Victimising victims - Indian police still bound by colonial mindset(Commentary)

May 31st, 2008 - 12:02 pm ICT by admin  

By Shylashri Shankar
The investigation of a recent twin murder in Noida demonstrates the colonial mindset of the Indian police and the consequent erosion of the rights of the victims and the suspects. The British Raj saw Indian subjects as types, not individuals, who could be policed and contained by slotting them into categories. The same view permeates the investigative techniques of the police in the Noida murders of 14-year-old Arushi Talwar and the family help, Hemraj, and the current suspect (Arushi’s dentist father).

The first step was to demonise the usual suspect, the domestic help who hailed from Nepal. Hemraj had committed the murder on May 15 night and absconded, they said. The prompt identification of the servant as the suspect without even an investigation is merely a continuation of the colonial system of policing.

This was how the police in colonial India conducted cases. Professor Chandak Sengoopta in “Imprint of the Raj” points out that the first step was to notify certain categories of people as “criminal” for whom crime was a hereditary pursuit. The most famous were the thugs who were described as hereditary criminals of Hindu origin who worshipped a goddess (Kali) and had to be eliminated. The Criminal Tribes Act, 1871, which labelled 160 communities as born criminals, ordered the “registration, surveillance and control” of these groups and mandated that they should be registered at local police stations. The headman of the villages where these people lived were ordered to pay security deposits to the police and report the movements.

The next step was to pick up suspects from these tribes whenever robberies or murders occurred. The Thuggee and Dacoity Department later used anthropomorphic identification such as the shape of the skull, ears, nose, as well as fingerprints to classify criminal types, tribes and castes. Convictions were easier if the suspect belonged to a criminal tribe since judges were more likely to disbelieve their innocence.

Modern Indian police have continued this system. Domestic help are the new “criminal tribes” in modern India. The first and sometimes the only suspect in a murder is the domestic help. Among these, those hailing from Nepal and from the poorer states like Jharkhand and Bihar are considered more suspect than others.

In the Noida case, the initial absence of Hemraj was seen as evidence of his culpability. The police promptly promised a reward of Rs.20,000 for his capture and even sent teams to Nepal to hunt him down. The rest of Delhi saw a police drive to institute the verification of domestic help. Policemen were despatched to homes and apartment complexes with forms that the domestics had to fill out. Ironically, these forms were in English and the questions such as the person’s “pet words of speech” and “his favourite ditty” were drawn directly from the old Raj forms.

But after discovering Hemraj’s body the next day on the terrace and the fact that he had been murdered before Arushi, the police changed tack. They took a pre-emptive step in case the investigation did not produce a culprit by demonising the victims. They implied that the teenage Arushi and the middle-aged Hemraj had illicit relations and deserved what they got. “There is very little evidence relating to motive behind the killings. It could be an honour killing or it may be (due to) extreme passionate attachment to a particular person,” said police spokesman Ganesh. Since the autopsy report ruled out sexual assault, the police implied that the victims were involved in a consensual relationship.

The police also demonised the victim’s family. The honour killing theory rested on the view that Arushi’s father came home and saw the two in an “objectionable but not compromising position” and killed them. Honour crimes are usually murders committed by a male member on the female member of the family for having brought dishonour to the family through her actions such as marrying someone outside her caste and even by being the victim of rape.

But the notion of honour crime, Jawaharlal Nehru University professor Pratiksha Baxi points out, is problematic because it describes the crime according to the motives of the perpetrator rather than the rights of the victim. “Not only does the use of the categories of honour crimes or crimes of passion obscure the facts, it also allows the police to sexualise children as being ‘characterless’.”

Instead of reconstructing the crime through evidence backed up by logic, the police explained the arrest of Arushi’s father through these traditional colonial constructs. In case this did not work, the secondary theory was that Arushi objected to her father’s extra-marital affair and was discussing it with Hemraj when her father murdered them.

The police, who were in the past trained to serve their colonial masters, continue to employ these colonial techniques by classifying the victims as belonging to types - Arushi as the not innocent girl, Hemraj as the criminal domestic and later the untrustworthy predator of young girls, and Rajesh Talwar as the drunk father out to avenge his family’s honour. The hungry 24X7 news channels jumped on the bandwagon and bombarded the viewers with these insinuations.

The police admittedly are themselves handicapped by the paucity of qualified detectives at the lower levels, while an overburdened police force struggles daily to be “with you” sometimes, and rarely “for you.” As Professor Madhava Menon points out, what is disconcerting today is the steady deterioration of standards of policing, the increasing lawlessness amongst the policemen themselves and the attitude of complacency and complicity amongst the leadership in police organisations. The government knows what to do to re-haul the police but lack of political will keeps these reforms in abeyance.

In the process, the rights of the victims and the accused have been eroded. There is no circumstantial evidence to back up any of these theories but that has not stopped the police and the media from their vilification campaign. Arushi’s family has to gear up for a long court battle, while Hemraj will be forgotten.

The irresponsible nature of the police investigation coupled with the media’s complicity has effectively made the victims and the accused guilty unless proven innocent. There is no hope as long as the investigative mindset of India’s police remains trapped within the colonial cage.

(Shylashri Shankar is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. She can be reached on shylashris@gmail.com)

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