Stench of the Uniform

I have never had a single positive experience with the police.

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Mostly, however, they’ve had minor — though pivotal — roles in my misfortunes. Like the cop outside Shyambazar metro station, who restrained me physically while the molestor who had slipped him a fifty sprinted away*. Or the local treasures, who demanded fifteen thousand rupees in exchange for a ‘clean’ police verification report when I applied for a passport**. Or the protectors of peace at Jadavpur and Lake Thana, who kept tossing the victim of a motorcycle crash back and forth, refusing to record the FIR that would clear him for medical treatment. The poor bastard died in my friends’ arms.

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*I wasn’t objecting to the molestor on general ideological grounds. In fact, his constant pawing of school-girls on the metro had nothing to do with his final running away. Neither did his punch on a frail elderly woman’s bent back. Our trouble infraction was based on pure self-defence. He shoved me flat onto the platform, and then tried to push me down the metro stairs. I finally hit him when he rammed me against the iron rails outside the station and tried to slap me.

** When I refused to pay, the enraged inspector said he would show me what’s what. The station then reported that no one by my name lives, or ever lived, at the address provided. It took me eight months, ‘connections’, and hours of waiting to sort through this spiteful, juvenile trip-up.

But what I heard today would make even these shining standards look like the beacon of public-spirited efficiency.

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The friend of a friend and her colleague were pulled over by the Bangalore police for possible drunken driving. This inexplicable horror then followed:

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Being the conscientious Bengali that he is, without any attempt to bribe the policeman, [my friend] offered to pay the legal fine and get his bike back. [But] Sub Inspector Govindappa of Shivajinagar Traffic Police Station, Bangalore (he refused to tell me his full name) and his badge was hidden behind a clever jacket, said the driving license was invalid. Why? Because “this Bengal license is not valid here”.

I have a West Bengal driving license myself and know fully well that Govindappa was in the wrong.

My friend, by now, harassed, angry and helpless, lit a cigarette… This is when Hitendra M.S. (Sub Inspector, Shivajinagar Traffic Police Station) showed how he is the “boss”. Shoving my friend he demanded the cigarette be stubbed. My friend asked why, and that it was not an offence, especially when there were other people around there doing the same.

Feeling every bit of the humiliation that my friend did, I chose to… tell Hitendra that he could not be behaving like that. I raised my voice and before I knew it, he was warning my friend about how I should not dare to tell him anything because, “Ladki hai. Isko bol baat nahin karegi”. “(She’s a girl, ask her not to talk”. At this point, my friend outraged to the point of confrontation told him to stop involving me… this sentence remains unfinished because… he was hit. On the head, his face, his already broken jaw. Hitendra M.S., then R.T. Raju (Head Constable, Shivajinagar Traffic Police Station), then Govindappa and then, to my utter shock, some stray civilians. I call them civilians because they were not in uniform. I have no idea what kind of a nexus they are in with the police.

Blinded with rage, I tried to stop the policemen. At which point, all three of them and more, turned all their attention from my friend to me. Shouting abuses like “benchod” and “bhonsdike” (both very popular “north Indian” abuses”) they had their hands in the air, ready to strike the daylights out of me.

No female police officers, no offence, just power. Naked, routine, ugly. Power. They tripped on power.

7 hours and 3 police stations and many, many policemen later, we could not get a complaint written. 4 hours after the incident, we were handed a report written in Kannada (a language both my friend and me do not know) and asked to sign. When we refused, we were forcefully put in a jeep and taken to a hospital. It is only then, from the hospital in-charge, a retired Army doctor that we found what was in the report. It was a charge on me. For, “causing nuisance under the influence of alcohol.” I did not understand. What? I was the pillion rider, I was assaulted, and I went to them to file a complaint against their fellow policeman. How could I be the defendant in a potential case when I was the complainant?

I was told to make a choice. Either my friend and me gave them blood and urine samples which would prove we had consumed alcohol, a legal substance (we were told by the doctor that it didn’t matter. Drugs and alcohol were treated the same way) and be sure of being taken into judicial custody and eventually to conviction… Or, the other option was to drop charges, write an “apology” letter for creating nuisance and save our asses. I cried a little, at the gross injustice I thought we were treated with. But we chose to save our behinds. Right there, then, under pressure, fighting “them” instead of having “them” fight us… I chose to “apologize”.

