Law and order: Who cares?

District magistrates and superintendents of police must be punished if a riot occurs in their area of jurisdiction

The recent happenings in Gujarat have raised many questions about various institutions of the Indian State. After the demolition of the Babri Masjid, it is these happenings that have posed the greatest challenge to the basic values of our Constitution. It is only values like the spirit of tolerance, respect for the point of view of others, even–handed treatment of all sections that ensure the existence of a progressive and modern Indian nation. All those who are concerned about the continuation of a democratic dispensation governed by the rule of law have had their faith in the State severely shaken by the pogrom against the minorities in Gujarat.

While Gujarat has raised many issues, I will deal with those pertaining to the police force. As a police officer, I have always felt that my primary objective should be to try and put my own house in order before pointing fingers at others — the political class, the civil administration etc — however culpable they may also be.

  • The incidents in Gujarat are not unique. The law enforcement agencies have shown their apathy and callousness towards the performance of their primary responsibility of upholding the Constitution in riot after riot. The objective of the Constitution is the creation of a society where all citizens, irrespective of religion, caste, class and gender will enjoy the equal protection of the State, can be realised only if institutions like the police behave in an impartial and fair manner. Unfortunately, this premise has been demolished repeatedly by the actions of the police.
  • The crying need for police reform has been repeatedly ignored by all sections of Indian society that matter. It is only very rarely that senior politicians, bureaucrats, members of the judiciary, teachers, writers and other people involved in decision–making or in the formulation of public opinion deliberate on issues related to police reforms. I feel that this question of reform is intrinsically linked with remedying the problem raised in the earlier paragraph.
  • On every  occasion that the police have failed in their primary duty, whether in  l984, when thousands of Sikhs were massacred all over the country, or in 1992 when the mosque in Ayodhya was demolished in full view of tens of thousands of policemen, commissions set up to enquire into these incidents have always indicted the police for their partisan behaviour, their deliberate inaction in providing protection to the lives and properties of the minorities and their criminal involvement in violent and murderous attacks and looting of property. But the sections of society mentioned earlier have never made sustained and concerted efforts to bring the guilty to book and award them exemplary punishment. If criminal actions on the part of those who are entrusted with the mandate of fighting crime go unpunished then what hope is there for the maintenance of law and order and the ensuring of justice?

At its meeting in Srinagar, Kashmir, in l968, the National Integration Council had recommended that the onus for the breakout of communal rioting should rest squarely on the shoulders of the district magistrate and superintendent of police who should be punished if a riot occurs in their area of jurisdiction. Punishment being meted out to a government functionary, be it a police officer or a magistrate is, however, a rare exception to the rule.

Unless we make it dangerous for the police to behave in the way that they did with some honourable exceptions in Gujarat, each repetition of such behaviour will become more and more outrageous until the very fabric of our society is rent beyond repair.

As far as I am concerned, the most effective way to ensure the containment of communal violence is to institutionalise this doctrine of responsibility and culpability of those in charge of the government machinery. Police action is the first state intervention in a situation of rioting and therefore the role and behaviour of the police is of the utmost significance in either instilling confidence in those who are being attacked or in destroying it.

There are voluminous reports and recommendations on the subject of police reform. The need for sensitisation of the force, changes in recruitment patterns to increase the representation in the force of members of minority communities, ways and means to preserve the independent functioning of the police hierarchy and implementation of norms in transfer policy are all very important components of this agenda. However, the punishment of erring officials and those who commit crimes of dereliction of duty, murder, loot and collusion during times of communal conflict is the first priority as far as I am concerned.

There is absolutely no justification for these offences to be treated any differently than they would in normal circumstances. In fact, they should be treated with greater severity when they are committed at a time when the constitutional mandate of the police personnel concerned is to protect the minorities and to behave and act in a manner exactly opposite to what is being resorted to.

Unless we make it dangerous for the police to behave in the way that they did with some honourable exceptions in Gujarat, each repetition of such behaviour will become more and more outrageous until the very fabric of our society is rent beyond repair.            

(The writer is a senior IPS officer).

Archived from Communalism Combat, September 2002, Anniversary Issue (9th), Year 9  No. 80, Partisan police



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