Woe, woe, woe, if ever you rouse the suspicion or anger of the police. For you would be harassed. Or might even be tortured or killed. For many in the police, the courts are redundant. Thirty-eight years after independence they think they can be judge and executioner. They treat suspects as Criminals,

In a democratic society no one can be held guilty unless and until he is convicted by a court. But the police in this country do not seem to be aware of this. Almost invariably they tend to treat all suspects as criminals. And however highly placed the suspects might be. Let me give two instances.

The person involved in the first is R.K Dhawan, who was Mrs. Gandhi’s personal assistant. He, according to the police, is a “suspect” in the case of Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination though he had served her for 23 years. Whether the Thakar Commission, appointed to inquire into the assassination, will find him guilty or not is not the point I am concerned with; what I am concerned with is the unending harassment to which he as a “suspect” is subjected to.

In Dhawan’s case, the questioning has continued for the past six months. His ordeal began soon after he was dropped from service by Rajiv Gandhi in January 1985. I have often criticized Dhawan because of the type of extra constitutional activities he indulged in for years at Mr. Gandhi’s asking or on his own. And I am not against his being questioned. What I object to is to the familiar pattern of police inquiry, which takes the form of plain harassment.

It is no consolation that Dhawan must have realized by now what people go through when the police have a free hand and when the government tums 4 blind eye to the excesses they commit. This was what happened to thousands of people during the Emergency; brutalization has got institutionalized since. Dhawan was in a position to stop at least some of the arbitrary arrests, fabricated cases and vindictive raids that marked the Emergency. He did not, but that does not justify what he is being made to undergo these days.

Dhawan met me soon after the return of Mrs. Gandhi to power in 1980; he then admitted that the authorities had committed excesses, and he proposed changes in the system as a remedy. Apparently, he did not do anything to effect any change, and he is himself a victim now.

The other instance involves Rajindef Puri, an eminent cartoonist and newspaper columnist. The Lohia in him makes him do many things which I do not like. Some time ago he took hundreds of villagers to Hotel Ashok for tea to register his protest against the five star culture. A month ago, held a crowd from jhuggijhopris to unoccupied DDA flats to highlight the absence of accommodation for the poor.

Puri’s demonstration was peaceful, but the police beat him up. According to Puri, the sub inspector who beat him with a lathi said in a sort of chant: “So, you are Puri, the cartoonist, the journalist who writes against the Government. I shall make a cartoon of you.” Puri was produced before the local court where for reasons best known to the judge, he was refused bail. Subsequently, he was taken to the Tihar Jail, locked up for two days in a cell with criminals and then released on bail.

I do not want to go into the merits of the case, which in any case is subjudice. But the treatment meted out to Puri cannot be ignored. Why should anyone in a demonstration be beaten up if it is peaceful? The police may be justified in arresting a person if he has violated the law but they have no right to beat him up. I know that what has happened to Puri has happened to many but what kind of society are we trying to build in which such things are allowed and what kind of training are we imparting to the police?

Puri’s experience of Tihar Jail is also worth ‘recounting. He was no criminal but treated as one, or perhaps worse, for even a criminal has every right to be treated as a human being. He was not given much to eat—probably, most of the rations go “elsewhere,” leaving the jail with meager food to give the prisoners. The attitude is to inflict as many indignities as possible on anyone put in jail—unless, of course, he has money to bribe the staff. I recall when I came out of jail after detention during the Emergency, I asked Om Mehta, then Minister of State for Home, why jails were so dirty. His reply was: “We did not send you to Hotel Ashok.”

In one way both Dhawan and Puri might consider themselves lucky, because while one suffered harassment and the other a beating, no policeman thought of torturing them. Torture by the police has become common; only recently an editor and two others died in police custody in Delhi. True, all three were said to be connected with terrorism, but they were only suspects. Bumping off suspects without trial is a practice of the medieval ages, and it is surprising that the government has expressed no horror that this should be happening in this century.

But then we seem to have had the system of the police as judge and executioner for quite some time. The usual procedure is to report an “encounter” between the police and criminals or terrorists in which several of the latter are killed, while none of the former even have a scratch. True, at times there are cases where witnesses are hard to find and where the culprits have indulged in several heinous crimes. But even they deserve trial, and such methods to eliminate those the police hold to be guilty cannot be set in motion tendencies which society will increasingly regret.

It is not that there are no safeguards. But many of those arrested are not aware of them. And the police chafe at them. For instance, the Director General of Police of a key State raised some time ago his voice against “the presence of a lawyer at the stage of interrogation.” He said that it “hampers the process of investigation to a great extent and is administratively inconvenient.”

The DGP’s plea was despite the Supreme Court’s judgment (Nandini Satpathy vs PL. Dani) that if an accused asks for a lawyer’s assistance at the stage of interrogation “it will be granted” before questioning him.

What saved the situation was that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) did not agree to the DGP’s plea on the ground that Article 22 (1) of the Constitution, which protects the right of accused to consult an advocate of his choice, was fundamental to the rule of law. The CBI went on to say that “if an accused person expresses the wish to have his lawyer by side when his examination is being conducted, the facility will not be denied without being exposed to the serious reproof that involuntary self-incrimination secured*in secrecy and by coercing the will, was the project.”

But more than laws, what we need is the proper climate to check police flouting of the laws. Recently I also experienced the way the police act. When I was going by the Flying Mail from Panipat to Ambala in a crowded first class compartment, a police officer suddenly took it into his head that I was up to no good and dragged me down from the upper berth, I was perched on for want of room elsewhere. He not only abused me but threatened to take me to a police station when the train stopped at Ambala. What hurt me most was that no one of the dozen people in the compartment came to my rescue or even protested. Subsequently, when someone from another compartment who happened to pass by identified me, the atmosphere changed. But experiencing the raw power of the police was rather shocking.

What all this indicates is the distortion of the system. If there is no one in authority to object, third degree methods will be used on every “suspect” whatever the offence he is suspected of, political or not. My fear is that in the days to come, the confrontation between the establishment and the people will grow; with prices rising and unemployment increasing, there will be more discontent and the police will be even more barbarous than they are now. To survive those days, no one will have to be either fatalist or terrorist.

What is the most disconcerting aspect is the lack of protest. No one speaks out against atrocities and one is content if he or his family members are not touched. The atmosphere of violence and terrorism has made the people mute; they have come to accept police brutality. No question is asked because of a growing sense of personal insecurity. On the other hand, the police are being given extraordinary powers, which are apt to be misused.

Courtesy Surya, India October 1985

Article extracted from this publication >>  November 22, 1985