Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Chennai Police Does Deliver

This is a story about a time when the cops did not ignore the call for justice from an ordinary citizen. About a time when an ordinary citizen was pleasantly surprised to see his plea wasn't dismissed as a minor matter. When the interests of those who stand up to violence were taken care of.

I have had few interactions with cops outside of passport application related verification and a chance encounter where an officer offered me and my brother a ride. Most of my perception about them came from the standard channels - newspapers, stories and anecdotes from shared perspectives and sadly, movies. Given this background, I was not optimistic about redressal when life decided it was time for me to visit a police station and register a complaint.

It begins with road rage

I was riding to work one morning on my 2-wheeler when I slammed my brakes to avoid hitting another bike crossing the road, and in my anxiety screamed at him "Aaaaaaarggggh! What are you doing??" (in Tamil). As I watched him park his bike, he walked over to me. I expected him to engage in verbal jousts where I struggle to exchange abuses in Tamil. After a "How dare you shout at me?" (again in Tamil), he lands a punch with his right fist on my cheek. I am still perched on my bike, and I am now trying to find both my own balance and the one that perching on a bike requires. I lose the latter as my bike topples to the side. The former is naturally in check given the size of my aggressor.

A crowd gathers. Of course it does. No one is interested in resolving this. I urge my aggressor to come with me to a police station. He refuses. After the crowd pushes, he asks me to pillion behind him to the station. I refuse to trust him. I tell him we can just park our bikes and walk over. The crowd gets restless. One middle-aged guy comes out of nowhere and screams loudly at me "Deeiiiiiiii. Shut up now. Enough of this." (In Tamil). I refuse to let my aggressor leave. I try to block his escape path as he mounts his ride and prepares to leave the scene. The screamer screams again as I tell him I cannot let this guy go because he has punched me. Another person asks me to note the vehicle number and go to the cops. A lady cleaning the streets nearby is watching all this. She comes over and advises the same. As the perpetrator departs, in my heightened levels of stress, I am not even sure I noted the registration number right a few seconds after I did.

Meet the cops

I walk over to the nearby police booth. It's too early and no one is present. I call the number printed on the booth. Someone at Nolambur Police Station (W7) answers. I describe to him what I had been through. He asks me to find the station and come meet him in person. In 10 minutes, I meet a lady Constable seated at the entrance, and then I meet him for the first time - Constable C. Johnson. He was the person who answered my call. He listens patiently to my story, asks a few questions for clarification, and then asks me to lead him to the spot where the incident occurred.

Once there, he asks around to understand where we exactly were, to confirm that this belongs to his jurisdiction. No one claims to have seen the incident though. I urge him to ask the cleaning lady who is still at work in the area. He walks over to her, and I can see from a distance that she makes a punching motion with her hand. She was probably the witness that mattered in the end.

Constable Johnson asks me to return to the police station and lodge a complaint. The lady Constable guides me through this. Constable Johnson joins us later to complete the formalities. He calls a few resources to see if they can help him establish an address for the registration number of the perpetrator's bike. He is told they do not have this information, probably because it is a recent registration. He urges me to try and find apps or any other online tool that could help him get the address, because his only recourse now is to visit a Regional Transport Office (RTO) a long distance away to get the same. I meet the inspector on duty as well, who assures us that they will help us. A CSR is registered and I am asked to get on with my day as I normally would.

Hope runs low

As I await an update from the cops, I hear many accounts, including one very violent road rage incident, that have been without redressal for years. Anything but positive. I decide to give it my best shot by visiting the station personally every day.

On Day 2, I don't meet Constable Johnson. Another lady Constable on duty reveals that on that particular day he has been allotted a night shift. So I could either meet him after 9pm or the next day after noon. The lady reassures me that they will do their best and that I should not be too concerned.

I realize how gruesome their schedules can be. Day duty one day, night duty the next. I see other cops catching a few much needed winks on steel benches. Not the best conditions for a citizen's first line of defence.

On Day 3, I visit the station once again well after lunch time in the hope that I could meet Constable Johnson. The lady from Day 2 greets me again and informs me that he is having his lunch. I decide to wait, but Constable Johnson overhears this and calls me over. He updates me that since he was busy with another case of a daughter missing from her home, he requested one of his colleagues to visit the RTO and get the registered address for the bike. He asks me to be available around 8pm in the evening, in case they are able to nab the guy from his home.


At 8.30pm that night, I receive a call from Constable Johnson who urges me to rush to the station. They were able to get an address, and find the perpetrator and have brought him to the station. I take my brother with me for support. When we get there, we find a small crowd gathered. I manage to find Constable Johnson within that assembly and he asks me to identify from a distance whether the guy they have brought in is indeed the same person I lodged a complaint against. I was starting to fear I am forgetting his face, but as soon as I saw him, I realized I hadn't. A few more questions to reaffirm and match my account with that of the accused, and Constable Johnson advised us to let them proceed to register a case against the accused. The Constable informed us that he would be fined and a case would be lodged on his record.

As we walked away, I felt a sense of justice return to the whole affair. That perhaps this means our cops aren't as inadequate as we make them out to be. That perhaps they do care about our welfare sometimes.

I had a whole speech prepared to egg them on to perform their duty. One that involved reminding them that we look at them as our protectors. And that they should ensure we always come to them when seeking protection, and not go instead to a goon who can deliver instant justice in return for money. That all we wanted was to ensure perpetrators do not go about their lives in the confidence that their actions have no consequence whatsoever. That the small guy has no recourse.

I never got to deliver that speech. And I am glad for that. Glad to know that even if this is a small matter, we can all seek a little reassurance that the system does work at times. There are those in the police force who do their job. Who work long hours. Who work gruesome shifts. Who talk politely and reassuringly. Who take our feelings seriously. I salute them.