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Law and disorder are the Indian way

As I prepared to travel from New Delhi to Hong Kong on a late-night flight with my preschooler recently, I was witness to a sorry spectacle that unfolded in the lengthy queue for the special assistance counter in the departures hall at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, a venue offering rich pickings for sociological observation.

As I prepared to travel from New Delhi to Hong Kong on a late-night flight with my preschooler recently, I was witness to a sorry spectacle that unfolded in the lengthy queue for the special assistance counter in the departures hall at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, a venue offering rich pickings for sociological observation.

This counter is meant to spare India’s most fragile travellers — the ailing elderly and young children — from a long wait to have their passports scrutinised. But on this summer night, the queue of hassled parents was nearly out of the door.

All was orderly, if agonisingly slow, until an authoritative man with a military mien arrived with a group of older, wheelchair-bound women and ordered airport workers to push the women to the front of the queue.

A burly father holding a baby shouted at the man, who paid no heed and more doggedly urged the staff to force the women in. Parents protested. Children wailed.

As shouting escalated, violence seemed imminent. Instinctively, I looked around for anyone in authority — a police officer, or member of airport security staff — to pull the warring sides apart, and restore order and fairness.

Surprisingly, in this heavily guarded facility, where you must have a confirmed ticket to set foot in the terminal, there was no security official in the jam-packed departures area.

At a counter parallel to our queue were several unoccupied immigration officers, assigned to process departing airline crews. They were laughing as they watched the chaos and our distress. The scene encapsulated the strange paradox of India and its intrusive-yet-absent state.

India has many paternalistic rules to dictate citizens’ conduct — from prohibiting alcohol sales on public holidays to state bans on eating beef. A simple task such as changing the address for a mobile phone bill is a major rigmarole because of bureaucratic requirements for “address proof”.

But when it comes to providing basic state services such as education and healthcare, the Indian state is often notable by its absence, leaving vulnerable citizens to fend for themselves. That is particularly true when it comes to law and order.

India has a police-to-population ratio of just 138 per 100,000, less than half that in France, Ireland and Germany.

When angry youths from the Jat caste recently rampaged in the northern Indian state of Haryana to demand preferential access to universities and government jobs, sympathetic police officers from the same caste turned away, giving rioters a free hand. More than 1,000 shops, as well as many cars, schools and homes, were set ablaze.

For two years, authorities in the northern Indian city of Mathura ignored the takeover of a 113ha park by a bizarre religious sect, allowing it to establish its own fortified, heavily armed township in the public space. When police finally acted this month, there were violent clashes in which 24 people, including two senior police officers, were killed.

Vigilantism is also pervasive, whether by communities punishing young couples for following their hearts instead of elders’ diktats, or increasingly, Hindu militants attacking Muslim traders for transporting cattle.

The police even ignore ordinary criminal actions. A friend who lives in an apartment compound with limited parking was threatened by rough new neighbours who warned her to stop using her habitual parking spot. She refused.

They lifted her car and moved it into the middle of the road. Terrified, she went to the police, who advised her to get along with the neighbours.

Some Indians are, however, better protected. Currently, 454 VIPs — from politicians to influential Hindu swamis — have a squad of around-the-clock personal bodyguards provided at taxpayers’ expense.

Yet, even without official intervention that night at the airport, no punches were thrown. Angry people were restrained by calmer relatives. In generous gestures, some parents even allowed others in great distress to go ahead of them.

In India’s crowded, underpoliced cities, it is not how often the violence occurs that startles — but how often it does not. FINANCIAL TIMES

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Amy Kazmin is the Financial Times’ South Asia correspondent.

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