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June 10, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Dilip D'Souza

Accused Of Being Accursed

There is an interesting sequence of entries in a bank passbook I saw recently in Purulia District, West Bengal. Shyamoli Sabar, a young woman from the hamlet of Akkarbaid, holds an account in the Mallabhum Gramin Bank in nearby Rajnowagarh. She started it on June 17, 1994, with a deposit of Rs 40. Six months later, she made her second deposit: ten rupees. Her passbook records deposits, over the next four years, of such amounts as one rupee, three rupees, ten rupees, one rupee again. Rarely did she deposit more; only once did she manage to put in as much as Rs 50.

Until 1998. On May 26th, the passbook shows she deposited Rs 14,943 in the account. Then, on November 2nd, Rs 28,231.33. Four days later, another Rs 56,042.

It is a startling change. How did Shyamoli go from depositing single rupees to several tens of thousands? There is a very simple answer. Those fat amounts were by way of compensation given to Shyamoli by the Government of West Bengal. Compensation, because in February 1998, police in the town of Purulia took her husband Budhan into custody and beat him to death.

Simple, I said. Like denotified tribals elsewhere in the country, Kheria Sabars -- the tribe Shyamoli and Budhan belong to -- also live under the constant threat of arrest, torture and murder by the local police. So it was with Budhan.

On February 10, 1998, he and Shyamoli got on his bicycle. "We were going to Barabazar, to my mamasasur's [mother-in-law's brother] house," Shyamoli told me when we met outside her hut in Akkarbaid. On the way, they stopped for a paan. Ashoke Roy, Officer-in-Charge of the Barabazar Police Station, came up to them at the little shop and took Budhan away on his motorcycle. Roy would later claim, in an affidavit he submitted to the Calcutta High Court, that Budhan's name came up "in course of my investigation in connection with Barabazar Police Station Case no. 37/97 dated 15.9.97." That's why he arrested Budhan.

Over the next few days, the police beat him savagely. On the morning of the 13th, Budhan accompanied a police party that raided Akkarbaid in search of supposedly stolen goods that he had supposedly told Roy about. None were found, but a few villagers spoke to Budhan as he sat in the police jeep. He told them of the nonstop torture and the pain he was suffering. On February 17th, he was dead. The police claimed he had hung himself in his jail cell that evening with his "gamchha", or thin towel.

In July, Justice Ruma Pal of the Calcutta High Court delivered a judgement that tore this police version of Budhan's death to shreds. She had already directed the State to pay Shyamoli "ad-interim relief" of Rs 15,000; in this judgement she directed a further payment of Rs 85,000. She also ordered a CBI investigation into Budhan's death, departmental proceedings against Roy and other officers, and that Roy must be transferred out of Purulia District.

It was a remarkable judgement, a stunning blow to the police of Purulia. They had treated Budhan as scarcely a human being. But the judgement also made clear just how arrogantly the police behave with DNTs. Their attempts to cover their trail seemed almost deliberately filled with lame mistakes, as if to say: catch us if you can.

Consider some examples.

On page 3 of his affidavit to the Court, Biplab Dasgupta, Purulia's Jail Superintendent, says that he left the jail at 6:07 pm on February 17th, reached home at 6:20 pm and was told immediately about Budhan's death. "[I] rushed back to the jail," he goes on, "and at about 6:25 pm I entered the jail ... [and] found the said Budhan Sabar lying on the floor [dead]." On page 10 of the same affidavit, Dasgupta says "I saw the body at 6:18 pm on 17.2.98 ..."

A seven minute time difference, maybe you think, is hardly worth picking on. An understandable error, perhaps in typing? Read on, as I did.

In paragraph 3 on page 2 of his affidavit, Syed Liakat Hossein, the Sub-Divisional Officer in Purulia, submits: "I proceeded on 17th February 1998 to District Jail, Purulia, at 7:30 pm to inquire into the alleged suicidal death of ... Budhan Sabar." In paragraph 4 (the very next paragraph), Hossein says: "I entered into the District Jail ... at 7:15 pm on 17th February 1998."

And as if that 15 minute difference wasn't enough, there's Hossein's Annexure "A", which is his "detailed enquiry [sic] report to the District Magistrate, Purulia." It says: "I proceeded to the District Jail, Purulia at 8:30 pm on 17.2.98 to enquire [sic] into the alleged suicidal death of ... Budhan Sabar." There you are: one affidavit, one supposed event, three different times.

