An encounter that was not
We were told that it was an encounter, but what we witnessed was a murder of sorts. As students, it was learning of a lifetime. We understood that an academic course on political science is quite different from the entire political science.
It was yet another day of an engineering college in Allahabad, now Prayagraj. We had been there for three years now. It was a lazy afternoon and most of the students were in the hostel premise. I do not remember if it was a holiday or we had collectively decided to bunk the classes. Students who had found purpose in their lives were busy shaping it in their respective rooms while the rest of us occupied the hostel galleries to deliberate on our complex understanding of love, life, and beyond. As usual Satish was running after the stray dogs equipped with his hawai chappals. Sandeep was vigorously applying Ayurvedic hair tonic on his scalp to slow down his balding process. Onset of balding for a third year student of engineering was indeed worrisome. A hardworking student, Sandeep used to take break from his studies to walk into our conversations, animatedly say something absurd and then abruptly walk away. We, who thrived on debates, found it very frustrating.
On that strange day, cacophony of our senseless conversations was abruptly broken by police sirens. A friend standing at the edge of the corridor, scanning the passerby’s on the road, suddenly screamed, “O! *&^*%!”. The level of profanity clearly indicated that he had witnessed something exceptionally unusual. We leaped towards the edge of the corridor.
A young man with a pistol in his right hand was running on the road. He was being chased by three police jeeps. A cop was almost hanging out of the first jeep, with his gun pointed towards the running man. There was an open field right behind our hostel. The man with the pistol turned towards the fields. All the three jeeps followed him while stepping up their speed. There was a high wall on the other side of the barren field. The young man with the pistol suddenly realized that he had taken a wrong turn. He was trapped. Seeing no escape, he suddenly turned around, threw away his pistol and raised his hands. He had surrendered.
The police jeeps came to a screeching halt as the cops jumped out and took positions. The main cop, who looked the senior most, positioned himself next to his jeep with his gun pointed towards the young man with raised hands. He was posing in a very filmy style. For us the excitement was almost over but then this cop suddenly opened fire. He took three shots at the man with raised hand. The shots came in quick succession and before we could comprehend the situation, the young man with his hands raised was lying flat on the ground. The cops slowly and cautiously circled in, as if the dead man may suddenly stand up and attack. Within few minutes they were over him. The body showed no signs of movement. The young man was dead.
The cops saw us watching the event from the corridor. Some of the students were standing near the boundary wall. The main cop signaled us to come over. And we obliged. It was too overwhelming for us to react in any which way.
As we reached the site we saw the dead man lying flat on the ground in a very strange posture. We were shocked and silent. The silence was broken by the main cop, “He was bigtime history sheeter with many cases of robbery, kidnapping, and murder. We had been in a lookout for days. Finally we got him.” And then, as if giving us a moral science lecture, he said, “This is what happens when one opts for easier paths to power and prosperity.”
After letting us hang around for few minutes, the cops suddenly started to shoo us away. I still can’t figure out why the main cop called us there. He was either trying to morally justify his actions or establish himself as some sort of hero. It was an abnormal action nevertheless.
In utter shock, students began to disperse. Me, with some of my friends, walked towards our chai shop. As we asked Nonu, the tea stall owner, to make tea for us, I suddenly realised that the deceased looked quite like Nonu.
“Nonu bhai, that guy who was knocked down by the cops looks like you. By any chance was he related to you?”
If was supposed to be a fun question but Nonu’s eyes swelled with tears. While pouring water into the pan for tea, he said, “He was my brother!”
“Brother? You mean real brother?”
I was short of words to continue the conversation. Nonu rubbed off his tears with the shirt sleeve and proceeded with his chores as if it was just another day. His actions were usual but his face was utterly sad. Puzzled, we looked at each other which waiting quietly for the tea.
Soon the tea arrived. The silence was too much to bear. And so was our curiosity. I could not stop myself from asking, “Nonu bhai, you never told us that your brother was a local don.” Looking back, it was such an ill-timed insensitive question.
“He was not a don. He was just another guy in the team of the previous MLA, doing odd jobs for that politician. The newly elected MLA is exerting his power. He wants his guys to be the local gunda’s hence they are eliminating the boys who worked for the previous MLA.”
“That’s strange, never heard about such power takeovers!”
“This has always been the case here, especially when the new politician belongs to the ruling party.”
“And why would a politician need the gunda’s when there is so much of money in politics.”
“Power fetches votes!”
“If you knew all of this then why didn’t you stop your brother?”
“How could have I controlled him? We are poor people who can’t afford college education like you guys. This is our destiny. There is something or the other always waiting to end our lives.”
He sounded dejected, like a hopeless swimmer lost in the sea who is trying hard to wriggle out of the situation knowing very well that only a miracle can change his fate. This raw and gross reality shook us to the core, more than the encounter we had witnessed a while ago. Nonu was aware of the incident but did not go to see his dead brother because he wanted to avoid any kind of friction with the cops. He was forced into playing the role of an honest peace loving citizen who did not approve the wrongdoings of his brother.
That long silence was killing me. I wanted to get up and go but did not have the strength. I waited for others to initiate but no one was willing to make the first move. We were stuck in an impromptu condolence meeting with Nonu. I felt stupid immediately after I asked this question but the words were already out in the open, “So was there a way out?”
“Yes, one can try and become a politician, however small, so that one has enough money to hire poor young boys to do the dirty work!”, he replied. His reply was a dark truth we were unaware of. We had never understood politics from this perspective. For us democracy was too powerful a concept to be taken over by lawlessness, in connivance with the law itself.
We hung around for a while. Thankfully Nonu was shutting shop early to be with his family in the time of grief. He did not open his shack for next 12 days.
The events mentioned above are mildly fictionalized version (names changed) of a real event that I witnessed as a young college student. That tea shop conversations made us realize that powerful concepts are turned fragile by the very people who are entrusted with the task of upholding its values. Things seem to have changed, for worse, in all these years. I hope that as a society we will eventually realize that the real strength of institutions is people. Institutions, by themselves, are pretty powerless.