Eternal vigilance is the price of Democracy

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” — Edmund Burke

Several times, in my later years, whenever I have reflected on the conditions of our Republic, some strange ideas have got yoked together in my mind. In some context, one of my teachers of Political Science had told us: “If you cannot learn from the lives of the good and the great, learn lessons from the lives of the courtesans and whores; if saints can teach, sinners too can do that. Their stories are heuristic, but what you draw from them depends on your wisdom in reading the text of their deeds.” And then he summarized the story of Women beware of Women, a tragic play written by one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Thomas Middleton. I hold him in great esteem for so skillfully jerking us up with his uncanny insight and perspicacity. We have known about Ambapali, the courtesan of the Republic of Vaishali, whose sense of values even the Buddha appreciated; about Bindumati, a whore at Pataliputra, whose fidelity to her duty had enabled her to appease the wrath of the Ganges out to inundate the city; about the Vaishya who made even Vivekananda realize his mistake. But here, when I am reflecting on the affairs of our Republic, I must tell you the story of Middleton’s tragic play as it can help us to evaluate what we see all around us, to draw lessons to tread ahead with wisdom.

Women beware of Women tells us about Binaca Capello, an Italian beauty, who was ravished in the background of her husband’s house, whilst in the foreground her protector was engrossed playing chess wholly unmindful to what was happening inside. This crime of ravishment was facilitated by Livia, professionally a procuress and corruptor, who had become a partner in the game of chess. When the sentinel on the qui vive, abandons trust, roguery takes a toll. Middleton came again to the game of chess in his Game at Chess in which the characters are chessmen, the white ones being the English (the White King was King James of England, and the White Knight was Prince Charles) and the black ones the Spaniards: It turned out a political allegory portraying how they played a sort of a geopolitical game of chess totally unmindful of the things getting worse and worse for them in their countries. Their cumulative sins visited King Charles, who had not only received a short shrift from Parliament, but even had his head cut off in 1649. The Business lobby, the remote predecessor of the present-day corporate lobby, could not help them to save their souls. Even the dexterous Lionel Cranfield, a business tycoon working for the king with no holds barred, failed to help them out. And they kissed their doom providing lessons for all of us. This is how the world goes: But playing the game of chess can be disastrous. T.S. Eliot, in his The Waste Land, composed a section on ‘A Game of Chess’ where the players come to say:

And we shall play a game of chess,
Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.

And this knocking drags into our mind Act 2 of Shakespeare’s Macbeth where the Nemesis is advancing fast to overtake Macbeth whose hands were drenched with the honest King’s blood! When public affairs become a game of chess, some knocking at the door is always the operation of divine justice: it comes to-day or to-morrow: but it surely comes.

The story, when reflected in the light of things happening in our great country, brings to mind Winston Churchill’s powerful peroration in the House of Commons on 18th June 1940. During the World War II, moments came when the very existence of England was at peril. Lord Denning considered this “one of the most effective pieces of prose in our language.” Churchill said with his usual felicity and characteristic passion:

 “Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him all Europe may be free, and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands, but if we fail then the whole world, including the United States, and all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more prolonged, by the lights of a perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Commonwealth and Empire lasts for a thousand years men will say: ‘This was their finest hour.” (Denning’s Leaves from my Library p. 9)

We too are passing through difficult times. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty as perceived by our viveka (wisdom). I recall how I concluded my argument before the Delhi High Court in the absue of the Indo-Mauritius tax treaty case [ now reported as Shiva Kant Jha & Anr v. Union of India (2002) 256 ITR 563 (Del.)] . I argued before the Court (Chief Justice S.B. Sinha, and Justice A.K. Sikri, as their Lordships were then) for a week,: and ended that with my peroration quoting Lord Nelson’s words, expressed through light signal to his forces in the Battle of Trafalgar: “England expects every one to do his duty” suggesting through an apt variation: “India expects every one to do his duty”


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