Lathi Strike

Policeman with Lathi

The lathi is an awful thing; or perhaps it is simply found in the hands of awful men. A simple cane rod, it is brutal (and sometimes even lethal) when wielded by Indian policemen.

Let me confess straightaway that I am no big fan of the police in any country. It is an occupation that tends to attract bullies and power-thirsty, machismo-drunk simpletons. This stereotype seems especially true in Inida.

We arrived from Pondicherry at the Chennai bus stand, and were negotiating with the auto drivers to make the short trip to our friend Dhivya’s apartment in Anna Nagar. We were being quoted an outrageous price of 70 rupees by two drivers, who were openly conspiring on the fee, none the less brazenly for doing so in Tamil, a language neither Yoo-Mi or I speak.

As we normally do when insane prices are demanded of us, we tried elsewhere; in this case with two other autos that were passing by and responded to our wave. Both of these drivers had acceded to our offer of 30 rupees for the ride, and were busy persuading us to join them and not the other, when a policeman came running up, screaming and wildly swinging his lathi at one of the drivers. Narrowly dodging one vicious blow, and taking a glancing strike down his back from another, the driver raced into his auto and sped away. All the while, the police officer beat wildly at the back of the auto, maliciously endeavoring to tear at the cloth enclosure with his lathi.

When the first driver had escaped, the policeman turned his rage on the second driver, who was nervously trying to get to his own driver’s seat and escape the scene. But the cop was between him and his auto, and thing were about to get ugly. That’s when we interceded, telling the policeman that we intended to take this auto, that the driver had done nothing wrong, and to please allow us to put our bags inside and be gone. Faced with two interloping foreigners, the policeman backed down, and we made a quick departure.

Why all the hassle? Because the cop was protecting valuable station-side curb space for a particular syndicate of auto drivers, which did not happen to include the drivers we had waved over.

They do corruption very differently in India than we do in the United States. As befits their vastly, sprawlingly democratic society, graft pervades all walks of life. Any situation that happens to convey advantage on one person over another offers a suitable opportunity for exploitation. In India, almost anyone with any modicum of authority is potentially empowered. In America, where the national dream is of joining the ranks of the elite and where democracy long ago gave way to the power of money, corruption is reserved for those at the top of the food chain. The Haliburtons, the Bill Frists, the Tom DeLays. America insists that the spoils of power be reserved for the privileged few and exercised on a grand scale. And just as the gains do not fall to the common folk, neither are they burdened by the daily pinch. The average American in victimized by corruption in a far less visible, and therefore seemingly more palatable way. India demands that all share in ritual, either as the extortionists or the extorted.

So it no longer shocking to us that the policeman at the bus stand supplements his salary with meager payoffs from certain auto drivers. But the lathi strike is something I will never become comfortable witnessing. In its primitive, direct, close violence, the lathi involves its user in the brutality in a way which is anachronistic. The trend of the 20th and 21st centuries is to distance the violent from the harsh malevolence of their actions. Technology allows us to injure and kill from great distances, thereby sparing our psyches a more direct emotional investment in the act. The lathi-wielding policeman is afforded no such spiritual balm. He must feel the hatred and generate the violent impulses each time he swings.

The lathi strike is as horribly depressing as any of the sorrowful scenes in this often shockingly poor, frequently desperate country.

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