Fragile state, timid police
The scale of institutional collapse and the fragility of the state in India have once again been demonstrated during the rogue agitation by the Gujjars in Rajasthan - with the fire spreading rapidly to parts of Haryana and Delhi. Throughout this orchestrated conflagration, and with rare exception, the police stood passively by, apparently under patently illegal 'directives' from the political leadership.
Taking suo motu notice of the breakdown of law and order, the Supreme Court has demanded that the police chiefs of these States explain their failure to contain the violent agitation, which it termed a "national shame". In doing this, the court was reminding the police that it was bound to act by the law, and could not take the plea that political directives required otherwise, or were lacking.
It is useful to recall that the much-denigrated Indian Police Act of 1861 ('colonial', 'draconian', 'anachronistic' and the apparent root of all evil) imposes on each police officer the unambiguous duty "to prevent commission of offences and public nuisances".
This is reiterated further in another piece of 'colonial' legislation, much of which we have inherited and incorporated into the amended Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, which declares, "Every police officer may interpose for the purpose of preventing, and shall, to the best of his ability, prevent, the commission of any cognisable offence." The Police Act, moreover, prescribes stringent punishment, including prison terms, for dereliction of duty on these and other counts.
The Supreme Court's intervention sharply underlines the fact that the state has certain constitutional obligations, and that it cannot abdicate these responsibilities. The maintenance of public order is one such obligation and there have been repeated, indeed, endemic failures on this count across the country. By calling for explanations from the police chiefs of Rajasthan, Haryana and Delhi, the court has, in fact, put the State Governments - and, indeed, the entire political class - on notice.
Violent agitations involving mass mobilisation of people and invariably accompanied by damage to public and private property and other acts of violence against the general public, especially those belonging to other communities, castes, linguistic or regional groups, have been a regular feature since independence, and often masquerade under the banner of satyagrah, 'peaceful' protests, and an articulation of 'just grievances'. Many have blamed Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, peace be on his soul, for this tactic of political protest, conveniently forgetting the Mahatma's obstinate commitment to non-violence, and the moral courage he displayed in calling off agitations at the very first signs of violence, even at tremendous political cost.
The Gujjar agitation carried its unprovoked and gratuitous violence to another level with the brutal lynching of policemen, and this raises further questions regarding the accountability of the police leadership. Sending policemen into mobs with nothing but lathis, and with restrictive instructions regarding their use, with no other weapons of crowd control available in the face of extreme provocation or violence, reflects not only a failure of the police leadership, but constitutes an act of grave criminality.
Those who have committed murder, arson and other criminal breaches during this agitation must, of course, be brought to book, and no political deals should be permitted on the charges that have now (reluctantly) been filed against the miscreants; but those who have exposed the hapless subordinate ranks of the police to unnecessary and unjustifiable risk must also be held to account.
Regrettably, political violence has come to be looked upon as a necessary, indeed, routine, medium of grievance articulation in India today, and a training ground for future 'leaders'. Public property - which is looked upon, not as a national resource, but as nobody's property - is the first target of this violence. This has become a hoary tradition in Indian politics, and there are many who have achieved national leadership status through petty acts of vandalism and a few months spent in jail, or by blowing up railway lines and evading arrest by going 'underground' for a few months to emerge as heroes, whether or not they actually possess any attribute of heroism.
The Supreme Court's orders and the registration of cases against the Gujjar leaders who provoked the recent violence have exposed this faux heroism, but the use of mass violence as a political tool will not be dented or delegitimised by this single initiative. Indeed, the political classes today have little, if any, awareness of their responsibilities under the law, and this is not just the case with the many criminals who currently adorn the nation's Parliament and State legislatures, but even with many 'untainted' politicians.
I recall a conference at which a former President of the country, who had also served at one time as its Home Minister - and not a very successful one at that (which, regrettably, has been the case with all Home Ministers with the notable exception of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel) - spoke after I had made a presentation emphasising the rule of law and the need to maintain security of life and property. The eminent gentleman declared that I had "spoken like a policeman", and his observation was greeted with much applause and laughter by what passes for the intelligentsia in this country's unfortunate capital. He boasted, further, that he had met AASU leaders at the height of the agitation, and thought that this was something that was to be displayed as a mark of distinction.
I did not, on that occasion, see fit to embarrass him in public by telling him that we - police officers in Assam - would fight the AASU in the streets all day long, and then meet their leaders in the night to tell them to moderate their agitation, but that we would continue to maintain law and order in the streets with all the force at our command.
Perhaps it is time for the Supreme Court to pass another order, to run special classes on the rule of law and the maintenance of public peace and security, urgently for the Home Ministers and Chief Ministers across the country, but eventually for all legislators at the Centre and in the States.
For the first time in India's electoral history, a party has won an election on a promise of restoring law and order and ending goonda raj (whether the promise will be kept is, of course, an entirely different matter). This in itself should be a signal to our prevaricating, compromised, corrupt and spineless political classes, which have routinely used violence and violent groups for political purposes.
Recent events suggest, unfortunately, that the political leadership is still to learn a lesson from this electoral outcome, and will have to be defeated in other States as well, before it is sufficiently educated on this count.
(Published in The Pioneer, June 9, 2007)