Sorkari Patnaik: The Wrong Arm of the Law

Patnaik is the superintendent of police of Balangir in Year of the Weeds. His first name as seen on a small black plastic rectangle pinned to his chest is merely the initial ‘S.’, causing much speculation among the Gonds of the district over who he looms like a colossus with near infinite power. Some say his first name is ‘Sanjay’. A mild, inoffensive name. And therefore unlikely to be his, say the Gonds. For such a great and powerful man must have a name of equal power. Mostly, the people of Balangir think the ‘S.’ stands for ‘Sorkari’.  For who in the entire district is more government personified than this slightly dark-skinned man of average height and brushy moustache? So his name must be ‘Sorkari’, if not something much worse. And the Gonds say: if he is indeed ‘Sorkari’, there could not be a name worse than that.

Sorkari Patnaik strides through the everyday life and consciousness of Balangir like a malign cloud, like a promise of infinite violence, reinforcing by his very presence the helpless of ordinary citizens in the face of the government’s might. He is absolutely convinced of his rightness, of his infallibility, of his superior judgment. He can know the inner workings of people just by glancing at them. And of course all Gonds are malcontents, lazy and poor because that is all they can ever be. He is the first and last defence of the rule of law in these parts. Without him, it all goes away. He is (but only for himself) the Necessary Man.

The problem with police in India arises from the extraordinary power and privileges they enjoy. In remote areas like Deogan and its neighbourhood, the hapless citizens would have no recourse but to get used to living under the boot of a person like Patnaik. In the novel, as the Gonds start their agitation against the bauxite mine which will destroy their sacred hill, Patnaik reacts with characteristic cruelty and aggression. In the beginning, he has a great deal of autonomy and agency (which he chooses to employ as a blunt instrument of disruption). As events unfold, he too becomes increasingly subservient to the demands of extremely powerful people in Bhubaneshwar and Delhi. In his own district, Patnaik becomes an extra in a series of events, although he keeps up the pretense that he is in control. As Ghosh, the Company’s specialist problem-solver tells him, the old ways of lathi charges and the administering of pain on a numbed people will no longer work in a world of social media and overnight image makeovers. Patnaik then decides to become his interpretation of the New Policeman. ‘Don’t worry,’ he tells a top Maoist leader he has just arrested. ‘We will not beat you. Not much, at least.’

The excesses of police in India have been well-documented. Much talk has been expended on police reform, but like other law enforcement agencies, it is not in the interests of political parties, the administration or the executive to make India’s Sorkari Patnaiks any better than what they actually are, any less violent, compromised or corrupt.

It is not just a matter of a few hundred rupees palmed at a checkpoint. Corruption is of multiple kinds. The exchange of power and influence, the influence on policy decisions or their implementation on the ground, the nexus between businessmen, police officers and the administration are too subtle and deeply entrenched to be uncovered as part of a single scam or case. Entire careers are built, sometimes across generations, on this network of privilege and raw might. It is only occasionally that a Patnaik, either through hubris or predictability, may stumble and fall. Mostly, they continue, much as the other organs of the state endure. And people like Korok and the other residents of countless Deogans manage to continue with their existence knowing the true extent of their powerlessness.

Occasionally, a Patnaik’s weaknesses might snap this chain of oppression. Usually, the chain proves resilient and malleable, and wholly immune to change, either from above or below. That is the true tragedy of Sorkari Patnaik. An individual capable of tremendous self-deceit, he is a virus masquerading as a khaki-clad cure.

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