Millennium Post

Driving while Muslim

For the last few weeks I have been following media reports on a strange case of  traffic violation. According to stories in various newspapers, on 2 May, Bilal Sheikh was pulled over by the traffic police at Bhiwandi for jumping a traffic signal. He was riding pillion on his friend’s motorcycle. In the ‘discussion’ that followed, Sheikh was allegedly beaten by the roadside by four traffic policemen, and ended up in hospital facing surgery for severe injuries on his arm, including a fractured humerus (the long bone of the forearm). The 45 year old businessman had to be treated in the ICU of a private hospital in Mulund, and ended up with metal plates in his arm.

To add insult to injury, while Sheikh was charged in a complaint registered by the police, he claims that the cops at Kongaon police station refused to register his complaint against the police officers allegedly responsible for the assault. Sheikh’s brother, a medical doctor, says he managed to file a complaint only on 12 May, after petitioning a number of authorities.

Shockingly, while the policemen accused by Sheikh were reportedly booked under lighter sections and received bail the same day, Sheikh himself was unexpectedly arrested on the additional and more serious charge of ‘voluntarily causing grievous hurt to deter a public servant from his duty’ (Section 333 IPC)and held for 8 days before being released on bail.  This was barely days after he was discharged from hospital, while he was still recovering from his injuries.

While this trajectory sounds (and is) very peculiar, it is sadly also a little predictable. It could be argued-as several people have-that if Sheikh was indeed jumping the red light, he had no business to be picking a fight with the traffic police who were merely doing their duty by flagging him down. There are various versions of the initial fracas reported in the press-from Sheikh offering to pay a fine 'since he was at fault' to him challenging the police since they had only 'followed the traffic.'

According to one version, he asked the police to 'seize his license and issue a memo' if he had committed an offence, which enraged them. However that may be, the fact is that there is no scenario in which it is possible to explain, leave alone justify, the beating up of a minor offender by the roadside. This lends credibility to the claims made by Sheikh and his family that his actual crime was that he attempted to assert his rights with the cops while wearing a skullcap and ‘carrying a beard’.

Sheikh’s case could well be called ‘driving-or arguing-while Muslim’. As in the case of African American drivers who are pulled over for ‘driving while black’, Sheikh’s identity would appear to be key  to the alleged brutality with which he was handled. According to Sheikh, he was allegedly abused in highly communal terms while being beaten on the road, and then again in the police station. The gist of their grouse, he claims, was that a Muslim could dare to teach the cops ‘their job’, dare to talk back to them.

This touches on a thin but very real  barrier that a large number of Indian Muslims face in their daily lives. How far can you go in demanding your rights as a citizen, if you happen to be a Muslim? Sheikh’s brother had, with the help of civil activists including Shabnam Hashmi of the organization ANHAD, met the Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan on May 14th and received assurances for fair treatment. Two days after this, Sheikh found himself in jail. There is more than a grain of truth in the letter Hashmi subsequently sent to Sonia Gandhi, where she wrote, 'Looking back I think it was our foolishness to advise him to fight against injustice because one should stop thinking that minorities, Dalits, adivasis & the poor can ever get justice .'

In part, of course, this has to do with the larger trend of communalisation of the Maharashtra police force that has been noted over the past decades - from the Justice Madon Commission on the Bhivandi-Jalgaon riots of 1970 to the Srikrishna Commission Report on the 1992 Mumbai riots. The latter refers to 'an in-built bias against the Muslims' amongst the police force, particularly at a junior level. Unless there is a policy of swift and stern action against officers displaying such a bias, it is unlikely to reduce. Unfortunately, this is far from reality. According to media reports, Thane Police Commissioner KP Raghuvanshi has ordered an enquiry into the incident. But so far there have been no indications that the accused policemen have been chastised, or even suspended.

In more general terms, Sheikh’s case is also a pointed illustration of the sense of powerlessness that is faced by ordinary citizens in their dealing with the lowest rungs of authorities in our cities. The fact is that the  presence of his family and the scrutiny of the media could not protect Sheikh from what he calls 'being made an example of'. This is a chilling instance of the lack of accountability and sheer impunity that marks the [mal]functioning of state apparatus in our cities, at its lowest, most intimate level. Of course this experience is not exclusive to a particular community. But for Muslims, there is a marked feeling of being on shaky ground in such encounters-the awareness that anything can, and often does happen. The limits to which an argument can be pushed are harder to imagine, more dire than usual; and with little in terms of avenues for redressal.

It would be understandable if Sheikh decides to throw in the towel in this unequal struggle; if he were to decide that in the long run, getting on with running his business and looking after his wife and two kids was more important than a long drawn battle with authorities. So far, however, he is firm in his efforts for justice.  Since his release on bail,  says his brother, they have petitioned the Human Rights Commission and the Minorities Commission for his case, besides seeking legal counsel to quash the charges against him. The reason behind this determination is that 'he did nothing wrong'. Other than ‘talking while Muslim’.

Taran N Khan is a journalist based in Mumbai.
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