BY BHASKAR PHUKAN
Of the many responsibilities of an officer in the Assam Civil Services, nothing is as challenging — and daunting — as his role as an executive magistrate under the venerable Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973. And as an executive magistrate, one of the most unsavoury tasks he has to perform occasionally is holding inquest of dead bodies. Under Sec 174 of the CRPC, an executive magistrate is empowered to hold inquest on the death of a person under unnatural circumstances such as suicide by a woman within seven years of marriage; death in police custody or in such circumstances as to raise reasonable suspicion that some other person has caused the death.
The executive magistrate after proceeding to the place where the body of the deceased person is lying must carry out an investigation in the presence of two or more respectable residents of the neighbourhood, and make a report on the apparent cause of death, citing the position of the dead body, apparent cause of death, describing the wounds found on the body and the weapon or instrument used to inflict the wounds. The Inquest report must be sent immediately to the District Magistrate or Sub divisional Magistrate of the area.
Early in my career, at Mushalpur, my first place of posting in the undivided Nalbari district, I held my first inquest which still remains for me an unforgettable experience for the suspense — and ridiculousness– that marked the otherwise sombre occasion. More than two decades later, the memory of that inquest still brings out a chuckle within me.
One afternoon on a clear sunny day in early summer, a rider from Borbari Police Station rushed to my office with an urgent letter from the officer- in- charge, intimating me about the recovery of an unidentified dead body that morning in a remote village close to the Indo – Bhutan border and requesting me to hold an inquest. I rushed to the Police Station about five kilometres away from my office. The Officer –in – charge, Bar Laskar, a senior policeman with just one or two years of service left before retirement, was waiting for me in his chamber. He greeted me politely and came forward and pulled a chair for me in front of his table. I eased myself into it
“Tea or cold drinks?” Bar Laskar asked graciously in his heavy Sylheti accent.
“A cup of tea will do”. I said
“Duty,” Bar Laskar shouted,
A home guard on duty rushed into the room.
“Two special cups of tea, jaldi” Bar Laskar said.
“Regarding the inquest, I must admit that I have not conducted any inquest before”, I said with some nervousness in my voice.
“Don’t worry. I will be with you; it won’t be a problem at all.” Bar Laskar said with an expansive gesture of his left hand.
“Thanks” I said quite relieved
“There is some excitement at Police Headquarters over this dead body”, said Bar Laskar. “It might even become a big issue.”
Bar Laskar pulled his drawer and showed me a post card sized photograph of a handsome middle aged man. I recognised him. He was the son of one of the most prominent figures of Assam. The person who himself was a popular figure and a top ranking executive in a large industrial house, had been abducted about a month back by extremists.
“Intelligence reports suggest that the abducted person was hidden somewhere along the Indo – Bhutan Border,” said Bar Laskar.
“Is there is a likelihood that this dead body might belong to the abducted person?” I asked.
“You have guessed right. I only hope it doesn’t belong to him”. Bar Laskar said grimly.
The home guard returned with two cups of tea.
“We must move to the spot without delay”, I said, sipping fast from the cup.
“Don’t worry. We will get there on time,” said Bar Laskar.
A few minutes later, a large bus pulled up in front of the police station.
About a dozen CRPF personnel, who had assembled in front of the police station, clambered into the bus. Along with them, two sweepers from the local primary health centre also gingerely climbed into the bus. Both of them were fully drunk and made no effort to hide their inebriated state before the police.
“They wouldn’t go unless you fill them to their gills with foreign liquor”, said Bar Laskar with a wink. “You couldn’t do anything without their services; they are the ones who will handle the dead body; no one is as indispensable for us today as these two”.
“Turn a blind eye to their antics”, he added as an afterthought.
Bar Laskar gave a signal. The driver of the bus switched on the ignition and the engine coughed and spluttered to life. Soon, the bus stated to move, making an awful lot of noise. We got into Bar Laskar’s jeep. Bar Laskar was behind the wheel and I sat besides him. Another subordinate officer accompanied us in the back. Our jeep moved ahead. The bus followed us as we proceeded north towards the Indo Bhutan Border taking the Dhamdhama- Baganpara road.
