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Inequality before the law

By Garga Chatterjee

In a tribal state, and at a police station set up to redress atrocities against scheduled castes and tribes, a glimpse of the indifference, brutality and convenient roadblocks encountered by the marginalised looking for a modicum of justice

In the public imagination Jharkhand is a ‘tribal’ state. In reality Jharkhand defies such characterisation with disturbing regularity. I say disturbing because the movement for a Jharkhand state, long after its inception, was really a broad movement to secure rights and dignity for the tribal people of the Chhotanagpur and Jangal-Mahal areas. The subsequent betrayal of that spirit is now out in the open.

I recently saw a full-page advertisement put out by the Jharkhand tourism department with the caption ‘Divinity Reigns Here’. Eight of the 13 tourist destinations listed also detailed religious sites. Not a single ‘divinity’ of local Jharkhand extraction was on that list.

The marginalisation of the tribal people of Jharkhand cannot be starker in a province created in their name and nurtured by the dead bodies of their ancestors. Sometimes the state itself unwittingly lays bare its socio-political priorities even as it maintains a different rhetoric for public consumption. The advertisement in question was one such instance, and it provides an analogy for the tale I am going to tell. There is another part of the tale -- one of law. In ‘liberaldom’, there is a certain fiction about equality before the law and state which helps a large number of people sleep well at night. It is this fiction that helps create inward-looking technocratic bubbles among uppity deshis. Again, it is this fiction that helps newspapers pull off front-page stories about the protocol in the Rashtrapati’s coronation or the details of the Formula 1 circuit in Noida, in a land with the world’s largest number of hungry and the world’s largest number of internally displaced people. The middle class needs a certain idea of reality and justice to enjoy their morning cup of tea. This tale is also a small snapshot of how fast that illusion can be shattered if we step out of the bubble, even for a minute.

The events in question happened on January 13, 2010, but really they have been going on since 1956-57. I was in Ranchi at the time. The Heavy Engineering Corporation (HEC), a public sector company, had been given huge swathes of land in Dhurwa, in the vicinity of Ranchi. The storyline is sadly familiar. The dispossessed were largely adivasis (indigenous peoples) who were thrown off their ancestral lands without compensation, though not without the promise of compensation. By 2010, HEC was unable to use most of the land. However, by now, this land was prime real estate. Just the unused land was 3,500 acres. Of this, HEC had ‘sold’ 158 acres to the Central Industrial Security Forces (CISF) to set up a camp. Setting up a CISF camp was hardly industrial use of the land, the purpose for which the land had been originally acquired. How many times original intent has been set aside to swindle indigenous people in the Indian Union we will never know. But in this case, people cried foul the moment the plan was floated. Since the land was clearly not being used for the original intent for which it had been acquired, they demanded the return of the land to its original owners. Most of them remained uncompensated, nearly 60 years after the acquisition.

Inequality before the law
Dayamani Barla leads the agitation of the adivasis in Dhurwa

Dayamani Barla, an outspoken leader against the exploitation of adivasi resources, was at the forefront of the struggle from the start. After CISF began construction, the protesting adivasis dug in, staging a dharna at the site. (CISF began construction even though the matter was being heard in the high court at Ranchi.) The vigil went on for over six months, with desperately impoverished people often forsaking their daily wage to devote time to the movement. They were part of the Visthapit Morcha, inhabitants of the 36 villages that were uprooted, and had been keeping the resistance alive for generations. They also planted the Sarna flag nearby, a sacred symbol of indigenous religion and identity.

At dawn on January 13, CISF jawans uprooted the Sarna flag. Women at the dharna site who pleaded with them not to uproot the flag were beaten up. News spread and people assembled at the site. CISF jawans brutally beat the assembled people, men and women, including many elderly people. At least 20 people were seriously injured. The intimate and vigorous contact that a lathi-charge requires attests to the dehumanisation people suffer at the hands of these ‘keepers of the law’. When an ideology makes it possible for an armed 30-year-old to beat and bloody an unarmed 65-year-old woman, it raises serious questions about all levels of the chain of command and the brutalising ideology that keeps this chain well oiled.

Many of the injured were hospitalised in a nearby facility run by HEC itself. People from Murma, Aani, Jaganathpur, Kute and Labed villages joined in. Such solidarity does not wait for the theoretical ideas of participatory democracy that are a favourite pastime in Delhi and its surrounds.

My firsthand experience of a day on the other side of the law began when I joined Dayamani Barla as she visited the protest site shortly after noon. We arrived in a rickshaw and shortly after we got down, people assembled around Barla. We met people who were bandaged and bore clear signs of the recent trauma. For about two hours, the assembled people chanted slogans. There were a few press-wallahs too. The wounded and the violated poured their hearts out. Notes were taken. An agent of the local Congressman arrived, said that the MLA would have come himself but was ‘busy’. The assembled people heard him. They seemed to have heard things like this before. A little distance away, in the makeshift CISF camp, a column of cars arrived. Smart men in khaki emerged and went inside. Salutes were exchanged. Life was going on as usual. At this point, it was suggested that a case be registered with the police. The process was, for me, a real eye-opener.

