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Democracies do not applaud Singham-style justice

During the Independence Day weekend I was Shanghaied into watching what could turn out to be the biggest Bollywood blockbuster this year. Sitting through nearly three hours of amplified fight against crime and criminals in the local multiplex left me with a splitting headache which ruined the feast that awaited us at Karim’s, unarguably the eatery with the best food on offer where we live.

Singham Returns could not have been vastly different from Singham. It’s just that the location changes and the nature of crime gets recontextualised to keep pace with popular politics of the day in the sequel to Bajirao Singham’s first appearance three years ago.

So we had Singham taking on the political-mafia nexus, this time in Mumbai, against the backdrop of elections that, by the time the film gets over, would mark a tectonic shift in the politics of this land. We don’t really need an elaborate recount of the story because by now everybody would have seen the movie. The bare bones will do.

As in Singham, in Singham Returns justice comes not in shades of grey but in stark black and white. The good cop takes on criminals, the rotten system lets him down, electoral expediency makes otherwise honest politicians abandon him. The good cop is not deterred, as he should not be, by such minor obstacles.

So he discards his uniform, as do his colleagues, and they use methods that would not pass scrutiny in a court of law to confront those in breach of the law, toss the rule book aside to extract confessions and, finally, punish the guilty by adopting extra-judicial means.

When the corrupt politician and venal thug-turned-guru are despatched to the other world, there is loud applause. Who would have known the elderly person sitting next to me could whistle with two fingers in his mouth? Or children, not even in their teens, would thrill at the sight of justice being meted out in so grotesque a manner?

In both Singham and Singham Returns, duly cleared by the Censor Board and hence not lacking legal legitimacy, virtue is showcased as something which is non-negotiable. Bajirao Singham is incorruptible. And his integrity is not elastic. That is the way it should be but unfortunately isn’t or else the police would not have suffered from such low credibility.

The justice system is shown as corroded and decrepit, which is not an inaccurate portrayal. Or else individuals and organisations would not have brazenly cocked a snook at law-enforcing agencies and criminals would not have felt bold enough to thumb their noses at the dwindling species called ‘law-abiding citizens’.

Popular cinema has reflected this reality for long. So does Singham Returns as did Singham, albeit in a far more dramatic manner that cannot but awaken us to this nation’s slippery ride downhill. It would be silly to cavil at what the sanctimonious would call ‘negative portrayal’ of our country. Yet I would hesitate to applaud the police, no matter how honest and well-meaning, for taking to extra-judicial means. It could be argued that so long as the means justify the ends there is no call to quibble over them. But that is the argument of those who have given up hope and capitulated before the lawless, never mind their integrity quotient.

Crime can neither be fought nor eradicated the way Bajirao Singham does it. A thin line separates extra-judicial killing and extra-legal execution. More worrisomely, rogue policemen will happily adopt, as they have done in the past, the very means which Singham uses to settle scores, eliminate political opposition and punish those who do not give in to extortion or stand up for their rights.

Between 2002 and 2013, there were 1,788 extra-judicial killings, also known as ‘encounter deaths’ by the police. The largest number of such incidents occurred in UP. It is possible many of the 743 people who were killed were criminals who deserved no mercy. That does not necessarily mean none of the dead were innocent.

If a broken justice system is the reason why extra-judicial killings are resorted to, we need to fix the system. If laws have far too many loopholes that allow criminals to get away, we need to fix our laws. It’s no doubt an uphill task. But who said democracy comes easy? Frankly, August 15 deserved better than Singham Returns.

The writer is a senior journalist based in the National Capital Region. His Twitter handle is @KanchanGupta

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