Saturday, 9 May, 2009

Crime and Politics: Lessons From Manushi's Work for Street Vendors' Rights

By Madhu Kishwar

When the Supreme Court ordered that all those standing for Parliamentary or state Assembly elections must disclose not only their personal and family assets but also the record of criminal cases against them, many of us believed that this would restrain at least our major national parties from nominating people with criminal records as their candidates.

This has unfortunately not been the case. Out of the 1445 candidates who are testing their fortunes in the first phase of elections starting April 16, over 16% have ongoing criminal cases against them. Congress Party leads the pack with 24, followed by the BJP with 23, BSP 17 and Samajwadi Party 10.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg because these figures represent only those cases that got registered by the police and reached trail stage. Therefore these figures are as misleading as statistics on rape or other crimes provided by the Bureau of Police Research and Development. It is well known that in our country it is an onerous task to get a criminal case registered even against ordinary criminals. The chances are far bleaker if the person happens to be an active politician or even a low level flunkey of a “political leader.”

Politicians are much smarter breed of people than judges and citizens who wish to hold them to account. Therefore, they are always one step ahead of law and have found ingenuous ways to keep their record “clean”. Let me describe how we at Manushi learnt this the hard way through our work for policy reform for street vendors.

Our investigations had shown that since municipal agencies deliberately avoid issuing vending licenses to street hawkers, they have to per force operate at the mercy of extortionist mafias. Thus on account of their supposedly illegal status, they are robbed off nearly 25 to 40% of their income by a combine of local policemen, local politicians and municipal officials. In Delhi alone, the payoffs the bribes extorted from 3-5 lakh street vendors and hawkers amount to no less that Rs 500 crores a year. (For a pictorial history of these endeavors, click here).

Therefore, since the late 1990’s Manushi began working to reform the corruption friendly licensing policy for street vendors. In the process we also executed a pilot project for the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) to create a model market for street vendors as a concrete example of how hawker markets can be disciplined, clean and aesthetically appealing. Since in this market vendors acquired a legal status and began to pay a monthly rent to MCD through Manushi, it became the first ever Bribe Free Zone for vendors in India. Needless to say it became a major irritant for the local police, municipal inspectors as well as local politicians, the local Member of Parliament of the Congress Party, the area’s MLA from the BJP and two successive municipal councilors from the Congress Party and their respective henchmen. We were repeatedly attacked and the infra structure repeatedly damaged by the local lumpens with the active connivance of the police. (For an account of the troubles faced in executing the Sewa Nagar pilot project click here).

Since the improvements we brought about in the civic infra structure of the area led to a dramatic increase in the market price of the new stalls, the local goons backed by elected representatives of both the BJP and congress Party--started taking over the vendor stalls through a combination of force and fraud. Because Manushi resisted their moves all hell broke loose. Several members of Manushi, including me were subjected to life threatening attacks. After a particularly serious incident on December 31, 2007, in which me and Manushi staff member Sheeshpal narrowly escaped being killed, the DCP South provided police security to me. However, the most harrowing part of this experience has been that every time either I or one of our vendor members gets beaten up, the goons are quick to file counter cases against the person they have beaten up.

In each instance, the Station House Officer (SHO) of the concerned police station has gladly obliged the goons in registering patently false cases against us. But our genuine complaints of assault, blackmail and life threats have been systematically ignored. For instance, on December 31, 2007, after thrashing me in broad daylight, the gangsters tried to break open my car door so that they could push me in and set the car on fire. In which case it could be passed off as an accident—just as routinely happens with women being burnt to death by husbands and the police registering a case of accidental stove burst. Had we not been rescued by policemen who came in response to an emergency call made by local people, I would not have been alive to tell this story.

However, the policemen who came to our rescue saw the entire incident with their own eyes, but the SHO did not arrest any of those his men saw beating us. They were not detained even they mobbed the local thana where we were taken after being rescued and threatened to lynch me to death right in front of the SHO. While I was kept waiting in the thana on the pretext of registering my complaint, the gangsters were allowed to go and get one of their family members admitted to the emergency ward of AIIMS with superficial self inflicted injuries and complains of high blood pressure. With that medical certificate in hand they registered a totally bogus case of “attempt to murder” against me in addition to several other cases under every possible criminal provision of the Indian Penal Code. (For an account of the attack on me and Sheeshpal click here).

