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Meghalaya police credibility at stake

 

MEGHALAYA is one of the North-east's relatively peaceful states. It was hit for nearly a decade by militancy but has now reached "manageable" limits. This was achieved by a combined effort of political will, a strong citizens' voice against militancy and a responsive, dedicated police force at the time. That was 2001. Since then, the force has received a severe battering on account of its own acts of omission and commission. In 2007, a housemaid in the residence of the then Director-General of Police, Meghalaya, was brutally murdered, her throat having been slit. Instead of following the due processes of law, such as an inquest, an autopsy and allowing his men and officers to come to their own conclusions about whether death was caused by murder or suicide, the DGP allegedly told the SP of the district and the city SP that it was a case of suicide. That was the story communicated to the outside world through the media. Meanwhile, all traces of blood and other possible evidence were promptly hosed off by the police fire tenders.

 

Public pressure at the time made the Congress-led government remove the DGP from his post so that a free and fair enquiry into the crime could be conducted. Again, because of public pressure, the case was handed over to the CBI. Interestingly, the two SPs in their deposition before the court admitted that the cause of death was murder, and not suicide as they had earlier blurted out, obviously under pressure from their boss. This is where police credibility receives a battering. Even the untrained eye of scribes who were curious to establish the nature of the maid's death could see that she would have been unable to slit her own throat because of the position in which she was found.

 

What created a public uproar was the fact that the murder happened in the residence of a top cop. Public contention was that if someone could enter a heavily guarded residence, commit a crime and get away with it without leaving a trace of suspicion, then how safe was the ordinary citizen? A legitimate question, indeed, but one that evaded answers! After a quick post mortem and even before the results could be obtained, the maid was quickly interred as per customary practices. Only when the CBI came into the picture was her body exhumed for further examination, after which it was established beyond any reasonable doubt that she had been murdered.

 

For the tribal Khasi society, a burial entails certain rituals. It is uncommon for a body duly buried to be exhumed. That would mean reliving the painful wounds of those who had lost a loved one. Nevertheless, the maid's relatives allowed the exhumation because they were as keen to get to the truth.

 

After two years of investigative work under severe constraints, the CBI recently submitted their report. It indicts the then DGP on Sections 201 and 203 of the Indian Penal Code. Under Section 201, the DGP is indicted on two counts: the first for destruction of evidence which entails 10 years' rigorous imprisonment; and, again, he is accused of misleading the police investigation team by pronouncing that death was due to suicide when it was clearly a murder. Under Section 203, he was indicted for preventing the police photographer from taking pictures at the scene of the crime. This is the normal duty of a police photographer in any crime scene. So much for good policing, which also means not losing one's nerve even when under tremendous pressure. The DGP in question had an impeccable record until then.

 

A second incident, on 31 May this year, which took the police by storm was the Shillong jailbreak and its aftermath. In March this year, Meghalaya came under President's Rule on account of Governor RS Mooshahary's interpretation of the political condition at the time as being "unstable". The Governor drew a lot of flak on this account. By 16 May, when the Lok Sabha results were declared, the Congress won the Shillong Lok Sabha seat. An upbeat Congress was able to win over the support of a sizeable chunk of MLAs from the Meghalaya Progressive Alliance, which included the speaker who was until then hell bent on preventing the Congress from assuming power.

 

But when it became evident that the MPA, a non-Congress coalition, was reduced to a minority, Mooshahary invited the Congress-led Meghalaya United Alliance coalition to form the government and to prove its majority on the floor of the house. Without wasting even a single day, chief minister DD Lapang appointed his hand-picked man as DGP in place of the existing one who was a year senior. This unprecedented move raised the political temperature even as people questioned the need for this quick change of guard in the police department. Then less than a fortnight after the new DGP took over, the sensational jailbreak happened. What was curious is that the new DGP was, until two weeks ago, Additional DGP in charge of prisons.

