The action not taken

Published : Jul 17, 2009 00:00 IST

Outside the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai on November 28, 2008. There is a need for an unqualified debate on the sequence of events on 26/11 so that the Mumbai Police learns how to meet a similar challenge in future.-PAUL NORONHA

Outside the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai on November 28, 2008. There is a need for an unqualified debate on the sequence of events on 26/11 so that the Mumbai Police learns how to meet a similar challenge in future.-PAUL NORONHA

A MODERN organisation that pretends to be professional should learn from its past mistakes. One which does not introspect and believes that there is no need to revisit its policies and procedures established in the distant past is doomed to failure. The Indian police is one such establishment that does not set much store by benefiting from the mistakes of yesterday so that tomorrows challenges are taken care of. Traditional ways of doing business are so deep-rooted that orthodoxy is the order of the day, and any one attempting innovation is often sneered at.

One reason why this is so is because policing in the country is still not the preserve of its leadership. Police officials have to necessarily toe the line of their political masters whose perceptions are entirely at variance with those of the former, who have field responsibilities. At the same time, it is unfair to describe the Indian police as stagnant.

A lot has changed since I hung up my boots nearly a decade ago. There are more personnel on the ground than before. They are better trained and better paid. Their mobility on the field is greater. The higher echelons in the Indian Police Service (IPS) have men and women whose intellectual attainments are comparable to those of personnel who entered the service in the first two or three decades after the IPS came into being in 1948. They are better informed of international trends in policing, thanks mainly to the knowledge explosion sweeping the globe.

But when events like 26/11 happen, there is a marked erosion of peoples faith in the ability of the police to safeguard them from terrorist assaults. It is sad that when a committee of two outstanding officers one from the Indian Administrative Service and the other from the IPS reports on what went wrong on that gruesome November evening, when Mumbai was held to ransom by a pack of determined youth from across the border, the State government chooses to be unpardonably reticent. This does no good to improving the quality of police responses to future assaults on public order. Covering up police shortcomings, for whatever reasons, is a sure way to inviting disasters such as 26/11.

Instead of releasing the whole report for public scrutiny, the Maharashtra government has come out with a skimpy account of what it had done on the recommendations of the Ram Pradhan Committee. In doing so, it has given the impression of being extremely smug about the police response to the terrorist attack. It has undeniably opened itself to suspicion by large sections of the enlightened population in the city. There are any number of speculations as to why it has spurned transparency, the chief of which is an anxiety to protect those, who do not possibly deserve it. It is widely believed that the chief beneficiary of this totally indefensible stand not to release the report is the former Commissioner of Mumbai Police, although Ram Pradhan says that the committee had no negative comments on the Commissioner.

Whatever is the truth, the question of accountability of the top leadership of the Indian Police to mistakes committed on the field requires to be looked at again and the modes of fixing responsibility need to be firmly established. I am not for a moment suggesting capricious action against those who failed on that fateful evening. But there is a need for an unqualified debate on the sequence of events so that the Mumbai Police learns how to meet a similar challenge to its authority in future. Such a debate should be accompanied by exemplary penalty to those who had failed. This will serve notice on those who do not measure up to professional expectations on such difficult occasions.

In the Indian context, this is an absolute minimum because, by all accounts, the terrorist threat to our mega cities has not diminished a bit. On the contrary, there is an assessment that with the resurgence of the Taliban, as evidenced by the repeated strikes in Pakistan in the recent past, we are in for a scorching time.

Contrast Maharashtras response to what the United States administration did in the days following 9/11 when it appointed a bipartisan committee to look into a variety of issues surrounding the tragedy, especially intelligence failure. The committees full report was made available to the public without any reservation, facilitating a meaningful debate on how things could be streamlined so that even the most motivated terrorist group cannot repeat its monumental crime.

The fact that the U.S. has been free from terrorist misadventures for nearly eight years since 9/11 is proof enough that transparency does pay dividends. Politicians in our country think otherwise because they are mostly actuated by narrow political gains. Nothing else can explain the Maharashtra governments strange decision not to make the Pradhan Committee report public.

Without berating the State government, Pradhan did go on record on a television channel that he did not remember his report containing any sensitive secret information that could not be shared with the public. This is proof enough that the State governments decision was untenable. If the government wanted to withhold some information that in its opinion was too serious to be made public, it could have released the report after excising such portions. Its failure to do so enhances our misgivings. Many leading Mumbai citizens are exercised about this. This is an arbitrary exercise of discretion by a misguided executive and it is liable to be challenged in a court of law. If a judicial review finds the government stand to be hollow, we might soon be able to read the whole report, barring sections that have to remain secret in the interests of national security.

At the end of it all, what we should be more concerned about is how to protect ourselves from future terrorist attacks. This is especially important in respect of mega cities, which are growing without check and where keeping track of new arrivals has become next to impossible. Depending merely on immigration officials at entry points is ill advised. Most of the recent attacks were by men who did not enter the country at authorised points or on the basis of valid travel documents. This is why the societys watchdog role cannot be overemphasised. We definitely need a people-friendly police which sets premium on a continuous dialogue with the community. It is here that innovations are called for if the police is serious about tackling crime and terrorism with the help of the community.

Experiments until now such as the Friends of Police in Tamil Nadu have achieved only modest results. These have proved to be half-hearted endeavours, mainly because police stations in the country are hardly intelligence-collection centres, and an honest citizen will avoid going there if he or she can help it. It is an open secret that in a majority of stations one cannot get any service whatsoever, without paying illegal gratification or securing a recommendation call to the station house officer from a senior police officer. A government that does not ensure that the police organisation at the grassroots remains clean and dedicated to the public cause cannot hope to combat terrorism. This is exactly what is happening in most of the States in the country. This should change as soon as possible. Again, this is possible only if the political executive is convinced that policing is a professional responsibility and tinkering with it for crass political gains dilutes police effectiveness.

It is not as if the police leadership is free from blame. Its readiness to bend and crawl before ruling party members has brought ignominy to the whole Indian police force. That this should be so even six decades after Independence is a sad commentary on the nature of our polity. Let us hope that the Supreme Court-mandated fixed tenure for officers holding key police positions will help to alter this position. There is unconscionable delay in implementing this Supreme Court directive. The civil services bill on the subject of civil servant transfers, which is contemplated by the Centre, offers some hope.

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