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Friday, October 22, 2021

Panchkula everywhere

Because police in India today are not expected to uphold the rule of law, but the rule of the party in power

Written by Julio Ribeiro |
Updated: September 18, 2017 12:11:31 am
The police in India today are not expected to uphold the rule of law.(Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

The apparent threat to transfer the Director General of Police (DGP), Haryana, following Gurmeet Singh’s (I refrain from adding Baba or Ram Rahim to his real name) arrest remained in the realm of speculation. It would have constituted a great travesty of justice if those who wield the power to appoint and transfer had shifted the blame from themselves onto the shoulders of the police chief.

The police in India today are not expected to uphold the rule of law. They are trained to do that but as soon as officers are absorbed into the system they quickly learn that all they are required to do is uphold the rule of the party in power. There was a time when politicians were wary of expecting senior police officers to blindly toe their line, irrespective of the moral, ethical and, more importantly, legal merits of their instructions, communicated directly or through trusted intermediaries. This is not the situation today. Politicians of all parties and ideologies treat the bureaucracy and the police as private fiefdoms that will bow to their wishes as and when demanded.

It was not so bad some years ago. If the seniors resisted, or even refused, they were not summarily transferred. On the contrary, they may even have gathered some admirers among the political class. Politicians who did not like this intransigence were disappointed, to put it mildly, but they did not think it prudent to challenge the positions adopted on sound legal grounds by police leaders.

Personally, I have no doubt that in Haryana, oral instructions were given to the DGP to trust the promise of the Dera’s core leadership to keep the peace. But I am not willing to blame Manohar Lal Khattar for being sweet on Gurmeet Singh. After all, politics involves essentially a quest for power and Singh was in a position to deliver a massive number of votes to Khattar’s party. The Congress, or any other political party in its place, would have done likewise.

I am not going to discuss the merits or demerits of godmen or the hold they have on the thought processes of their followers. Nor am I going to comment on the ethical or moral issues that should influence the decisions and subsequent actions of our political leaders. That has already been done by more knowledgeable and competent people. What I would like to tell the reader is that the undiluted, sole, power to appoint and transfer senior police leaders is presently in the hands of chief ministers. The Supreme Court had ordered the dilution of this power 10 years ago in the Prakash Singh case so that police leaders were able to act independently of the political leadership in all matters of law and order and the investigation of crimes. Alas, this has not happened.

No state government is willing to relinquish or even loosen its grip on the police with the inevitable consequences that we citizens have been experiencing over the years. Let us consider a few such instances, where deaths of innocents could have been minimised if the police leadership was permitted to carry out its constitutional responsibility of upholding the law.

The massacre of the Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 after Indira Gandhi was assassinated is widely known to have been encouraged by the Congress leadership at the district level. The disclosures in Sanjay Suri’s book, 1984: The Anti-Sikh Violence and After, give ample cause to believe that there were a few police officers who acted according to the law and discouraged the killers in their jurisdiction. Police officers who succumbed to the unlawful wishes of political leaders and in whose jurisdiction mass killings occurred were later protected from prosecution by the leaders who would have otherwise been liable to prosecution themselves.

In 2002, in Gujarat after the Godhra tragedy, innocent Muslims were butchered in Ahmedabad and some other districts of the state. Two state ministers were stationed in the police commissioner’s and the DGP’s control rooms respectively, with an obvious intent. I say it is obvious because the three police superintendents who ensured that the law was upheld were summarily transferred within 15 days of the massacres. To my mind, the conclusions to be drawn are obvious.

These two examples of how the political stranglehold over the police machinery can distort the entire security scenario should be enough to convince any sensible, thinking Indian citizen that the power of politicians over the police needs to be adjusted by measures that have been suggested by the Supreme Court in the Prakash Singh judgment. Only public pressure can sway the political class.

What happened in Panchkula and other parts of Haryana will recur — have no doubts about that. More people will die in future incidents of this type. We cannot expect politicians to disregard godmen and their ability to deliver thousands or lakhs of votes. We cannot expect politicians of any party to turn their faces away on moral, ethical or legal grounds. The only solution is to ensure that the police do their duty as per the law of the land. And they will do it if the leadership is competent and free from the yoke of the political class. Police officers will then disregard the wishes of their political masters and uphold only the law and the constitution. If they know that they are not going to be transferred or punished for doing their duty — like the young IPS officer Rahul Sharma was after Gujarat 2002 — then this country can say that the rule of law has come to stay.

I had said at the beginning of this article that things were not so bad when politicians were more considerate. I remember a minister in the Maharashtra government demanding the release of some gang lords from jail to help the Congress party in an upcoming municipal election. I was the commissioner of police and I flatly refused. I was not transferred and the minister only complained loudly that he was the minister for the state of Maharashtra, minus Mumbai city. But that was 30-plus years ago.

In Punjab, years later, the Union Home Minister Buta Singh wanted me to detain Akali voters in the SGPC election so that his candidates could win. When I told him that was not my job, he was naturally disappointed but I was able to turn down an illegitimate request. It is unfortunate that officers today find it difficult to disregard such instructions without being ousted from their positions.

As a young DCP in Mumbai city, in whose jurisdiction the labour leader George Fernandes had organised a public meeting, I had occasion to dodge the wishes of the then chief minister. Our intelligence branch had learnt that the meeting was going to be disrupted by an attack organised by the Shiv Sena chief. When this was reported to the chief minister by the intelligence unit, the instructions were to allow the attack. When this was communicated to me as officer in charge of the bandobast, I decided that there was no way in which I would allow a crime to be committed in my area. I changed the configuration of the security to make it even tighter thus displeasing the chief minister. I was not punished for doing what I was bound by the law to do. I doubt if I would have survived today.

The writer, a retired IPS officer, was Mumbai police commissioner, DGP Gujarat and DGP Punjab, and is a former Indian ambassador to Romania

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