Ladies and Gentlemen, Delhi Police Is Not With You If You Are PoorBy SOMNATH BATABYAL
I returned to Delhi in winter. I had been away for five years. The city was in turmoil in those early months of 2010, physically and morally. The Commonwealth Games were around the corner and Delhi was a city of broken culverts, dug-up roads, half-built bus stops and hurriedly whitewashed public spaces. Revelations of corruption followed. It was hard to count the zeros in the amount of money that had been pilfered by the politicians and contractors. I had left Delhi as a young man who had worked here for several years as a police beat reporter. I was returning as an anthropologist to research the city and its press.
My research grant gave me a degree of upward mobility. I moved into a South Delhi area, which had been a forbidden zone on my police reporter's salary five years back. Around my new neighborhood, parks replaced shantytowns, auto-rickshaws traded places with radio taxis and children were chauffeured to tennis lessons. I got home deliveries of rocket salad and pasta. "Delhi's cuisine has gone global," I wrote in my diary.
The focus of my research was to understand how Delhi was changing and how this change was being represented in the media.I put myself on a strict diet of news: waking to morning radio, scouring newspapers and watching 24-hour news channels with a dedication they did not warrant. It was while shaving one morning that I heard this Delhi Police-sponsored ad, between a bulletin and the latest Bollywood song:
"Get your servants, drivers and other domestic helps verified!
Delhi Police, with you, for you, always."
I paused mid-shave and laughed. Not much, then, had changed in Delhi. Politicians and bureaucrats, contractors and middlemen were pilfering billions, and the police still focused on criminalizing the poor.And our media, as I knew well from 15 years before, actively colluded in this perception.
I had come to know Delhi as class-ridden, arrogant and pitiless as a crime reporter in the mid-90s. A crime reporter's job was considered the lowliest ofnewspaper jobs. Few wanted to spend blistering afternoons reporting on the random but frequent fires that devastate the slums, coax answers out of the uncomprehending victims of a bomb blast, or frequent a murder site. Sometimes, all this within the space of a few hours.
Delhi became a network of police districts, crime statistics and neighborhood watch programs. My mornings began with calls to the police control room to review the night's major incidents and decide what was newsworthy. A murder in the lower-middle-class areas of East Delhi might get a short one-column story on the bottom of the fifth page. A lesser crime in upper-middle-class South Delhi had a much better chance of making the headlines. Almost unconsciously, I learnt to prioritize the rich. That's who my readers were, the editors hinted. That's who needed protection, I was told by the police.
A crime reporter's vision of the city is inexorably linked with power. The police informed what we wrote. They designated the criminals, pointed out the crime-prone districts and described where one should beware of pickpockets and jewelery snatchers. Seelampur and Seemapuri in Northeast Delhi were dangerous, Mongolpuri was to be avoided and tribal hordes lurked in the borders between Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, waiting to loot, pillage and murder.
If any of us journalists felt discomfiture reporting this official version of events, we comforted ourselves with"anti-police" stories: an extrajudicial killing, a wrongful confinement, the numerous instances of the police refusing to register cases. But the prism through which we looked at the city was preordained by the powerful. The crime reporters learned to see the city as the police did.
One afternoon I was attending a news conference at police headquarters when I received a text on my pager saying that my apartment had been robbed. By the time I'd hailed an auto rickshaw and covered the eight kilometers, or five miles to my apartment, the dog squad had arrived. In the next half hour the local inspector, the area deputy commissioner, his deputy and the fingerprint team had all converged on my one-bedroom apartment in East Delhi. Neighbors emerged and local tradesmen closed their shops to join the onlookers. The question was floated: "Has there been a murder?"
In the early'90s, East Delhi was still a poor suburb, where petty crimes were common and largely ignored by the police. But I was a reporter working for the largest-selling broadsheet in Delhi. The burglary of my one-room apartment mattered. By late evening, the dogs had left, the crowd had petered away and two policemen were left to file a report on the robbery. "Not to worry, sir. We will get your things back," one of them, attempting friendliness, told me.
The next morning, I stepped out to buy milk when a girl in her teens walked up to me.
"They have taken Papa," she said, her eyes meeting mine accusingly.
"Who is your father?" I asked.
Her father was Kumud, our neighborhood plumber, who did several odd jobs for me. I knew him well. The police had picked him up around midnight.
I rushed to the police station, a shabby one-story building at the end of my street. The officer on duty was sleeping in the front room, his head bent over a large wooden desk. Stacks of moth-eaten files lay on the table, on the floor, on bamboo shelves that lined the wall. I was taken to a very large, empty room at the back. The policeman who had promised to get my belongings back sat on a chair. He rose and smiled, gesturing at the three other men in the room.
Kumud, the plumber,was holding a large block of ice in his bare hands. A young boy, who I recognized as the garbage collector in our area, was in the "chicken position," his head pushed forward to his knees, his arms wrappedaround his legs to clutch his ears. My domestic helper's husband stood in a corner of the room on one leg with both his arms stretched in the air. I avoided his gaze. "Investigation on, sir!" the policeman said, smiling. "By the evening, they will crack."
Six months later, three boys were arrested for a number of thefts and robberies in our area, including the robbery of my apartment.One was the son of the local doctor. The other two were the sons of a retired civil servant living adjacent to me.
Despite the apparent great transformation of the city and the passage of 15 years, the core of Delhi remain the same: The powerful continue to brutalize the powerless.
I was brought back to the present by the harsh sound of my doorbell. A shriveled, frightened-looking woman was leaning against the wall outside my door. She worked at my new South Delhi landlord's residence. I had seen her once before when I had gone to the apartment downstairs to negotiate contract and rents. She had served me tea.
"Save me, Dada," she mumbled. "I have to call home. Please give me your phone. If they come back, Bhaiyya will beat me again." 'Bhaiyya' or 'brother' was her respectful term of address for mylandlord.
"Beat you?" It was hard to countenance the thought of my quiet, reticent and fat dentist landlord beating this emaciated woman. I asked her to come in and gave her my phone. She handed it back along with a piece of scrunched-up paper with a number on it. I tried calling repeatedly. The calls went unanswered and her agitation grew.
She was trying to get in touch with her son in Odisha (formally Orissa), one of the poorest states in India, where indigenous landowners are fighting a losing battle against corporations for minerals, where thousands of children die of malnutrition. She was impatient to leave, afraid the fat dentist would return. I persuaded her to tell me what was going on.
Two years ago, a man from an agency that provides India's large cities with domestic helpers–drivers, servants, gardeners— had arrived in her village. He promised her and other women of the village 2,000rupees, or $35, per month's work in Delhi.She and two other women took the offer, hoping to send back money to the family to free their mortgaged land.
The agency placed her in the dentist's South Delhi home. She never saw the recruiter again. In this rich neighborhood, in a fine house where husband and wife had four cars between them, she found that the cycle of exploitation continued. Her employers had not paid her for two years, insisting that she would get what she was owed when she left. But she couldn't leave without the money.
When husband and wife left the house to work, she was locked inside. That afternoon, my landlords had forgotten to lock a side door when they left to shop for food. "But they will be back soon,"she said with a start, and began to descend the stairs.
I ran after her. "Why don't you go to the police?"
She looked at me as if I had lost my mind.
The next day, I saw a police car outside our house. I was relieved that someone else had reported her plight to the authorities. I rushed downstairs. A policeman told me that the local police inspector was getting his teeth capped by our landlord.
Somnath Batabyal's novel, "The Price You Pay,"set in Delhi's underbelly, was published by Harper Collins in India in April. Dr Batabyal teaches at the Centre for Media and Film Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.