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In the net and out, for Rs 300 or less
- Court holidays spark sudden flurry of cop ‘activity’ along Salt Lake canal

It was Saturday night frenzy for cops in Salt Lake. The heightened activity of the men in khaki around the Keshtopur footbridge, connecting the township with VIP Road, didn’t have anything to do with either a sudden spurt in crime or a surprise VVIP visit. The reason for the elaborate vigil: a weekend killing to be made (anything goes, from Rs 300 to Rs 10), with courts being closed the day after.

Arjun, the driver of a young executive in Salt Lake, was on his way back home late in the evening of October 26, when he was stopped by some cops at Keshtopur. “What are you doing here'’ barked an officer. When Arjun explained that he was returning home after work in Salt Lake, the cop was not convinced. “Do you have an identity card'” demanded the officer. Arjun produced his driving licence, but the cops brushed it aside and demanded a “Salt Lake ID”.

The driver failed to come up with one and was immediately herded into a nearby van crammed with ‘suspects’, taken to Bidhannagar (North) police station and locked up. Arjun’s only consolation — he was not alone on the list of people picked up for no apparent reason. The police, clearly, had no intention of initiating proceedings against the ‘suspects’— they just wanted to send out the message that no one could pass the Keshtopur patrol without paying a ‘price’.

This became clear to the young executive who rushed to the thana behind Bikash Bhavan and met the duty officer. With him was this reporter, a friend, who did not reveal his identity initially. “We have picked up your driver under suspicion. Let him stay here for a few days, till we produce him in court. If you want him released right now, we can arrange for ‘spot’ bail. There are many lawyers here who can help you out. Or if you want to bypass them, we can find another route.”

All these ‘friendly’ suggestions came from a plainclothesman, seated opposite the duty officer. By then, another set of detainees had arrived. The sub-inspector leading the latest ‘suspects’ picked up from near the Keshtopur bridge announced proudly: “Aro ek dal niye esechi (I have brought another lot).”

While the duty officer and his men got busy penning down details of the men — drivers, small traders and shopkeepers — in the huge logbook, a man introduced by the cops as a lawyer entered the scene. He got busy brokering the ‘freedom deal’ with friends and family of some detainees who had arrived as news of their surprise incarceration spread.

“This is nothing but a petty case. It won’t harm your friend. You will just have to pay Rs 200 and he will be freed,” said the ‘lawyer’ to the friend of a driver detained earlier. As promised, the case was settled for Rs 200. To bail his friend out, the man signed on a piece of hardly-legible paper, which contained an underwriting of paying a penalty of Rs 100 “in case of failure in production” before the Barrackpore sub-divisional judicial magistrate on November 15.

The price to pay for spending Saturday night at home — and not in the dingy Bindhannagar lock-up — varied wildly between Rs 300 and Rs 10! “I paid Rs 10 as donation to the police for a proposed Vivekananda University upstairs. But now, the lawyers are demanding Rs 200 more,” said one of those who had turned up to take a detainee home.

Arjun was released “smoothly”, after this reporter revealed his identity to the officer-in-charge. This was around 10.30 pm and frenzied “negotiations for freedom” were still on.

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