for example—governments grudgingly accept that because of the larger principle of respecting sovereignty. But committing physical abuse is a crime, not a sovereign right. Had Verma been an employee of an Indian or foreign company, all that the Indian High Commission would have done is to monitor the situation, to ensure that the trial was fair.
Instead, Verma will return to Delhi, sparking speculation and justified anger. Will there be justice? Not with officials openly speculating if Ms Verma has a hidden motive, of using her victimhood to stay on in Britain. That sounds as callous as Pakistan’s Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s remark in 2005, when he said that Pakistani women were claiming to have been raped in order to get visas to migrate abroad. (He was referring to Mukhtar Mai, who was forcibly gang-raped on orders of a tribal jury, but who since became an inspiring advocate who often travelled abroad and raised funds for rape victims).
Misplaced sense of honour can take a nation to bizarre destinations. That honour can be redeemed when the nation protects its vulnerable from the powerful—disregarding immunity, and eliminating the culture of impunity.
London’s screens are showing an Indian film these days, called No One Killed Jessica. On that cold day in December, did no one hit Paromita?
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Jan 19 2011. 08 27 PM IST