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Incompetence or connivance?

Print edition : Mar 16, 2002 T+T-

The Gujarat Police have not distinguished themselves in recent weeks, but the question is whether they alone are blameworthy.

ANOTHER sad chapter, not merely in the country's history but in the history of the Indian Police as well. A lot has already been written on the gory happenings in Gujarat, a State that was once the pride of the nation for its amazing record in industrial development, now a region that investors will avoid like the plague. Morbid details of the shocking tale that has hit and wounded the hardest of us do not bear repetition. Neither is my endeavour to go into why Godhra and the chain of events that followed it happened. There are many theories, some tendentious and some fanciful. But theories are rude and worthless when the heart weeps.

My eyes were moist when I saw and heard a Muslim Professor in nuclear physics at Vadodra University narrate how his house was ransacked and made unlivable. Now he and his distraught daughter have no roof above them. His fault? He chose to live in an essentially Hindu locality, defying the mores of the town! The Professor, who not long ago had lost his wife, struck me for his poise and equanimity. There was nothing counterfeit about his outpourings or in the palpable absence of any bitterness. It is people like him whom the administration and the police have let down so badly.

As a former policeman I am concerned not so much with the genesis of the problem as with the manner in which the police responded to the events that followed Godhra. This is because we have had scores of communal riots - read Hindu-Muslim warfare - since 1947, in each one of which the police were shown in extremely poor light. Commission after commission has lambasted the police for their failure to nip a problem in the bud because of a lack of intelligence or because of sheer apathy, to respond swiftly once a situation develops, and to use force whenever it is called for or, alternatively, exercise moderation when things cool down. The gravest indictment was possibly on the evidence of communal bias on the part of the police themselves. Gujarat will have to be viewed against this backdrop of a dubious track record of many of our police forces.

In Gujarat, by their own admission, the police were clearly outnumbered. I have no reason to disbelieve them. I have seen this happening again and again; whenever a major calamity took place. This was one major complaint that was levelled against the entire Gujarat administration during last year's earthquake too. In a country of India's proportions there is definitely a need for more than the two million policemen (including those in the paramilitary forces) that we now have. But then, can we afford to keep on adding numbers? Only a few of my colleagues will endorse my discountenance of any indiscriminate expansion of the forces at tremendous cost to the exchequer. My stand is in tune with the trend worldwide. The police will have to deliver, notwithstanding any shortage of personnel. The common man will refuse to accept this plea of a lack of numbers to explain any failure to protect his life and property.

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Also, more manpower is not necessarily synonymous with greater efficiency. Too many men can actually generate acute problems of management, with attendant impact on operational control and effectiveness. The focus should be on equipping the existing personnel with modern tools such as handy firearms and radio equipment that can be used in a crisis. I am told that the London Bobby will soon have a walkie-talkie that will connect him to the mobile telephone network. It is aids of this genre that will help our policemen give a better account of themselves.

Then there is the usual charge of a failure of intelligence. First, the police are accused of not having discovered the plot behind the Godhra incident in time, especially because this was a crime that bore signs of elaborate preparation. (It is poor consolation that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency had failed to prevent September 11.) The arrest of some local personalities in this connection does lend some strength to the accusation against the intelligence machinery. Also, the lack of a good network of contacts at the grass-roots level explains the failure. It is at this point that the shoe pinches. More than the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.), it is the State machinery that will have to bear the cross. Unless the latter is more sensitive we will continue to have Godhras repeating themselves too often.

Veteran police officers know what quality of men go into the intelligence machinery in the States. Except in a few States, the calibre of most personnel manning this important responsibility is pretty poor. Moreover, the lucrative nature of positions in the law and order wing robs units like the Special Branch and the Crime Branch of some good talent. This is an age-old problem, which remains unsolved. Only professional pride can do the trick. Nothing else - neither cash incentives nor preference in promotion to the next higher rank - will persuade really accomplished policemen, who are fit for both or either of the two branches, to opt for them, instead of going on medical leave when actually posted there.

The Inter-Services Intelligence's (ISI) hand is suspected. This has to be substantiated and credible evidence let in when the case goes to court. The involvement of a foreign intelligence agency makes the job of the police, especially our intelligence outfits, more and more complex. By all accounts, the I.B. has done admirably well to sensitise the local police on this score. But, if the latter show an abominable lack of interest, we cannot prevent future holocausts of the kind we witnessed in Gujarat. Perhaps Chief Ministers themselves will have to crack the whip and get directly involved in this arduous but necessary exercise, if only to avoid the agony that Narendra Modi must be going through now.

NEXT comes the more intricate issue of how well the Gujarat Police prepared themselves to meet the fallout of Godhra. There was a gap of nearly 24 hours between the incident and the commencement of the bandh. The popular feeling is that this necessary exercise, given Gujarat's unsavoury past, did not receive the serious attention it deserved. However, it will be unfair to indict the State police on the basis of mere impressions. There has to be hard proof that they failed on this account. Possibly the judicial inquiry already ordered will go into this.