 

The escapees were dreaded criminal Fullmoon Dhar, a hired killer from the coal belts of the Jaintia Hills, who was arrested for killing two women in Shillong suburb by slitting their throats, and seven of his accomplices. Two days later, Fullmoon was killed in a "police encounter" which witnesses claim was cold blooded murder since the escapee was unarmed.

 

Meanwhile, a young woman close to Fullmoon Dhar was arrested for her alleged links with the deceased. She stated before a court of law that she was given large sums of money by a certain Congress politician from the Jaintia Hills, Thomas Nongtdu. The money was allegedly given to Fullmoon to organise the jailbreak and for him to procure arms. The jailbirds who escaped and were rearrested said Fullmoon had almost Rs 15-20 lakh with him when he was in custody. He bribed several jail staff who were, of course, subsequently suspended. Preliminary investigations into the jailbreak have revealed a total lack of vigilance, slackness in supervision and a lackadaisical attitude of the jail supervisory staff. Many of them had spent too long a time in the Shillong Jail and become part of its fixtures. The failure of technology such as the CCTV and telephones was, of course, part of this degenerative process.

 

Meanwhile, fearing another public outrage, the MUA government arrested the Congress bigwig. That was fine, but the DGP being a Congress party loyalist was perhaps told to ensure that nothing incriminating came out of the investigation. Bypassing the chain of command, the DGP instructed the district SP and the deputy SP to speed up the investigation. Earlier, the police had sought 14 days' judicial custody of the accused. But it turned out that everyone down to the investigation officer was under pressure from the top to ensure that the probe hid more than it revealed. The chief judicial magistrate, after taking a cursory glance at the formal report prepared by the police investigating officer, ordered the Congress politician's unconditional release. This was the last straw for a vigilant civil society that Meghalaya is rightly proud of.

 

Over a dozen organisations under the banner of the Steering Committee Against the Murder of Democracy took to the streets on 13 June demanding that that the Congress politician be rearrested, that the DGP who had obviously doctored the investigation be dropped. Scamrod even wrote to the Union home minister and the Prime Minister apprising them of this blatant miscarriage of justice.

 

Lapang, who is also the state home minister, said he was open to reinvestigating the Nongtdu case but added that he would not be able to drop his DGP until after an administrative enquiry was conducted to know the facts. The Scamrod also asked for a judicial enquiry by a sitting judge into the jailbreak incident and the chain of events connected to it, including the police encounter where Fullmoon was gunned down. It felt that this alone would ensure that the criminal-politician-police nexus in Meghalaya would be unearthed. Lapang agreed to a deadline of one month for the administrative enquiry and also promised a judicial enquiry.

 

On 13 July, the Administrative Enquiry Report found the DGP guilty of influencing the enquiry into the alleged involvement of Thomas Nongtdu in the jailbreak incident and thereby obstructing the normal investigation work. Scamrod was only waiting for this. Besides, Lapang had assured that if the DGP was found to be complicit in the Nongtdu case, he would be dropped. On 20 July, Scamrod wrote to the chief minister giving him a three-day deadline to remove the DGP. Meanwhile, the North-east DGPs' conference slated for 24-25 July at Shillong, which was also to be attended by the Central Intelligence officials, was unceremoniously called off on account of the current controversy.

 

The inherent dangers in politicising the DGP's post and the police department as a whole is precisely the reason why former DGP Prakash Singh moved the apex court and sought radical reforms in the police force. Unfortunately this has become a non-starter in many states, including Meghalaya. Meanwhile, the Meghalaya police is today a demoralised force, split down the middle between those loyal to the tainted DGP and others who believe in enforcing the rule of law by the book.

Meghalaya is a corridor and a happy hunting ground for many of the militant groups of the North-east. A demoralised force would be unable to deal even with normal law and order, leave alone the abnormal circumstances created by rebels of all shades. If the Union home minister is interested in tackling insurgency with an iron fist, he would do well to give Lapang a proper dressing down for his hasty decision to remove a four-month-old DGP and put his own man in charge.

 

The author is editor, The Shillong Times

 

Source: thestatesman.net