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Of pride and poverty

Last updated on: December 20, 2008 10:12 IST

My hired car driver was contemptuous of the two white Ambassadors that wove in an out of the congestion of Ring Road, red lights swirling, banshee horns screaming.

Sometimes, one overtook us, sometimes the other. Often, both fell back. Despite their ostentatious son et lumière, neither car made any speedier progress. The traffic was too thick.

That afforded great satisfaction to my driver. Used to the posturing of Delhi's tiered hierarchy, he told me that both cars carried only 'chota-mota' nobodies anxious to be somebodies.

If they had been real VIPs, he gloated, wireless messages would have flashed in advance to all the policemen on duty along the road, and ordinary traffic halted so that they could sweep through.

Reading Palaniappan Chidambaram's robust promise that the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) and National Investigation Agency Acts would be applied regardless of religion, caste or creed recalled that analysis. Fine words that pared down to basics, means Muslims will not be victimised.

That shouldn't even have to be stated in a secular democracy but, perhaps, it's just as well that the Home Minister did stress the point since middle class newspaper-reading India teems with frustrated chauvinists who send me abusive e-mails for not equating patriotism with Hinduism.

But what about class? That's where the rub lies, where the law stops and security precautions can break down.

Religion -- we'll ignore Chidambaram's tautological 'creed' -- does not place Omar Abdullah or E Ahammed at a disadvantage.

But it does handicap the illiterate Bengali Muslim peasant who must prove he is not an illegal Bangladeshi or pay hefty bribes to the police.

Caste does not prevent Mayawati from luxuriating in the privilege of sweeping up to the gangway of her aircraft in a motorcade.

But in the twilight world of Bihar's Musahar community, a labourer who demands the wages to which he is entitled is branded a Naxalite.

As the English folk song has it, It's the same the whole world over,/ Ain't it a shame, a bleedin' shame?/ It's the rich what gets the pleasure / And the poor what gets the blame.

My reason for quoting those lines is not to wallow in mawkish sentimentality but to suggest that privilege -- not just wealth but caste and rank -- is a serious obstacle to enforcing the discipline necessary for security.

We are laidback enough already without the additional handicap of subservience to power or glory.

Being a Bollywood heartthrob, Amitabh Bachchan suffered no inconvenience when his documentation did not match his pistol at Mumbai airport. Varkala Radhakrishnan and K S Manoj could delay the Delhi-Kochi-Thiruavananthapuram flight by four hours because they are mmbers of Parliament.

Imagine one of the proposed air marshals trying to control these luminaries!

Many such instances can be cited from all walks of life. Urban, English-speaking, upper middle class India doesn't think it is bound to obey the rules and regulations framed for rustic impoverished Bharat which speaks only the vernacular.

Far from objecting to brazen displays of privilege, Bharat in the person of my Delhi driver accepts it as a fact of life. Like most Indians, he was born in a milieu that defers to an immutable caste ladder that permits no impertinent climbing.

Like most urban Indians, he is used to the bureaucracy's no less rigid gradations.

Working in the capital, he takes it for granted that politicians are a separate breed with a pecking order as elaborate as the gun salutes with which British India measured princely consequence.

The highest (Z-Plus) security grade to which Amar Singh has been elevated has nothing to do with the Samajwadi Party's importance or threats to his person. It is a token of how highly the government prizes him.

When two such dignitaries meet with their gun-toting bodyguards, they might repeat Pope's satirical lines, "I am his Highness' dog at Kew; pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?" But satire is far removed from the deadly seriousness of politics.

Bankrupt West Bengal boasts the highest number of VIPs (1,999) who receive police protection while prosperous Maharashtra claims only 122. Pride and poverty march together.

The UAPA stands Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence on its head by presuming guilt until the accused proves his innocence. But the most revolutionary change surely is  the NIAA's empowerment of any officer 'of or above the rank of sub-inspector' to exercise 'any of the powers of the officer-in-charge of a police station'.

A mere SI lording it over an OC? It's enough for the entire police force to rise in protest.

Sunanda K Datta-Ray
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