| The official version
I have a friend — let’s call him Bodokor — who always has to have the better story. If you say to him, “My uncle had a massive carbuncle, and when he was finally sent to jail for serially murdering five paan-shop owners he was known simply as ‘The Nose’”, he will reply, “Oh, that’s like my great-aunt who had two heads and green hair, who would climb up walls of hospitals into operation theatres and strangle Malayali neurosurgeons, and that too with only two fingers. After she was convicted they couldn’t hang her because, legally, they could only put the noose around one neck and the other head just kept breathing. Finally they had to change the law and the judge had to pass a sentence saying ‘to be hanged from all her necks until dead’.” Bodokor will then blink at you, totally deadpan, as if he has just told you the time of day, and move on to the next subject.
When the Ansal Plaza story broke I was reminded of Bodokor. The noble and brave Delhi police are, I suspect, guilty of a kind of Bodokoritis, or “Bodogiri” as we would say here.
We in India have a fine tradition of extra-judicial executions by police which stretches back at least to the late Sixties. The word, “encounter”, was not invented by our West Bengal police but they certainly gave it an extra dimension during their campaign to contain Naxalites, a linguistic zip and a punch if you will, which has now become part of colloquial Bangla as in “Mamara okey counter kore diyechhey” — The mamas (the cops) have countered him.
After the Naxal era, in yet another beautiful example of “what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow”, the idea spread across the country to other police forces, and the killing off of various criminal types, especially political unpalatables, is now a macabre norm that most people have come to accept. The problem with Ansal Plaza is that the local mamas seem to have been guilty not only of murder but also of Bodogiri. They seem to have been greedy for a bigger story.
The Delhi police, poor dears, have been copping a lot of bad press on this but, for a moment, let’s try and look at it from their point of view: here you are, a team of hard-working officers, risking your lives for your country; one fine day you catch a couple of serious nasties and, after proper third degree interrogation, you are convinced that they were actually planning to machine-gun or bomb happy Dilli consumers as they went about their Diwali shopping; you now have two choices. One, you throw the bastards into some over-crowded POTA potla, tie up the sack and forget about them; or two, you take them out to somewhere in darkest Haryana, switch them off with minimum fuss, and report to the press that you’ve scored two dead ultras in a gunfight.
The problem with both these options is that, forget front page, you wouldn’t get a column inch in the deepest armpit of any major national daily. So, a third option rises before you, resplendent with two heads and glowing green hair — take them to a crowded shopping mall, quarantine a part of it, turn the villains loose, mow them down, and win a mega publicity coup. No dead innocents, and lots and lots of medals for bravery.
The glitch, of course, is that some fool wanders in where he is not supposed to be and actually sees you acting out this deadly nautanki. This then leads to the large booty-bag of publicity leaking blood from several holes and suddenly you find yourself engaged in damage control and, forgive the terrible pun, counter-attack.
While the story as it seems to have unfolded is horrible, its fallout in the press and the public sphere is equally, if not more, frightening. The Delhi cops get busy smearing the witness, Hari Krishna, and his credentials. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (god bless them, them having just carried out the efficient extermination of a couple of thousand terrorists in Gujarat, some of whom were in the fiendishly clever disguise of small children and pregnant women) start screaming that anyone demanding a bare minimum level of human rights in this country is Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law.
A supposedly “liberal” government minister talks about this (meaning people like Kuldip Nayar and Praful Bidwai) being the “overground of the underground”. A retired senior policeman writes a defence in a national broadsheet, his argument being that Indian police since the days of the raj have been killing murderers and maiming pickpockets (so that makes this okay), but that this is obviously a clear-cut case of a genuine police operation (Why' Because he says so.). Even my old pal, Vir Sanghvi, while strongly castigating the police in his column, is moved to say that he feels it is his duty to believe the police until there is reason to doubt their story (emphasis mine).
There is a reason why I tear into my Bangladeshi and Pakistani friends from time to time when they talk nonsense about India. Despite the risk of being thought of as anti-Pakistani or anti-Bangladeshi, I take time to tell them why India is not like Iraq, Iran, Pakistan or Bangladesh. Despite the great and multifarious evil this state has regularly engendered, I argue with them that Indian society has been luckier than the ones across its borders, and that the luck has been man-made. Despite huge chasms between who can speak and who cannot, between who has water or democracy and who is barred from these, I argue that we are different precisely because I have the right to say that I do not believe the Indian government, the Indian army or the Indian police. In fact, in a reversal of what Vir writes, I would say that it is my duty as a citizen to question every narrative the authorities throw at us, and add that I live in a society where I can do this openly.
The Ansal Plaza killing is the latest of events that have stripped this argument of mine down to its bare undergarments. Even if I were to accept that the police acted honestly and bravely, that they had no choice but to gun down the two men, the fact that there is so much naked viciousness at anyone daring to question the official version scares the hell out of me.
As Pakistan reels under the gross triple whammy of American control, a military dictatorship and an Islamo-fascist “government”, as the army in Bangladesh picks off people with impunity and writes off the deaths as “heart-attacks”, a part of me wants some borders. Not the so-called “international borders” that we all know will have to disappear soon, but some kind of societal firewall that will stop these neighbouring cancers from taking deeper root here. I know, of course, that our cancers are home-grown, that they don’t come from the outside, but what they are doing is pushing India closer and closer to becoming a magnified, “Hindu”, Pakistan or Bangladesh. Just try and imagine the horror. I can’t see even my friend Bodokor managing to describe something like that.