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04 January 2012

Fear of police killed many in Hooch tragedy. Will the men in uniform ever be made into decent public servants?

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By Sukant Khurana and Brooks Robinson

In India, unless you were born with a sliver spoon in your mouth, you know the true face of the Indian police force. You may just have been at the viewer end, not at the rough end of the stick and not the one being saluted by these men. After returning from US to stay in India for significant duration after 7 years abroad, I (S.K) found absolutely no change in the behavior of the Delhi police force even after the magical transformation of the “India shining” and the 9% growth rate story. Travel around the country confirmed that the situation has not shown any change outside the capital either. A simple experiment will give one a clear understanding of the two faces of this force: being a lap dog of the privileged and a biting bulldog to the poor. Compare behavior of policemen by wearing shabby torn clothes and asking for directions vs. stopping abruptly in the middle of the road while driving a new Mercedes and yelling obscenities at a friend in guise.

Everyone is equal though some are more equal in the eyes of these men. You can alternatively conduct a less involved experiment by just standing at any intersection of say Rohini East, in the heart of Delhi and count people driving a motorcycle without a helmet. It would be a surprise if you found lay public to violate the law more often then men in brown. For the have-nots the police atrocities cover the whole gamut from mild harassment of verbal bullying, and everyday corruption at one end to murder and rape at the other end. One need not turn back some historical leaf to read the account of last encounter, brutality in the lockup, unprovoked beating of blind students or unionized labor, to view the nature of the police and have-nots relation. It is a common practice for police to deny filing a complaint by poor and voiceless and to fail to act against powerful, when poor manage to push through a well supported complaint.

In a country where money talks, poor people are afraid to seek police help or report a crime, leave alone go to them when they have actually broken the law. The recent hooch tragedy in West Bengal is a glaring example of the fear of the police force in a poor man’s eyes where technically the victims of this tragedy were in violation of the law. It is high time that we start demanding from these public servants to start acting like public servants soon, instead of being a veritable arm of the political and ruling class. First this tragedy would not have happened, if the police forces were not in the pockets of the local alcohol mafia. Secondly, and more importantly even when people started feeling the symptoms of methanol poisoning, shockingly they did not head to hospitals for the fear of police harassment. Sadly this is not the first instance of this nature. On a similar note of everyday relevance, even though the rules have changed “on paper”, people still are afraid to take an injured stranger to a hospital for the fear of police harassment. Earlier physicians could not even legally start treating patients until a police report was filed.

Instead of Mamta or some other politician playing the standard blame game after a tragedy hits their state, what is needed is a two fold change at the end of police function: the police force needs to be put in its place as a public servant and secondly, at the legislative level, for all health related problems police should be required to help before any questioning. It is sad itself that such tragedies happen frequently in India due to lack of equitable socio-economic growth but what is worse is fear of police brutality increasing the death toll.

[Dr. Sukant Khurana, Ph. D. is a New York based scientist of Indian origin who is working on both basic and applied side of many health issues. In collaboration with Brooks Robinson, a neuroscientist working on addiction, learning and memory, Dr. Khurana is working on a book on alcohol issues of India. Their public outreach writings relevant to alcoholism are available at: https://sites.google.com/site/sukantkhurana2/ and https://sites.google.com/site/sukantkhurana/alcoholism-writing-of-sukant]

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