On Saturday, a young man was shot for overtaking the car of a politician’s son. Drawing on insights from her book Why India Votes? Mukulika Banerjee writes that the killing might reflect more than an extreme case of road rage. It could instead be an alarming insight into the ugly underbelly of India’s democracy that on the one hand provides pathways to dignity but then snubs them on a whim.
The news of the ruthless killing of Aditya Sachdeva, a 19-year-old man who had just taken his school leaving exams, by the son of an MLA in Bihar, might seem like a return to the lawless politics of past years. Indeed, the BJP opposition leader Prem Kumar accused the state government of “failing to curb crime in Bihar.”
“Jungle raj has bounced back,” he said, no doubt implying the consequences of the return of Lalu Prasad in the government in Bihar. Predictable point scoring aside, the incident is deeply shocking for what it says about uncontrolled anger by a young man who shot dead someone for overtaking his car. So is today’s killing an instance of road rage gone too far or is there more to it than that?
An incident from some years ago has interesting parallels and throws some light on the problem.
During a nation-wide study conducted during the 2009 national elections in India, one of the researchers, Priyadarshini Singh, reported a similar incident from the state of Bihar. Here is a description of the incident, which was also published in Why India Votes?:
A good example of the tensions of the world of rajniti was evident in an incident that we saw at close quarters in Bihar on the campaign trail of Shahnawaz Hussain, a BJP candidate.
During a car journey to a meeting with the candidate’s right-hand man Mr. X and some party workers, talk inevitably turned to an assessment of the performance by the previous Bihar government led by Lalu Prasad Yadav. While Mr. X conceded that Lalu’s government had given the Yadavs and lower-castes a sense of self-worth (astitva), he felt that not enough had been invested in education, development and employment opportunities.
So we asked if the newfound self-worth had, in fact, not been good for democracy. And was democracy not a good thing? He answered, ‘Yes of course we must have democracy, it is a good thing’ (Prajatantra hona chahiye, acchi baat hai), but then with a tinge of sarcasm added that sometimes though there was ‘rather too much democracy’ (Kuch zayada hi prajatantra hai). When we asked him to explain what he meant, he added with a sardonic laugh, ‘Sometimes people have too much freedom, anyone can do as they please, say what they want and behave how they want’ (Kuch zayada hi freedom mil jati hai).
He was of course referring to how the electoral process had brought about ‘a silent revolution’ by which lower-castes such as the Yadavs had been able to capture power and redefine the rules of public conduct...
If there was any doubt about what Mr. X had meant, they were dispelled later in the day when we were returning home in the evening and a jeep carrying two men with a small flag with the scissors symbol — of an independent candidate N. K. Yadav — zipped passed and overtook our car.
Mr. X recognised one of the men in the car and sternly instructed his driver to overtake the other car. As the two vehicles came closer, the driver of our car hung back slightly as the road was very narrow. Mr. X got very agitated and commanded the driver to get ahead of the other car. The driver reluctantly did as he was instructed, and just at that point, the man in the other car caught sight of Mr. X and gave him a sheepish smile. Mr. X, on the other hand, merely said peremptorily through the open window ‘Come and see me at home this evening!’ (Aap aakar milye mujhe ghar par).
As the car sped ahead, he commented ‘This is democracy for you’ (Yeh hai aapka prajatantra). He explained that the person in the car used to be a manual labourer in his house but thanks to Panchayat elections was now a sarpanch and his assistant has become mukhiya (headman) of their village. ‘As I said, democracy is good, but sometimes there is too much democracy!’ (Haan theek hai, accha hai, voh hi hum bole na, bahut zayada democracy hai) was all he could bring himself to say to convey the complex cocktail of emotions.
Clearly Mr. X had found the changed status of his erstwhile Yadav employee from manual worker to village sarpanch unbearable.
What the incident above demonstrated was that regardless of the power that formal political positions may bring, people were still expected to follow the older protocols – the equivalent of tugging the forelock – of caste hierarchy. Overtaking the car of an upper caste ex-employer was clearly in breach of palatable standards and was the sign of ‘too much democracy’. As a result, the offender was humiliated and summoned – to be properly disciplined for his temerity.
Today a young man lost his life because he had overtaken the car of the son of an MLA. So is this why Aditya Sachdeva lost his life? Was his overtaking the SUV of the son of an MLA in his Maruti Swift a sign of ‘too much democracy’? Did the silent revolution need to be silenced? If so, this is the ugly underbelly of India’s democracy that on the one hand provides pathways to dignity but then snubs them on a whim.
While a Yadav is the victim in one story and the perpetrator in the other, what is clear is that the powerful in India rapidly gain a sense of entitlement – either through their upper-caste status or just by virtue of being close to power (in this case being a son of a politician).
This article originally appeared on The Wire and is reposted with the author’s permission.
Cover image: Traffic in Bihar. Credit: Leocadio Sebastian CC BY 2.0
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.
About the Author
Mukulika Banerjee is Director of the South Asia Centre and Associate Professor of Anthropology at LSE.