Punished for being poor?

At around 5.00 am one morning in 1989, I was travelling by an auto-rickshaw from the railway station to my house. I was upset that the auto-rickshaw driver had demanded Rs. 20 more than the night fare, and I was releasing my frustration by muttering to myself. All of a sudden, the driver asked, “Sir, many people say Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi has taken a bribe of Rs. 64 crores from a foreign weapons manufacturer called Bofors to give them a huge order from the Indian Army. See what our nation has come to!”

I replied, “I’m not an admirer of Rajiv Gandhi’s. But, I don’t think he has taken the bribe.”

The auto-rickshaw driver persisted, “Sir, some highly respected newspapers have published documents which show that Bofors has definitely paid this bribe, and that this bribe is meant for Rajiv Gandhi.”

I replied, “Maybe a bribe has been paid. But I don’t think Rajiv Gandhi has taken the bribe. Some other people may have taken the bribe by misusing his name.”

At this point, the auto-rickshaw driver said something I’ve never forgotten: “Sir, even after reading the reports in highly respected newspapers, you are not willing to say that Rajiv Gandhi MAY have taken the bribe. On the other hand, a few minutes back, you were condemning me for asking only for Rs. 20 extra fare. Why this difference, sir? Isn’t it because he is an upper caste, fair-skinned, English-speaking man belonging to a wealthy and powerful family and, most importantly, the Prime Minister of the country, but I am a lower caste, dark-skinned, non-English-speaking, poor auto-rickshaw driver? Let me tell you, sir, the policemen at the railway station harass me because I drive the auto-rickshaw in the night shift. I can get away from them only by bribing them. I charge extra fare only to compensate for those bribes. Powerful politicians make money by cheating our motherland, but people like you respect them. You will shake their hands, maybe fall at their feet! I am trying to earn a living by working honestly, but you treat me as if I’m a criminal. Sir, I’m not a criminal. The bitter truth is, my poverty is my crime!” I had no reply.

I remembered this incident after reading this report in The Times of India about Umakant Mishra, which was sent to me by a blogger friend.

In July 1984, Umakant Mishra, who worked as a postman in Kanpur, was accused by his seniors of stealing Rs. 57.60. He was suspended from his job, and a criminal case was filed against him. After over 300 hearings over 29 years, he was declared innocent in November 2013. In the meanwhile, he remained suspended from his job for almost 26 years till his retirement in 2010. He and his family suffered financial problems and social stigma. They think that their future is destroyed.

Umakant Mishra and his family have suffered immensely, for no fault of theirs, for Rs. 57.60, which was not a big sum even in 1984. Even if he was guilty, this punishment is unfair.

Compare Umakant Mishra’s case with people who get away with massive corruption, sexual crimes and worse only because they are wealthy and/or powerful enough to influence the police investigation in addition to having the means to hire highly paid lawyers who can get them proved innocent in a court of law.

Was Umakant Mishra punished for being a humble postman, not a powerful and wealthy politician or businessman?