Delhi’s Crash Test Dummies

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Need for speed A young biker tries a stunt . Photo: Arun Sehrawat
Need for speed A young biker tries a stunt. Photo: Arun Sehrawat

On the night of 27 July, the Delhi Police shot dead a 19-year-old boy who was riding pillion behind his friend, in one of the posh central Delhi roads. The two boys, police claim, were part of a 150-strong group of “rowdy” bikers who had been prowling the streets, attempting stunts and attacking police vehicles when asked to stop. The police claim that two shots were fired in the air while a third one was aimed at deflating the tyre of a bike, which happened to be the one on which Karan Pandey and Puneet Arora were riding.

If you’ve ever encountered these nightriders — and they almost always appear without warning — it’s a terrifying spectacle, depending on whether you’re a commuter or a spectator. Scores of bikers swarm by with their screaming exhausts and hooting cackles. It’s a fast moving circus on display and for a moment, even looks wildly entertaining till you notice in horror that none of these acrobats have even the most basic safety gear. While other commuters scamper for cover, the stunt riders lift their front wheels, ride on one limb, perform wheelies, drifts and all sorts of dangerous swerves. Most of the group is comprised of an audience on two-wheelers that doesn’t necessarily perform stunts but is a part of the cheering crowd.

But no matter how blatantly reckless their actions were that night, or perhaps because of it, firing at a bike just seems counterintuitive. Bunty, 21, a professional biker from Delhi, says the whole thing smacks of a cover-up. “This is not a film where you chase a criminal and shoot him while leaning out of the vehicle. Especially when the warning shots were fired, the natural instinct for anyone would be to flee, not put up a ninja show,” he says. Bunty claims he has never gone on such midnight expeditions – he says a true biker stays away from alcohol, intoxication and girls — but he’s disturbed by the incident which claimed a life.

When asked if the police officer’s pulling the trigger at a moving target, especially when he was in a moving vehicle himself, amounted to negligent or rash conduct, Deputy Commissioner of Delhi Police SBS Tyagi told TEHELKA that it was in response to the threat on life and property. “These goons were pelting stones; two warning shots were fired. Only as a last resort did the officer try to deflate the tyre,” he added.

Harman Singh Arora, a 20-year-old stunt enthusiast from Rajendra Place, doubts if the boy who was killed had even been a part of any stunting group. “If he was a proper stunt rider, he would have escaped.” Arora’s reasoning is dubious, but most bikers share the belief that the victim was not a rider. Arora is not part of any gang, but sets out every Saturday for a spin around town. On a given day, friends spread the word through social media and people just coalesce into a big group.

“We don’t create any nuisance, which is why we go out after midnight. My parents don’t know that we’re out there on our bikes. They think I’m at my friend’s house,” says Arora. Son of a utensils merchant, Arora studies animation in a private college, but spends 5-6 hours every day honing his skills on a 180cc Pulsar. “My friends who’re professionals have started making good money,” he says, eager to get gigs like them. Some of these professional friends make enough money to afford large-screen phones and cool bike accessories, whereas Arora still asks his parents for petrol money.

Five years ago, a friend he found on the social media site Orkut introduced Arora to the world of stunt riding. “I didn’t have a bike back then; he told me to start with a bicycle. After I became good at a few stunts, I begged my dad to get me a bike,” he says.

His friend and fellow rider Vishal Sharma says they started learning stunts through YouTube videos. “We learnt how to pull off some really difficult ones. No one had heard or seen them here. We thought we had achieved something in life.”

The trend picked up before its time, says Arora. “Soon enough, there were youngsters doing the same things all around. Everyone had discovered You- Tube.” Also, more enthusiasts meant that the narrow streets of the colonies were now clogged with teenage kids dangling from their bikes. Sharma explains why most guys take to the broad, swish roads of central Delhi at night, “After a point, you can’t do these things here without 15 women shrieking on top of their lungs.”

These nightly jaunts serve another purpose too. Pictures of stunts, to be published on Facebook the next morning, is an added bonus. But they are careful with the privacy settings to avoid scrutiny.

