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Blazing guns, security in a blindfold

The murder of Phoolan Devi in broad daylight and in one of the relatively secure areas of the national capital raises a number of crucial questions relating to India’s internal security, policing and the health of the entire criminal justice system. In Parliament, however, the Opposition’s attention was focused primarily on the ‘collapse of internal security’ and on the progressive downscaling of VIP security in general. In their comments, as is becoming the usual case with most Parliamentary debates, MPs were at best skimming the surface of the real issues involved. The truth is, and this is something I have said again and again, that the chickens are now just coming home to roost. Political leaders and the power elite in India – including the protected senior bureaucracy, the judiciary and captains of industry and commerce – are now going to discover increasingly, and at the expense of their own personal safety and survival, the cumulative costs and consequences of the total collapse of the criminal justice system that they have themselves engineered over the decades.

VIP security, and public security in general, are not matters that can be divorced from the context of the total law and order scenario of the country, and those who believe that posting a few armed guards around a threatened person is sufficient to ‘protect’ their lives deceive themselves. When crime goes unpunished everywhere – or is even rewarded with political office or a wide range of other pecuniary and institutional benefits –, when the police is denigrated, humiliated and disempowered, when no corresponding expansion and modernization takes place in the internal security network despite the galloping advance of organized crime, political violence, terrorism, and general criminality among the public, all personal security for the ‘chosen few’ is an illusion, and everyone, even the ‘most high’, are at all times vulnerable.

The security of life is the first and most fundamental right of man – it is not a privilege that attaches to high office. It is the right of every citizen, and one that the government of any civilized society is expected to safeguard. And yet, witness the decline of human security in all its aspects in India. Compared to the growth of population in the metropolises, the relative strength of police forces has remained near stagnant; the equipment and infrastructure available to the ‘guardians of the law’ is laughable in comparison to the technologies and resources accessed by those who challenge the authority of the state; the general investigative and forensic capabilities of the police, today, are poorer than they were at the time of Independence; the burden of police responsibilities, on the other hand, has expanded diametrically.

The total modernization of the Police in India for the next five years would cost less than one of the grand financial scams that have become a routine occurrence, both at the Centre and in many of the States. Yet, while billions are siphoned out into the private coffers of politicians, bureaucrats, equally corrupt industrialists and business magnates, and the entire mechanism of criminal collusion that now spans the length and breadth of the country, every meagre million handed out for policing and internal security is widely resented as ‘non-developmental expenditure’. And yet, the modernization and upgradation of India’s police and internal security apparatus would prove to be the most lucrative investment that any government could make, and would produce manifold returns in development, in industry, in commerce, in every sphere of life that is, today, crippled, devastated, by the pervasive sense of insecurity and fear that results from the rampage of crime and the collapse of the criminal justice system.

The matter, however, does not end with the police. The arbitrariness, the unending delays, the decline in integrity, the moral ambivalence, and the apparent and overwhelming failure to deliver justice on the part of the Indian judicial system is an equal, if not greater, scandal. The legitimacy of the state rests on the manifest and efficient delivery of what is widely recognized as justice – and the Courts, today, command less public respect (which is not the same thing as obedience or compliance) than they ever did before. Once again, the problem is at least partially one of resources. Sessions judges are simply overloaded with work, and even in the best of circumstances it would be unreasonable to expect a high quality of justice under such pressure. In addition, one has to see the antics of lawyers and advocates, in order to believe and understand the reality of judicial processes in this country. But this is compounded infinitely by the attitude of confrontation that the Courts have adopted with all other – and particularly the Executive – branches of governance. The police has been the worst victim of judicial excess, and this has most visibly been the case in Punjab after the defeat of terrorism in that State where the entire police force was brought under hostile investigation by a central investigative agency under the unprecedented direction of the Courts. When an impartial history of post-terrorism Punjab is written, and the treatment of police officers and personnel is fully revealed, men will marvel at the fact that policemen are still willing to wear a uniform and risk their lives in this country, and at the sheer extent of collusion between certain sections of the judiciary, the political leadership, central investigative agencies, and the so-called human rights organizations that mushroomed after the terrorist cause was defeated. This will certainly be an abiding stain on the record of civilized governance in India.

But the record in Punjab is only the most visible symptom of what is happening everywhere in the country. When a policeman uses force in the heat and turbulence of a riot, or the chaos of a violent encounter or gunfight with terrorists or armed criminal, he is often arbitrarily branded a criminal and brought under an unsympathetic and intimidating process of scrutiny that contravenes the norms of evidence and justice that are intended to be universal. And yet, the same justice system is incomprehensibly magnanimous – indeed protective and indulgent – in its dealings with criminals and terrorists who target innocent civilians with acts of unimaginable brutality.

Such discriminatory ‘justice’ does not augur well for the rule of law and the authority of the state. Worse still is the continuous and unprecedented barrage of judicial interventions in the business of the Executive branch. It may be recalled that there has been a great deal of recent interference from the Courts in matters relating to VIP security – as also in other aspects of policing – and successive weak-kneed governments have succumbed on many aspects to the temper tantrums of various sections of the judiciary. It is imperative that decisions relating to policing and security be taken on purely professional grounds, and it is the decisions of the executive authorities on the ground that are to be respected, not the theoretical pronouncements of a judiciary alienated from the harsher realities of life and criminality.

It is entirely unfortunate that, despite the levels of fear that prevail in society today, public security has yet to become an electoral issue. It is only when politicians find their careers at risk that the hurtling criminalization of politics and of society at large will begin to be contained. There are, of course, two other possible scenarios under which such an outcome may be secured. The first is, if the leadership of a political party in one of the States or at the Center realizes that it can win the undying gratitude of the common man, and reap the most amazing electoral benefits, by breaking the collusive oppression of the criminal elements that have come to dominate society in India, and successfully translates this realization into its policies and political programmes. The second, less fortunate but, in the absence of any positive action by those who control the reins of government in the country, inevitable scenario, is one in which a significant number of political leaders themselves fall victim to the collapse of the internal security system. Where concern for the national interest is absent, concerns for personal survival might just prevail.

(Published in The Pioneer, July 28, 2001)





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