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In New Delhi, anger rising violently to the surface

New Delhi has outpaced other major Indian cities in the number of acts of random violence, social analysts say. 'There's something increasingly desperate in people.'

January 13, 2011|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from New Delhi — A pair of seemingly senseless killings this week in New Delhi has highlighted the dark side of India's fast-growing economy: rising frustration, urban alienation and a coveting of the wealth many feel is passing them by.

On Tuesday, in an apparent case of road rage, a restaurant manager died when an airline pilot allegedly ran over him after their vehicles grazed each other at the city's posh Khan Market.

This followed an incident late Monday in which four men killed a 17-year-old boy in northeast New Delhi after he declined to give them a screwdriver, which he reportedly didn't have.

"There's something increasingly desperate in people," said Ashis Nandy, a political psychologist and sociologist with New Delhi's Center for the Study of Developing Societies. "There's a deep anger that's just looking for a target or an excuse."

New Delhi has outpaced other major Indian cities in the number of acts of random violence, social analysts said, although no urban centers are immune.

The number of homicides in the Indian capital rose to 527 in 2009 from 467 in 2007 before declining slightly to 519 last year. According to statistics released this month by the New Delhi police, 15% of killings last year resulted from spur-of-the-moment provocations.

In December, a man shot and killed a call-center worker in New Delhi for accidently pushing him and spilling his plate of chicken tikka. In July, a man killed a friend for refusing to hand over a cigarette. And in March a vendor killed a boy for taking some vegetables without paying.

Other seemingly pointless killings in the capital last year involved squabbles over water at a community pump, urinating in front of someone's house, setting off fireworks at a wedding and refusing to serve a favorite brand of wine at a cricket-viewing party.

Some say New Delhi sees more of these hot-head crimes in part because of its high percentage of outsiders.

"Very few people are actually from Delhi, so no one feels responsible," said Manmeet Malhi, 25, a consultant shopping in Khan Market a few feet from the site of Tuesday's fatality. "And there's too much money being made too quickly. Everyone feels like a little king."

Although the city is more than 2,000 years old, many residents fled during India's 1947 partition with Pakistan while tens of thousands more moved in from then-strife-torn Punjab state; the city has been a magnet for migrants ever since.

This has created an environment where wealth, status and political power trump more traditional values of family, community and religion, social scientists say. Rising salaries and land values have emboldened a brash new middle class, widening the wealth gap between the nouveau riche and poor people from rural areas seeking the Indian dream.

"There's a growing primacy of desire," said Santosh Desai, managing director of the marketing firm Futurebrands India Ltd. Who has written extensively on the middle class.

Many of the traditional ways of relieving stress in India, meanwhile, have gone by the wayside in crowded cities.

"People's lives have become very mechanical, without focusing on feelings," said Ishwar V. Basavaraddi, director of the Morarji Desai National Institute of Yoga in New Delhi. "Morning walks, yoga, that's been missing."

In the apparent road-rage incident, which was front-page news across India on Wednesday, restaurant manager Rajeev Jolly Wilson and Jet Airways pilot Vikas Agarwal reportedly traded words after their cars bumped in the parking lot. Wilson reportedly jumped out of his car and slapped the pilot twice. As Agarwal tried to drive away, he allegedly ran over Wilson.

In a preliminary finding, police concluded that it was an accidental death. Agarwal, the son of a former law secretary, was charged with reckless driving and negligent homicide before being released Wednesday on $60 bail.

Three witnesses who work near the Khan Market said fights over parking aren't unusual in the constricted lot.

"We saw the whole thing, but we didn't go to the police," one man said. "We don't want to get into legal tangles of court against powerful interests. In this country, no one gets justice."

In Monday's incident, Bilal Khan was in his cellphone shop when four men reportedly demanded a tool and stabbed him to death after he said he didn't have one. The case remains under investigation, said Sanjay Jain, deputy police commissioner for northeast Delhi.

On the door of the Khan Market restaurant that Wilson managed, a sign announced its closure Wednesday. "May God almighty grant peace to the departed soul," it said.

"Basically, there's too much aggression nowadays," said Shrey Khandelwal, 19, a salesman standing nearby. "I've not had any wacko try and attack me yet, with God's grace, but in today's world you really have to be careful."

Anshul Rana in The Times' New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.

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