The setting: District Court, October 24th. A Port-Louis bazaar atmosphere. Loads of policemen hang around in the hall in small groups, chatting away waiting to be called in as witnesses probably, by one of their colleagues. Quite a crowd in the hall and the buzzing sound makes it difficult for folks to hear their names.
A man takes to task a policeman who answers bluntly to a polite request. Why can’t you speak properly? He looks around for people to endorse his view, and he meets passive gazes, with only his friend standing next to him who whispers a few words of support.
A young Rasta fellow with fine features and bristling dreadlocks on his head cranes his neck to catch a glimpse of the list of names held by the tall policeman. A village bumpkin nearby grins at the sight of the Rasta fellow and asks stupidly: Do they sell such wigs in shops? The young man looks irritated and mumbles something in disapproval. Unfazed, the other fellow grins and repeats the stupid question as if it was the smartest joke he could come up with, unaware of the fact that anybody’s hairstyle is none of his business.
The policeman ignores another remark on his lack of manners in addressing people after he snaps at someone ‘pa bizin krwar, bizin sir’. Then he simply does not bother to even look at people coming up to him with a request. A series of names is called out: Juggoon… Ramdeen… Beeharylall… Louison… Cupidonne… Is that you? Where were you? I called you! Can’t you hear? Oupatande?
Power and authority
Treating adults like unruly children. Not only an umpteenth example of Civil Servants who have never learnt the meaning of the word civil. Police uniform emboldens them to make a show of power and authority to bully ordinary folks.
Inside, the Court is crammed with people sitting on benches and standing here and there. Facing the crowd, on an elevated platform sits the magistrate, a young woman looking dead serious with the black gown over her shoulders, writing a few sentences for each case in a book. An assistant and a few policemen hovering around her must surely boost her self-importance. From the elevated platform, she addresses them in English, which 80% of the crowd is unlikely to understand. The use of English looks so incongruous and definitely sets the 2% of people present in the hall apart from the audience.
Everyone is requested to come at 9 am and made to wait for the functionaries to open the door by 9.30. They must certainly derive some pleasure from making the public wait for them. Reportedly, there used to be a chair behind the sort of metal bars where people are summoned to stand. It has been removed to get things going faster, probably. Everyone is in a hurry. The people because they have taken half a day off, others impatient to be done with the whole thing and leave the place, the policemen, magistrate and all equally impatient to finish a half day’s administrative work.
Now and then, the tall policeman sitting on the front bench in front of the magistrate behind the elevated desk turns round and asks the public to keep silent at the least buzzing sound.
Too many cases to process in half a day. The court usher swiftly drones out a list of accusations: You did this and that: … Guilty or not? …koupab pa koupab? You hit your neighbour… koupab pa koupab? X accuses you of cheating him in… You borrowed something from Y and broke it… You beat your wife… koupab pa koupab? … And you, are you going to take a lawyer or not?… Ok, you’ll fight for yourself…
The magistrate scribbles on and delivers her decision as quickly: come back on such and such a day, and next one, same procedure, for the list of cases, same stuff on and on. All announced in English and translated by the usher. Soon the magistrate is going to lose her temper, raises her voice…
Honestly, the public exhibition of the accused and their wrongdoings makes people look uncomfortable and embarrassed. The wife-beater’s wife is present and decides to withdraw the case; both husband and wife lower their voice to explain things to the usher, which they don’t want others to hear, obviously. Others mumble koupab… pa koupab. Only one man takes a few steps self-confidently and halts behind the iron bar with a smirk on his face, seeming to dismiss all the cinema as too much ado for trivial things.
Plead guilty, a most exaggerated term. Well, it is if you have failed to produce your driving licence when you take the wheel within three hundred metres away from your house. Not enough unease for not abiding by the rule, you have to ‘plead’ on top of that. It must have originated centuries ago in a Dickensian social context of widespread poverty, and all the words invented to characterize the riff-raff: knaves, rascals, rogues, villains, tramps and such like who were found guilty of petty crimes and wasted the time of decent people like magistrates at Court.
