June 2015: It’s time to change our attitudes towards governance and become community conscious.
I was 18 and in my first year of college, and reached the bus stop at New Delhi’s posh Chanakya Puri locality to catch a bus home, as I did every day. Here lay a little calf that was clearly in distress, and I stopped to help it. Soon a crowd of about 40 gathered to watch, though only three boys responded to my requests for water/milk/any help—two from Meerut, in town for an entrance exam, and a student from a nearby college.
A deep realisation dawned that day, that’s only gotten stronger since—in India, there is a lot of curiosity but no (or very little) concern. Bystanders stand by watching, talking, as others cry for help—or die for help, in the case of Jyoti Singh Pandey.
So when corporate lawyer Janhavi Gadkar got behind the wheel that fateful day two weeks ago, no one said a word. Not the bar or valet staff at Hotel Marine Plaza in whose bar she started the night, nor her colleagues Rahul Dutt and Shailendra Rane who she was there celebrating with. Not the staff as Irish House where she continued to, nor Alok Agarwal, the CFO of RIL who she there with. (Rahul did apparently ask if she was okay to drive, but bought her “Don't worry, I have done this before” answer.)
She drove, drunk, on the wrong side of the Eastern Express Freeway, killing cabbie Mohammad Hussain Sayaed and his passenger Salim Saboowala who was in the car with his family. Since, she’s lost her trial by media, even if she, like other privileged people before here, manages to out-machinate the law.
Shouldn’t someone have stopped her? If one sees drunk driving, the wilful act of endangering others, as ‘homicide’, aren’t her drinking buddies and those serving her the alcohol morally (if not legally) culpable? Shouldn’t someone—anyone—have got involved?
But we don’t give a shit. The ‘Indian Psyche’ dictates a deep involvement with our respective blood families and religious communities (the romanticised cores of our culture), and somewhat with friends and colleagues. We’re apathetic towards the rest, our heartstrings immune to the hungry beggar children beyond our cars’ windows (philanthropy isn’t really a thing here), or a person or animal in need. (The worst thing about being gang raped and left unconscious in a ditch on a busy highway, my friend told me, was the three hours it took her in the morning to flag down a motorist. “I was barely clothed, bleeding and could barely stand—no one stopped.”) I wonder what Gandhi would say.
Divisive politics don’t help. Neither does the process of law enforcement—seen as inherently unjust, as well as stressful and lengthy. I don’t for a moment deny that we need stricter laws, stronger enforcement and a less sluggish judiciary. But we also need to mend our public attitudes towards governance.
Everything is not someone else’s problem. And while we need to start following ‘the spirit of the law’ ourselves, we should also develop a sense of community responsibility and get involved, in big ways and small—from giving strangers in distress lifts to preventing drunk friends from driving.
In the case of my friend, and in my years of animal rescue and general activism since the incident with the calf, I’ve noticed that the few who do help are invariably of college-going age—not yet overcome by the cynicism of real life, still idealistic enough to believe one can make a difference.
We all can. Because the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
An edited version of this article appeared on iDiva in June 2015.