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May 5, 1999


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

What A Fall Was This

Last November, I wrote here of some intriguing findings a student at the Karve Institute of Social Work in Pune reported early this decade. He had pored through Maharashtra police records in the course of a study of custody deaths. Between 1980 and 1989, according to those police records, there were 155 such deaths.

Now just over a year ago, the home ministry in Delhi announced that Maharashtra had killed 200 people in police custody in 1997, the highest count among all states that year. With a figure like that for just one year, 155 in the entire decade of the '80s, then, is mere small change.

So what was truly intriguing about the student's study was not the number, but the long list of causes of those deaths, also according to those records. To remind you: "Police action" killed 15. "Hanging": 45. "Natural" causes: 21. A remarkable total of 31 such phenomena were blamed for the deaths. They included "heart attacks" (9 deaths), "snake bite" (1), "fell from bed" (1) and "fell on others" (1). "Wound", "neck wound" and "jumped in well" each proved as deadly to one unfortunate jailbird.

I have the honour of reporting one more seemingly innocuous but really deadly event. Here are a few lines from a police report about a man who died in custody last June: "Pinya Hari Kale, after seeing policemen, took to his heels and fell down. In the fall he became unconscious and the policemen chasing him admitted him in the Golden Jubilee Hospital, Baramati, where he was declared dead."

Yes, to "fell from bed" and "fell on others", please add "fell down": all among the mysterious ways in which captives of the police end up dead. According, as always, to the police's own records.

So what really happened to this Pinya Hari Kale?

Kale was a 35 year old Pardhi, a member of one of the tribes we once called criminal. Like many Pardhis in Satara district, he was a landless agricultural labourer, his 1000 rupees a month the only income available to support his wife Chandrasena and their five children.

Late on June 8 1998, three constables picked up Kale at Tandulwadi village, near Baramati. Now the arrest of Pardhis on suspicion, whenever there is a crime in an area they frequent, is a purely normal thing. It is really a travesty of everything we call justice, but it is, nevertheless, purely normal. That being so, his wife Chandrasena wasn't particularly perturbed when he did not return home that night. She "expected him to be detained and released", she told the Bombay High Court in a petition about his death.

That did not happen, of course. The next day, when she went to the police station to ask after him, two constables showed her his dead body.

Tragedy mutated, as it often does, into farce. The Tahsildar Taluka Executive Magistrate of Baramati, one S B More, performed an "inquest panchnama of the dead body of the deceased" on June 9. He contrived not to notice any injuries on Kale's body. The first post-mortem, conducted by a Dr Suresh S Sonawane at Baramati's Golden Jubilee Hospital, found seven injuries, and listed those as the cause of his death.

At Chandrasena's insistence, Kale's body was exhumed on June 18 and sent to Pune's Sassoon General Hospital for a second post-mortem. That one was performed by Dr R S Bangale. The doctor found "evidence of multiple contusions": 14, all told. He concluded that Kale had died "due to multiple blunt injuries with evidence of head injury."

Not what you might expect from merely falling down.

Because the two post-mortems were so different, Police Inspector B N Mane of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in Pune was asked to investigate Kale's death. The three constables -- S D Hinge, B B Marne and S G Gire -- had rounded up Kale because they suspected him, being a Pardhi, of involvement in a Baramati criminal case. At the police station, these three and sub-inspector S M Patil beat Kale "with sticks and belt." Because of this, Kale died on June 9. Mane says pointedly that "the information given by Hinge about Pinya's accidental death was [a] false and concocted story." On behalf of the state, Mane lodged complaints at the Baramati police station against all four men on July 14. They are under suspension while a further investigation takes place.

That will, of course, take a long time; as with so many previous "investigations", it will almost certainly meander into oblivion. But clearly, the state itself has come to the conclusion that Kale was killed in police custody. Alleging so in her petition, Chandrasena asked for compensation and for the policemen who killed her husband to be punished. There has been no sign of either of those happening on their own, or even as a result of her petition.

There have, on the other hand, been some developments from an unexpected quarter. The Denotified and Nomadic Tribes Rights Action Group, an organisation based in Baroda that fights for the rights of tribes like Pardhis, sent a notice to the National Human Rights Commission about Kale's death. The NHRC's response got far less attention than it deserved.

On December 22, the NHRC ruled that "for the limited purpose of awarding immediate interim relief," it was not necessary to wait for charges against the four policemen to be proved in a criminal court. A "strong prima-facie case is sufficient"; and Mane's investigation clearly makes just such a case. "This is a fit case", the NHRC observed, for awarding compensation to his dependents.

So the NHRC directed the State of Maharashtra to pay Kale's family "immediate interim relief" of Rs 200,000. On April 9, an inspector at the Baramati police station handed over this amount to Chandrasena Kale. Rs 25,000 was in cash and the rest, as the NHRC had directed, was invested in 3-year term deposits at the State Bank of India in the names of Pinya's wife and children.

Since this has happened and since an investigation is supposedly on, Chandrasena Kale has withdrawn her petition from the High Court. However, her lawyer told me last week, "we retain the right to re-submit if we are dissatisfied" with the efforts to punish Pinya's murderers.

The NHRC also directed the State to consider action against Executive Magistrate More for the "palpably false entries" in his inquest report, as well as for "ignoring the injuries on the person of the deceased and for doctoring the inquest report to suit the offenders"; and against Dr Sonawane for his shoddy post-mortem. I don't need to tell you that neither of those punitive actions have happened yet.

In concluding its direction, the NHRC praised B N Mane's work and his "high sense of professional honour." It explained: "Such endeavour on the part of police to protect the citizenry from abuse of power ... can alone regain for the police a place of respect in society at a crucial time in the country's history when disillusionment and cynical and irreverent distrust of authority reign supreme."

And all these things happened because Pinya Kale "fell down."

Three lessons from this tale I have told in some detail. First, the police's own say-so is a very poor reason to trust their explanations of deaths in custody. Something to remember when we hear about how acting against the police for their misdeeds will only "lower their morale." Second, there are still officers who are willing to observe the law, protect the public interest, take action against criminals even if they are policemen. Something else to remember: for surely "regaining for the police a place of respect in society" can only help boost their morale.

Three, this catastrophe happened to Pinya Hari Kale's family really because they are Pardhis.

Their fault, of course. Who asked them to be born criminal?

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

Dilip D'Souza

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