Who is the Criminal?

Arvind Verma,
Indiana University- Bloomington, USA

When a petty thief is almost beaten and dragged to death while Shibu Soren, despite conviction by one judge is rendered innocent by another, the question of crime and criminality needs to be examined again. The police profile a criminal as one who is invariably a young uncouth male, largely from an impoverished background and with no known source of income. His association with other such troublesome youth and past brushes with the law, minority status all reinforce the belief of his criminality. Additionally, if he keeps firearms, is a hard drinker, gambles, visits prostitutes and gets into fights his criminality is considered beyond any doubt. The Bhagalpur thief fits this profile closely- uneducated male with little source of income and belonging to a minority group. Twenty five years ago, when police blinded suspects and were again cheered by Bhagalpur residents, the profile was similar. Indeed, a large number of offenders arrested by the police in the country fit the profile given above. Interestingly this is true almost everywhere in the world. The people found to be involved in crimes and as seen from prison records are similar to the profile sketched above. It is also known from research that almost 95% of all crimes are committed by young males between the ages of 16-28. This is empirically observed in every country, society and even from historical records. Male youth are not only the driving force in transforming the society but also the one holding it in terror. In comparison, very few crimes are committed by females. Further, as these active young offenders advance in age, they go out of their criminal activities because of age, marriage and the family responsibility. The career span of most offenders generally does not last more than ten or so years. Of course, this is only an average approximation. There are offenders who operate till their old age and remain active criminals. Natwarlal, Bin Laden and several of our own nefarious politicians provide counter-examples to the norm. But their numbers are small and they are exceptions to the common phenomena of criminals.

The discipline of Criminology questions this belief about criminals and their criminality. It argues that crime is a matter of social reaction. There is nothing intrinsically good or bad for it is all a matter of how people react to some action. Every criminal act of today, even murder, rape and incest has been accepted as 'normal' and even commendable in some society in the past. In fact, many of these have been glorified where the perpetuators have been rewarded for their bestiality. The armies winning a war have invariably celebrated their victory by murdering the vanquished citizens, raping their women and looting their properties. The Japanese officially sanctioned a policy of forcing a large number of Chinese women to provide 'comfort' for their conquering armies. Kings kept large harems where children, including boys were kept as sexual pets. Deliberate killings in the name of state security are still acceptable around the world. The forcible stealing of property was not only acceptable but even supported by the state. The British colonists were perhaps the biggest robbers of the world. The London museum is the largest repository of stolen goods from around the globe. There are hundreds of necklaces and precious ornaments that have been 'stolen' from Egypt, Rome, Athens, India and other major parts of the world. The Bhagalpur jewellery theft is a very minor offense in comparison. Thus, every act that we condemn today has at one time or other been considered a normal behavior. Clearly then our perception of who the criminal is needs re-evaluation although there is a continuing belief amongst the people in this particular profile of criminals.

During my tenure as SP in Bihar, I found that the citizens demonized thieves, burglars and dacoits and described them as most evil. The common villagers looked at those looting their property and threatening them with grievous injuries as the most despicable lot. On the other hand, the landlords who exploited their labor and refused to pay minimum wages; the money lender who charged exorbitant interest and usurped their small holdings and the corrupt officials who siphoned most of the development funds were not seen as criminals. Some did describe them as `dacoits' but not 'real' dacoits. Centuries of belief reinforced by an economic and political system had so conditioned the common people that they could not comprehend who was really victimizing them.

Perhaps this attitude is prevalent through out the country. People continue to despise petty offenders who do cause harm but proportionately less than that by others. However, these bigger offenders, those who run syndicates and rub shoulders with the politicians win admiration and respect. Even though many such marauders commit gruesome atrocities, amass vast amount of ill gotten property and do not hesitate in killing people, nevertheless they are still not considered criminals. The Shahabuddins, Raja Bhaiyyas, Pappu Yadavs and their likes are courted by politicians and common people. Despite incarceration on grievous charges these people are not shunned nor looked down upon by the society. The law makers conveniently take the view that criminal charges are 'political' in nature and unless a person is convicted by the court, criminality cannot be labeled on their brethren. This is a fallacious argument for what happens if a person is convicted by the lower court and then exonerated by the High Court? Is Shibu Soren now no longer a criminal? What if again the Supreme Court steps in and finds him guilty? Does he become a criminal again?

