It could have been a scene from a sentimental Bollywood tearjerker from a few decades ago. Except that it was it happening in the 21st century, on the streets of the world's largest democracy.
A couple of kids are caught stealing food from a roadside stall. They are apprehended and humiliated by a group of adults, who give them a sound thrashing to teach them a lesson. At this point in the cinematic version, a hero, usually an angry young man, comes to their rescue. The bad guys are beaten black and blue, the little ones go home shedding tears of relief and contrition. All is well with the world.
Cut to the reality: a similar, or rather much worse, scene unfolded in an Indian city on Monday. And no, there wasn't any knight in shining armour around to save the two little boys at the receiving end of the barbaric rage of a mob.
The victims, aged 8 and 9, had allegedly stolen a piece of chakli, a local snack, from a shop in Ulhasnagar, Thane, where they live with their mothers. One report claimed they had fed the item, which costs ₹2, to a stray dog. But the price of their mistake was immeasurable. It deprived them of their dignity and crushed their innocence forever. Who knows if the treatment they received at the hands of the adults also planted the germ of revenge in their young minds? Too often, injustice begets injustice, rather than forgiveness or large-heartedness.
Hell broke loose as soon as the boys were caught red-handed. The shopkeeper and his sons descended on them in their full fury, tonsured them, made a garland of their footwear and put it around their necks, hit them mercilessly, and paraded them naked in public.
That was not all. The entire spectacle was recorded on a cell-phone camera and uploaded on social media, presumably for the benefit of those who weren't around to partake of the fun and games; perhaps also as a cautionary tale for future transgressors. It's a harrowing few seconds to watch till the end — even for those hardcore WhatsApp addicts used to consuming casual brutalities circulated on the platform every day.
Later, the boys' mothers, who are daily wage-earners bringing them up on their own, complained to the police, following which the three accused were booked for assault, voluntarily causing hurt, and also under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act. Since the boys belong to a backward community, the police may file another case based on sections of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act).
The only silver lining in this unremittingly gloomy episode is perhaps the prompt action taken by the police. It's not often in this country that victims from socially disadvantaged backgrounds muster the courage to go to the police. For such a 'bold' step usually adds to their miseries instead of alleviating them. It's even rarer for the law-enforcers to act so expediently on a complaint lodged by a such 'persons of no importance'. But the demographic diversity of the area may have influenced the police's quick response. They perhaps acted in order to forestall any major communal flare up.
According to a report, in Ulhasnagar, the slums are divided along religious lines, with houses painted indigo and green. A line runs between the communities that coexist in an atmosphere fraught with tension. While it's possible to assume that the atrocities perpetrated on these children were sparked by moral outrage and a need to set a harsh example, it's hard not to link it with the social strata from which they came.
It's easy to hurt those who are weaker than us: in this case, the victims were doubly weaker, in terms of their station in life as well as age and biology.
The barbarity that unfolded in Ulhasnagar is of a piece with the current mood of wild justice, dispensed by a rampaging mob that seems to have a free hand. The bloodier the retribution, the louder the roar of the public's approval: case in point, the waves of celebration around the upholding of the death penalty in the Nirbhaya verdict.
Nothing but the scent of blood pleases the crowds. Examples abound.
What individuals consume in the privacy of their homes is everyone's business now. A group of thugs may well barge into your kitchen, sniff around for contraband meat in your fridge, and bludgeon you to death, should their suspicions are aroused. A dairy farmer ferrying cattle in a van may be stopped on the way and lynched by vigilantes, claiming to be avowed protectors of the bovine species. Dalits, who make a living by disposing the carcass of cattle, may be tied up and assaulted in broad daylight — again, on the suspicion of being cow-slaughterers.
What the boys in Ulhasnagar have faced only adds to this inglorious parade of monstrosities, one that only the most self-centred government would choose to ignore at grave peril to its stability.
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