‘A Time To Kill’ is among my favourite Hollywood movies. Released in 1996, the film, based on John Grisham’s 1989 landmark novel of the same name, had me riveted to my seat when I watched it for the first time somewhere in the late 1990s.
The film stars well-known Hollywood actors such as Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Samuel L Jackson, Ashley Judd, Kiefer & Donald Sutherland, Oliver Platt and Patrick McGoohan.
The story is about a fictional town, Clanton in rural Mississippi. The time period is 1984. A ten year-old African American girl, Tonya Hailey is raped by two young white men Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis 'Pete' Willard. They beat her savagely and leave her to die after failing to kill her by strangulation.
In retaliation, Tonya’s father, Carl Lee (Jackson), murders the two rapists with an assault rifle in the town’s courthouse.
The town becomes divided along racial lines after Lee is arrested and set up for trial. He hires a white lawyer, Jake Tyler Brigance (McConaughey) to defend him. Brigance is joined by Ellen Roark (Bullock), a law student from Massachusetts. The rest of the movie is a court room drama, which ends with Brigance winning the case and Lee escaping a death sentence.
‘A Time To Kill’ is a landmark novel about race relations in the Postbellum American South. Since it is set in 1984, it showcases how racial prejudice was still alive in pockets of America (and indeed is to this day), many years after Dr. Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights Movement. The notorious and feared Ku Klux Klan is itself a major character in the story, with Lee’s act causing a Klavern to form in Clanton. In one scene, the Grand Dragon dies after a brawl between Klansmen and black protesters.
‘A Time To Kill’ inspired two Bollywood spin-offs too: Pitaah (2002), starring Sanjay Dutt and Nandita Das and Aakrosh (2010), starring Ajay Devgan, Akshaye Khanna, Bipasha Basu and Paresh Rawal. To adapt to a South Asian context, the theme of race was changed to one of caste.
It is said that art imitates life, although the opposite is quite true too. Whatever be the case, something very eerily similar to these three movies took place this week in the village of Katra Sadatganj in Uttar Pradesh’s Badaun district.
Two Dalit girls, both cousins, were found hanging from a mango tree (the Rohilkhand region, where Badaun is located, is famous for its sweet mangoes). Autopsies showed that they had been raped before being hung.
As more of this horror tale has filtered into national headlines in bits and pieces in the last few days, things are slowly getting clearer. What is certain (though not totally certified) is that the girls were most probably raped and hung by Yadavs of the same village (suspicion is pointing to three brothers). Worse, policemen, who refused to do anything for the bereaved family, also belong to the Yadav community. Even the topmost official of the state, the chief minister, is a Yadav, as is the majority of the party that he belongs to, the Samajwadi Party.
This is where the narratives of Katra Sadatganj and Clanton converge. In both cases, females of a marginalized community (Dalit and African-American) are brutalized/killed by men from the dominant social and ruling elite (Yadavs and Caucasian). In both cases, the administrative machinery is heavily dominated by members of the stronger community, who make their best efforts to see to it that the accused are not brought to justice.
There are major differences too. For instance, the Dalit father in Katra will not dream about picking up an AK and shooting the accused Yadavs of the village, a la Carl Lee. And unlike the Klan in Grisham’s tale, there are no Yadav vigilantes in Katra, who will ‘take up the cause’ of the Yadav accused.
That is because UP today, under Messrs. Mulayam and Akhilesh, has become the Klan! Remember, besides Badaun, two other cases of rape have taken place in the state in the past 72 hours, both in Mulayam’s strongholds: One in his hometown of Etawah and the other in his Lok Sabha constituency of Azamgarh. And in both cases, the victims are…you guessed it…Dalits.
One asks, why is Mulayam letting all this happen? Well, in the first place, one should not expect anything from a person who has become a slave of power. “Power is my mistress. I have worked too hard at her conquest to allow anyone to take her away from me.” – so said Bonaparte. Mulayam, it seems, is following this dictum to the ‘T’.
But these incidents, especially Katra Sadatganj also highlight the fact that casteism is alive and thriving in Uttar Pradesh. What else but the powerful passion of caste hatred could have turned those Yadav men into human wolves and made them do the deed that they did?
And that is where India and the US are two different cases. For though racism still exists in America, the days of tarring and feathering, lynchings seem far in the past. In India though, as Katra Sadatganj shows, we still have a long way to go. And till we do not change our own mindsets, we will keep getting the governments that we deserve, like Mulayam and Akhilesh of UP and those scenes of bodies hanging from mango trees will keep on recurring.