The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The alleged murder of three bright and young students in Patna’s Asiananagar Sammilani market by the Bihar police has revived the debate on whether, to quote Joseph Conrad, both the “terrorist and the policeman come from the same basket”. At least on December 28, the dividing line between the two blurred when the three students — Himanshu Kumar, Prakash Singh and Vikash Ranjan — were first detained by shopkeepers in the market, and then battered before being handed over to the police who eventually pumped bullets in their bodies from point blank range.

The three had gone to the market to make a call. Having done that, they had a tiff with the telephone booth operator who knew some cops in the Digha police station. While the three argued over a reportedly wrong phone bill, the booth operator called some of his shopkeeper friends. The three were locked in a room and bashed up. Things did not stop at that. The shopkeeper used his influence to call the police from Shastrinagar. By the time the cops had arrived, the three were gasping for breath and begging to be heard. They could barely mutter a few words when the police, led by Shamsi Alam, whipped out their revolvers and fired on the three.

Alam is in jail on the charge of murder under section 302 of the Indian Penal Code. But the revulsion and outrage at this gross violation of human rights were evident on the roads of Patna for the next couple of days — Patna bandh on December 31 and Bihar bandh on January 3. Such outcry had not been witnessed since the Seventies. The emotion was spontaneous. Stones rained on the police targetted by huge crowds of youngsters, who also set fire to vehicles at random.

The public anger is genuine, for the tragedy the reckless police action has brought to the individual families of the victims is enormous. Kumar, a 19-year-old student, for example was taking a course in information technology and was recently selected for an award as one of the six brightest students among 800. His mother, Anita Devi, is in abject despair, having lost her husband recently and now her son. Ranjan (21), an electronics engineer, was undertaking an additional course in hardware technology. He is known for his leadership qualities and had donated Rs 21,000 to the Kargil fund. “I would not have deplored his death so much had he died in war, for he was planning to join the army”, said his father. Singh, also 19 years old, had been selected for a course in the Indian navy.

The death of three students in police firing would have gone down as yet another tale in the sordid saga of police brutality in Bihar, but this time the urban middle class felt threatened by the rampaging police which till now were busy killing militants and mukhias in the districts. It found the police too close to its doorstep. It was only natural that on January 3, the youngsters would vent their suppressed anger. “Hame police nahin chahiye,”(We don’t need the police anymore) the youths shouted.

Such anti-police slogans are not new, especially in Bihar. The force which has always been used politically by almost any government, stepped into a new age of violence since the days of Laloo Prasad Yadav. “Since the Seventies, the state police has had to face two challenges: militancy and politicization. Of late it has become an established practice to politicize the force”, says S.K. Asthana, a retired IAS officer. A major cause of the state’s militancy problem would have been erased had the police not surrendered their moral authority to political parties and turned away from the problems of the people, is how Umadhar Singh, a former Naxalite leader and the only member of the legislative assembly of New Democracy, sees it.

One proof of the interference in police-functioning came involuntarily from the director general of police, R.R. Prasad. While defending himself in a contempt petition against him at the Patna high court recently, Prasad said he was only “a Dhritrashtra in his own court who could do nothing when the disrobing of Draupadi was taking place”. Prasad was being grilled in the court about the police inaction in a case where illegal constructions had come up on over 600 acres of land. The candid confession of the police chief showed the rot which had set in. The opposition leader, Sushil Modi, believes that the DGP does not even have the power to transfer a constable. Everything is done from the chief minister’s house.

Unable to perform and deliver independently, the police in Bihar enjoy extraordinary protection from the ruling political combine. The nexus the police is forced to serve is led to aberrations of justice. This has provoked widespread resentment among human rights groups. There have been at least 75 cases of custodial deaths in the last one year, according to an estimate of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties in Bihar. In all these cases, the accused policemen have been neither chargesheeted nor arrested. “This has helped them go scotfree even after committing cold- blooded murder”, says Prabhakar Sinha, veteran human rights activist in Muzaffarpur.

Barely six days before the Asiana violence took place, the subdivisional officer of Manjhaul area, Maheswar Mahato, allegedly killed two other innocent persons — Rajni Ranjan Singh and Rajesh Singh — by firing on their Tata Sumo on the Patna-Begusarai road. The incident had provoked an equally vehement public outrage. There were bandhs. The SDPO has been booked for murder, but he is absconding. In November last year, one mukhia was killed by some cops in Maniari, about nine kilometres from Muzaffarpur. In another case, 11 villagers were supposed to have been abducted by the police in Matgara area of Gaya district, taken to a paddy field and brutally killed. The villagers, the police said, were supporters of the Maoist Communist Centre. A subsequent probe by the criminal investigation department even exonerated the police.

The political uproar that the Asiana killing has sparked off is all set to die down soon. The politicians who are now agitating would not commit to independent functioning of the police. Recommendations of the National Human Rights Commission are also thrown to the winds, as they were in Gujarat. Bihar’s case will be no different. The mournings of the Union defence minister, George Fernandes, who condemned the police action in Asiana, also sound hollow since he had kept mum when similar instances occurred in Gujarat last year. There were so many Shamsi Alams there too.

Laloo Yadav’s argument that the Rashtriya Janata Dal government is shielding none carries little conviction. His (formally his wife’s) police’s actions alternate between persistent partisan activity, corruption and misdirected bravado. There probably needs to be more displays of public outrage on the streets if the people of Bihar are to tame their police.

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