In liberaldom, I was taught that the process went something like this. I am aggrieved. I go to the police and lodge a complaint. A case is registered. The police pursues the case, investigates it, and books the guilty (if any). After that, the law takes its own course. This is indeed how it works when we pursue domestic help suspected of stealing.

Inequality before the law
The disused police station for handling cases of atrocities against dalits and adivasis

The next few hours made it plain exactly how and with what systematic indifference and brutality the odds of receiving a modicum of justice are stacked against the marginalised. And how I was not one of them. The first thing was the police station itself. It was not any police station but a special one set up with much fanfare exclusively to deal with atrocities against people from scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. This was the ‘tribal’ state living up to its promise. The station itself had an abandoned dilapidated look. In front was a board that had the names and cellphone numbers of the officers. The officers were not present. They were not on a mission; they were simply not there. A look at the police station showed why. The male and female lockups meant to temporarily hold those who had prima facie committed atrocities against people from scheduled castes and tribes clearly had not been used in a while. The female lockup was being used as a temporary store for sundry things. The thick film of dust on the male lockup showed that it too hadn’t had a visitor in days.

If this was evidence of a lack of atrocities being committed against the marginalised, that idea was soon dispelled. After all, we were there to lodge exactly such a complaint. The policeman on duty wanted to avoid everything; how could we prove that anyone had been hurt by the lathi-charge, he asked. Several injured men and women old enough to be his parents stood right in front of him. He told us to give him medical certificates from the doctors who had treated them. We were at a loss as the staff at the HEC-run hospital had made sure that the treatment happened without any admission records or discharge certificates. After all, it is not easy to see through the ulterior motives of an establishment that is bandaging your wounded arm. Thereafter, the story changed. The lone policeman said that there was no one to take the complaint. Dayamani Barla pointed out that he himself could do it. At this point, he called a higher-up on his cellphone. Then he said to us: “I have been told that this will be investigated thoroughly; there is no need for a written complaint.”

The gathered crowd insisted that he take the complaint. It was written up and handed to the policeman. The policeman simply kept it. We asked for a receipt. He said he could not give us one. At this point, I told him I was a journalist and that what he was doing was unfortunate. I also asked him his name. I did not look like an adivasi from the area and I had also spoken a smattering of English. Ironically, being non-adivasi or non-marginalised has some serious advantages in this adivasi province. For starters, my presence was acknowledged! The policeman agreed to put his name to the complaint copy as a receipt. However, a random name without a stamp and designation means nothing. He knew this, and so did we. He said that the stamp was in a cupboard which was locked, and that he did not have the key. Also, there was not enough ink on the stamp-pad. Barla, being a veteran activist, tried to pull strings to get the complaint received and stamped by calling a known adivasi in the police chain of command. The key suddenly materalised; so did a fresh stamp-pad. The receipt was stamped with the seal of the Union of India, four lions and all.

After the ordeal, sitting outside the police station in a tea stall, we noticed that a new multi-storey swanky police quarter was being built. White, clean, impeccable. Later, Superintendent of Police Mohit Bundas told the press: “The matter is simple. Everything was set right immediately.” That is what you and I read in the news the next morning. All was quiet on the western front, as we would love to believe.

This was a glimpse into how even the bare minimum that is required to form the basis of legal action is denied to most people. And this is not an error of omission but systemic, procedural and regular commission. It is not dug deep in the system; it is the system. The sheer number of well-devised roadblocks in something so apparently basic as lodging a complaint, and how those roadblocks materialise or disappear based on who the complainant is, is something that positive beneficiaries of the Union of India need to understand. They need to understand the cost of their peace of mind, the uninterrupted revelry at the Blue Frog, the banter at Dilli-Haat and the positive confidence of the likes of Ramchandra Guha discussing who is the ‘Greatest Indian’.

Justice, it is said, is blind. It does not see who the parties involved are. It simply delivers its judgment based on what it hears -- the pure stream of logic and evidence. However, in the Indian Union, the lady of justice has posted at the door an agent who regulates admission. This agent is not blind, but deaf. He looks for those fit enough, safe enough, docile enough to admit. They need to be docile for they are the ones who will not want to examine the nature of the cloth that the lady of justice purportedly blindfolds herself with.

(Garga Chatterjee, an ex-physician, is a cognitive scientist at MIT and Harvard and an observer-commentator on South Asian politics)

Infochange News & Features, March 2013