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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 51, December 11, 2010

When the Police Break the Law

Sunday 12 December 2010

by Arup Dasgupta

India’s emergence as the fourth largest economy with its burgeoning growth story conceals the grim world of poverty and deprivation of her teeming millions across the vast countrywide. The largest democracy of the world has spawned a kind of political culture of arrogance and muscle-flexing that every political party has adopted as its working principle. When there is disaffection among the poor resulting in the decline of law and order, the state intervenes with strong-arm measures. But then things take a bizarre shape as the public mutely watch the criminalisation of the police and its nexus with the party that heads the government.

In order to bolster this proposition here is a story of how the police in West Bengal have thrown the rule of law to the winds as they, hand in glove with the armed CPI-M hoodlums in the Jungle Mahal area spanning three South Bengal districts (West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia), are violating human rights with impunity.

Kanchan Deb Singha, 22, is a resident of village Madhupur, under Salboni Police Station in West Midnapore. He and his elder brother, Hemanta, joined the struggle waged by the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA) at Lalgarh since November 2008. Apart from launching an anti-insurgency drive to flush out the Maoists, the joint forces operation had another objective of providing cover to the CPI-M to regain its lost political space in the entire area. The deeprooted disenchantment of the Adivasi and other marginalised sections of people of Lalgarh against the CPI-M misrule and loot culminated in the spontaneous formation of the PCAPA. The television channels telecast the special footage showing a huge crowd of jubilant poor people of Lalgarh demolishing a palatial building owned by a wholetimer, Anuj Pandey, who draws a monthly allowance of Rs 1500 from the party (CPI-M)!

Kanchan was picked up by the operating joint forces on April 6, 2010 along with Debu Deb Singha from Midnapur. When their relatives went to Salboni P.S. to enquire about them, the police declined having arrested them. They were never produced in the Judicial Magistrate’s court at Midnapore. They were in fact kept in the lock-up of Kharagpur town and Keshpur thanas successively for more than two months in a very degrading condition. Another detainee, Dipak Dey, from Goaltore has alleged that almost every other night he was blindfolded, hung upside down from the ceiling and beaten to extract words to the effect that he was in close league with the Maoists. Asim Mahata, a schoolboy of 17, was arrested from village Pidraculy under Salboni P.S. and was similarly kept untraced for more than two months. When his mother went to Salboni P.S. for information regarding her son, the officer on duty greeted her with unprintable slangs and even beat her up with his shoes.

However, even after the relatives of these young men filed missing cases in the Midnapore CJM’s court, the police as usual declined having arrested them. It was around the middle of June 2010 that these young men were traced to Mongoldoi P.S. (in Assam’s Darrang district) where they were sent on false charges. Kanchan has narrated the intriguing story how they were bundled off to Assam. On their way to Assam their vehicle stopped near a forest where within minutes they heard gunshots. A short while later some policemen came running and dumped a few bundles of ganjas inside the vehicle. When the vehicle reached the Mongoloid P.S., they were thrown into the lock-up while, as they heard, a heated exchange of words took place between the OC and some other policemen. The former appeared to be unwilling to slap a narcotic case on them, as it would be very difficult to prove the charge. The OC, however, allowed the detainees to talk to their parents over phone asking them to come over and arrange for their bail.

The families of these detainees are all marginal peasants and they had a tough time in procuring money partly by borrowing and partly by selling off some of their assets. Thanks to the assistance of their lawyer at Midnapore court who offered to commission one of his juniors as their escort, they were at long last able to land up at Mongoldoi and obtain their bail through a local lawyer and guarantor.

Earlier Asim’s parents themselves had planned to journey to Mongoldoi, and as they headed for Kharagpur station by bus to board their train, they were intercepted by the police of the Kharagpur local thana and detained and harassed for a few hours.

AS they returned, they could not land up at their respective villages, since the CPI-M goons or harmads, aided and abetted by the joint forces, had already set up their armed camps in almost every village of the area. The villagers, mainly belonging to the PCAPA and Opposition parties, fled their homes and were sheltered in the tran shibirs (relief centres) at Midnapore and Kharagpur. Kanchan, along with others, took shelter at the shibir housed in the Municipal Dormitory at Midnapore. As many as 130 people hailing form different places of the district such as Salboni, Goaltore, Manikpara, have been staying here with their displaced families. The shibir is being run by the local Trinamul Congress.

The police had got a warrant issued against Kanchan as, according to their version, he had been absconding since April 2010. He apprehended arrest, which is why he could not visit his terminally ill mother in the Midnapore Medical College Hospital, a stone’s throw from the dormitory where he had been staying. Even he could not venture to go to the burning ghat to perform the last funeral rites when his mother died.

