Fundamental issues

Published : Aug 18, 2001 00:00 IST

Some questions, concerns and issues that have come to the fore in the context of the killing of Phoolan Devi.

THE tragic death of Phoolan Devi throws up a whole range of questions to criminal justice policy-makers and practitioners. Foremost, did the government fail to protect her? I personally believe it did not. Phoolan Devi was indeed a controversial personality, a virtual red rag to a wide spectrum of interests. No doubt, she once lived by the sword. Lately, however, she seemed to have unlived her steamy past. Also, she was a duly elected Member of Parliament whom the state was bound to protect.

Initially, the Opposition bayed for the Home Minister's blood. But once the government explained how the incident had taken place, criticism lost its sting. Moments before she was gunned down, Phoolan was learnt to have thrown caution to the winds when she chose to alight from the car (in which she travelled from Parliament) outside her house, instead of driving in, and became almost a sitting duck. If this lack of guard is true, the government cannot possibly be faulted.

The murder illustrates once more how difficult it is to protect a VIP if he or she does not abide by the ground rules. The question is how far can a Personal Security Officer be expected to discipline his protectee. While many of our VIPs are conscious of the perils of ignoring the entreaties of their protectors, some tend to be still errant.

Next, a word about media coverage. The visual media showed no restraint whatsoever. They seem to thrive on such gory happenings! To an old-fashioned individual like me, the hype was most disagreeable, if not downright vulgar. The TV channels were ably aided and abetted by the police. We saw the shocking spectacle of one accused - if I remember right, in police custody - speaking to a correspondent, at leisure, as if at a tea party.

Briefing the press on a daily basis - sometimes more than once a day - when the investigation is live and multidirectional seems inappropriate. Such garrulousness - passed off as transparency - could often undermine a case. It gives unintended leads to both the known and unidentified accused. It confuses public perceptions. More than anything else, it gives wrong impressions of the investigating agency to the judiciary. Finally, it encourages speculative reporting that very often smacks of motivated journalism.

I would strongly commend the CBI practice of talking to the press through a professional spokesman whenever occasion demanded it. I am appreciative of the present Special Task Force in Tamil Nadu getting on with its task of nabbing Veerappan without the earlier drum and fanfare that bordered on exhibitionism and proved ultimately to be one of "sound and fury, signifying nothing". I know that the National Police Academy (NPA) gives inputs to Indian Police Service probationers on how to handle the media. The Phoolan Devi episode possibly indicates that more sensitisation will be desirable.

What causes me concern next is how well the police are going to put up a convincing case before the court. No doubt the apex court has lately been very appreciative of the difficulties encountered by the police in establishing guilt. A recent judgment (in a 1979 murder case from Uttar Pradesh) goes to the extent of saying that every accused need not have been actually present at the scene of crime. It is enough for the prosecution to prove that everyone arraigned had acted in furtherance of a 'common intention'. Nevertheless, the task in the Phoolan Devi case is daunting.

This is a high-profile case that does not brook the slightest negligence. Press reports already speak of attempts to prove an alibi in favour of one of the main accused. It is anybody's guess as to whether these reports are motivated. Enough doubt has already been thrown in about the dubious background of one of the accused. He is said to have approached the police in the past with blatantly false complaints. Hence his reported confession now to the police is viewed with suspicion. On the whole, an ambience has been created that effectively promotes folklore and unalloyed falsehood. This is compounded by charges of politicisation of the events that followed the murder. There is everything here that urges clinical investigation, which can stand up to the strictest judicial scrutiny. The Delhi Police are a highly professional agency, not unequal to the rigours of the task.

Perhaps the most important of all the issues raised is how to take care of future Phoolan Devis. The story is too familiar to be retold. Here was a rustic Dalit woman who had been violated repeatedly by brutes supposedly belonging to a higher caste. I am told on authority that this is the pattern that dominates our villages in many parts of India. There is a widespread attitude of resignation, if not total indifference, to this state of affairs. We cannot therefore rule out more Phoolan Devis springing up from odd corners of the country and settling personal scores outside the criminal justice system. The police have no clue on how to handle this.

Phoolan Devi and her associates went on a rampage in Behmai because the police did not respond to her distress. Police apathy to rape victims, especially in the rural areas, is proverbial. It is very well known that rapes are the most underreported because of the stigma attached to the victim. Intimidation by aggressors or the caste groups to which they belong is a greater deterrent. If, in spite of the fear psychosis created by such tactic, a victim or her family chooses to go to the police, there is more than a measure of reluctance to draw up a First Information Report. Additionally, if the victim is locally regarded, rightly or wrongly, as a woman of easy virtue, the odds are even more against any action being taken, even if her complaint is utterly genuine. This is the unfortunate situation, about which every Indian who talks of human rights should hang his head in shame.

FOR the statistically minded, according to Crime in India, the official publication of the National Crime Records Bureau of the Union Home Ministry, there were 15,468 cases of rape during 1999, the last year for which figures are available. In as many as 84 per cent of these, the offenders were known to the victims - a fact that renders police investigation relatively simple, once the mental barrier of the victim trying to protect the violator for reasons of reprisal or social compulsions is broken. Perhaps the most shocking fact is that only about 30 per cent of those accused whose trial was completed during the year were convicted. The rest went scot-free. Are the police alone to blame for this sad spectacle? In conjunction with the judiciary, is not the society also expected to play a role in ensuring that the accused are punished? I leave this to public debate.

I must mention here the effort being made by the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) in Delhi to improve data collection in respect of violence against women, through a well-designed surveillance system. A pilot project is now on in five districts of Madhya Pradesh. The first phase has two objectives: widening the present FIR format so as to accommodate more demographic inputs of the victims; and gender sensitisation of police constables with UNFPA back up. The two phases that would follow will address themselves to refining the process of data collection, providing legal literacy, sensitising medical service providers in government hospitals to gender requirements and compiling a handbook on laws and rulings for the benefit of police personnel.

The UNFPA project is extremely significant because hitherto punitive action against erring individual policemen who have either been indifferent or negligent or have openly connived with the accused, has not produced the desired impact. We need to resort heavily to persuasion and counselling. The NPA and other training bodies have no doubt done something on this front. But then, when money and the caste of an offender can influence police decision to act or desist from acting to protect a wronged woman, how can there be a qualitative change in the situation? There needs to be extraordinary social pressure on the police to behave with dignity and sympathy in such matters. Unless, police supervisors also make their stand unequivocal, their subordinates are not going to mend themselves. The Director General of Police and his aides have an obligation to indoctrinate the entire force under them to understand that they are not mere protectors of law and order, but are required also to play the role of change agents in society.

Here and there, imaginative leaders have brought about a transformation of the social scene even in terrorist-infested areas known for their economic backwardness. Naxalite centres in Andhra Pradesh offer an example of projects aimed at converting blocks of the population. Hence I do not see any reason why we cannot bring about police enlightenment in gender matters.

Non-governmental organisations operating in the area of atrocities against women are mostly urban-based. If they have to have any social impact, either they will have to expand their base, or train dedicated volunteers in as many rural centres as possible. It is these volunteers who are going to play a vital role in ensuring that such violence as was perpetrated on Phoolan Devi in her youth does not go unreported or not acted upon by the police. This is a sensitive and controversial charter. How well this is fulfilled will determine whether India can be regarded a civilised nation or not. Let us not leave this to government, an impersonal behemoth to whom social engineering is too delicate an exercise.

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