Ode To The Lal Batti: Silenced Beacons Bruise Elite Ego And Shatter Common Man’s ‘Aspirations’
The history of government in India cannot be complete without the mention of ‘lal batti’. Today, we have seen the last of them.
Or so we hope.
As of today, dear lal batti (red beacon), you have been eliminated from the lives of Indians. At one swoop, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Union Cabinet, spearheaded by Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari, took this ‘heartrending’ decision a few days ago and their diktat has come into effect today.
How could they have done this? Indeed, that is a question that is haunting countless desi citizens, from the corridors of power in Raisina Hill, to the remotest villages, settlements and mini-metros across our beloved Bharat. In the heartlands of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, not to mention many other competing states, innumerable mothers and grandmothers, with the male members ably supporting the grieving women, are shell shocked, gobsmacked, zonked, thunderstruck – take your pick.
For generations, they had sung their hymns in praise of the lal batti that would adorn the cars of their little ones, once they had made it to the sarkar. Mind you, for this lot, it is not just the IAS, IPS and the Class 1 Central Services that matter. Even the position of a humble (figuratively speaking, of course) zilla parishad officer or an assistant sub-inspector of police will do.
Beautiful wives, fortunes etc. were distinctly lower in the wish lists of the ammas and dadis. And logically too. Because once the local yokel had his lal batti car, the other attributes of privilege would follow. This is as certain as Newton’s falling apple and the Mughal firmans that descended on this hapless country for centuries.
Already, murmurs of protests have started erupting. A Karnataka political flunkey reportedly said unkind things about the ban. We are lucky that Azam Khan, who has been vociferously protesting that his Z-category security cover had been unfairly withdrawn, has not claimed that his personal rights under the sharia had been trampled upon. I am mightily relieved that the worthies of the AIMPL Board (did I get the abbreviation right?) have not jumped in to support their distressed (and oppressed) colleague. Because that is the appropriate traction which opponents of the lal batti ban need right now – the desi secularists.
However, enough of mundane (even irrelevant) things, I say. We have to get back to the lost icon. An ode is an ode and must get its priorities right, if I want my effort to be in the same league as the classical obeisance of Keats to the Grecian Urn or to the Nightingale. Even if this takes me back for a few moments to the halcyon days in Calcutta’s College Street in the early-mid Sixties.
During the English pass-course classes, we let our attention wander on most occasions until we came across a lecturer who could hold our attention. When it came to the two odes of Keats, this eclectic teacher opened our young minds and eyes to an amazing world of new ideas and thoughts. I am sure some readers of this essay would also have undergone similar experiences in other educational institutions in different parts of the country.
I wonder what the great Amal Bhattacharjee would have thought of the Indian obsession with the lal batti and the resonance it had (and has) for millions of desis who live in palaces or hovels, alike.
For the first group, it represents power and privilege – an instrument of state might and arrogance that is designed to keep the plebeians at bay and instil respect and fear in them for their rulers. For the second group, it is an aspiration that they wish for their near and dear ones, if not for themselves. When these two aspirations met and coalesced, they ensured that a phenomenon like the LB (if we can be bold enough to abbreviate it) survived for decades and indeed proliferated downwards and sideways. The LB is one of the most successful examples of the trickle-down effect that desi economists and sociologists have been prattling on for ages.
Now is the appropriate moment to recount this writer’s personal experience of the power and might of the LB. This is because an essay or commentary becomes that much more effective or convincing when the writer has lived through what he is assessing on paper.
It was on the evening of the 5 November 2005 around 9.30 when I was returning from the Civil Lines area of Delhi. I was cruising along Ring Road (the capital’s arterial route) and was about to reach the traffic light opposite Raj Ghat. (Since then, this section of the Ring Road has been re-structured and re-designed). A speeding limousine with a flashing LB overtook me but had to stop at the red traffic light (of the legitimate variety) next to my car.
I wound down my right window, knocked on the left rear window of the LB car and asked the occupant whether he was entitled to use the LB. The man, in his late fifties, came up with the statutory response of the capital’s oligarchy. “Don’t you know who I am?” When I told him I had no idea, he pronounced grandiloquently that he was a judge of the Delhi High Court (DHC) and a mere minion like me had no right to question his use of the LB.
The light turned green and both our cars turned right towards the football stadium. As we neared the stadium gate, I saw the chauffeur (calling him a mere driver was blasphemy) frantically waving out to me to stop. I did so and all three of us disembarked. The judge hectored me about my sacrilegious behaviour and told me that he would teach me a lesson. I laughed and drove off.
