The circus around the 'chowkidar'

Having grown up largely in army cantonments, I encountered the chowkidar rather late in life. The first time I heard his shrill whistle piercing the night was at a family friend’s home in Chandigarh when I had just finished school. A watchman blowing the whistle and tapping a bamboo stick on the road as he walked past the house took some getting used to, but the sound eventually became reassuring. And I’d go to sleep secure in the belief that he was there, awake, alert and watchful.

The chowkidar in the colony where I now live would also move around armed with a whistle and a bamboo stick. Along the way he’d check every car and alert the owner if he found one that was unlocked. He’d stand there till the owner locked it and then proceed on his rounds with his high-pitched whistle.

Now all of this was very comforting. The only problem was that there were still thefts. First, some kid’s bicycle got stolen from one part of the colony. Then a few car batteries got pinched. And so on. This started bothering the residents a bit. They had put their faith in the chowkidar and had expected him to do his job diligently. And though he had created an illusion of security, there were thefts. Perhaps the thieves were too clever for him. Perhaps the area he had been put in charge of was too large for him to monitor.

Whatever the reason, a few residents decided to do something about it. They turned their attention to the dark and dimly lit areas of the colony and got the streetlights there fixed. The chowkidar could continue going about checking cars, but with everything now lit up, the deterrence for thieves was greater.

At the beginning of every month, the chowkidar and the occasional thefts under this watch. A bicycle here, a few car batteries there, weren’t a big deal after all, they felt.

But the thing is that trust is the bedrock of a chowkidar’s job. And if what he provides is largely the illusion of security, then he needs to up his act. He also needs to keep a watch on each and every part of the area he is entrusted with supervising, especially the vulnerable ones. He cannot be overly vigilant of some areas and casual about others.

Also, just having a shrill whistle does not qualify one to become a chowkidar for their own sake, the way some residents in my colony did by lighting up the vulnerable areas.

But there is a larger issue here: of the farce being enacted in the name of the chowkidar, an underpaid and overworked unskilled labourer who works at least 12 hours a day, seven days a week and earns between Rs 5,000 and Rs 9,000 a month — a fraction of the minimum wage in most states. Two of the country’s largest political parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, are competing with each other to form the next government on ridiculous slogans around this worker whose own future shows little hope of improvement. 

The real chowkidar is the proverbial poor man that Mahatma Gandhi gave his “talisman” for: if in doubt about a contemplated action, ask if it will bring a smile to the faces of the poorest. He is the last man in the queue that Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, whom the BJP worships, said that the politics of upliftment should benefit. But their followers are busy in an absurd fight of one-upmanship in this poor man’s name, waging an election war on social media instead of telling us what they will do to make his life better if we vote them to power — or how they plan to address the real issues that affect us.

Back in 2014, the BJP launched a focused campaign that rested on din (good days) ahead. It was a campaign of hope. Today, what we are seeing is a circus in which we are being treated as jokers. And what’s scary is that we are allowing them to do so.

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