I was prompt. I got in my police jeep and asked my driver to take me immediately to AIIMS, New Delhi, where I was told Inspector Chougule had been admitted. He was on duty at the Tis Hazari court when there was an altercation with local lawyers over the parking of vehicles. I am not clear about the details but a video clipping I was watching showed a constable being beaten up. Some lawyers were also shown hurling chairs and kicking the person in uniform who had fallen down on the floor. I was aghast and that’s when I received the phone call, and realised that Inspector Chougule too was on duty at the court and was injured.
I rushed out of the jeep to the Emergency where Chougule lay helpless under the influence of anesthesia. The doctor on duty informed that he was brought to the hospital with multiple fractures and in great pain. His family had been informed and they were on their way, I was told. I decided to wait for them and took a seat in the waiting room. The TV blared about a judicial enquiry having been ordered against the police. That senior police officers would record the statements personally and the enquiry against the police must be completed within a specific timeframe.
I am shocked. My police officer is seriously injured here, and there are many more, I have been informed. Why has an enquiry been ordered against them? Why is the enquiry not about the incident? I am also wondering how the court has pre-judged the issue? I am seething with anger at an unjust system that has decided against the uniform without giving it a chance to defend itself.
I remember an incident where an officer from my cadre, faced with an angry crowd, ordered firing but the police staff on duty did not. He thought it was a case of grave indiscipline and reported it to the seniors. During the enquiry that ensued, the inspector in charge gave his statement that he felt if he or his staff fired, they would not be protected. That the administration would side with the agitators who had political support. That he would be suspended too, so he took a conscious decision to not use any force. In his statement, he cited cases of many recent agitations where it had been decided not to use force despite heavy damage to life and property. He specifically mentioned that this was despite the fact that women had been molested during one such agitation. I remember having discussed these cases with Inspector Chougule and his staff during an evening roll call at his police station.
And I was very embarrassed when a constable got up and sought permission to share his views frankly. His contention was that the officer not using force in the above incident was right. Most policemen feel that the uniform and police discipline does not permit them to air their views, but it is also a fact that the use of even minimal force leads to disciplinary action against them. That it is safe not to act. That even their families advise them against it as police action brings public wrath — however justified the police action may be. That nobody supports the police in their hour of need. I found almost all the policemen agreeing with him and nodding their heads in affirmation. I was shocked at this near-unanimous opinion, but after detailed discussions we decided that we shall not allow ourselves to be “mere spectators”. We resolved to be the true custodians of law in the capital and support each other in our hour of need. We also resolved never to use more force than required as the agitators are, after all, our own countrymen and women. They are not enemies. Their demands and agitation are justified in their perception. So, we shall use force strictly as per the demand of the situation, we had decided.
At AIIMS, our past discussions and resolutions were replaying in my mind. I was reminded of the lesson on “use of force proportionate to the violence” that had been grilled into us during “mob drill” rehearsals in the Police Academy. I was taught that, as a police officer it is my duty to safeguard public property. During the law classes in the same academy, I was also taught not to come to any conclusion without hearing both sides. The instructor used to repeatedly talk about “natural justice”. He would hammer in the notion in class that it meant that both sides deserve to be heard, and must be given an opportunity to present their case. He would talk, teach and preach about “due process of law” and explain that it meant following the established procedure of hearing the opposing sides before arriving at a decision.
As I waited for Inspector Chougule to gain consciousness, and for his family to reach the hospital, I wondered if some law instructor in the judicial academy skipped this chapter on the “due process of law”? I also wondered if in the law college that I attended to secure a Bachelors of Law, we were taught that lawyers are above the law. Maybe I missed that lecture, while others attended it and took it to heart.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 7, 2019 under the title ‘Above the law’. The writer is an IPS officer who retired as DG and holds a degree in law from the University of Pune.