I’ve been working on a colorful post about Holi, but that will have to wait a few days. Something else has been on my mind recently, another unpleasant visit to what’s becoming my least favorite place in the universe—the Rajasthan High Court. On the bright side, the saga of my stolen camera might finally be over (if you missed the previous installments in this saga, see Requiem for a Camera and Scouring the Drains of India).
I absolutely did not want to go to the High Court. I expressed those sentiments in my last blog post on the subject, and then I expressed them again when a police officer arrived at my workplace a few days ago. However, the officer met with my supervisor and roped my organization into the whole mess. It was an unfair abuse of power, putting me in a very uncomfortable position. Closing the file became a professional matter, not just a personal one. I had no choice but to comply.
A couple colleagues went with me to the High Court, and we found the appropriate office. I was supposed to meet the magistrate, but the people inside didn’t look like they held much authority. After some interactions in Hindi, I was told to wait. I’m not exactly sure what happened next—it all went down while I was waiting outside—but about fifteen minutes later, I learned that an advocate was coming to argue my case. What case? I just wanted the police to end the investigation so that they would leave me the hell alone. Why did I need to hire a lawyer? It seemed like I was on trial, for nothing more than filing a police report.
I started shouting about corruption, and people stared at me. Well, I thought, let them stare. They should know that to an outsider, this whole system seems ridiculous.
When the advocate arrived, he claimed that I needed his help because I didn’t have enough experience at the High Court. He didn’t realize that I had experienced far more at that place than any rational human being should ever be made to endure. The advocate also claimed that he needed to confirm that I was the right Ben Soltoff, not an impostor. Had he looked at me? I was clearly the only Ben Soltoff who had ever dealt with a case at the Rajasthan High Court or who would ever deal with a case there in the entire course of human history.
Then the advocate produced a form in Hindi that presumably granted him power of attorney, and I wholeheartedly refused to sign. I didn’t understand what the form said, and even if I had understood, I probably wouldn’t have agreed with it. The advocate told me that I would need to come back another day for an English version.
I wanted to resolve the issue as soon as possible, so I stormed back into the magistrate’s office. There was a man sitting there in a dark robe and fancy shirt. He looked like a magistrate. Striding confidently to his desk, I handed him the form that had been given to me by the police officer and demanded, “I want to setter this mattle right now!”
The magistrate ignored my unfortunate spoonerism and looked at the form. Then he pulled out a file that contained my original police report.
“Who was it that snatched your camera?” he asked.
If I had known the name of the kid who stole my camera, then maybe he would have been on trial instead of me. “I don’t know who it was. Just some little kid.”
The magistrate skimmed through my file. “Do you have any doubts?”
Oh, I had plenty of doubts. I doubted that the Rajasthan Police ever managed to successfully enforce the law. I doubted that the Rajasthan High Court played a productive role in society. I doubted that any Rajasthan bureaucrat was qualified for his or her job. And most of all, I doubted that it had been wise to trust the Rajasthan authorities in the first place. But I also doubted that I could say all that and still get out of there in a reasonable amount of time.
“No, your honor, no doubts.”
The magistrate took out a form saying that I gave permission for the police to close the case and that I would come back if they ever caught the perpetrators (which will never, ever happen). I signed the form, and the magistrate shut the file. Case closed.
I have no idea what the advocate would have done if I had hired him. My meeting with the magistrate lasted all of two minutes, requiring no legal expertise whatsoever. And no one ever questioned whether I was the real Ben Soltoff.
But beyond my own personal inconvenience and confusion, what bothered me about the incident was the inefficacy the justice system. In order to be sure that this was uniquely Indian problem, I emailed a family friend who happens to be a lawyer. Here’s his response:
There is no process here [in the U.S.] involved with closing a case like that. When someone files a police report, reporting a crime, an investigation will commence. Yes, some investigations are more involved than others. However, when they are done, if no charges are filed or no further investigation is going to happen, all they do is tell you. The complainant doesn’t have to do anything else. In fact, the complainant has no role in the process. Appearing in court for anything therefore makes no sense, since no court proceeding has begun and there is therefore nothing for a judge to rule upon. Technically, the complainant has no standing to appear in court for anything.
Must be unique to India, and wherever else the filing of a police report begins a “process”.
In India (or at least Rajasthan), anyone who files a police report becomes beholden to the police department. The burden lies with the victim, not with the law enforcement agency. When the crime is a stolen camera, this process constitutes a minor annoyance, but what about more severe crimes? Imagine if a rape victim had to go to the High Court in order to give permission for her rapist to walk free. It’s no surprise that the majority of rapes in India most likely go unreported. The inadequacies of the Indian police were a key issue during the Delhi rape protests this past winter. If nothing else, my troubles with the stolen camera have shown me just how right those protestors were. The Indian justice system is broken, and it greatly needs to change.