Then there's Kumaresh Roy, the jailer. His statement to the Court begins thus: "While I was working in the office on the evening of 14.2.98 ... [I was informed] that [Budhan] committed suicide in cell." Clearly, Kumaresh Roy could not be bothered to get even the date on his story right.

As for Ashoke Roy, he was similarly troubled by dates. As I mentioned above, he submitted in paragraph 4 of his affidavit that he picked up Budhan for interrogation "in connection with Barabazar Police Station Case no. 37/97 dated 15.9.97." In paragraph 10, Roy says this: "[I]n course of his interrogation, [Budhan] disclosed startling facts in connection with the involvement of others [in] Case no. 37/97 dated 5.9.97." There you are: one affidavit, two different dates for Case no. 37 of 1997.

Mere typos, all? One, perhaps. Two, possibly. But an entire string of time inconsistencies? It could only have come from a clumsy joint effort to put together a clumsy story to account for Budhan's death. The kind of effort that could not but leave a trail of fishy mistakes.

And there were fishier mistakes still. The basis of Ashoke Roy's submission to the Court was that he picked up Budhan because he wanted to question him about a crime committed on September 15, 1997. This was the robbery of a bus belonging to Balaji Roadways on the Barabazar-Purulia road. Rs 16,000 in cash, a gold ring, ten wrist watches and sundry other items, for a total of Rs 35,000 worth, were stolen from the passengers of the bus that day.

Now when a crime like this is committed, and when the police say they have a suspect whom they want to arrest, the normal practice is to alert the police station that covers the area where this suspect's home is. That police station puts his name on a list of suspects wanted for various crimes. Budhan lived in the hamlet of Akkarbaid, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Kenda Police Station. (In fact, when Roy raided Akkarbaid on February 13, the Officer-in-Charge of the Kenda PS accompanied him: precisely because Akkarbaid is in Kenda's jurisdiction).

Sure enough, the Kenda PS did have a list of suspects known to be living in their area of concern. On January 17, 1998 -- over three weeks before Budhan was picked up -- the same Officer-in-Charge of Kenda PS gave a copy of this list to the Paschim Banga Kheria Sabar Kalyan Samiti (PBKSKS), an organisation based in Rajnowagarh that works with Sabars. This was a routine happening; the Samiti picks up copies of such lists from the nearby stations every now and then and files them.

Now this particular list contained the names of 22 Sabars who were suspects in various crimes in the area. "Budhan Sabar" was not one of those names.

(Just to check, the Samiti also had a copy of a similar list from the neighbouring Manbazar PS. There were 12 names on that list. "Budhan Sabar" was not one of them either).

If Budhan was indeed a suspect in that Balaji Roadways robbery, as Ashoke Roy claimed, why was his name not on the Kenda PS list? Because this was a concocted story, this suspicion of Budhan's involvement in the bus robbery, a story concocted solely to explain Budhan's arrest.

These inconsistencies and lies were only the ones I caught during a quick look at some of the police papers in Budhan's case. Justice Ruma Pal found more, just as egregious. For example, she comments: "The police records do not show that Budhan was carrying a gamchha at any time. [It was found] to be new. ... Where did the gamchha come from? It is true that in the column headed 'private property received with the prisoner' it has been written: 'full pant, G. shirt, Punjabi and gamchha.' But the word 'gamchha' appears to have been subsequently inserted."

The murder of Budhan Sabar was bad enough. Without meaning to belittle its magnitude, we know well about deaths in police custody. But the string of foolish mistakes and inventions the police made in presenting their case to the Calcutta High Court spoke of something else altogether: an entire attitude towards the Sabars. There is only one possible conclusion to be drawn from their submissions: that these officers really did not think anyone would take the death of a mere Kheria Sabar seriously; that therefore, their ham-handed efforts to cover up would certainly never be scrutinised. So why even bother to get all the little details -- times, dates, facts -- consistent?

If Budhan's death was tragic, this bald-faced arrogance is simply galling.

All of which persuades me that still another error in Ashoke Roy's affidavit is something of a Freudian slip. In paragraph 14, Roy says: "I had produced remand accursed, Budhan Sabar ...". It's only an extra "r", but think what a difference it makes to the meaning.

Indeed, Budhan and the rest of the Sabars are accursed. No mistake there.

This article is part of the project Dilip D'Souza is pursuing to study India's DNTs on a National Foundation for India Media Fellowship for 1998-99.

Dilip D'Souza

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