x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Footprints of a thief in 1936 lead to a culture of corruption

Vigilantes in a village 75 years ago provided a model of how India might begin to tackle corruption.

'If you are a man, join the khojis." The yells of the neighbourhood lads shattered the night silence and woke me up.

In 1936 in Kalar Wala village in present-day Pakistan, there existed a well-established system of rural vigilantes, known as the khojis, or searchers. In the absence of an effective police force, private citizens often took charge of the hunt for thieves.

That night, someone had stolen a horse and, when I woke at around 4am, I could make out silhouettes of young men holding oil lanterns in the dark outside our home.

Kalar Wala was a small village with a population of about 10,000 that was miles away from the nearest police station. If there was a theft, villagers had to resolve it themselves - a situation not so different from present-day India, where the recent hunger strike by Anna Hazare highlighted the frustration ordinary citizens have with the state.

At the time, almost every family owned buffaloes, cows or horses, which were tethered to stakes to keep them from straying at night. All too often, thieves would sneak into the village, untie the animals and vanish in the darkness. Other times they would enter homes and steal brass utensils or clothes.

When a theft was discovered, the village lads would announce a call for volunteers. The thrill of the chase enticed me and I would invariably join the motley group. Each volunteer came armed with a lantern and a lathi, or long wooden stick.

We began by studying the house and the evidence of the thief's technique. Next, we would identify his footprints in the dirt near the house. Then, we would start tracking the culprit.

They always did their best to outwit us. For instance, a thief who had stolen a buffalo would frequently leave the soft path and walk though a field, stream or pond so that the prints would disappear. We would search warily for the spot where the thief returned to the soft path.

If the thief had stolen items like housewares, he would frequently climb a tree and stay hidden in the foliage, for a few hours or even days. When the footprints led to a tree, we simply sat below it until the thief wearied and descended.

Gradually, through painstaking tracking, we would reach the thief's village. On arrival, we would confront him with his crime. Some would deny their guilt, but usually the stolen property would be found. The aggrieved party might administer a few smacks with his lathi, but the power of the khojis was psychological. In addition to returning the property and feeding the 10 to 15 khoji members who had walked all night, the thieves were publicly shamed and often ostracised from their own villages.

Sixteen years later in 1952, I was using the same set of skills as an auditor of accounts at a bank in Ropar in the Indian Punjab. In one case, I was reviewing vouchers that the general manager had signed off on, three of which aroused my suspicions. I studied the manager's signature and he confirmed it was his. But after some prodding, he examined the documents again and concluded that his signature had been forged.

We had unearthed a major fraud by a forger who had matched the manager's signature almost perfectly. However, he had forgotten that the manager always placed a dot above the letter "N" in his name. So a little dot led to the discovery of a major crime.

In another audit of a construction company, payments were made against using the thumb prints of illiterate workers. Experience had taught me that whenever people use prints, the vouchers were normally messy or smudged. These vouchers were far too tidy. Picking some random vouchers, I studied the prints with a magnifying glass, discovering the prints of five supervisors had been used to sign more than 200 vouchers involving fictitious payments.

My bosses thought that I had a sixth sense for detecting fraud but actually it was the rigorous study of footprints during my days with the khojis that had become a professional asset decades later.

There is no shortage of media coverage about out-of-control corruption in India these days. We have been challenged to find a national solution, but Indians have been trying to root out crime and corruption in their communities, at a personal level at least, for many decades.

But it will only be when individuals show the same ethic of community at the national level that efforts like Mr Hazare's will succeed to build a strong nation.


Hari Chand Aneja is an 89-year-old former corporate executive who now keeps busy with charity work