The picture, as the cliché goes, says it all: 14 men, including one uniformed policeman, are standing on a railway platform in Indore watching a child pick up something from the train tracks with his bare hands. The 14 men are all well-dressed – belted jeans and trousers, striped T-shirts, long-sleeved shirts, all wearing shoes. In other words, what we would call ‘middle class, educated, decent.’ There are also two little children standing on the platform in front of a man who is possibly their father, watching the events unfold. One of the children has his hands clenched in front of his mouth.
In my opinion, all 14 men ought to be in jail for doing nothing to stop a case of horrific, blatant child abuse.
The boy on the train tracks, 12 year-old Firoz, is collecting the severed head and other body parts of a suicide victim. Firoz was ‘asked’ to do the job by Ashok Yadav, a member of the Railway Police. When the boy resisted, he was offered Rs 100 to do the job. Apparently, ‘pressure’ was also put on him. The boy is a rag picker who lives and works on the railway platform, and like all street children he is at the mercy of the uniformed men, powerless to resist. While by-standers watched, Firoz found himself doing a job that trained personnel balk at.
According to newspaper sources, there is at least one suicide a month near the Indore railway station. One would assume that the given this frequency, there would be correct forensic procedure for dealing with the bodily remains. Shockingly, the system for dealing with suicide victims at this station seems to consist of Shera, a 26 year-old youth born, brought up and no doubt brutalized, on this very platform. Regular conservancy workers, it seems, refuse to do the job. It was Firoz’s bad luck that when this recent suicide occurred, Shera was not to be found. Hence, when Ashok Yadav was informed of the suicide by train passengers, the policeman seems to have gone to fetch another member of that cadre of society which in his mind exists solely to deal with the ghastlier aspects of human existence – clearing dirt, scavenging animal carcasses, dealing with excreta and, it seems, disposing of human remains: he left the station and returned with a rag picker.
Firoz was made to gather the body parts and load them onto a pushcart. The monster of a policeman tried to get him to search the dead man’s pockets to establish his identity – a task that proved too much even for Firoz. The body remains were then taken away. In full public view. No one physically stopped the policeman from getting a child to do this horrific task. No one jumped down onto the tracks and pulled the 12 year old away to safety. No one told the man on the platform to shield his two small children from the dreadful mangled and bloody sight, rather than letting them watch from the very edge of the platform.
To be fair, some by-standers and train passengers were shocked enough to lodge an official complaint and a formal inquiry is now underway into the incident. Five police personnel have been transferred and one head constable has been suspended. But this will not come as any comfort to the 12 year old boy whose mind, not surprisingly, is now besieged by nightmares. He is under medical observation after his friends – who say that he was always a bold and fearless boy -- reported that he has been screaming in his sleep, saying that ghosts and bad spirits are after him, behaving erratically and seeking refuge in a shrine. Doctors treating him say that the child may be traumatized and scarred for life. The District Child Rights Protection Forum has said that it would move the state and national human rights commission over the issue. The Forum has sought registration of criminal cases against the policemen involved in forcing the child to collect body parts. Forum member Tapan Bhattacharya told DNA, "Merely suspending the policemen would not serve the purpose. An FIR should be lodged against them so that it acts as a deterrent."
Perhaps an FIR should also be lodged against all those who stood by and watched as such a severe and blatant violation of human rights took place. But is there any deterrent at all for socially-sanctioned insensitivity?
The photograph shows at least 14 people watching Firoz rather impassively and one cannot but be engulfed with anger. What allows them to stand by and watch, to accept and hence by default condone what was done to Firoz? What makes it acceptable for the ‘regular’ suicide victim disposal unit at the Indore station to be another destitute, a homeless 26 year-old? No matter how we try to cloak it, the C word raises its head again and again, in instance after instance of brutality that is showcased in broad public view day after day in our country.
So deeply lodged in the Indian psyche, never really exorcised, the demon of caste laughs raucously as we deny its existence, subtly directing so many of our decisions, tainting so much of our worldview. How else to explain the fact that we so easily consign entire swathes of population to such a sub-human category that we do not even pause to consider them as human beings, their aged as senior citizens, or their children as children? Recognising that the sheer will to survive forces people to live and work in ways that they would really rather not (it never fails to surprise us that these people actually want to live, fight to live!), we then traverse an ethical Möbius strip and let the cause become the reason. We tell ourselves that people like Firoz who make their living from waste are less sensitive than us, less human than those who earn their livings from more ‘elevated’ tasks – tasks that do not soil or blister our hands, tasks that do not require us to swallow the bile that rises in our throats, tasks that do not break our backs. We convince ourselves that the poor, the ‘low caste’, the homeless require less food, less comfort, less beauty, less leisure, less love and care, that they do not feel nausea or pain or disgust or attachment -- no, not the way we do. We tell ourselves these things because we think that it is in our best interest to keep this house of cards standing, perched as we are on the topmost layers.
As Indians, we love to talk about our age-old values and customs, how we respect our old and cherish our children, how we are community-orented and warmer than the materialistic West. Perhaps as Indians, we should also talk about the finesse with which we draw immutable circles of exclusion around ourselves, our families, our communities, our castes, circles of diminishing humanity, diminishing respect.
In the photograph, the severed head that Firoz is holding in his bare hand, has been pixelated. One can only pray that, Firoz, traumatized as he is, finds a safe way to blur a memory that should not be part of any child’s mind.
-- Ujwala Samarth is Programme Coordinator at Open Space.