Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Sohrabbudin’s encounter

It was surreal. I was 11 years old, in the middle of a seemingly normal Deepavali setting—people laughing and playing around me—but I couldn’t hear anything. The atom bomb that I had so bravely held in my hand, to light and throw away at the right moment—removing the paper from the wick to be doubly careful—had flared too quickly and burst six inches from my face. Instantly, I lost all hearing and orientation. The predictable normality of everyday life was transformed into a ghost-like tableau for several seconds.

I get the same feeling as I read about Sohrabuddin’s fake encounter in Gujarat, of suddenly opening a trap-door and tripping into something kafkaesque. There is a normal world that most of us inhabit—of families and weekends and office politics—and then there are the strange and unrecognizable deep waters, which sometimes surface unexpectedly. The experience is so intensely discomforting that we don’t know how to cope with it. We want to convince ourselves that this parallel world doesn’t impact our lives. The truth is that our canoes can be capsized by just one swelling of these squalls.

Over a decade of working with government, I have come to understand corruption and collusion, politics and power, and how to deal with this as part of the process of change. But every once in a while, I encounter a situation so twisted and bizarre that I wonder at the people involved and the choices they make. This is how I feel when I read about Vanzara and Sohrabuddin.

The incident has so many dimensions to it. It is not a black-and-white good victim versus bad cop story—after all, Sohrabuddin was a wanted criminal and extortionist. There is Vanzara himself, a complex character with a peculiar police record. Dinesh Kumar, a young upcoming IPS officer from Rajasthan, who had his career ahead of him. Javed Saiyad, the Bengali informer who desperately sought a normal life. And Sabarmati jail, where the officers are to be transferred—ironically, the namesake of Gandhi’s ashram is the most notorious jail in Gujarat. It is apparently filled with inmates biding their time to get even with Vanzara, for past injustices.

I am overwhelmed by this story. I wonder if this is how it always will be—deep, troubling undercurrents that lie beneath our sanitized surfaces.

And then I read of those who are struggling to create order in this chaos. Rubabuddin, the brother who filed the petition before the Supreme Court—how did he gather the courage, knowing his brother’s profile and the forces he was taking on? Geetha Johri and Solanki, the officers who undertook the investigation. Dayal, the autorickshaw driver-cum-journalist, who first broke the story in a local Gujarati newspaper in late 2006, an irascible character who has switched jobs 14 times in a 19-year career.

Most amazingly, far removed from the immediacy of what is transpiring, there is Prakash Singh, retired director general, Border Security Forces. He can take credit for the Supreme Court ruling in September 2006 that will bring about sweeping police reforms in India. About 10 years ago, he filed a PIL to implement the report of the National Police Commission set up in 1977. His objective was, he says, “to free the police from the stranglehold of politicians and making it accountable to the laws of the land and the Constitution of the country".

The extraordinary but little-known Supreme Court ruling will definitely achieve this. It will fundamentally alter the functioning of the police force for the first time since 1861. It requires the establishment of three institutions at the state level: a State Security Commission, for policies and directives; a Police Establishment Board, to decide all transfers, postings and promotions; and a Police Complaints Authority, to inquire into allegations of police misconduct.

The clock on this police reform is ticking. States were required to adhere to the Supreme Court’s directive by January 2007; this has been extended to 31 March 2007. In the coming months, we will see an independent police force for the first time in this country. With it, less opportunity for police misconduct. Lower probability of another Sohrabuddin fake encounter. Fewer moral cul-de-sacs for people to get trapped in.

This outcome was set in motion 30 years ago. Around the same time, my ears were set ringing with the sound of a blast. I came out of that strange trance quite quickly. In the same way, I feel myself getting yanked out of my distress by these stories. Of those who are working to calm the inky deep waters that lie beneath our safe lives, and their courage in accepting the vast timescale for the results to show.

Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at mobiusstrip@livemint.com

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