Police excesses

Jan 25 2020


The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

NO united civil liberties movement exists as such in India today. But police excesses have mounted.

The movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act has spread all over India. Two conspicuous features of the agitation have been the enthusiastic and peaceful participation of students, women and Muslims, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the equally conspicuous police excesses in some parts in the context of the hostility towards the movement of the ruling party, the BJP.

All this has been thoroughly documented by an independent body set up in the fine tradition established before independence of people’s inquiries. In this case, a people’s tribunal was set up, and its report was published by one of the most highly respected Indian diplomats, now retired, Deb Mukharji.

He said on Jan 19: “Over the past month, there have been protests across India on the [CAA] process. Universities have been on the front line, suffering attacks by storm troopers and even more so by, shamefully, uniformed keepers of law and order.”

All this has been thoroughly documented by the people’s tribunal.

“The Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi leads the roll of honour, followed by the Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Aligarh Muslim University. Attacks on these centres of learning have been the focus of attention, even as obfuscation continues to prevent an accounting for the misdeeds of security personnel. Meanwhile, the women of Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi continue to shed light through wintry nights on the aspirations of their fellow citizens across India.

“Surprisingly, however, scant attention has been paid to the extraordinary horrors inflicted on the hapless Muslims of Uttar Pradesh. Unable to accept the message demanding equality as citizens from the peaceful protesters sheltering behind the national flag and the constitution, the saffron-clad chief minister of the state asked for ‘revenge’. This is perhaps a unique instance, from any corner of the world, of a person responsible for the welfare of those in his charge seeking ‘revenge’.”

A reign of terror was unleashed on the Muslims in Uttar Pradesh. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s message and the state police’s conduct “perhaps were best appreciated” by the Bengal president of BJP “who was happy that they shot the protesters like dogs”.

The people’s tribunal was set up in Delhi to expose the trend of excesses that swept the Indian capital and western Uttar Pradesh. It comprised former judges of the supreme court, a former chief justice of the Delhi high court, eminent academics and retired civil servants.

The tribunal “was convinced that the entire state machinery, led from the top, acted with grave prejudice and perpetrated violence targeting one particular community, the state’s Muslim population, and the social activists leading the movement. … The UP police has been guilty of inflicting enormous violence targeting the Muslim community, peaceful protesters, and not even sparing those [who] were not involved in the protests.” The tribunal had heard testimonies of field workers, human rights activists, doctors, civil society activists and eyewitnesses.

Clearly, the existing procedures and mechanism for investigating complaints against the police have failed. Time has overtaken on this point the report of the National Police Commission, which was made nearly 40 years ago. In this context, the report of the British Royal Commission on the police is relevant. “We recommend that the regulations be reviewed so as to provide for a complainant being given ample opportunity to attend at a disciplinary hearing arising out of his complaint; and that he be entitled to put questions to the police officer of whose conduct he has complained.

“It is essential that every complaint should be told how his complaint has been looked into and the results of the investigation. Some witnesses told us that this does not always happen at present, and that bona fide complaints are occasionally left in the dark as to the upshot of their complaints. This is quite indefensible, and is bound to lead to dissatisfaction and friction between the police and the public.

“We do not think that the nature of the punishment awarded to a police officer should normally be disclosed, but we recommend that a letter, promptly notifying the result of every investigation into a complaint, however trivial, be signed or approved by a senior officer, preferably the chief constable or the deputy chief constable, except in cases in which, because of the unreasonableness or incoherence of the complaint, this course is clearly inappropriate. We also recommend that chief officers of police pay close attention to the style of correspondence which passes between the police and aggrieved citizens.”

It is the absence of such an open as well as independent mechanism that gives the police and its political supporters at the top the confidence of impunity. The rule of law is reduced to naught.

The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

Published in Dawn, January 25th, 2020