It is certainly politically incorrect – for as long as the politics are defined by those tweeting about protests across the country – to be amused by the incident.
For anyone with a weakness for the ridiculous, it is impossible not to be.
The incident reads like something out of a sitcom.
A poet carrying a tambourine has a conversation with his friend over the phone. His cab driver decides he should be arrested for communism and for carrying a tambourine, and drives him to the police station, accuses the poet of conspiring to burn the nation and asks him to be thankful he was brought to a police station rather than “elsewhere”. He believes the poet is dangerous. The police believe the tambourine is dangerous.
In the sort of sitcom that is popular with television audiences, the drama would have taken a turn when the driver tells the policemen he has a recording of the poet’s side of the phone conversation. He would get himself into trouble for making an illegal recording of a client’s personal interaction with a third party.
In real life at this moment in this country, things go a little further than the imagination of a comic writer: the driver gets suspended for three days by Uber, the poet gets reimbursed his fare by the company, and the driver gets a cardboard placard with “Alert Citizen Award” written in sketch pen on it by someone whose calling is clearly not calligraphy.
What should have been poet Bappadittya Sarkar’s uneventful ride home from Juhu to Kurla turned into national news after activist Kavita Krishnan tweeted screenshots of his narrative from WhatsApp.
By his account, Sarkar had arrived in Bombay to attend the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, and was discussing the ongoing anti-CAA protests across the country with a friend over phone, when his driver Rohit Gaur asked permission to withdraw money from an ATM and stopped by the Santa Cruz police station. Gaur returned with two constables instead of money, and Sarkar was escorted into the station.
Sarkar says he was subjected to an hours-long inquiry, during which the police asked him about his father’s salary, how he sustains himself without a job, and other avuncular questions which would not be out of place at a family gathering, particularly since – by Sarkar’s account – his interrogators were “polite”.
The police also took statements from him and Gaur.
Sarkar told the media he had chosen not to take legal action against the driver because he does not want to “ruin his life”, thus leaving Gaur free to receive the handwritten placard. He suggested that Uber should put the driver through counselling – clearly, more trouble than suspending the man’s account for a few days.
It would have served Sarkar better to refuse the request for a pit stop and insist on going straight home, as the app entitled him to do. However – like many people who can afford cabs, irrespective of whether they have jobs – he says he “enthusiastically agreed”.
Media reports have said the driver’s profile description on the app read: “He drives because it allows him to study different characters and personalities.”
That ought to be a creep-alert and red flag, particularly at a time when it is rather easy to be accused of Thoughtcrime.
However, there is also tendency among those who can afford cabs – irrespective of whether they have jobs – to bond with those formerly considered “help”, evidenced by the plethora of selfies with drivers and maids on social media. These are usually accompanied by long, more self-indulgent than interesting, posts about the person’s dedication to his or her work, and ideally life-lessons they have taught the writer of the post – at the very least, lessons on the dignity of labour, however paltry be the returns and however irrelevant to their own lives the notion of a photograph going viral.
It would also have served Sarkar better to bond with the driver and probe him about his sentiments on the CAA, perhaps, than speak to his friend over the phone about ways in which they could make the protests more effective. Perhaps he had not read the driver’s profile description.
To top it all, he says in the WhatsApp chat that was made public that he asked the police to listen to the recording and to arrest him if they heard him conspiring to “burn the nation”.
Somehow, no one seems to be asking how the driver felt entitled to record a private conversation and hasn’t got into trouble for it. Perhaps the sting operation fetish of the media is catching on.
More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:
Nobel for economist, tailspin for economy
Why the Diaspora has so much love to give
Hindi debate: We are all obsessed with homogeneity
We are choking the earth
When Kamal Haasan endorsed harassment
The Dalai Lama and the death of humour
The delusionary Indian intellectual
India's culture of worship has to end
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com