Bihar: Makings of a police raj

Print edition : April 23, 2021

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar with legislators at the conclusion of the Budget session of the Bihar Assembly, in Patna on March 24. Photo: PTI

The opposition parties in Bihar have come out in protest against the Nitish Kumar government’s decision to create a special armed police force with draconian powers, a Bill for which was passed in the Assembly amid unprecedented scenes of violence.

History has a knack of repeating itself. Arrogance borne out of numerical strength in the legislative House often spurs politicians to take irrational decisions. Rajiv Gandhi, emboldened by his unprecedented electoral victory in the 1984 Lok Sabha election (the Congress won 404 of the 514 seats for which elections were held in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination), had tried to muzzle the press as it kept targeting him over the Bofors scam. Similarly, it has driven Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who is increasingly getting ruffled by political criticism, into creating an unbridled armed police force that can crush any political opposition without any questions asked.

On March 23, the State Assembly passed the controversial Bihar Special Armed Police Bill, 2021, amid shameful scenes never before witnessed in the history of independent India. Not even the infamous violence in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly in 1997—when the House turned into a battle zone with MLAs hurling shoes, chairs, desktops and mikes at one another even as Chief Minister Kalyan Singh of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was trying to prove his majority—can match the ignominy of Bihar’s legislators being beaten up by the police inside the Assembly and dragged and showered blows. All this happened so that the government could give a new identity to the Bihar Military Police, arming it with such unbridled powers that it could stifle any political opposition without offering any explanations.

The Bill seeks to rename the Bihar Military Police as the Bihar Special Armed Police, and give it the mandate to maintain public order, combat extremism, ensure better protection and security of specific establishments, including airports, industrial establishments, metro rail and institutions of cultural significance. It can have one or more battalions, depending on the requirement.

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But the point of contention is the unbridled powers the Bill seeks to give the police, such as the power to arrest without a warrant anyone who is deemed to be dangerous to public order or deemed to be preventing the force from ensuring the security of an establishment. This particular clause, opposition parties contend, will empower the police to break any democratic protest. They describe it as anti-protest Bill. The Bill also gives the police the power to conduct raids and search premises without a warrant. Not only this, it gives immunity to notified rank officials from judicial scrutiny, which means no court can take cognisance of complaints against officials of a notified rank. The Janata Dal (United)-BJP coalition government justified the introduction of the Bill by saying that it was necessary to give the Bihar Military Police, which had until now been acting as a supporting force to the general police, an independent identity in order to meet the challenges posed by the changed socio-political developments. It maintained that a special force with multi-domain expertise was the need of the hour. Opposition parties, however, said that the “dark legislation” was anti-democratic and aimed at crushing the government’s political opponents.

‘Black Bill’

Manoj Jha, Rajya Sabha member and senior Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader, said: “This is Nitish Kumar’s UAPA [Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act]. The UAPA has armed the Central government with such draconian powers that it can arrest anybody who raises his voice against government policies, be it students, teachers, farmers, intellectuals or political opponents. Similarly, this Bill gives Nitish Kumar the power to crush his political opponents.” The RJD has been at the forefront of the growing opposition to the Bill and has vowed to stall Assembly proceedings until the ‘black bill’ is withdrawn, even if it meant boycotting the House for its entire duration.

Political observers are baffled by the way the Bill was introduced when there is no specific requirement for it now and by the manner in which it was rammed through without any attempt at political consensus. Senior RJD leader Shivanand Tiwari said: “Not only the contents of the Bill, but also the manner in which it was brought is wrong. There was no attempt at building a consensus over a legislation that has such far-reaching effects. Even Cabinet Ministers were not consulted before the Bill was brought in.” He said arming the police with such unbridled powers and denying citizens the right to judicial remedy were dictatorial acts. “Even the regular police, under various sections of the Code of Criminal Procedure, have the power to search and arrest, but citizens have the power to file a first information report against erring police officials or approach the courts if they think they have been wrongly implicated. But the new law denies the public this constitutional right, which is unacceptable,” he said.

The RJD and other opposition parties have taken to the streets in Bihar, protesting against the Bill and the violence perpetrated against legislators when the Bill was being passed. They have demanded that the Chief Minister tender an apology against the violence on March 23, suspend the erring police personnel pending inquiry, punish those found guilty, and last but not the least withdraw the Bill. They have also decided to petition the Governor, asking him not to give his consent, and approach the court if nothing works.

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But the Chief Minister’s stance does not give any hope for an early resolution of the controversy. Instead of expressing regret over the ugly turn of events inside the Assembly, Nitish Kumar not only condemned the behaviour of the opposition parties, but disowned any responsibility for the violence against legislators, saying whatever happened inside the Assembly was the prerogative of the Speaker. The fact, however, remains that the Speaker had no information as to who called the police inside, RJD MLAs told Frontline. According to them, the Speaker appeared to be taking a soft line when trouble erupted in the House and was even considering sending the Bill to a select committee.

Ever since Nitish Kumar returned to power in November 2020, becoming the Chief Minister of Bihar for the seventh time, he has been intolerant of criticism. In January, he brought a law that made any criticism of the government’s policies or officials or political leaders on social media a punishable offence, putting it in the category of cybercrime. Even at that time his opponents made a hue and cry but he did not relent. According to Shivanand Tiwari, this intolerant side of his personality was a revelation to them because he had otherwise been known as a liberal, democratic to the core, soft spoken, affable, and mild-mannered. The fact that the BJP has taken an indifferent view of the entire controversy makes one suspect whether the Chief Minister was acting under pressure.

Legislative arrogance, borne out of numerical strength, however, is not a new phenomenon. The present situation, wherein the BJP thinks it can get away with any excess, reminds one of Rajiv Gandhi’s anti-defamation Bill. Miffed at continued criticism over the Bofors scandal, Rajiv Gandhi brought the anti-defamation Bill in July 1988 to muzzle the media. But there was such an uproar both by the media and by the people at large that he was forced to withdraw the Bill in September 1988. In an unprecedented gesture, the statement issued to announce the withdrawal was signed by Rajiv Gandhi himself. It read, “A free press is an integral part of the inner strength and dynamism of our democracy. Without a free press there can be no democracy. The imperishable values of our freedom struggle have gone into the making of the press in India. We uphold this legacy.”

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