These are tumultuous times for the Indian police, especially the Delhi police, in their bid to maintain law and order. After losing the debate inside Parliament, certain elements have regrettably chosen to take some contentious issues out to the streets. Consequently, the floor has been unwittingly yielded to the police — and for them to act in the manner they deem fit, and in the interests of public peace.
Protests and demonstrations no doubt form the core of democracy and are unexceptionable as long as they do not disrupt the life of the common man or cause damage to public property. In an ideal world, we may expect this clear-cut theoretical proposition to work perfectly. But in the raw, emotion-ridden and violence-prone streets of the present times, this clinical allocation of respective space has, however, repeatedly proved to be mere pontification. This is established by events of the past few days in the national capital. Some media reporting has tended to be one-sided, tending to portray the police as the villain of the piece and the protesters as harmless and pacifist. This binary picture is deceptive and misleading, because it is blind to the truism that the police do enjoy a measure of operational autonomy, free from the dictates of other state agencies.
Shadow of politics
Public opinion has been built around a few gross misconceptions about modern policing. It is too simplistic and facile to look upon the police as merely an agency that has been caught in the crossfire between the establishment and protesters. Gone are the halcyon days when life was more orderly and civilised, and the police just received orders from above to be executed as faithfully as they could/can and not necessarily at the speed of lightning. The vicissitudes of politics over the decades have deprived the guardians of law the luxury of resting on the statute book and responding to a developing situation.
They will now have to be proactive and react — and react within split seconds to an incendiary situation arising from contentious political situations. While doing so they are bound to overstep the contours of law. This reminds a reader of the classic situation summed up as: (You’re) damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
It is fallacy to argue that the police cannot enter campuses unless they are invited to do so by heads of institutions. Nothing can be a greater incentive to violence. I am happy that the Vice-Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University has been honest enough to admit that he permitted the police to enter his campus to prevent an already ugly situation from becoming worse.
In Jamia Millia, Delhi, the police appeared to have taken the initiative when no such invitation was forthcoming. There is no law that prohibits such police entry on their own, and any attempt to frame such a law will be preposterous to the core. The police are obligated under law to intervene wherever and whenever they apprehend danger to lives. Imagine the not-so-imaginary and improbable situation where the vice-chancellor is himself besieged and threatened by a mob of students and others and is unable to communicate with the police. Can the police wait for a nod from those facing danger? If they did and if the VC was attacked or grievously hurt, the police would be hauled over the coals.
I am reminded here of the statement of the English jurist, Lord Denning, in Regina v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis (1968): “... (it) is for the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, or the chief constable, as the case may be, .......to decide on the disposition of his force and the concentration of his resources on any particular crime or area. No court can or should give him direction on such a matter... And ‘No Minister of the Crown can tell him that he must, or must not, keep observation on this place or that;... The responsibility for law enforcement is on him. He is answerable to the law and to the law alone.”
I do not think the position is different in India. If some police leaders have surrendered their autonomy to the Executive, it is their fault and not of the Executive.
On the measure of force
Another bone of contention relates to the quantum of force that the police can use in quelling disorder. Some astonishing statements have been made in this context. There is no scientific formula that applies to explosive scenes that have become routine in the national capital.
“How much is too much?” is a question that is impossible to answer. The amount of force used in such situations can vary significantly, and will be related mainly to the strength of the mob, its composition, its mood and the kind of weapons it has at its command. Use of stones has become the most favourite, because of ease of availability and potency. To say that the police or any security agency should not overreact to this kind of barbarity is grossly unfair. Ultimately, it is the decision of the police commander in the field.
Mob control techniques are a part of the police curriculum in major training institutions. Their impact depends on the imaginative nature of the instruction. In the wake of violence across the country, the police leadership would do well to concentrate on this important aspect of policing, even if it means according a lower priority to other areas of routine.
In a democracy such as ours we certainly need a civilised and humane police. This should not, however, dilute the need to have a potent force that will not hesitate to use the resources at its command in order to re-emphasise the dictum that democracy can flourish only when violence is checked and not allowed to hold sway. There is a crucial need for senior police officers to devote time to improving the quality of policing in the field, instead of frittering away their energies in concentrating on “politician management”.
R.K. Raghavan is a former Director, Central Bureau of Investigation and a former High Commissioner of India