BlogMediation BlogBroken Windows

April 18, 2023by Rajeev Hora

If a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.

Broken window panes have for long, stood out as a symbol of apathy and dispiritedness. Whenever you see a broken window in the neighbourhood, no one wants to own responsibility for the delinquent act. Leave alone owning up for the offence, getting it replaced appears to be no one’s baby.

When it comes to ownership, there is something strangely common between “orphans of history” and “broken windows”. New found historical heroes are routinely discovered and pulled out from their graves to serve a political purpose. Others are conveniently obliterated in a very systematic fashion and sent back to reside in the comforts of their archival vaults. Owning up to the remotest of association with such figures could be political suicide. So not surprisingly, their names do not generally find mention in any modern-day discourse of significance.

Firoze Gandhi is one such orphan of history. Neither his descendants nor their current opponents want to associate one wee bit with his memory or legacy. Inconvenient and embarrassing it could probably be. Not probably known to the younger generation, Firoze Gandhi was quite an accomplished freedom fighter. A kind of a socialist Gandhian, he was considered a shining star on the political firmament in his times.

As a journalist, he is known to have taken on his own father in law, Nehru by exposing the famous Mundhra financial scandal. Ultimately, it led to the resignation of India’s then finance minister T. T. Krishnamachari. No wonder, he was thereafter a persona non grata in the Nehru household. Well today we are not dwelling about Firoze Gandhi’s political exploits. It is more about a very tiny episode during one of his travels to Europe.

Firoze had once recounted that while riding a taxy in Germany, he had chucked a piece of paper out of the cab window. He did not give a damn thought to his misdemeanour at that point of time. Only to be brought back to reality when a police car came in front and asked his taxy to pull over. He was duly fined for the violation and handed a ticket. With no choice in the matter, he very apologetically accepted his mistake and duly paid up.

As his taxy moved forward some distance, Firoze by sheer force of habit repeated his folly. Laughably, this time he happened to throw out the crumpled fine ticket in his fidgety hand. Little realizing that the police car was following behind. His taxy was once again stopped and he was forced to pay up the fine a second time. This time of course, he became much wiser and brought his certificate of dishonour back to his hotel room.

With the piece of paper finally deposited in the trash bin, a ‘not to be easily forgotten’ lesson in social compliance had been learnt. So much so that Firoze became extremely conscious of his conduct whilst he was abroad. That ensured that he was never caught on the wrong side of the law ever after.

Very similar to Firoze’s experience and the resultant fallout, the ‘Broken Window’ theory finds an interesting place in criminology studies and urban sociology. This influential and seductive theory is often talked about in police academies worldwide.

Simply put, it states that “visible signs of crime, anti-social behaviour and civil disorder create an urban environment that encourages further crime and disorder, including serious crimes.” The theory suggests that policing methods that target minor crimes such as vandalism, loitering, public drinking, littering, and fare evasion help to create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness.

The hypothesis is that bigger and more serious crimes get prevented through such signalling. The postulation was greatly popularized by the New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani and his Police Chief William Bratton in the 1990s. The police policies influenced by this theory were claimed to be behind the enormous success behind tackling the growing crime rate in the city.

While Giuliani became the face of the success story, the theory was actually introduced in a 1982 article by social scientists James Wilson and George Kelling. They used Broken windows as a metaphor for disorder. The essence of their hypothesis was that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.

The theory became a popular subject of debate in public policy circles in those days. Social scientists pointed out that the economic boom at that time and certain other factors apart from such policing methods contributed to the reduction in crime. So while better order was definitely a result, attributing a reduction on the law front could be rather presumptuous. The co-relation was striking at first glance but not found causal when probed deeper.

New York is distant and I look around closer for broken windows. I cannot turn a blind eye to the piles of garbage, un-repaired pavements, rusted fences, potholes deeper than last year, choking drains and unclaimed cattle and canines. Hooligans in the car ahead have just chucked out their empty beer cans midway on the road. They have not gone around the traffic circle, entered a “One way” street from the wrong side and honked all the way past the hospital. Unchecked all along.

The street lights are off. Damaged beyond economical repair of course. The cluster of loose cables is not helping matters. I am getting paranoid about some kid getting electrocuted. Notwithstanding, the poles are serving a different purpose. Supporting the onslaught of posters, banners and cables. Traffic lights ignored and traffic jams galore. Not a car without a dent. Rising tempers and of course, an absolute ‘two hoots’ attitude towards the lone given-up traffic cop. All in all, civic responsibility tending to naught for they know not any other way.

“They keep promising me a bright future. But what about my today?“, laments my driver Johny. My eyes closed, I wonder in the rear seat, “He has a point. Are we in some ways closer to what New York was almost half a century ago? We march ahead with dreams of trillion dollar economies. But is it not time to repair our broken windows along the way? Lest the dream rudely turns into a nightmare.”

I am suddenly awakened from my pseudo-slumber by a knock on the car window. The car has halted on the red light and it is the police asking us to pull over. My heart misses a beat. Hope Johny has not done a ‘Firoze’ by chucking out some trash? Nothing like it. It turns out that there is a look-out notice for one Mr Glazier*.(Glazier: Also english for a person who repairs window panes.)

“Have you seen him anywhere?”, the cops ask probingly.

Shaking my head, I mutter under my breath, “Not so far. Even I am desperately searching for him.”

I roll up my window pain (pun intended). Johny drives on merrily.


While I search for grounds for optimism,
Horax (Casper)


First published at on 19/04/23

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