This morning, Friday, September 07, 2012, my friend went back to the Shivajinagar Traffic Police Station to pay his fine and get his bike back. For the second time. Yesterday afternoon he was sent back because Hitendra wasn’t in. And my friend was not given a receipt with which he could get it back.

Hitendra made him wait. A long time. And in full view of the rest of the officers in the police station asked him about “woh ladki” (that girl)”. Told him “uske jaisa bees ladki mai palta hoon” (I have 20 mistresses like her). And that he was doing my friend a favour by returning his bike with just Rs.1,500 fine (for which my friend did not receive a receipt) and that they have so much power that they could have shot us then and there. I’m sure he could have.

Why, in a nation so apathetic about its own development — unless it involves shopping malls and brand-consumption — do we even bother writing about these blatant abuse of power? What use is it, after all? The victim of the incident above has made it clear that she does not wish to pursue legal recourse in a system as rotten, abusive, unregulated and self-protective as this. Then why bother?
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Sentimentality, I suppose. After all, as the author above concludes, “You know how we are… We hate this country, but we love this country”.

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And hope. I hope. The first stage of public accountability is shaking the public out of their cowering passivity and indifference. If people stop telling each other, “Oh well, you know, that’s how it is with the police” and instead start filing complaints, writing to the papers, blogging, and demanding judicial intervention, we just might make something of this country yet.
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29 comments

  1. Lets try a new approach for a change. Why are we blaming the cops? Why can’t we have cops who are polite and good and honest and all the stuff we want them to be?

    A cop has to pay a bribe of 500000/- (Five lakhs only) to become a subinspector after the police test. His academics and the marks he has secured in the entrance exam to the police academy does not count.

    He pays 250000/- (Rupees Two lakhs only) to become a constable.
    Mind the rates are about 3 years old I have not factored in inflation effects on bribes. What the hell did you expect.

    The average cop sees more action than a military man has Ms Nandy ever gone to a police hospital??? You have to worry about catching something new there, the conditions are so bad. Go see a command hospital for the armed services. Its fantastic.

    I do not say what has been happened is right, what I wish to say is that corruption begets corruption. What do you expect to get from a sty but pigs.

    Why not try and give the cops some more amenities and treat them like the armed services??? Maybe things will be a bit better.

    • Ravi Sankaran argues that treatment such as that offered to the army would help curb unethical behaviour. I would infer, then, that the soldiers in India’s northeastern colonies– er, pardon me, ‘states’– under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act must be behaving ethically because after all they are receiving army benefits?

      Comforts and privileges do not make a moral person. In fact, by creating difference and otherness, they often make the opposite – for further details see “http://www.prisonexp.org/”. If one wants to bring up people who will use their power over other people ethically, I don’t think that there’s any way around teaching social perspective-taking and tolerance, as religions and moral philosophies do when followed spritually rather than ritualistically. Giving bad people more amenities only creates more comfortable and complacent bad people.

  2. Matthew, if you qualify “as religions and moral philosophies do when followed spritually rather than ritualistically”, then everything else can be qualified, such as “as policemen behave when they are good”. It is meaningless to bring such qualifications when religion has been the cause of so much war, destruction, mass murder. Even in the entire Indian colony under British rule.

  3. A friend of mine graduated from West Point and reached the cutting edge of military professionalism as an airborne ranger, parachuting into the jungle to lead insurgent groups until he saw it as madness, dropped out, and got a doctorate at Tufts. I asked him “what’s the highest level of the paramilitary in the US” “Airborne rangers” he said “all college grads, highly trained, physically in top shape.” “And the lowest” “Your local police force, of course … they can’t even march in formation” He laughed, and then he got really serious. “But it’s really bad, because they all want to be paramilitary only they’re not educated, they’re not trained, and they have neither a tradition nor any sort of code – so they’re completely out of control. They can get away with anything and they know it, and they all want to be tough guys and people get beaten and people get killed; most people have no idea they’re not following some rule book … I tell you, some of them are scary.”

