Sunday, December 9, 2012

'Us'...Not 'Them'

My wife drives. She is way ahead when it comes to this particular skill. Sometimes sitting next to her while she is driving helps me understand what she is up against whenever she gets behind the steering wheel. Most male drivers in the city don’t like women driving. This is regardless of the class they belong to. It’s not as if it’s only the semi literate professional drivers of cabs and large sedans who have a problem with women drivers. So do their more affluent counterparts. If they had their way they would run her out of the road. Often I find men overtaking her from the wrong side and afterwards glaring at her as if she forced them to break the rules.

The other thing that I notice and I am sure everyone else does too is the rampant corruption the traffic cops in Bangalore indulge in. I don’t think there is any other city in India where cops stand in the middle of the road and blatantly take bribes from those who have flouted traffic norms. It’s amazing how everyone living in the city colludes in ignoring this shameful eye sore. You have all these sting operations conducted by journalists in the homes and offices of corrupt politicians and public figures. Sometimes TV cameras have not spared even the government hospitals to make public the corruption. But no one has deemed it fit to travel across the city and capture in camera how blatantly these cops demand and receive bribes. When I ask my journalist friends why they tend to ignore the corruption of traffic cops, they tell me it is because the whole thing is very petty to get involved with. Excuse me, but keep adding these hundred and two hundred rupees bribes they take from every rule breaking driver and how much does it add up to? What’s the loss accruing to the system because instead of making these errant drivers pay the legal fine, the one hundred and two hundred rupees is pocketed by the traffic cop. And as we all know the rest of his colleagues affiliated to the police station he belongs to get their cut also.

The terrible bit about this whole phenomenon is that we try to sugar coat our indifference and cowardice as compassion. Yes, the policemen may be poorly paid and live in hard conditions but is it okay for us to encourage these custodians of law to turn blatantly corrupt? If we feel so strongly for them, we can always create awareness through the media and through our own protests about their low salaries and miserable living conditions. Turning them corrupt is certainly not a solution. Especially since they seem to have turned into Frankenstein like monsters and are a law unto themselves.

I am currently living in Pittsburgh in the US and the police woman who often manages the streets close to where I live, is a joy to encounter whenever I go out. She wishes all the pedestrians who are waiting at the signal. She holds up the traffic to help school children and the elderly cross the street. Since she intuitively recognizes my hesitation at the crossing as something that belongs to a foreigner, she always extends extra consideration towards me. She wishes me warmly every time I am about to cross the road and reassures me that it is safe to do so.

I have never encountered courteous behaviour from any of the traffic cops back home. Like I said we have turned them into shameless monsters, worse than the beggars we encounter on the streets. The rot is so all pervading.

Bangalore witnessed last week what happens when these three elements on the street collide. That is, a woman driving her car, the hostile man who not only rammed her car from behind but tried to make it seem that it was her fault and the corrupt traffic cop who we know must have wanted to make a quick buck from the erring driver but found himself stopped in his tracks by the woman driver who requested him to help her register a formal complaint against the culprit. No, I was not present at the scene of the accident but having lived all my life in India, and the last 18 years in Bangalore, it does not take much to add up the math.

The issue turned explosive because this particular woman happens to know her rights. She is a playwright and relevant theatre is always about protest. I happen to know her and have worked with her a number of times in different contexts. She is a person of strong opinions. Our relationship has been uneasy of late because however liberal and forward thinking I may pretend to be, I am an Indian man after all. As long as women I know assert themselves by agreeing with me, I am happy to be with them. But the moment they assert themselves by taking a divergent view, I start to believe they are unnecessarily aggressive. In this case, my relationship with this particular woman playwright has suffered because I felt she wrote an unnecessarily harsh review on a work by another friend of mine whose writing I admire very much.

I felt my playwright colleague attacked my friend without understanding the span and depth of her works. However when I learnt of this incident where a group of men surrounded and heckled her after the accident and the traffic cop instead of helping her, pushed and punched her, I knew I had to support her. She has more integrity than most people I know. She may be a bad critic in my opinion but she is a strong and honest person.

It is her honesty and forthrightness that gets her into trouble. Most people are unable to take it. And I include myself in that. But just because she is honest and forthright and stands up for her rights, there is no reason a clamor should build up against her. There are men and women who unable to confront their own cowardice in this matter would like to use the pseudo compassion we have for these rogue traffic cops. They talk about taking ‘a doggedly neutral stance.’

Anyone who has lived in the city of Bangalore has been witness to the aggression of male drivers towards their women counterparts and the antics of the corrupt traffic cops that always peaks during festival times and end of the year festivities. As if we owe them the bribe for allowing us to walk and drive in our city.

However the culpability of this crime does not rest with only the errant traffic cop. Certainly action against him should be taken. But action should also be taken against the man who crashed into her car. Action should be taken against the superiors of the errant policeman who are now defending him. The journalists who want to take a ‘doggedly neutral stance’ in this matter should also be identified and told off publicly by all right thinking individuals. Action should be taken against the mob of men who surrounded her to abuse her and make lewd gestures.

We should also take action against people like ‘us’ who have allowed this to happen. And the only way I see this action being carried out is by standing united and protesting together and peacefully against this shameful incident.   



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