New Internationalist

Not until it happens to you

A thief attacked my husband Stan last week. As the police led him away and Stan stood there covered in blood (the thief had head butted him in his face, leaving Stan with a bloody nose), I was conscious of a million different reactions racing through my brain. Anger with the thief, fear and horror, never having witnessed this kind of violence before, except in movies. Disbelief that someone in my family had been attacked unprovoked.

Local villagers advised: ‘Tie him up and thrash him. To an inch of his life. The bastard will be back soon enough. He’s constantly in and out of jail.’ We politely declined and let the police take him away. But as the cops cuffed and kicked the thief into their van, stomach churning, I called my son and said: ‘Tariq, for God’s sake, don’t let them beat him up.’

Years of defending human rights on paper automatically conjured up visions of police brutality, custodial torture, etc. And we were dispatching him to the lions den! Tariq replied: ‘He’s a pro, mum, total veteran. He’s threatening to tell the judge pa hit him and he’s covered in old battle scars, including a slit throat.’

When the cops put the man into the cell, he caught hold of the bars with both hands and smashed his forehead against them so his head started bleeding. Standard practice apparently, for the benefit of the judge. Equally calm, the police didn’t bat an eyelid. They burnt some string which they’d cut off the thief’s wrist and rubbed the ashes onto the bleeding wound. We presumed this would make it look like an old injury. All in a day’s work. Routine stuff apparently.

Tariq and Stan, novices at the game, watched the proceedings in awe, open-mouthed. Stan is a veteran of many protests and demos from the 1970s on. So he’s been in jail as a protester and political prisoner. To be on the other side of the fence, go to the police for protection was a completely different experience.

The man would be out in a couple of days. The police didn’t really want to be bothered with petty theft and didn’t think they could book him really. Because Stan was covered in blood, the inspector looked up from the pile of paper work he had to complete. But, he said with a shrug, we can’t really do much with these petty cases. Not worth the time and effort. Not to mention the paper work.

Left us thinking. The poor and defenceless have to learn to cope without protection. People learn to keep their heads down and hope they don’t incur the wrath of local gangsters, mafia, etc. In Bangalore, we are middle class, with loads of connections because the old school tie works and there are friends in high places, in unlikely places, the police, the civil service, ministers.

Being attacked gave us an insight into what it must feel like to be totally vulnerable and without power. I went through a kaleidoscope of emotions and feelings. Myriad thoughts, insights and perceptions flashed fleetingly through my mind. On injustice, the law and the lack of it. But also what it must be like to be a cop dealing with crime, petty theft, and rape every day of your life. Wondered what the thief thought. He was hardened, a seasoned professional, used to being beaten up both in and out of jail. He appeared unperturbed, took it all in his stride.

So this is just a blog post about an ordinary incident which could happen to anyone. But until it happens to you, you can’t imagine what it feels like. And suddenly from being the writer, the person who interviewed umpteen vulnerable people, dalits, adivasis, women who’ve been raped, victims of a pogrom in Gujarat, it was a weird feeling to stand there and look at a man who attacked my husband and know that he’d walk free. Women in Gujarat talked to me about their rapists and the men who murdered their loved ones strutting around, gloating, laughing in their faces. I sympathized, felt angry. But at the end of the day, I would get on a plane and go home, far away. It didn’t touch me personally.

As I left Bangalore, I said a silent prayer, keep my son safe please. And I understood, really understood, what those women meant when they talked about feeling vulnerable and unprotected.

Yet, that’s normal for millions of people all over the world.


Darkness and light... Photo by Lomo-Cam under a Creative Commons licence.


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