Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

Dept of Environment and Climate Change
Former VC, Manipur University, A.P. Pandey (Right) with President Ram Nath Kovind

Headless Manipur University and the Dilemma of Russell’s ‘The Harm That Good Men Do’

For over two years, the Manipur University, Canchipur, came to be without a regular Vice Chancellor after its controversial VC, A.P. Pandey, had to step down amidst wide protests by students and teachers over his alleged frequent and inordinately prolonged unauthorised leaves and mismanagement of university funds. As a stop gap arrangement before a new VC was appointed, on the order of the Manipur High Court, a retired chief secretary of the state, Jarnail Singh, was put in charge not as VC but as administrator, but this supposedly temporary arrangement lasted for over two years, and now Singh too has stepped down on November 30 even as signs of another students unrest was beginning to show in the university, as well as to attend to his family needs, leaving the university headless again. As per university rule, the most senior professor, Amar Yumnam, is now looking after the office until a permanent arrangement is made.

The reason for this inordinate delay in appointment of a new regular VC seems to be a court case by Pandey challenging his dismissal after a two-man enquiry came to the conclusion the charges against him are true. Now it seems likely Pandey may return as VC of the university as the case against him may fall through, not because of any lack of veracity of the charges against him, but because of certain seeming procedural flaws in the manner he was dismissed after the two-man enquiry’s report. As this is a matter in the court, we will refrain from commenting further, except to note that this development has once again highlighted the difficult but interesting challenge of resolving any divergence between the letter of the law and spirit of the same law, as and when this occurs. In this case, the spirit of the law is to penalise certain alleged wrongdoings by Pandey. However, the letter of the law which spells out the manner of executing this punishment, was apparently not faithfully followed for whatever the reason, therefore the case against him may have to be rebooted. In simple parlance, he can be spared of immediate punishment on account of breaches of the technicalities of the process of law, but in spirit he will remain condemned, until another due process of law clears him or seals his fate as offender.

Letter of Law vs Spirit of Law:

Situations in which there are dichotomies between the spirit and letter of the law are much more widespread. Ideally, the letter of the law should be designed to facilitate and protect the spirit of the law, but this often becomes impossible because human experience is limitless and cannot possibly be contained completely or justifiably within any definite legal architecture. This being so, the letter of any piece of law should be, and has been, flexible to be amended from time to time so that the spirit it is supposed to guarantee can fit in it better. But the fact is, any status quo will always nurture its own ardent supporters and vested interests, and any move to change the system, even if it meant to save its spirit, can be expected to be met with resistance from these sections. This dichotomy can also be illustrated with an often-cited example. Imagine a situation in which there is a need for milk, and to meet the need the purchase of a milch cow has been agreed upon. However, it may come about that there are no milch cows available in the market at the time, so the person entrusted to supply milk may decide to use his wit in good faith to instead buy a milch buffalo to meet the need for milk. In this transaction, the letter of the agreed term has been broken because a cow has not been bought, although this was in order that the spirit of the agreement remains intact. If such a situation comes up for adjudication, where must justice be? This is a tricky question, and answer probably will have to be in the ability of a system to arrive at a fine balance. The letter of the law cannot be broken habitually, for in the end, this can lead to a breakdown of the established order, and obviously with dangerous consequences. But this does not mean the letter of the law must be allowed to cancel out the spirit of the law which it is precisely meant to guarantee.

Freudian Explanation:

In Freudian terms, a growing dominance of the letter of the law over spirit of the same law, will be like the Superego beginning to domineer over the instinctual demands of the Id as well as the rational moderations that the Ego suggests in the tussle between the Superego and Id. The Superego is important for among others, it represents inherited civilisational norms evolved over generations, and without it a society can degenerate into lawlessness. But when it becomes too overbearing, it can intimidate and kill off natural creative flairs of individuals and societies alike. This can lead to a condition of neurosis, individual and social, in Freudian terms. Such a condition would be like a puritanical society, where goodness is predefined strictly by rigid norms dictated by the system. So many intellectuals of renown have illustrated this neurosis comprehensively, and the need for moderating them.

Bertrand Russel for instance in his iconic essay “The Harm That Good Men Do” talks about the middle-marcher “good” citizens, who are stickler by all prescribed norms of the society, and unlike Icarus of the Greek mythology, agree not to fly too high so as to avoid the heat of the sun which can melt his wax wings, or too low so that the damp of the sea would not weigh down his wings. They are also known for killing all innovations and novel initiatives of any given system, without even realising it. Russel notes how Wordsworth wrote his best poetry when he was a firebrand idealist who went to France to lend support to the French revolution, and dull ones when he decided to return to England and settle to be a good everyday Englishman. Coleridge too, Russell notes sarcastically, wrote his timeless “Kubla Khan” when he was a nonconformist with fire in his belly, and “theology” after he decided to settled to the set norms of his society. Where the optimal balance should be between restrictive norms and the creative spirit is again the question. The sane conclusion has always been, so long as new initiatives and creative freedom do not threaten to overturn set norms altogether, all efforts should be to ensure as much leeway to innovations.

The same would also apply to the question of law. The ideal should be to preserve the spirit of the law by imaginatively making their letters more resilient, not stiff. The ability to identify and strike the optimally beneficial balance is generally associate with good leadership. It is for this that good politics is often described as “the art of the possible”. That is, leaders always find ways to make what are seemingly inflexible, flexible and resilient, so that without wrecking existing systems, creative instincts and novel initiatives are encouraged and given room to grow.

