Credibility chasm widens

Comment by BARADAN KUPPUSAMY (The Star)

Apart from addressing policies that marginalise the poor sections of the Indian community, the Government should also set up an independent body to investigate abuse by the rank and file in the police force.

THE death in police custody of suspected car thief A. Kugan is only the latest in a series of cases that serves to highlight the deep distrust that exists between the rank and file of the force and the Indian working class.

It comes in the wake of another case last week where six police personnel were charged with causing grievous hurt on a suspect, using boiling water.

Although a minority, the Malaysian-Indian poor are blamed, rightly or wrongly, for most of the violent crimes in the country. Study after study has shown a direct correlation between crime and poverty, marginalisation and alienation and it is no surprise if Indian involvement in crime is higher compared to other communities.

Consequently, the percentage of Indians in prison, police lock-ups and in police statistics are higher than others when compared to their population size of below 8%.

In some depressed regions of the country like Padang Serai in Kedah, Klang and Kapar in Selangor and Muar in Johor, where Indians predominate, the situation resembles a war zone with higher violence and disrespect for the law. Rape, murder, gang fights and contract killings are commonplace and people just have to live with it.

The death in custody of 22-year-old Kugan is symptomatic of the spiral of violence that has gripped some sections of our society.

The fact that Kugan’s family and others stormed into the Serdang Hospital mortuary to inspect his body also shows that the credibility disconnect is not just between them and the police force but other government agencies as well.

Poor Indians feel that they are unfairly blamed for every theft or robbery in their neighbourhood, not just by society but also by law enforcement agencies.

That’s why people like Hindraf lawyer Uthayakumar Ponnusamy and MP for Kapar S. Manikavasagam, who cast themselves as “defenders of the poor”, enjoy wide respect and command a following among the Indian poor. They are even regarded as heroes.

It is unfortunate that in storming the mortuary and moving the body and photographing it they may have contaminated the evidence and compromised their demands for justice .

Credibility has been a key issue in police-people relations ever since the Francis Udayappan case in 2004 and a later inquest that ruled he had died by drowning in the river behind the Brickfields police station.

Credibility is the reason why the crowd stormed the mortuary to see Kugan’s body for themselves and do what they did – cry, hug and take photographs.

The graphic photographs they took are now circulating on the Internet and being delivered to the inbox of hundreds of thousands of people.

Together it all makes for another explosive political disaster for the Government, the latest in a long list that had alienated the poorer sections of the Indian community.

This time, even the MIC leaders joined with opposition MPs and family members to demonstrate outside the mortuary on Wednesday. They know why they lost in the March 8 general election – by keeping quiet and defending the indefensible.

“We must set up a committee to monitor the welfare of all Indians currently in custody and also those in the future to avoid this sort of abuse and murder,” said Vel Paari, MIC Youth wing adviser in an e-mail message to numerous Indian groups connected on Yahoo!.

Since credibility is a key issue there is an urgent need for an independent investigation into Kugan’s death but that’s something most people, including the 2006 Royal Commission on the Police Force, believe the police themselves cannot undertake.

That’s why the commission strongly recommended an overseeing body to investigate abuse, curb violations and return credibility and respectability to the police force.

Even if such an independent commission is set up, it would still take years of intelligent and careful management to narrow the wide disconnect between the police rank and file and the Indian poor.

But it would be a start.