    In my twenties, tor asking a cop his badge number after he’d hit a person to the ground, I was seized, choked, cuffed, and thrown into a police van, hauled out, cuffed to a pipe, and when I heard them beating on that guy and complained, they bloodied my face with a riot helmet, one telling the other he’d swear I attacked him. I still have have the photos, and … you guessed it. I was the one charged for interfering. The third guy they tossed in the van was a newspaper reporter so at least the story got out, but the street guy ended up in the hospital, I barely escaped a criminal charge, and this is the wonderful USA. Like the ex-soldier said … some of those cops are scary.

  4. These following are the comments garnered from my friend’s Facebook, where he shared this anecdote. I want these comments documented because I think they represent an important section of the discourse on the subject of enforcing the ‘rule of law’.

  5. A ‘Conscientious Bengali’ does not drink and drive in the middle of the night. I hope you are careful about whose interests are you trying to protect here. It can happen that an old man or child gets hit by that drunk idiot. Like a six-year old kid in our neighbourhood got crippled for life after being hit by a driver who was talking on mobile phone. And I see many men/women doing that everyday. Breaking the Law and then adding Gender and Regional Color to it and produce an Inflammatory Article – yup – Great Stuff indeed!

  6. I don’t think so 🙂 There is no criticism of drunk driving. No body is questioning if the guy had a valid license (pls check the Karnataka License Rules – if you come from a different state, you need to change your address). The Regional and Gender tone is dangerous. Linking that to a recent incident is even more dangerous. That is where I disagree. Actually what this girl has successfully done is give a Gender & Regional Harassment dimension to a Serious Law Violation and garnering public support for it. how do I interpret this? “they had their hands in the air, ready to strike the daylights out of me.No female police officers, no offense, just power. Naked, routine, ugly. Power. They tripped on power. 7 hours and 3 police stations and many, many policemen later, we could not get a complaint written.” What did they do to her? Did they hit her? Abuse her? Molest her? What happened in between during those 7 hrs?

  7. Isn’t drunken driving a non bailable offence in the west ? I know of several Hollywood stars who have spent time in the cooler because of it .If I am not mistaken the driver was not given a non bailable section by the police …something like obstructing a public servant .Bangalore police had been soft if they had not hauled him under a non bailable section.What do we want ? A separate constitution and laws for those who can speak english? Derek was fined last wk by a traffic sergeant. He tweeted and thanked the policemen (with their names ) for discharging their duty.

  8. I understand though, that when something like this goes public all kinds of wild speculation and kneejerk judgemental comments are bound to follow. But carry on folks…until you face the same thing. Its fun to be compradors of a police state and smugly compacent and pious until the shit hits you up close and personal. Then you will scream but other faceless people will make outrageous jibes at you.

  9. @Subir Hajra Choudhuri – yes you are absolutely right. And I can say that confidently because I worked with the Criminal Justice Department in Houston, Texas for 5 years. In a situation like this the cop will simply say ‘Sir, you have the right to remain silent’ and put hand-cuffs, gently put him in the vehicle and drive-off. Anyone – father, mother, brother, sister, wife, son, daughter, friend, whoever – interfering will also be booked for ‘Obstruction of Justice’. While driving from George Bush International Airport, you will see this sign many time ‘Drink, Drive, Go To Jail’. Gautam – being a Bengali living in Bangalore for 6 years, it is not that I never had a brush with the Cops. Once I was involved in a serious chain accident involving multiple vehicles. I still have the phone no of the Police Inspector who got us through that mess. And he is a Kannadiga. There was no bribe involved. I have his mobile no and he has told me that I can always approach him for help if I need any. And I did not have to write a long article on Facebook 🙂 One thing I have learnt from my experiences, as citizens it is our Responsibility to co-operate with the Law keepers. We are much better off that way. Like all of us, they also wake up in the morning, say good bye to wife and kids and go to work. Traffic cops specially deserve more co-operation because they brave the rain, heat, dust, storm and all sorts of deliberate violations of the law. Citizens co-operating with the Law-keepers (irrespective of the Political System) is an important trait of any developed and civilized world.

