India's Legal System Faces Mistrust

Riot after fatal truck accident grows out of public frustrations with police, legal process

AT one point, the road leading away from New Delhi toward the nearby city of Ghaziabad runs next to a public park and a broad, green field where women spread laundry and cow-dung patties to dry in the sun.

The area is called Nand Nagri, a community of one- and two-story brick homes built right next to each other. There are plenty of television sets around, although there seem to be more water buffaloes than air conditioners.

The open space and the trees that line the road give Nand Nagri a calm, rural air. But late last month, a riotous crowd of about 10,000 people gathered in the field after a 10-year-old boy named Arun was killed when a truck driver lost control of his vehicle.

Nobody was seriously hurt in the riot, but officials say that 20 police officers were injured. The police fired tear-gas canisters and used their long bamboo canes to control the residents of Nand Nagri.

Arun's death and the angry aftermath made the front pages of the next day's newspapers. Like many violent outbursts in India, it seemed sudden and incomprehensible. One account, explaining what had incited the crowd, said the police had "handled the body with disrespect," and another said the crowd was "irked" when the police took the driver away. There were no follow-up stories.

"Whenever a death occurs as a result of some callous indifference," says P. M. Bakssi, honorary director of the Indian Law Institute here, "then naturally the public resentment is built up.... You can call it uncivilized, but it is a natural human reaction."

The kind of public outburst that occurred in Nand Nagri is a rare event, say Mr. Bakssi and other legal experts, but it also manifests widely held frustrations: a public mistrust of the police and a lack of faith in the Indian justice system.

Responding to the recent report of the human-rights organization Amnesty International about police abuses in India, an editorial in the Economic Times based in New Delhi decried "the growing lawlessness of the State in India.

"In large parts of the country," the editorial concluded, "popular dissent has often snowballed into interminable anarchy, either because of the myopia of the political leadership or because of the bluntness of the weapons used by the government to retrieve to civil society what has been lost through the damaging impact of uneven development."

These sentiments were also voiced by people interviewed in Nand Nagri, by local police, and by members of Arun's family.

Two days after the riot, the scorched truck frame - burned by the mob - remained by the side of the road. A group of people standing along the lane, across the field from where the accident occurred, cannot explain exactly what caused the riot. One man says the truck driver had attempted to flee, and the crowd grew angry demanding his arrest.

Another denies that the driver tried to escape and says the issue was the way the police handled Arun's body: "They treated the corpse as if one was throwing it away."

A THIRD bystander asserts that "the police took 100,000 rupees [$3,540] from the driver to take him away," and says the crowd wanted police to hand over the driver to them. But everyone says they arrived too late to know what started the fracas.

In the packed-dirt lane in front of Arun's home a group of family members and friends has spread a large rug to sit on. Arun's father, Tara Chand, sits cross-legged in the middle of the mourners, his eyes reddened and his hair mussed.

"I reached [the scene] about 15 or 20 minutes" after it happened and fainted, he says, so he can't say precisely what prompted the crowd to fight with police. He becomes visibly upset when he describes how police handled his only son's body.

Another man sitting with the mourners says the negligence and the cal- lousness of the police disturbed the crowd, as well as the belief that corruption would frustrate the course of justice. "The public doesn't trust the police, [who] will do what they want," he claims. "Indian police are running after money."

"If they are honest people who work for a living," says Mr. Chand, "[the police] beat them, and if you have money, then they are nice to you." The mourning father puts himself in the former group. He says he has a small roadside business selling car parts.

At the Nand Nagri police station, R. K. Khanna, the area's assistant commissioner of police, says he and his officers confronted a difficult situation after the accident, which drew a lot of onlookers because it was "very spectacular," he says.

"They wanted to kill the driver there and then," he insists, adding that the crowd set the truck on fire and refused to let firemen near it. The crowd also prevented officers, at first, from touching the body.

When it was removed, "it was taken with all respect," Mr. Khanna says, and resists the implication that popular mistrust of police prompted the riot. "We are properly investigating this case, and we will see that this driver is punished according to law. These charges are baseless."

But Bakssi says there could be some merit in the charges. "There have been cases," he says, "where the police have been a bit lazy or apathetic toward such incidents."

Reports of custodial death and custodial rape by Indian police also reinforce popular mistrust, says Alice Jacob, a professor at the Indian Law Institute. In India, she says, people believe that police "violate the law with impunity [and] they're not accountable to anybody."

"When ordinary folk," Professor Jacob explains, "come across [a situation] where they find rule of law is not operating, ... they take the law into their own hands ... and they don't have much faith in the police."

The public is also deeply skeptical about the efficacy of the legal system, says B. N. Chattoraj of the National Institute of Criminology and Forensic Sciences. "It all depends on the status of the person who becomes a victim," he says, adding that for a person of little wealth or stature, "the possibility of getting justice is minimized."

For Tara Chand, Arun's father, "the chances [of seeing the case to a satisfactory conclusion] are not very fair unless he gets some special favor from some powerful group," Professor Chattoraj says.

This slanted system of justice, combined with the legendary delays that afflict India's courts, make "people want to take revenge on the spot. They are not very certain [of] justice," he adds.

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