A Country Called Poison Ville

Sumanta Banerjee


Those who have read Dashiel Hammett's novel Red Harvest, would remember a town called Personville near San Francisco, but pronounced Poisonville by its inhabitants. It is a suburban town run by bootleggers, smugglers, gamblers, hired gunmen, strike-breakers, pimps and touts. The police are their buddies. The courts are owned by them. The mayors and sheriffs are their flunkeys.

Sounds familiar? Shades of Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta? Or, even beyond the Metropolises-Panshkura and Keshpur in West Bengal, the killing fields of Bihar, the dens of vice and corruption in the coastal villages of the South, the haven for gun-runners in the border districts, and the paradise of smugglers in the very birthplace of the Father of the Nation–Porbunder? We have beaten hollow the gangsters of a mid-1920s American town. Their Indian comrades are today ruling the entire country, from the nation's capital to the far-flung villages.

Poisonville's gangsters were petty operators, and followed the old-fashioned code of sticking to their respective areas of expertise. To protect themselves, they depended on


professionals from among politicians, the police, the mayors, the judges whom they kept on their payroll to serve their interests. In Hammett's story for instance, the boss of Poisonville, the lord of the gangs, along with several ‘enterprises’ in the town ‘‘owned a United States Senator, a couple of representatives, the governor, the mayor, and most of the state legislature.’’ Fair enough - according to the old norms of the underworld!

But the modern Indian disciples of the old American gangs believe in Guru-mara-bidya (one-up-manship over the teachings of the guru). Not content with owning the legislature, the administration and the courts, they themselves have taken over, and become ministers, bureaucrats and judges. It is officially acknowledged that a substantial number of MLAs, MPs, as well as ministers in some state legislatures, are registered criminals in police records. The Vigilance Commissioner has nailed several senior bureaucrats on charges of corruption. Even officials in the CBI, the highest body for investigating crimes, have been accused of criminal misdemeanour. Where will these accused be tried ?