Leh Police faces allegation of brutality

During the nationwide lockdown, incidents of misconduct by police personnel have been reported from across the country. Videos have surfaced of police personnel beating people with sticks and publicly humiliating them to enforce lockdown measures. More recently, there have been protests around the world against police brutality after the death of American citizen George Floyd in the hands of a local policeman in Minneapolis, USA and subsequent heavy-handed responses to peace marches.

This trend of using disproportionate physical force by the police does not seem to have spared Ladakh either. District Police, Leh of Ladakh Police has come under public scrutiny after an audio message went viral on social media. In this audio message, a man accuses police officials of hitting and demeaning him while he was working as a volunteer with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), Leh, a non-profit organisation working for animal welfare, during the lockdown to contain COVID-19.

In the recording, the SPCA volunteer has alleged that the police beat him and also accused him of kidnapping a policeman. Subsequently, SPCA, Leh wrote to Divisional Commissioner of UT Ladakh, Saugat Biswas, IAS to investigate the alleged misconduct by members of District Police, Leh against an SPCA volunteer.

The incident is said to have taken place on 21 April around noon when the SPCA volunteer was allegedly stopped by a team lead by an Additional Superintendent of Police (ASP) ranked officer [name withheld on purpose as the investigation is still underway] at Leh’s Petrol Pump Chowk. The volunteer, who is a student, was on his way to feed stray animals in the Choglamsar area.

In the audio message, the volunteer explains in Ladakhi, “I was on my way to feed stray dogs when I reached the Petrol Pump. The ASP and his team were checking cars. One of the policemen was speaking rudely with the public. Our car was also stopped and we were asked where we were going. I told them that we were SPCA volunteers and were on our way to feed stray animals. We were also asked to show the vehicle pass issued by District Magistrate, Leh, which we did.” Several media-persons in Leh district, including me, tried to get in touch with the SPCA volunteer to get his inputs but he has so far refused to speak to us.

Such voluntary activity is included in essential goods and services. District Magistrate, Leh, Sachin Kumar Vaishya, IAS had issued order no. DCL/PS/COVID-19/OO/2020/41-58 on 24 March which states “…there shall be no restrictions upon the movement of essential goods and services.”

On 23 March, 2020, Animal Welfare Board of India had issued order no. 9-16/2019-20/PCA, which said: “I would like to draw your kind attention that feed and fodder for large animals and food for companion and stray animals is an essential service and may be kept operational during lockdowns. District Administration, if need be, allot specific time during the morning and evening hours for individuals/volunteers to provide food and water for street animals and birds.”

Deskit Angmo, a member of SPCA, Leh, took to social media to highlight this incident. “One of our volunteers was mentally harassed, physically tortured and belittled in public for this, even though he had a lockdown vehicle permit to feed strays along with the other vehicle-related documents. I guess this letter needs to be well circulated among the public to make them aware of laws and rights during this vulnerable period. It’s really sad that all the hard work and respect of the 99% police fraternity is overshadowed by the 1% who misuse power and misbehave with the public. If the public is at fault, I can understand if the police tries to discipline us. However, if the public is harassed without proper reason, it’s civil society has the right to protest and make their voices heard,” she wrote.

In the letter written to the Divisional Commissioner of UT Ladakh, SPCA, Leh alleged, ‘…unacceptable behaviour” by the ASP and his team’ towards their volunteer. “We came to know about the incident on 23 April when the volunteer did not turn up for the service for three consecutive days. Upon calling him about his absence, we were told about the incident. We are writing for your kind intervention on behalf of SPCA, Leh because he was working as our volunteer at the moment of the incident,” they have written in the letter.

They have further added, “The vehicle of the volunteer namely [name and other details have been withheld on purpose as the investigation is still underway]…was stopped by ASP and his team at the Petrol Pump area on that unfortunate day despite having proper valid vehicle pass issued by the District Administration two days back under the movement of a vehicle under necessary goods (NGO) with the permission to feed stray dogs around the Leh-Choglamsar area.

Upon intervention, the following details came up:

1. The number was temporarily painted on the vehicle for display as his number plate was broken which he was unable to fix due to unavailability of such services under lockdown. He even showed the broken number plate which was inside the vehicle.

2. He was carrying a valid driving licence.

3. The photocopy of the vehicle registration certificate (RC) was presented as the original was at home.

4. The vehicle had official new vehicle permit issued by the Administration on the 19 of April with permission for three persons to carry, drive and distribute food articles to the stray dogs.

5. The volunteer was using a face mask at the moment

6. He was accompanied by another student at that moment.”

The letter also states, “The student volunteer requested them to allow him to bring the original papers quickly from his home which is in proximity to the petrol pump spot.”

According to the volunteer, the police constable informed him that his car had been seized and asked another constable to accompany him to the Housing Colony Police Post. “Since I was getting late to feed the stray animals and wanted to get out of this situation soon, I drove to my home to get the original RC so that I could show it to them. While we were coming out of my house, I was surprised to see that the ASP along with his team had already reached there. They beat me up and took me to the police station where I was beaten with a belt by five-six policemen,” alleged the volunteer.

