Chief Minister Kejriwal’s dharna at Rail Bhavan, called off on Tuesday, was a protest against the Union home minister’s failure to suspend certain station house officers of the Delhi Police. These SHOs were accused by the Aam Aadmi Party of ignoring the law and order concerns of Delhi’s citizenry. The police’s failure to forestall the burning alive of a young woman by her parents-in-law was the most serious dereliction cited by the party’s spokespersons.
While the specific provocation for the dharna was the refusal to suspend the SHOs, Kejriwal and his colleagues also made the general case that these instances of indifference were symptoms of a larger problem: that the Delhi Police did not report to Delhi’s elected state government and was, therefore, unaccountable to the people of the city.
The AAP’s critique of the Delhi Police isn’t just plausible, it’s persuasive. Everyone who has lived and worked in Delhi knows that its police is often corrupt, misogynistic and predatory. Many years ago, the Delhi Police undertook a branding exercise to make itself seem friendlier. The tag-line of its campaign was “With You, For You, Always”. It didn’t work: to dilliwallahs this sounded like a threat, not a promise.
It takes a special kind of political genius, then, to make members of this force seem beleaguered guardians of due process. The man responsible for this magical make-over is Somnath Bharti, the AAP’s law minister. Bharti, responding to complaints from his constituents, amongst them local resident welfare associations, made a midnight raid on a house in Khirki, one of the many suburban villages swallowed up by an expanding city. The house was occupied by Ugandan women, who, according to Bharti’s informants, were engaged in prostitution, human trafficking and drug running.
The law minister, outraged that the police hadn’t responded to the complaints of local residents and persuaded (by RWA allegations) of the guilt of the Ugandan women, ordered the local police to raid their house. When the police demurred, arguing that they didn’t have a warrant and legal guidelines discouraged raids on women after dark, Bharti hectored them and insisted that two black women ‘caught’ outside the house be tested for drug abuse.
There are allegations that Bharti’s band of concerned citizens forcibly detained the women and abused them. A Ugandan woman has deposed before a magistrate to this effect. These remain unproven allegations; what isn’t in doubt is that Bharti declared that “these people [the Ugandans] are not like you and me”. After the events of that night, despite the fact that the urine tests carried out on the Ugandan women proved to be negative, Bharti returned to this theme in a janata darbar. The police, he said, had to make up their minds whether they represented the people of Delhi or foreign criminals (bahar ke badmash).
AAP spokesperson, Atishi Marlena, quite properly asked for proof to corroborate allegations that Bharti and his followers misbehaved criminally with the Ugandan women. She didn’t, however — in common with Arvind Kejriwal, Somnath Bharti and Yogendra Yadav — extend the same benefit of doubt to the Ugandan women, the basic presumption of innocence. The testimony of Khirki’s non-African residents was good enough for them; these aggrieved residents were, after all, Bharti’s constituents, solid citizens all. Bharti was so persuaded of the chronic criminality of Khirki’s Africans that he asked its residents to bring to his notice the houses that harboured them.
Is this racism? The minister’s willingness to believe that the women were guilty despite the absence of hard evidence and his keenness to investigate others of ‘their sort’ certainly suggests that he is comfortable working with racial stereotypes. If we are to be polite, he is, at a minimum, being xenophobic when he asks the Delhi police to choose between Delhi’s citizens and criminal foreigners. The law minister can be legitimately concerned about wrong-doers in his constituency, but should he be concerned about their alien-ness? Would he be less worried about andar ke badmash, home-grown criminals?
During a televised discussion, Yogendra Yadav urged us to distinguish between form and substance. By this he meant that we ought to separate Bharti’s irascible idiom from his genuine desire to serve and protect Delhi’s citizens and to hold to account an indifferent and corrupt police. Shazia Ilmi took Yadav’s metaphor further: she declared that the AAP was being lashed by hostile critics using political correctness as a whip. Translated, this meant that we shouldn’t let the fact that the women were Ugandan and black hold us back from endorsing Bharti’s raid on them. There were bad people in every group, community and race, said Ilmi, though she was, as she delicately put it, “loath” to even use the word race.
This is a particularly disingenuous manoeuvre and Yogendra Yadav and Shazia Ilmi ought to know better. It is not merely a matter of ‘form’ nor just politically incorrect to charge that women in a house are drug-peddling whores because their neighbours say so. That Bharti, a lawyer, bases his crusade on a presumption of guilt is bad enough; that he should subsequently generalize it to stigmatize a community of foreigners is disgraceful and frightening.
Yogendra Yadav assured African residents of Delhi of their welcome here; he guaranteed them the freedom of the city. Given the casual racism that many Indians routinely direct at black people, this was an empty rhetorical flourish to start with and, given Yadav’s own failure to extend the presumption of innocence to Bharti’s targets, it seemed little more than page-turning tokenism.
A documentary report about Khirki in the wake of Bharti’s raid made by NDTV India reported that between 40 and 50 African residents had left the locality. The Africans that remained in the neighbourhood were nervous and didn’t want to be filmed. Some of Somnath Bharti’s constituents, though, were happy to air their views. One man said that the place was full of blacks who spread filth everywhere (kaalon se bhar gaya hai jo har jagah gund phailatey hain). A woman said that blacks pissed all over the place; it was getting so that young women couldn’t move about. Should this testimony about the badness of black people confirm Bharti and his AAP fellows in the justice of their crusade or should it make them more wary of vox pop, more mindful of due process?
AAP spokespersons reminded us over and over again during the dharna at Rail Bhavan of the police’s indifference to real human tragedy: the rape of the Danish woman, for instance, or the hideous burning alive of a young woman by her husband’s parents, a crime that could have been prevented if the police had acted. They wondered why their interlocutors didn’t focus on these dreadful crimes instead of criticizing Somnath Bharti.
I can’t speak for television news anchors who, confronted with street protest, harrumphed like a regiment of retired colonels, but here’s one answer. Many people otherwise sympathetic to (and invested in) Kejriwal & Co. kept returning to Bharti because they felt, with reason, that the AAP was using real suffering as a way of changing the subject. They were appalled by the AAP’s attempt to dignify Bharti’s xenophobic campaign against Khirki’s African women by associating it with the tragedy of the burnt wife and the raped Danish woman. They were startled by the way in which AAP’s leadership doubled-down on Bharti’s rabble-rousing. And they found it impossible to reconcile the AAP’s concern for Delhi’s suffering women and its determination to hold derelict policemen to account, with the party’s indifference to Bharti’s hounding of Khirki’s Ugandan women and his determination to sic policemen on to them. People who admired the AAP, who had voted for it, even, couldn’t own Kejriwal’s dharna because it seem-ed a diversionary move designed to vindicate Somnath Bharti’s ugly buffoonery.
If Kejriwal, Ilmi, Yadav and Marlena believe their own rhetoric, if they see the AAP as the embodiment of a popular desire for change, they owe it to themselves and to the janata that they so fluently invoke, to apologize to Khirki’s African community. They should apologize not just for Bharti’s behaviour, but as a token of their belief in the goodness of ordinary people in this country: from members of khap panchayats in Haryana who vote, to African women in Delhi who don’t.