Misconceptions and fallacies

Published : May 01, 2002 00:00 IST

Gujarat debunks the myth that pouring police contingents and indenting the Army would remedy a disturbed situation. Modern society is too complex to be looked after by traditional policing.

Anarchy is the absence of enforced public safety. Public safety in democracies is considered a public good - an obligation of government to all.

- David Bayley and Clifford Shearing in The New Structure of Policing.

THE National Democratic Alliance government should be supremely satisfied with the Lok Sabha's rejection of the Opposition motion on the Gujarat situation. This outcome of the marathon discussions in the House is a near endorsement of its stand that Chief Minister Narendra Modi does not have to step down. This could prove to be a Pyrrhic victory of sorts: we may leave this to posterity. Predictably, the proceedings in Parliament were in the form of mutual recrimination, and as the saying goes, there was more heat than light. There was no visible concern over how to prevent Gujarat from repeating itself on the same soil or in the rest of the country.

While it seems that the curtain has come down on what was a national debate, the temptation to write about Gujarat is still irresistible. Even greater is the temptation to join the bandwagon of those persons who are out to prove that one of the two rival points of view that are in circulation is correct. I shall steer clear of this.

Nevertheless, I cannot help saying that however biased some media reports may be, the impression has gained ground that the present administration in Gujarat has suffered a serious loss of credibility. The majority of those people who have gone public - to write or speak - and who do not carry any party label, are categorical that the situation has not returned to normalcy. Official denial of the charge has been too feeble and low key to infuse confidence in the people. Is this a failure in communication or in public relations? Or, is this testimony to the widely held belief that the administration has too much to be defensive about?

There was an avalanche of criticism in the early days of the disturbances that the Army was summoned too late. Those who faulted the government were cocksure that there would be a quick turnaround once the Army was deployed. They have been proved wrong. There was no doubt a distinct improvement to start with. The events of the past few weeks - including the ones that occurred within hours of the peace march in Ahmedabad, led by Defence Minister George Fernandes and Law Minister Arun Jaitely - are, however, distressing. Some miscreants appear to be still at large and are able to get away with violence. This phenomenon confirms the expert belief that political and administrative intervention is a poor substitute for community will and action. As long as there are vicious and misguided elements in contending groups of society, peace will remain elusive.

I am inclined to hold the view that if disturbances in Gujarat continue, it is because of the machinations of fundamentalists in the State on both sides and a few elements in one of them who draw inspiration and material support from across the border. There is no other way you can explain the continuing violence. If you ask for proof, I cannot offer any. Even the Intelligence Bureau may find this a difficult exercise, as the destabilisation operation is too insidious to be brought on record with all relevant facts.

THIS takes us to the many perceptions that are prevalent on the role of the police in Gujarat and the capacity or incapacity of any police force in the country to tackle a problem of such proportions. Conventional thinking on how to handle such a scourge is blind to certain modern realities. Sheer display of force or its actual use by the police is no longer effective. According to the eloquent Uma Bharati, nearly 200 people have been killed in police firing alone. This is painful if one reckons the fact that a substantial number of casualties in any police action to quell riots will include innocent citizens who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Obviously, police operations in Gujarat have not succeeded in blunting all the anti-social elements that are bent upon creating trouble.

Some friends keep asking me as to whether a strong police leadership like that of former Punjab Director-General of Police (DGP) K.P.S. Gill could have made a difference. I do not think it would have helped. We must remember that the Punjab of the late 1980s was brought back to sanity mainly through the application of methods that the terrorist himself used. It was a near war that the state fought there, with no holds barred. Again, it took place not in an ambience of religious bigotry of the kind that now seems to grip parts of the nation. There was no whipping up of passions against one religion by another. No doubt, Sikh militants did frequently target specifically groups of hapless Hindus, especially those travelling by public transport. But one must remember that the extremists killed some Sikh leaders as well for their denunciation of militancy.

Gujarat of 2002 is an entirely different proposition where the battle lines are clearly drawn between two religions, each of which feels threatened by the other, and the hatred germinates from religious effervescence, compounded to an extent by a clash of economic interests. To cap this unfortunate scene is the impression that the authorities charged with protecting all groups of citizens have been either neutralised or clearly told to look the other way when members of one particular group are being attacked.