Quite new to my job, I marvelled at the way things were accomplished by Bar Laskar. This was a nice learning experience for me.
Bar Laskar too seemed to enjoy showing the ropes to me. It wasn’t often that he got to work with a novice like me. It was a boost to his ego to be able to educate me on the ways of the administration. However, at some point, he appeared to be carried away by his own enthusiasm and resorted to overstating things by his garrulous lecture. I bore it all with good humour.
After few kilometres of driving on the uneven gravelled road, we reached a point on the road where it branched off to a narrow dirt track. A small group of men was waiting at the intersection of the road. Bar Laskar stopped the jeep. One person from the group, a stout fellow in white kurta pyjamas stepped forward and politely greeted us.
Bar Laskar was acquainted with the person. He was the secretary of the local village defence party which had first reported about the dead body floating in a lake near their village earlier that day. The group was waiting to escort us to the spot where the dead body had been found.
Our vehicles could not proceed beyond that point through the narrow track. Bar Laskar shouted orders and the CRPF persons stepped out of the bus and assembled in double formation. The two sweepers also got down, sozzled and somewhat dazed. Without wasting time, we began the 4 kilometre long march to the spot with the local guys leading the way.
We soon reached their village where we were joined by the gaon burrah- village headman. The villagers appeared to be abuzz with curiosity over the sudden presence of so many policemen in their village. We didn’t stop at the village, declining the village headman’s request for a cup of tea on our maiden visit to his village.
The lake where the body had been discovered was located further north of the village in a remote area covered with bushes and thick overgrowth. People rarely ventured into that area alone. That morning the body was spotted from a distance by a group of boys who had gone to the lake for fishing; at once they informed it to the village defence party.
There was no path or track leading from the village to the site. We had to clear our way through tall elephant grass that grew all over the place. A pale and turgid shadow hung over the place giving it a strange, mysterious air. I felt considerably excited marching through that wilderness; it appeared to me as a scene straight out of an Indiana Jones movie.
To add comic relief were the drunken sweepers who kept slipping on the way and each time, they collected them selves up from the ground with a salute. One of them kept coming up to me and said mockingly, “One day, I will make my son a hakim like you, Sir”.
I didn’t react, remembering what Bar Laskar had said earlier. No one is as indispensable for us today as these two.
As we neared our destination, Bar Laskar’s mood changed. His garrulous nature vanished; he became sullen and apprehensive.
“Hope the body doesn’t turn out to be that of the abducted fellow. Otherwise everyone will be upon me,” he said.
“I would have been happier marching through this place without having to hold any inquest”, I said wistfully.
“Sir, that is a luxury you won’t find anywhere in your career as an executive magistrate. Today is only the beginning”, Bar Laskar said with a smile. “But you will get used to it”.
“I hope so,” I said, tension suddenly building inside me as the prospect of holding my first inquest sunk inside me. This will be my baptism as an executive magistrate. I thought.
Soon, we walked out of the thick canopy of elephant grass into a narrow clearing besides whose banks lay a large lake filled with water hyacinth blooming on all sides. Only the middle of the lake was free from the rapid growth of the water hyacinths and the water there gleamed in the late afternoon Sun. We walked through the narrow pathway alongside the lake for a few minutes.
Everything appeared so quiet and still. Occasionally, the stillness in the air was disturbed by a cool breeze flowing from the blue mountains of Bhutan and setting off ripples on the water. The little flowers on the water hyacinths blinked and gently nodded their heads. This was nature, seemingly untouched and undefiled by man. One just could not imagine anything unsavoury amidst such a pure and tranquil setting.
“There it is”, said one of the men from the village defence party pointing towards what I had first thought from a distance as a boulder protruding from the banks into the water body. Only coming closer, did I realise that it was a corpse, floating on a clump of water hyacinth, the body hunched with the head half inside the water, face down. The hairs on my body stood on end at the sight of the dead body.
“Hope he doesn’t turn out be the kidnapped guy”. Bar Laskar sighed. “Headquarters will make mince meat out of me if he does”.
A breeze filled the air with the stench of rotting flesh. All of us covered our noses with our handkerchiefs except the two sweepers. One of the sweepers staggered towards the body.
