by Maswood Alam Khan
THE macabre photograph printed on the front page of New Age on August 19 has had a lingering impact on my mind. It is a picture of a middle-aged man crying and groaning in unbearable pain as he is being beaten by a mob for his suspected involvement in mugging at Panthapath in Dhaka on August 18. The teenaged people who are beating the suspect are looking healthy and well-dressed suggesting that most of them are perhaps from well-to-do families. With his jaws yawned apart a little out of a kind of sheer pleasure, a man just behind the suspect seems to relish a great delight in beating the victim on his back while another in his T-shirt is about to land a heavy lash on the suspect’s back with a stick or a rod. The exact moment the photograph was snapped could be the precise moment when the fair-complexioned young boy in his striped shirt perhaps just kicked the victim in the groin serving a fatal blow on his genitals and sending the suspect reeling in excruciating pain. The crowd around the poor victim was on a spree enjoying a sadistic pleasure in the cruellest sense of the term ‘sadism’.
Such a scene is pretty common in our society and we have traditionally been taught not to feel any remorse for beating a mugger because most of our guardians gave us the lesson: ‘Instead of handing a mugger to the police it is better to beat him thoroughly so that the suspect or the culprit remembers the pains in his bones till the next time he ever makes an attempt to mug.’ If the mugger dies in the process of beating nobody is made accused in the murder. So, beating a thief or for that matter beating humans has long been a popular culture in our society ultimately turning beating into a kind of normal practice including punishing a student in a school or torturing a political rival held on police remand.
During the holy month of Ramadan people become desperate to earn extra money and the law enforcement agencies are put on high alert because this is the month in the year when the number of crimes rises abnormally with an increase in people’s economic transactions on the eve of Eid-ul-Fitr, the greatest annual festival for the Muslims, a festival for the poor and the rich alike — a festival when every member of every family in our country expects at least one gift from his or her spouse or from his or her parents or guardians.
The macabre picture of the victim at Panthapath was especially haunting me as I was trying to empathise with him wondering in my wild imagination whether he was desperate for money to fulfil a promise he gave to his minor daughter that he would buy her this time a pair of red shoes he couldn’t gift her in the last Eid-ul-Fitr of the previous year! Or, did he promise to his wife that he would buy her a Sari of a particular design for which she had been nagging him for the last few months? Or, did he need money to buy medicine for his ailing mother? Or, was he starving for the last three days? Such questions and painful memories of many poor people I personally know and sad stories of the millions of the poor, including that of the victim at Panthapath, which I can only imagine, were crowding my mind.
Whenever I come across an incident of a petty crime of mugging or of a hungry boy stealing food, my mind sprints back to Azad cinema hall where on a rainy day in the 1960s in a matinee I watched the movie ‘Awara’ and got introduced to Raj Kapoor’s persona with scruffy hair in the movie. The movie based on a story of a little tramp moving around like a loafer comes back to my memory whenever I find a child or a man caught stealing or picking somebody’s pocket. The innocent face of then young Shashi Kapoor, who played the younger version of Raj Kapoor’s character in Awara, comes vividly back into my mind and the song ‘Awara Hoon’ (I am a Tramp) sung by Mukesh, rings vibrantly back into my ears.
Is it a crime if a bird takes a fruit from a tree to feed itself or picks an insect from the air to feed its chicks without permission from any authority? Is it a crime if a man steals to feed his family? Isn’t it a birthright of a man to snatch money from wherever he can when he doesn’t find means to buy food for his family starving or to buy a pair of red shoes for his child nagging?
Of course, this is not an example you or I would like to show our kids that one can or should steal to buy food. If a hungry man steals a loaf of bread to feed his family, it is really a theft. He needs to develop skills that people will pay him for. That is the sensible thing to do. The more honourable thing for him to do is knock on doors and ask for help from his neighbours. By stealing he is taking something from somebody else who has paid for it while he hasn’t. If he wanted to steal he should have thought about not having had kids in the first place if he couldn’t support them. One should think twice or more before ‘making a family’ which he can’t feed.
All these dictates of noble advice are ‘easier said than done’. Yes, stealing is a crime. But if I could not find any other options then I would steal before I would let my children starve. Unless you are starving, unless my child is crying for a pair of shoes, it is not possible to empathise with a pickpocket or with the man at Panthapath suspected of mugging on the eve of Eid-ul-Fitr.
Law and reason have little influence on the mind when survival becomes the primary motivator. If a man steals for food to slake his hunger or for a pair of shoes to stop his child from crying, it is, I daresay, not the thief’s fault — it is squarely the fault of the government.