Delhi riots: The police have lost their autonomy | Opinion
The most tragic outcome of the police handling of the protests has been the death of at least 42 people.
The recent riots in Delhi were the latest in a series of the police failures to uphold the law during the demonstrations against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or the CAA. These failures do not come as a surprise. They are the inevitable consequences of something I have written about in this column several times before — the relentless attack of politicians on the autonomy of institutions, and the failure of police officers, civil servants, public sector managers, and others to resist the attack. Writing about the Delhi riots, distinguished retired police officer Prakash Singh, now chairman of The India Police Foundation, said, “Police response invariably reflects the bias of the ruling party”. In his book Police and Politics another distinguished police officer, Kirpal Singh Dhillon, pointed out that the police, far from having gained autonomy at Independence to become a force which serves the public, remained a colonial force which served the government.
The most tragic outcome of the police handling of the anti-CAA protests has been the death of 42 people including two policemen. The most blatantly political police act was unnecessarily barricading roads to spread chaos for commuters, thus creating hostility to the Shaheen Bagh sit-in, giving the Bharatiya Janata Party its main issue in the Delhi election campaign. After visiting the sit-in, former Chief Information Commissioner, Wajahat Habibullah, told the Supreme Court (SC) in an affidavit, “There are numerous roads that have no connection with the protests that have been barricaded by the police unnecessarily abdicating their responsibilities and duties and wrongly laying the blame on the protest.”
The police’s loss of their rightful autonomy and its impact on their functioning has long been recognised. In 1977, the Janata Party government established the National Police Commission. In its reports, it maintained that “political control over the police had led to gross abuses resulting in erosion of the rule of law and loss of police credibility as a professional organisation.” However, when the commission’s reports were published after Indira Gandhi’s return to power, they were sent to state governments by the Centre with the recommendation that no notice should be taken of observations about the political system or the functioning of the police because the commission was “unduly critical.”
Because, broadly speaking, no notice was taken of the National Police Commission’s criticisms and recommendations. In 2006, in the case of Prakash Singh v the Union of India, the SC issued six directives to state governments to ensure they did not exercise undue influence on the police. But Singh himself said, “the old order prevaileth.” This is born out by last year’s Status of Policing in India Report compiled by Common Cause and its partners. About a third of the police personnel interviewed had experienced political pressure on several occasions.
The most common punishment for the police who don’t bow to political pressure is suspension or transfer. The report quotes an example — the majority of the investigating staff of a police station in Himachal Pradesh were transferred for issuing challans to vehicles of local politicians. The officers who lead Delhi’s police can be transferred anywhere in India. Is it going too far to ask whether the fear of a punishment transfer, or worse, the humiliation of a suspension, delayed their controlling the rioting until the arrival of the National Security Adviser gave them a clear indication of the action the government wanted them to take?