It is the same story with all other persons they have attacked. The latest incident involves a young man named Sanjay. On February 17, 2009, when a leading member of Manushi Sangathan, Mehboob was being beaten up by a group of hired women sent by the Basoya gang, Sanjay who belongs to a poor family of Kotla Mubarakpur, intervened to ask why they were beating up Mehboob when the latter did not even know them. At this the two women, called out for Basoya brothers who pounced on Sanjay with iron rods and hockey sticks. They beat him till he was unconscious and left him bleeding on the street. Local vendors informed his family of the incident and he was taken to hospital for treatment and for registering a medico legal case against the Basoya brothers.

However, as in all other such incidents, the SHO Kotla Mubarkpur refused to lodge a criminal case against Basoya brothers. At this point Sanjay’s family approached Manushi for help. We took up the matter with Additional Deputy Commissioner of South District, Mr Rishipal Singh who gave us a good hearing and assured Sanjay that his case would be registered.

As in all such previous cases, the SHO used well tried techniques. He called Sanjay’s father and grandfather to the police station and threatened them with dire consequences if they dared refuse entering into a “compromise” with Basoyas, a police euphemism for unilateral surrender before the criminals. Somewhat emboldened by the assurance given by the DCP, they refused to yield. They were abused in the filthiest of language and told to watch out for what was to follow.

Again as in all such previous cases involving attacks on Manushi members, on 3 April 2009, the Basoyas lodged a false criminal case against Sanjay, his father, his uncle and his semi paralyzed grandfather for an attempting to murder one of the tempo drivers of Basoya brothers. They paid off their driver and let him inflict injuries on strategic spots to implicate Sanjay and his family members with full cooperation from the SHO. His brazen partnership with Basoyas became evident when he not only registered what he knew was a bogus case against Sanjay and his relatives but summoned all four men to the police station and threatened to arrest and send them to jail instantly, unless they signed a “compromise” before the Magistrate’s Court.

This panicked the family no end because apart from the prospect of being sent to prison and having to fight a lengthy court case to get bail and prove their innocence, Sanjay’s father knew he would lose his job as a maali (gardener) in a government establishment and Sanjay earns a pitiful amount as a vendor of low priced CDs. Service rules of the Government of India mandate that anyone who is arrested and kept in jail for over 24 hours on a criminal charge can be summarily dismissed from service. The family also realized that with the pitiful salary of a maali’s job which comes in the class IV category, they could not afford to indulge in prolonged litigation with all the earning members of the family in jail. The uncle lives separately and had no connection with the conflict with Basoya brothers. He took his anger out at Sanjay for being dragged into a conflict situation with the Basoya brothers who have acquired a good deal of ill gotten wealth through illegal means in recent years. Thus, much against their wishes Sanjay’s family decided to “compromise” and withdrew their charges against Basoya brothers.

It does not take much genius to figure out why the SHO acts in a brazenly partisan manner to blackmail and coerce all those who have genuine criminal complaints against Basoya brothers:

Ø The real income of the generally low paid policemen in India comes from protecting criminals because they are willing to pay what it takes to escape prosecution. Basoyas are moneyed and can afford to pay what it takes to win over the SHO. The joke in Kotla police station is that Manushi has helped the SHO make so much more money because we insist on having cases filed when there is a life threatening attack on anyone. The more serious the crime, the higher the pay off for being let off.

Ø The SHO belongs to the same Gujjar community that the Basoyas come from.

Ø Basoya brothers have acquired political ambitions in recent years. They used to be wage laborers and tempo drivers about two decades ago. But because they used petty crime and other unlawful means to get rich in the last 15 years, they have attached themselves to local politicians. Some support the Congress Party while others have a foothold in BJP. One of them is an active member of Panthers Party which is known in Delhi for politics if blackmail through lumpen acts. Thus they can get a range of politicians to intervene on their behalf. The moment a case is registered against them, even a relatively honest SHO, will get phone calls from the Local M.P. the area’s MLA and local municipal councilor both of whom are from the Gujjar community—to desist from lodging a case against Basoya brothers.

If a well known organization like Manushi based in the Capital City of India, with access to high placed officials and politicians and on whose behalf two successive Prime Ministers have intervened on issues relating street vendors cannot get cases registered against low level thugs of the Basoya brother type, one can well imagine how impossible it would be for ordinary, low income citizens to file cases and get them heard if ever they face human rights violations or criminal assaults by high level or influential local politicians.

Therefore, let us take the official figures released by the Election Commission of India on the number of politicians with criminal records with a pinch or rather a bucket of salt. Let us also not be taken in if in the forthcoming elections, we find the number of politicians with criminal records come down drastically. None of those entering politics in the coming years are likely to let anyone register cases against them, or even their minions. The real face of our politicians is to be judged not by what they declare to the Election Commission but the people they hob-nob with, the persons they appoint to “manage” their constituencies and the actions of those they appoint as their election agents.


Shamita Das Dasgupta said...