On November 9, 2010 Kanchan and some of his friends accompanied some local Opposition political leaders to join a protest march at Pirakata, near Salboni. During the procession he felt he was being shadowed by plain clothes policemen. However, he boarded the vehicle that carried local Opposition political leaders on his way back to Midnapore. At Pattarkumkumi near Bhadutola the vehicle was intercepted by the police and he was forcibly dragged out and whisked away to Salboni P.S. The police declared him a Maoist squad leader, which was flashed on the television by the Bengali channels. Next day Kanchan was produced in the Midnapore CJM’s court. The public prosecutor appealed for a fortnight’s police remand on the ground that Kanchan was a close accomplice of Maoist leader Kishenji and he knew a great deal about the locations of the major arms depots of the Maoists. In both the cases under Section 124 of IPC that has been slapped on him, he has been accused of assaulting CRPF personnel with firearms. The argument of the defence lawyer did not weigh with the Magistrate, since the complaint of police brutality can never take precedence over the charge of sedition. He was sent to thirteen days police remand in a total of ten cases.

Talking to me through the iron mesh of the dock in the court room, Kanchan informed me that after his mother’s death he had lost all his closest kins. His father died a few years ago; his middle elder brother died of some disease, whereas his elder brother, Hemanta, was shot dead by the joint forces in a fake encounter. In the evening a phone call from one of the displaced at the Midnapore tran sibir informed me that Kanchan’s house at village Madhupur under Salboni block was burned down by the harmads immediately after his arrest. Kanchan has practically none of his own to whom he can turn for emotional support at present.

Sanatan Soren, a twenty-year-old young man from Jharkhand, was arrested by the West Midnapore Police sometime in April 2010. He was subjected to severe torture in the lock-up of Kharagpur town thana. Parts of his body were burned so badly that they took four months to heal, during which period he was detained in the thana without being produced in the court. Raju Adak and Jaidev Bera, both belonging to Jirapara, Lalgarh, were untraced for five months during which time they were detained in different police stations in Andhra Pradesh and Jharkhand until in September 2010 they were produced at the Jhargram Sub-divisional Court under false names. The PCAPA had already declared them as lost and dead in their list of untraced members. The criminal motive of the police became all too evident as the two young men disclosed their identity before the Magistrate.

Anup Mondal, 25, a State-level athlete, residing at a village under Goaltore Block, was severely flogged on the very day the joint forces began their operation at Lalgarh on June 18, 2010. The police intercepted him as he was returning from his friend’s house near Lalgarh. He sustained a fracture in his right arm and injury in his lower abdomen. When his complaints to the higher authorities of the police yielded no result, he filed a complaint suit against the guilty policemen at Midnapore Judicial Magistrate’s court. On August 9, 2010 he was again picked up by the police at Lalgarh as he was heading for the meeting to be addressed by the Union Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee and other distingui-shed members of the civil society. At Lalgarh P.S. he was stripped naked and put through extreme mental torture for as long as thirtysix hours. The police even went out of their way to establish him as a Maoist.

It bears recall that when the joint operation of the Central and State security forces started in June 2009, the Union Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, and the West Bengal Chief Minister declared that the objective was to restore civil administration and rule of law in the Maoist-affected areas. Ironically in the Jungle Mahal the State Police and Central forces have turned out to be the worst law-breakers. Not only do they brutalise the common people during their raids in the villages, they have also been accused of raping women at a village near Jhargram, the sub-division town. The entire area comprising ten thanas has been under 144 CrPC for the last one-and-a-half year, depriving common men of their free movement. Human rights activists have also been prevented from carrying out fact-finding in these areas, where rights violations are rampant. The mounting disaffection among the people growing out of the unrelenting siege may prove counterproductive as both the Central and State governments show no signs of restoring the democratic process.

An APDR (Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights) fact-finding team at Jhargram was intercepted by the police in early October 2010 and taken to Binpur P.S. where their vehicle was searched. The IC put the team members through racial profiling of sorts as he enquired whether there was anybody in the team with surnames like Mahato, Murmu, Tudu, Soren or Hansda, who would not be spared. This attitude of the police is despicable, as it identifies a whole community of people residing in a particular area as Maoist insurgents. As it is, the government’s rhetoric on development and rule of law to win over the people across the affected area has been proved to be utterly hollow in the absence of civil governance and the presence of an effete judiciary, to say the least.

The author is a member, Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR), West Midnapore, West Bengal. He can be contacted at e-mail: arupdsgpt@gmail.com

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