Unruly in Haryana

Print edition : July 08, 2016
A committee tasked to inquire into the Jat agitation for reservations blames the lackadaisical attitude of the police and civil administration for the violence that resulted in huge property damage and loss of lives in eight districts of the State.

A DECEPTIVE calm hangs over Haryana, which was the epicentre of a 10-day-long violent agitation in February by the Jat community demanding reservation in government jobs and education. The agitation —which engulfed eight districts from February 7 to 22, claimed 30 lives and caused colossal damage to government property and tore apart the social fabric of the State—has not been understood in its entirety. Barring those who experienced the violence first hand at various levels, the rest of the administrative and political establishment has not shown much concern. In this context, the report submitted by a government-appointed inquiry committee in May and a citizens’ report have brought to light the adverse impact of the agitation.

The two-volume report of the one-man inquiry committee headed by Prakash Singh, former Director General of Police (DGP) of Uttar Pradesh, appointed to look into the role of the civil administration and the police, is as damning as it can get. While the first volume was placed in the public domain days after it was submitted to the government on May 13, the second, which is on the “role of intelligence”, has been kept as a classified document. The report is based on information on the violence and the use of force by the police, the Army and other law-enforcing agencies and wide-ranging testimonies and oral submissions from officers who were on duty, citizens and affected people. It lays bare the rot in the system and warns against ignoring it.

The committee, appointed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in the State, took 70 days to complete the investigation and file its report, as the 45-day time frame given to it was not sufficient to cover the entire gamut of the events. The report covers all the relevant aspects from the run-up to the violence to the inflammatory speeches of political leaders to the lackadaisical attitude of senior officers, including District Magistrates and officers of the rank of Inspector General of Police. What it does not look into, and which perhaps was not its mandate, is the specific role of the political leadership in the incidents. While the report does not say so, it was apparent that an invisible hand was preventing the administrators from doing their duty. Manpower shortage and non-availability of anti-riot equipment worsened the situation. Prakash Singh, who was assisted by two officers in the investigation, told Frontline that he visited all the eight affected districts. The committee heard 2,217 people of whom 400 gave written submissions. It interacted with 200 officers from different districts and received about 100 video recordings of the agitation.

It observed that “the events which convulsed the State were the culmination of a series of acts of omission and commission on the part of people, politicians and the successive governments. Community leaders inflamed passions. Politicians of different hues had their own axes to grind. Administration, both civil and police, was caught napping and, faced with a formidable challenge on the law and order front, cut a very sorry figure.”

Casteist and communal

It was impossible to ignore the casteist and communal nature of the agitation that pitted the Jats against non-Jats even as the government looked on. The build-up to the agitation began before the Lok Sabha elections in April/May 2014. It got a temporary respite subsequently but was ignited once again in August 2015 as Jats began mobilising and organising themselves. A series of court judgments quashed the claim of Jats for reservation under the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category in both Central and State lists, leading to a fresh round of agitation. The protests were postponed briefly because of the local body elections in the State. On February 9, Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar called a meeting that included representatives of khaps (caste councils of Jats) and formed a committee. But the government either failed to anticipate or ignored the protests and blockades and the counter-mobilisation by members of non-Jat communities, which has been documented by the Prakash Singh committee. The report reveals that in areas that had witnessed caste clashes in the past, for instance, Gohana in Sonepat, old rivalries were revived with the new demand for reservation. Members of the Valmiki community and non-Jats clashed with Jats in this region.

On the basis of the various speeches made during the agitation, the committee observed that “the atmosphere was being vitiated, that leaders opposed to reservation for Jats and those in favour of such reservation were both spreading poison. The Saini leaders, particularly their Member of Parliament, systematically needled and provoked the Jat community”. It found some aspects of the anti-reservation speeches highly objectionable, such as references to “35 biradaris” (the union of 35 non-Jat castes against Jats), call for mobilisation of the “OBC brigade”, social and economic boycott of Jats, political boycott by not voting for Jat candidates and destruction of the Jat community. Similarly, it found the speeches of Jat leaders objectionable, such as making derogatory references to the Chief Minister, branding those who had migrated from Pakistan at the time of Partition as “Pakistani”, and declaring that what had happened was a “trailer” and that the main “film” was yet to be shown.

Such utterances, the committee observed, had sharpened the division among the communities over a period of time. “There has been gradual polarisation with Jats on the one side and non-Jat communities on the other. This is extremely unfortunate. The content of the speeches were legally actionable but unfortunately the officers did not care to take action with the result that the feelings continued to get exacerbated.”

Shirking responsibility

A group of eight judicial magistrates in Rohtak district blamed the Deputy Commissioner and the Superintendent of Police (SP) for the situation in the district. They told the committee: “There was no police, no administration.” According to the report, they complained that no security was given to them and that, on the night of February 20, they left their homes and went to the park because they were afraid that their houses might be targeted. They were so scared that they removed the name plates from their houses, it said.

“Senior police officers like the IG [Inspector General] and DIG [Deputy Inspector General] and SP failed to give leadership to the police personel of lower ranks on the afternoon of February 19,” the report said. “They didn’t take any action against the mob despite the presence of duty magistrates with them. They remained inside the IG’s residence till 10 o’clock in the evening of February 19 and seemed to be more concerned about their own safety. During this period, the mob indulged in looting and arson. As a result, the lower police and some magistrates couldn’t control the mob and vanished from the city. In fact, the majority of the police forces remained absent from duty during the critical period of February 19 and 20.”

