Pots and kettles

A customer and I had just completed a long discussion in his factory. Since it was our first meeting, he insisted that he would treat me to lunch. As we were walking towards his car, the talk turned to the building collapse in Thane in which over 70 persons died, and the reports of a nexus between builders, officials, police and politicians.

Very passionately, my customer said, “These scoundrels should be hanged! They know these buildings will collapse and kill the occupants, but all they are interested in is making money! If a person can be hanged for killing one victim, why shouldn’t these guys be hanged for killing dozens of people?”

“Who, in your opinion, is most guilty?” I asked.

Without any hesitation, my customer replied, “The builders, of course! They increase their profits by making concrete with more sand and less cement. They know it’s dangerous, but why will they bother? Their lives are not at stake. Only the people who buy their flats risk their lives. These builders are mass-murderers!”

To change the subject, I said, “Let’s not talk about them. Tell me, what kind of food are you treating me to today?”

He laughed and replied, “Sir, I am not a sophisticated person like you. I am a pure vegetarian, teetotaller and non-smoker. So, please forgive this simpleton for making you suffer an ordinary vegetarian meal without any drinks or hookah. Is a Rajasthani Thali OK for you? Or would you prefer something else?”

“Rajasthani Thali would be great! Have you never tried non-vegetarian food, alcohol or tobacco, even when you were young?” I asked.

Clearly enjoying the attention, he replied, “Never! Sir, these are our family values. We are very principled people. Apart from our simple lifestyle, we have a tradition of contributing at least 10% of our profits to charity. We are very grateful to God for his kindness, and we try to do something for society. We are not like these useless builders who only want to make money, even if it means their sub-standard construction leads to so many deaths!”

Again wanting to change the subject, I asked, “I remember you told me that you were the first person in your family to venture into the engineering industry. So, what business has your family been in before that?”

“We are in the chewing tobacco industry,” he declared, and proudly told me the name of the brand owned by his family.

This guy had been ranting about “useless builders who only want to make money”, and had labelled them as “mass-murderers”! But he had no qualms about enjoying the profits made by his family by selling carcinogenic chewing tobacco, which also leads to a large number of deaths. On the contrary, he was claiming to be virtuous on account of contributing 10% of these profits to charity!

A classic case of the pot calling the kettle black!

I wanted to ask him many questions, but I thought it would be an exercise in futility. Hence, I did not react.

Later, I wondered: Did I do the right thing by keeping quiet? Would it really have been an exercise in futility? Or did I keep quiet only to avoid antagonising my customer?

Whatever the real reason for my keeping quiet that day, I think I should have spoken up. If not anything, I would have poked his self-righteousness!

I am reminded of these words of Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”

(This post was originally published on Dec 17, 2013.)

Do we encourage corruption and crime?

A boy, looking around 15 years old and dressed in baggy Bermuda shorts and a T shirt was about to leave the supermarket after having purchased a kilogram of rice when the billing clerk called out to him and asked him what he had in his pockets. When the boy answered, “Nothing,” the billing clerk walked up to the boy and demanded that he empty his pockets. The boy refused to do so, whereupon the billing clerk stated that he would call the police. Hearing this, the boy took out a chocolate bar from one of the pockets of his baggy Bermuda shorts and gave it to the billing clerk, who immediately put his hand into the boy’s pockets and brought out some more chocolate bars and a few small packets of almonds and cashewnuts! By this time, the Manager, a middle-aged man, had reached the spot. The billing clerk reported to him that the boy, who had purchased a kilogram of rice worth Rs. 60, had shoplifted items worth around Rs. 400!

The boy immediately protested that he was being wrongly accused by the billing clerk, saying he had bought these items at another shop. The billing clerk angrily landed a tight slap on the boy’s cheek and was about to do more, but the Manager firmly restrained him and ordered him to go back to the billing counter.

