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A policeman speaks out

Print edition : May 06, 2005 T+T-
March 1, 2002: A policeman looks on as a row of shops burn in Ahmedabad. Gujarat's Additional Director-General of Police has alleged that he was overlooked for promotion as he did not obey the Chief Minister's "illegal commands" during the anti-Muslim pogrom.-AFP

March 1, 2002: A policeman looks on as a row of shops burn in Ahmedabad. Gujarat's Additional Director-General of Police has alleged that he was overlooked for promotion as he did not obey the Chief Minister's "illegal commands" during the anti-Muslim pogrom.-AFP

The bureaucracy and the Executive could complement their strengths in order to serve the common man. The relationship could be one of cooperation rather than confrontation.

WHATEVER happens in Gujarat is headline news these days. This is despite the fact that since Godhra and the events thereafter, the State has ceased to surprise us. Things have fallen into a pattern so much that Gujarat politics is now a highly predictable system, whose principal players cannot care less for such intangibles as decency, propriety and public opinion. This is somewhat true of many other States as well. But Gujarat takes the cake. This is a State that was once the pride of the nation for its phenomenal industrial growth and high standards of public administration. Those who had something or the other to do with Bihar in the 1960s vouch the same thing about that State also. I may sound harsh but will be reflecting popular perception, when I say that both the States are now a laughing stock of the whole country, with the difference, that one evokes humour and the other intense anger. Can you imagine a Chief Minister being threatened with arrest if he ever landed on foreign soil, especially the United Kingdom? We are not amused, but are certainly dismayed that a person who has been elected through a democratic process has invited on himself such odium.

Coming down now to my main theme for this fortnight, an Additional Director General of Police (ADGP) in Gujarat has gone to town x to the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) specifically x with grave charges against the Chief Minister and top civil servants. Since he allegedly did not submit himself to certain blatantly illegal commands x such as action against some in the Muslim community and eavesdropping into some telephones x he says he was overlooked for promotion to the rank of Director General of Police (DGP). All these charges are on paper, in a series of three responsible affidavits, and not part of any verbal gymnastics. We cannot therefore ignore the officer, R.B. Sreekumar, and what he says about the worthies in the Gujarat government.

By all accounts Sreekumar, who hails from Kerala, is an upright officer with a good image. He is very well spoken of by those who know him. Mind you, he served in the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.), New Delhi, for a spell. Except for the occasional mistake that the I.B. makes, those who are selected to join that hallowed organisation are known for their integrity. I had overseen Sreekumar's work nearly two decades ago, for a very short period, while both of us were in the I.B., and I have not heard anything since then that would persuade me to alter my view of him as an upright official with a strong sense of values. He is intensely religious and austere, and abstemious in his habits. His only foible is that he is blunt. Where most of us would hedge, he will speak out, and this perhaps has been his undoing in Gujarat.

I will not dwell on what Sreekumar has to say on his Gujarat bosses. I do not know the facts. It will not, therefore, be appropriate for me to comment on the allegations that the officer has now chosen to level against the high and mighty in the Gujarat government. I am more on my pet theme: police reforms. What does the Sreekumar episode tell us?

BASICALLY, however high you may be in the Indian Police hierarchy, you are subject to enormous pressures to do the wrong thing, what is blatantly unethical and what you are not authorised by law to do. This is the dilemma that faces every Indian Police Service (IPS) officer the day he enters the prestigious service. This is no doubt common to policemen all over the world. In India, however, this trend, instead of showing signs of abating with the maturing of the polity, has been growing rapidly. So much so, many young officers cannot distinguish between right and wrong. Conx formity is the order of the day, and individuals like Sreekumar are, therefore, considered freaks to be sneered at and 'fixed'.

Sreekumar has dared to take on the big fish. I am not sure what awaits him. I suppose he knew the risks involved before he went to the CAT. Irrespective of what happens in the case, I must confess my disappointment with the lower judiciary for not doing enough to protect officers like Sreekumar. The Apex Court has done its best, within the limitations imposed by its own huge workload and the fact that only a few matters go before it for a decision. I personally believe that High Courts can be more proactive.

IF what the National Police Commission (1977) recommended had been agreed to, Sreekumar would have had an additional forum to ventilate his grievances. I have in mind the State Security Commission that the NPC had crafted with such care. No State has ventured to set up such a body to which a supervisory officer of the rank of Superintendent of Police may represent against any illegal orders given to him. No doubt, the Security Commission was to be headed by the Chief Minister. How can such a body look into allegations directed against the Chief Minister himself? The point is that, apart from the latter, the membership comprises the Leader of the Opposition and eminent public men from a wide spectrum of disciplines. If matters like what Sreekumar complains about are brought before the Security Commission, there is at least a chance of it being debated and differences thrashed out. Now the only way this can be discussed is to take it up before the Legislative Assembly when it meets. Valuable time could be lost in the process. Also, the subject of executive interference in police work takes on a political hue on the floor of the Legislature, with the Opposition getting a mileage out of it for partisan ends, and never for improving the quality of policing. A forum like the Security Commission has a component of independent observers who can take a clinical view of a complaint and suggest remedial action.

The whole issue of implementing NPC recommendations is before the Apex Court on a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by a former Director-General of the Border Security Force (BSF). Until the ruling is received, there is precious little any of us can do to bring reason to State governments as to why reforms outlined by the NPC are needed to make the police in India more efficient and accountable. The problem is every political party in the country is convinced that keeping the police under executive control is the only way the Opposition can be coerced into behaving itself.

Sreekumar went to the CAT because he was overlooked for promotion to the higher rank of DGP. Here again we do not know all the facts. Governments do sometimes act naively. But when they take major decisions such as promotions to the highest Police rank, they are normally circumspect, because these can be reviewed by the courts. Governments are now clever not to leave a trail. Unfortunately, there is no transparency in such appointments. Choosing a DGP is a matter of public interest, and the public have a right to know why a particular person is appointed and why another, although senior to the former, was not considered. This will put an end to rumour-mongering which has a field day now. Also, even among several officers in the rank, only one can function as the DGP of the State. Here again some States flout conventions and appoint their favourites, who will feel obliged to the Executive. I do not plead the cause of seniority. Many of us would, however, like to see the most competent and honest among the contenders preferred to head the State Police.

I would watch with interest what happens to Sreekumar's petition. If he succeeds, it should be a matter for celebration, because in the context of Gujarat, it would be tantamount to an endorsement of integrity and fearlessness. If he fails, it will send a wrong signal to all those young officers who are confused over how they should conduct themselves vis-a-vis politicians. I am not for a moment suggesting that every officer should pick up the gauntlet and challenge political authority at the drop a hat. That would be disastrous to the democratic set-up we have given ourselves. The bureaucracy is only an instrument in the hands of the Executive through which to deliver services to the common man. There is no way a civil servant can adopt a stance of superiority. At the same time, he need not be servile to the Executive, unless he has skeletons in his cupboard.

My view is that the two could complement their strengths in order to serve the common man. The politician knows the pulse of the people and has the ability to understand what they want. The civil servant has the skills to produce the services required by the common man. The relationship could, therefore, be one of cooperation rather than confrontation. This is what I tell young police officers when they want to know from me how they should adapt themselves to the politically surcharged ambience in which they will have to function. I hope I am right!