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The Case of a Fatal Fascination

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Once again the largest democracy in the world is going to elect a new government. That brings back into this writer’s memory a spectre he would like to forget. That was the picture of a certain Chief Minister, on the eve of Elections seeking the blessings of a dreaded dacoit, a notorious killer and absconder, at a public meeting,   “while the police and the officials who had been hunting for the criminal stood watching,” according to a report in The Statesman of 2. 11. 1991. The photograph showed   the C.M. in a mood that befits a gratified lieutenant when receiving a red ribbon from his superior. In fact, the bandit bestowed a turban on the C.M.

Incidentally, the newspaper further informed us that within forty-eight hours of this gala acknowledgment of each other’s merits, the dacoit attacked a rival gang and kidnapped ten people including a child.

We are, of course, accustomed to dismiss or to pooh-pooh at such events as the nasty games politicians play – in this particular case played to win the voters belonging to the criminal’s caste. The publicity given to the event shall just add another coat of slime to the politician’s visage (and he does not care two hoots) and the more sensible among us would probably say with some disgust, “If protecting a criminal is a crime, boosting up his image in public should be a greater crime punishable by law,” and then forget all about it.

We are not unaware of the several other social fallouts of such events including demoralisation in the police force and a boom in the dacoit’s arrogance. But the truth we do not wish to be conscious of is: we must suffer them because we are, indeed, fascinated by such awful farces. A politician is not likely to enact such a scene in public out of his love for the criminal. His love is for himself and experience has assured him that the spectators would stand charmed by his strategy and applaud it.

The most generous and yet sound explanation of criminality by any contemporary analyst this writer has read is by Colin Wilson: “It is merely a childish tendency to take shortcuts. All crime has the nature of a smash-and-grab raid; it is an attempt to get something for nothing. The thief steals instead of working for what he wants. The rapist violates a girl instead of persuading her to give herself. Freud once said that a child would destroy the world if it had the power. He meant that a child is totally subjective, wrapped up in its own feelings and so incapable of seeing anyone else’s point of view. A criminal is an adult who goes on behaving like a child.” (A Criminal History of Mankind, 1990)

Perhaps it is the child in us that recognises the child in the criminal, feels attracted towards it, as a child deprived of a lollipop would develop envy and attraction simultaneously towards a child dangling one. There are other factors too. A criminal who thrives by violence is also powerful. And power always attracts. Then we have in us what can be termed as the Robin Hood complex. I would like to do something daring and dazzling which should also be idealistic. If I have not been able to do anything like that, by identifying myself with one who has done that or by admiring him I can have some vicarious satisfaction.

Robin Hoods and Bob Roys also stand for justice to the neglected and the exploited in a milieu where the official machinery of justice remains in the clutches of the oppressor.

Thus it is a jumble of notions associated with the criminal that makes him exotic. Are all such notions illusions? They are not. Every human being has an ideal, however puny. Even a 19th Century thug (who would join an unsuspecting traveller and at the opportune moment suddenly strangle him to death with the help of a chord and decamp with his valuables), when asked what would be his conduct towards a lone traveller who, he knows, does not have even a pie on him, replied, “Are we so mean that we will kill only for the sake of gain and not otherwise? If Providence had put a traveller in our company, we were duty-bound to do our job, gain or no gain.” A thief once narrated to Ravishankar Maharaj, the celebrated social reformer of Gujarat, how he could hear the call of the goddess of wealth hidden, buried and tormented in different houses and how he felt that it was his sacred duty to release her!

But the criminals, kidnappers and terrorists of our time need not be credited with such naivety. Most of these outlaws are unsentimental, conscious criminals, at best possessed by some impish spirits of the darker world, as the occultists would diagnose their mischief and at worst simply selfish, ambitious and cruel beings seeking a shortcut to their satisfaction, as sanity and common sense would view them. They even do not belong to the category of motiveless murderers as portrayed by Andre Gide in his novel Les Caves du Vatican or as discovered in real life in a number of cases, seemingly normal but with some psychological derangement deep within them.

A study of man’s cruelty towards man would show that the habit is addictive. Its perpetrators who begin with certain trepidations are soon metamorphosed into rogues hypnotised by their own wickedness. The Japanese invading Nanking in December 1937 invented such a target for their bayonet-practice that soon it became a craze with them. The targets were hundreds of schoolboys suspended by their hands. A similar craze in other forms was exhibited by the Nazi concentration camps by “scientists” experimenting on captive Jews. The same law, in a milder way, operates in the case of the dacoits. They feel restless if they cannot murder or kidnap. With success in their operations, they grow ambitious. They demand recognition as leaders in their own spheres. They relish their reputation and when leaders of other spheres shake hands with them they feel qualitatively elevated. The watching public, even when silent, legitimatises their feeling.

The biography of a legendary American gangster, Meyer Lansky, by Robert Lacey, shows how much the fascination of the mob for a character who has swindled his way to wealth, contributes to the making of a super gangster.  “At times,” says the reviewer of the biography in the Guardian Weekly (London), “that fascination seems to extend to the entire world of crime… with its violence, energy and pursuit of the fast buck.”

But even in the U.S. where crime is organised almost on a corporate basis, no politician in power would dare to give a public show of his consortship with a criminal. If crime in India has lately become so widespread, it is because we unduly glamorise both – subconsciously the criminal and consciously the politician. No doubt, a part of the crime in India today has ideological pretentions. The plain truth however is, ideology and crime involving personal cruelty cannot go together. Leading hapless rustics to the banyan tree outside their hamlets and hanging them to death at midnight, invading the kitchen and shooting at women and children, are done by people possessed by or addicted to cruelty and not by those inspired by any ideology. Even if such people were to achieve their pronounced goals tomorrow, the addiction will manifest under some other pretext.

Time is here for us to shift myth from reality, our love for adventure and chivalry from the cult of naked cruelty. Barbarity can be checked and criminality discouraged by a very conscious censor of our own conduct and that of the politicians who swear by us, the people. Let us not believe that civilization can be finally lost to the criminal. To quote from Colin Wilson’s well-researched work once again: “Crime is renewed in every generation because human beings are children; very few of us achieve anything like adulthood. But at least it is not self-perpetuating as human creativity is.” Shakespeare learns from Marlowe, and in turn inspires Goethe, Beethoven learns from Haydn and in turn inspires Wagner. Newton learns from Kepler and in turn inspires Einstein. But Vlad the Impaler, Jack the Ripper and Al Capone leave no progeny. Their ‘achievement’ is negative and dies with them. The criminal also tends to be the victim of natural selection – of his own lack of self-control. Man has achieved his present level of civilisation because creativity ‘snowballs’, while crime, fortunately, remains static.
Manoj Das

(Manoj Das is an internationally known creative writer. He is the recipient of India’s national recognition, the Sahitya Akademi Award and the nation’s most prestigious literary award, the Saraswati Samman. As a social commentator, his columns in India’s national dailies like The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Hindu and The Statesman, revealing the deeper truth and the untraced aspects behind current issues, have been highly appreciated.)