Tuesday, April 18, 2006 21.45 IST
When Salman Khan was jailed in the black buck killing case, it was seen as a demonstration that the rich cannot get away with crimes. There were an equal number of people who felt that he went to jail only because he was rich. It's an endless, inconclusive debate.
Those who lit candles in Delhi to protest the acquittal of Jessica Lal's murderers and in Lucknow to protest the lack of action on Meher Bhargava's murder and those who sent angry SMSs from across the country felt vindicated in a way (never mind that their vigil didn't influence the Salman case verdict).
The two vigils have won a lot of kudos. They are seen as a sign that the middle class is shaking off its apathy and taking a stand, saying they will not take injustice any more. For a Delhi whose overarching philosophy is sannu ki (what's it to me), this was certainly a change. But let's take a good, hard, dispassionate look at those protests. Was the outrage anything more than skin deep? A cynical question, yes, but one that needs to be asked.
The protests were about the rich and the influential getting away with serious crimes. The system, everyone said, was to blame. What a clear distancing of oneself from the system and the actions of the rich.
But isn't the system made up of individuals? And is the middle class less prone than the rich to use money to escape penalties? Can all those who agonised about money power and influence legitimately claim that they have never paid a bribe to avoid a challan for jumping a red light? Why is a Rs 100 bribe more acceptable than a Rs 1 lakh one? Can they say they never used the network of friends, relatives and classmates to tweak the system for one's own selfish benefit at someone else's cost?
What's worrying is how quick the middle class is to point fingers at people, without stopping to think what they would have done if placed in the same situation.
Take the case of the anger against Shayan Munshi for retracting his initial statement in the Jessica Lal case. Without condoning what he did, let's look at it in a more detached manner. He was just another middle class boy trying to get a break into a career. Could he really have afforded to keep appearing for police questioning and court hearings? He may not have been bribed or threatened (maybe he was), but he may have just decided that building his career must be his priority.
Is that any different from how each one of us would have behaved had we been in his place? Why, many of us won't even stop to help an accident victim for fear of 'getting involved'.
Over 20 years back, a former colleague's brother-in-law died of electrocution because he stepped on a naked wire jutting out from an electricity pole. The next day the photographer of a newspaper took a photograph of the wire, which was published.
During the court hearing, there was a request for the original photograph. The photographer refused to give it because he didn't want to make repeated visits to the court. Fortunately the case against the then Delhi Electricity Supply Undertaking didn't fall through, but what if that photograph had been the only clinching evidence?
Let's not kid ourselves. There is a Shayan Munshi in each of us.
How many of those who lit candles in Delhi and Lucknow intervened when they saw a wrong being done, instead of just turning their faces away? How many of us would intercede when we see a lout harassing a woman in a bus or train? Are we even prepared to go for the social boycott of a criminal? The man who raped and murdered Priyadarshini Mattoo in Delhi and got away scot-free is now a lawyer who's not exactly wanting for business. Jessica's murderer was running a hip and happening pub in Chanidgarh. Were the clients of both these gentlemen completely unaware of their backgrounds? These are hard questions the middle class will have to answer.
Salman got convicted because of the dogged perseverance by a group of people. The urban middle class, mired in its energy-sapping daily grind, doesn't have the bandwidth for that kind of persistence or any form of active citizenship. It's so much easier to light candles and send outraged SMSs. That's a quick salve for our collective guilty conscience.
Perhaps this is an extremely pessimistic view of things. Perhaps those gestures are the first, faint stirrings of active citizenship among the middle class. But that's not enough. Middle class angst has to go beyond that.
For the system to change, we have to change our individual behaviour. There's no getting away from it.