On May 23, a video of two policemen a man in Madhya Pradesh went viral. The video was shot on the afternoon of May 10 in Piplanarayanwar village in Saunsar tehsil, Chhindwara district. It showed a policeman thrashing a man with a stick, as another policeman watched. When the man fell to the ground, the policeman continued to beat him and kicked him in his face. The man was then dragged and lifted into a police vehicle nearby.
The video was widely criticised and the two constables in the video were “line attached”, or taken off field duty. The video came at a time when police personnel across the country have been working to contain the Covid pandemic. And yet, it points at a greater issue of police high-handedness and brutality.
Madhya Pradesh is one state where this abuse of power and authority has been evident during, and before, the lockdown. The assault of Waman Sareyam, the man in the Piplanarayanwar video, is testament to that. He isn’t alone: a lawyer and two journalists were also assaulted by the police in Madhya Pradesh in the last three months.
‘What the police did was absolutely wrong’
Nearly a month after his ordeal, Waman, 35, still lives in fear of the police. Waman works as a construction worker, living with his elderly mother in Baholi, about a kilometre away from Piplanarayanwar.
The police Waman had been “drunk” and “creating a ruckus”. Newslaundry tried to speak to Waman repeatedly, but was told that he is afraid of speaking about the incident because he’s worried it might lead to another assault on him.
“He is a poor man who lives with his mother in a small house,” explained Umesh Guhe, a local. “The police assaulted him very badly. Maybe he was drunk, but that was not the way to treat someone. What the police did was absolutely wrong.”
Waman was taken to the police station after being thrashed, Guha added, and was released later that evening.
“After that incident, the fear of the police has struck him. He’s so afraid that he doesn’t want to talk about the incident with anybody,” Guhe said.
About 130-odd km away, another incident of police brutality took place in March, in Madhya Pradesh's Betul district. On March 23, Deepak Bundele, a lawyer, was assaulted by the state police when he was on his way to the hospital. His crime was that they thought he was a Muslim — and he heard it from the police themselves.
Police brutality and communalism
“The incident happened in two parts,” Bundele said, “one showing the brutality of the police, and the other showing the communal mindset of some cops.”
It took place on March 23, before the lockdown began. Bundele, who is diabetic, was heading from his house to the hospital to buy medicine.
“I was stopped by the police about 250 metres from my house. On being questioned, I said I was going to the hospital as I am not well,” Bundelesaid. “One of them said I look as fit as a wrestler and should go back home. I reasoned with them, saying the doctor will decide whether I’m fit or not. As soon as I did that, one of them slapped me on the face.”
It all happened very suddenly, he remembered, and he didn’t understand why he had been slapped. “I got angry and said I will take them to court. The moment I said that, a dozen cops attacked me. Some hit me with batons, some with their hands. They only stopped when I fell down on the road.”
Bundele went to the hospital and got a medicolegal case done. The next day, he submitted a complaint with Betul’s superintendent of police, to register an FIR against the police officers who attacked him. But nothing happened.
“So I wrote to the director-general of police, Madhya Pradesh, and the Chief Justice of India, the Human Rights Commission, and others,” Bundele said. “For a month, I sent communications to them. Then on May 17, cops came to my home to take my statement. They were bound to do so because I filed the medicolegal case. Otherwise, they would not have done so.”
Here’s when Part 2 of the incident took place.
While taking Bundele’s statement, one of the policemen told him that he was beaten as the police were under the impression that Bundele is Muslim, since he sports a long beard.
“The cops who came to my house were requesting me to give a statement that I have not been beaten up. They asked me to give a false statement to save the cops who assaulted me,” he said. “They told me I’ve been beaten up because they mistook me for a Muslim, as I have sported a long beard and hair. They told me the cops who assaulted me are also feeling bad that they assaulted one of their own Hindu brothers. They further said that when communal riots happen, the police take the side of Hindus. And it was only because of confusion of religious identity that I was beaten up..."
When Bundele refused to retract his complaint or give a false statement, he said, the police “threatened him in a soft tone”. “They said that if I will not agree to their requests, the police may file a false case against me and my brother, who is also a lawyer,” he said.
Bundele recorded the conversation between him and the police officials at his house. Newslaundry has accessed the audio recording.
Police claim Bundele wasn’t assaulted
The police officials who took Bundele’s statement were assistant sub-inspector Bhawani Singh Patel and head constable Chandu Raghuvanshi. When media reports emerged on the matter, Patel was suspended. No action has been taken against Raghuvanshi. The deputy inspector of police, Hoshangabad, has since been appointed to conduct an inquiry into the incident.
However, no action has been taken against the officers who assaulted Bundele on March 23. On March 26, he filed an RTI to access the CCTV footage in the area. Initially, his request was denied, citing exemptions provided to the police. However, the superintendent of police, Betul, verbally told him that the recording had been “deleted”. This was repeated by the additional superintendent in a .