The Manager showed the boy the supermarket’s price labels on the shoplifted items, and gently told him that there was no doubt that these items had been shoplifted. The boy, who was weeping and trembling, kept saying, “I’m sorry.” The Manager put his arm around the boy’s shoulder and said, “Your parents are our regular customers. They are very nice people. Do you think they would be happy that you’ve done something like this? Normally, we take very strict action against shoplifters. Bu, since you are a young boy, and because we think this is the first time, we will not take any action against you this time. I hope you realise that you’ve done something wrong. Please don’t do this again. Go home now.” The boy thanked him repeatedly and left.

I witnessed this entire incident two days back. My immediate reaction was to appreciate the manner in which the Manager handled the situation, though I could not help wondering whether he would have handled the situation in the same way if the boy had belonged to a poor family. Would he would have encouraged, perhaps instructed his staff to beat up the boy?

Later, I wondered: what is likely to happen now?

a. The boy’s parents are likely to be ignorant about the incident. In this case,
i. The boy may be tempted to try shoplifting at other supermarkets, taking care to ensure he doesn’t lift too much each time since he would have ‘learnt the lesson’ that it was his bulging pockets that gave him away this time.
ii. The boy may not attempt shoplifting or any other dishonest acts ever again.

b. If the boy’s parents learn about the incident from the boy, it is most likely that the boy will claim that he was wrongly accused, that it was all a misunderstanding, etc.. Most probably, his parents will believe him, tell him to be careful of ‘bad people’ in future and decide that they all should not patronise the particular supermarket.

In both cases, it’s difficult to say whether the boy has learnt that honesty is the best policy, or whether he has learnt that getting caught was his mistake. He may have learnt one wrong lesson: if he’s caught and he’s guilty, he can get away by issuing a ‘sincere apology’! Perhaps, if it’s a serious crime, he could get away by ‘offering to recuse himself for 6 months’ as an act of atonement!!

I think the Manager could have handled the situation in a much better manner, particularly since he knows the boy’s parents. He should have asked the boy’s parents to come to the supermarket, given them proof that their son had shoplifted, and requested them to take corrective action to prevent recurrence of this incident, in his supermarket or in any other shop.

What do you think? Shouldn’t we take steps to prevent corruption and crime? Does our attitude of ‘forgive and forget’ allow people to get away too easily? Are we actually encouraging corruption and crime by this excessively soft approach?

(This post was originally published on Nov 30, 2013.)

Inspiring response by woman molested on Delhi Metro!

I am reproducing below the text of Megha Vishwanath’s blog post SPEAK UP DELHI. I decided to share it on my blog because what she did is an inspiration to anybody who may face a similar situation. Please visit her blog post and post your comments of encouragement and support. Please also share this post so that it reaches as many people as possible.

It was a Saturday afternoon I had lunch with a friend in Gurgaon before I decided to head home. The metro for those who do not take it or belong to Delhi can get crowded and air tight to an extent that the Tupperware guys could take inspiration. I luckily managed to find a seat till Rajiv Chowk metro station (Connaught Place) where I had to change my train. The doors opened… Btw I was in a regular and not the women’s only coach – why is this little detail important for this post? Well the answer lies ahead.

So where were we? Yes, the doors opened and people began to flood in. I tried to push and nudge my way out but no luck. With a huge sigh I decided to get off at the next station – New Delhi. As I positioned myself close to the exit door I felt a sense of unease run through my body, like someone has pierced their gaze on me or someone is watching me. Suddenly I felt something touch me from behind. With half my mind on trying to get off at the next station I turned thinking it was someone’s bag or hand touching me repeatedly. I turned to see a man in a white kurta (long shirt) staring right at me and he had no baggage with him. In fact both his hands were clenching the railing next to him. But if both his hands were up there what was it that… I got my answer as soon as I lowered my sight. There beneath that long shirt I could clearly see that this man was UNZIPPED. I felt the blood rush to my head, boiling and fuming and fury ran through every nerve in my body.

Within that fraction of a second every single eve teasing incident, every darn face of those guys who had the guts to molest someone I know flashed in my mind. Before I knew my voice escaped my lungs and there I was screaming at the man who dared to mess with me.

