It's not Jungle Raj, it is tradition

There is violent crime everywhere in the country.

 |  4-minute read |   31-10-2015
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The prime minister raised the spectre of "Jungle Raj" recently. Campaigning for his party in Gopalganj, he accused Lalu Yadav of having turned it into a "mini-Chambal". There have been references to a "kidnapping industry", for which the Chambal Valley was renowned.

I didn't grow up in Bihar but I have been to Chambal and I have met a few dacoits. One thing I can say: kidnappings per se have little to do with the law of the jungle. The phrase refers to a system where only the strongest survive and it doesn't apply to the Chambal where dacoit gangs were, in fact, professional kidnappers but they were not necessarily the "strongest" class. They were just outlaws with guns. Besides, the poor don't get kidnapped for ransom. The "pakad" (kidnapee) must have the means to pay a ransom, otherwise it doesn't make sense.

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Centuries ago, the pakad would be a trader or a lord of some kind. In recent decades, gangs were still targeting traders and businessmen and a few upper-middle class professionals like doctors or engineers. Based on what I've heard and read, it was a similar situation in Bihar in the 1990s. People were appalled at the kidnappings and murders, of course, but what really rattled them was that they could no longer count on the system - the leaders and the state's administration. These were people who were not used to being subjected to violence, or having their physical autonomy stripped away in a moment. To their mind, a system that failed to protect them was a non-system.

Yet, violence has been part of our history. Poor landless labourers were forced into bondage that lasted not only for their lifetime but even into future generations. Dalits were rendered so powerless that they could not even refuse to pick up other people's shit. Widows were burnt, or systematically relegated to loneliness and poverty. Little girls were married off to old men. In fact, even now, few women get to choose who has sex with them, and there are places in this country where the assertion of choice leads to kidnapping, criminal intimidation and murder. We just don't call it "jungle raj"; we call it tradition.

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In Bihar, there was another twist on the kidnapping theme - a tradition called "pakadwa vivaah" whereby men were kidnapped and forced into a wedding. I recall a conversation in Delhi a few years ago where a man spoke of having to travel through Bihar for his job. He wore the cheapest khaddar shirts, never had more than a couple of hundred rupees in his pocket and to anyone who asked, he would say he was already married. He was more worried about a gunpoint wedding than kidnapping for ransom.

This was not Lalu Yadav's doing. It was the result of insanely high dowry demands. Most girls' parents were resigned to paying dowry, particularly in the upper and middle castes. But the parents of sons (especially educated sons who were likely to find jobs) were making demands that couldn't possibly be fulfilled. Despite this, people would not allow daughters to marry outside the caste or religion. They'd rather kidnap a groom and then leave the girl to suffer the consequences, whatever those might be.

There is violent crime everywhere in the country, from abduction to custodial torture, from bride burning to rape and murder. And it is true that Lalu Yadav failed as chief minister and as an elected representative. His main failing was that he did not assure justice to all, regardless of caste and gender. In a lawful state, the strong do not get to prey upon the weak. The difference between the law of humanity and the law of the jungle is just that - equality and justice for each individual. If this principle is violated, what we get is a sort of jungle raj, whether we call it by that name by some other.

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Writer

Annie Zaidi Annie Zaidi @anniezaidi

Annie Zaidi is known for her collection of essays, Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales, which was short-listed for the Vodafone Crossword Book Award in 2010.

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