I hear that the Maharashtra Police, particularly the Mumbai City Police, showed admirable prescience as soon as they heard of Godhra. This partly explains the significant peace that prevailed in Mumbai on the day of the bandh. However, more politically aware friends of mine attribute this to the Shiv Sena's own lack of warmth for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). This is beside the point.

The most serious allegation that is floating around is that some Gujarat policemen were indifferent to desperate calls from Muslims for assistance. A former Muslim Congress Member of Parliament burnt to death allegedly several hours after he had made many appeals to all the bigwigs in the administration. His widow came on television to reiterate this charge. One explanation offered is that the police just could not reach his house because access to it had been cut off by mobs. There must be hundreds of charges and counter-charges on this subject. Let us leave these to the judicial inquiry. But the accusation of bias on the part of the police warrants an in-depth probe.

Many people mention the undiplomatic response of the Ahmedabad Police Commissioner to a television reporter's comment that the police could not remain uninfluenced by the milieu in which they lived, an unexceptionable statement. What the reporter said was one hundred per cent true. The only quarrel: Should he have been so blunt during a live and developing situation? I would suggest to young Indian Police Service (IPS) officers to speak on the facts of an incident instead of unwittingly straying into the gray area of pedantic analysis. From my own experience I know how difficult an art this is, especially when you are quizzed by the likes of Rajdeep Sardesai and Barkha Dutt. I have had a few memorable encounters with them. I know they were totally cheesed off with what they considered were evasive answers from me. This is probably why they would not even look at me in my hibernation.

In all seriousness, I would ask the National Police Academy (NPA), Hyderabad, to devise a down-to-earth course on media management for IPS probationers. I would go to the extent of getting leading and aggressive reporters from the print and electronic media to spend a few days at the NPA to expose the trainees to their wiles and guiles. Rightly or wrongly we are now in an age where television dominates public life. Transparency demands close interaction between the administration and the media. Let us face this challenge squarely instead of ducking it.

One final observation. A television reporter was categorical that some police officers had told him that there were no clear directions on how to handle the situation. It is not clear as to whether the complaint was against senior officers in the police hierarchy or the political executive. In either case, this stance is deplorable. In grave law and order situations the man on the spot is sovereign. He does not need instructions on how to respond to arson or a cold-blooded murder. It is this attitude of passing the buck upwards that has spelt doom to police effectiveness. But then, it should also be said that incessant meddling in field situations by the police headquarters, either on its own or on directions from the political bosses, has fostered this despicable style of policing. This practice has gained such strong roots that it will be difficult, nay impossible, to reverse it, unless an enlightenment that subscribes to police autonomy and accountability to the law alone is born. Very often police officers found incompetent or indecisive blame political interference on specious grounds to defend their inaction. Only a strong Chief Minister or a professionally brilliant Director-General of Police who enjoys credibility as well as a mandatory tenure (recommended by the National Police Commission) can call his/her bluff when a police officer trots out such an excuse for non-performance.

The Central government has been hauled over the coals for the "delayed" deployment of the Army. Nothing can be more unfair than this. First, the question is whether the Army should be deployed at all on such duties. The rationale behind creating so many paramilitary forces gets dissolved straightaway if we are going to rush the Army every time there is a communal riot. Frequent use of the Army takes significant chunks of it away from their vital national protection charter, albeit only temporarily and only in some sectors of the border. Also, such a practice results in blunting the Army's effectiveness as a psychological weapon in the government's armoury. Do political parties believe that the Army will use the weaponry at its command indiscriminately against our own civilian population? Nothing can be more preposterous than this. Again, has peace returned to Gujarat only because of the Army's presence? I am not willing to buy this argument. Secondly, the Central government has the right to choose the timing of an Army despatch based on an assessment of the ground situation. It cannot be faulted if it waits for a while to be convinced that there is no alternative.

Rushing in the Army too often to quell civil disturbances would send a wrong signal in a well-rooted democracy like ours. It has grave international repercussions. Also, it serves only to demoralise the State police and the paramilitary forces.

IN sum, the Gujarat Police have not exactly distinguished themselves in recent weeks. They will need a lot of time to unlive the trauma and the bad publicity. The question, however, is whether they alone are blameworthy. Every one of us knows that when a seething sea of humanity pours out into the streets, neither the police nor the Army can be equal to the situation. The entire polity will have to bear the responsibility for having brought about this mess. What we need today are opinion leaders in the community who firmly believe in the wisdom and the ethics of burying religious differences and putting up a credible front of harmony before the common man. If they themselves appear to dither, a wrong message gets disseminated, with disastrous consequences to public peace. I believe that this is what happened in Gujarat. I am not sanguine that we will be able to get rid of the canker of communalism in the near future. Meanwhile, we have to muddle along, whatever be the impact of such a drift on the efforts to build ourselves into the world's largest secular democracy.