“KYA problem hai?” (What is your problem?)
“Kya samjh rakha hai saale?” (What the hell do you think?)
“Himmat kaise huyi teri?” (How dare you?)

These were some of the things I uttered looking right into his eyes. He was startled and started blabbering that he is sorry and insisted that it was his hand that touched me by mistake. Your ‘HAND’ that comes out from your pants? How the hell was your zip open? I was screaming in a coach full of men and women. Did anyone come forward to help or even displayed basic courtesy to ask me what was wrong? The answer was a big unsurprising NO. I turned and spotted two men in fact smirking at me. Their silence tried my patience and ALL HELL BROKE LOOSE.

I held that (namesake) man’s collar and dragged him out of the train. He was on a loop mode ‘It was my hand, it was a crowded train’. The moment we set foot at the platform he managed to escape. I ran, with all the strength and courage in me, I ran after him making as much noise as I could. A few saw (the tamasha), the others gasped while one man in the uniform began to chase him. I went towards the other side and we managed to get hold of him. I yelled again How dare you? How did you dare to touch me? People like you make Delhi a nightmare for girls? You make us question every time before we step a foot outside. HOW DARE YOU?

People watched the guards dragging a man to the control room and a girl screaming at him. They only watched.

As we took him to the control room he told the police that I am mistaken, it was his hand that touched me by mistake and it could happen to anyone because it was a crowded train. “Ask her… it was my hand,” he said. 15 guards, all men turned towards me as he tried to shame me. But if he had the guts to do it I had the spine to say it. You see anger brings out the strength you never thought you had in you but in my case anger brought out a language I never thought I could use. I was outright and I had all the right to be – “Lift up that kurta and you will know exactly what touched me.” There. I said it out loud and clear. The guards felt outraged and charged at him. Within seconds he begged for an apology and suddenly the hand in question transformed into a part of his body he wished he never had. “Why would this girl lie? After all she is taking the blame on herself,” said the police officer to the criminal in front of me. He committed the crime, I raised my voice and yet somehow the shame was on me. That statement reflected the thought process of our society, in fact it said much more. I argued with the officer and told the man in question that I have lost NOTHING in this entire episode and in fact I will make him pay for this. He immediately begged for an apology and I instead, insisted to file an FIR. After a few calls, 5 friends of mine reached the station to back me up and how? They were equally angered and showed no mercy.

We moved to Kashmere Gate police station and I slapped a sexual molestation case against him. He was arrested and put behind bars immediately. I decided to not let this one go and appeared at the court on Monday to record my statement in front of the magistrate. Meanwhile this man has been moved to Tihar jail and will spend his time behind the bars until he gets bail.

You see there are several measures being taken to make our public spots and transport safe. Someone asked me as to why I did not take the women’s only coach? But honestly that’s not a solution. These reservations in fact paint the idea that it is not ok or safe for women to be in public spaces. It’s debatable, I know but are reservations really improving the situation? Then what would?

I think the answer lies within us. Unless women put forward that is not OKAY for someone to touch and get away with it, nothing will change.

I could just bite the bullet and accept that I was eve teased or molested. Or I can raise my voice and instill the fear in the criminal instead of victimising myself. If this man has the guts to unzip in a metro full of people, he probably started off by doing something less offensive to another girl. Her silence was his encouragement. Remember every time you choose to ignore or walk away, you put someone else in danger.

So I urge women to respect their body and know that it’s okay for you to say that someone touched you without your consent and you have to muster the courage to reach out to the police. I insist please for the sake of womanhood – SPEAK UP!

Protecting the privacy of rape victims and others

A few days back, India Today reported that National Award winning child actor Shweta Basu Prasad was arrested in Hyderabad for allegedly being involved in a prostitution racket. The report further stated that “the actor released a statement in which she said she was out of money and had no other way to support her family,” and also stated that “The police said they have also arrested several well-known businessmen along with the actor.”