“Don’t touch it till I tell you,” shouted Bar Laskar.
The sweeper stopped on his tracks and with a mock salute at the officer in charge, retreated to our position.
“Shall we proceed with the inquest?” I said. Despite this being my first inquest, I wanted to get over it as quickly as possible.
“Yes,” Bar Laskar said. He appeared to be quite tense now.
Our party now came closer to the dead body. The stench was now overpowering. The body was in an advanced stage of putrefaction with some parts becoming stiff and bloated.
The subordinate police officer provided me paper and a hard board and I started the procedure by noting down the preliminary facts mentioned by Bar Laskar in his formal requisition for the inquest received at my office that afternoon. Then I gave a description of the location and the position of the dead body. Bar Laskar was by my side, helping me with the appropriate drafting of the report. His apprehension about the body turning out to be that of the abducted person remained unchanged. I too was caught up in the suspense.
At my instruction, the sweepers stepped into the knee deep water and carefully removed the soggy clothes off the body. No mark of any injury or wound or bruise was seen on the body from its hunched, face down position; it was now decided to turn the body up.
Bar Laskar was besides me, watching me conduct the procedure with a helpful but somewhat overbearing attitude. I put that to the vast differences in our age and experience and didn’t mind it at all.
The sweepers were on the move again. They held the body from below and tilted it face up.
“Aaste,” shouted Bar Laskar. “Is he the abducted person?”
I peered at the upturned body from a close range.
The face was bloated beyond recognition. Still from its shape and other features, I was sure it didn’t resemble the abducted person. I gave Bar Laskar my opinion.
Bar Laskar wasn’t full convinced. I continued with the inquest.
There were visible marks of injury inflicted by a sharp weapon in several parts of the body. I carefully noted them down on my report, giving full details of the wounds.
I completed the inquest and recommended the body to be sent to the nearest civil hospital for post mortem to ascertain the actual cause of death. Bar Laskar instructed his subordinate to make arrangements for transporting the dead body. He was still worried about the identity of the body; he wanted to be absolutely sure that it did not belong to the abducted person. Bar Laskar’s face still carried a look of deep anxiety.
Just as the sweepers were about to carry the body from the water, he rushed forward almost to the edge of the bank and instructed one of the sweepers to lift the body up. He bent down and closely examined the lower torso of the body for a few minutes.
“Inshallah! He is not the abducted fellow,” he declared, his face glowing with relief. The look of anxiety vanished.
I was stumped. “What made you sure now?”
“My dear Sir, this guy is circumcised. It means he is a Muslim and therefore can’t be the abducted fellow” Bar Laskar explained.
I found myself shaking my head in disbelief at the rather crude reasoning of the veteran police officer. I didn’t have the heart to explain to him that all circumcised men are not necessarily Muslims. I simply kept quiet.
A huge burden seemed to have lifted from Bar Laskar.
Bar Laskar became his hearty and confident self again. As we walked back to our vehicles, he resumed his lessons on administration before me.
It did turn out that the body wasn’t of the abducted person. It was confirmed to be that of a man from Barpeta Road who had been murdered and thrown into the lake by his own friends out of some business rivalry. But unlike Bar Laskar’s contention, the victim turned out to be a Hindu.
As for the abducted person whose fate kept Bar Laskar on tenterhooks, he was set free by his captors one or two months later. He returned home to a hero’s welcome amidst a huge publicity.
From that maiden inquest in a remote village near the Indo Bhutan border, holding inquests became an essential yet unpleasant task that I have come to accept as an unavoidable professional hazard through all my years in the civil services as an executive magistrate.
A few years later, at a New Year’s party in Guwahati, I met the gentleman whose abduction had set off such a big ripple through the administration. It appeared that he had left the trauma of his abduction far behind him. That night, he was the life of the party, smart and sophisticated and constantly surrounded by a group of admirers. Someone introduced him to me. Shaking hands with this tall, charming gentleman, I remembered my first inquest and could barely conceal my laughter as Bar Laskar’s audacious verdict on the identification of the dead body in the remote lake flashed through my mind.