Slumdogs And Americans: Equal Opportunity Police Brutality in India

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Anyone who watched Slumdog Millionaire or read Suketu Mehta's Bombay: Maximum City remembers the scenes of police torture, how harrowing they were for the victims, how casually banal they were for the perpetrators. Last week, American journalist Joel Elliott got to experience this first-hand. Stumbling upon a group of uniformed cops in the process of beating up a prone individual as he returned to his New Delhi home after a late night with friends, Elliott made what turned out to be a grievous mistake.

According to his signed statement, reproduced along with gruesome photos of his injuries by the Indian news magazine Outlook, he describes his fateful error: "Startled. I shouted. When I realized what was happening to the person on the ground, I shouted again." Then, according to Elliot, the policemen turned their rage on him, striking him to the ground, continuing to strike him, pursuing him when he struggled free and ran off, handcuffing and throwing him into a police car when they caught him, taking him to what he says he only realized later was a hospital where they had a sedative administered to him apparently only to beat him the better as he was then dragged back into the car and to a police station where the beating continued. After what he estimates as six to seven hours of torture at the hands of the police, Elliott was dumped at a hospital where he spent the next few days.

At no time, despite his repeated pleas, was he allowed to make a phone call or was the American Embassy informed.

The Delhi police claim Elliott was drunk, that he -- single-handed and unarmed -- beat up a couple of the policemen, and that he tried to steal a car. Elliott claims he was trying to hide from the police in a taxi with darkened windows during the interlude when he'd managed to escape.

Let's suppose for a moment that the version offered up by the Delhi police is the correct version. Why then did the police not administer a breath test? Why did they not have a blood sample taken at the hospital as long as they were ordering needles to be poked into him. And why, oh why, did they just keep beating him up? For hours?

The short answer is because that is simply what they routinely do. Even more ominous than the tale of Elliott's own torture are the hapless Indian victims he meets in the course of his police nightmare: the unknown prone individual being beaten on the street; and a boy he describes as 17-years-old whom he sees at the station and who screams in agony as he has the soles of his feet beaten. Elliott is, after it all, a U.S. citizen and a journalist. He is now safely back in the United States. The other victims of police brutality he met have neither of these advantages. Slumdog Millionaire may have fictionalized the all too well known phenomenon of routine police brutality in India toward the poor and the unconnected but Maximum City's even more graphic scenes are nonfiction.

The city of Delhi is making a huge effort to make itself presentable to foreign tourists and guests during the Commonwealth Games it is proudly hosting a year from now. "From Walled City to World City" signboards trumpet. Slums have been cleared, fancy apartment blocks built, the Delhi Metro subway system expanded. Taxi drivers have been given lessons in basic English conversation.

In this light, not to mention the general marketing of India as a hospitable modern country where the rule of law is respected and foreigners can feel as comfortable as they would in any European or developed Asian country, someone needs to give the police in New Delhi a crash course in basic etiquette. Doesn't look good to have American journalists turn up all black and blue with a lurid tale to tell.

Consternation over the incident in the upper reaches of India's government is palpable. The Times of India has reported that Minister of Information and Broadcasting Ambika Soni is upset. I have no doubt she is genuinely shocked and embarrassed. The fact of the matter is that the powerful, the rich and the white foreigner almost never experience what Joel Elliott did and what thousands of ordinary Indian citizens do every day at the hands of India's police.

Police brutality is hardly a phenomenon restricted to India. Other thriving democracies regularly have trouble with their police caught going a bit overboard. One thinks of the tragic fate of Amadou Diallo in New York or the videotaped beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, or of the regular police abuses in France's banlieues. As in India, these are merely the tips of larger icebergs of brutality. We are shocked, shocked, shocked until the scandal dies away. Then, as the victims tend most of the time to be poor and powerless, our business -- and that of the police -- continues as usual.