Suparna Sharma 

GUWAHATI, Jan 12, 1998: What is it like to have a rifle butt rammed into your stomach? To be kicked and punched? To be detained late at night for no fault of yours? And then to be told, “Forget it all?” Last midnight, I understood. Last midnight, the Assam police helped me understand.

As a reporter who has covered crime and prison conditions in New Delhi, I have met several victims of police brutality. I have taken down their stories, listened to them with what I think is a sympathetic ear. But all of that faded away when I watched my husband being beaten up, while I was slapped and assaulted by a senior police officer.

Around midnight of January 11, my husband – Avirook Sen of India Today – and I left the house of a friend, The Statesman correspondent Dipankar Roy.

After a five-minute walk, we saw an autorickshaw and asked the driver if he could take us home, near the ABC crossing, a ten-minute drive.

He said yes, we got in and just as he was about to start the engine, a police patrol Gypsy (AS 01C-9508) pulled up in front.

Two policemen got off, charged to either side of our vehicle. Avirook was dragged out by the collar and asked what he was doing there, who he was and where was he going. Checking of vehicles late in the night is routine in Assam. Especially yesterday, since an attempt had been made on the life of an Inspector General of Police in the same neighbourhood. But usually, searches don’t begin by grabbing the collar.

We hurriedly tried to fish out our Press identification cards but it was too late. They began beating up my husband, they said he was drunk.

I screamed at them to stop and got out of the three-wheeler. As I tried to get to Avirook, a deputy superintendent of police, H. Bhattacharjee, stopped me with a slap. When I asked him what they were beating us for, he hit me again and started kicking. Avirook was punched, kicked and hit with the butt of a carbine. He began bleeding through the nose, doubled up on the ground. I was crying, screaming at them to stop. But nothing seemed to matter.

I was kicked in the inner thigh and the back of my knee. Slapped on the face and hit in the chest. All this after they had seen Avirook’s press card and heard us shout, over and over again, that we were journalists.

They then bundled us into their Gypsy and took us to the Chandmari police station in the heart of Guwahati city. We asked if we could use the telephone. We were told categorically that we could not make a single telephone call before medical check-up was done.

Police constables took us to the MMC hospital in Panbazar after the DSP had dictated a note to them that we had been picked up because we had assaulted policemen and were intoxicated. This note was handed to Dr HK Bhattacharjee at the hospital. The doctor, without analysing his breath, looked at Avirook, looked at the policemen and noted in his register: “alcohol consumed, but under control; nosebleed (+) (sic).” He did not have anything to write about me. And I couldn’t tell him where I hurt since I was numb. Despite Avirook’s bleeding nose, we were sent off with the policemen without any first-aid. Here, too, our repeated requests to make a telephone call were turned down.

The car drove past the Central Telegraph Office despite our pleas to stop: we could have made a call from there. Instead, it stopped a little ahead so that one of the policemen could relieve himself. For me, this summed up the night.

We were back at the Chandmari police station around 1 a.m. The DSP had left. The doctor had given his verdict on the alleged “drunkenness”; the policemen had found only pens and notebooks on us and had examined and re-examined our identification cards. Confined as we were, surrounded by hostile policemen, we knew we had entered a world which thousands in Assam have been used to. Some of them, unlike us, may not have returned.

Till the time we could make that telephone call, we were going to be there. But that wouldn’t be until the DSP returned to the police station.

He drove in at around 2.15 am and told us “to forget what had happened.” He said he was under pressure following the attempt on the life of an IGP in his jurisdiction. And that these things happen sometimes. He finally allowed us to make our call at 2.30 am.

We called a few friends — senior officials in the administration and Samudragupta Kashyap, my colleague at The Indian Express. Minutes after that, the police station’s phone started ringing — N Ramachandran (Inspector General of Police, Special Branch) and a few others called to ask what had happened. The DSP, who was answering the phone calls, told them we were alcoholics creating a nuisance and that we had attacked them and tried to grab their carbines. The official version, as is often the case, didn’t match the victims’.

The IG then asked for us and we narrated the nightmare. About 15 minutes later, transport was arranged and we reached home at 3.30 am. Everything was hazy and numb. Now with bruises and scars appearing and the threat of “ura doonga” (I’ll finish you) ringing in my ears, the sequence is clear. The entire incident was totally unprovoked: Someone had attempted to kill an IGP and the police was under pressure. We just happened to be there when they were driving around the area looking for assailants. Bad luck? Quite the opposite. As journalists we have phone numbers that respond. We have a forum to narrate what happened to us. But there are millions who don’t.

Post script: A complaint has been sent to Chief Minister Prafulla Mahanta and the Chief Secretary. A magisterial inquiry has been ordered.

Copyright © 1998 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.