The Commission that Blamed the Police

Mauritius Times  60 Years Ago — 

Governor Sir Henry Barkly was decidedly opposed to the appointment of a Royal Commission.

 • “Borrow trouble for yourself, if that’s your nature, but don’t lend it to your neighbours” — Kipling

“I have had latterly to rebuke the police severely for the great loss of time given to petty paying contraventions,
the absence of real police work, the very unsatisfactory way in which their enquiries were conducted,
the erroneous ideas about general warrants.”
 
– Didier St Armand 


As many of his predecessors, having joined hands with the Mauritian planters, he paid no heed to the wishes and needs of the labouring class. But the Royal Commission of 1872 came. It showed that the Governor was wrong in his opinion that a commission of enquiry would be mischievous. The Report of this Commission was the result of a petition drafted by De Plevitz and signed by the Indian immigrants, complaining of the iniquities of the Police and the Magistrates in enforcing the Labour Law of 1867.

Before the appointment of the Royal Commission of 1872, Hon Mr Justice Gorrie had drawn the attention of the Governor Sir Arthur Gordon, the successor of Sir Henry Barkly to certain facts disclosed during a trial and which showed that the police were in the habit of arresting persons on suspicion and of dealing with them in manners “contrary to the maxims and usages of English law”. Sir Arthur Gordon then appointed a commission of enquiry, “for the purpose of enquiring into and reporting upon the discharge by officers and constables of the police force, of their functions with respect to the enquiries made by them to discover the authors of crimes and offences committed or alleged to have been committed and the exercise by such officers and constables of the powers conferred upon them by Ordinance No 31 of 1867.”

The Police Enquiry Commission threw much light on the abuse made by constables of the power placed into their hands. It showed that in many cases the Police had made an abuse of the power entrusted to them but it was the Royal Commission of 1872 which laid bare the sores that festered the Police Department.

It was the Police which was most severely incriminated in the petition of the Indian immigrants, in the observations appended by De Plevitz to the petition and the pamphlet which Plevitz some time later published and which was circulated not only in the island but also in India and Great Britain. Complaining of the powers conferred on the police, the petitioners wrote: “Your petitioners are thus at the mercy of the police, and the most industrious and best conducted man amongst them cannot stir… The police can always arrest them. They do so by fifties at a time.” And De Plevitz added his comment to the petition: “Contemptuous and arbitrary treatment of Indians by the police seem to follow naturally.”

What type of men were the constables who had such an unlimited power of “causing annoyances” often of so grave a nature. Colonel O’Brien describes them in no flattering terms. He writes among other things: “The class I get consist of some few old soldiers attracted by advertisements in the Indian papers mainly of foreigners, and the most of the sailors in the harbour of what is vulgarly known as the loafers about a large port. The European police are called upon to furnish more non-commissioned officers in proportion to its strength than most other bodies; further it is obliged to supply sergeants and corporals for the Creole and Indian portion of the force, as none of the latter and few of the former, possess educational qualifications sufficient, neither as a rule can these classes be trusted.”

It is natural that the police constables should exert themselves to have as many contraventions as possible as in certain cases a portion of the fine went to the informer or detecting officer by Ordinance No 28 of 1866.

Very often the arrests made or the contraventions taken were of an undeniably arbitrary nature. Here is one illustration to show how low a police constable could descend. Sergeant Major Warren, deponing before the Police Enquiry Commission, mentioned the case of a sergeant of police entering a Chinaman’s shop with a constable having a pint of rum in his pocket and then procuring the conviction of the Chinaman on the charge of selling under proof. He also mentioned the case in which a police constable took a cap with him into a shop and in order to prove that a person had been drinking there on a Sunday, swore before the magistrate that the cap belonged to a man who was drinking there and who on seeing him ran away leaving the cap there though the cap in fact belonged to his own servant.

The Royal Commission of 1872 mentions gross cases of swindling, extortion on the part of police constables. As for bribery it was rife among them. The Indian knew by experience that once arrested, in what difficulties he would be involved and the certainty of his conviction. He, therefore preferred, if he could afford it, to bribe the constable who always had his price.

The use of torture by the police on the persons of those arrested was not uncommon. In this connection, Inspector Boulter deponing before the Police Commission said: “I have seen violence used to prisoners many years ago, and I have heard a good deal about torture, such as squeezing of the toes, boiling water, etc, spoken by those constables who were ex-slaves. They seemed to regret they could not do the same, after the establishment of the district courts.” But the Royal Commissioners were of opinion that the traditions of slavery had not died down in the island and that they were convinced that torture was made use of at the time of their enquiry.

Some eminent political theorist says that all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This was true in the case of the police. Absolute power was entrusted to them and they made an absolute abuse of it.

The Commission in fact revealed the shocking state of the Police.

 

* Published in print edition on 11 November 1955 & 5 August 2016

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