The case for a consensus on public order and a policy document for it.
AMIDST all the tension on the border and fears of war, we seem to have become totally indifferent and insensitive to the continued disorder on the streets. People have resigned themselves to exasperating traffic jams and monstrous encroachments of footpaths that leave pedestrians little option but to walk on the carriage-way, exposing themselves to accidents. What is even more appalling is that not a day passes without a physical clash between workers of contending political parties or a politically motivated bandh (a euphemism for intimidating traders and the common man into senseless inactivity), promoted, sometimes, by parties in power themselves.
This unabashed resort to crass politics has cut at the roots of policing in several States, in at least two ways. First, it coerces the guardians of order into taking partisan positions, invariably in favour of the ruling party, that wins them odium from different quarters. Secondly, it makes policemen at the grassroots level expend energy on matters which do not always interest or affect the common man. Worse, the situation results in the denial of basic services to the tax-paying public, who are otherwise entitled to police assistance. Sometimes I wonder why the citizen puts up meekly with this ridiculous state of affairs where he just cannot get a policeman to come to his aid in quick time - when he is physically threatened or actually attacked or his house is broken into.
It is not as if the police are indifferent or unwilling to step in for assistance. The cold fact is that on any particular day, more than 50 to 60 per cent of the available strength of the force is committed to regulating processions or demonstrations organised by political parties. More often than not, they are organised just to spite the ruling party or merely to keep their cadres in high spirits. This has gone on for some five decades without any signs of abatement. It is easy to dismiss this phenomenon as an aberration of a populist democracy and a hangover from the days of the freedom struggle when the potent weapon of satyagraha was used against the alien ruler. But satyagraha had an entirely different connotation and objective. My question is: Is this at all a mere aberration? Obviously, it cannot be, because such behaviour has lasted for more than 50 years. Or, is it actually a sustained and calculated attempt by political bigwigs at self-aggrandisement, which masks a simultaneous effort to attenuate the citizen's right to peace and order?
My thesis is that this mess has been perpetuated because we do not have a well-defined public order policy. We have a foreign policy and we have an economic policy, but no public order policy. Ad hocism rules the scene because it suits political parties of all hues. This is why, for instance, when one party is in power, it talks of processions as an undue intrusion into the lives of the common man. When it moves into the Opposition, it speaks in an exactly opposite voice that celebrates the Fundamental Rights enshrined in the Constitution and the right to organise processions, unmindful that it greatly inconveniences the community. Actually, the organisers of such a road show do not conceal a mischievous intention to create chaos in a major thoroughfare at the busiest point of time - on a working day when everybody would like to go about his or her business to earn their daily bread. This is their idea of how to draw public attention to their grievances, real or imaginary!
I was amused that the expression "consensus" was bandied about recently when we were exercised over who our next President should be. No doubt the demand for consensus was honourable, but one did gain the impression - albeit slightly - that there was a simultaneous desire to prove one's political muscle. Is it not equally important that we need a "consensus" on how to regulate order in public places so that democracy flourishes rather than degenerates into a competition between groups on who can cause the maximum inconvenience and annoyance to the silent majority. In my view, such consensus need not necessarily stop with a licence to the police to use force to break up an Opposition-sponsored agitation. Rather, we need to evolve a consensus on how to prevent avoidable wielding of batons by the police. This is because the latter are not exactly waiting for an opportunity to reveal their capacity to inflict pain on others. Instead, they would concentrate on the fundamental tasks of policing, namely, prevention and detection of crime.
WHAT should be the theme or content of a public order policy? Such a policy will first pledge itself to protecting the rule of law at all costs with a view to preserving order in society. In the context of public order, this would mean that no person, however highly placed he may be in government or in society, will be allowed to disrupt public order without inviting on himself punitive action as prescribed by law. Thereafter, it will explain how the citizen's right to move about freely within the country without fear or hindrance will be respected. Next, it will clearly go on record to say that the right to democratic political activity will be subject to an unqualified acceptance of the fact that where there is a conflict, the requirements of public order will prevail. This would imply that when faced with a distinct prospect of disruption of normal life in society, a political right, such as organising public demonstrations and rallies, would be subordinated to the larger interests of the society.
