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Criminals in uniform

Political bosses are encouraging police in new role of judge & executioner

Criminals in uniform

Perilous: There is no justification to allow the police to become a law unto themselves. PTI

Julio Ribeiro

Four young men caught for pelting stones on the pandal under which garba had been organised were flogged by a police inspector in Kheda district of Gujarat. The flogging was carried out in full public view and it was captured live on video. Was that legal? Of course not. Third-degree torture, as practised within the confines of a police precinct, and fake encounters where criminals are dealt with are also illegal, but such practices have the approval of many citizens and, hence, continue with impunity.

The political class should be made aware of the dangers involved in allowing the police to run amok.

The inspector, who carried out the summary punishment, was confident that he had the consent, tacit or spoken, of his superiors. I would go a step further and say that even the political bosses were knowingly complicit. After the use of bulldozer in Yogi’s UP, that instrument of destruction and of revenge has been used in other BJP-ruled states too. The infection has spread. The police in those states are sure that they will be supported if they adopt extra-judicial methods to ensure quick ‘justice’.

Why is this unconventional and uncivilised method of dispensing justice admired by the people, mainly the middle class? The haves lean on the State’s authority to live their lives in peace and comfort. When the judicial process system becomes slack in ensuring the safety of life and property, pressure is built on the police to adopt shortcuts to achieve a modicum of law and order. When there is a ground-swell of public adulation for policemen who are adept in such shortcuts, politicians, who closely follow trends in public perception, cling on to these straws to ensure their own hold on power. Even though those who support these methods belong largely to the haves, the politicians do take note because it is this class that dictates public perception.

A digression at this stage is necessary. Ever since communal politics has assumed prime importance in our land, the minority community has found itself at the receiving end of the police lathi. This development has, to some extent, enthused the have-nots of the majority community and they, too, have joined the ranks of those who exult when ‘criminals’ are disciplined. The flogging of the stone pelters would have been welcomed by all elements of the majority, both haves and have-nots. The police are encouraged in this new role of judge and executioner because of the overwhelming support of the majority community.

The only corrective step that can be advocated to combat this descent into police criminality is to put the criminal justice system back on track. The entire process has to be addressed — beginning with the registration of crimes, proper and timely investigation, quick prosecution of the culprits, daily hearings in murder and serious crime trials, as used to be the practice when I was a student of law in the late 1940s.

The practice of seeking adjournments at the drop of a hat should be discouraged by the judiciary. At present, it has degenerated into routine. Superior courts have specified the number of adjournments that can be permitted, but these directions are honoured only in their breach. For instance, there is a case of murder registered against Sachin Vaze, the cop who was collecting money from bar owners in Mumbai at the instance of his political boss or departmental superior, either of them, or more likely, both of them in cahoots with each other! The trial has not even begun despite the crime having been reported nearly two decades ago.

The Minister for Justice in the Modi government is a go-getter. He should spearhead this project. To begin with, he needs to get the higher judiciary and the police leaders, as well as the Bar chiefs and Directors of Prosecution in each state to sit together and thrash out the doable correctives, like adjournments, before discussing increased manpower in the judiciary, the prosecuting agency and the police investigation segment. Rijiju is a capable minister. If he puts his heart into the project, it can, and will, succeed.

At present the police, especially in BJP-ruled states, and particularly in UP, seem sure of political backing for adopting shortcuts. The political class should be made aware of the dangers involved in allowing the police to run amok in this fashion. Police officers who have been given such unlawful liberties will soon become a menace to society, as has been proved in Mumbai. The stark example of permitting a Sachin Vaze such licence has resulted in him being accused of murdering in cold blood his own friend who had lent his vehicle to plant explosives outside Mukesh Ambani’s residence!

In territories unaffected by terrorism, there is no excuse for letting loose criminals in uniform. Terrorists do not recognise the law and its legally mandated representatives like the police, prosecutors and judges. Terrorists do not bribe politicians or policemen. They just pump bullets into them. In terrorist-affected areas only those armed with guns matter. Others, including political leaders, bureaucrats and judges, besides the citizenry, are all at their mercy. The police becomes the only possible saviour, but that proposition requires a lid to be kept on irresponsible personnel at different levels.

Terrorists captured from within the Golden Temple by KPS Gill after Operation Black Thunder II had surrendered in full view of global television audiences. KTS Tulsi, the prosecutor, had promised their conviction. Not one was convicted! Any judge trying them would necessarily weigh the risk to his own life, and also to that of his male progeny. (Khalistani terrorists were reputed to concentrate only on males.)

The rules applicable to the handling of terrorism-based crime may need to be tweaked but there is no justification to allow the police in Gujarat or UP to become a law unto themselves. It may be difficult to give anything but token punishment to the inspector who ‘flogged’ the pelters. (TV video shots show that he did the flogging ‘rather gently’.) It is his departmental superior and the political boss of the district who need to be re-educated on the nature of the danger involved.

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