January 19, 2005

Fell on others

Some years ago, I ran across some intriguing findings a student at the Karve Institute in Pune reported in the early '90s. He had pored through Maharashtra police records in the course of a study of custody deaths. Between 1980 and 1989, according to those records, there were 155 such deaths. Going by figures in subsequent years, this carnage was really small change, so that's not the reason I bring it up here.

No, what was truly intriguing about this study was the long list of causes of those 155 deaths, also according to those records. "Police action" killed 15. "Hanging": 45. "Natural" causes: 21. Routine so far? But a remarkable total of 31 phenomena were blamed for the 155 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" proved just as deadly.

Yes, that's "fell on others." Didn't know that caused death, did you now?

I read all this and I couldn't help going back to that "police action" category: exactly what "action" was that?

Over a decade afterwards, when I was reading this report, little had changed. Here are a few lines from a police report about a man who died in custody of Maharashtra's police then: "Pinya Hari Kale, after seeing policemen, took to his hells [sic] and fell down. ... [H]e became unconscious and ... was [later] declared dead."

To "fell from bed" and "fell on others", please add "fell down": all among the mysterious ways in which captives of the Maharashtra police manage to die.

Kale was a 35 year old landless agricultural labourer, his 1000 rupees a month the only income available to support his wife and five children. He was also a Pardhi, one of the tribes we once called criminal.

Now in British times, the law said -- yes, the law -- that if you were born in such a tribe, you were defined right away as criminal. In Indian times, that law was repealed. But in practice, in everyday life, the stigma still attaches. (My book Branded by Law is about these tribes and that stigma).

One evening in June 1998, three constables picked up Pinya Kale in Baramati. The arrest of Pardhis on suspicion, whenever there is a crime in an area they live in, is a purely normal thing. Believe me. It is really a travesty of everything we call justice, but it is, nevertheless, purely normal. That being so, his wife Chandrasena didn't think too much of it 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

Only, he didn't. The next day, after she went to the police station to ask after Pinya, two constables showed her his dead body.

There's more. The Tahsildar Taluka Executive Magistrate of Baramati contrived not to notice any injuries on Kale's body. A post-mortem, conducted by a Dr 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 and a second post-mortem was performed by a Dr Bangale at Sassoon General Hospital in Pune. Dr Bangale 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 quite what you might expect -- didn't Pinya simply "fall down"?

Today, there's news about life sentences handed down to 11 policemen for the death in custody of another Pardhi in Maharashtra, one Dilip Ghosale, all the way back in 1987. They beat the man to death, dumped his body in a forest and then claimed he had "escaped". Sure.

Great news, as far as I'm concerned, this conviction. But that date, 1987 ... What did Ghosale die of, I wonder? Was he the man who "fell from bed"? Or the one who "fell on others"?

Ghosale, Kale, more like them -- here's what you need to understand about them: what happened to them is their fault. Who asked them to be born criminal?

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