Updated: August 1, 2015 12:00:04 am
These are difficult and deadly times to be a “thulla” in India. On the one hand, the people of India expect the police to be the first and most robust line of defence against routine crime, as well as more serious challenges like Naxalism and cross-border terrorism. But on the other, influential segments of our civil society, including the media, elected representatives and elements of our criminal justice system, send confusing signals about the basic parameters within which the police is expected to uphold the rule of law. Being the thulla that I am, it is all a bit confusing.
The irony is stark. Even as India mourns the death of SP Baljit Singh and other brave officers of Punjab Police, large sections of our civil society pleaded the cause of Yakub Memon. And, after Thursday, mourn his hanging as a travesty of justice. And why not? The Indian state has a proven track record of mercy towards convicted terrorists. The supporters of Memon were simply following in the footsteps of the sympathisers of the killers of Rajiv Gandhi and of Beant Singh.
Consider the encounter that took place in Gurdaspur on Monday. Going by recent Supreme Court rulings, since the three suspected terrorists were killed in police firing, arguably a case of murder should be compulsorily registered against all police personnel involved in the incident, which should be investigated by a neutral agency like the CBI/ CID. Any rewards or medals to be given to the next of kin of the deceased policemen and to injured police personnel can only be considered after the conclusion of said inquiry. This, as things stand today, is the law of the land as laid down by the SC in September 2014 in PUCL and another vs State of Maharashtra and others. Our otherwise vigilant and vociferous media, NGOs, intellectuals and above all elected representatives, haven’t thought it fit to seek a review of this judgment. The curative and review petitions of a Yakub Memon can be heard any number of times but a curative petition in such a matter would be out of the question. The galaxy of distinguished jurists who throng our courts in the disinterested service of human rights would ensure that such a petition was dismissed at the first stage.
The Memon case is an interesting example of our collective schizophrenia and myopia on matters of national security and policing. One defence being offered is that since he was allegedly lured back by intelligence agencies based on some unspecified and unverifiable promises, he should have been let off as a sign of respect for the sovereign word of the Indian state. Suddenly, the faith of civil society in our intelligence agencies has reached a zenith. This is the same civil society that was baying for the blood of our police and intelligence officers in the Ishrat Jahan case. So the word of our thullas wasn’t worth a damn in establishing the truth of Ishrat Jahan’s questionable activities. And yet their alleged word must override the entire judicial process when it comes to Memon. Letting Memon walk on such flimsy grounds would not only have had a demoralising effect on our police forces, it would have sent a clear message to India’s enemies that it is open season to commit any atrocity without fear of punishment.
In its role as the custodian of fundamental rights, the SC has, over the last 20 years, from Joginder Kumar vs State of UP, 1994, on the procedure of arrest, to its 2014 verdict on the use of force, imposed rules of engagement on our police forces that do not exist anywhere else in the world. Today, the constraints laid down on arrest in India, especially on the use of handcuffs, are far more stringent that those in countries with a far older tradition of democratic rights. As a police professional, I welcome any attempt that makes the police more accountable and credible in the eyes of the law and the general public. But accountability is not a one-way street. Do our courts only have a punitive role when it comes to the police?
As a citizen, I feel that it is quite commendable that our higher judiciary and civil society want our police forces to adhere to exemplary norms of conduct. However, to attain this lofty goal, they must also ensure that the police is empowered and enabled with the required resources and legal protections that are comparable with those provided in the United States and the United Kingdom. Nothing less would allow our police forces to act in complete conformity with the law, as passed by the legislature, and interpreted by the judiciary, and to meet public expectations at the same time. Unless this happens, policemen will continue to be called and treated like thullas: Figures of fear, loathing, ridicule and contempt, in no particular order.
It is especially ironic that while the SC and other courts are quick to summon police personnel for contempt when their guidelines on arrests or encounters are allegedly violated, the SC’s own judgment on police reforms, in Prakash Singh vs Union of India, has been gathering dust since September 2006. This one-sided imposition of expectations on our police forces cannot continue indefinitely and may well end up undermining the rule of law itself. The courts and civil society cannot adopt such an ostrich-like attitude towards the plight of our police forces. By all means, have a debate on the desirability of the death penalty. But as long as it remains on the statute books, you cannot expect your policemen to make the supreme sacrifice and allow convicted mass murderers to be let off on extraneous grounds. Judicial diktats cannot wish away the very real external constraints on police performance and professionalism that exist in our country. No surprise, then, that a Yakub Memon gets all the legal protection and remedies that our Constitution has to offer, along with dollops of sympathy from civil society, while day after day the thulla lives and dies unmourned, unloved and unprotected.
The writer is a serving IPS officer. Views are personal
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