Servant as Murderer

 

"The fact that Nepalis are by nature straightforward has been proved false."

On the night of 13 January 1996, 48-year-old executive Satya Prakash Sharma, his 42-year-old wife Shobhana, daughter Charu (20), son Puneet (15) and their nine-year-old domestic help, Dinesh, were bludgeoned to death in their flat in the upper middle class locality of Vasant Kunj in South Delhi. Even by the gory standards of the Indian capital, this one shocked the city.

Four months later, police arrested Tika Ram, the 20-year-old servant of the Sharmas. The arrest of the young Nepali made page-one news in all the Delhi newspapers, and pictures showed a dazed Tika Ram in handcuffs being led to the courts. Police said he had confessed to the murders.

The Sharmas was just one household of scores where family members were killed by domestic helpers in Delhi over the past year. Five of 12 incidents in the first quarter of 1996 are said to have involved Nepali servants, which led the New Delhi police to issue a circular suggesting that Nepalis not be hired as servants because of increasing criminality among them.

The crimes served to erode the stereotype of the Nepali "bahadur", whose qualities of loyalty and honesty have long been cherished in India. It is an image which goes back to the conscription of Nepali men in the Indian and British armies, and which has been honed by the portrayal of the faithful bahadur in Nepali cap.

The popular Hindi family magazine Manohar Kahaniyan, providing a detailed account of the Tika Ram case, had this to say, with more than a little exaggeration: 'The last two or three years has seen hundreds (saikadon) of deaths at the hands of Nepali servants. The fact that Nepalis are by nature straightforward has now been proven false.î

What, then, has led to the increased criminality among the immigrant Nepalis and, more particularly, those employed as domestic help? Some Nepali observers feel that the New Delhi police and press have exaggerated the issue, and that Nepali helpers are no more or less prone to theft and violence than any other community which serves as the underclass in middle class and rich metropolitan households. Others believe that Nepali criminality easily made the news because it is seen to dispel a myth.

If it is true that criminality is on the rise among Nepali domestics, the explanation probably lies in the fact that there has been a change in the composition of the pool of Nepali labour in India.

Changing Demography

Every day, an estimated 300 Nepali citizens are said to disembark from the long-haul buses arriving in the Indian capital from towns bordering western Nepal. More economic migrants, fleeing impoverishment in Nepal's midhills, arrive by train, and thousands go to other Indian cities. Most have no education, and many are mere children, sons of subsistence farmers who cannot feed them from their meagre harvests.

The increase in crime among Nepali workers is attributed by some to changing demography. Whereas earlier they came as unknowing visitors from the hills, today roads, highways, and video halls have penetrated the Nepali hinterland and exposed the rural folk to life outside the village. Many of the young who migrate are no longer the ignorant hillbillies of yore, and they have grander visions of what they want to achieve in the city than their fathers and grandfathers. The only factor that remains unchanged is the hill poverty.

The Nepali labour is also more mobile nowadays. Used to be a time when joining the service of a sethji meant it was for the rest of one's working life. With Nepali communities having sprung up in many parts of India, it is easier for the migrant workers now to job-hop. Tika Ram, for example, had repeatedly shifted through seven Delhi households within the span of a mere two years, and he had also worked at various times in Noida, Gurgaon, Panipat, Patiala, Ludhiana and Mohali.

Nepalis have, therefore, over the years become more savvy and knowledgeable about plains living. However, the employers perception remains clouded by their belief of Nepalis as genial, but uncouth, country bumpkins. When the lack of respect becomes evident, the trouble begins. The new stock of young Nepalis are sometimes not willing to take things lying down.

Bewildered Victims

According to social scientist Ashis Nandy, it is in the nature of the city that is largely responsible for the escalating crime and violence by Nepali workers. Coming from a close-knit "moral" universe where family and community ties are all-important, the complete impersonality of a city like Delhi baffles and disorients the migrants, he says. At the same time, the flamboyant lifestyles and conspicuous consumption of their employers can appear vulgar.

The second impression the young Nepali migrants gain, says Mr Nandy, is of a dog-eat-dog universe where the law of the jungle prevails. Slowly but surely, the servants begin to grudge their own lot. Added to this are the agents of mass culture in the city in the form of Hindi cinema and television, which serve to heighten the contrast between the quality of life of the immigrant and the trappings of a "normal" life.

Mahendra Lama, a scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, concurs. The sudden exposure to urban life, along with the soulless glamour depicted in satellite television and cinema and the various vices that are part of the big city culture, often leads the Nepalis to nurture get-rich-quick dreams. This pushes some towards a life of crime, says the academic.

