The role of the police during riots

Published : Sep 09, 2005 00:00 IST

The suggestion in the Nanavati report that the politician had taken control of the situation from the police hierarchy during the 1984 violence comes as no surprise to those familiar with the system.

THE Nanavati Commission report has undoubtedly disappointed many, especially most of the Sikh community. I am not surprised because expectations of victims of communal riots are enormous. Very few commissions can satisfy these without ignoring the rigours of law. There is also the criticism that the report was Delhi-centric, as it had overlooked the fact that the anti-Sikh riots that followed Indira Gandhi's assassination on October 31, 1984, were witnessed also in centres other than Delhi, such as Kanpur and Ranchi. It is for Justice Nanavati to respond to this obviously reasonable charge.

There is a popular perception that the Judge was `willing to wound, yet afraid to strike', and that he was wishy-washy where he could have hit hard. He has been accused of ambivalence in language, especially when dealing with big names. The reference is mainly to Jagdish Tytler, former Union Minister, against whom Justice Nanavati found "credible evidence" for organising the riots. In fairness to Judges one should say that, when facts fall short of conclusive proof, they cannot pronounce a verdict of guilty even in a quasi-judicial proceeding.

The government originally took the stand in its Action Taken Report (ATR) that no action was warranted because the Judge himself was not conclusive on Tytler's role. It has now agreed to reopen investigations where required. Unfortunately, whatever assurances were given on the floor of Parliament after the debate on the ATR have been the result of the Opposition's pressure rather than any sense of justice or penitence. I personally believe that it is the nobility of the Prime Minister that has made all the difference. His apology to the Sikh community - presumably not as another Sikh but as the Prime Minister of the nation - has gone very well. I am inclined to think that Tytler's resignation is also the result of Manmohan Singh's moral conviction that the former just cannot stay in the Cabinet after all that Justice Nanavati has said about him.

The flexibility displayed by the government in agreeing to modify the stance adopted in the ATR does not surprise me. An ATR is invariably a weakly structured document, the product of several political conversations and meetings, some of which are held in the secret confines of authority. Many of us who had been in government sometime or the other know how an ATR is prepared and what liberty it takes with facts. Those who draft it are adept at crafty semantics and their objective is to conceal (read cover up) much more than what it can reveal. The ATR on the Jain Commission Report is one supreme example of how coalition politics can play havoc in matters such as these. Interestingly, Tytler attributes his resignation to this set of circumstances and not to any merit in the portions of the Nanavati report that indict him.

Do I expect anything to come out of the investigations promised by the government? My response is an emphatic `no'. Given the lapse of time since the unfortunate incidents and the enormous capacity of influential accused persons in our country to sabotage investigation and court trials through ingenious methods, I do not expect any dramatic turn of events. Remember that the Delhi Police Riots Cell registered and investigated more than 300 cases, half of which were closed as undetectable. Also, the Kapur Mittal Commission identified 72 officials, who had either been negligent or connived with rioters; 25 criminal cases were registered in this connection. To the best of my knowledge none of them succeeded in the end. This is why those responsible for the outrage will continue to be at large to indulge in the kind of violence they had indulged in 20 years ago. I will not be surprised if some have improved statistically on their original criminal record. Prudence, therefore, demands that we concentrate our energies more on a future strategy to bring down the frequency of communal riots and build police capacity to handle them more professionally.

The Nanavati Commission is reported to have made a broad statement to the effect that there should be efforts to build an independent police force that is free from political influence. This is no doubt a noble sentiment. But those of us who are familiar with the system are inclined to scoff at it, because such solemn pronouncements carry us nowhere as long as the political consensus in the country is strongly against a non-partisan police. I believe that we can build at least a secular police force that may not necessarily be a politically-neutral force. It is this that we should aim at, as it alone is within the realm of the possible.

Any exercise to sharpen police performance will necessarily have to start with the acerbic comments made by a number of judicial commissions in post-Independence India, which have looked into some major communal riots. The gravamen of the charge against the police is one of indifference, delay in response and too mild an initial action against those indulging in violence. There have been a few cases where the police themselves have been squarely accused of communalism. This is especially true of past events in States such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar where policemen have been infected with the communal virus. Godhra is another sad chapter where the religious neutrality of the police was severely questioned. These instances are an aberration. I can say with confidence that major sections of the police in the country are able to suppress their own predilections during a crisis caused by communal clashes. What we are more concerned about is the failure of the police to act quickly and effectively. Possibly the two go together. If you intervene promptly, without losing time, your action is more often than not quite effective.

