It was small village in North India and the only semblance of its connection to the urban life is the dusty road through which rickety buses passed through daily at infrequent intervals. One could see camel carts loaded much beyond its size parked on the sides of the road. A few tractors could also be seen plying people.
One could discern from a distance a few people seated on a raised platform around a big tree with many folks seated on the ground. The winter had not set in but there was a nip in the air as was evident from the blankets over the shoulders of a few. There was a tall and well built man of about 70 with a big turban in white kurta and dhoti worn through the legs seated centrally. There was a hookah by his side. He seemed the head of the village panchayat and had some dignified bearing
The panchayat is an informal organization operating in the villages that set rules some of them illegal and dispensed justice not always in conformity with government rules and laws. It met routinely this Sunday morning with no big issues on hand to be resolved. There was no controversial sa-gotra marriage, case of adultery or rape or assault. Everything seemed peaceful till it was broken by the shrill cry of a young boy of about seven or eight years being dragged by Bola the local grocer towards the group. The boy in shorts and an over sized vest seemed to be in pain presumably from the beatings by Bola.
“Hey Bola, what happened? Why is the poor urchin crying?” asked someone from the raised platform.
“This ladka (boy) is a thief even at this young age and if left unchecked may turn to be a robber. He took bread from my shop even as I was present there and ran away without paying for it. I had to chase him up to his hut and bring him here. He should be punished by burning his palm with hot iron as is the custom in our village”
“What is your name, young boy? Is it a fact that you took bread from Bola's shop without paying for it and ran away? Tell me the truth” asked the elderly head of panchayat.
The boy was silent initially and after some prodding said “My name is Murari.What he says is true. I took the bread as my mother is starving for the last three days. We have no money. She is dying. I could not bear see her hungry. I am sorry.”
“You should have requested him explaining the situation. What you did is wrong and you deserve a punishment” remonstrated the old man.”Hey, Munna, go to the boy’s hut and find out whether his mom is really sick as he says and what his dad is doing. We will wait here. Hurry up. We will see after you return about the punishment”
Bola’s wife had already lit up a fire and heated a thin steel rod waiting for Munna’s return.
Someone from the dais said “The boy has himself confessed to the crime. What is the need for further enquiry? He must be punished severely to ensure he does not do it again” A few others from the assembled crowd nodded in agreement. When the boy started crying loudly, Bola smacked him inviting the wrath of the headman.
“Stop it, Bola.Take your hands off the boy. Murari, come near me”
Munna came running and said “Saheb, I am afraid the boy’s mother is very sick, may be dead too I am not sure. She looks too emaciated and weak to respond. There was no movement. I think someone should rush her to the hospital in the next town to see if her life can be saved”
“Does anyone in the crowd know her?”
One man rose and said “She works in my field. Her husband had deserted her and she has only this boy. She came to our village after the husband left as her dad belonged to this village. She has not been coming to work for the last few days. I was thinking of checking myself about her when this incident has happened. She is quiet by nature and hard working. I have heard no complaint against her.”
“Are you suggesting that we let go this boy free unpunished? We must burn the boy’s palm for the theft. Does her mother’s sickness exonerate the boy of the theft?”shouted one heartless farmer from the crowd. Some merciless men joined him and there was a chorus demanding punishment.
The head of panchayat signaled silence and said ”Hey Jassaram, you have a jeep. Take that poor woman to the hospital immediately along with your wife and some other willing women. Take this 1000Rs.She belongs to our village and our daughter. We cannot allow her to die like an orphan. Hurry up before it becomes late. The others remain seated till I dispose of this case.”
There was a murmur of voices both in protest and in agreement. After Jassaram and others left the venue to take the woman to hospital in the jeep, the old man beckoned Bola’s wife to come near him and hand over the red hot iron rod. The boy sobbed in fear loudly.
The old man took the rod in his hand and said, “I agree with you all that the guilty should be punished without mercy. Murari's mom was sick and without work for a few days. There was none to take care of her. When her condition had worsened and she was starving, the seven year old had no other aim than to feed his mom. I am sure he must have asked Bola to give a few loaves of bread before snatching the bread and running away.” He turned to Bola and asked him “Did the boy not ask you initially for your help? Answer truthfully”
Bola in shame hung his head down and nodded his head in affirmative.
“As I told you the woman is a daughter of this village. She came here with her young son after her husband deserted her as she thought rightly this village her home and that she would be safe here than elsewhere. The farmer in whose field the poor woman worked did not make any effort to inquire about her well being although she worked for him sincerely as he himself had said. No other member of the village who worked in the field along with her cared for her with each one minding his or her own business..Yet many of you are baying for the blood of this young boy who does not know even what is right or wrong in a crisis. His only goal was to save his mother. Bola could have been generous. I consider the whole village guilty of negligence and indifference. As the head of the village I own the responsibility for our callous attitude and inflict the punishment on myself. He opened his left palm and ran the red hot iron on it to the shock and dismay of the crowd.
“I hope this will be a lesson for future that we should not let down one of our own in times of distress. The boy Murari will be in my care and custody till his mother returns. I will take charge of his education and well being as if he is my grandson. The meeting is over” he said even as he put his right hand on the shoulder of boy. The crowd dispersed a little chastened and a few were seen wiping their tears.