The danger of being old

Print edition : December 02, 2005

The elderly bar their windows in an attempt to keep out attackers. - M.LAKSHMAN/AP PHOTO

Change in family structure and loss of social consequence has led to increased attacks on the elderly. While solutions must come from society, the police should deter perpetrators by maximising the punishment for such crimes.

"THAT which should accompany old age," Macbeth says, "As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends/ I must not look to have." These are sentiments that more and more old people who live in our metropolitan cities are beginning to share, even though most of them have led lives far more peaceful and innocent than Macbeth. For the most part they have lived out their years working - some in positions of consequence, many more in very modest trades or professions. But they have all eventually retired from work and live on whatever pensions or savings they have. A number of them have built or bought homes, others live in rented premises. Fewer of them are living with their children, though, going by what one sees in one's neighbourhood, a number still do.

Let us leave obedience aside; Shakespeare meant something specific to Macbeth's situation when he used that word, and it need not concern us here. However, while the other elements he felt should accompany old age were, until only recently, seen as valid, now no longer seem to be. It is not because old people have changed very much; social and family relations have, but that is only a part of the story. Generally, old people are loved and honoured, and do have friends. However the sad fact is that they have now become the prey of bands of ruffians who are constantly looking for easy targets to attack, rob and even kill, should it become necessary.

A leading journal has listed the cases of attacks on old people in Delhi in the last two years up to November. That list speaks for itself: in February 2004, D.S. Mongia, 70, and his wife, 65, were murdered in Janakpuri; in September that year, a 68-year-old widow, Darshana Singhal, was strangled to death; in February this year, a 62-year-old woman was murdered in Bhajanpura; in March, two women, one 75 years old, the other 70, were strangled to death in Mukherjee Nagar; in June, 65-year-old Amarjeet Kaur was strangled to death in Rajouri Garden; in October a 69-year-old woman was murdered in Pushpanjali Enclave near Anand Vihar; and on November 5 S.D. Khosla aged 82, and his wife, aged 75, were knifed to death in Greater Kailash I.

These were not, of course the only crimes of this kind committed in Delhi; but the age group is significant. Even though a span of two years is not enough to talk of trends, it is apparent that the number of attacks on the old has gone up. In fact, these attacks have been a concern of the media for some time, not just in Delhi but in other cities as well. One recalls the particularly gruesome murder of an old lady in Kolkata who lived alone, and there have been cases in Mumbai as well. It would not be too great an exaggeration to say that criminals have begun to find it profitable to attack the old.

THERE are, of course, numerous reasons for this cited by the police and social analysts. But what is very obvious is that more and more old people, both couples and individuals, are living alone. This is a generational change; more and more young people are moving out of the family house at a young age, as the need for personal freedom overshadows older social conventions and obligations. Since they live separately, in the same city, elsewhere in the country or abroad, their lives and those of their parents become more and more unrelated, as both their social contexts change. Thus when the old retire, living on their own is something both they and their children take for granted.

A police officer has once told me that criminals are just as professional as anybody else. They look at possible targets and assess them for the risk value; for example, if there was a house which had a guard dog, and one which did not, they would attack the one which did not. To them, old people make excellent targets. Just consider it from the criminal's point of view: chances of there being some cash, jewellery and goods worth taking - fairly high; chances of resistance - low, because old people die more quickly, so lesser effort and time required. And chances of young people being in the house - remote. So, good returns from relatively minimal risks.

But it is not always robbery that is the motive; often the police have found that attacks on the old have been made by discharged servants, out of malice and hatred; or by someone who has had a quarrel, or exchanged angry words with the old people, or person, and has decided to teach them a lesson. And why would these individuals be prone to attack old people? Would they do the same with a younger couple, or a younger individual? Clearly they would not, and it has nothing to do with any notion that the young are by definition tough.

The reason seems to lie in something to do with the fact that the old are retired. It has to do with loss of consequence. If I remember correctly, Mongia, who was killed together with his wife, last year, was a former bureaucrat. Khosla, who, again with his wife, was killed this November, was a retired executive director of the Industrial Development Bank of India. And the old widows who were killed - they were just old people, of little consequence. This may sound fanciful, and consequently needs explanation.

While a person is working, whether in a government or private office, he or she has some measure of consequence that informs his way of life. There are comings and goings, subordinate staff, colleagues coming in and out, and so on. The trappings of office, so to speak, be it of a private firm or a government office, do make a difference to the criminal mind. The risk factor is obviously considered to be higher. But when old people retire, and live quietly, those trappings disappear, and they become nothing more than old people living alone. A woman may have been a teacher, and where that would have brought with it some little appurtenances once she retires she becomes merely an old lady.

These are the factors that make it dangerous to be old in a big city. One knows that many old couples have had iron bars fixed across their doors and windows - the Khoslas did, apparently. But for them none of the safeguards worked. What will work, then? This is a social problem and thus the solution must come from within society. Meanwhile, the police authorities would do well to get the officer in charge of each police station to make a note of who the old people living alone are; and, should there be an attack on an old person or couple investigate the case rigorously, apprehend the culprits and do all they can to give the maximum punishment. That is perhaps the only way to make attacks on the old more of a risk to a criminal or a person bent on revenge than it is now.

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