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Ajit Balakrishnan: Real ways to make sense of India

'Indianomix: Making Sense of Modern India' analyses famous Indian dilemmas such as the Reuben-Keenan tragedy, the India-China war of 1962 and why reckless pedestrians cross railway lines

Ajit Balakrishnan 

In October 2011, two young men, Keenan Santos, 24, and Reuben Fernandes, 29, were stabbed to death in Mumbai’s suburb of Andheri. The stabbing was watched by a crowd of 50 onlookers, who did nothing to intervene and stop what was going on; nor did they call the police.

“All seven of us [the three girls, Keenan, Reuben, Reuben’s brother Benjamin, and Avinash Solanki] present that night were good friends. Our group was full of life. We would visit the Amboli Kitchen and Bar restaurant every few days, and especially when there was a cricket match,” one of the girls later recounted to the Mirror newspaper. “As a ritual, we would have our food and go for sweet paan at a neighbourhood shop. That night, we had just ordered our paans when four men standing there started passing lewd remarks.” When one of the men starting walking towards them, “Avinash stepped forward to stop the man. They got into a heated argument. When he passed a dirty comment [‘ladki hai toh hero banta hain kya, ladkiyon ko utha lenge’], Avinash slapped him. Reuben got involved, and he slapped the man as well. The man, later identified as Rana, left with the others, saying, ‘ruko, sabko maar doonga’ [Wait, wait, we’ll kill you all].”

While the group remained at the spot, thinking that the unpleasant episode was over, Rana soon returned with 12 or 13 men, some of them carrying knives and bamboo stumps. “There was hardly any time to react,” the girl said. “Our friends told us to go inside. They pushed us into the restaurant and started shouting loudly for help. ‘Help! Help! Help!’ they screamed, but no one came forward.”

One of the men started attacking Keenan and stabbed him.

“By now they had brutally stabbed Keenan on his stomach and chest. Then they started stabbing Reuben. Even when Keenan was lying on the floor, they were hitting him... I kept shouting for help. Avinash and the waiter tied a cloth on his stomach. There was a huge crowd on the road watching the whole incident, and a lot of people at the restaurant, but no one moved.”

Keenan and Reuben died of stab wounds and sparked a nationwide furore.

In the search for explanations for this bizarre incident, some observers said that easy availability of alcohol was to blame. Others said that it was time Indian youth was taught self-control — “Pranayam and Yoga should be compulsory subjects in all schools before we degenerate totally as a society.” A third view was that “the culprits in this incident should be given exemplary punishment to deter such incidents”. Several other views were expressed in the media: “Perverted and corrupt governance is deep in the of India”; “...we demand that sections 354 and 509 of the Indian Penal Code must be made stronger ... offences such as eve teasing and sexual harassment are bailable; it’s time we make some serious reforms and amendments in our legal system to deliver quick justice and not to let the culprits roam free even after committing such a gruesome act as a murder. But who’s listening, surely not these bloody

None of these explanations satisfy and Rupa Subramanya, the authors of Indianomix: Making Sense of Modern India. They see the Reuben-Keenan incident as an example of a phenomenon in which onlookers do nothing even as they watch crimes in progress in plain sight or do not heed cries for help. They just walk away. One reason why people do this, they say, is that a “selfish gene” exists in all of us. If you run to help people in danger, such as Reuben and Keenan, you put your own life at risk. As a result, there is a chance that you might not be around to pass on your genes to your offspring. In other words, your genes are programmed to maximise your own fitness or survival, and so are “selfish”.

Besides this biological explanation for the apathy of onlookers, the authors invoke another cause, this one from economics. Faced with a Reuben-Keenan moment, onlookers make complex economic calculations: what are the costs to themselves for extending help compared to the benefits to Reuben and Keenan? Secondly, if you do help, you may have to incur additional costs such as being a witness in interminable court hearings that take you away from your work or business. Or you may just be psychologically averse to entangling with the police.

What is refreshing about the book is that it analyses famous Indian dilemmas such as the Reuben-Keenan tragedy, the India-China war of 1962, why reckless pedestrians cross railway lines, why India chose to be a democracy unlike our sibling rival China, and even why the media favours publishing bad news over good news. Moreover, not once do the authors invoke “corrupt politicians” or “lazy bureaucrats” or demanding a “death penalty” as an explanation or a solution. They prefer to invoke concepts such as “attribution bias”, “economic trade-offs” and “opportunity costs”.

I am busy scratching my head and trying to figure out how to make this book required reading for our journalists, politicians, non-governmental organisations and other participants in The Great Indian Discourse.
Ajit Balakrishnan is the author of The Wave Rider

First Published: Thu, January 24 2013. 00:50 IST