Non-availability of solid actionable intelligence on preparations to indulge in violence has been repeatedly assailed by many inquiry bodies. For instance, there was a clear time interval between the Godhra carnage and the violent response to it in other parts of Gujarat. To say that the post-Godhra violence was spontaneous and could not be anticipated is a travesty of truth that is illustrative of police inability to collect intelligence or unwillingness to take precautionary measures. Both failures are equally culpable. Sensitivity at the police station level is of paramount importance here. If you do not build this capacity at the grassroots level of policing, nothing can save a police force. The crucial role played by the District Superintendent of Police can hardly be exaggerated. With police districts becoming smaller than they were decades ago, there is no excuse for the Superintendent of Police (S.P.) not to devote time to enhancing intelligence-collection skills.

IN the case of a few bad riots, commissions have come down heavily also on the district administration for not summoning the Army at the earliest point of time when the situation seemed to go out of control. The criticism is not always valid. In the 1984 Delhi riots, there was this feeling that there was a delay in requisitioning the Army. The Nanavati Commission also subscribed to this. We are here on a highly debatable issue where subjectivity dictates the decision. Calling the Army too soon is an admission of police ineffectiveness. Its impact on police morale can be serious. Also, it is not always as if the Army is in a position to move in quickly. In the 1984 riots, there was a nearly 48-hour time-lag between the decision and the actual arrival of the jawans. When queried, General Vaidya reportedly quipped that such moves always took their own time.

Summoning the Army too often sends out a wrong signal to international observers. Not many democracies are willing to suffer a loss of image on this score. Ultimately, it is a field assessment supported by the political executive that clinches the issue. One cannot hit upon a formula that lays down concrete guidelines. Only when the police are outnumbered by the anti-social elements and violence continues despite a huge display of the police should the Army come in. Anytime before this, it will be unwise to send for the Army. The long-term consequences of a heavy reliance on the Army impair police ability to handle an emergency.

Democracy and appeasement of politically influential sections go hand in hand. Intelligence agencies at the Centre and in the States can seldom be faulted in the matter of reporting to governments of inflammatory speeches made by important politicians. The impact of such public utterances against some religions is incalculable. A prosecution under the Indian Penal Code for such a deliberate arousal of communal passions requires government sanction. How many governments take a quick decision? The police ultimately take the blame for the tardiness that is so obvious in taking a propagator of violence to court. We also know how court proceedings take an inordinate time to come to conclusions. The whole process is such a mockery that those who make fiery speeches intended to incite communal feelings are hardly bothered about legal action that can drag on endlessly. Who then is liable for building an ambience that is conducive to riots between religious groups? Who is responsible for ensuring that no attempt is made to promote communal disharmony? These are nagging questions that arise again and again when reports like those of Justice Nanavati are debated.

The Nanavati report indicts the 1984 leadership of the Delhi Police for losing control. The suggestion is that the politician had taken control of the situation from the police hierarchy. All reports on the situation seem to support this surmise. This does not come as a surprise to those familiar with the system as it has evolved in our country. I would have been surprised only if it did not. Making the District Magistrate and the S.P. accountable for preventing the spread of communal violence is going only half the way.

The threat of suspension is no deterrent or remedy. They need to be assured that they have a free hand in using reasonable force and effecting the arrests of all trouble-mongers, even if some of them belonged to the ruling party. Such an assurance will not come as long as electoral fortunes are honestly believed to be tied up closely to appeasing as many groups as possible, even if the latter are at loggerheads among themselves.

Undoubtedly, individual police officers cannot throw up their hands in desperation citing political interference, especially in the matter of quelling communal riots, as the cause for their inaction. At the same time, we will need to understand why they will not act, as they did not in Gujarat, when ruling party men break the law. This is why I am sceptical about the proposed new legislation to deal with communal riots. The law may empower policemen. It is a moot question, how far policemen will be allowed to use such enhanced authority.

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