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Why do we care so little for perjury in India?

Truth remains a casualty.

 |  6-minute read |   06-12-2017
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On December 1, 2017, Michael Flynn, US president Donald Trump's former national security adviser, pleaded guilty to lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) about contacts with the Russian ambassador to the US, and confirmed he is cooperating with the federal investigation into Trump's Make America Great Again campaign's possible collusion with Moscow.

The retired general is the first person who worked with Trump in the White House to be charged by Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the Russia probe that has dogged the president since he took office.

But let's focus on the conduct of a high dignitary to the office, a former three star general, a close ally of Donald J Trump, during his presidential campaign, and a person in whom Trump placed great trust, admitting to a plea of guilty of lying to FBI and entering a "plea bargaining" contract to escape the wrath of law by "offering to co operate with the special investigator".

sc-supreme-court-bod_120617095228.jpgAs a man who loves India not wisely but too well, I ask the question: Why can we not have standards as high as those of mature democracies in the world? Photo: Reuters

A huge climbdown for a "fired" national security adviser. But that is nothing new or strange in the western hemisphere. To me, it is reflective of the "higher moral compass" on their societal platform — at least when caught — than in the East, particularly among Indians. That is the purport of this piece.

How many Indians have we heard of or seen admitting to utterance of falsehood or misdemeanour, and to a "crime" and seeking forgiveness? Almost none. Our approach and tendency, particularly among those who hold public offices and in politics, or even among the celebrity class, has always been to brazen it out. Public memory being short, we trundle from one scandal to another, and "admitting guilt" is too rare a genre.

Does it have a cultural, historical or religious connect? Why are we so reluctant to admit guilt even when facts stare at us? Is it because we know that "law will take its own course" (the famed quote by former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao meant to communicate disdain and wry humour and not serious pursuit), or do we simply think that the price we need to pay is too little to worry over?

Sacked South African cricket captain Hansie Cronje admitted to receiving money from bookmakers between $10,000 and $15,000 for "providing information and forecasting" to a South African businessman and an Indian bookmaker during a triangular series involving South Africa, Zimbabwe and England in January and February 2000.

Lance Armstrong, the world renowned US cycling champion, who, for years, had vehemently denied cheating while winning a record seven times at Tour de France, in 2013, told Oprah Winfrey on her chat show that he used performance-enhancing drugs.

He was stripped of all his medals and titles and commercial endorsements. Sprinter Ben Johnson admitted to a government inquiry in 1989 that he knowingly used banned steroids to build himself into the world's fastest man.

Rubbing his eyes and speaking at times in a stammer, Johnson confessed for the first time since being stripped of his gold medal at 1988 Seoul Olympics that he was aware he was taking illegal performance-enhancing drugs.

Add the recent #MeToo going viral in the wake of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein's sexcapades and more moguls and icons admitting to deviant behaviour up West. You get the message.

Contextually, it may be apt to remember what came of the famed pulp fiction author Jeffrey Archer, so popular in India, too being convicted of perjury charges in July 2001, and jailed for four years.

Lord Archer was incarcerated when a jury at the Old Bailey returned unanimous verdicts of guilty on two counts of perjury and two of perverting the course of justice.

"These charges represent as serious an offence of perjury as I have had experience of and have been able to find in the books," Justice Humphrey Potts told the court as he ordered the peer to begin serving time immediately.

He also directed him to pay $2,50,000 in costs or face an added year in jail. "This has been an extremely distasteful case, I can tell you," he added. It was public revulsion which triggered it.

Be that as it may, close to home we find that "truth" is a huge casualty in judicial proceedings and the penal consequences for peddling falsehood are rarely felt. In fact, the legal fraternity trained in the laws of "probative value of evidence before a court of law" ruthlessly and willingly "tutors" not the witnesses alone but the "evidence" itself to serve the "cause" of clients and not necessarily "justice".

It is a matter of shame but rarely, if ever, the judiciary representing the bar and bench concedes with conviction. Let's get real with two towering legal personalities' — justices VR Krishna Iyer and Nani Palkhivala's — authoritative pronouncements on the pervasive role of "falsehoods" in courts of law.

Krishna Iyer on Mahatma Gandhi: "…the reputation of the Mahatma as a veracity attorney rose so high that he became a prosperous popular lawyer speaking and practising only the truth. Gandhiji rose in stature before the judges. No false cases, no false witnesses, bare facts made the court hall a Mahatma in action and every litigation proved to be a moral exercise and experimental truth."

He bemoaned that the legal fraternity had forgotten the Mahatma's ways, and "truth was the price we paid at the altar of expediency".

As for Nani Palkhivala, he did not mince words or prevaricate. He hit hard in his typical straight-as-an-arrow charge: "When I started my profession in 1946 on the Original Side of the Bombay High Court, if a counsel made a factual statement to the judge, it was implicitly believed to be true. You seldom heard of an affidavit, filed on behalf of the government or any public authority, which did not contain the whole truth. But now all that has totally changed. Counsel often make statements at the bar which are factually incorrect, and affidavits are often filed, even on behalf of public authorities, which do not state the truth. Look at what was going before the Lentin Commission, and how witness after witness perjured himself."

Yet, there was no surge of public disgust and outrage. Unfortunately, we accept perjury as a fact of Indian life. The worst danger is not that even persons in high public office perjure themselves. The worst danger lies in public acceptance of such degradation of national character.

As a man who loves India not wisely but too well, I ask the question: Why can we not have standards as high as those of mature democracies in the world?

After all, our ancient culture is the noblest ever known.

Well, truth "lies" not in the "system". It "lies" within you and me. Unless we rise in outrage and disgust at the shameless display of perjury and the courts of law are also revolted by it, to catch the Jeffery Archers by the dozens and send them to where they truly belong, we may continue to revel in perjury.

For law, as they say, is in "Search of Proof not Truth" and truth to tell, the legal fraternity believes that one has to "lie" one's way to "prove" a cause in the pursuit of justice, otherwise "truth" may be a casualty. Sad but true.

Also read: Babri Masjid demolition: 25 years on, Muslims in Ayodhya waiting for closure, if not justice


Vijayaraghavan Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan Narasimhan @narasimhan6

Author is a practising advocate in the Madras High Court.

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