The son of a friend of mine was arrested during a clash between schoolboys from two Colombo schools. This boy, an A-level student, was caught by the police while the rest ran away.
As the clash had resulted in a damaged bus and three injured students, the situation looked serious. Desperate to get their son out of police custody for the night, my friend and his wife went to the police station with a lawyer, and a curious ‘third party’ who turned out to be a retired police inspector (he had been enlisted because of his ‘contacts’ – in case things went wrong, because the parents are neither rich, nor powerful, nor well-connected). He claimed to know the police inspector in question (which was a lie, because he didn’t say a word throughout. If the HQI recognized him, he showed no sign of it). I went along for ‘moral support.’
Police stations are not high on my favourite places to visit, but this turned out to be an eye-opening experience.
The parents had cooled their heels there all afternoon, as the HQI (headquarters inspector) was too busy. Finally, around 9.00 p.m. all of us were summoned to the OIC’s office and his majestic presence.
It’s an accepted norm in our society, not really questioned by anyone except a few malcontents (such as myself), that the police are omnipotent. Only politicians and doctors share this privileged social position. When we have to meet a policeman, and he turns out to be nice (or civil, at any rate), we are overwhelmed. We come out, exclaiming what a nice guy that policeman was! If only everyone else was like that! We experience this cathartic release after meeting a nice policeman because the general standard is so abysmally low.
When we entered the HQI’s room, he was watching TV, with his feet planted on the table. (I can’t think of any other government department where a section head would dare put his feet up on the table when people are watching). His room looked comfortable, even luxurious, compared to the shabbiness of the police station. It looked ordered, clean and it has a mini fridge and television (an aquarium with gold fish and a scavenger would have added a nice touch).
The HQI turned out to be a good-looking, athletically built young man (thirty or thirty five). He unhurriedly removed his feet off the table, and sized us up with a long stare. Though clearly unimpressed by what he saw, he nevertheless quickly figured out who the lawyer was and asked him to sit down. The rest of us mortals had to keep standing.
What followed was a mostly one-sided discourse about what school boys should and shouldn’t do, and about ‘terrorism’ – stoning and damaging a bus is interpreted as a terrorist act.
The HQI repeatedly called the schoolboy offender a ‘terrorist.’ He’s a hardliner who believes that people can be reformed with physical punishment. He told us with great conviction that if his own son had stoned a bus, he wouldn’t hesitate to punish him (cane or baton? In a law-abiding country, this statement would be enough to land him in serious trouble. But then, we don’t live in one). The lawyer, who should have protested, began agreeing with him. I began to find his cringing attitude acutely uncomfortable, and embarrassing. He was there to represent the offender. Instead, he was siding with the police.
The schoolboy in question is not socially maladjusted. He’s not a problem child. He’s the eldest of three sons, plays violin, and gets good school grades. If anything, he’s over-protected. He’s escorted everywhere (to tuition classes, friends’ homes) by his mother. She even sleeps in his room (the husband is working abroad, and has just returned home for a month’s vacation) and the boy is not allowed to surf the Net on his own. Personally, I find it amazing that children of both sexes (and boys, too; but I say that because it’s something cultural and ingrained, and not because I personally believe boys should be more adventurous than girls, which is gender bias) should be protected in this manner (this boy’s seventeen, hence almost an adult). I think that is negative, but that’s another subject, so let’s return to our omnipotent police inspector.
I suddenly realized that everyone was standing at ‘attention,’ with hands behind their backs, just like school kids facing the principal and his cane. I stood with one hand thrust into my trouser pocket. The OIC clearly didn’t like this disrespectful attitude. When I tried to get a word on behalf of the parents (as the lawyer was not doing that), he ignored me almightily, without even looking at me. I suddenly thought of another act, only the latest in a series involving politicians’ sons – the son of a minister and his friends make lewd remarks (according to some versions, it was much worse) to the wife of a DIG’s son, and the latter is hurt in the ensuing brawl. Did the parents, the victim’s as well as the attackers’, stand at attention at the police station while the HQI lectured them about ‘terrorism?’
As a law-abiding citizen, why do I deserve this? Why is there such a hierarchical gap between a policeman and us? Why are we so terrified of anyone in uniform? Why do I need to be treated with contempt by a police inspector simply for trying to voice my opinion? The parents were anxious to get their child out because they thought the boy might get assaulted at night by drunken policemen. I don’t think this would have happened.
But this kind of feeling is universal and ingrained into our psyche, like belief in cause and effect. Long ago, I remember a friend’s driver arrested on suspicion of a household theft (even as the employer strongly protested) and frantic phone calls to high ranking people in the police to make sure the man wasn’t beaten mercilessly during the night. Lately, there was a habit of removing the shirts of locked up suspects at night to prevent suicide – voluntary as well as staged). In short, all kinds of bad things could happen to you during the night inside a police station. I don’t understand how we could live with such fears and call ourselves civilized.
In fact, the policemen who had arrested the boy had been quite civil, and they had been scolded by a senior sergeant later for doing it at all. Eight hours after the incident, neither the bus’ owner nor its crew had pressed charges. Though we didn’t know it at the time, they had good reason to avoid the police, because they had instigated boys from the rival school and had taken part in the ensuing fist fight (a week later, no charges were pressed and the case was dropped, even though a bus had been wrecked and several boys ended up in hospital).
Thus, the violence began to look very casual, which I think is wrong. The policeman was as wrong to call the schoolboys ‘terrorists’ as parents were wrong to insist that their sons were the salt of the earth. But the law hovers between these polar opposites today. The schoolboy said that his principal, during a speech that morning, urged his wards to teach their rivals a lesson. The police inspector claimed that the principal had told him to punish the offenders as severely as possible. If so, he has been playing a double game.
The policemen who went to the respective schools the next day to round up the other suspects returned empty-handed, as class teachers refused to hand them over. Only three were found though at least one hundred were involved. None were charged. This may be because the bus owner and crew – the entire private bus system being a legalized mafia – didn’t dare lodge a complaint. But wrecking a bus is hardly a schoolboy prank.
Dropping charges after humiliating parents and children alike to their faces is not going to a solution because it gives everyone the impression, including impressionable schoolboys, that no crime has been committed. But my biggest discovery that night was that the inspector was not a representative of the law. He was the law, and that kind of law only breeds insecurity in the minds of ‘ordinary’ people.