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FIRST STRIKE

'Suitable' evidence

ANIL DHARKER

AP

A free man ... Geelani

WAS Prof Geelani guilty or not? The fact that we ask this question even after the Delhi High Court acquitted him tells us something about human nature, and how difficult it is to get the tar off, once your face has been brushed with it. In Geelani's case, after the police arrested him in the Parliament attack case. A lower court even found him guilty and sentenced him to death. Only the persistence of his friends and associates helped him: they formed the All India Defence Committee for Sayed Abdul Rehman Geelani. They collected funds, hired the best lawyers and went to the High Court, where the judge dismissed the case against him for lack of evidence. In fact, the clear impression you get from the Court's observations is that whatever "evidence" was used against him was trumped up; that this was one of the innumerable cases where the cops catch the "culprit" first and then ask questions. And later find "suitable evidence" as an after thought; and only because they have to.

As it happens, Geelani made things difficult for himself: he had, in the past, publicly advocated a Free Kashmir, and when the lower court sentenced him to death, he had shouted slogans for the independence of Kashmir. But, then, how many of us have gone down that same route? We may not have shouted slogans (that come naturally only to political activists), but so many of us have advocated freedom for Kashmiris if they want it. How many of us have said this in private! How many of us who write columns or write edits have suggested a similar course of action for the future! Yet none of us have been sent to prison or have had a death sentence hanging over our heads. Everyone in a free country like ours should be allowed his or her political convictions, however unpalatable they may be, and shouldn't have them curtailed just because we come from a particular part of the country or belong to a specific community.

Yet that is what the Delhi Police decided in Prof Geelani's case. If it hadn't been for our higher judiciary, an innocent man would have been hanged. The Delhi police, no doubt, would have notched up one more "triumph".

What are the motivating factors that drive our police force? Geelani's case is by no means an aberration; there are very many all over the country, like his. The people involved in them may be less high profile, the case might be less prominent, but the police's role doesn't vary too much. They get their man, so what if he is the wrong one? And at the end of the day, in the rare case when an alert judiciary redresses an injustice, what do the cops get except a bit of egg on their face? Nothing. No blot on their record, no demotion, no suspension, no sacking from the force. Back to business as usual.

The Bombay Police has often been described as the "Best police force in the world after Scotland Yard" (By whom so described, I have never been able to find out. Perhaps it was the Bombay Police themselves who wrote up that bit of mythology). Even that self-serving (and self-propagated) myth now lies in tatters after the Telgi case.

Abdul Karim Telgi was a small time operator who hit the big time when he found that it wasn't too difficult to forge official stamp paper. He also found that our bureaucracy's fondness for paper made the stamped kind wildly popular: the country needed crores and crores of it. All he had to do was get a good set of forgery tools, a good printing press and the connivance of political and police bosses. The rest is history unfolding before our very eyes.

The Telgi tapes (tape-recorded phone conversations between the scamster and his beneficiaries) will drop several stink bombs in several directions, but the first pins have already started falling, all of them from the police department. The rank of the accused even going up to that of Joint Commissioner of Police. Even the Mumbai Police Commissioner has been grilled (for 11 hours spread over two days), and more heads are soon expected to roll. The morale of the police, as you can imagine, isn't very high. Which, for once, matches the level of their morals.

Much has been written about the actions of the Tamil Nadu Government against The Hindu. Much more will be written, and without doubt, the support for this newspaper will be deservedly overwhelming and unanimous. But what about the behaviour of the police? In the midnight arrest of M. Karunanidhi earlier, in the recent raids on the offices and homes of The Hindu's editors and the movie-style chase and interception of this newspaper's Editor-in-Chief, Tamil Nadu's police have not shown much respect for the laws they are meant to protect and enforce. They are, obviously, a law unto themselves; they are also overly keen to obey the orders of their political masters, even when the orders are potently outside the law.

These examples are only the most prominent of recent events involving the police forces of this country. What they show, without the slightest shadow of a doubt, is that our police need policing, and they need it fast. Let things slide as they seem to be doing, and our police will become openly lawless entities like they have in some parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America. The first step is for the Central Government to dust off the report on police reforms which was completed a few years ago. The second step is to enforce its recommendations. Otherwise, the only step we'll ever take is back into the all-enveloping arms of quicksand trap.

Anil Dharker is a journalist, media critic and writer.

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