The ongoing violence in northeast Delhi, where at least 10 persons, including a head constable, were killed in rioting was waiting to happen. It was the culmination of weeks of dithering and selective action on the part of the Delhi Police in dealing with those agitating against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Violence had erupted in the Jafrabad area on last Sunday (February 23) itself and there was sufficient indication that all was not well. However, no preventive action appears to have been taken, and on Monday, when the national capital was rocked by agitators in different areas including Jafrabad, Gokulpuri and Maujpur, the police appeared to have been caught by surprise. Worse, there appeared to be hesitation on the part of the police in taking firm action against the rioters who continued to be on rampage, destroying public and private property. There was a disturbing scene of a rioter openly brandishing his firearm at a policeman.
The Delhi Police is the best resourced police in the country. It is looked upon as a model by state police forces across the country. However, it has not covered itself with glory while dealing with recent agitations. Its response, in fact, shows a disturbing pattern. There have been extremes of action and inaction. In Jamia Millia Islamia, the police is alleged to have entered the campus forcibly on December 15, 2019 and roughed up students after their march against the CAA turned violent. In JNU, on January 5, there was an inexplicable delay in responding to violence by a group of outsiders within the campus.
In other states also, police action did not inspire public confidence. In West Bengal, with Mamata Banerjee leading the charge against the CAA, the message to the police was clear. They turned a Nelson’s eye to rioters’ vandalising government and private property; the Eastern Railways alone suffered a loss of Rs 72.19 crore. In Uttar Pradesh, where over 20 people were killed, the Allahabad High Court has called for a detailed report on the alleged police excesses. In Karnataka, the High Court has blamed the Mangaluru police of “over-zealousness” in dealing with the anti-CAA protests.
The moral of the story is obvious: Police response invariably reflects the bias of the ruling party. The partisan police response to situations, which were strikingly similar, has caused dismay and consternation among the people. One commentator deplored that “in no time, perhaps, has the decline in policing standards been this stark and this shocking”. The criticism is not unwarranted, but one must get to the root of the problem. The National Police Commission recorded as far back as 1979 that “the present culture of the police system appears a continuation of what obtained under the British regime when the police functioned ruthlessly as an agent for sustaining the government in power”. In such a situation, the Commission went on to say, “police find it difficult to play their lawful role and make their performance acceptable to the people at large”.
The Supreme Court issued a set of six directions in 2006 to state governments with a view to transforming the ethos and working philosophy of the police. Its most important direction was about setting up of a State Security Commission with a view to insulate the police from external pressures. It is true that several states have enacted laws purportedly in compliance with the Supreme Court’s orders, but these acts, as their critical examination reveals, violate the letter and spirit of the judicial directions. The old order continues for all practical purposes.
The Justice Dhingra Committee, in its recently released report on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, slammed the Union government and the Delhi Police, observing that a large number of crimes of murder, rioting, looting, arson remained unpunished for the simple reason that there was “lack of interest shown by the police and by the authorities in handling these cases as per law or to proceed with the intention of punishing the culprits”. The effort of the police and the administration “seems to have been to hush up the criminal cases concerning riots”.
It is tragic that the lessons of 1984 have not been learnt to this day. It is unfortunate that the NPC recommendations have not been acted upon even after the Supreme Court’s directions. No wonder, in the recent agitation in different states, the police have acted in the manner they did. They were servants of the British during the colonial rule. They are servants of the ruling party now.
The police are, no doubt, to blame for not being able to function in an objective and impartial manner. There is definitely a failure of leadership also. But can political parties across the spectrum escape the blame for continuing to use the police as an instrument to further their political agenda? Can the media escape its responsibility for treating the police as a convenient punching bag from time to time and not taking up the cause of police reforms as aggressively as it should be doing? And, are the people of the country also not to blame for not being vocal enough about police reforms? The Supreme Court would also need to introspect as to why the implementation of its directions has been so ineffective.