Good the Italians are in a guest house, not a lock-up

Latorre Massimiliano and Salvatore Girone, the two Italian Marines who shot and killed two Indian fishermen will not carry home, when they do return, the horrendous stories of Indian police lock-ups and prisons. The conditions there and the treatment given to detainees, to us, here are stark in contrast.

They are being held in the CRPF guest house in Kollam on the patio of which they can lounge on chairs, as pictures in the media have shown. Chances are, if they are not well-informed about India and its ways, they will misunderstand that Indian lock-ups are holiday retreats, the only fly in the ointment being the khaki-clad policemen loitering around.

This could well be some good, unwitting but undeserving, PR for the country. The decision to house them in a guest house has helped hide more than reveal. Had they been detained in a normal Indian police lock-up, they, or on their behalf, the Italian diplomatic mission, would have raised Cain and brought inspectors from international human rights groups and organisations to Kollam.

Of course, the Kerala Police deserve to be commended for this act of discretion but perhaps exposing them to the usual Indian police methods and the outcry against it would have helped reform the system which treats Indian who have fallen foul of the law as dirt.

A cop stand guard near Italian marines Salvatore Girone and Massimiliano Latorre (R), involved in the recent killing of two Indian fishermen, at a CRPF guest house in Kochi on Monday. PTI

However, this lauding of the Kerala Police may be premature.

Should the Indian courts find the two marines guilty of shooting from their oil tanker, Enrica Lexie, and killing two fishermen mistaking them, as they say, to be pirates, where would they be housed to carry this pretence of prisoners being treated well? That question has to remain up in the air. Maybe the Italian establishment is not so much worked up about the crime but the way in which punishment would be meted out -- far more than what the law says because lock-ups and prisons actually add more to the sentence.

Such discretion as has been displayed in Kollam has not always been the strength of the Indian police. In 2004, Seeraj Desai, a senior South African judge who was about to be elevated to that country’s apex court was held in the lock-up of the Colaba Police Station after an accusation of rape by an activist woman, also from his country.

And the Colaba Police Station is no hospitality centre. Ask Gregory David Roberts, whose Shantaram describes the conditions there as well as what happens in the Arthur Road jail. His narration of his personal experience is explicit and shows up how inmates, whether legally arrested or just detained for the third degree, are treated: not as human beings at least.

Here are some curdling descriptions from Shantaram. The cells he had thought may have held about 40 persons actually turned out to be choked with 240, the place being "a hive, a termite's nest, a writhing mass of human being, pressing against one another with every movement of arm or leg. The toilet was ankle-deep in shit. The urinal overflowed. A stinking swamp oozed out into the far end of the corridor".

Justice Desai, who returned to his native country within a few days after the South African diplomats got active, did not utter a word about the conditions in Colaba. I recall asking much later an official from the same police station about it and he debunked Gregory but refused to show me around the lock-ups.

If they are transferred to the usual police lock ups and prisons, who knows what the two Italian marines would do when they get back home? Of course, Indian ways with those taken in for crime—most of the time unofficially, with nothing recorded—is known worldwide and the duo now in detention in Kollam could come out and certify that what was reported was actually the truth. They can say: "Been there, done that. Listen to our personal experiences."

Two things could happen: India hides its face in shame and then does nothing about it, or get cracking with reforms which touch not just the facilities but also the attitude of the policemen. I hope the two Italians, if they experience the worst, go and squeal. It would take the smirk off the official establishment when they patronisingly utter "law will take its own course". Law, it so happens, has not dealt with these dismal and deplorable conditions which Gregory provided.

Gregory's depiction has another vital element. There is—this is true of all Indian detention centres, police lock-ups or jails—has an economic classification. Those who can pay for the comforts get some. Instead of overcrowded cells, some 15 are allowed to remain in cells which are "only three meters square", perhaps worse than the Mumbai slums in which the Australian writer lived.

Those who have had the misfortune to be detained have spoken of how the moment a person is pushed into a lock-up or enters a prison, either as an undertrial or for formally being punished after a court order are assessed for their worth. Those with cash at the point of entry get treated marginally well and visitors are encouraged so more can come forth for being snatched by the officers. A poor man is no one’s favourite; he even gets framed.

Had only the big-ticket detainees like Harshad Mehtas and Bharat Shahs had squealed in the courts where they had to appear, perhaps there could have been some waking up for they all suffered punishment even before being charged with crime, leave alone found guilty. Perhaps, that is why they develop blood pressure and take refuge in hospitals? They never spoke up then or later and the media never asked.

Let us stick to the police lock-ups. A person can get lost if the police decide so, for when taken in for indefinite periods for questioning, there is no record to show they were actually hauled off to the cooler. Bare floors, winter or otherwise, is the bed. Meal is some rice and thin water-lentils, served once a day and morning sees a slice of bread and tea. The conditions are dire in every aspect of the lock-up.

It appears that even for the corrupt police system, it is a Catch-22 situation. Since the detainees are not on record as having been held, how can their food be paid for? How can there even be a budget for it? And why should the police officer fork out the cash from his pocket even if it is ill-begotten? So they make-do with the minimum and malice, after all, is one element of the police system.

There are Supreme Court rulings which require that no detention, leave alone formal arrests, is to be made unless there is a reasonable conclusion that the person had committed a crime. Even the arrest has to be justified. They don’t even inform someone known to the detainee of the detention which falls foul of the law.

The two Italians taken off the Enrica Lexie are lucky. At least for now.

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