There was no one by Mr Bapi Sen when the five errant constables beat him to within an inch of his life. Perhaps it is this particular feature that is the most horrific in a sequence of events steeped in the horrible. The courageous sergeant faced the ruthless violence of the five constables alone: his companions waited in the car till the moment he lay bleeding on the tram tracks, and the woman whom Mr Sen had tried to save from the vicious teasing of the constables did not wait around with her companion to see how her protector would end up. In the circumstances, perhaps the “natural” thing was to get away, but it remains a mystery why these two people did not go to a police station immediately and why they took so long to identify themselves when their evidence was obviously crucial. Whatever it is that is rotten in the state of Bengal smells very bad indeed. A spineless surrender to bullying and injustice is coupled with a very real fear of being seen to stand up for what is right.
This single episode has exposed in one stroke everything that is wrong with West Bengal’s police. Reckless indiscipline —the five accused constables had been marked present that night in the roll call in their barracks — combined with a total lack of accountability, a deliberate misuse of power, a pleasure in breaking those very laws they are meant to uphold, and the easy recourse to unthinking violence are the marks of a corruption that has taken deep root in the force. There may be some justice in the comment of a senior police official that the behaviour of a few should not be held up as symptomatic of the whole force. But this is not the first time policemen have shown these unsightly colours. It so happens that the victim this time is himself a policeman; when the victim is a deaf-mute girl in custody, for example, or a pavement-dweller, the “due” process of police investigation takes on elusive directions. What is far more mysterious, however, is the way policemen get away with insulting and defying their superiors. There is no way the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led state government can escape the blame for politicizing the police and allowing unionization in the force. A fear of angering these unions by penalizing errant policemen seems to haunt police departmental inquiries. It is now essential that the guilty constables be punished in the strictest manner and without consideration of any extenuating circumstances. Deterrence should be one of the objectives, while justice must be seen to be done.
Had Mr Sen not been in plain clothes, matters may have turned out differently — a fact that is especially frightening for members of the public. But it is impossible to say whether the chicken came before the egg, whether the quiescence of the self-regarding Calcuttan allows the lawlessness of the police to flourish or whether the threatening visage of the lawkeeper has terrified the Calcuttan into quiescence. It looks most like a comfortably symbiotic relationship where a spineless public refuses to protest against undutiful policemen, so that each can leave the other in peace to tread his own primrose way. Unfortunately, the five constables are not the exception, Mr Sen is.