The Sheena Bora Case Comment

Small-town girl, Doon school boy

Individuals, not entire classes, commit acts of crime. The media’s eagerness to view the Sheena Bora murder case through the prism of class smacks of cultural racism

There are facts; and then there are urban myths some of which through sheer repetition over a long period of time attain the status of facts. And they become so deeply ingrained in our psyche that we simply assume them to be true. One such myth is playing out right now in sections of the Indian media, especially on television channels, in relation to the Indrani Mukerjea-Sheena Bora case. As much as there is shock and horror over the incident, there appears to be even more shock that such a thing could have happened in “high society”.

Commentators appear to be struggling to comprehend how “normal” people like themselves — educated, successful, urbane and rational — could be capable of doing something so horrid. The debate is marked by a tone of incredulity. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Shaina NC, appearing on a talk show, likened the descent of such a class of society into criminality to kalyug. Note the emphasis on adjectives — “respectable”; “society’s upper crust”; and “glamorous” — that have been used to describe the Mukerjea-Bora clan, and it is not hard to see where these commentators are coming from.

The sting lies in the unspoken subtext. For, what they are really saying is that such conduct would have been perfectly understandable if the dramatis personae had been from “lower society” (they are like that after all) but “these guys” are expected to behave differently. There is a hint of cultural racism, and it flows from our deep-seated elitist assumptions about how classes behave or should behave.

In this imagined understanding of class behaviour, the well-heeled and the clever — the supposedly “respectable” faces of society — are credited with sanity, civility, and rational thought while the “great unwashed” are seen as unruly, irrational, dysfunctional and primitive. They are the “plebs”, you see, and often they know not what they are doing. “But how come people from our own circle — our golf partners, club mates, cocktail circuit buddies — have stooped to their level?” is the question that has pundits struggling to get their head around.

There have been attempts even to highlight the differences in class backgrounds of Indrani and her husband Peter Mukerjea, with the former described as a “small town girl” and the latter as “this Doon School educated guy”, suggesting that this makes his actions more surprising than hers.

TV channels have sought to defend their wall-to-wall coverage of the case on the ground that the intent is to expose the “criminality” creeping into even the upper class of society implying, that it wouldn’t have been such a big deal if this had happened in a poor ghetto as down there they are used to this sort of things.

The fact is that the notion of upper class “respectability”, as against the “licentiousness” of the hoi polloi is an urban myth akin to the idea of racial superiority. Outside the realm of pop sociology and half-baked theories there is no empirical evidence to show that particular classes — posh or otherwise — behave in a particular way. There is no such thing as a “typical” behaviour of either the upper classes or those at the other end of social and economic hierarchy. The belief in “herd” mentality, whereby certain behaviour patterns are assigned to people depending on how the dominant class sees them, is an artificial construct designed to distinguish “us” from “them”.

It is true that different social groups, especially those linked by religious or cultural affinity, share a range of specific characteristics in terms of their lifestyle — the way they live, the clothes they wear and the food they eat. And consumer research has found links between consumption habits and socio-economic background of customers.

But, there’s no definitive data which shows that criminal behaviour is inherent in any specific strata. Mark Twain, speaking about crime in America, said there was “no distinctly American criminal class, except Congress”; and [minus Congress] that’s true of other societies as well.

Poverty, indeed, is regarded as a factor in crime (Aristotle described poverty as “the parent of revolution and crime”) but it is not the same thing as identifying the entire class of poor people as potentially criminal-minded.

Or, conversely, declaring that the rich are immune to it. Individuals, not classes, commit crime. And they do it for a variety of reasons — greed, jealousy, sexual deviance, anger, frustration, psychological factors — which have nothing to do with their place in society’s arbitrary food chain; or whether they are affluent or poor. There are two myths at play in the way the whole Mukerjea-Bora saga is being debated. The first is that “respectability” — itself a dubious Victorian conceit — is the exclusive preserve of the rich metropolitan elite; and second, that once you achieve “respectable” status, you automatically develop an immunity to any wrongdoing.

Such fiction persists, or rather, has been allowed to persist, despite increasing evidence to the contrary. Many deviants being unmasked around the world — among them paedophiles , fraudsters, rapists, marital cheats and even murderers — belong to the class of the rich and the famous. Who can be presumed to be more “respectable” than priests, teachers and doctors? And, yet, Europe and the U.S. have been swamped with scandals, involving such grandees.

In India too, there is no dearth of high-society figures who have ended up in jail for criminal offences; and their tribe is growing. Some of Delhi’s most high-profile crimes in recent years have involved some so-called respectable people. Remember the Jessica Lal murder? Or the killing of Nitish Katara? And Arushi?

Yet, every time such an incident happens, the media (and not just the media) feigns surprise: how could this have happened? The simple answer is: because criminality doesn’t recognise class barriers; and the idea that there’s such a thing as a ‘class-specific crime gene’ against which the upper classes have been inoculated is simply racist. As H.G. Wells wrote, “All crime in the end is the crime of the community.”

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Printable version | Jul 14, 2020 3:37:06 AM |

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