Total Pageviews

Friday, December 17, 2010

Once Upon a Time in the North

"Uncle Judge Syndrome"

How do you narrate an actual but unsavory incident without possibly attracting charges of defamation or more importantly, without causing pain to any of the persons concerned? The usual disclaimer 'any resemblance to any person living or dead…etc.' will only strengthen one's conviction that the incident narrated did really happen. It did.
I shall therefore narrate the incident without resorting to any such subterfuge. In any case, the chance that anything that I write on this blog would hurt anyone's sentiment is a highly unlikely possibility for three reasons. Firstly, the incident happened over forty years ago and most of the actors in that real life drama are not alive now. Secondly, the incident happened in a remote village in North India and my blog does not have many followers anywhere, much less in that part of the country. Thirdly, I intend to change the names of people and places and unless someone makes a determined effort to trace my career progress, there is very little chance of my exposing the identity of the actors.
As I said, the incident took place some forty years ago. I had just started my formal career in the Bank as an Accountant, after the usual probation period. I was posted to a small branch not far from Kanpur. Although, a District Headquarters, the place was quite backward in those days. When I reported for duty, a 'considerate' branch manager offered me the options of staying in a 'dharmshala' or in the branch premises with the guards until I could find an alternative accommodation.
But there was a small hitch. There were no houses meant for renting out in that place. And there were no hotels or lodges offering accommodation either. People sometimes used to rent out a room in their nineteenth century, dilapidated houses but only after subjecting you to a detailed cross examination. "Aap kaun sa devata ko mante hai' 'Aap kaun sa jaath ka hai" "Aaap shakhahari hai kya nahi?" etc. I used to reply that "I do not really recognize any particular devata", "I may be a Shudra, but I am not very sure" etc and promptly used to be turned away. Until one R. Mishra, a Brahmin cashier of the branch, offered to help. He answered all those awkward questions for me by simply restating the obvious fact that I am a 'Madrasi'. It would appear that 'madrasis' had a religion and 'jathi' of their own and were all grass eating 'bakhras'. Anyway one Tewari, a high brow Brahmin, offered to let out a portion of his house consisting of two rooms and a bathroom to me. I took up residence there and was shortly joined by Prabhakaran, a boy from Kerala whose services I requisitioned for taking care of the cooking, washing etc. The 'babus' in the branch used to address me as "Raja saheb" and I thought a personal servant was quite in keeping with the newly acquired royal status.
It was from this house that I witnessed a murder being committed in broad day light. I was coming home for lunch and was just about to enter the house when there were sounds of a commotion behind me. Two persons coming in a cycle rickshaw were being confronted by a group of three persons armed with shot guns and lathis. One guy jumped off from the rickshaw and ran for his life. The other guy was not so fortunate and was felled by a lathi blow. He was lying prone on the road when one of the other guys shot him on the back of his head. There he lay on the 'chauraha'. Surprisingly there was hardly any trace of blood. The body was still lying there in the hot sun when I went back to the branch after lunch.
The district was notorious as a crime prone district and a murder a day was the average. Several Thakur and Pundit gangs, although not quite notorious as the Chambal dacoits, were active in the district. So much so, the District Magistrate or ADM had to be present for an on the spot inquest before the body could be removed. The local police were quite capable of recording a murder as a death due to natural causes or suicide, on caste considerations.
The body was still lying there when I came back from the bank in the evening. But this time the ADM was there and a few police personnel too. After marking the position of the body with chalk, the constables turned it over, face up. Then the blood which had collected under the body seeped through. I noticed that all the shops around the 'chauraha' had closed down and hardly anyone was around except officialdom. I gathered that this is the standard practice in that area as no one wanted to be a witness and get dragged into someone else's fight. I was later told that this was the fifth murder in a blood feud between a Brahmin and a Thakur family. The latest victim was a Pandey (Brahmin) who was returning from the Court where the underlying land dispute leading to the murders was in progress. So were the killer Thakurs.
That evening R.Mishra who brokered my accommodation turned up at my house. In appearance, he was in his late fifties with a full crop of straight white hair. His face was unlined but he had expressionless, dead eyes. He used to keep aloof from the other clerical staff of the branch which I attributed to the fact that he was earlier a watchman at the branch before his promotion as a cashier. He broached the subject of the murder earlier in the day and advised me to say that I was in the Bank at the time of the murder and did not see anything, should the Police make enquiries. He assured me that all the traders in that area would testify that they were away in Kanpur for purchase of goods or attending some religious function and there would not be a single eye witness. Mishra then told me the details of an actual murder in which he was involved.
