India’s police force is under stress
It has been unable to cope with new challenges to public order. Autonomy is the only way out
The year 2019 ended on a stressful note for the Indian Police, battling a number of agitations over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA), and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) across the country. The police also had to answer an array of questions about that methods of handling the protests. Violent incidents in Uttar Pradesh (UP) led to a police clampdown at a number of places, while in Delhi, police action in Jamia Millia Islamia and inaction in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) came in for widespread criticism. In Hyderabad, the death of four rape accused in a police encounter generated a heated debate over instant justice and a criminal justice system that suffers from inordinate delays. The dawn of 2020 again saw the police embroiled in another debate, with the transfer of the Bhima Koregaon case from the Pune police to the National Investigation Agency (NIA).
The fall-out of these incidents broadly indicates the nature of impending challenges before the police in 2020. The experience of 2019 will also be vital for the police in shaping its responses in the future.
First, agitations over the CAA and the NRC are distinct from the usual over-specific and localised issues. Second, these are in the glare of arc lights with TV channels and reporters thronging the area. Third, the police are stationed not at designated venues of protest. Fourth, rabble-rousing from CAA supporters and critics in a politically charged environment is adding fuel to the fire and increasing animosities.
The police are in a quandary over agitations such as the one in Shaheen Bagh. It is predominantly women of all ages helming this protest, visiting the site daily in large numbers. Since the occupied area is a public place, lakhs of commuters and residents are affected, and numerous appeals have been made to the protesters to vacate the premises and shift to one of the designated sites for such protests, with little success. Similar protests have come up at other places too.
How do the police tackle these situations in metros, under the constant gaze and scrutiny of the media and public? Ideally, those making volatile comments should be booked and the protesters moved to designated sites. This is not possible since the courts have asked whether the volatile statements are inflammatory enough to cause an immediate conflagration. The public sit-ins have become so huge that any police action runs the risk of injuring unarmed protesters. Given the circumstances, the police can only keep a watchful eye to maintain peace.
Providing security in such a politically-charged and sensitive environment is another challenge. It is difficult to screen people at such gatherings where hundreds visit the site every day and even the organisers are not aware of who exactly is in the crowd. When vandalism takes place against public property with attacks on policemen, the protesters blame outsiders. On January 30, a young man, who is pro-CAA, fired at the crowd of protesters at Jamia, injuring one. The police were blamed for inaction, even complicity. The time has come for monitoring such sites with drones and CCTV cameras powered by mobile vans.
Responding to college unrest in the present circumstances is another challenge, when the debate about police entry into campuses continues. The Delhi Police were criticised for using excessive force inside Jamia after entering the campus, allegedly in hot pursuit of a violent mob. The same police were inactive, waiting outside JNU’s gates, while masked attackers created mayhem inside the campus. The new template for action has to be enforced — for the police to take action within a campus on information of a cognisable offence and not wait for any permission.
Mending the broken criminal justice system still remains a real challenge in the future. Even after seven years, the Delhi gang rape victim’s mother waits for justice. Smart lawyers, aided by lengthy judicial processes, have managed to delay the hanging till now. Other cases of heinous crimes against women continue to suffer due to shoddy investigation, poor forensic facilities, a below-par prosecution system and inordinately long judicial procedures. Kangaroo justice is no answer to this, yet instances abound where this is resorted to.
The four rape accused in Hyderabad fell to police bullets in an encounter when they allegedly attacked the police. The public lapped it up amid cautionary advice from jurists and courts.
Finally, the police have to brace themselves for many more dogfights between the Centre and the states over sensitive cases such as the Bhima Koregaon one, with severe adverse implications. The case registered during the Bharatiya Janata Party regime in Maharashtra by the Pune Police was ready to be charge-sheeted when the new government denounced the investigations for targeting activists of the Left and liberal persuasion. The transfer of the case by the Centre to the NIA is a sign of things to come. The police leadership now has to ensure that it prepares a solid case which cannot be chopped and changed later by other dispensations. It will also have to counter political machinations. Police autonomy appears the only solution to this imbroglio, but alas, police reforms still remain a chimera.
Yashovardhan Azad is former IPS officer and Central Information Commissioner
The views expressed are personal