THE Supreme Court recently came down heavily on the Indian police for its deliberate failure to register First Information Reports or FIRs in respect of crimes reported to them by the citizenry. It pointedly referred to the widespread practice of “burking”, a colloquial expression used in police circles for this popular method of fudging crime statistics.
I had never heard this word being used in civilised discourse and was surprised to see the highest court of the land giving it some kind of legitimacy. Having always been curious about language, I was nudged into action. I consulted the Concise Oxford Dictionary (COD), the holy mecca for all those interested in the nuances of the English language.
I did not expect “burk” to be in the COD. But lo and behold, there it was, although it did not explain what it meant. It merely stated that it was a “variant of berk”. When I looked up “berk”, the dictionary stated that it is British slang, which means “a fool, a stupid person”. It is a noun, not a verb. It is usually not considered offensive despite the etymology. It is an abbreviation of Berkley or Berkshire Hunt rhyming slang for cunt. “Cunt” itself is “coarse slang for the female genitals”. Its offensive meaning is “an unpleasant or stupid person; a highly taboo word”.
It just shows how wrong we can be. Having heard this word current in Delhi police circles, I always thought it to be Haryanvi slang for “working”. When you received a complaint and registered an FIR, it was “working”. When you did not, it was “burking”. Now the situation is clear. It is obviously a word coined by our erstwhile British masters in the Indian Police. When you “burked”, you considered the complainant to be a stupid or foolish person, who had the gumption to bother a representative of the mighty British Raj with a complaint.
I have personal experience of this phenomenon. When I worked in the Institute of Applied Manpower Research, I used to go to office on a bicycle. There was no authorised cycle stand in the building. We just parked our bicycles at a particular place at our own risk and hoped for the best.
One day, I found my bike missing. At that stage of my career, it was a major blow. After searching for it high and low, I came to the conclusion that it had been stolen. So I went to the police station and registered an FIR. There was no “burking”. But nothing happened. My bike was never found.
A few years later, after I had joined the IAS, I was posted as Sub-Divisional Magistrate, Sadar Bazar, in Delhi. Three Station House Officers reported to me. I thought it was the ideal opportunity of getting my bike back. When I spoke to the concerned SHO in Daryaganj, he was all sympathy. He told me that bicycles were always found.
“How?” I bleated.
“Simple,” he explained glibly, “Once in a while, we catch a gang of bicycle thieves. We recover many bicycles, but these are in the form of cycle parts. We call the complainants to identify their bicycles. As there are no complete bicycles, they are unable to identify their bikes. Thus we are able to solve hundreds of cases. We give a handle to one complainant, a rim to another and a carrier to a third. No thieves are arrested. So everyone is happy.” He beamed at me.
“So, what about my bike?” I meekly enquired.
“No problem, sir. We shall try to recover as many parts of your make as we can. Maybe we will set up a complete bicycle for you.”
I thought it was an excellent idea. I unearthed a copy of the FIR which I had carefully preserved all these years. He looked at the printed form on which there were illegible scrawls in Urdu. Then he laughed.
“I told you that there is no burking in respect of bicycle thefts. I was wrong. Some of us are so taken up with burking, we indulge in it even where there is no advantage in it. You see, this paper does not amount to an FIR.”
“What is this paper, then? I do not know any Urdu,” I asked, with a sinking heart.
“Oh! It is a classic case of burking. What the Head Constable-Moharrir has given you is a copy of the report recorded in the Daily Diary. This has no legal sanctity,” he explained patiently, as he would to an imbecile.
Cut to the year 2010. Ramdev had come to Delhi. He held a huge yoga camp in an open ground. When it concluded, my wife and I also came out along with the surging crowd. In the melee, I lost my purse. It was obvious that someone had picked my pocket. There was not much cash but I had lost all my cards—credit card, PAN Card, driving licence, IIC membership card and so on.
I rushed to the Lodhi Colony police station and asked the Head Constable on duty to register a case of theft. The man looked quizzically at me, as if I had taken leave of my senses.
“Why do you wish to register an FIR? It will just inflate our statistics and you will not gain anything.”
“Would you not like to catch the pickpocket?” I queried innocently.
“In my 30 years of service, no one has ever caught a pickpocket. And how do you know that it was a pickpocket who committed the deed?” he asked reasonably. “Maybe, it just fell out of your pocket.”
I was scandalised. “Fell out of my pocket? How is that possible? It was a fat purse and it was in the right pocket of my kurta.”
We had a vigorous debate for half an hour, but the man would not relent. At last, he said with an air of finality, “Look, you have no proof that your pocket was picked. There is no witness to the crime. We can only say that your purse has been lost, not stolen. So I shall record an entry in the Zimni.”
“Zimni? What is that?”I asked.
“It is the Daily Diary.” And, suiting action to word, he wrote his piece in Hindi in a fat register that was lying open on his desk. After about half an hour, I was the proud possessor of a copy of the D.D. entry.
It is another matter that the pickpocket had more ethics than the policeman. Next day, as I was driving to the office of the Motor Licensing officer to have a duplicate driving licence issued, my mobile rang.
It was my wife. “You don’t need to go to the transport office. Just now, your driving licence along with the other cards arrived by post.”
The poor pickpocket had kept only the currency notes. He was not a “berker”, a stupid, foolish or unpleasant person. He was a highly ethical gentleman–just in need of some cash!
MK Kaw is a former Secretary, Government of India