Since my wife was out of town and there was no dinner waiting for me at home, I drove to my club to meet a few friends and to grab a bite. However, I was quite uneasy about the whole affair. It struck me that I should ring up Delhi’s Chief Justice (CJ) whose telephone number was available with the club’s reception. Even though it was late, I reluctantly called and told the “Lordship’s” office about the urgency (threatening behaviour of his fellow-judge). Naturally, I was not put through to the CJ, but his staff said they would note my complaint.
About to reach home at around 10.45 pm, my sixth sense was working overtime. I parked on a lane parallel to ours and walked to our house. Sure enough, there was a Delhi Police gypsy parked opposite, blue light flashing and radio crackling. I knew that a nightmare was looming. Clearly, the DHC judge had made a complaint and my address was tracked by the police in record time from the car’s registration number. However, I reckoned that even Delhi’s finest would not have a description of mine. So I asked the cops why they were in our neck of the woods late in the night. The senior fellow grandly told me that a High Court judge had complained about the “misbehaviour” of the person living in the opposite house and they had come to pick him up.
It was Friday night and I could not return to my own home. I went to an old friend whose father had been a judge of the Bombay High Court and found a warm and hospitable shelter. My friend knew a senior Maharashtrian officer in the Delhi police and contacted him the next morning. The feedback was stark: the judge’s chauffeur had lodged the complaint and the cops were out to pick me up and charge me with a variety of offences that only police wallahs can dream of.
A dear friend of mine, a senior advocate practising in the Supreme Court, was even more realistic – he advised me to contact a lawyer in the Patiala House court and seek his guidance. The information from the Delhi police contact was that the complaint had been lodged in the Tilak Road Police Station and the police was still waiting outside my house.
I tried other sources at the same time – two sitting judges of the Supreme Court were friends and one of them was particularly close to me. A call to his house elicited the information that my friend was on his way to Jodhpur for an official function of the Rajasthan High Court and would not be available to speak till the afternoon. However, his son (who had known me since he was about four years old) assured me he would contact his father.
The other judge of the apex court was not contactable. I also spoke to the son of the Attorney General (AG) of India, who had known my parents well, and the son, also a senior lawyer, asked his junior to prepare the legal brief for me.
The nightmare ended only in the late afternoon when my friend, who had been thankfully contacted at long last in Jodhpur by his son, sorted out the matter with the Delhi High Court judge. The latter told my friend that he felt “sorely insulted” that I had the temerity to question his use of the LB. My friend told him squarely to forget the whole episode.
The denouement came when I visited the police station and met the senior officer the next day, accompanied by a friend of mine from the fourth estate and the junior lawyer from the chambers of the AG’s son. The police officer was polite, only because he knew the background. He confirmed that the DHC judge’s chauffeur had withdrawn the complaint.
There you are, readers. This is not a fable and the editors of this journal have been provided with the necessary corroboration about this incident and the extraordinary power that the LB wielded in the heart of the country’s capital. I shudder to think what would have happened to me if my friends had not helped me to escape the full brunt of India’s repressive oligarchy. All of you can easily extrapolate how the LB’s malevolence panned out in other parts of India. No wonder, the desi elite is so upset by the decision to do away with this ghoulish contraption. It was a glaring insult to the Indian Constitution and to every acknowledged principle and tenet of ethics, law and governance.
It must also be mentioned here that a few years after my nightmare, the Supreme Court held many hearings on the legality of the LB but could not bring itself to abolish it. On 10 December 2013, it passed a convoluted verdict where it restricted the use of the LB to “constitutional authorities” only:
The rambling and meandering order of 34 pages was virtually impossible to administer, riddled as it was with so many exemptions and exceptions. Moreover, the number of categories of oligarchs allowed to use the LB was so large that the entire exercise was meaningless and shambolic.
It needed Messrs. Modi and Gadkari and the Union Cabinet to get rid of this monstrosity totally, more than three years after the apex court’s perambulation. I am absolutely certain that the overwhelming majority of this country’s hapless citizens will wish the Prime Minister and his colleagues the full benediction of the cosmic forces.
It will be graceless if I end with a caveat. However, that is essential and necessary. The Indian state must now come down with a heavy hand on those who disobey the new law, as is bound to happen initially. Enough denizens with hurt egos and bent minds will still try their luck with the LB, so malevolent is its influence. The Republic must firmly and unequivocally punish the violators without exception.
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