NEW DELHI — The home of Americans in one of the Indian capital's better neighborhoods had been burglarized. Breaking a glass outer door and cutting through a screen, the thieves had entered the ground-floor apartment on a bright Sunday afternoon when the occupants were out of town.
They ignored heirlooms, even jewelry, a pair of expensive binoculars and collected art works. They stole stereos and assorted tape recorders, wristwatches and radios, items good for a quick sale in the local markets.
The total loss was estimated at about 25,000 rupees (about $2,000). But when the list of stolen items and the estimate were presented to Rameshwar Das Vashisht, a police sub-inspector at the Nanakapura station, he shook his head.
Lowers the Figure
"This number will have to be changed," said Vashisht, a tall man with a warm smile and large, powerful hands. "It is too much. Anything more than 5,000 rupees and it will be reported to Parliament and every day they will be coming and saying what has happened about this case."
He crossed out the bigger number and penciled in "5,000 rupees."
"Don't worry," he said, he and his officers were hard at work solving the crime. He had visited the home only hours after the burglary. He showed a sketch he had made of the floor plan. He said he talked with the cook and the sweeper (house cleaner). He showed his notes, written in a flowing Urdu script.
He said he was convinced that the burglary had been an inside job. One of the servants in the home, he was certain, had committed the crime and now it was a simple matter of bringing them to the station for "interrogation" to close the case.
Makes Beating Gesture
To make his meaning clear, he made a gesture with his large hands indicating that he would beat them repeatedly on the sides of their heads until they talked.
"Will you take some tea?" he asked, not forgetting his manners and the traditional Asian hospitality.
Thus, the Americans were presented with one of the common but terrible dilemmas of foreigners living in India or in many other Third World countries. They were victims of a crime and had duly reported it to the proper authorities. However, the methods that the police would use to solve the crime were cruel and unfair, beyond the limits of any acceptable police procedure in America. To go along with the police plan would be a crime more serious than the one of which they were the victims.
In fact, because they were foreigners and considered privileged guests in India, the beating of suspects was likely to be even more severe out of deference to their perceived rank. As a result, even relatives of the household servants would probably be "interrogated." The sub-inspector said he had already beaten up one man in his pursuit of the case, a road worker who was temporarily living in a tent across the street from the burglarized home.
"Do not worry, sir," he had said on the day the burglary was discovered, using that odd, anachronistic police talk still common here. "We will apprehend the culprits."
In India, a democracy with a model constitution, the civil rights of suspects are technically protected under the law. A confession obtained by police officers is not even admissible in a court of law.
But because of delays in criminal trials of up to 10 years, the local police concentrate their efforts on recovering stolen property, not on obtaining a conviction or observing constitutional rules. So the police station beating is standard practice.
The civil rights laws that would protect a prominent citizen from such abuse seldom trickle down to the lower levels of society.
"It's a peculiar thing," said K. F. Rustamji, 71, a retired Indian inspector general of police who once served as security adviser to the late Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. "No policeman anywhere would touch a man who has any prominence or any access to the law. He only touches the defenseless."
Pressure for Beatings
Often, said Rustamji, who served on a 1977 national police commission for police reform, officers are pressured to beat servants by the victims themselves, even by prominent government officials and foreign diplomats.
He mentioned a recent case in which burglars had stolen jewelry from the home of a high court judge. The judge suspected that one of his servants had committed the crime. But when police were unable to come up with any evidence against the man, the judge telephoned a senior police official to complain.
"You haven't even slapped the fellow once," he said, according to the police official, who passed the story on to Rustamji.
With such high-level encouragement, it is no wonder that, as newspaper columnist Swaminathan S. Aiyer wrote in the Indian Express, "The standard police technique in dealing with a suspect is to beat him up in the hope he will confess."