On January 25, 2007, Moninder Singh and Surinder Koli, prime accused in the gruesome Nithari killings were assaulted by an angry crowd of lawyers and bystanders when produced in court. When asked about it, the lawyers of Ghaziabad, where the incident took place, had two differing views to offer: one section maintained that the lawyers had actually saved the accused from further assault and were being unfairly targeted by the police; others said that lawyers were human beings too and were merely exhibiting their outrage. One man was starkly (and somewhat hilariously) dismissive – he couldn’t understand what the fuss was all about because it wasn’t as if the two men had been killed or something. The CBI and police immediately launched into the blame game, as did the Home Ministry and the State Government, and the local Bar Association was said to be “enquiring” into the matter.
But do any of them have a leg to stand on? Think about the message the Supreme Court sent out just this past week when staying the conviction of one N.S. Sidhu.
Navjot Singh Sidhu is a name that you cannot escape in India. He is on TV (endorsing, chatting, commentating, judging), he is on campaign posters (as the star candidate for the BJP in Punjab) and he is in newspapers (accused, since 1988, of causing the death of a man he attacked in a fit of road rage).
As annoying as I find his famous wit and as strongly as I disagree with him politically, it is the last item that concerns me. To hear the pundits and their various guests on TV, one must be pardoned for thinking road rage is a minor offence, some sort of new fangled nonsense charge adopted from the West, perhaps. “Road Rage” the anchor mouths in wonder every time s/he addresses the issue, their mouths pursed at the novelty of this exotic phrase. But it’s no such thing.
In the heat of the real Indian summer, on congested roads where drivers are yet to understand the concept of lanes, where pedestrians calmly wend their way through blocked and raging traffic alike, more than one uncle-ji (not to mention that ferocious aunty-ji) has lost his temper. Of course, technically, Mr. Sidhu lost his cool in a parking lot (insert your own lame angry-Sardarji joke here), but the principle is the same. How many times have you mouthed obscenities at some twerp who stole your parking space right when you’d carefully backed up the car to your satisfaction?
So road rage happens, and that too rather frequently and no, we didn’t get stuck with it in some sort of warped cultural exchange. It’s what you might call a fact of modern life. The problem only arises when it, and indeed rage in general, crosses the line into physical violence. It is one thing to yell abuse and give someone the finger; quite another to get out of your car, rough them up and then make a quick getaway when the other man collapses under your attack… after thoughtfully chucking his keys so that he can’t chase you. Of course, that means he can’t get himself to the hospital either but that’s none of your business, is it?
Well, it should be. It concerns me that there are so many people out there (an ever increasing number it seems) whose preoccupation with machismo encourages them to let their fists do the talking first. I had friends in college who went by the rule that he who pounds his fist into the other man’s face first “wins” because there were sure to be busybodies around who would soon break up the fight, limiting the time available for a proper dust up. But the guy who threw that one punch could walk away with a warm glow of satisfaction, knowing that he’d beaten somebody up.
These were not kids from an economically disadvantaged background – far from it. Neither did they hail from especially martial families: no private militias, no guns in the house, not even a parent in the military. Each of them had also benefited from an excellent education, having attended top of the line public schools. They weren’t even very rebellious – they all wanted (and eventually got) white collar jobs, knew the value of high grades, were articulate, intelligent, well traveled and comfortable in all sorts of company. You can’t even blame hip hop and video games for their violent tendencies because they were a lot more into Trance and never stopped partying long enough to stay at home and pick up the controls of Grand Theft Auto or whatever it is that the cool kids are playing these days.
So what was it that made them think violence, at least a little bit, was all right? I think it’s India.
Before you start frothing at the mouth and calling me anti-national, hear me out. How many times have you seen an Indian movie where one character roughs up another one? I don’t mean gangster movies or action ones. It could be a mother upset with her (possibly grown up) child, a husband angry at a wife or vice versa, a boss ticking an employee off… the list goes on. Turn on the TV, tune into any soap and you’ll see people being slapped all over the place. Thanks to Ekta Kapoor’s abysmal choice of directors, post production will now even bathe the scene with tawdry lightning flashes and tired drum rolls just in case it didn’t register with your brain first time around.
