Playing Cops and Reporters

This article was published in The Telegraph, Kolkata, December 5, 2006.

Here’s an amusing little story. According to reports in a leading daily, (August 26 and September 4), Hoshangabad police charged a couple with the murder of their twelve year-old son. Their son was indeed missing, and a body was found near the railway track. The parents confessed to the crime, and spent over 45 days in jail. Six months after his murder, young Gabbar turned up in town. He had fallen asleep while selling peanuts on trains, and woke up in Jalgaon. There he was put into a correctional institution, and later, sent to Bhopal. Finally he managed to convince someone to send him back home. Present in court, he listened to the government pleader arguing that the parents had confessed to the murder, so he could not be Gabbar; that the body found near the railway track was not Kallu alias Tufan, as claimed; and that neighbours had identified the dead body as that of Gabbar. The neighbours meanwhile, told the reporter they had never identified the dead body as his, and that this boy was indeed Gabbar. “We know him since he was born”, said one of them simply, “how could we make such a mistake?”

As for the parents who confessed to the murder of a son who was alive – “They broke three of my fingers with sticks,” said the father. They were tortured in custody for a night and made to sign a confessional statement the next morning.

A routine investigation in a poor neighbourhood, of a small boy’s murder. Nothing at stake in it for the police but that of showing a solved case. And police pursuit of this mundane, low-profile incident involved torture, a forced false confession and falsified evidence (neighbours’ supposed identification of the dead body). It further involved, in the face of incontrovertible evidence of the boy being alive, reiterations in court of the police version under oath, urging the court instead, to prosecute Gabbar’s family for producing another person as Gabbar.

Would this blatant miscarriage of justice have been reported in the media if the parents had been arrested on a different sort of charge? If Gabbar himself had not turned up alive? What if Gabbar had been killed in an encounter?

So the amusing little story metamorphoses into a nightmarish question: what happens to police procedures and media reportage when nothing less than National Security is at stake?

Last month, a woman widely known in academic and activist circles in Delhi, Sunita of Daanish Books, a small alternative publisher, was detained by police in Chandrapur where she had set up a book exhibition at an annual festival celebrating Ambedkar’s conversion. Books from her stall were seized, and she was interrogated for several hours over two days. She was able to contact friends and family in Delhi, and when concerned phone calls and faxes started pouring in, police claimed that they had “clinching evidence”, a phrase they repeatedly used, that this Sunita was a Maoist activist from Jehanabad, where her Maoist husband had been killed some years ago in an encounter. During her interrogation, the official insisted that she admit she was from Jehanabad, despite her assertion that she is from Bhagalpur, and that she had never lost a husband to police bullets. He told her confidently at one point, “Hum saabit kar ke rahenge ki aap vohi Sunita hain, Jehanabad ki.” (We will prove that you are the Sunita from Jehanabad). Reports in local Hindi newspapers published the police version without any further comment or corroboration.

Let me pass quickly over the alarming fact that the books that were “seized” as threatening to national security were books by and on Marx, Lenin, Mao, Clara Zetkin and Bhagat Singh. That during interrogation Sunita was asked – “Why do you sell books on Bhagat Singh? The British have left, haven’t they?” That other questions included demands that she explain why she does not use a surname and why she wears a bindi when her husband is dead (the one killed in Jehanabad, remember?) We will pass over these questions only because the one that concerns me here is this. Sunita is a well known figure among people who can make a noise in high places, and so the police attempt to manipulate her identity failed. What of all the others?

In September, three letter-bombs went off hours before the President visited Kerala. Immediately, several Muslim youths were arrested and kept in police custody for weeks, being interrogated to reveal their links with Islamic organizations. But as investigations continued, the culprit turned out to be a Hindu man with personal grudges to settle. The slick web-site of the Thiruvananthapuram City Police announced the closing of the case with the information that the accused was a “meek character with a scientific temperament using an innovative method to intimidate his enemies.” In psychoanalytic mode, the police statement adds: “The accused always aspired for peer respect as an innovator. The mail bombs seemed to be a `deviant expression’ of the desire to seek revenge and prove oneself at the same time.”

So, not a word about the wrongly detained and most probably tortured Muslims, and a veritable certificate of merit for the Hindu culprit. Maybe they should induct him into the police force so that he can redirect his lack of self-esteem and scientific temperament more fruitfully – in hunting down the real anti-national elements.

Like, for example, Afzal? All those members of India’s democratic public filling the coffers of mobile phone companies by SMS-ing TV channels that Afzal should hang – what is the basis of their informed decision?

The media of course, pliantly reproducing police hand-outs as news. The police say they have arrested two Pakistani nationals, and Pakistani nationals they become for ever after, in newspapers and on TV screens, with not a single “alleged”, “claimed”, and after the first time (and sometimes not even then), “according to police reports”. Even in stories that use the last phrase, the total lack of analysis and commentary makes them news items rather than reports of police briefings. A recent story in a national daily reported in alarmist style that senior police officers informed the paper on the basis of intelligence tip-offs that Maoists have “launched a campaign” across Jharkand, Bihar and Chhatisgarh – a campaign to do what? Exterminate the class enemy? Blow up police stations? Turns out the “extremists”, as the police call them have a sinister plan to concentrate on local weekly markets and – perform plays and sing songs in local dialects! Further, taking advantage of the villager’s newly acquired literacy, the police said disapprovingly, they sell books on and by communist thinkers, some of which have been vigilantly seized. So there they are, the Maoist extremists, singing and performing in public places, and selling widely available books at local markets – you need “intelligence tip-offs” to know this? And why does the reporter not have an intelligence tip-off from his own intelligence, to add one single word more than the police gave him? This story carried a by-line, mind you.

Of course, not always does the media simply report police briefings as news. Sometimes they are proactive. A new Hindi TV channel last week indignantly reported that dangerous leftist literature is freely available in the cultural festivals that are a tradition in Punjab. Having spoken to the person handling one such stall, who acknowledged that indeed, they do use these occasions to propagate their political ideology, the channel then interviewed the SSP. What was the police doing about this blatant availability of books and CDs that incite people against the state? The SSP assured the reporter that he would act immediately.

People of India, I give you the media – democracy is safe in their hands.

7 thoughts on “Playing Cops and Reporters”

  1. Surnameless women selling books on Bhagat Singh! Shocking and frightening!
    Good to see you blogging.

  2. I couldn’t understand some parts of this article ng Cops and Reporters at Kafila, but I guess I just need to check some more resources regarding this, because it sounds interesting.

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