How to insulate the police from politics
Kurukshetra is the holy land where the epic battle in the Mahabharat, also called dharmyudh, was fought between the warring brothers, the Pandavas and Kauravas, likely in 3000 BC. The Pandavas won because dharm (law) was on their side. Five millennia later, the police forces of three states faced off at the same place over the arrest of a political activist. But no one emerged victorious, because dharm favoured no one. Each came back, sober and apprehensive. Meanwhile, an intense debate raged over the conduct of the police going beyond the ambit of law and accepted norms, presumably at the behest of the political executive.
A tweet in Delhi attracted the ire of someone in Mohali and the Punjab Police, moving with alacrity, entered Delhi to arrest Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga. No transit remand was sought, but as they cruised along the highway towards Punjab, they were waylaid at Kurukshetra by the Haryana Police, armed with a warrant and a kidnapping case lodged by the Delhi Police. The tensions continued till Bagga was brought back home on the warrant of a Dwarka court.
Other states are doing no better. The Assam Police whisked away a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) Jignesh Mevani from Gujarat because someone in Kokrajhar got charged up over his tweet. Amaravati Member of Parliament (MP) Navneet Rana and her husband, MLA Ravi Rana, were hauled up for sedition in Mumbai, while attempting to chant the Hanuman Chalisa outside the chief minister (CM)’s residence. While no case was made out against Bagga and Mevani, except perhaps defamation, the Ranas, at best, could have been charged with public nuisance.
This is a theatre of the absurd with the police actors going well beyond the script. The Supreme Court (SC)’s orders have come to the rescue of the criminal justice system. A recent order on dharma sansads (religious parliaments) pushed states into taking action against inflammatory speeches and, in some cases, preventing such conclaves in future. Putting the sedition law in abeyance till the government articulates its stand on the matter is another, though the judges could have gone ahead with the hearings on the constitutionality of the law in today’s world, where freedom of speech is guaranteed.
However, even the SC’s directives on police reforms have largely been circumvented by the states. Seventeen states have either formulated or amended their police acts, but only for compliance purposes. The draft Model Police Act, 2006, crafted by the late jurist Soli Sorabjee was amended by the Centre in 2015 after 10 years and now awaits introduction even in the Union Territories. The SC’s directives were resisted by the states from the outset. A contentious issue is the selection of the director-general of police (DGP). No CM would let go of his or her power to select the DGP. To some extent, they are right too, since in a democracy, the police chief has to report to an elected government.
The last London Metropolitan Police chief, Cressida Dick, resigned over differences with mayor Sadiq Khan, who considered her ineffective against continuing racial prejudice and slurs against women. The London police chief is appointed by the home secretary and works closely with the mayor, reporting to him on important matters. The mayor is from the Labour Party while the government is Conservative. No wonder glowing tributes were paid to the outgoing chief for her astute stewardship and professionalism by home secretary Priti Patel and well as the prime minister.
While political factors are ubiquitous in such appointments, nevertheless, in advanced democracies such as the United Kingdom or the United States, the police chiefs profess their loyalty and accountability to the law. Hence, only differences over budgets, policies, attitudes and performance lead to sacking or resignation of chiefs. There is hardly ever any dispute over the institution of cases or investigation and politicians keep away from commenting or analysing investigation details.
Indian politicians revel in debating police matters. Quite a few owe their fame or name and rise in their careers to confrontations with the police and the resultant media coverage. All operational posts in the police are under the scanner of the political executive. In most states, the ruling party cadre wields influence over the police working in their areas.
The Uttar Pradesh DGP, Mukul Goel, who was recently transferred on grounds of ineffectiveness and non-cooperation, was on a fixed tenure. The charge against him has not been explained. Do people have a right to know the detailed reasons as to why a state police chief has been sacked?
With political leadership wresting control of the police, the practice of foisting criminal cases on adversaries for political reasons is bound to continue. As a result, outstanding work done by the bulk of police officers escapes the notice of the media and public.
Where does the solution lie then? A few good men need to stand together — from the media to question all major appointments and apprise the public of their suitability for the post, from the judiciary to question all cases of arbitrary arrests and actions, from the police to resist illegal acts and remain accountable to the law while aggressively pushing through internal reforms within their ambit, from the bureaucracy to facilitate people-oriented policing and fight for honest policemen, and from the polity to reflect seriously on the rule of law and the future of our democracy. Such good men are there in abundance and need to stand tall.
Yashovardhan Azad is a former IPS officer, who served as special director, Intelligence Bureau, secretary (security), Government of India, and Central Information Commissioner. He is presently chairman, Deepstrat, a New Delhi-based think tank
The views expressed are personal