A sad tale

Print edition : September 21, 2012

MUMBAI'S NEW POLICE Commissioner Satyapal Singh (right) takes charge from his predecessor Arup Patnaik on August 23.-PTI MUMBAI'S NEW POLICE Commissioner Satyapal Singh (right) takes charge from his predecessor Arup Patnaik on August 23.

The shifting of the Mumbai Police Commissioner for the way in which he handled two different protests shows that the police have little autonomy of action.

THE Mumbai top cop, Commissioner of Police Arup Patnaik, has been eased out without completing what was believed earlier to be a mandatory two-year tenure, as prescribed by the Supreme Court of India (in its response to the public interest petition filed by Prakash Singh) for all sensitive police positions. Of course, the shift has been dressed up as a promotion to the higher rank of Director General of Police (DGP). An unexceptionable administrative move indeed. Every Indian Police Service officer would like to reach the highest that the service can offer before hanging up his boots. Patnaik cannot therefore complain, and will not. Except that this elevation comes within days of a huge controversy over his handling of two demonstrations, one on August 11 by the Raza Academy at the Azad Maidan and the other on August 21 by the Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS).

It is true that the Commissioner did not exactly cover himself with glory on the two occasions. In the first he was accused of underestimating the crowd that was likely to gather; in the second, he allowed a procession by the MNS when it had permission only to hold a public meeting. It is anybodys guess whether these actions were his own or were dictated by his political bosses. In either case, he went down in the esteem of objective observers of the scene, who feel he should have asserted himself and enforced the law on the organisers of the two disruptive events.

Those belonging to the Raza Academy, or as also its sympathisers, were all praise for the restraint shown by the Mumbai Police at Azad Maidan despite grave provocation by some of the participants. They went to the extent of calling Patnaik a professional officer. The latter seemed to take it as a handsome compliment going by the way he was shown beaming on television.

This is how trouble apparently started for Patnaik. His detractors led by the MNS were irked by this praise and were quick to mount a massive campaign against the beleaguered Commissioner. On August 21, they flexed their muscles by defying his ban on processions a public meeting alone had been permitted by the police. The sole redeeming feature was they made sure that, unlike the Raza Academy organisers, the MNS gathering was peaceful even though it was an unlawful assembly when it came in a procession to Azad Maidan, disrupting normal life in one of the busiest areas in the city.

Raj Thackeray and company spat venom on Patnaik and his alleged indifference to the Academys misconduct on August 11 and the deliberate ignominy it caused on that day to the policewomen on duty. They openly demanded the Commissioners ouster. It was believed that at least to prove a point the government, for a while, was determined not to act against Patnaik. To belie this assessment, there were inspired leaks that action to shift the Commissioner was imminent. The deliberate misinformation here has since become irrelevant, not merely because of his shift to an inconsequential job but also because those responsible for the leaks may never be traced. Such is the power of those who wield influence both in government and outside. They are normally too powerful for policemen to alienate.

The whole unseemly episode raises at least two issues: first, the police inability to enforce the law on public demonstrations and the prescribed Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) against those determined to defy them because they have the numbers or are backed by political or sectarian groups a ruling party can hardly antagonise; and, second, a lack of concern for the likely harm that could flow from a governments preference for expediency over the need to conserve the morale of the police force.

Information flowing from neutral and sane members of the enlightened Mumbai society there are still a large number of such citizens in what is recognised all over the country as a civilized city makes one believe that, as elsewhere in India, the Mumbai Police has little autonomy of action. (I understand that the authority to transfer even sub inspectors has recently been appropriated by the Home Department, leaving the Commissioner as just a figurehead, who has to run up to the Sachivalaya every other day to pay obeisance if he has to get sanction for every one of his proposals made in the interests of his force.)

The popular inference is that on August 11 Patnaik had been advised by the powers that be that he should be tactful in handling the Raza Academys protest against the ethnic killings in Assam. In police parlance, tact is synonymous with avoidance of force, even when some group misbehaves and takes the law into its own hands. A few friends tell me that that the Raza Academy has a penchant for violence and that hordes of its followers descended on Azad Maidan on August 11, arriving by train, and the police neither stopped them nor gauged their mischief potential. This was the sequence of events on that troublous day when Mumbaikars were held to ransom. The police were not only outnumbered but also reluctant to use adequate force to disperse the misbehaving crowd. Any possible display of authority came too late, and this is what the MNS complained about.

A few former Mumbai Police officers blame Patnaik for this debacle. Not only did he appear to buckle under oral directions from those above, he also seemed to have displayed poor judgment of the whole situation. To make matters worse, it is widely reported that he got into an ugly argument with one of his immediate subordinates against whom he allegedly used rude language.

According to this account, this officer and other colleagues, aggrieved over Patnaiks attitude, complained directly to Home Minister R.R. Patil, who took the initiative to sack Patnaik. The promotion to the rank of DGP came as a compromise at the instance of Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan.

Just consider the opposite scenario. If Patnaik had opted for strong retaliation against the mob indulging in despicable acts, including alleged molesting of policewomen, he would have been accused of being tactless by everyone in town, including those at the Sachivalaya. This is the predicament of the Indian police. Damned if you did, and damned if you did not. Patnaik is, therefore, an obvious scapegoat who cannot protest. He is not alone here. He belongs to a large distinguished crowd spread all over the Indian police, which is littered with victims of political caprice.

All accounts speak of low morale in the Mumbai Police. The slide started more than a decade ago, with frequent reports of misuse of authority in appointments and transfers. Julio F. Ribeiro, the fearless former Police Commissioner, is a lone voice that makes uninhibited comments on this subject. His unremitting tirade against corruption in police administration and his plea for non-interference in operational matters have both gone unheeded. Coalition politics has unfortunately extracted its price, especially when the Chief Minister belongs to one party and the Home Minister to another. This dichotomy has spelt ruin, and the Mumbai Police may not recover from its deleterious effect.

To cap it all, there is open display by the constabulary of its preference for a regional outfit which strongly believes in keeping one religious group at bay and openly campaigns against outsiders (read those from Bangladesh and north India) flooding the city that belonged only to the local Maharashtrian population.

The harm that such regional chauvinism on the part of the constabulary the cutting edge of the police can cause to desirable basic standards of policing is immense. This is a real tragedy if one considered the glorious image of the Maharashtra Police, especially the fabled Bombay Police, decades ago.

The problem is nobody in the polity talks of restoring lost standards. Everyone in that firmament spends all the time exploring how best to misuse the police to settle scores with their adversaries. It is not as if only the Maharashtra Police suffers from this malady. Other States are no better. Meanwhile, the Union Home Ministry watches helplessly because, constitutionally speaking, policing remains the States domain. A constitutional amendment that makes this a dual responsibility could help marginally, although it could lead to confusion to start with, at least until sanity in politics becomes a reality.

TIME TO SAY GOODBYE

I end this column with a tinge of sadness. It is now time to say goodbye after 11 years of writing. I will cherish forever the hospitality of the Frontline Editor and his amazing staff. My loyal readers who extended beyond my large circle of friends were an even greater motivation for me to labour fortnight after fortnight. This journey was worth all the moments of tension imposed by a strict deadline if I have been successful in conveying the message: the Indian criminal justice system needs to be nursed tenderly by every one of us.

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