It really has been a bleak winter for the Delhi Police — starting with the clashes with lawyers in November, then the clashes with students in Jamia in December, which contributed a great deal to the ongoing protests in Shaheen Bagh, the allegations of inaction during campus violence in JNU in January, finally culminating in the communal violence in February that has left at least 47 dead and several hundred injured. Public trust and confidence in the police seems to be at an all-time low. It will be a long haul trying to restore it; not just in Delhi, but across the country.
What happened in Delhi on February 24 is a matter of grave concern and raises troubling questions, regardless of one’s ideological affiliations. First and foremost, if the nation’s capital can experience this kind of sustained mayhem over hours and days, then what hope is there for law and order in the supposedly less well-policed parts of the country? Second, what are the larger implications of pervasive communal tension for India’s internal security, economy and social stability?
The timing of this violence couldn’t be worse. It coincided with a high-profile visit by the US president that was meant to showcase the strategic partnership between our two countries. Predictably, everyone is busy connecting the dots according to their political leanings. In the international media and the left-leaning sections of our civil society, the dominant narrative is that some kind of a pogrom has taken place. While it does not quite fit in with the facts in the public domain regarding the religious identity of the victims, suddenly India is being projected as some kind of a fascist police state where the minorities are facing an imminent Holocaust. This perception needs to be corrected urgently. But doing so will require a variety of measures to restore the faith of all our citizens, especially our minorities, in the rule of law.
First and foremost, we need to focus on the relief and rehabilitation of the victims and their families. This must be accompanied by proactive measures to initiate dialogue and restore trust between community leaders at the grass roots. It requires administrative resolve and political consensus to step back from the blame game and make a concerted effort to douse inflamed passions on all sides.
Second, the Delhi Police must register and investigate all riot-related complaints without fear or favour in a time-bound manner. It is widely believed that inflammatory speeches by various leaders led to this violence. That aspect must also be investigated. However, to primarily blame hate speech for this kind for violence is mere posturing. The actual perpetrators of specific acts of violence need to be identified and prosecuted. All too often we are content to justify our descent into mob violence on hate speech. It is necessary, but not sufficient to do so.
Third, a thorough inquiry must also identify those police officers who committed specific lapses that led to the riot and suitable action should be taken against them. Violence on this scale simmers for a while before erupting. There must have been plenty of warning signs that were missed or worse, not responded to. The Delhi Police themselves have lost one head constable and many others, including a DCP, have been injured. But their sacrifice and bravery cannot take away from the failure of the force to prevent the riot in the first place.
Fourth, and this is probably the hardest part, care must be taken to correct the systemic failures that allow such riots to take place. Without doing so, we cannot prevent further outbreak of mob violence. This requires a host of measures, most urgent of which is to seriously rethink the professional autonomy and accountability of our police officials.
In any democratic system, there are basic institutional mechanisms to ensure police accountability. The police leadership, of course, bears the primary responsibility for the front end of day-to-day functioning. The political executive is meant to be responsible for the back end of policy-making and allocation of adequate resources. The police leadership is guided primarily by loyalty to the party in office and faces an incentive structure that rewards obedience over professional competence and integrity. Regardless of the party in office, this is the political consensus on how the police ought to function.
Coming to the courts, despite the regular output of high-minded judgments, they too have failed miserably in ensuring police accountability. Our courts are prompt in passing sweeping judgements about certain aspects of police functioning such as arrests and encounters. But they are extremely ineffective in doing their basic job of dispensing justice in a time-bound manner, or in ensuring that the police receive proper backing in ensuring the rule of law. One example is the frequent misuse of Section 321 CrPC by all governments to withdraw riot-related cases with the consent of the court. All parties use this section to withdraw cases against their activists when they come to power. This gives rioters a powerful sense of impunity. Unless rioters know that they will face trial without fail, rioting will continue to serve as a viable tool of political mobilisation. The Supreme Court ought to frame strict guidelines that regulate the use of this provision of law.
The media too has not played its role of ensuring police accountability. Like our police leaders, too few editors and owners of media houses have the guts to say no to the party in power. This has disastrous consequences for democratic accountability in general, and police accountability in particular. Unless the media sets its own house in order, we will continue to miss a crucial piece in this puzzle.
It would be extremely foolish to think that the dominant narrative about the Delhi riots in the international media will not be seriously detrimental to our national interest. Just as it would be madness to think that the current feeling of insecurity and anxiety in our minority community will not damage our social fabric and have disastrous consequences for our aspirations for economic growth. Our national security challenges of cross-border terrorism and stabilising Kashmir become that much harder in the absence of communal harmony.
Keeping our minorities poor and fearful in ghettos is a recipe for all-round disaster. This is not only unethical and unconstitutional, it will also ensure that we never achieve our full national potential. By all means take firm measures against terrorism and radicalisation, but they cannot succeed by indiscriminately alienating the entire community. They need to have greater faith in our criminal justice system and in our social fabric. One way to do so would be to dramatically increase minority representation in all areas of our criminal justice system, especially in the police and judiciary. Their insufficient presence adds a great deal to the perception of bias. This must be rectified as a top priority.
The core issue remains that the police leadership has to step up and do a lot more to regain public confidence. Among other things, in crisis situations it requires them to stand up to political authority, firmly and visibly. Unless this starts to happen, irrespective of the party in office, riots will continue to take place with sickening regularity.
P B Mehta on Delhi riots: Our rulers want an India that thrives on cruelty, fear, division, violence
This article appeared in the print edition on March 6, 2020 under the title ‘Why Delhi burned’. The writer is an IPS officer serving in Uttarakhand. Views are personal.
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