It must be a sign of something -- a snail-paced judiciary, corruption in the police, something. When a police officer is arrested and charged with murdering a suspect in a bomb-blast case, people turn out in their hundreds to protest. They say, how can you arrest this honest officer for doing his duty? They say, if you do this, who will ever take the risk of nabbing hardcore terrorists and gangsters? They say, he might have killed the man, but the man was a terrorist, he deserved to die. Some other officers say, the public is with us.
But here's something to think about: The dead man was a suspect, that's all. However horrifying a crime setting off a bomb is, a man arrested on suspicion of being involved in it, even great suspicion, remains a suspect, that's all. Until he is tried and convicted, however slow and tortuous that process might be, that's all he is. A suspect. The tortuousness of the judiciary, however frustrating it is, does not mutate him from suspect to terrorist.
All this just as much as the officer himself, until his own trial and conviction, remains no more than a suspect.
Yet here's something else to think about: What happens to suspects in the custody of the Indian police is simple and widely known. They are beaten to extract information. The police themselves hardly make a secret of this. A few years ago, a sub-inspector in rural Maharashtra told me that he had arrested two men as suspects in a few burglaries in the area. With an airy wave of his hand, he said that once he used some "degree vagairah" (literally, "degree etcetera", a breathtakingly casual reference to "third degree") on them, they confessed. They didn't die, they merely confessed. But others -- plenty of others -- have died after such vagairah.
There are many of valid reasons for this cavalier attitude towards torture, but none of them justify it. Yet the police will themselves also tell you that perfectly ordinary people pressure them to use that "degree vagairah" on suspects. It's true, the public is with them. Two decades ago, policemen in Bhagalpur poked bicycle spokes into the eyes of ten undertrial prisoners, then poured acid into the sockets. Shudder you may, but the public of Bhagalpur, fed up with crime and slow justice, was "with" those poking and pouring policemen too. They too turned out in their hundreds to protest any possible action against the cops. (This article I wrote has some more on what happened in Bhagalpur).
But even public support does not justify blinding and torture, even of prisoners.
You folks familiar with recent happenings in Bombay will know that this is about the senior police inspector Praful Bhosale. Bhosale has been arrested and accused of the torture and death in custody of a man called Khwaja Yunus. And Yunus? He was accused of setting off bombs in Ghatkopar in December 2002.
So in the end, the answers to the questions raised in my first paragraph are simple, and have nothing to do with Bhosale or Yunus. Policemen who torture suspects are in no sense "doing their duty." Plenty of officers do take the risk of standing up to terrorists and gangsters -- they see that, and not the torture of suspects, as their duty -- and will continue to do so. The dead man did not deserve to die, any more than you or Bhosale or I deserve to die.
And if "the public is with us" means that the public approves of torturing crime suspects, sometimes killing them, this much seems clear to me: there is no way we can ever stop terrorism. For it too is, and will remain, with us.