But that is only one aspect of the problem, says Mr Lama. The rising crime graph among migrant domestics might also reflect a bid to assert personal dignity. Often, the Nepalis are employed in homes under harrowingly inhuman conditions. Their basic rights are blatantly violated, salaries are abysmal, and the physical and social conditions are appalling,î he says.

Earlier, with limited avenues open to them, the Nepalis drifted naturallly to work as domestics. Today, many Nepalis are also serving as industrial labour, at office jobs, as tailors, and so on. Only about 20 percent now seek domestic work, says Mr Lama. Over time, these household workers become aware of the degree of exploitation they face and their attitude changes in the face of continuing abuse. When pushed to the wall and finding nowhere to turn to, the basically submissive, honest, polite and hardworking Nepali will show his other face. Being raw and rugged and not very familiar with the language, they find it easier to hit out than to argue,î says the academic.

Not dissimilar is Kathmandu-based economist Pitambar Sharma's observation: While it could be that the so-called criminality of Nepali servants is getting more publicity than it deserves, it is also likely that many of these acts are conducted by servants responding to maltreatment.î In his confession, Tika Ram reportedly told the police that he had killed all the Sharma family members because they abused him physically, and often blamed him for the misdemeanours of the two teenage children.

The General Secretary of the All India Nepali Unity Society, Bamdev Chhetri, maintains that the enthusiasm with which the Indian newspapers covered Tika Ram's case made it seem like part of a concerted attempt to slander the Nepali character. Mr Chhetri believes that Tika Ram's full story is not yet out, and that there must have been some cause for drastic action by the young accused. ìAlternatively, Tika Ram must have had some Indian accomplices,î says Mr Chhetri.

The Degree of Violence

Maxwell Pereira, the Additional Commissioner of Police for New Delhi's Southern Range, is willing to accept the sociological explanations of rising criminality only partly. According to him, the chief motivating factor for crime among the Nepali immigrants is, quiet simply, the lure of easy money.

While crime has always been prevalent in the Nepali community because of the stark contrast between the workers' economic status and that of their employers, it is the degree of violence that is new,î says Mr Pereira. He attributes this to the general trend of increasing violence in the cities, a situation within which the Nepalis too are by now enmeshed.

The police chief says even in cases like that of Tika Ram, who fled without taking anything from the house, greed seems to have played an important role. If that was not the motivation, asks Mr Pereira, why would Tika Ram have come back to work in a household that he had quit two years ago after an altercation? He was about to get married and needed money and lied to the Sharma family about his interest in coming back,î he says. It is a different matter that, later, the factor of ill treatment at the hands of the family came into play.

The Nepal-India border is open for the public but closed for police investigation. This provides a protective shield for Nepali workers bent on criminality, a shield that is not available for other domestics in India, explains Mr Pereira. This seems to act as an additional motivating factor. Once the accused crosses the open border back into his country, it is virtually impossible for Indian authorities to apprehend them to stand trial through regular means. Only the Nepali authorities can prosecute a crime committed outside Nepal when the suspect has returned home. Mr Pereira says that in more than 20 years of police service he has not seen or heard of a single case of a crime committed in India being prosecuted in Nepal.

Even if a single man goes back safely with the loot, he provides inspiration to many others,î says Mr Pereira, cautioning that criminality among Nepalis may therefore be a rising trend.

Two years ago, a diplomatic fracas ensued when Indian policemen followed Babloo Srivastava, an underworld figure, into Kathmandu. Now, says Mr Pereira enigmatically, the Indian police force has its own methods.î In the case of Tika Ram, a policeman whose native village was near boy's village of Lahapi in the Dang Ghorai region of west Nepal, went home, ostensibly on leave. Meanwhile, friendly business people of the border region were asked to keep an eye out for Tika Ram. How exactly the suspect was brought across the border, Mr Pereira is unwilling to say, but he adds emphatically, We want to blast the myth that they can find a save haven after committing crimes in Delhi.

Livelihood in Danger

One thing is clear: a new breed of alert young Nepali men is entering the job market in India. If the Indian market does not adjust to these higher expectations and allow the workers entry into levels other than domestics, there is bound to be some form of reaction. A continued and forced placement as servants without hope for the future would mean that frustrations will be bottled-up, to violently explode at regular intervals.

Mr Nandy predicts that given the nature of New Delhi's society, crime and violence can only increase till they attain the levels witnessed in the cities of the United States. ìIn a discriminatory society, crime constitutes a relatively egalitarian oasis.

Mr Lama of Jawaharlal Nehru University is fearful that this, in turn, could lead to an indiscriminate media-propelled reaction against Nepalis irrespective of guilt or innocence. This would be disastrous to the economy of the Nepali hills, particularly of the far-west, overwhelmingly dependent as they are on the Indian job market.

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