Recent incidents in Maharashtra where the police have been unable to take on political stormtroopers are a reminder that reforms are urgently required to ensure accountability of the primary law enforcing agency

What’s the lesson Mumbaikars have learnt from the “Aditi Veg Restaurant” episode? A hotelier protests a new tax by typing a witty comment on alleged corruption by the ruling party, on bills issued to customers. A mob of Congressmen (led by a former Shiv Sainik involved in the 1992-93 riots) forces him to apologise, withdraw the comments and shut down for a day. The obvious conclusion is that it’s risky for an ordinary individual to put in writing strong opinions against those in power and then spread the word, even if the opinions expressed are common knowledge.

But beyond the intolerance of the Congress lies another lesson. The police didn’t protect the hotelier from the mob. The mob brought him to the police station, and on the mob’s insistence, the police charged him with defamation.

The Congress is synonymous with scams, so where’s the defamation? But leave that aside. The correctness of the charge will be decided by a court, if the police decide to pursue the matter. Who gets to decide that? The law and judiciary department, or the mob?

On Palghar

The incident reminds you of the Palghar episode when a Shiv Sena mob brought two girls to the police station for having posted and “liked” comments on Facebook that offended the mob, who interpreted them as derogatory to their supremo who had passed away. The police nonchalantly said that the Shiv Sainiks had told them to charge the girls with having insulted their religious beliefs; accordingly, they did so.

After nationwide furore, an inquiry was conducted by a senior policeman. Two policemen were suspended, one warned, and the magistrate who found nothing wrong with the arrest, transferred. The policemen were soon reinstated. The government pleader had little to say when the court asked him this week whether the government intended to go beyond a departmental inquiry and punish the policemen the way they would have punished an ordinary citizen.

But there are ordinary citizens and not-so-ordinary ones. The police, it has been repeatedly demonstrated, form part of that special category of citizens to whom laws apply but rarely. The powers-that-be need them too much to act against them every time they do wrong.

But among mobs too, there seem to be different categories. Politically influential mobs can get the police to act pronto. On the other hand, a mob of slum-dwellers urging the police to arrest a builder who has been indicted by the courts, finds its pleas not only ignored, but also sees the police supporting the builder when he sends in his bulldozers. A gathering or group of Muslims better not come anywhere near the police — if they value their lives. Unfortunately, they keep making the mistake of believing that the police will heed them. A mob of labourers urging action against an employer, a mob of farmers or tribals protesting the takeover of their land — these are like red rags to the police. That’s how they are, and we have to live with that.

Starting point

In 2007, the Supreme Court ordered all States to implement police reforms ensuring autonomy and accountability. A retired judge was sent to check if the order was being followed. On the eve of his visit to Maharashtra, the government set up a committee. It met six times in five years, achieving nothing. Last week, with the matter coming up for hearing in the Supreme Court, the Maharashtra government set up another committee. The Supreme Court wasn’t amused and has summoned the State’s Chief Secretary, who will no doubt, make some hollow promises.

Police conduct features nowhere in the big electoral debates currently on about governance and secularism. But the ordeals citizens undergo at the hands of the police are very much about both governance and secularism, whichever party rules.

(Jyoti Punwani is a Mumbai-based journalist and writer.)

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