When a mother loses her child, or a girl the man she loved, it seems intrusive to bring to bear on that devastation a discourse of public meanings. Yet to keep quiet, even in mourning, after Rizwanur Rahman lay dead by the railway tracks, is to let his killers get away and their murderous codes endure. Whether Rizwanur’s assailants killed him, arranged for his death or pushed him to it is not the subject of discussion. Others will follow Rizwanur — just as young men and women have died before him for similar reasons — if the awareness of the sorrow of those closest to him stops speech and action.
That focussed public anger has results was immediately visible. The police’s treatment of Manoj Jaiswal, the young man who started a new life with Dolly Tulsiyan, was rather different. Dolly’s prosperous father made his complaint against Manoj just when the anger of the people had exploded over Rizwanur’s death and the record of the police’s alleged intimidation of him and his family. Reports of the police’s invidious role in separating Priyanka Todi, Rizwanur’s wife, from her husband had become symbolic of the institutional violation of personal choice and the right to happiness.
Rizwanur’s case is not the first of its kind. The media have reported many cases of such violations, of violence and murder in the guise of justice from shalishi sabhas and panchayati meets, without a response of this sort. These cases expose political oppression and regressive values in places far from the heart of the city. The values need to be asserted through exemplary violence in such areas, so that the established forms of exploitation, the carefully built-up conduits of material gain and the structures of power, specifically of the dominant party, remain undisturbed.
But Rizwanur fought his battle in the middle of the city, and the police headquarters appeared to have played the part of the shalishi court. This is unacceptable, but it is, at the same time, accessible and familiar as well. It is possible to believe now that media reports of honour killings in the districts and villages have not gone to waste. People do notice, and remember; they may not know what to do about it, or how to proceed under unfamiliar circumstances. But there is little doubt as to what happened to Rizwanur and Priyanka, and the kind of things that were done to and said about Rizwanur’s family, since the police commissioner himself laid claim to them. All of it is too close to home. What the episode represents is no longer limited to the violations done to one young man’s existence, it is something that can be done to any of us, any day. Demanding justice for Rizwanur and Priyanka and punishment for the movers of the tragedy is a way of self-defence, not just of defending the values proclaimed in the Constitution.
The anger of the people this time has a defined focus, it is potentially constructive. The focus was created by the wise young man who died. That is his legacy to the city. Without his detailed record given to the human rights organization that made it public through the media, the anger would not have found such clear expression. Used to unquestioned bullying and its corollary of complete disdain for the people it treats as stupid, the establishment possibly did not expect this exposure. Rizwanur left no scope for doubt about his own experience.
Equally important for the anger to form was the fact that his was a story of personal love and dreams, untouched by politics or by party. The importance of this is overwhelming in the way it has showed up, with searing clarity, how and to what purpose our governing institutions work.
The belief that the police’s interests are tied up with that of the rich and powerful is not new. But how this might actually operate has rarely been laid so baldly before the public eye. While the people’s anger is directed towards the alleged abuse of power by the police, they are rehearsing another old belief: that the police do not, cannot, move without the right word from the inmost rooms of state power. This case offers concrete instances which could give the belief substance. If there is any truth in the allegation, for example, that Ashok Todi, Priyanka’s father, supplied the funds for the police commissioner’s bid for the CAB presidency, then the immediate connection that comes to mind is that with the chief minister, who was Prasun Mukherjee’s champion for the post, and called his battle with Jagmohan Dalmiya a battle between good and evil. No wonder the police commissioner felt so arrogantly contemptuous when talking to the media at his press conference after Rizwanur’s death. There is no need, after this, to even go into the free T-shirts Lux Cozi gave away to policemen sometime ago. There are too many memories, too many losses and defeats, too many hurts and griefs and helplessnesses that have accumulated over the years for there to be any mistake this time. If the people’s demand is that the policemen who betrayed their calling must be punished, the real accused cannot pretend that they do not know from where the anger springs.
The purely personal quality of Priyanka and Rizwanur’s story has exposed another trick. Little bits of rhetoric during the first — and only — episode of mob violence at Park Circus were trying to nudge media construction of the matter towards a sectarian narrative. But the people simply pulled that comforting little rug from under the feet of hopefuls. It is significant enough that the tragedy is not being perceived as an injustice to the member of a particular religion, but to a decent, hardworking, loving and law-abiding human being. However tainted our personal lives may be with prejudices, the collective transcendence of sectarian narrowness is a defeat for all those who encourage sectarianism for exploitation and for votes. The chief minister’s unctuous concern about Rizwanur’s membership of a minority community, even after the people were expressing a different kind of outrage, showed the stubborn traces of a hidden desire. The obvious feature in this event is the difference of wealth and status, not religion. Yet given the number of similar incidents that spring from differences of religion and caste, it is a dimension that cannot be ignored, although it remains unspoken. But, as a friend asked me yesterday, “Tell me, if Rizwanur had been Hindu, in the same situation, wouldn’t he have died'” One could then ask, are we certain Manoj Jaiswal would not have died if things had not taken this turn'
This aspect of the episode could in some ways be a turning-point in understanding. Can we hope now that we will be able to see through the political and economic interests that work behind the scenes to change everyday conflicts to look like sectarian clashes'
Restrained, targeted and sustained public anger demanding redress is impressive, even though the dominant political party and its minions in various institutions are unimpressed. The chief minister has spoken twice, once to say that the investigation has gone to the CID, then to say he has decided on a judicial inquiry. The CID’s interim report says exactly what was predicted; it has found what the government wanted it to find. The judicial inquiry, that time-honoured method of quietly removing the issue from the public eye and waiting for it to be forgotten, is, in this government’s hands, additionally a sham. The chief justice alone can nominate the judge who conducts the inquiry. But the government is confident that the people do not know all this. It will also hold on to all officers being investigated, ignoring the practice of withdrawing them from duty till inquiries have proven them innocent or otherwise. Since the questions from the people are growing sharper, the government’s apparent determination to wait it out till the public forgets is beginning to look puzzling.
The sources of the anger, however, are rooted in the memory of daily injustices and humiliations. How dangerous this can be has been demonstrated recently in episodes where furious mobs have lynched suspected thieves and robbers. It is frightening when people take justice into their own hands, the same people who sit quiet when a man objecting to a woman being molested is thrown out of a train or a bus. The point of public anger cannot be indiscriminate violence, it must gather as a force to compel elected representatives and the institutions they command and empower to do their duty. Rizwanur’s death, and those of others like him who have died earlier, should teach us that.