Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Hathras: Police as colonial force

The death of a Dalit woman and the disposal of her body in Uttar Pradesh have shown a force that is brutal and insensitive. The best practices of civilised societies should be followed for people to trust the police again.

By Rajbir Deswal

The recent infamous Hathras case has revealed ignorance and prejudice in stark reality. The alleged gang rape of a 19-year-old Dalit woman by four upper caste men in the Hathras district of UP, and the questionable and shameful actions of the state police have revealed the deep schisms that divide India.

The incident took place on September 14, a case was registered by the police on September 20, while the statement of the victim was recorded on September 22. The young woman passed away in Safdarjung Hospital in Delhi on September 29 and her body was hurriedly cremated by the police in the dead of the night, without the family’s presence or consent. This was a right accrued to them and cremating at night was against Hindu traditions and cultural norms.

The case has thrown up numerous questions was she raped or not, did the crime emanate from an old enmity, did the Opposition blow the issue out of proportion to gain political mileage, is the Yogi Adityanath government in UP seeing a conspiracy and thereby dividing communities and would there be a different colour to the issue if the perpetrators of the crime were Muslims and not Hindus?

Hathras horror

But the most contentious part of the whole episode was the dubious role of the state police which didn’t cover itself with glory. The body was cremated using petrol, and as the video went viral, that picture of the burning pyre seared the collective soul of India. Questions by journalists were met evasively by the police and many were barred from even entering the village.

While one wonders at the impunity of the police, it is known universally that they can indulge in any kind of high-handedness. Otherwise why would they cremate the body of a Dalit in the dead of night? They knew they could get away with it in caste ridden India.

This raises a very pertinent question of police accountability and the biases they nurture against the Dalits and other downtrodden, marginalised people. Caste permeates most areas in India and the police who should be protecting the rights of citizens, especially the less privileged, indulges in the most brazen acts against these communities. Abroad, these biases take the form of racism. The Black Lives Matter movement is ample testimony of the bias white cops hold against the blacks.

In the Hathras case, the superintendent of police and other policemen were placed under suspension after the uproar in the media over the cremation of the young woman. There is also a demand that the district magistrate be proceeded against for he cannot absolve himself of his duties of being first among equals when it came to handling the affairs in a district. By disposing of the body in the most undesirable way, the police is in the dock and justifiably so. They had nothing to gain out of it. They must have apprehended a law and order problem if the body was handed over to the family. Sometimes, relatives of the deceased do not cremate the bodies and agitate by putting the corpses on roads and blocking highways. But this doesn’t give the police the right to indulge in such pre-emptive tactics.

In fact, there is no denying that the police is biased against Dalits, the poor and the downtrodden. When I was posted with the Bureau of Police Research and Development, an experiment was conducted during a vertical interaction course at a state capital. Trainee officers were sent to various police stations to lodge “tailor-made” grievances and get FIRs registered. An ordinary looking woman trainee reached a police station only to be rubbished by the SHO who said: “Who is going to rape a woman like you?” This is the attitude of the police towards victims of crime and those belonging to the marginalised sections are more likely to be meted out this treatment.

Hathras family

The UP police, unfortunately, are not known to adhere to the best practices incorporated in the training of policemen. There is no sensitisation to social and inter-community relations. “Policemen should learn more about Dalits the pockets in which they live, their annual festivals, rituals, anniversaries of leaders and so on, so that they can develop a sense of participation and anticipate areas of social tensions. Even a fiery speech or a street play can lead to caste tensions,” said A Alexander Mohan, an IPS officer of the Tamil Nadu cadre.

The Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, defines civil rights as the rights accruing to a person by reason of the abolition of untouchability. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act gave more teeth to law-enforcing agencies to bring to book those who persecute and torture these community members for various reasons, and are the biggest perpetrators of crimes against them. In a majority of cases, the police is accused of refusing to file FIRs, going slow on the investigation, booking the accused under sections that do not attract tough sentences and of looking the other way as village panchayats and elders broker some kind of understanding to appease (read threaten) the Dalits.

The police or any other authority or agency which is bound to dispense justice through adequate prosecution in a court of law in the interest of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes is liable under the Act. There is also a provision for punishment of these functionaries if they indulge in any overt or covert act, including omission to take action. Section 4 of the Atrocities Act prescribes punishment for neglect of duty by a public servant. Offences under this Section are punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months, but which may extend to a year. An offence under Section 4 of the Atrocities Act falls under a bailable offence (punishment of less than two years), so the anticipatory bail is also not maintainable.

Shashi Kant Sharma, a legal expert, said that under the SC/ST Act, in the event of an arrest in a bailable offence, the accused shall be released if he shows his readiness to furnish surety. On receipt of information about the commission of a cognisable offence under this Act, non-registration of a case amounts to dereliction of duty. Intentional omission during the course of investigation, non-issuance of sanction order to prosecute and even having sufficient material to issue a sanction order amounts to dereliction of duty under this Act. However, there is protection under Section 22 for an action done in good faith.

Dr Ritu Kumar Kamra, an academician and feminist, says:

“The impulsive anger in society against such a heinous crime momentarily compels the government to take prompt steps and create a background for justice just as in the Hathras case where the accused Sandeep, Ramu, Luv Kush and Ravi have been arrested under charges of murder, gangrape and the SC/ST Act. But the UP police is notorious for caste and gender prejudice, so who can give assurance that the law will take its own course? Crimes against members of the SC and ST have seen an increase of over 7 percent and 2 percent, respectively, in 2019 compared with 2018 figures, according to the National Crime Records Bureau 2019 report. In the number of cases of rapes of women belonging to the SCs, Rajasthan topped the list with 554, followed by UP at 510. A total of 8,257 cases were registered for crime against STs, an increase of 26.5 percent over 2018. So much more needs to be done for the weaker sections of society and our thought process needs restructuring.”

Aloke Lal, a retired IPS officer, said that surety of conviction and not severity will help to tide over issues of apathy and highhandedness even of officials concerned with upholding the rule of law. He said:

“Coming to the question of stronger punishments, it must be understood that prescribed punishments do not seem to deter in most cases. If this were so, we would by now be rid of murderers for whom the death penalty is an age old punishment. Effective and prompt action is the best deterrent. The perpetrator must have the fear that the police is prompt, efficient and ruthless, the prosecution is alert and that the courts are committed to pronounce judgments in a time-bound manner.”

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The colonial police in India will have to give way to a constitutional police. They will have to adapt themselves to the best practices as are prevalent in civilised societies and not be seen as a stick-wielding, pyre burning force.

—The writer is a retired IPS officer, an advocate and a commentator

Lead Picture: PTI


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