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Loitam's Law

The death of 19-year-old Richard Loitam was tragic. But in the larger scheme of things, it is a death like so many others that happen every day: sudden, unnatural and remaining a mystery for so long that it runs the risk of turning into a statistic. Indrajit Hazra writes.

columns Updated: May 05, 2012 22:27 IST
Indrajit Hazra
Indrajit Hazra
Hindustan Times

The death of 19-year-old Richard Loitam was tragic. But in the larger scheme of things, it is a death like so many others that happen every day: sudden, unnatural and remaining a mystery for so long that it runs the risk of turning into a statistic.

Richard was a second year student at the Acharya NRV School of Architecture in Bangalore. The local police first registered a case on April 18 based on a complaint from the school's hostel supervisor who found Richard lying dead in his room. The case was filed under Section 174 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) as death caused 'under mysterious circumstances' that didn't rule out murder, accidental death or suicide.

The hostel supervisor later filed a fresh complaint in which suspicion aga-inst two fellow students were incorporated. It turns out that on April 15, Richard was involved in a minor accident that involved the scooter of one of the suspects. He was treated at the nearby hospital but was well enough to go about normally the next three days. There was an altercation between Richard and the two boys over the scooter accident, but on the night of April 18, the three of them allegedly got into a more serious fight (apparently because Richard wanted to change channels). With this new information, the police changed the case from being filed under Section 174 (mysterious death) to Section 302 (murder).

But while Richard Loitam's pointless death may be 'routine' - three frat boys getting into an ugly scrap - its aftermath seems to be an in-your-face example of how law enforcement works in our country. Richard was from Imphal in Manipur. This was not a 'racial' attack - if it was indeed an 'attack' that led to his death in the first place - allegedly by two fellow students from 'mainland' India. This seems like a youngster getting beaten up by his friends for reasons that countless youngsters everywhere get into fights for.

But the way in which the police have sat on the case, 'shielded' the two suspects - they are yet to be taken into police custody - delayed the autopsy report, all these lead one to suspect that even though the crime wasn't a 'hate' crime, the authorities saw it fit, for whatever reason, as a case they could go easy on.

And it's not just professional conspi-racy theorists or bleeding heart artists who share the suspicion with Richard's uncle Bobby Loitam when he says, "If Richard was a boy from Karnataka or Maharashtra, the authorities wouldn't have been so tardy at doing their job." The fact that the authorities initially suspected death caused by drug overdose was one sign that regional-racial stereotypes were at play. 'North-east boys take drugs; North-eastern girls are loose,' is a standard 'Indian' trope. The initial autopsy found no traces of any drug in Richard's bloodstream except for small doses of the painkiller he had been prescribed after his accident.

It would be weirdly comforting (but comforting nonetheless) to dismiss such suspicions of law enforcement (not) working along racial/regional lines and state that it is dysfunctional as a whole without being selectively dysfunctional. The truth is that the law is like a busted radiator that sometimes works, sometimes doesn't. But it also specifically comes in the way or turns its back with certain 'kinds' of people.

Anyone who has gone to a local police station and seen how most policemen treat the complaint of an aggrieved individual who doesn't look from a certain class or above, knows what I'm talking about. If you're a woman from a slum colony under the flyover going into a pol-ice station to register an FIR, I'd suggest you go with a 'class interpreter' if you have any intention to be taken seriously.

The case of Richard Loitam is the story of a bias embedded in an existing creaky law enforcement structure. Richard may have indeed died because of injuries received by his scooter accident. He may have succumbed to injuries after a hostel brawl. But the inaction of the authorities point to something else: the lack of importance given by them to certain 'types' of people. Law-enforcers pre-suppose certain traits about the victims - whether it's regarding Aarushi Talwar's 'character' or Hemraj's 'background' or Richard Loitam's 'ethnicity'. There are many ways by which a criminal case can be stalled, stopped or forgotten in India. Money and power are prime anti-lubricants. But when law-enforcers have pre-conceived notions that allow cases to be ignored or scuttled with little or no push from 'concerned' parties, we can tweak that George Orwell line for our own landscape and say that all animals are equal, but some animals are less equal than others.

So, if you're unlucky enough to be a victim of murder, violence, rape or general thievery, ensure that you're well-to-do. If you can't be well-to-do, try and be visible enough for the mainstream polity and media to ensure you get attention. That's Loitam's Law.

First Published: May 05, 2012 22:24 IST