Both the Police Act, 1861 and the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 confer on authorities the power respectively to regulate or prohibit public gatherings. Unfortunately, defiance of an administrative order passed under either law has become so common that it hardly invites public reprobation. If in any instance, regulation of processions is considered politically motivated, the best forum to challenge it is a court of law. Instead of resorting to such a constitutionally proper course of action, almost all political parties take to the streets. When asked by the police to disperse from a place, they show extreme remonstrance and obduracy that very often provokes police action. When such conduct is accompanied by violence against the police trying to maintain order, the resultant situation becomes ugly and a free-for-all disturbs public peace. Traffic goes haywire and essential services such as the fire force and the ambulance service are denied to members of the community who desperately need them. Although in a different context, one heard how during the recent Gujarat disturbances the police and fire service personnel could not gain access to the house of a former Member of Parliament because it was encircled by a mob, and the latter could not be saved. Nothing can be more poignant than this. Imagine this happening to one of your dear ones.
Another favourite practice of many political parties is to violate while taking out processions conditions imposed on them by the police. The police necessarily have to prescribe the route that a procession should adhere to. This becomes crucial especially in times of tension. While initially agreeing to the conditions laid down by the police as a matter of tactic so that a license is not denied, very often organisers violate them subsequently, without any remorse. There have been a number of instances where such processions have been deliberately led by the organisers into thoroughfares not specified by the licence and where the police have not laid any arrangements. The consequences of such duplicity are painful and the subsequent firm action by the police to restore order earns for them undeserved opprobrium.
Many of us know how participants of demonstrations that are permitted outside the State government Secretariat or legislature frequently break the cordon thrown by the police and invade the campus to disrupt official business. I can recall in vivid detail, thanks to some imaginative and enterprising television channels, how a few years ago a demonstration in Hyderabad against a hike in power tariff attempted to march into the Secretariat/Legislative Assembly campus despite police warning. When stopped, the mob indulged in violence in which several policemen, including, if my memory serves me right, a woman police officer, were injured. The frame-by-frame picture that one saw on TV belied the organisers' outcry that it was the police which had engineered the incident. I was deeply impressed by the professionalism displayed by the police on the occasion and their restraint in the face of grave provocation. This was one illustration of how some groups can create disorder in a public place solely to derive political benefits. It illustrated equally well how the police could dexterously play by the book and handle extreme stress with ease.
I am not sure whether in this particular case any of the erring agitators were ever charge-sheeted or convicted. My hunch is that even if some of them were taken to court, the cases against them may still be pending. It requires only a change of government for such cases to be withdrawn on grounds that they had been politically motivated. This is outrageous, to say the least! Can political parties not agree, as a matter of policy, that no case of an attack on a public servant, especially a policeman, will ever be closed before the court gives a verdict? Such a consensus alone will ensure discipline in public places and enhance police morale.
The plea here is for political enlightenment on a subject of utmost national importance. While we are reasonably secure against the external enemy, I am not all that sure about internal foes. The greater the chaos on our streets from political and other demonstrations, the easier it is for dastardly agencies like the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to operate in the country in collusion with anti-social elements. We saw this happening in 1993 in the form of the Bombay blasts. There is every chance that it will repeat itself unless we are on our guard.
Is it therefore too much to demand that the ruling parties and those in the Opposition in all States sink their differences and evolve a consensus on public order? The current scene cries out for such sagacity. They should seek agreement on a brief policy document that will prevail over narrow partisan ends. Such a document will of course have no legal sanction. But it will definitely have the sanction of the common man. We must not forget that, after all, it is he who is the sovereign in a democracy. In the final analysis, it should be obvious that this is one sure way of enhancing police professionalism, and thereby its image.