India, we love to tell ourselves without breaking the beat of the mantra, is a Great Nation. And it is this inherent greatness that not only allows us to live through and bear the inequitous hardships that exist among our people, but it will also, one fine day, eradicate all the ills, social and political, that hold us back from becoming a true world power (‘again’). Unfortunately, the humming sound of ‘We are a Great Nation’ has been drowned out by a horrific incident in Bhagalpur, Bihar, on Tuesday. A man caught stealing a gold chain was thrashed by a lynch mob and then handed over to two policemen who, in turn, tied his feet to a police motorcycle and dragged him along the street until he lost consciousness. Even Great Nations with a Glorious Past, it seems, can ‘slip back’ to barbarism without losing a beat.
The Bhagalpur incident tells a story of what India really is. The man had committed a crime for which there is a law that kicks into action. Even if he was guilty of stealing for the third time — as some police officials stated after the incident as if to explain everything — there is a law for ‘third-timers’ too. But social conditioning sees a 'free-for-all' justice system as being 'practical'. Thus, the neurotic-edged violence directed at a captured 'anti-social'. But what has left many stunned about the nature of their ‘own’ people was the gruesome act of the two policemen. It seems obvious — playing as they did to the media gallery that was curiously ready to cover the proceedings — that the police did not think that there was anything untoward about their action. In fact, the policemen seem to be proud — with the people egging them on — in doling out ‘justice’ so swiftly and so ‘effectively’.
The Bhagalpur incident can be tut-tuted in various ways. We could treat it as yet another symptom of a dysfunctional state that is Bihar. We could also treat the two policemen, the mai-baap at the scene, as rotten apples besmirching the image of an otherwise decent, if sometimes corrupt, police force. Then there is the most potent ‘vanishing cream’ option of them all: this is ‘Real India’ and such incidents, like beheadings, child sacrifices and other anachronisms of horror, all happen in that horrible fish tank that we will one day clean up with universal education and progress. Unfortunately, the truth is much starker and less escapable. India is a nation where Ugliness gobbles up Greatness on a regular basis. The offender will pay for his crime. But if the two policemen are not punished and made an example of, there will be no Greatness to tom-tom. As for the locals who cheered on, we can only pretend that they live in a different nation than ours.