The deaths of two men, Taslim Ansari and Gufran Alam, accused of theft and murder, in police custody, in Sitamarhi on March 7 raise disturbing questions about the Nitish Kumar government’s claims to sushasan (good governance). The men were held for stealing a motorcycle and allegedly tortured to death. The police had released the bodies to relatives, who discovered injury marks on their body. Five policemen, including the officer-in-charge of the concerned police station, have been suspended since. But the government must do more and ensure quick and exemplary punishment to the culprits. It needs to send out the message that it will not allow a culture of impunity to return and thrive in the state.
Beginning in the 1990s, the Bihar story has been about the oppressed and marginalised finding a voice. This was not merely about a transfer of power at the top from the upper castes to hitherto unrepresented communities, but also about instruments of state power, including police, becoming less hostile to the poor, the lower castes and the minorities. The social transformation under Lalu Prasad may have been skewed in favour of certain communities and was certainly chaotic, but it did force the state institutions to be less casteist and communal. Nitish Kumar won a mandate promising to build a stable state and offer good governance without reversing the social advancement achieved in the ‘90s. Yet, the Sitamarhi deaths are a throwback to a time in Bihar when the law and order machinery was seen as biased against certain groups — incidents such as the Bhagalpur blindings of 1980, wherein policemen blinded 31 undertrials by pouring acid in their eyes and numerous anti-Dalit atrocities across the state had created the perception of the state police as a force that served the interests of the dominant castes. The police thana continues to be a representative institution of state power in rural areas and mofussil towns and its conduct is a barometer of the justice and inclusiveness in state and society. Custodial deaths and torture are an indication of a slipping state. They puncture the chief minister’s claim to have turned around Bihar’s law enforcement culture and machinery.
Nitish Kumar has been shrewd in building political alliances to consolidate his hold on office. However, his rise in political stature has been on account of his claim to be a fair and competent administrator, who refuses to be dictated to by sectarian interests and communal prejudice. A fair and timely inquiry into the Sitamarhi incident and action against the perpetrators alone can help retrieve that reputation.