Maybe, there is still a small segment of the middle class that continues to call these people criminals and dubs their phenomenon as 'criminalization of politics'. However, even this classification is confined to a particular type of criminal- one who wields the gun and commits the common forms of property and physical crimes. The more dangerous offenders, those who steal vast amounts of property through stock market manipulations, shady business deals and illegal economic practices find high positions in society and are admired as astute business moguls. Similarly, those who enact public policies to further their political interests, knowing the damage it will cause- the nationalization of banks, reservation in educational institutes, refusal to reform elections laws, are all causing great harm to the society and yet remain revered figures. Criminological theories describe these as 'white collar criminals' and there is considerable evidence to suggest that they cause greater destruction to the society than the 'street level criminals'. The Ambanis, Mittals, Ruias, Mallayas and others who and who of Indian corporate sector have violated hundreds of statutes, made fortunes by siphoning public money and are yet not considered criminals. Indeed, they are looked upon as role models and courted by everyone. The little said about our politicians the better. The Modis, Lallus, Mayavatis, Mulayams, Karunanidhis, Arjun & VPs, Advanis and Badals who let societies burn for petty gains are only said to be playing 'politics' and not committing crimes. When even the Hon'ble Prime Minister files an affidavit to claim that he is a resident of Assam where he rents an accommodation to substantiate the claim, the boundary between white and black criminal in this country blurs into oblivion.

The major problem emanating from this phenomenon is that we are unable to assess the nature of criminality in the society. The white collar criminals cause immense damage to the basic fabric of the community. They hurt the public institutions, play havoc with financial fundamentals, and destroy the environment and the basic framework that purports a lawful, equality based diverse and liberal society. The politicians of course cause the major damage since they wield control over the enforcement agencies and force them to conform to their selfish pursuits. Furthermore, by rupturing established checks and balances in society, by not implementing policies that help the society and instead by making policies that cause fissures, conflicts and develop sense of injustice, they give rise to serious confrontation within the country. The poorly conceived policies of reservations, land acquisition, heavy investment projects that are generating serious problems of disorder are largely political decisions that have not been taken for the benefit of every segment in the society. Moreover, the poor implementation of laws covering serious problems of bonded labor, minimum wages, protection of weaker sections including women and children, those safeguarding the environment, pollution, basic education, health and housing are causing immense harm by keeping almost 300 million people subdued and damage the future of the country. This harm cannot be evaluated in terms of money. Nevertheless, the people directly responsible for these damages are not deemed criminals. The people do not demand that the police be set after them and give them same the treatment at the police stations that are given to the 'street' criminals. Would the sub-inspector even think of dragging a 'criminal politician' for causing a riot?

It needs to be realized that crime is harm done to an individual and the society. Indeed, the state takes responsibility for acting against the criminal because theft, dacoity, causing hurt and killing someone are all deemed to be offense against the state. If criminality is to be associated with the notion of harm to the society then it is clear that all actions that cause harm one way or the other should be perceived and treated similarly. We should realize that shady business dealing, making policies for political gains and not implementing those that help the needy are all actions or omissions that are deliberate acts to damage the society even if these are not direct violations mentioned in the Indian Penal Code. There is no section in the IPC that would define the omission of not educating millions of children or not providing basic health facilities to poor people. The apathy of public officials in updating land records, collecting taxes from the rich, in providing birth and death certificates are all acts that cause immeasurable harm to specific individuals and the society. The policies that procure and bulldoze land for Special Economic Zones without properly compensating the farmer and providing for his future are decisions that are not defined in IPC. Nevertheless, all these are rupturing Indian society and perpetuating the economic disparity within the country. There is no reason why these should not be deemed crimes and the people who commit them as criminals.

It needs to be remembered that the Indian Penal Code was drafted by Macaulay whose contempt for everything Indian was well known. The definition of criminality was designed to suit British interests and to criminalize those actions that threatened the British Raj. Thus, IPC introduced sections on offences against the state, the army and navy, against public tranquility, relating to public servants, and contempt of lawful authority, false evidence and offences against public justice right from the beginning. Offenses, that affect the lives and property of the people and which are the commonest preoccupation of the police and the courts everywhere, were defined only from chapters XVI (section 299) onwards. The punishments provided for various offences include death, transportation, solitary confinement and even whipping. They were all utterly arbitrary and without any rational, jurisprudential or penological basis. The objectives of the British in designing the laws to govern India were to suppress the people and ensure their hegemony. It is ironical that these laws still continue and define crime and its control mechanism.

It is only a greater awareness of crime and its consequences that hardened attitude towards wrong doing and illegality that can ensure that our society is safe from marauders. It is only when we understand that criminals are those who cause harm to the society by their action or omission, when shun them, look down upon them, impose shame on their deeds that we can hope and ensure that the moral fiber of our society is not lost. Only when people of Bhagalpur see the young thief as a desperate person going wayward and the MLA/ MP from the same place as more dangerous person, there will be a hope for bringing our society back from the disastrous path it is treading now. Modern India needs a revision of penal code as well as a new perception of criminality.




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