Mishra hailed from a village about 10kms from the branch. He was an armed guard at the branch at that time. I had been to the village a few times as we had a sub-office there. It takes an hour by bus to reach the place. The bus is usually crowded by villagers carrying 'lathis' and guns of all description, rifles, shotguns, muzzle loaders, side arms like revolvers, pistols etc, most of them unlicensed. In place of the usual 'No Smoking' 'Ladies only' cautions, legends like 'bhari bandook le kar gaadi me math baitna' (do not sit in the vehicle with loaded guns) used to be displayed prominently in the buses. I thought that it was a wise precaution considering the crowd and the usual level of restlessness. The cautions were ignored
In the village, any structure which could be called a house was owned by a Thakur or Brahmin and the 'Chamars' (cobbler community) and other untouchables lived in small huts. But there were more Chamars in the village than the Brahmins and the Thakurs put together. The "Gram Pradhan" used to be invariably a Thakur or a Brahmin as there was never an opposing candidate from any other community. But in that particular year one young Chamar guy filed his nomination for the post. The Thakur, who was the other candidate, was in a fix as the Chamar would win if voting took place. Such a thing never happened before and the prospect of being defeated by a chamar was quite galling for the thakur's 'izzat'. It was Mishra who came to his rescue. On the last date for withdrawal of nomination, Mishra took another chamar lad to the District Magistrate and he submitted a nomination withdrawal request impersonating the candidate. The District Magistrate wanted someone to identify the candidate which Mishra got done by a homeopathic doctor practicing in the town. So it transpired that on the day of election the Thakur was declared elected, unopposed.
For this 'selfless' service Mishra expected to be rewarded suitably. He fenced off about 20 cents of gram sabha land adjoining his property. The 'thakur' after becoming Gram Pradhan suddenly developed scruples and raised objections. Perhaps he wanted the land for himself. Soon the quarrel developed into a 'dushmani' needing atonement by blood. So one night, after the usual Police patrol party had called at the branch and recorded in the beat register 'found guard R.Mishra alert on duty', he cycled all the way to the village with the Bank's shotgun. He reached there by about 10 pm and found the Thakur sitting on a charpoy and having his dinner of dal and roti. He shot him on the stomach and cycled back to the branch and continued with his guard duties.
The Thakur didn't die immediately and was taken to the District Hospital. There he gave a death statement to an attending Magistrate implicating Mishra's younger brother. The wily Thakur may have thought that Mishra may come up with an iron clad alibi and wanted to ensure that he gets even in any case. The Thakur died immediately after recording the death statement.
Mishra's brother was charged with intentional murder and was convicted in the Sessions court to be hanged by the neck until dead. However every death sentence needs to be confirmed by the High Court, in this case the Allahabad High Court. The death sentence was also appealed against. Even in those days, the Allahabad High Court suffered from what the Supreme Court judges recently referred to as 'Uncle Judge Syndrome'. Although the Chief Justice was supposed to allocate work for his fellow judges, in practice the babus had a decisive role in deciding which case was heard by which judge. Mishra's brother's case was heard by a 'favourable' judge. Favorable meant a judge of the same caste or one amenable to influence. Anyway, Mshra's brother was let off despite the death statement recorded by a magistrate. And Mishra continued to guard the Bank branch, of course always 'alert on duty' until he was promoted as a cashier.
But there used to be a rough and ready justice of another kind prevailing in those days. News reached me a few years later that Mishra was waylaid and shot while on his way to the village. He used to take the utmost precautions but one of the 'bhari bandooks' got him finally.
That is the story of one of the loyal employee of the branch. Lest you may think that he was the only 'loyal' employee of the branch, wait till you hear the story of "Jamuna" alias Vijay Bahadur Singh, temporary 'badli' guard at the branch. With this ( tempting?) ending like one of the stories of '1001 nights' I will stop for the moment.


  1. "k. ramachandran" to raju
    Dec 18

    ആയിരതൊനു രാവിലോന്നും ഇത്ര ഉദ്വേഗ ജനകമായ നിമിഷങ്ങള്‍ ഇല്ല.
    waiting for the next episode

  2. "mukundan k.g" to raju
    Dec 18

    Your treatment of the language is quite impressive. Do continue to send me your blogs

  3. Vappala Unnikrishnan wrote

    Unnikrishnan Vappala did u have a premonition when you wrote about the Uncle Judge Syndrome. as my comp doesn't spk malayalam couldn't read your latest post on blog . Except E Abbey and the final expletive!