Human Rights in India: Must we live with a colonial police?

One of the enduring tragedies of free India is that it continues to live with a colonial police. The laws governing a free country should aid law-abiding citizens, empower them and encourage their participation in civil society. Quite the opposite is witnessed on the ground. Our laws inherited from colonial rule restrict individual freedoms in general, although their impact has been blunted in small measure by judicial assertions on fundamental rights. They continue to strengthen a brutal police.

An episode involving M. Ramesh, the Villupuram district head of the Tamil Nadu Association for the Welfare of the Physically Handicapped is the latest example of how citizens encounter the colonial police. The New Indian Express and the Times of India have reports that a police officer attacked him at the Koyambedu Bus Stand, for answering questions while remaining seated. The sad truth is that the handicapped man cannot rise to his feet in a jiffy, even if he tried his best.  Ramesh had arrived to meet the state leader of his organisation, T.A.P.Varadakutty, according to a report.

Citizens are apparently expected to stand up and answer even routine questions from a Policeman, in free India, although I am sure this condemnable practice has no basis in law. Even if it is expected by convention, it is reprehensible and deserves to be thrown out immediately.

As the story goes, Ramesh arrived at the bus stand very early in the morning, just past 2 a.m. and was sleeping on the floor, as there was no bus available at the time. The Police, who are out looking for ‘suspicious persons’ at this time of the day, roused the man, and questioned him. But the officer heading the team was irked that the man was replying to his questions, which were obviously rude, seated. He then proceeded to wield the stick and beat him up.

As a parting comment, the police team reportedly told him that they could have killed him and blamed it on the mysterious footpath killer whom they are actually hunting for! It took some time for people around to muster the courage to attend to Ramesh, and that too only after the posse had departed.

Surely, there are countless people in India who bear the burden of our colonial police everyday in similar fashion, paying taxes so that they can be paid their salaries, and in return suffer blows and abuses because all political parties use the police as their handmaiden.

To the outside world, we have solutions for such questions. The National Human Rights Commission and the State Human Rights Commissions are toothless wonders created to satisfy international opinion that India, which is not a signatory to international conventions on torture, has a working system in place to prevent abuses. As we can see, we have nothing of the sort. No policeman is afraid of losing his job because he beat up people, that too without cause.

Only on Tuesday, the former BBC journalist Mark Tully was in Chennai, and was telling fellow journalists that it was a pity Indian newspapers were so inured to police torture and brutality. It was a shame that a police should behave like this in a free country, and not be called to account for its actions by the media, he said.

The Ramesh episode reported by the newspapers reminded me of a contrast, which I witnessed a decade ago on arriving in London’s Victoria bus terminus. I got there at 3 in the morning from France. Many vagrants were spending their time in the bus terminal, to escape the biting Novermber cold at night. At 6 in the morning, the enforcement people walked in, and merely gestured to the miserable people, that it was time to leave, as bus operations were about to begin.

Again, in the Union Station in New York, many travellers simply sit in the bus terminal at night, as I myself have on a personal trip. These are less affluent Americans who cannot afford a room in Manhattan, and take the bus to save on travel costs, as their peers in faraway Chennai do. I did not come across people being questioned and hustled by the NY Police Department.

At least in the UK, and much of Europe, citizens are treated well by their Police. The judiciary is a sentinel that is alive to human rights.

All of which brings us to the point about public cooperation in reporting suspicious activity to the Police in India, which we heard so much about after the spate of blasts in the last couple of years. With such a hostile and even brutal police, why would the citizen venture to contact them for anything?

(P.S.: The websites of the two newspapers do not have the Ramesh story online, and it is found only in the e-paper editions and the print editions today).

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