THE HOOT reports that “A journalist cannot publish the name of the rape victim in the report. If he does so he will violate the Norms of Journalist Conduct released by the Press Council of India. He will also be prosecuted under Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code and maybe punished with imprisonment which may extend to two years and shall also be liable to pay fine.”

In another case, a model in Mumbai has accused Deputy Inspector General of Police Sunil Paraskar of sexual assault and rape. This report by DNA mentions that the model and Paraskar “had heated arguments over the latter’s alleged closeness to model Poonam Pandey.”

This raises the following questions:

1. Isn’t it reasonable to expect that, until she is convicted, a woman who is allegedly involved in a prostitution racket is treated on par with a rape victim? This means Shweta Basu Prasad’s name should not have been published.

2. While Shweta’s name and details about the films she has acted in have been published, the names of the ‘several well-known businessmen’ who were arrested along with her have not been mentioned. Why this discrimination?

3. In the second case, the complainant’s name has not been revealed, and correctly so. However, why has Poonam Pandey’s name been revealed? Shouldn’t the report have mentioned “the latter’s alleged closeness to another model” or “the latter’s alleged closeness to a rival model”?

4. While the privacy of a rape victim is correctly protected, why is the name of the alleged rapist published? Isn’t it reasonable to expect that he should be treated as innocent until proven guilty? What if he is genuinely innocent and is being falsely implicated?

If you see a child crying on the road …

A few days back, the Principal of a leading girls’ school in our city sent the following letter to all parents:

Kindly note the following message from the Police Department.

This message is for girls/women who go alone to school, college or office. You may notice a child crying on the road and the child may request you to be taken to some address. Such a child shall be taken to the nearest police station and never to the address shown by the child.

This is a new technique adopted by criminal gangs who indulge in flesh trade, kidnapping and rapes. Do share this information with others. This may save someone from becoming victim of such gangs.

I was impressed by this message because:
1. In addition to telling the public what they should not do, the message suggests how such situations should be handled.
2. The Police Department has circulated this message through schools, not by the usual method of newspaper advertisements or press releases or posters. Obviously, almost all parents will read a communication from their child’s school principal and most will take it seriously.

I do hope people take the entire message seriously. I’m quite sure that most girls/women who have read this message would not take the child to the address given by him/her. However, given the number of highly publicized cases of policemen having misbehaved with women, how many girls/women would feel safe going alone to a police station? So, what will happen if any “girls/women who go alone to school, college or office notice a child crying on the road”? Do they just ignore the child?

The answer was provided by an incident that took place in the same area about 2 weeks back. A young woman saw a small boy, around 4 years old, crying just outside the bus terminus. The boy was too agitated to reply when the woman asked him his name, address, etc.. The woman was not a resident of that area, but had come there to attend an interview in an office there. She did not want to be late for her interview, but she did not want to leave the young boy stranded there. She took the boy to a newspaper/magazine shop nearby and explained the situation to the owner and requested him to handle the situation. Realizing that the shop owner may not believe a total stranger, she showed him her college Identity Card and the interview call letter. When the shop owner assured her that he would take care of the child, she proceeded for her interview. In about 10 minutes, the shop owner managed to calm down the boy sufficiently to be able to get some replies from him. The boy only knew his first name and the area where he lived, which was about 6 kilometers away. He could not provide his home address, parents’ names or telephone numbers, school name, etc.. The shop owner then decided to take the boy to the local police station. Coincidentally, the local police station had just received information about a missing boy from the same area mentioned by this boy. The boy was reunited with his parents an hour later.

If any girl/woman notices a child crying on the road and is reluctant to go alone to the police station or to even approach a policeman alone, she could/should take the help of local persons who appear trustworthy. It is always better to approach a shopkeeper, as the young woman did, instead of any random person on the road.

Another possibility, suggested by Simple Girl in her comment on my post Brave in thought and word, but not in deed? is to keep all the police emergency numbers stored in one’s mobile phone so that something like this can be reported to the police immediately.

The police and other government departments are all expected to help citizens. But citizens also have to do their bit.