In our personal life too, there are barely any restrictions on the amount of violence deemed appropriate. Parents beat their children all the time and people take it in their stride. Teachers beat their pupils everywhere but it only makes news when some kid turns up half-dead. Why is it all right to physically abuse those weaker and smaller than ourselves? What does it say about you as a parent or as an educator if you cannot control children without beating them into submission? Discipline meted at the end of a stick is not discipline, it is fear.
Fear is again what passes for legitimate protest in India today. I can pinpoint three cases from around the country this past week alone wherein violence was chosen as the correct medium to exhibit outrage. In one, cricket coach Greg Chappell got his face slapped by some angry Orissa native who apparently thinks he can beat some Oriya players into the national team. In another, some Bangaloreans were so upset over the execution of Saddam Hussein (of all people!) that they decided to vandalize their own city. And of course, there was ULFA – trying hard to gain the nation’s sympathy by butchering a bunch of people, women and children included, who had the least to do with the genuine issues confronting the Northeast today.
Three examples that range from the ridiculous to the sickening, all in the space of a week. All of which are about to become yesterday’s news, mildewed and forgotten by the time the Indians suit up to play the West Indians next. None of them very surprising in a country where effigies are routinely burnt (Hema Malini just got hers burnt for flapping her fool mouth off), strikes turn violent and the underworld tries to stick a finger into every available pie. In fact, now it appears home grown varieties are no longer enough for us – the mafia is coming in from Russia, the effigies are of George Bush and the strikes are about “American imperialism”.
Sidhu in the Mix
As the Supreme Court stayed the High Court’s order of conviction against Mr. Sidhu, it lauded him for his “nobility” and hailed him as an exemplary citizen. His most noble act? He voluntarily resigned his Parliamentary seat after the High Court delivered the judgment against him, something that the law apparently does not require in the Republic of India.
This shameful loophole, thanks to which criminals are eligible to stand for election (Arun Gawli, Phoolan Devi, Raja Bhaiyya to name a few) and indicted/convicted members of Parliament (such as the infamous Shibu Soren) are free to finish their terms and possibly contest that seat once again from within the confines of the jail, now forms the basis of the congratulatory remarks of the two man bench.
Since when is doing the decent, moral thing – an act, moreover, that would be required by law in a more enlightened democracy – sufficient grounds for a stay of conviction? The court seems to have taken the view that this is a case to determine whether or not Mr. Sidhu is fit to contest the upcoming election in Punjab. Therefore, it is true that the incident happened before Mr. Sidhu entered public life and is unrelated to his current occupation. (I happen to disagree there because I believe a grown man who can’t control his temper is not a fit person to represent people in Parliament but I’m not a constituent of his, so whatever. Besides, in the 18 years that have passed since he beat that unfortunate man up, it is only to be hoped that he has learned the value of using his words rather than his fists.)
The bench also mentions that there is no “clear medical evidence” that Mr. Sidhu’s actions led directly to the victim’s death. There must be some sort of nuance at work here because it is my understanding that had Mr. Sidhu’s actions led directly to the death of the victim, he would have been facing trial for murder, not accidental death.
For let us not forget, there is a very real victim here and his name was Gurnam Singh. He left behind a family that has been awaiting justice on his behalf for nearly two decades. They have been forced to look on as Mr. Sidhu, the man responsible for the death of their husband, father, brother, son, is repeatedly hailed as a hero of the people. They now have to see his face grinning out of every newspaper and every TV channel. As residents of Punjab, they can look forward to long months of his campaigning amongst them and only watch as the leaders of their community acclaim him a model Sikh.
Were Mr. Sidhu’s occupation something other than an MP, would the court have been similarly inclined? In the Jessica Lall case, for example, there’s one Amardeep Singh Gill alias Tony, formerly a senior executive with Coca Cola India. Accused of destroying incriminating evidence against Manu Sharma, he was convicted to four years imprisonment. Will his conviction as an accessory not cause him “irreparable injury”? After all, he didn’t kill anybody, he just “helped” a friend out. So why didn’t the Court take that into consideration before pronouncing judgment on Mr. Gill?
The answer to this cultural malaise is simple: there are consequences for our actions, every one of them, and they must be faced. Life doesn’t run on a barter system where one can offer a good deed to cancel out a bad deed. Mr. Sidhu maybe a lot of things to a lot of people but to me he is simply the celebrity face of a much larger Indian problem – temper.
originally published at Desicritics.org in 2007