New Delhi: On the evening of March 23, two days before the nationwide lockdown was imposed, a Betul-based lawyer Deepak Bundele was beaten up brutally by some Madhya Pradesh police officials for pointing out the constitutional limits of police action. He was on his way to a government hospital to stock medicines for his chronic diabetes and hypertension, when one police official slapped him for not wearing a mask. When he cited the Indian constitution to stop the cop from beating him up, other police officials gathered to rough him up even more.
Subsequently, when Bundele decided to fight it out against the police highhandedness, colleagues of the accused police officials put him under pressure to withdraw the complaint. The incident garnered national attention when one police official, B.S. Patel, was heard saying in an audio clip that Bundele was beaten up because they suspected him to be a Muslim man.
Bundele, a former journalist who switched to the legal profession, sports a beard. Patel, in the audio clip, admitted that the accused police official, Kapil Saurashtriya, mistook him to be a Muslim because of the beard. Saurashtriya is a “staunch Hindu” and “tortured” any Muslim men who are in his custody, Patel proclaimed. While requesting Bundele to withdraw his case, the official admitted that the state police always favour Hindus during communal riots.
A month after Bundele’s plight caught attention, the Madhya Pradesh police has now registered a case against him. The complainant Mohit Kumar Dubey, a sub-inspector at the Betul Kotwali police station, has alleged that despite his repeated requests to Bundele to wear a mask and return home, the latter abused and manhandled police officials on March 23.
A curious FIR that alleges Bundele’s injuries are self-inflicted
Dubey has supported his FIR with statements of three witnesses who all happen to be members of the “Rashtriya Hindu Sena”. Pawan Malviya, Deepak Kose and Deepak Malviya, in their statements, said that they were present at the “Lalli Chowk” (where the incident happened) to help the police enforce the lockdown.
All three of them have said that on being asked to go home, Bundele threatened the police officials stationed there, saying that he has influence in the high court. According to them, the police officials spoke to Bundele very politely and tried to make him understand the enormity of the coronavirus pandemic, and that he should not be roaming outside. Yet, the Rashtriya Hindu Sena members said, Bundele lost his cool and created a scene, forced himself down and started beating himself up.
When a few officials attempted to pick him up from the ground, Bundele, according to the three men, allegedly said, “I will see to it that your uniform is gone, and I will file a false complaint against all of you with the superintendent of police.”
Their statements specifically mention that Kapil Saurashtriya, who Bundele had identified as leading the police officials there, did not beat him up at all. The statements of the three Rashtriya Hindu Sena members are identical and even the language used is the same.
The Betul police have charged Bundele for violating Section 144 (order prohibiting the assembly of four or more people) and under IPC sections 353 (assaulting a public servant to prevent him from performing his duty), 188 (disobeying a public order), and 294 (obscenely behaviour in a public space).
It can be noted here that in the recent Sathankulam custodial death case that has triggered outrage across the nation, the police had initially claimed that Jayaraj and Bennix had “rolled on the ground“, causing internal injuries to themselves.
Conflicting statements by the police
The First Information Report (FIR), Bundele told The Wire, was filed only on June 18, days after he petitioned the Madhya Pradesh high court in Jabalpur on June 8 to take action against the police officials who beat him up and address concerns of rising communal behaviour within the state police department.
“I got to know about the FIR against me only through the police’s response in the court. I had no idea about it. It is a clear act to intimidate and harass me. I want to ask the police how did I violate Section 144 if, as mentioned in the FIR, I was at the Lalli Chowk. I was on my own. Because of the restrictions on the movement of the public, I wanted to stock up my medicines,” he said.
“I have been trying to push the police to register an FIR against my assault for over three months. That has still not happened, but the police promptly filed a case against me,” he added.
Since the day Bundele’s assault by police officials was first reported by The Wire on May 20, the MP police has been attempting to pass the incident off as a one-off incident.
Speaking to The Wire, the district’s additional superintendent of police Shraddha Joshi had said that the incident was “unfortunate” but added that an FIR against the police officials had not been registered as the police department had been busy with enforcing the lockdown.
Joshi had also alleged that Bundele had “misbehaved” with the police officials on the day. Bundele had been demanding that the police should release the CCTV footage of the incident to clear the air, but Joshi said that the footage may not be available as it is usually stored for only 30 days. At the time The Wire spoke to her, she didn’t mention any Hindu Sena or any other person who may have witnessed the incident.
On being asked why the police didn’t register a case against Bundele if he had misbehaved, she had told The Wire that the concerned police officials had only mentioned the incident in the station diary. However, she had said that an inquiry committee will be formed to probe Bundele’s allegations.
The state’s DGP Vivek Johari had also tweeted on May 20 to say that the inquiry committee will be steered by the deputy inspector general, Hoshangabad, but there has been no information of the committee’s progress if at all it was constituted.
Betul incident is an aberration. Painting such one off incident on entire MP Police force is unacceptable.
— Home Department, MP (@mohdept) May 20, 2020
Immediately after the incident was reported, the State Human Rights Commission and the National Human Rights Commission raised the issue with the state government. A large section of civil society also protested against the communal behaviour of the Betul police officials. As a result, the state police suspended B.S. Patel, the assistant sub-inspector who was heard in the audio clip. However, the main accused, Kapil Saurashtriya, was only transferred to Mandsaur, which many in the state consider to be a plum posting.
Much of the police’s arguments against Bundele’s petition are based on the premise that the incident happened because officials were trying to enforce a lockdown.
Curiously, the written response of the police to the petition at the Jabalpur high court wrongly stated that the nationwide lockdown was imposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 20. The lockdown was, in fact, announced by the PM on March 24 at 8 pm. On March 19, PM Modi addressed the nation and asked citizens to observe a voluntary ‘janata curfew’ on March 22.
In other statements, the police have a different story to tell. In the FIR, ASI Dubey said that the incident happened at around 6 or 7 pm, which is one whole day before the prime minister announced the lockdown at 8 pm on March 24. Yet, Dubey says Bundele violated the lockdown.
Section 144 was imposed in Betul district on March 21, but because Bundele was on his own, he was not in violation of that order. There was also no rule mandating people to wear masks before the nationwide lockdown began on March 25.
The police have also argued in court that the petition is unwarranted as an investigation in the matter is underway. However, it did not tell the court about the status of the probe. The Justice Nandita Dubey bench of the high court, while hearing the petition on June 29, lashed out at the police’s lawyer Ajay Pratap Singh and asked him to present CCTV footage of the incident and all statements within a week.
Bundele’s allegation that the FIR against him was registered only to intimidate him gains strength on two other counts. One, the FIR against him was lodged on June 18, almost three months after the incident. The said date is conspicuous as the high court too had asked the police department to respond to the allegations made against it on June 18. Two, the witness statements of the Hindu Sena members show that they were recorded on May 20, the day when the incident was first reported in the media. Yet, the police took nearly a month to file the FIR.
The Wire tried to contact officials of the Betul police for clarification, but they could not be reached. The story will be updated if and when their response comes.
Bundele’s petition will next be heard on July 9. Bundele is now gearing up for a much longer fight than he had imagined. The lawyer, on learning about the FIR against him, has managed to get anticipatory bail in the case as of now.
“I feel insulted. They wouldn’t have done this to an influential and rich person. That is why I decided to speak up. But it seems that this struggle is going to be much longer, but I will not budge. My fight for justice will continue,” he said.