Wednesday, March 08, 2006

killing a chicken to scare the monkeys

There's something particularly apt about the Chinese saying about making an example, "killing a chicken to scare the monkeys." On the one hand, the saying suggests that it just might be a useful strategy. After all, you can catch the chicken and the monkeys are sitting safe in their trees. On the other hand, it suggests that the person who gets made an example and the audience that is meant to take the lesson to heart often have little or nothing in common.

So, I believe, is the case with Zahira Sheikh. Today India's newspapers cheered the Supreme Court's imposition of a one year jail sentence and Rs. 50,000 fine on Zahira Sheikh for reversing her testimony in the Best Bakery case (related to the Gujarat pogrom). But what did this punishment really accomplish? To be sure, India has a huge problem with perjury, and the judicial and law enforcement authorities need to take action to solve it. Yet I have a sinking feeling. One prosecution is not an example. It's an exception. And, in this case, a rather obvious one. How easy is it to prosecute a woman without resources? Surely she cannot expect loyalty from the thugs she sought to exonnerate now they've been convicted. And how much freedom of choice did she really have in the matter to begin with? Will the forces of law succeed, too, in ferreting out and punishing the people who sought to pay or threaten Zahira to change her testimony? Will the Supreme Court now be issuign similar rulings against the witnesses in the Jessica Lal murder case--who have highly placed friends and belong to the elite class? Sadly, I doubt it very much.

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