When thieves fall out, honest men come by their own

Back in 1974, the film director Ibne Mizan made a movie 'Jighangsha'. I remember the first two lines of a popular song from the movie, sung by Sabina Yasmin:

"Tumi je dakat, tumi chor

Lute niyechho hridoy more."

Roughly translated, the 'romantic' couplet would be: 'You are a robber, you are a thief/And now you've looted my heart."

Stealing hearts is nothing new. It's being happening down the centuries. And it continues. But such theft is not really theft, per se. The word 'thief' doesn't evoke images of Romeo and Juliet or Shiri and Farhad.  It conjures up the image of a man stealthily slipping away with something concealed. It's all surreptitious. If it's in the open, we call it snatching or mugging. If it is on a large scale, we call it robbery.

The word ‘theft’ is rather outdated, provincial. The sophisticated synonym is ‘corruption’

In stories, thieves are petty. A thief saws through the rods of a sleeping householder's room. He makes off with the householder's pots and pans, blankets and such. A robber comes armed with large daggers and guns and targets the homes of the wealthy. He isn't interested in pots and pans. He takes diamonds and gold, money and valuables. A robber ranks higher in 'prestige' than a thief. There was a game we'd play as kids -- thief, constable, robber, police chief. The thief would have the lowest points and the police chief the highest. But the robber's points were higher than that of the constable and the thief.

Robin Hood glorified robbery. He was the friend of the poor, the nemesis of the oppressor. Those of us who grew up reading 'Robin Hood' do not criticise him. But we don't see any Robin Hoods now. There are only robbers with one intention -- to rob. Robin Hood would help others, keeping nothing for himself. Today's thieves simply keep their stolen billions for themselves. And they siphon out a large chunk of this overseas. Sometimes they buy some cheap plaques as awards and make a show of charity. Or build a mosque or madrasa in the village, embellish their parents' graves with marble tiles. And all is heralded in the media.

Our society has always frowned upon theft. Society implies the majority of the people. They do not steal or do not approve of theft. But thieves too are a part of this society. They are among us. We know them. We all know of one or two who had come ten or twenty or thirty years ago to Dhaka, barefoot or with sponge flip-flops, timid and nervous. Suddenly he gets Aladdin's lamp and voila! He becomes a business federation leader, the owner of a bank. He is now an 'aristocrat'. This is the story of most of the nouveau riche in our country, those who amass wealth overnight. They are now of the 'elite' class. There's a local saying that when a thief makes money, he becomes a gentleman.

Last Sunday I heard that PK Haldar has been sentenced to 12 years in prison for stealing. It is alleged that he swiped Tk 35 billion under various names from four financial institutions. He ‘unobtrusively’ slipped away and then was caught in West Bengal where he was charged and now convicted. Had he not been caught, we perhaps would have not known about all this. It reminds me of another local saying about the guards arriving only after the thief flees. Our guards failed to catch him. We hear he was allowed to cross the border. The thing is, was it possible for him to be solely involved in the scam of looting so much money without anyone else’s complicity? PK is just the tip of the iceberg.

The word ‘theft’ is rather outdated, provincial. The sophisticated synonym is ‘corruption’. Zero-tolerance against corruption was declared with much fanfare. But from what we read in the newspapers or see around us, it is apparent that this ‘zero’ has no value or power at all. The thieves don’t care two hoots.

Looting and embezzlement is on a steady rise. It’s like what Kashiram Das wrote in his Bangla translation of Mahabharata, a thief has no time for religious sermon. He is addicted stealing.

How much wealth does a man need to survive! And the end of the day, money doesn’t go with us to the grave. Even so, people rush after money -- and not down the straight path, but the crooked one. It is not difficult to catch them out. They can be caught if there is a will to catch them. It is as if that will is not there. When one thief is in danger, the other thieves come forward in his support. There is a bond among them, solidarity. No wonder there is that term, “as thick as thieves”. And when certain quarters come up in support of a thief, people take it for granted that they are getting a share of the loot.

We also see how furious a thief gets if he is called a thief. In defence of himself, he castigates the accuser. The accused becomes the accuser, donning a façade of innocence. The guilty protests his innocence vehemently. Thieves have certain strategies. When fleeing, a thief himself calls out “Stop! Thief!” as if he is pursuing the thief. Attention is diverted away from the actual thief. Thieves have their gangs, one group dissing the other as petty thieves and other accusing another group of massive larceny.

Despite this proliferation of thievery, a strong mindset against thieves exists in society. The common hard-working people do not like theft. They are pious and try to distance themselves from sinful deeds. Thieves are pious too, but theirs is a false piety. People have a natural abhorrence towards misdeeds and will express this. Sometimes they protest, sometimes they curse. It is this force that had kept the world from becoming hell.

When a thief is caught and punished, the common people are relieved, pleased. That is why they say, cheaters never prosper. They believe, if your steal, you will eventually be caught. That is why they say, ‘when thieves fall out, honest men come by their own’.        

 * This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

* Mohiuddin Ahmad is a writer and a researcher

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