Through a cruel quirk of fate, Calcutta policeman Bapi Sen, brutally killed by six of his colleagues in khaki for preventing a rape, has become a posthumous role-model for the West Bengal police force. Sen's sacrifice, beyond the call of duty, made the police sergeant a public hero overnight. It also brought into focus the indiscipline and excesses that plague the state police force whereby junior officers heckle with their seniors and blatantly defy orders. This defiance extends even to constables since they are confident they will not be acted against, thanks to powerful Left-backed police unions.
But Bapi Sen's brutal killing has embarrassed even the police. The young sergeant had stopped six drunk Reserve Force policemen, in central Calcutta, from abducting a woman around midnight on New Year's eve. The cops were cruising around in a taxi looking for "fun". Challenged by Bapi, they turned on him and hit him with an iron rod. This, despite the sergeant revealing his identity to his attackers. Even after he collapsed, the drunk policemen kicked him with their boots. Bapi remained in coma for five days. He died on January 6.
The shocking circumstances of Bapi's death led to a spontaneous upsurge of popular grief. For days, people prayed for Bapi, rang newspaper offices and his home enquiring after him. They stood vigil outside the ICU of the Calcutta Hospital where he lay fighting for his life. Large crowds attended the funeral procession. There was a 36-car cavalcade to his residence. Almost to a man, everyone was horrified by the bruises on Bapi's swollen face, welts on his throat and his partly smashed head. "Lynch his killers!" was the constant refrain outside his modest home in Parnasree.
Though the West Bengal police is no longer reputed for its honesty, integrity or efficiency, Bapi's killing released a tidal wave of revulsion against the force and the state administration. The guilty men were arrested but not before some of their colleagues made a vain attempt to cover up the crime. Records were manipulated to show that the guilty cops were "present" at their Sulekha barracks at the time of the crime. But with public pressure mounting, the arrests had to happen. Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, repeatedly embarrassed by the police force, assured severe punishment for the offenders. He announced a job for Bapi's wife and state help for the education of his two sons. Bapi's father, former policeman Narayan Sen (75), was dumb-struck by the tragedy. So were his mother and wife Soma.
Embarrassed as they are over the charge of politicising the force, regarded till the '60s as second only to Scotland Yard, the Left Front leaders could not escape blame for the decline of the force. Recalls former IG Ranjit Gupta, "I had sought to derecognise the police unions, but they won the legal battle." Other retired forces say that the growth of the unions and the politicising of the force has led to a situation where a revolt in the force cannot be ruled out.
In fact, Jyoti Basu downwards, senior Left leaders had been aware of the growing union-backed indiscipline, inefficiency and corruption. But no one dared to stem the rot. When Basu became chief minister in 1977, the first meeting he had at the police headquarters saw constables demonstrating against their superiors. But no action was taken because the unions stepped in.
The unions also ensured that no action was taken against a group of policemen who assaulted a visiting dig and prevented him from carrying out an audit in Calcutta. There are complaints that the nexus between the police and Left politicians who run the unions is such that firs against criminals who have communist backing are not accepted in violence-prone districts like Midnapore and Siliguri
Does all this mean that there is no hope for West Bengal? Not as long as there are men like Bapi who die fighting injustice. As Amiya Samanta, former state intelligence chief, puts it, "There are any number of ill-trained black sheep who turn our barracks into vice dens. But there are also officers like Bapi, a shining example to the community. There will always be good men, regardless of the bad apples." The West Bengal police force could do with a larger crop of such good men.