When his efforts to get justice from the police department failed, Bundele approached the Jabalpur High Court. He filed a petition asking that the court direct the police to file an FIR and conduct an inquiry. He also appealed for the formation of a committee to address communalism in the police force, and the constitution of a police complaint authority in the state to handle police atrocities.
The court accepted his petition on June 18.
Newslaundry spoke to Shradha Joshi, the additional superintendent of police, Betul, to ask about the attack on Bundele and subsequent action.
“In the inquiry conducted by the SP, the sub-divisional officer, and the station house officer (Thana in-charge), we found an altercation happened between Deepak Bundele and the cops on the spot,” said Joshi. “Bundele told one of the officers, ‘I will get off your uniform’, or get him dismissed. As per the inquiry, he misbehaved with the cops.”
Why was an FIR not booked against the officers who assaulted Bundele? Joshi said Bundele is the one who should be booked under Section 188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by a public servant).
“As per the inquiry, he’s the one who misbehaved,” Joshi repeated. “We have issued a censure to the concerned official for not filing and reporting the matter to the senior authorities at the time of the incident.”
Is she saying that Bundele wasn’t assaulted at all? “That’s what has been found in the inquiry,” Joshi replied. “In fact, he was misbehaving and was showing his arrogance that he will get the police officers dismissed.”
Assault on media personnel
There aren’t the only examples of police brutality in Madhya Pradesh. On March 27, a journalist with a leading English national daily was assaulted by police officers in Indore when he stepped out for a reporting assignment.
The 25-year-old reporter spoke to Newslaundry on the condition of anonymity.
“As I stepped out of the house, I thought I would buy a packet of milk from a nearby store before going for my reporting assignment,” he said. “When I was returning home to keep the packet in my room, I was stopped by cops who asked why I’m on the road. When I responded, one of them started misbehaving and hurling abuses.”
The journalist objected, he said, and when asked his profession, replied that he is a journalist. “They said, ‘Do whatever you want to do, we don’t care’, and started hurling abuses at me. When I objected this time, one of them charged at me and assaulted me.” The journalist said he was slapped and punched by the police officers.
Two of the police officers were assistant sub-inspector KC Parashar and constable Atul Sharma, attached to the Vijay Nagar police station; they showed him their nameplates when the journalist asked for their names, telling him to do whatever he wanted. The journalist went to the police station but the police refused to file an FIR. “They just took an application, that too after a lot of struggle.”
Similarly, Chetan Seth, a reporter in Gwalior, was assaulted by the police when he was out reporting on April 1. Seth was reporting on the lockdown from Gwalior’s Chetakpuri circle at the time.
“The police asked me why I was out on the road. I reasoned with them, saying I’m out to cover a story, but they hurled abuses. When I objected, they started hitting me with a baton,” Seth said. Seth sustained a minor fracture on his hand.
He told Newslaundry that all three police officials — assistant sub-inspector RK Shakya, constable Gaurav Sharma, and constable Balendra Sharma — were later suspended when the matter was reported to Navneet Bhasin, the superintendent of the Gwalior police. Newslaundry tried to contact Bhasin for comment but could not get through to him.
The need for police reform
Devyani Srivastava is a senior programme officer in the police reforms programme of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. Srivastava told Newslaundry that Madhya Pradesh has not taken any meaningful steps to implement the Supreme Court directives laid down in — a set of directives laying down practical mechanisms to kickstart police reform.
“The state is among the few left in India yet to enact a new police law that would lay down the principles and standards for modern policing,” Srivastava said. “It continues to be governed by the Police Act, 1861.”
In contravention of the apex court's directives, Srivastava continued, Madhya Pradesh is yet to constitute an independent state police complaints authority to inquire into alleged police misconduct.
“While it has constituted police complaints board at the district level, these are headed by the ‘minister in charge’ of the district, defeating the very purpose of creating an independent forum for holding the police to account,” she said. “The state has also rejected the empanelment process for the selection of the director-general of police, leaving the appointment solely to the discretion of the state government."
She added: "Neglect and subversion of the court's directives amount to the political executive retaining its unregulated control over the police. This not only undermines the morale of the staff across ranks, but it also tarnishes professionalism, weakens command responsibility, and blurs accountability.”
Devika Prasad, programme head of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, said, "The police are not given sufficient training in decision-making around the use of force, or alternative ways to using force. So, the instinct is to use force indiscriminately and often in excess. This perpetuates in the absence of needed accountability and standard-setting on the use of force."
Newslaundry also contacted Vivek Johri, the director-general of the Madhya Pradesh police, but he did not respond. This piece will be updated if a response is received.
Article image credit: Rajeev Sarathe
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