In December 1992, Kanpur (Uttar Pradesh, India), a city renowned for its rich and diverse culture and its industry, was reeling in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition.
This is when the author Aloke Lal, former Police Officer of the Indian Police Service was deputed to Kanpur as the Deputy Inspector General. Murder In The Bylanes is an account of author Aloke Lal’s (co-authored with his son, Maanas Lal) tenure in Kanpur, trying to maintain order in a city divided on communal lines. The brutal assassination of a prominent local politician and local slumlord Munna Sonkar aka Kala Bachcha adds fuel to the fire.
In this book, Aloke Lal recounts his time policing the city on the brink of riots. The author provides ample instances of how the police’s job, tough as it is, becomes even harder when their functioning is governed by a self-serving body-politic.
Murder In The Bylanes is a one-of-a-kind narrative and my first experience of reading about the Kanpur riots from a Police officer’s perspective. In that, the book shines. For the first time, I realise how frustratingly crippled our officers feel when pulled in several directions by opposing governing forces and their desire to do their job and protect the general populace.
As the author states in the book, “A lot of what the police do on the ground has its origins at the top of the chain. A political leadership that is capable of an unbiased appreciation of situations is bound to send the right messages in the rand and file of the police.”
Having said this, I also felt that the author (s) fell short of presenting a completely unbiased opinion of their experiences especially in expounding upon who is to blame for the myriad unprecedented situations.
For example, in the Epilogue, while discussing Christophe Jaffrelot’s (political scientist) argument that — riots often originated from a distorted idea—ideology—of the “other”, the author states that, “The right-wing parties subscribe to the belief that only the religions that originated in India can constitute Indians, and Muslims and Christians are outsiders.”
I felt this to be a gross generalisation based on what a specific faction of fundamentalists or extremists purport. I understand this is a personal account of the author and so being completely objective is improbable, but the use of present tense in the above statement is jarring.
Does this ideology persist today? I beg to differ.
I am a primarily fiction reader so this non-fiction was a slow burn for me. The pace fluctuates from fast to slow and then fast again towards the end. With a subject like this, Veering the narrative to sensationalise the events would have been very easy, but the authors chose the difficult route and went with information rather than dramatization. The book holds its own, much like Aloke Lal, and delivers what it set out to do with single-minded discipline.
I will recommend Murder In The Bylanes to readers who love non-fiction, enjoy socio-political commentaries and want to experience this story from a police officer’s POV.
I will leave you with a quote that I find extremely insightful-
“History is never given its due in our primary education system. We are taught the chapters, not the lessons. History is replete with examples of why unity is necessary, why peace is the only way forward, and most importantly, the present is the most important tense.”
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