OPINION

Delhi’s shame is India’s shame

M.K. Narayanan

M.K. Narayanan  

The riots were stoked by a series of factors, but it is the stark police ineptitude that must cause much introspection

More than 100 days since protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or the CAA began, and weeks after the worst ever communal riots in Delhi since 1984, questions are being raised as to what went wrong. It is quite evident by now that collective failure lay at the root of what could have been restricted in scope, if not entirely prevented.

The mix that ignited

Some saw in the Delhi riots the shadow of 1984. The comparison is, however, flawed. The 1984 Sikh riots took the authorities by surprise, while the country has been in a kind of ‘slow burn’ ever since the CAA was passed by Parliament in December 2019. Over time, protests against the CAA became larger in scope, specially in urban centres such as Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bengaluru, but no attempt was made on the part of the authorities to defuse the situation. A mixture of political insensitivity, deliberate apathy in allowing the situation to simmer, social disharmony, pronounced incompetence of those responsible for law and order, and, above all, a highly polarised atmosphere, helped stoke the embers of conflict.

The statement of Supreme Court judge, K.M. Joseph, that timely action by the Delhi police could have saved lives, set-off a flurry of accusations by others against other organs of the state as well. Even the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court came in for a share of blame, albeit for not intervening effectively to contain the violence. One former Justice of the Supreme Court argued that had the judiciary been more proactive, lives lost in the recent violence could have been saved. The Chief Justice of India, Sharad Bobde, opined that courts were not ‘equipped’ to handle palpable ‘pressure’ being created to somehow step in and prevent violence.

The politics

Sections of the political class seemed to revel in the unsavoury scenes witnessed during the riots. Some leading members of the ruling party, including at least one Member of Parliament and a Central Minister, also engaged in verbal pyrotechnics. Opposition leaders were no less irresponsible. Provocations from both sides of the political divide thus largely fanned the violence.

The Central government demonstrated an obvious unwillingness to step in to quell the violence, despite the fact that law and order in Delhi is primarily the responsibility of the Home Ministry. The Home Minister is reported to have kept himself abreast of the situation in northeast Delhi, but seemed to have done little else. Political analysts have speculated that this may be due to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s angst, consequent on the rebuff it received in the recent Delhi elections.

While the Union Home Ministry seems to have endorsed the muscular law and order tactics adopted by the Delhi police once the riots broke out, what is surprising and unfortunate is that the Aam Aadmi Party government, which had been elected on a promise of restoration of social harmony, and had sought to distinguish itself from the policies followed by the BJP government at the Centre, sat out the conflict, at a time when social harmony was at high risk, and sizeable segments of the population in northeast Delhi were facing extraordinary high levels of risk to their lives and livelihoods. The Chief Minister’s failure to apply the necessary balm to try and contain the situation has certainly stained his image.

In security and law and order parlance, intelligence and police constitute the vital last 10%. Compounding the failure of the political and administrative leadership has been the ineptness displayed by the police and intelligence agencies. No agency could have missed the steady build-up — not only of tensions but also of actual preparations for violence — well before the incidents of February 23 and subsequent days (which took a toll of over 50 lives). A mixture of police overreaction (within the precincts of Jamia Millia University) and of police inaction in Jawaharlal Nehru University had already sounded the bugle for what lay ahead. The Delhi police would also, no doubt, have known that the ‘peaceful demonstration’ in Shaheen Bagh was an aberration of sorts, and that they should be prepared for violence once protests spread to other areas.

A lapse

Arguments adduced subsequently that nearly 7,600 members of the Central Forces — Delhi has about 80,000 police officers and men — were deployed to contain the riots, cannot obscure the extent of failure. Preparations for violence and the polarising rhetoric had made it all too evident that violence could be expected. Provocation was there in plenty from both sides. What was unpardonable, however, was that prominent leaders belonging to the ruling dispensation were allowed a free rein by the authorities to vent their ‘bilious views’ in public, which were heavily laced with communal overtones.

Blaming the police is par for the course whenever a major riot occurs. Sometimes the police are taken unawares, but this time the police had ample warning, from their own accumulation of day-to-day information and presumably from central intelligence agencies as well. What then explains police ineptness on this occasion? The Delhi police does function under a kind of diarchy, controlled not by the Chief Minister, but by bureaucrats in the Union Home Ministry, who operate through the Lt. Governor. In effect, no one remains in control. Yet, even this does not quite explain why the Delhi police failed to see what was coming.

The most widely held view is of political interference with actions being dictated by political considerations. If this indeed is the case, it seems to have been a very high a price to pay. Even then, the Delhi police needs to provide a true explanation for their utter ineptitude.

Target for all

The riots in Delhi did not fall into the category of nuclear science. If it were the latter, one could at least have attributed this to intelligence failure. The steady build-up of tension was all too obvious. Areas that needed to be properly screened for the presence of agent provocateurs and trouble-makers ever ready to exploit such situations were known. Even a far less endowed police force, would have been able to effectively handle a situation that has since become a symbol of shame for Indian democracy, inviting the wrath of not only bodies such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, but also allowing countries with little pretence to secular democracy to point fingers at us.

This is hardly a place to discuss modern policing techniques. It is inconceivable, however, that the Delhi police would not have carried out proper data mapping, so critical for efficient law and order management, one which all modern police forces adopt. This is the fundamental basis of all intelligence-led policing today. It is difficult to believe otherwise. Admittedly, however, to use an age-old idiom, there are many ways to skin a cat and, possibly in this instance, the Delhi police were perhaps directed by their political superiors to adopt another tack.

Delhi’s shame is India’s shame. Trouble-makers taking advantage of this lapse may feel encouraged to try and repeat the same in the future. The Delhi police need to set their house in order for, alongside other police forces across the world, they need to prepare for a future in which technological advances are creating an entire new paradigm of threats. In the age of rampant social media, they need to be ready to deal with the ‘weaponisation of social media’ — this may have already occurred in the Delhi case.

In the era of artificial intelligence, they will also need to prepare for the so-called ‘deception revolution’, including dealing with ‘deep-fake’ threats, where digitally manipulated audio and video material designed to be as realistic as possible, becomes near impossible to separate from the truth. This would create a whole new portfolio of dangers.

As we face untold new dangers, it would be unfortunate that through a combination of factors, including unwarranted interference in its role and activities, India’s law and order showpiece, the Delhi police, is portrayed as inefficient and ineffective, even to deal with a mundane communal riot.

M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and a former Governor of West Bengal

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