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Killing in plain view: Crime goes public in new India

"As a journalist, the details always tell the story," notes author James McBride. Details matter. Both god and the devil reside in them, as does some semblance of truth. Over the past week, three "shocking" crimes have made headlines, but few have paid attention to the "details" they share in common, cold, plain facts that tell an unpleasant story about our new India.

The most recent is the shootout in the ICU section of Sunrise hospital in Gurgaon. Armed men walked into the hospital and shot two patients over a property dispute. But this summary does little justice to this grim story which unfolded so:

At the court, there was an altercation between the two groups and Satbir and Yogendra were injured in the clash. Following this, the two were brought to Sunrise Hospital, police said. According to police, around 4 pm, a group of more than 30 people — in seven to eight cars — landed up at the hospital. At least five persons from this group walked inside the hospital and shot at the two patients.

In other words: First, they beat up the two men outside a courthouse, then chased them to the hospital, followed them inside, armed with country pistols, and then shot them -- in plain view of doctors, nurses and security guards who fled at first sight. The Times of India report also includes this charming fact about the other Gurgaon hospital related to this case: "Authorities at Paras Hospital said that it was common practice for 'high profile' patients to force their way inside a hospital carrying weapons."

Image used for representational purpose only. AFP

The second case is that of the reporter in Jalandhar who was brutally assaulted by a gang of drunken men for trying to protect a young woman from harassment. That little saga also played out in two acts:

At about 5 pm, Mr Malhotra, who does assignments with NDTV, says he saw three men on motorbikes harassing the young girl near a busy marketplace in Bhagat Singh chowk. The journalist says the men seemed drunk and one of them even tried to grab the girl. Mr Malhotra intervened; one of the men fled, while the other two were held by shopkeepers in the area who came to help when the journalist raised an alarm.

The man who had escaped, returned with a mob of 25 and allegedly attacked Mr Malhotra and others who had intervened. "One of the three guys went and brought people with him. The moment they came, they started beating me...At least 20-30 people were there, all of them were drunk. The person I stopped had a bottle of alcohol with him," the journalist said.

The men were armed with kirpans not guns, but that didn't make them any less daring.

Malhotra is lucky to be alive, but Ravinderpal Singh was not quite as fortunate. When he confronted local Akali Dal leader, Ranjit Rana, who was stalking his daughter, Rana first shot his legs with a pistol. As Singh was being rushed in a car to the hospital, Rana and his associates intercepted them, this time armed with a rifle to finish the job. His daughter describes the scene:

Sobbing continuously, the victim said that no one from the public came to help her and her father as Rana continued to shoot and assault them. "After he shot at my father with his rifle, my father collapsed. Rana then hit me and I fell on my father. He kept kicking and hitting us in full public glare. I cried and pleaded for help but everyone ran away. Even when the ambulance came, I had to lift my father into it as no one came to help me," she said.

Heart-breaking and illuminating. This then is what we now know about crimes in new India.

They happen in "broad daylight," in "full public view," in "crowded" roads, bazaars etc.  So let's junk those old-fashioned notions about staying safe: Don't go out at night; avoid deserted areas; stick to well-lighted places et al. Crowds and daylight no longer offer any assurance of well-being, neither do cameras. The men in Sunrise committed their crime in full view of CCTV cameras. A full-on mob of men assaulted a girl in front of a TV crew in Guwahati. Where there are no cameras, eyewitnesses abound. As they did in the case of 19-year old Santosh who was recently stabbed to death by five boys in Dombivli. Note also that the crime doesn't occur at the spur of the moment. The men have the luxury of time, to go back for reinforcements, to return armed with greater numbers and weapons, as they did with Reuben and Keenan, who were killed by a crowd of 20 men outside an Andheri restaurant.

When one of the complainants identified the primary accused, Jitendra Rana, in a line-up, Rana laughed and told him, "Phir milenge." Keenan's girlfriend, Priyanka Fernandes, had a similar experience: "When I went inside to identify them, there was no guilt at all on the four of them. They looked at us without any regret. In their eyes, there was no guilt or remorse at all. They were looking and staring at us..standing upright as if they have done something good."

Our new criminals have no fear of being seen or caught -- or being thwarted in the course of their acts. Their swaggering bravado relies on the cowardice of crowds, the public, aam janta etc. We the people prefer to cower than confront for good reason, as Malhotra's case proves. No good samaritan goes unpunished in India. And where thugs rely on sheer numbers to keep the rest of us in line, many among them are now fortified with an easily available arsenal of guns. The proliferation of arms, licensed or otherwise, has added new firepower to the goonda raj, and further weakens what little resistance that we may be inclined to mount. Each Malhotra or Santosh or Ravenderpal makes it less likely that one of us will stand up for what is right the next time around.

Here then is the puzzling question: Why this new-found indifference to consequences? The assailants don't go scot-free in most of these cases. They are at least identified and booked for their crimes -- though their ultimate fate remains uncertain given the glacial pace of justice in India. Is it a machismo of numbers, much like gang-rape itself? These are not crimes committed by individuals but by gangs, and in some cases, hordes of men.

We have become a nation where crime has gone collective, and therefore more brazen. No lone gunmen here, but packs of men prowling our streets, armed to their teeth, much like those Ponty Chadha "bodyguards." A handful may be brought to justice, but their posses remain at large. And we have nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide, not in a hospital or near a police station, not at home or out in the bazaar.

And while we're on the subject, perhaps it's time we stopped blaming women who get gang-raped for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There is no right place or time in hamara Bharat mahaan, where the mind of the criminal is without fear and his head held high.

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