Delhi has witnessed mob violence before. But the recent mobs being led by victimised traders is, indeed, something new. It would be naïve, of course, to believe that the violence was unleashed only by the aggrieved traders. Those behind the mayhem do not care if public or private property, including that of the traders, is destroyed or if the citizens of Delhi are prevented from going about their daily lives.
Political parties that cannot come together on anything are vying with each other to support the anti-sealing agitation. No one seems to have given much thought to the disastrous consequences that can follow when the government admits, rightly or wrongly, that it is unable to handle the law and order situation. When it is known that the ruling party is supporting the agitation, a violent one at that, or expresses its ‘inability to control it’, it has serious implications beyond the immediate.
A clear message goes out to the average policeman that the police should not use force against the agitators. No orders need to be given to the police not to act. They become hesitant, even reluctant, to take action against the law-breakers. This explanation of police conduct does not, of course, absolve them of their legal responsibility. Mala fide inaction can be as lethal as mala fide action. Unfortunately, this has happened in the past and is happening more frequently in many parts of the country today. And all because of politics.
The role of the Delhi Police during the 1984 riots was indefensible. The police were mostly absent from the city’s roads when bands of hooligans went killing Sikhs and destroying their houses and properties. In late 1992, the Babri mosque was demolished by a mob in the presence of thousands of armed policemen. The authorities did not summon the paramilitary forces stationed nearby. The tragic Gujarat riots in 2002 are too recent to need much recall. But all these occasions led to terrible consequences.
What message does the handling of the traders’ agitation in Delhi send to subversive forces in the country? Burning buses, forcing shops and schools to close, blocking traffic and creating chaos on Delhi roads are standard agitprop tactics in this country. But these tactics can boomerang on the traders. How will they react when lumpen elements join factory workers, shop employees, slum dwellers and other marginalised groups and resort to the same terror tactics in support of their demands?
The police have already been almost completely neutralised in some of the North-eastern states and the situation is fast deteriorating in states like Jharkhand, Bihar and Chhattisgarh. There is already a demand for sending the army in some parts of the country to bring the situation under control. If the police are not competent enough to maintain law and order and enforce the rule of law in the capital of the country, what message are we sending to the police forces in the rest of the nation?
All this is not to say that the traders in Delhi have no case. To say that enforcement of law is the legal duty of the executive is all very well. This, however, does not mean being blind to the ground reality and the humanitarian aspect of this problem. Blind enforcement of laws is not a wise option. The ground reality is that Delhi will slide into total chaos if laws are enforced in a ruthless manner. For example, urinating in public is an offence under the Police Act. But it does not need much imagination to know what would happen if the police start prosecuting all the offenders, policemen included. In this case, the solution lies in providing an adequate number of urinals.
Of course, law-breakers must be punished. But where do we start when there are such large-scale violations? Delhi has a large up-market township where government officers, including senior judges, have built palatial houses in violation of every law. The guilty must be punished, but not by taking leave of all common sense, and certainly not by ‘starting at the bottom’. For starters, action should be taken against the more powerful and the more blatant violators of the law. The courts should also not forget that many of these illegal up-market colonies have thrived partly due to the liberal stay orders granted by the courts at various stages of their building.
Ad hoc demolition drives will not be able to achieve the desired objective. It is time that everyone concerned sits down together and considers the problem in all its dimensions — legal, humanitarian, practical, etc — to find a sensible and practical solution.
Ved Marwah is a former Commissioner of Police, Delhi, and headed the commission that investigated the role of the police during the 1984 carnage in Delhi.