Gujarat debunks the popular myth that pouring in police in assortments or indenting the Army would automatically remedy a disturbed situation. Modern society is too complex to be looked after by traditional policing or reinforcements thereto. Here we must also recognise that the structure of the police is undergoing a rapid change all over the world, with its own implications for government-sponsored policing.

IN a recent research paper submitted to the United States Department of Justice, Professors David Bayley of the State University of New York, Albany, and Clifford Shearing of the University of Toronto, point out that policing is not merely being privatised, but is actually being subjected to "multilateralisation". Many police functions are being transferred to transnational and international agencies (as in Bosnia and Kosovo), a move that amounts to a square challenge to routine methods of policing. The two Professors believe that this is happening because of the growing shortcomings of the public police, besides other factors such as rising crime, the nature of economic systems, the character of government and the social structure, ideas and culture.

One must acknowledge in this context a change that is taking place all around, one that is substantial but is hardly recognised. Large sections of the public, especially among the working class, now spend more time under the protection of non-governmental providers of security than governmental police agencies. ("The government's monopoly on policing has been eroded because it has not provided the sort of effective consumer-responsive security that private auspices and suppliers have proved to be capable of providing.")

According to Bayley and Shearing, the palpable loosening of informal social control has aggravated crime and disorder so much that the police lack of capacity has been exposed more than ever before. Is this not prophetic if one reckons the recent performance of the Gujarat Police? Also, would either Babri Masjid or Godhra have taken place had traditional social controls been in place and played their role?

In this context I foresee in India, in the post-Gujarat scenario, an acceleration of private initiatives at affording protection to sectarian groups. This is because the police incapacity or unwillingness (when driven by non-professional considerations) to protect sections of society has never been bared so badly. This projection for the future may sound alarmist. It is however a development that may be difficult to condemn, as governments and the police leadership have themselves encouraged in the past organised community efforts to supplement the services that the police themselves can offer.

There is one real danger here. In total negation of democracy, it will be the privileged sections of society, which feel threatened by disorder, that will again be able to monopolise such services. The really poor, who constitute the bulk of victims in a religious conflagration, may be left high and dry with little or no protection. This is already happening even under normal conditions in India, especially in the rural areas where the rich corner most of police attention.

Finally, it will be a fallacy to believe that police officers elsewhere in the country have absorbed the lessons taught by Gujarat. That is why I am inclined to believe that Gujarat can repeat itself in varying measures in other States. This is especially so because there is no national body of serving police chiefs who meet either on their own or otherwise to exchange views periodically on current happenings of police interest.

What I have in mind is something like the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) in the United Kingdom, which has proved to be a sane voice against extraneous pressures that even remotely suggest any unprofessional conduct. Set up in 1948 and reorganised in 1967, one of ACPO's functions is "to provide an opportunity for discussion and to give advice on matters affecting the police service". Although it has no statutory recognition, it has a full-time secretariat that is funded by the Home Office. There is a case for such an institution in India - one that may derive its sanction from the Ministry of Home Affairs but whose deliberations and resolutions are not regulated by the Ministry. With no formal structure, ACPO (comprising solely the Directors-General of Police of the States), acting collectively so that no individual chief is penalised for his views, can make some qualitative difference to police professionalism and probity.

It may not be able make its presence felt to start with. In course of time, however, it can contribute to the display by a State Police force of acceptable national standards of performance whenever a holocaust like the Gujarat one strikes. I am almost certain that my suggestion for an ACPO will be shot down by many as unsuitable for India and as one that impinges on the authority of the States to maintain law and order. I only hope that the proposal is examined in the spirit in which it is made before it is rejected.

As I sign off, I hear news of Gill's likely appointment as Security Adviser to the Chief Minister of Gujarat. He is an officer of extraordinary courage and has an excellent track record. He is much more cerebral than many would give him credit. He is bound to understand the dynamics of the complicated situation that faces him. Also, being a Sikh, he will enjoy the confidence of the two warring groups in the State. But he is going to operate against the very great odds that I have already mentioned. Let us, however, wish him all the best in his mission so that peace returns to Gujarat early.

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