The media in Kerala is in a tizzy these days over ‘quotation’ gangs and their influence on everyday life. Like evil spirits dancing upon the bodies of fallen heroes in abandoned epic battle-fields, ‘quotation gangs’, it seems, now dance upon the dead political heroism of the Malayalees. Suddenly, the media finds, they are everywhere, settling every kind of dispute. The institutions of law and order are turning, slowly, into adjuncts or versions of ‘quotation gangs’. The recent murder of the real-estate businessman Paul Muthoot, who was apparently traveling with two of the most notorious ‘quotation gang’ leaders in Kerala, has brought matters to a head. The papers are clogged these days with advertisements feeding Onam-time consumer-frenzy and news of the Paul Muthoot murder and they don’t see any connections between the two.
No doubt, Kerala does resemble an abandoned scene of battle, now that Achuthanandan has been gagged and Pinarayi Vijayan and his friends have unfurled to its fullest their north-Kerala style intimidation tactics, and remain quite undeterred by their disastrous performance in the elections.Yet the economic underworld is no recent phenomenon; while the rivalry between political parties and factions within them is important in the growing ability of the ‘quotation gangs’ to intimidate people, it is perhaps equally important to note that predatory neo-liberal growth in Kerala, blessed by both the left and the right, has fueled their power, perhaps more. The connections are evident in the present Paul Muthoot murder case which is being investigated, even without directly blaming ‘quotation’ thugs.There has been plenty of anecdotal evidence recently that the growth of the real-estate construction sector, one of the sectors of Kerala’s economy that has registered rapid growth in recent years, has been greatly aided by the willingness of the political parties, the bureaucracy, and the law and order machinery at all levels to turn a blind eye towards all sorts of rights violations. Reports of threats, major and minor physical violence, and even murder by the sand and quarrying mafia have been frequent.
On the opposition-side, we have been able to do little except condemn such violence. Studying the extent and virulence of this canker as part of our investigations into the emergent economic scenario seems well-nigh impossible. For those economists who construe the present economic scene in Kerala as a ‘high growth’ situation, or, as the fruition of the ‘virtuous cycle of human development’ (as the recent Human Development Report on Kerala puts it), such a proposition would be outright absurd, for it would compromise the connotations of both ‘high-growth’ and ‘virtuous cycle’.In any case, these economists tend to be methodological conservatives whose methods would be quite inadequate to study the impact and significance of criminal economic activities, because they take place in the ‘undereconomy’ which shaped up through evading precisely the state’s governmental and legal eyes. Other social scientists who construe the present situation differently, for instance, as ‘predatory economic extraction’,tend towards methodological pluralism,and have inherited qualitative and sociological traditions on research on crime, may also have their doubts: some friends argued that while crime does often have economic significance, to treat it as solely, or even primarily, as economic activity, may be tantamount to conceding it a certain degree of legitimacy. Also, they felt, researchers would anticipate tremendous difficulties in tracing networks, forming contacts, collecting credible evidence and so on. However, there is little doubt that if the anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, we are missing out on several significant resource-flows, but also on emergent social processes. Perhaps it is time we started rethinking our own queasiness about research on crime, and there is no reason why one should treat it as an exclusively economic phenomenon — it is not.
‘Quotation gangs’ are composed of young men of all castes and creeds, and all economic classes; they have well-specified hierarchies, codes of conduct, and modes of operation. They are well-armed and well-connected to the police, the judiciary, and political parties.They have links outside Kerala and India and with all other kinds of illegal and criminal flows.Notwithstanding the flurry in the papers over Paul Muthoot’s killing, it is a fact that the activities of these gangs are not news anymore; indeed, the local-news pages of newspapers carry items about their attacks and intimidation on almost a daily basis.Besides the usual goondagardi in the streets and markets, they offer ‘personalised services’ of a criminal and violent nature, for a specified price. But above everything, what is truly striking about the ‘quotation gangs’ is the manner in which they are being increasingly perceived as normal — the everyday ordinariness that seem to be acquiring, the banality of it, is more than frightening. The very entry of the benign and technical word ‘quotation’ into Malayalam, to denote the estimated price for getting crimes of various degrees committed, speaks volumes. It has also become a word in everyday parlance, in carefree talk between teenagers who playfully threaten each other with ‘getting a quotation about you’ (ninte quotation edukkum!). ‘Quotation gang’ members are often secretly adored by teenagers as heroes who get away with everything — the accused in the present Muthoot murder case, Omprakash, was one such. Omprakash is known equally for his flashy lifestyle; he wears the latest cool brands, has been heavily into Kerala’s modeling scene, and has been, apparently, trying to get into business school for an MBA. Omprakash got married ‘normally’; many of the high and the mighty attended his wedding. Recent investigations by news reports spoke of how young boys were being lured into the crime scene through such cool guys — quite believable, given that teenagers, upon who parents foist the heaviest restrictions and burdens of expectations,may turn out to be the single largest group in Kerala whose human rights are violated on a normal, daily basis (by their overambitious parents and concentration camps that go under the euphemism of ‘coaching centre[s]’). It seems as though we are trapped in labyrinths within labyrinths of violations with no end anywhere in sight.
While this contributes to the supply of labour for the ‘quotation gangs’, the demand for such ‘services’ is widening and deepening. The major demand is of course from the purveyors of predatory extraction. Other consumers include big and small players in the widening credit market, from the large banks to small private financiers. In Kerala, petty finance is regarded as the form of economic activity open to ‘respectable’ housewives. These days, some of them who started as petty usurers have grown into larger fish, controlling repayment gangs which are also lent out as quotation gangs. ‘Normal folk’ with specific needs are also accessing these ‘services’: from angry schoolboys who’d like to give schoolmasters a taste of their own medicine, to mothers who disapprove of their daughters’ choice of partners. This widening of demand, it appears, stems directly from the decline of political citizenship and the way in which our power to consume now determines the extent of our citizenship. Too many of our moneyed folk seem to think that there is nothing wrong in purchasing these ‘services’, which violate the law of the land and the rights of others. The methodological poverty of the modes of social research dominant in Kerala have indeed ensured that we remain oblivious of the extent and consequences of the consumerist individualisation that prompts individuals to pay for acts declared criminal by the law but appear justifiable within their individual moral calculations, and for the ‘efficient’ and speedy delivery of such ‘justice’. This new component of Kerala’s booming service sector seems to be set for further expansion: it remains to be seem whether it will be affected by pecuniary externalities or any other form of externality.
Certainly, the fabric of politics and social life is suffering from the social and political externalities of ‘quotation gang service-production’. Yet the banality of criminal-work did not spring up suddenly, but was carefully nurtured, for instance, in the happy-go-lucky ‘family-cum-humour’Malayalam movies of the 1990s, in which the ordinary regular straightforward guy of a hero turned out to be indulging in criminal activities, all for the sake of his family’s survival. All for the family, you see. So given this direction of social change, ceteris paribus, it may even be the case that the nice young college boy next door who plays with the kids and never forgets to bring them boxes of sweets on their birthdays may well be working part-time with a quotation gang. Why next door? Could be right in your home.
That’s why I was truly relieved yesterday. My eleven-year-old daughter and I were making up after I dished out to her a bit of disciplining. She raised her tearful eyes disdainfully towards me and said “you’re just lucky that I didn’t call the Child Helpline. Even small cuts are an offence, didn’t you know?” Ah, the childline, what a relief. Not the quotation gang.