Bureaucratic Vision vs Art of the Possible

This can also be seen as a contest between two visions. One is bureaucratic, therefore puts a premium on middle marching norms. The recommendations here are akin to the advice Icarus was given – don’t fly too high or too low, but keep by tested path always, and that any deviance from this is absolutely forbidden even if this was done with good and honourable intent. This is a recipe for safety no doubt but the sound and smell of mediocrity here is dreadfully oppressive. The other vision is of good political leadership. The person who would come foremost to mind in imagining such a leadership is Abraham Lincoln. True enough, this vision has more interest in the realm of what are possible towards the promotion of justice, than in the what are the pre-existing prescribed tradition of achieving the same. Its central concern is also the morality and spirit of a goal not the technical definition of it. A true leader hence would respect the law, but should any piece of law come in the way of its own spirit, they would go to all extent to make sure the moral value at stake is unhurt without damaging the law. If  the two become completely incompatible, they would seek for the letter of the law to be amended, for what is paramount is the value it is supposed to protect. This is the fine balance to be strived for between the letter and spirit of the law. The instinctual energy of Id must no doubt be controlled by the Superego, but the Id’s drives must not be killed off altogether. The Ego’s mission must be to stive to bring about a balance between the two contrary pulls.

The bureaucratic approach is aimed at stability, but stagnancy is also the invariable price to be paid for this. Unlike the bureaucratic outlook, where each individual is just a clog in a larger machine, some more important some less so, but each responsible for accomplishing only specific assignments, a true leader on the other hand is meant to inspire his or her team. He also would take joint credit for achievements with his team and not reserve them as his own. He is also equally ready to stand with his team in times of trouble and share responsibilities for all shortcomings and not find scapegoats among his subordinates to save his own skin. Only this can take a society, or institution, forward. This bureaucratic approach to administration is also close to what French philosopher Michel Foucault famously described as “governmentality”, referring to the tried and tested collections many autonomous little techniques and strategies deeply entrenched in the system, which together acquire the shape of a composite government machinery. Sure enough, “governmentality” always come to form the backbone of any administration. This system keeps all the mundane, day to day businesses of governance moving, even as grand visions flaunted at election times by political leaderships invariably wear out in the months and years after election. This does not mean the quality of political leadership should be determined by an ability to overturn or supplant “governmentality”, but it should certainly be about the ability to introduce innovative policy flairs and energy into this juggernaut of sure-footed mediocrity.

Mahabharat Case

In matters of the dichotomy between letter and spirit of the law, few have explained it better than Indian mythologist, Devdutt Pattanaik, author of “Myth=Mithya” among many other acclaimed works. Pattanaik’s interpretation of the great Hindu epics of Ramayan and Mahabharat from this vantage is gripping. In the age of innocence and truth of Ramayan, it was possible for Ram to insist on strict adherence to letters of the law of the time, for there was still no great divergence between the law and its spirit. But this was no longer so in the age of experience and sin that Mahabharat was set in, where a divergence between letter and spirit of the law had become a reality.

Duryadhon for instance never breaks the letter of any law, but is known for using the law itself to crush its own spirit. After winning Draupadi in a dice game, he decides to humiliate her in public by stripping her. Onlooker princes were asked to give their opinion if he had the right to do so, and although many of them were horrified, agreed that he had the right as the woman was now his slave by law. It is in such situations that divine intervention became necessary, and Krishna chose to use his power to find a way to defeat the unjust use of the letter of the law and rescued the hapless woman. Those familiar with the Mahabharat will recall that Krishna circumvents the letters of the law on several other occasions, but always with the end of saving the spirit of these same laws. To the extent possible, the letter of a law must align with the spirit of the same law, but when they begin to diverge, it is an indication that it is time for the letter to be modified, for the spirit is what is fundamental.

Peace Settlements and Past Crimes

Without even going into the epics or theories of legality, we have seen this dichotomy play out in several other situations in our own lifetime. Several militant organisations in the Northeast are now negotiating for a settlement with the Government of India, and several more have actually reached settlements in the decades that have gone by. In Mizoram, the man who led a 20-year long violent opposition to India which resulted in immense bloodshed and trauma, even became a chief minister as part of the Mizo Peace Accord of 1986. This was indeed the “art of the possible”, marked by statesmanship and diplomacy, on display. If all the letters of the law were to be given rigid interpretation, such a settlement would never have been possible, and Laldenga and his many associates would probably have ended up facing charges of serious felonies such as murder, extortion, intimidation and more, all of which are part of the strategies of any insurrection. It was only flexible interpretations of the letter of the law which made it possible to get past this hurdle and for the negotiations to move forward. In Assam, at the time of the first wave of surrenders of the ULFA in the 1990s, Sanjib Baruah, in his commentaries did ask very probing questions on these matters.

Grandmother soup

Quite obviously, the balance to be maintained between letter and spirit of the law is not a simple matter, but true leaders have responded credibly and meaningfully, and such breeds of leaders, in practically any situation, and in any institution, are not easy to come by. But the thumb rule is, as Russell suggested in his essay “The Harm That Good Men Do,” the utilitarian approach advocated by 19th Century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham which says the best solution is one in which all potential benefits of a given proposition are optimally utilised, must be paid heed to. This is of course, as Russell in his characteristically piercing humour said, so long as the interpretation of utilitarianism does not go to the extent of recommending making soup out of your dead grandmother in order not to let any potential go waste.

Even as the Manipur University is going through the process of changing leadership in administration, we do hope it gets a true leader for once, courageous enough to nurture and follow visions beyond all the quotidian tasks of administering such an institution. We do hope this important institution will be able to rise above all the petty internal politics it has been stymied by, and its leadership will be able to inspire a new generation of scholars able to match, if not excel, the best in the country and the world in the years and decades ahead.

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