A family friend, a police man, grabbed the sabziwallah by his collar and slapped him black and blue. Didn't ask anything, didn't hear anything, just beat him up. The poor man left humiliated and in tears.
Shellshocked, I harshly protested the violence. My friend told me this is how he and his colleagues deal with "these people" all the time, and that I should keep out.
This is the heartland of India's political culture, the region where several Prime Ministers have found their respective paths to parliament. There's a lot of baggage here - caste and class, history and tradition. The modern State is here too - it wears the wardi and beats people up.
Of course, it turned out, my aunt was mistaken about having made the payment.
In his seminal book, The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama told us we were witnessing the end point of mankind's ideological evolution, that liberal democracy had prevailed in the clash of ideas.
Independent India has been on the right side (for most part) in this clash. Whatever challenges the Indian State confronts, we know, it will eventually prevail due to the superiority of its ideas.
All Maoists have is a discredited ideology. Religion-based separatism is not exactly the world's cup of tea. Finally, Hindutva is so ideologically bankrupt, it can't even convince devout Hindus of its purpose.
India is impregnable. This is a wonderful thing. But, it also makes the brutality of its State instruments extremely dangerous. This brutality is here to stay and there is no escaping it. We can endure the murderous ways of all manner of cults and movements because we know they will eventually fade away. But how can we possibly cope with the murderous ways of a State that is here forever?
This is Dante's inferno.
India's defense budget in 2011 was ~$36 Billion. The budget for police was ~$9 Billion.
I don't have the data on this but I'd wager more Indians die each year just from murder and violent politics than from war or terrorism by foreigners.
Police in India are resource deprived. This leads to bad recruitment, weak training, sub-standard equipment, stress filled facilities, poor wages, limited accountability, shattered morale, and non-existent leadership. Let's not even talk about outdated laws, political interference, and a broken justice system.
Police find themselves trying to survive in a brutal environment. To this end, they can really only rely on the nobility of our constitution, the authority of their wardi, the command of their superiors, and the brotherhood of their peers.
This must be a highly insular, morally corrupting, and terrifying context to operate in. As Milgram experiments have shown, even moral people can be coerced into "obeying authority figures who instruct them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience". And as William Golding describes in The Lord of the Flies, terror creates the perception of a beast that has to be viciously destroyed for survival.
Does it surprise any of us that men in these conditions would psychologically succumb to slapping an innocent sabziwallah, shattering shins of under-trials, shooting dead college girls, watching passively while mobs lynch Indians pleading for their lives, and now - engaging in the most vile (alleged) sexual torture on Soni Sori?
For too long, India's middle class has looked away. After all, the police are instruments of our State, the people they torture are not like us, and they have surely committed crimes for which they deserve to be harshly treated. Besides, they are likely making false allegations any way.
The sheer moral bankruptcy of such thinking is self-evident.
We don't fear evil because it is dancing on the screams of, what my friend in UP called, "these people". What I didn't tell you is that he also said the police could do the same with me - and I, with all my means and vocabulary, could do very little while they trample all over my constitutional rights.
It may not seem it but, at the wrong time in the wrong place, I could be Soni Sori too.
And because my tormentors would be the instruments of a State that will always be here, so will my tormentors. Waiting for me. Waiting for you.
This, ironically, is how impregnable India will fall. From deep within, at the hands of its own protectors.
Better men than I have written about this topic. All I can do is plead that we make police reform the highest priority of our nation. Thank you for reading.