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The spectre of FIR raj
April 14: The manner in which a professor and a retired engineer were arrested and locked up for over 16 hours in Calcutta has blown the lid off a tactic increasingly being employed in Bengal to intimidate or settle scores with dissenters.
The weapon of mass-scale harassment is an oft-mentioned but little-understood piece of paper called the FIR or first information report.
The method is scary — a word that cropped up several times yesterday when commentators were discussing the professor's arrest — in its simplicity. FIRs are filed — unofficially at the behest of political bosses — for any conceivable transgression, against anyone deemed to be an opponent. The state then uses arrest or threat of arrest to browbeat them.
The FIR, the document that was given teeth with the noble intention of reducing the chance of police inaction when aggrieved citizens approached them, has been turned into a device for multiple ambushes.
The FIR landmine can be planted by purportedly aggrieved persons over perceived transgressions across the state's police stations, where it will lie dormant and can be detonated at will on unsuspecting critics who step out of line.
The advantage of the FIR guerrilla tactic is that the trail to the origin of the complaints, which are filed by proxies, will rarely lead directly to the executive. The government can also claim that it cannot do anything about the complaints as private citizens are behind them.
Complaints can be filed with such clauses that a non-cognisable offence — which requires a court warrant for arrest — can be converted into a cognisable one where the police can use their discretion and arrest those named in the FIR.
Take the case of professor Ambikesh Mahapatra, who has been arrested for circulating the clip of a joke that lampoons Mamata Banerjee and a central minister. If the subjects of the cartoon felt that they were being defamed, the norm is that the alleged victim should file a defamation suit in a court that will decide if the law has been broken.
More important, defamation is a non-cognisable offence — which means the alleged perpetrator cannot be arrested without a warrant.
Why worry about such annoying details if you have an all-weather weapon called the FIR? A Trinamul supporter — who was among those arrested on Saturday in what is being seen as a damage-control bid by the government ( ) — set the stage on Thursday night by filing a complaint that accused the professor of sending "an obscene printout and message in the name of the honourable chief minister".
The police pounced on the complaint and converted it into an FIR and charged the professor with trying to insult the modesty of a woman — a cognisable offence that ensured that the professor and his septuagenarian neighbour spent at least one night and most of the next day in a police lock-up.
Sources say this is just the tip of the iceberg and very elementary. A sophisticated operation will see FIRs mushroom in many police stations and under clauses that require separate anticipatory bail applications for each complaint.
Unless the target has the resources to hire the best legal services, incarceration is next to impossible to avoid.
Although the option of seeking anticipatory bail exists, citizens like a professor or a retired engineer could find themselves sucked into an administrative quagmire — a point that illustrates the harassment potential of FIRs.
If FIRs have such powers, it raises the question why those in power cannot be treated to the same medicine. The problem here is that FIRs cannot be filed without the police's co-operation although cognisable offences have to be registered.
The police have many options to dissuade a person whose complaint they find unpalatable. A common trick played on the uninitiated is to advise them to file a general diary and approach a court.
There is little a citizen can do to get an officer-in-charge disciplined if he misuses the FIR system. One can technically complain to the officer's superiors if the victimisation is at an individual level but incase of state-backed FIRs, very little can be done.
Courts can be moved over harassment and damages can be sought but few ordinary citizens are expected to have the resources and tenacity to soldier on against a mighty array of officials and political bosses.
Few lawyers wanted to comment on tweets that detected echoes of "Stalinism in Bengal" or answer questions if an "FIR gulag" is taking shape in Bengal.
Lawyer Abhishek Manu Singhvi confined himself to the following eloquent comment: "The only thing that distinguishes us from our neighbours is the spirit of accommodation and tolerance which we display in this festival of democracy. That spirit of accommodation and tolerance should never be allowed to diminish."