  10. On the contrary in the law enforcement colleges it is taught that force can be used if the subject is failing to follow the order. Please do remember we are talking about two people (both the drunk driver and the drunk journalist) under the influence of alcohol here.

  11. Gautam: Actually only cops have been given the right to use force if necessary to bring a man to justice. My reading of the situation is (I might be wrong ) a few drunken kids who were caught after midnight by cops blew their top because of a false sense of entitlement which I find commonly amongst the privileged class.The usual subtext is how dare a junior officer haul me up when I/my papa knows the DG/minister and I with my english education belong to a higher class .No one in India except the poor have any respect for authority and use social science jargon to justify their feudal behavior. It’s a classic case of “ulta chor kotwal ko date” I have worked in Government and still work with the police and jail authorities. Let me tell you India is under policed and simply does not have the resources to be a police state .

  12. No cop can slap and beat up a person or use third degree methods. It is against the law. Do not confuse this with the sense of entitlement some feudal types have.

  13. I read the piece. It didn’t look like they were resisting anything. About guns – I think if one goes to a police station they have a rule book where it is prescribed what constitutes the use of deadly force. I really don’t understand what you are getting at. Are you saying the police should have carte blanche to do whatever violence they wish at whim? That there should be no avenues for the citizen for redressal if that happens unjustly? Are police supposed to punch, kick, slap citizens as they feel like or impose fines on them unjustly?

    BTW this is unrelated..but are you by the way against the present gun control laws we have in India? You think maybe they are too strict?

  14. A drunk driver and a drunk journalist. That’s what it is. The drunk journalist enjoyed free drink at the expense of the drunk driver. They have a brawl with law enforcement officials in the middle of the night. And the drunk journalist wakes up after 3 days and writes a looooong piece adding gender and regional flavour to it. That’s all. I want both of them in jail right now so that when I am walking in M G Road or Church Street with my wife and kid, those drunks don’t come and hit us leaving us dead or crippled. I rest my case. Enough of soft policing!

  15. Agree and disagree with the issue. No cop has the right to abuse, use foul language (esp gendered abuse) BUT the note has a serious inflammatory tone. Committing an offense of drunken driving and then adding a regional undertone and garnering support is not acceptable. Bangalore is one of the most cosmopolitan and I add “over-accomodative” of all cities. Everyone wants to have their “rights” here without any of the responsibilities and obviously incidents like these bring out the “outsider” trump card to be flashed regardless of the error on their own parts.

    Of course physical and verbal abuse on the part of the police is totally unacceptable and the officer who gave the person a broken jaw should be suspended.

  16. ‎Gautam – isn’t that why drunk driving is such a serious and punishable offence because of the fatal damage it can cause?

  17. Yes Rajib. But have you seen how US cops pull over and apprehend motorists? From the physical handling to the reading out of Miranda rights to booking in jail for 24 hours and the call to the lawyer…there is “due course”. Not slapdash and grotesque the way it is here. We need to be civilized.

  18. Rajib Das Sharma, I am often fearful of being on MG road or Brigade road at nights precisely because I see lurching motorists speeding etc. I am afraid of becoming disabled (dead is another question) bec of some drunkard’s carelessness. Gautam, yes true the way it was handled needs a touch of civility!

  19. Yes Gautam – I fully agree and civility is reciprocal. My personal experience, like I mentioned in an earlier post, did not involve anything grotesque but having said that, I cannot rule out the possibility of what you said. But to be fair, we need to hear the police side of the story as well because the article is written by a person who herself was under the influence of alcohol. Also there are some yawning loopholes in the narration. What really put me off about the whole incident was the gender and regional colour. And on top of that linking it to a recent extremely damaging incident. Under any circumstance that is unacceptable. Would you disagree?

  20. I think what the bright sparks propounding due course of law here are missing is that there WAS no due course of law followed here. The drunk driver was not booked, as he should have been. His bike was held hostage, not impounded, because for a legally valid impounding, you need to issue a receipt. And the police did coerce them into paying a bribe, because when he paid his ‘fine’ — Rs. 1500 — he was not given a receipt either. The police used the driver’s alleged drunkenness to exercise their sadism, extort them for money, and as Joanna said, get high on power.

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