Earlier this month, we witnessed a shameful incident of police brutality in Mumbai. A couple were picked up by a bunch of belligerent cops and subjected to the most venal physical torture which was captured on the camera by a perceptive bystander. Every news channel displayed it on the television and in the debates that followed, there was near universal condemnation of the police force. A week has elapsed-and as I feared, the incident is almost off the public radar.
For me, there was a sense of déjà vu. In the very early 90's when I was still working as a medical academic in the United States, we were treated to a similar brutality on the highway by the Los Angeles Police. The victim in this case was a motorist called Rodney King who had a criminal record stretching from Los Angeles to San Francisco. He was asked to disembark from his automobile and subjected to relentless beating with truncheons that lasted for over five minutes-he was unarmed when he faced nearly half a dozen police officers.
The incident proved to be a turning point in recent US history. There was a national debate on how such a thing could happen in the country that prided on its record of human rights. Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates was a very powerful political figure. Unlike the other police chiefs in the country, his job carried the protection normally accorded to a tenured university professor - in colloquial terms that effectively meant it was well nigh impossible to sack him.
To his credit, Gates had brought in some noteworthy measures towards crime reduction. His role in the successful completion of Los Angeles Olympics earned him admiration and close friendship of George Bush Sr. who was the president at the time of this incident. He had very strong supporters in the arch conservative Republican lobby. Perhaps this was the reason why he felt emboldened enough to continue to defend his officer's actions despite a near universal condemnation.
The public pressure became intense by the hour. And not all who were baying for Gates's resignation were liberals. George Will had built up a sterling reputation as a leading conservative columnist. He came out unequivocally against Gates and asked for his resignation.
When it became virtually unavoidable, George Bush Sr. made a statement condemning the beating claiming that watching the tape had made him sick and nothing could justify that. However even at that moment he refused to condemn his friend Gates who was holding out against the demand for resignation.
Eventually the public pressure became just too intense and Gates was forced to resign. The police officers were made to stand criminal trial. When the all-Caucasian jury acquitted the officers of assault on an Afro-American Rodney King, there were race riots. George Bush Sr. took the very unusual step of re-subjecting the officers to another criminal trial this time for criminal abuse of human rights. This led to conviction of two officers.
When we replicate the near identical situation that existed in Mumbai, I am deeply distressed to note that there is no public outcry over what was meted out o a fellow citizen. There has been no statement that has been coming from the government apart from being informed that an internal police enquiry is in progress. Police Commissioner Javed has not yet made any statement -a week has elapsed; his subordinate who addressed the press shocked many when he appeared to justify the police action.
There is near unanimity in inferring this brand of police brutality as bestial and beneath contempt. The actions taken by the administration are not likely to reassure many that incidents like this are not going to recur again. Many get the feeling that even these minimal measures have been forced because the police have been caught red-handed. The legitimate question is why is there not any public outcry the sort of which we witnessed in Los Angeles.
The answer is simple. Over the years we have come to expect this conduct from the police and any observance and adherence to tenets of human rights by the police forces all over India are an exception rather than a norm.
It would be odiously hypocritical to suggest that this phenomenon is new. The police all over the country have been known to favour the methods that were captured on the camera as anyone who has had any dealings with the police anywhere in the country would easily attest. And police brutality has existed in government of all shades. One can justifiably state that police reform is way down in the list of priorities of any government in the country.
A few glaring instances need to be adumbrated to describe the rot that has set in. Radhey Shyam Gupta was the Commissioner of Delhi Police in the 90's when a person was sent to judicial custody on charges of murder and remained there for six months-when the supposed deceased turned up alive! He refused to countenance any responsibility or blame. A few months later Rishi Prakash Tyagi, and Assistant Commissioner was sentenced to death for custodial killing. Not a word of condemnation came from the Commissioner's office. If the Wikipedia was to be believed, he described Tyagi as a 'model police officer.'
Maxwell Pereira, retired Joint Commissioner is a media favourite. Ironically it was on the media itself he was accused by academic Madhu Kishwar of a serious act of misconduct which he could not counter. She had gone to his office for action on police extortion of street vendors which we all know takes place. Pereira told her that street vendors were vermins who deserved this treatment. It was Pereira again who, when asked after the Nibhaya incident on whether the Commissioner should bear some responsibility, had rudely retorted that at least it was not the Commissioner who had raped the girl.
Can we imagine such megalomaniac arrogance in a democracy? For the record both Gupta and Pereira enjoy cushy pensions.
The Samajwadi Party made a very strong political statement after the Mumbai incident condemning its political adversary. It conveniently overlooked Yashasvi Yadav's record. Yadav is an IPS officer of Maharashtra cadre who had a very controversial record in his home state. He was brought over to Uttar Pradesh by his bosom buddy Akhilesh Yadav and placed in Kanpur, a lucrative posting. He was captured on camera /audio mercilessly beating up doctors. Despite clearest evidence, Akhilesh continues to protect him.
On a personal note I had myself reported Sugriv Giri a promoted IPS officer in UP to the Director General when he demanded a bribe. Despite the complaint being in writing and several reminders, I never received even an acknowledgement. The truth is that the police in India never honestly investigate one of their own let alone penalize them unless public pressure forces them to do so. The truth is that people rightly do not trust either the police or their masters to bring about a change in the mindset. It reminds me of 'learned helplessness'-a phrase coined by Seligman.
There is a very crying need for comprehensive police reforms which previous government have shirked from. If the present dispensation is spurred to bring this about urgently, at least some positive would have merged from the unhappy police beating in Mumbai.
The government would have the country's eternal gratitude.