A tale of the failure of the media, police forces
Rajput’s death should have triggered a conversation on mental health. Instead, it has been politicised
Sixty-five days after the death of Bollywood star, Sushant Singh Rajput, the Supreme Court on August 19 removed the uncertainty over the outcome of inquiries into the case. Maharashtra and Bihar, which were pitted against each other, were waiting for the verdict with bated breath.
Rajput’s family was aggrieved with the Mumbai Police over the slack pace of the probe, while his former partner Rhea Chakraborty and her kin considered the charges levelled against her as fabricated and politically-motivated. The constant barrage of statements from various politicians only added to the confusion. The Supreme Court used its plenary powers to order the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe to ensure justice, in view of the vitiated atmosphere surrounding his death.
Indeed, Rajput’s death has raised some uncomfortable issues for India’s democracy. It has also exposed the distortions that exist in every institution, particularly the media, which has flouted every editorial and journalistic norm in its reportage, and police and investigative agencies, which have allowed the politicisation of what should have been a straightforward investigation.
For one, there has been a debate on the issue of jurisdiction. Maharashtra laid claim to it because the incident took place in Mumbai, while Bihar argued that the consequences of the incident ensuing in Patna entitled its police to file the first information report (FIR).
The Supreme Court decided that the Patna police had the right to register the FIR and investigate, on the basis that criminal breach of trust could take place both in Patna and Mumbai. The decision will have repercussions for the future. FIRS will be filed across the country, in places far from that of the occurrence of crimes, forcing courts to settle the jurisdiction issue.
There are issues pertaining to the FIR lodged by Rajput’s father, particularly the silence right after the incident in a statement to Mumbai Police. But this is not to absolve the Mumbai Police. The Mumbai Police system, which is of 1864 vintage, failed to strike the balance between a rigorous, impartial investigation while remaining attuned to the growing attention to the case.
Rajput’s death touched a chord in many people. Further, there was huge empathy for Rajput within Bollywood and outside, due to his film contracts allegedly being terminated.
And of course, there was the Bihar election and the fact that his death rapidly assumed political overtones in a state starved of film icons.
This is not to endorse the popular mood, nor is it to suggest that police investigation should be guided by the popular mood. But an awareness of the wider ecosystem is important because of its implications on a particular case. That is where Mumbai Police faltered.
With resentment building up, the case could have been handed over to the crime branch, and an officer from Bihar in the Maharashtra cadre inducted into the team to liaise with Rajput’s family. Regular briefings should have been conducted to allay misgivings, just as it was done in the Sheena Bora case. The police commissioner’s briefing was held in Sushant’s case, but it was a case of too little too late. And the treatment of a Bihar Indian Police Service officer on duty in Mumbai took away whatever support Mumbai Police had in the matter, arousing suspicion and distrust.
Some disturbing signals emerge from this case. The first is that of police leadership ceding space to political masters on a purely professional matter of jurisdiction. The Bihar chief minister, Nitish Kumar, intervened to get the FIR filed. The police chiefs of the two states could have resolved this matter among themselves. If the Mumbai Police had responded favourably, the Bihar Police may have forwarded the zero FIR to Mumbai for investigation. The absence of police coordination allowed politicians to air their views on matters which should have been strictly within the police’s domain.
Second, television channels played a deeply irresponsible role, undermining the mental health dimension in the case, violating the right to privacy of many individuals, acting as the prosecutor and judge and holding people guilty, besmirching reputations — either because they were motivated by political considerations or commercial considerations or both.
Third, new-age policing involves bigger responsibilities for the police. In the Right to Information era, where transparency and accountability are the hallmark of a democracy, people need to be kept informed. And the people’s police must be accountable only to the law. In this case, while one set of police officers was too voluble, another was too reticent. What the public wants in such cases is information based on facts at regular intervals.
Last, a case of suicide, irrespective of who it involves,should have triggered a countrywide debate on mental health — and the need to understand the nature of the health challenge, have empathy for those who suffer from it and remove the stigma associated with it, and create a supportive environment for its treatment.
India’s public discourse, and institutions mandated to handle such sensitive matters, have fallen short.
Sushant Singh Rajput deserves dignity and peace in death, not acrimonious debates or shrill campaigns of calumny and division.