There is a photograph, a widely tweeted one, which shows a Delhi lawyer in black jacket, white shirt and lawyer’s collar band, standing atop a car outside the Patiala House courts last Wednesday, throwing stones at students and journalists as policemen stand around as mere spectators.
There are more photographs that you may have seen on the front pages of several newspapers and plenty of video footage on TV channels: of lawyers on the rampage against JNU students and journalists in the court premises last Tuesday, and then again on Wednesday, when they kicked and punched Kanhaiya Kumar, the JNU students’ union president who is controversially charged with sedition when the police brought him to the court. All of this documents what happened in the heart of India’s capital city while policemen, of whom there were nearly 400 in the court premises, stood around doing nothing or very little.
There is also, inexplicably, the response of Bhim Sain Bassi (a.k.a. BS Bassi), Delhi’s police commissioner, when he was asked why the police were not able to rein in the violent lawyers. Mr Bassi is reported to have said that “lawyers are officers of the court” and that the “use of heavy force would have been inappropriate”.
Wait, what? In case you didn’t catch the drift, this is the top cop in India’s capital city justifying his force’s inaction against a mob on the rampage not on one day but on two consecutive ones by arguing that reining it in wouldn’t have been in order because it comprised lawyers. In effect, Mr Bassi, who has been a career policeman since 1977, seems to think it is not the nature of the offence but who perpetrates it is what should determine police action.
On Monday, he went a step further. As police waited outside JNU to arrest the students who allegedly shouted anti-national slogans and face sedition charges, the veracity of which is now being widely challenged, Bassi said the onus now rests on the students to prove they are innocent.
But then if you’ve been following the news, you already know all of this, including the unforgettable statements Mr Bassi has made. What you may not know is that barely a couple of hours after last Tuesday’s barbaric rampage by the people Mr Bassi describes as “officers of the court”, he hosted his ‘At Home’ function just a few kilometres away from the site of the violence. The At Home is an annual do where tea and snacks are served and is attended by an invited list of the city’s VIPs. Last Wednesday, these included the President of India, the Vice-President, the home minister, the Army chief and the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi. I am also told that there was the usual cohort of Delhi’s celebrity editors and senior journalists, including a sprinkling of a media baron or two. What I don’t know is whether any of these luminaries quizzed Mr Bassi about his rather peculiar notion of dealing with incidents of mob violence.
Still, things have an unerring manner of catching up with you. While the media — most TV news channels and the newspapers — denounced the mob’s actions and the police’s inaction, one Mumbai newspaper had a special mention of Mr Bassi. The Mumbai Mirror’s front page featured a full-length photograph of him with a headline that simply said ‘Meet the man who makes Mumbai cops look good’.
But no, this is not about what Mr Bassi said. It’s about how the police dealt with Tuesday’s and then Wednesday’s incidents. It has now surfaced that perpetrators of the violence on those two days had orchestrated their actions using social media networks and planned their resolve “to teach a lesson” to those they targeted. The police, who were present in force, did little to stop that. Moreover, on the following day, photographs that clearly identified the lawyer-goons at the forefront of the attack were all over in the media. Yet, on Thursday, the police filed an FIR against “unidentified persons”, made no arrests, and summoned a few lawyers to “co-operate” in the inquiry. They are, after all, to quote Mr Bassi, “officers of the courts”.
You may have also heard that there are changes ahead for Mr Bassi. On February 29, he will retire and his successor has already been named. But, and this is the intriguing bit, he was shortlisted for the post of an information commissioner. If he became one, would he have brought his singular views to his new job — of deciding whether to disclose information on RTI applications that go into appeal? We’ll never know because on Friday his name was dropped from that shortlist. Small mercies.