The committee reserved strong words for Anita Yadav, the Deputy Commissioner of Jhajjar. It noted that she “was the most non-performing Deputy Commissioner that the committee met. It was very disappointing that she remained confined to her camp office on February 19 and 20 even though incidents had started happening in the district and there were roadblocks. She not only failed to provide leadership, her role was in fact very negative. Senior officers had difficulty in contacting her on phone and there were instances when she did not appoint magistrates promptly. The police, the judiciary and the Army, all of them had problems in working with her. When asked as to why she did not go to the major trouble spots, her answer was that she had delegated the authority to her subordinates and that she would go only as a last resort.” The committee noted that it “has no hesitation in recording that she is unfit to hold charge of a district”. Anita Yadav reacted strongly to the criticism and reportedly described the committee report as a bundle of lies.

A senior BJP Minister, Anil Vij, told the media that the report was informative but the government was not bound to act on it. Raj Kumar Saini, the BJP MP from Kurukshetra, whose speeches feature in the report, has been critical of the findings.

Overall, the committee found that in most of the affected places, the police and the district administration failed to enforce prohibitory orders and curfew and that the police and civil administration officials in Hisar district were divided on caste lines. Some of them even deserted their duty and helped the rioters, it noted. The SP of Kaithal, in his written submission to the committee, said that “no police bandobust or instructions were issued to handle the Jat reservation movement”. The Commissioner of Police, Ambala-Panchkula, who was deputed to Kaithal to supervise the law and order situation there, pointed out that “rumour mongering was at its peak and political workers from non-Jat communities were wary of the police as a good number of them belonged to the Jat community”.

The committee noted that there was also large-scale damage to private property. “About 1,196 shops were set ablaze, 371 vehicles were damaged or set on fire, there was arson in 30 schools and colleges, 75 houses were set on fire, 53 hotels/marriage halls were burnt, 23 petrol pumps were damaged and 15 religious institutions were vandalised. Government property was also extensively damaged. There were 115 incidents in which 466 movable property and 64 immovable property were looted/set ablaze/ransacked. Environmental damage was also on a huge scale. In all, 7,232 trees were cut by the agitators to block the roads and most of these were later stolen. Twenty-nine buildings of police stations/police posts were set ablaze or damaged by the rioters; 29 police vehicles were set on fire while 14 other police vehicles were damaged; 164 vehicles seized in different cases as case property were damaged/burnt by the rioters. What was worse, weapons/ammunition kept with the police were also looted.”

Horrific picture

The committee noted: “It is a horrific picture, a scenario of lawlessness where lives were lost, government and private property was destroyed or damaged on a large scale and even police stations and police outposts were ransacked. The State could not possibly complain of shortage of manpower. What was lacking was the will to act, the determination to prevent riotous mobs from assembling in the first instance and then dealing with them effectively while they were committing acts of violence, arson, loot or vandalism…. At the State level, suffice it to say that the picture was dismal and showed deplorable lack of leadership at different levels. Officers at the district level, barring a few honourable exceptions, just did not rise to the occasion. They were either unequal to the daunting situation they faced or they could not mobilise the full strength of the officers and men under their command, some of whom either went missing or deserted their duties. There was also a category of officers and men who, influenced by caste considerations, did not enforce the writ of law and allowed the rioters to have a free run. Most unfortunately, there were also some instances when the officers/men are suspected to have abetted the rioters.”

The report says that although the police claimed to have resorted to lathi charge on 11 occasions, not one person was injured in any instance in any district. It noted: “How could the lathi charge be so non-violent is beyond our comprehension. Besides, the Haryana Police opened fire on 20 occasions in which nine persons were killed. What is baffling is that in Rohtak, which was the epicentre of the disturbances, there were seven instances of firing by the Haryana Police but not one person was killed in the process. Obviously, the use of force was done very hesitatingly and firing was perhaps in the air.” The committee observed that all that the State government needed to do was to “send a clear message that no group of people should be allowed to take law in their hands, that appropriate force must be used in a given situation and that all lawful actions to uphold the authority of the State shall be upheld.” That there could be multiple reasons for the escalation of the violence was clear. Three private schools were burned down in Rohtak. According to a local industrialist who submitted a written statement to the committee, it could be due to the anguish of local residents who could not have their kids admitted to the schools. The IG, Rohtak Range, the committee said, was more concerned about his own security than the security of citizens. Some 150-200 police personnel were deputed to his residence for his personal security. The police personnel posted in police stations and police chowkis were not seen anywhere in the city. Had they worked effectively, the agitators would have been controlled and this huge loss could have been avoided, it said.

The response

The Prakash Singh Committee report is being discredited for reasons that are baffling. Curiously, as an addendum to the report, there is special mention of the initiatives taken by the government to quell the agitation, initiatives that surprisingly did not translate into action. Whether the addendum was included under extraneous pressure is not known. The report indicted 90 officials, including police officials. The DGP was removed and the Home Secretary replaced and 10 DSPs and three bureaucrats suspended. Transferring and suspending a few officials is not going to help address the issue. There is a widespread feeling that the BJP should be made accountable for the administrative failure and the irreparable social divide that the agitation has caused. Out of the 2,124 first information reports filed by the police, 593 rioters were arrested and over 300 released on bail. Excesses were committed on women commuters at Murthal, and this is being separately investigated by the Punjab and Haryana High Court. The State and the Central governments downplayed the caste violence that shook Haryana for almost 10 days. It is also ironical that a government-appointed committee did not include anyone from the government to defend it.

An 80-page independent citizens’ report prepared by V.N. Ravi, a former DGP, on the basis of public hearings in the affected districts, has blamed the political establishment and top levels of the bureaucracy for the violence. The report questioned the government’s initial reluctance to hold a judicial inquiry and wondered why it did not announce reservation for Jats earlier and avoid the social conflict. On March 28, a Bill was passed in the State Assembly providing reservation to Jats and four other castes in government jobs and educational institutions.

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