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.

Friday, 8 May, 2009

Rahul Gandhi: The Hapless Deity

By Madhu Kishwar

I feel truly sorry to see how the Congress Party is loading Rahul Gandhi with too many unrealistic expectations. If you expect one man or one family to exercise magical powers to revive and rejuvenate a moribund organization that has rotted out due to unbridled corruption that comes from excessive centralization of power and lack of transparent democratic functioning, it amounts to ballooning in the cloud cuckoo land.

You need more than a genius to pull off that kind of a miracle. Unfortunately, Rahul is neither a Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi nor a Barack Obama. He comes across as a person trying hard to learn the political game--a game not really suited to his innate genius.

He would do much better if only he could be himself rather than be forced to act as the Divine Charioteer expected to steer Congress to victory. He is simply not cut out to be the father figure that the Congress so desperately yearns for. Nor does he have the genius to work out a new paradigm for his party in particular and or for Indian politics at large.

It is ironical that on the one hand, he is supposed to be under training – a large team of intellectuals and academics --both home bred and Harvard educated--are supposedly engaged in training him to take lead of India.

On the other hand, he is supposed to simultaneously play the unquestioned charismatic leader for the Party and be ready to take on prime ministerial responsibilities. The two can't work together.

Why just him? Any inexperienced young politician would crack up under such a strain. It is a great misfortune that he has been brought up to believe that he is born to rule. Everyone in the Congress Party has to work hard to dwarf himself/herself so that he can appear to be the tallest of all and can shine like no other. He is not treated like a young person who has to find his own level just as many other youngsters are doing.

I remember that after his trip to India British Foreign Secretary David Milliband had made this revealing comment in a British newspaper about Rahul Gandhi. (Milliband had accompanied Rahul on the much-he was made to sleep on a humble charpoy in a Dalit hut as part of sharing Rahul's "Discovery of India"). He said he found it strange that a man expected to occupy the prime minister's chair in the near future could not be engaged in discussing anything beyond "development issues" related to his constituency--such as building polytechnics, schools or factories in his constituency. He could not engage in any macro level political discussion--not even on burning issues like Indo Pak relations or the future of Kashmir. I found that comment devastating because if this is the kind of training he is being given, then the Congress intellectuals are doing a very poor job of grooming their leader.

I think Rahul needs a little mercy. He needs time and space to find his own pace and level. He has fallen into the trap his own family and the Congress Party laid out for him. Even today, the Congress Party has more talent than any other Party. It also has a glorious history and legacy. But their supine dependence on the Nehru--Indira dynasty is draining the life blood of the Party.

They would do far better to do nirgun bhakti and anchor themselves in the values and vision of Mahatma Gandhi, rather than prop up sagun deities in the form of Nehru--Indira offsprings.

It is like admitting that all of them collectively are good for nothing and cannot hold together unless a Rahul or Sonia bring some of their glory to shine on them.

Madhu Kishwar, Professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.