The Crime of Burking
-By Maxwell Pereira
mfjpkamath@gmail.com

On Friday, 27 Jan 2006 – a day after the nation celebrated its 57th Republic Day last year in the 59th year of its Independence, the Supreme Court issued notices to two senior police officials of Uttar Pradesh – the SSP Gaziabad and his SHO Vijay Nagar police station – for not filing an FIR in a kidnapping case – treating the plea of a distraught and sobbing mechanic as an habeus corpus petition. That the matter attracted the Apex Court’s attention to warrant its intervention should have alerted those concerned to sit up and take note. Obviously it did not. So Nithari had to happen.


There is an interesting page in Google’s cache of http://ncrb.nic.in/faq.htm as retrieved on 23 Jan 2005, on which is available the NCRB’s (National Crime Record Bureau) FAQ section with answers to queries from a police officer from one of the States. One of the queries is, “In my State I have ensured free registration of cases. In other States there is large scale burking. It is not fair to go by crime rate, as free registration has led to increase in crimes reported. What mechanism do you have to ensure a balance in it?”

The NCRB’s answer: “Every State ensures free registration of crimes. Burking of crime is neither permitted nor possible in a society where envisioned public and media are alert and act as watchdog. No one can claim that free and fair registration has led to increase in crime rate. On the contrary, `transparency' is maintained in Crime Reporting. Surveys such as ‘Crime Victimization’ at State and National Level shall ensure a balance and can estimate the number of un-reported serious crimes”.

How very ideal… how very utopian! If it were true, would the state of affairs concerning ‘registration of crime’ have reached such nadir as to warrant the highest court’s intervention! The worst plague afflicting the police, in reality, is the rampant malady of non-registration of crime. Commonly referred to as ‘burking’ in police parlance, this is something all police departments in the country suffer from.

But ‘burking’ originally referred to killing by closing the nose with two fingers or inserting fingers in the nostrils and then clamping the mouth shut with thumb or elbow, suffocating the victim. The method, perfected by William Burke and William Hare, who committed the West Port murders in Edinburgh, UK in 1827-1828. The corpses of their victims were sold for conducting anatomy demonstrations, to Doctor Robert Knox who is said to have helped develop this unique and efficient method of murder that left no obvious signs of violence on the corpses. Is there some kind of  a similarity here with our Nithari of the present day – even though CBI investigators are leaning towards ruling out organ trade in these killings!

The term ‘burking’ entered the lexicon, when a local ‘broadside’ (a single-sheet equivalent of a current day tabloid) used it to describe the crimes of Burke and Hare. The broadside told its readers how the “Burking Shop (was) Destroyed” when a mob stormed an anatomical theatre in Aberdeen on 19th Dec 1831, following the discovery of a body outside its doors. Bodies of executed prisoners used to be sent to medical schools for dissection, which helped heighten people’s growing suspicion and ambiguous attitude towards medical schools and anatomical theatres. Soon, burking got used in describing any killing to obtain bodies for sale, or medical students themselves dissecting corpses.

'Free registration' is an expression that one hears in police circles whenever a freak police chief makes it known that those found `burking' will face disciplinary action. Delhi police had its share of such officers – RD Pandey, Nikhil Kumar, and some others, who concentrated on solving crime than bothering about increased statistics. Only to be cried down in the media, where sensationalising the increased numbers merited more than the quality of policing the citizens enjoyed. To the politician and the government in power, increasing statistics are always a bother to answer in Parliament. Inevitably, such odd chiefs get shown the door quickly, mainly to reinforce the message that `free registration' and politics cannot go together.

So the Indian police have a positively bad record for `burking' (a favourite expression now to describe `covering up' or `burying’ – the choice word that had its origins in describing a unique form of committing murder). Burking helps massage statistics so that they look respectable and uneventful.

Police performance evaluation needs to be gauged by the sense of security the citizens enjoy. Judging it solely on the basis of crime statistics is inadequate. This encourages the extremely undesirable practice of refusing to record and investigate crime. It also fails to give a true picture of the state of the law and order – often leading to disastrous consequences.

When every aspect - political uncertainty, socio-economic factors like caste and religion, growing disparity between haves and have-nots, and particularly the growing population - is conducive to growth in crime, there is no explanation for any downward slide in the crime graph attempted constantly to project to a nigh cynical populace by those in the chair, as their measure of success. As long as the police at grassroots level are indifferent for reasons of overwork or otherwise, and politicians judge the police solely by a rise or decline in the volume of crime, nothing is likely to change.

It is time the Government implements the police reforms directed by the Supreme Court recently and ensures that citizens are not deprived of their basic right to have complaints registered and investigated. Further, in every case the court is constrained to direct registration of a case where the police had earlier failed to take cognisance, the SHO and his duty officer should be held criminally accountable by treating them as abettors in crime and named in the same FIR. The case so directed, obviously needs to be investigated by an agency outside the local police. Unless such drastic measures are contemplated, there is no hope.

17.01.2007: Copy Right © Maxwell Pereira: 3725 Sec-23, Gurgaon-122017. Available at: 0124-2360568 & 4111026; web: http:// www.maxwellpereira.com and mfjpkamath@gmail.com


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