THE ODDEST BIT about being beaten and tortured for hours by Delhi Police is that it seems no one would have cared if I were not (mostly) white and a foreign journalist. Make no mistake; what happened to me in the early morning hours of October 6 was a nightmare. My body will always bear the marks of the batons of Delhi Police.
Most of what happened has already been reported. The short version is that, after seeing off two journalist friends of mine whose flight left for London in the morning, I was walking home and accidentally blundered into the middle of a late-night altercation in which half a dozen police officers were beating someone in the street. A police officer started hitting me, I hit him back in self-defense and then the cops spent the next six hours or so beating and torturing me.
But one fact is even more chilling.
Besides myself and the man in the street, I saw Delhi Police torturing a third man in the police station. Why didn’t Ambika Soni, the Minister of Information and Broadcasting, order an investigation into those cases, as she did mine? Not that any investigation that relies on the accounts of officers who participated in the beatings – or ‘witnesses’ who have seen what the police can do – would have any credibility. But the Indian government’s strategy is clear: If the victim has the means to make himself heard, especially to the international press, as I do, act concerned. If he doesn’t, forget it.
I consider myself primarily to be a human rights reporter. Coincidentally, I recently had begun research on prison and police reforms, requesting a tour of Tihar Jail, where retired police officer-turned-activist Kiran Bedi had famously pushed for improvements. Little did I know the easiest way to see the horrors of an Indian jail or holding cell was simply to walk the streets of my own neighbourhood.
Cops at the Nizamuddin police station tried their best to
silence my cries for someone to call the US embassy, beating me with batons as I lay on the floor in chains. As I lay during the next two days in a hospital bed, they took other, less physical, measures to squelch the message I was sure to give – telling the press all manner of absurdities: that they had never touched me, that I had tried to steal a taxi, that I had assaulted elderly people in the street, that I was inebriated. This despite the fact that the only alcohol test administered that day showed I had no alcohol whatsoever in my system.
All this comes as no surprise in light of an August 9 report from Human Rights Watch.
“The Indian government should take major steps to overhaul a policing system that facilitates and even encourages human rights violations,” the report said. “For decades, successive governments have failed to deliver on promises to hold police accountable for abuses and to build professional, rights-respecting police forces.”
The Indian government’s strategy is clear: If the victim has the means to make himself heard, act concerned
In an interview, Kiran Bedi pointed to art and yoga classes in Tihar Jail as a step forward.
I don’t want to detract from the great work Bedi has done, but no one was offering to teach me yoga at the Nizamuddin Police Station.
“India is modernising rapidly, but the police continue to use their old methods: abuse and threats,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said for the report. “It’s time for the government to stop talking about reform and fix the system.”
No one, Indian or foreigner, should be subjected to such treatment, and it is absurd that the government ignores such barbarity as long as it only happens to Indians. Perhaps the Indian government will use this occasion to crack down on the endemic corruption and brutality for which this country’s police are known throughout the world.
But I doubt it.
Joel Elliott is 30. He is an American journalist based out of New Delhi