The members of SPCA, Leh led by Deskit Angmo added that the volunteer was accused of kidnapping a policeman. “The team of officials also accused him of kidnapping their staff. Since Ladakh is a close-knit society, such behaviour by the police on the streets near his house not only harmed him physically but also caused mental anguish and publicly belittled the social service being done by the volunteer along with his family’s social position. We, the civil society as well as the whole team of SPCA, feel that such misconduct by any police official towards any social service provider in any field is unacceptable and discouraging in nature. SPCA is giving its heart and soul into avoiding problems that those hungry stray dogs can cause if not addressed during the vulnerable period. Our workforce consists of volunteers and members who give time, money and vehicles free-of-cost, the current student is one such contributor. We are saddened and worried by this misconduct and misuse of power by some police officials whose conduct erases the good services and efforts of rest of the police fraternity,” members of SPCA, Leh wrote in their letter.  

Divisional Commissioner, Ladakh, Saugat Biswas responded by writing letter bearing No. DivComL/UTL/2020/3847 to Inspector General of Police (IGP) of UT Ladakh, Satish Khandare, IPS on 25 April. In his letter, he wrote, “The bearer of this letter (Ms Deskit Angmo) has come up with a complaint of misconduct by police against SPCA volunteers. The Divisional Commissioner has heard them and is of the view that your office may examine the matter urgently. In case there has been misconduct/misbehaviour or over action on the issue, such officer who has misbehaved must be reprimanded. I am directed to request you to look into the matter and hear out the bearer of this letter.”

I was unable to speak the ASP who led the team despite multiple attempts as he remained busy with tasks related to the lockdown. Then on 18 May, 2020 the UT Ladakh administration issued an order transferring him to UT of J&K. I checked with several officials to determine if the transfer was related to the incident involving the SPCA volunteer. However, most officials claimed that it was not related to any case. A police office spoke on the condition of anonymity and explained, “The transfer was long overdue and it had nothing to do with the incident.”

I then approached others in District Police, Leh for their account of the events of 21 April, which turned out to be significantly different from the one described by SPCA, Leh in its letter and by the volunteer in the recording. A police officer—who was not involved in the case and spoke to me on the condition of anonymity—explained, “On that day, the police stopped the car of the student and asked where he was going. The ASP was also present there. The student was asked to show the RC and other documents, but they were not with him at that time. Contrary to what the student and SPCA members are alleging, it was the student who misbehaved with the police team and talked rudely to them. He was trying to control the police even though he was clearly at fault. Peeved with his conduct, the ASP ordered his team to seize the car. A constable was asked to accompany him to the Housing Colony Police Post. Instead of going to the Police Station, he went straight to his home. He had disobeyed the order of the police.”

Meanwhile, taking note of the letter from the Divisional Commissioner of UT Ladakh, IGP, Satish Khandare tweeted on 27 April, “Apropos to the posts on social media by a prominent artist of Ladakh and the voice message of a volunteer of SPCA, it is to reiterate that both the matters are in notice of the higher ups of the Department. Senior level officers are enquiring into the matter separately.”

In this regard, Commandant of Indian Reserve Police, 25th Battalion, Stanzin Nurboo, was appointed to lead a departmental enquiry into this incident. He has already called the volunteer and police personnel for questioning. SPCA member Deskit Angmo said, “We were called by Ka Stanzin Nurboo to the Housing Colony Police Post in May. The policemen who were present when the volunteer was beaten were also asked to come there. The ASP’s team comprising of a driver and guards apologised for beating the volunteer. However, they said that they had left after dropping the volunteer at the Housing Colony Police Post and do not know what happened at the Police Post after their departure. Others at the Police Post said that it was the ASP and his team who beat the volunteer. Even though the policemen were wearing masks at the time, the volunteer was able to identify one of the people who had beaten him at the Police Post. It was clear that they were trying to escape responsibility. Ka Stanzin Nurboo assured us that he would investigate the matter and inform us of its progress.” 

I also spoke with Stanzin Nurboo, who is heading the departmental enquiry, about this case. He confirmed that he had spoken with the representatives of SPCA, Leh, the volunteer and the policemen accused of beating him, including a face-to-face meeting between them. “One of the things that has emerged from the inquiry is that the SPCA volunteer had violated police orders as he did not take his car to the Housing Colony Police Post as directed by the ASP. In addition, the police have also accused him of kidnapping a policeman. On the other hand, the volunteer is alleging that he was beaten by a few policemen, which the police are denying. Therefore, I asked the volunteer to provide proof that he was beaten up by the police. The volunteer alleged that a fellow volunteer was also present in the car when the incident took place. We are going to cross-examine the statement of that person too. We cannot initiate action on the basis of an allegation alone. We have to probe deeper and find out the facts of the case. Only after I have had a look at these issues will I be able to present a report to the IGP. Unfortunately, everyone is currently busy tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.”

By Tashi Lundup

Tashi Lundup is part of the editorial team at Stawa

Image source: Wikipedia