What a wonderful and insightful essay on crime and politics! Of course, I expect no less from Madhu. However, I am left with a bit of confusion that she may be able to put to rest.

As we read in this essay and know from our own experiences that many of the FIRs that are registered in India on a regular basis are politically motivated. That is, many of the FIRs are false, registered either to extract bribes from the accused or just to cause the person unnecessary trouble. This is exemplified by the FIRs registered against Madhu herself and her associates, while the genuine ones that should have been registered, remain ignored.

Based on this, I am guessing that many of the FIRs registered against various politicians are also false and without substance, perhaps to disrupt their political lives and advantage some others. The problem is when there are so many false FIRs registered, it is difficult to know which ones are genuine and which without merit. Thus, all FIRs lose their power. In such a situation, wouldn't it be unfair to disqualify from the political race all individuals with FIRs registered against them? Perhaps one way to circumvent the problem would be to disqualify political aspirants only after conviction or perhaps when one has been indicted after the preliminary evidence against him/her has been investigated by a magistrate or judge (assuming they are more neutral than the police).

Of course, the argument is moot if 'registered by the police and reached trial stage' means the accusations (FIRs) have passed the preliminary investigation and have been substantiated. I apologize for my ignorance of the legal process in India. In the U.S., evidence would have to pass the Grand Jury for someone to be indicted in a criminal case.

I would like to hear Madhu's thoughts on this. Thanks a lot.

Madhu Purnima Kishwar said...

Dear Shamita,
Thanks for your response. You have raised very important questions. As things stand politicians are disqualified only after they have been convicted, not on the basis of a mere FIR.

Some of the advocates of electoral reforms have proposed that a person should be disqualified after he/she has been charge sheeted by a Magistrate. Given the delays in judicial proceedings, it appears reasonable to make this demand, especially since influential persons manage to drag the cases against them forever so that convictions become harder and harder. Delays allow witnesses to be purchased or coerced into turning hostile. Most important of all, influential politicians can make sure that the police does a shoddy investigation making the possibility of conviction even more remote.

The bottom line is that with a police force as corrupt and venal as ours, thugs and criminals find it much easier to implicate those who stand up to them in false cases but honest citizens find it virtually impossible to get cases registered and even more difficult to pursue the cases in court.

I hope I have answered you adequately.
Love and regards,

Satindar M Bhagat said...

When you recounted some of these details orally it was shocking enough but now that I have read them line by line there are two words which are circulating in my mind: extreme anger and admiration. Anger that the system is so egregious that it can only offer hugely negative feed back to one of its most illustrious daughters and admiration that i have a Beti whose courage and determination are like shining lights for all to see. Having said that, i must request a solemn promise from you. You, my sweet child, are NOT,repeat NOT, going to ever place yourself in a position wherein serious bodily harm can be delivered to you. As i have told you before you are too precious to take too many risks. Wherever you go kindly make sure that you have adequate and totally devoted protection. When I read your previous email which listed all the ailments i had a hard time sleeping. NONE OF YOUR FIGHTS ARE POSSIBLE WITHOUT THE INTENSITY THAT YOU BRING TO THEM. Please do not do anything to deprive those who have come to depend on you. Forgive me for expressing my concerns so boldly but as a parent it is a case of a moral imperative.
Take very very good care of yourself always. God Bless you and protect you
at all times!

Madhu Purnima Kishwar said...

I am deeply moved by your concern for my safety. But I urge you not to worry. Despite these risks we are beginning to make progress on both fronts. The MCD Commissioner has appointed two seprate committees with the right sort of people, allowing me to define the agenda to reform the street vendor and cycle rickshaw policy. We are also getting a decent hearing in the High Court in our Petition challanging the existing cycle rickshaw policy. The Supreme Court has accepted our demand that a photo census be conducted by an independent agency as a necessary step for identifying genuine vendors for issue of hawking licenses. You will soon get more detailed reports on this on our blog.

I believe that life and death are in the hands of a power much higher than us. Since the moment and manner of my death is not in my hands, it is best to surrender oneself to the wisdom and design of that higher power. This belief gives one the required courage and fearlessness. In addition, I believe that such heartfelt blessings such as yours are bound to act as a protective cover for me.

The Basoya gang is getting more and more desperate. I will post a copy of the letter I just sent to the Deputy Commissioner Police and a recent testimony of Sanju who was among the recent victims of their murderous assault.

With love and regards,
Your Madhu beti

Anonymous said...

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So, you may feel free to call us or our New Delhi Representative may contact at your convenient schedule. Hope your safe journey ahead.
With Well-Wish & Regards!

Ashis Deb (Mob:09433019642)