Now a man in civilian clothes accompanies a handcuffed young man in shorts behind the iron bar. A fair skin Creole with slanting Chinese eyes, his clothes are worn out. He looks in bad shape, indeed. Accused of thieving, it seems. The magistrate addresses the officer in English. The accused looks straight at the magistrate, and tells the magistrate in Creole: I have a question. He speaks up clearly and fearlessly, and inquires about police custody and a few things in his defence. Gosh! The magistrate gets nervous and snaps back in English: You are not here to ask questions… Don’t talk to me like that (Well, the fellow is plainly fearless and not impressed.)… and blah blah blah.
Young man: Mo pé poz ou èn kesyon… I have the right to know… But I am saying that… Magistrate (beside herself) shouts: Tell him to stop talking! Who are you to… Don’t disrupt MY court. I am adding all this on his report: abusive language, disruption of Court…
The accused is silenced and waits patiently. She scribbles nervously. Must be trembling. Turns to the accompanying officer in plain clothes: What’s wrong with the man? Does he have a mental illness?
No, he does not have a mental illness. You are not answering his questions. He is just not afraid of you and is not cowering like a coward. You just don’t impress him. He feels he has the right to talk to you.
The fellow may get sent up for a longer period in jail.
Another handcuffed dark-skin Creole young man is ushered in by a man in civilian clothes. Accused of thieving in a shop. The magistrate has hardly time to recover from the commotion. She addresses the officer in English. Unfortunately for her, the accused has questions.
He wants to know how long he will stay in police custody and other things… lapolispépinimoilaba…; mo envi kone…
Magistrate (in English): There is a procedure to follow… Raises her voice: don’t talk! … blah blah blah blah blah…
She turns to another officer and dictates in English.
Accused: I told you I am going to hang myself if… Mopoupendimwa… modirou. kiferlapolispe…
Magistrate (bluntly, in English): You are not under my responsibility… I am telling you there is a procedure…
No explanation of whatever ‘procedure’, the word is just hammered several times.
Mo pou pendi… …
None of my business. And in Creole: I am not going to invent a procedure just for you…
She gets hysterical. In English: Tell him to shut up!… Take him away! Take him away!
The young man is furious and hurls a string of swear words as he is taken away. Pa gagne drwa kozé ici? Ki ou été ou?…
Things might turn awry for the fellow.
Equality of citizens
It’s eleven. There are only two of us sitting on the four-metre bench in the first row. A man and I.
A slim young policeman in front turns to me and orders in the usual impolite way characteristic of Civil Servants: Al asiz laba!
A total lack of good manners. He wants me to move to the second row, which is almost empty.
Why? I ask in French. The idiot repeats: Just move there! Ale al laba!
Because I want you to… Mo pe dir ou fer li.
I refuse. And all this because a disabled person is being led to the nearest bench. We just make room for him on the bench. No need to move to the back. Discomfited, the policeman gulps down his ridiculous display of authority and frowns.
Going back to the young accused, it would be most enlightening to know what training magistrates, who are just Civil Servants doing an administrative job related to the application of law, receive before being hoisted on an elevated platform to address a public hailing from all walks of life and called to Court for all sorts of wrongdoings, faults, antisocial behaviour, etc. Do magistrates have any notion of equality of citizens? That be they young, old, thieves, wife-beaters, whatever, they have the right to speak and ask questions, and they should be treated with respect?
We know that it’s not great job to face the least glamorous side of society on a daily basis. But it’s their job. Not our problem. All this unnecessary commotion could have been avoided if the magistrate accepted to explain and speak calmly. The Chief Justice would certainly know that, in a multi-ethnic society, authorities should be tactful in talking to people and not let underprivileged people get the wrong perception that there is ethnic bias in the contemptuous treatment meted out to them.