Ahad Khan, a biking enthusiast from Karol Bagh, shows me some footage and pictures on the phone of his ‘professional’ friend in the middle of some stunts. It’s impressive — it’s like he’s manoeuvring the bike telepathically and doing practically everything on it except riding it normally. There are other videos of policemen shouting abuses, and being abused back.

Arora narrates how they were caught by the police once and taken to the police station. “They asked me who was teaching us these stunts, I said YouTube. They were disappointed that they couldn’t nab the mastermind,” he laughs. However, over the next few months, as the boys became regulars on the streets, they befriended the cops. “They don’t trouble us now. We don’t even have to pay any bribe, except a bottle of alcohol during a festival,” adds Arora.

Although rowdy street behaviour by rogue bikers is inexcusable, there is some significance to the issue of lack of space. The biker gangs basically comprise spectators and performers. Most are fledglings, out there to learn a few tricks, and have some fun in the process. If they had an enclosed space to do this, perhaps it could prove more effective.

A major hazard often cited by the police is that most riders drink and drive. Drinking, for some stunt enthusiasts, is not just a social lubricant. It encourages risk-taking as well, a double whammy from the safety point of view. “I used to drink but stopped after I saw a friend meet with an accident. But yes, most guys take it because it makes you more confident,” Arora explains.

Right now, because of the crackdown by the Delhi Police and the firing incident, most riders are hesitant to come out and speak about the matter. They’re scared that the police might just be looking for scapegoats, or act under pressure. “My father has ordered me to stop taking the bike out for a while,” says Sharma. But he believes things will die down soon, in time for the next major festival when they can freely go out for a spin at night. For Sharma, Arora and many like them, going on these nightly rides is like hitting the floor, when they can put the skills to practice and earn respect from their peers. “Till the government legalises this as an adventure sport, or till they give us facilities to practise, this will go on,” says Arora.

This was a sentiment echoed by many professional stunt riders and enthusiasts.

“MTV has this hugely popular show called Stuntmania. How does one practise for it? It’s about time stunt riding was promoted as an adventure sport in India. Right now, only the rich can pursue it legally,” says Harpreet Singh Brar, a college student and professional stunt rider from Dwarka. He narrates a promotional event last year that saw the international stunt rider Chris Pfeiffer performing on a stretch on the Gurgaon-Delhi highway. “If you ask me, some of our guys are as good as Pfeiffer. But these companies only want to get European riders,” says the 21-year-old.

There is palpable frustration about lack of recognition, but some argue that the very popularity of shows like Stuntmania, coupled with the lack of space or means to qualify in them, gives rise to the problem. “Participating in the tournament can be a life-altering and a validating experience for any biker. The winners in the past have been people who learnt the stunts on the streets, just like us,” says Brar.

But even for those who have won the biggest accolades, things don’t always look up. The winner of the third season of Stuntmania, Trilochan Singh Bhamra, recently quit stunt riding to take up a government job. “There’s no money in professional biking in India. Companies just want to invite foreigners for their shows. Those guys are only half as good as us, but command twice the price,” he says.

To clarify matters, professional riders detest the guys who go out on nightly missions and create nuisance. Mohit Ahuja, a photographer and copywriter for a public relations firm and founder of a club, Bikers for Good, says they are nothing less than hooligans who have brought shame to the biking community. “I have heard stories from people, how they once made two policemen do situps after a confrontation. These rogues bring bad name to everyone. The biking community shouldn’t be accountable for them,” he says.

However, Arora says it’s easy to dismiss it as a crime if you can afford to learn stunt riding legally. “I can bet most people started out on the roads, and picked up fights,” he says. Ahuja admits it is an expensive hobby. “Either you rent a track, or you take permission from the police station falling in the area. Both are expensive options. Permission costs around Rs.30,000- Rs.40,000 and sometimes there will be more than two police stations falling around the track,” says Ahuja, while adding that it’s still advisable to pursue it legally rather than risk injury. “If you do stunts without safety gear, it is no longer adventure sports but a crime,” he says. And he worries that this incident will further debase what could have been a legitimate adventure sport in India, just as it is in other countries.

What actually transpired on the night of 27 July may be difficult to establish, but making stunt riding an acceptable form of sport can go a long way in preventing such incidents in the future.

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