Vikash Narain Rai
Former Director, National Police Academy, Hyderabad
WHETHER or not India can live with a communally divisive Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the nation’s cause would definitely have been better served by a model of constitutionally conditioned policing in these surcharged times rather than the one that was hell-bent on imposing its brute authority. The cops seen in video clips appeared to be rather provoked by than in control of the widespread student unrest against the CAA. At times, their application of force accompanied institutional tempers too far; the thrashing of students in libraries and girls’ hostels, far away from university gates and dharna sites, was anything but a lawful containment of whatever sporadic provocation was going to be claimed at Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). Consequently, rumour-mongering had a field day.
Judging by the character of the countrywide violence, with the CAA proving to be a model of segregation rather than accommodation, the intensity of force used by the police will still be called improper if it was unnecessary or excessive. But when you hear not just the police spokespersons but Union Home Minister Amit Shah himself rationalising the police action, it is like confronting an alternative reality. Of course, as he argued in a media interview, stone-pelting had to be stopped, public property had to be saved from arson and disruption to public life had to be prevented. However, this linkage between the police action and the mischief-making was not evident; in the videos, the police are rarely seen acting against the arsonists or disruptors. As per established norms and guidelines, the police are supposed to videograph such confrontations, but not much has surfaced so far to support their claim of restraint.
At AMU, stun grenades, untested and undocumented in India against crowds, were lobbed at the assembly of unarmed students. These flash-bang distraction devices are normally considered non-lethal and used by law-enforcement agencies to flush out or overpower determined armed adversaries by momentarily disorientating them. But it can also present hazards and when exploded at very close range, cause serious physical and mental injuries. One student at AMU lost his right hand’s fingers and at least one more suffered grievous injuries, even though Indian police manuals do not prescribe stun grenades for controlling a routine unrest.
Even more stunning appears the assertion of the UP DGP regarding 15 persons losing their lives and hundreds, including a large number of policemen, getting injured by gunshots, not fired by the police but in crossfire by the rampaging mobs. The police did not open fire at all in any of these situations, he claimed, though conflicting visuals have since appeared in the media. Anyway, the violence was between cops and mobs, and not competing mobs, so where was the question of such a large number of crossfire casualities? And why, the DGP should have explained, did his otherwise trigger-happy police not open fire to thwart the miscreants who used firearms wantonly against them as also against fellow citizens? Were they enforcing law and order or allowing lawlessness? In contrast, the Assam police attributed all four firearm deaths in Guwahati and scores of bullet injuries to civilians across the state to their action against extreme violence.
The image of policemen damaging public vehicles at some sites of violence to create exculpatory evidence, and disturbing accounts of cops resorting to indiscriminate arrests, followed by retaliatory beatings in custody, are indicative of the presence of a flawed deep state. Some interested quarters have tried to blame the overzealousness of the police on the Jharkhand poll rally remark of the Prime Minister of identifying miscreants from their clothes or the UP CM’s statement about inflicting revenge on the hooligans, but there seemed at play, in certain areas, a loose association in the minds of men in khaki with the ongoing crass anti-Muslim propaganda of ruling Hindutva forces. The police acted as if they were accountable to no one.
In Assam, the Guwahati High Court intervened and ordered lifting of the Internet curbs. The police did identify a large number of provocative posts on social sites but, instead of taking immediate punitive action, involved the community to counsel the senders and restore better sense. The Allahabad High Court Chief Justice observed on seeing photographs of the police-student clash on the AMU campus, “You (State) have made it a war-like situation.” The difference in police response to violence in the two states is remarkable; it is in tandem with the local political and social alignment, one communal and the other regional.
The Supreme Court, on being approached, refused to directly intervene in the Jamia violence, whereupon the Delhi High Court came into the picture and did issue notices to the authorities but set a long date for further hearing. Thus, a protest march against the CAA, an otherwise democratic option of Jamia students, has been turned into a long-drawn litigation compulsion involving constitutional issues. The long and short of the matter is that the machinery of the courts cannot be expected to always micro-monitor police actions, howsoever excessive or arbitrary they might look in the first place.
Can there be a demand for long-term relief? The wheel of justice grinds slowly and the police action has to be swift. One is too contemplative and the other too reflexive. The long-term hard work lies in not being diffident about their inherent nature of discharge but in addressing the character of the deep state’s alignment. What did the police, seen circling, dragging and assaulting students, in their imposing riot gear, critically lack by way of action and inaction while dealing with the present crisis? Obviously, a constitutional sense. Let the Supreme Court adjudicate that to be a pre-condition and their dress alone must not qualify a bunch of toughies to discharge duty as riot policemen.
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