Policing a turbulent democracy

On January 6, a violent mob loyal to President Donald Trump attacked the iconic Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. Ever since it started becoming clear that Democrat Joe Biden was set to win the 2020 presidential election, emotions started running high. Many threatened to resort to violence if Mr. Biden was declared the winner. The assault on Capitol Hill was therefore not an unexpected event, particularly when viewed against the backdrop of Mr. Trump’s own inflammatory rhetoric preceding the incident. For those who supported Mr. Biden, Mr. Trump’s verbal assault bordered on instigation. Congress is now determined to impeach the President for this.

Failure to protect Capitol Hill

More than the ugly conduct of Mr. Trump and his supporters, what is now also being discussed — and rightly so — is whether the assault could have been foiled. How prepared were the law and order agencies for the worst-case scenario? Did they arm themselves adequately to meet all probable contingencies? These are questions that will normally be raised anywhere in the democratic world after such an outrageous incident takes place. The Washington Police and intelligence establishments face the heat squarely for their failure to protect the sanctity of the historic institution.

An Indian policeman would wonder how the rampaging mob was allowed to go so close to Capitol Hill and then enter the building. In my view, the Indian police would have kept the mob at a distance of at least one kilometre from the building and erected a police wall to prevent such an invasion. The more boisterous among the gathering would also have been removed from the scene at the earliest. This would no doubt have led to mob violence. But the Indian police have never hesitated to use force to disable rioting crowds.

There is no report to suggest that the Capitol Police used sufficient force to keep the crowd at bay. The situation no doubt demanded huge reinforcements from neighbouring agencies and the National Guard. According to some reports, no one at the Capitol requested for additional security requirement, although the former chief of the Capitol Police has denied this.

The intricacies of policing Washington D.C. are somewhat analogous to those administering Delhi. Although Delhi is for all purposes a ‘State’ as defined by the Constitution, operational control over the Delhi Police rests with the Union Home Ministry. This is an arrangement laid down by the Constitution (Sixty-ninth Amendment) Act. Under this law, the Delhi Legislative Assembly can make laws in all subjects except in matters pertaining to public order, police and land. Successive Chief Ministers have cribbed about this strange arrangement, but to no avail. The position will remain unchanged unless a constitutional amendment is brought about to confer full Statehood on Delhi. An amendment to this effect will, however, remain a pipe dream for a long time to come. This is the lacuna that permits politics to be injected into policing matters in India. No Central government, whatever its political complexion, is a saint in the matter.

The mode of policing the American capital is a shade different from what prevails in India. The U.S. Capitol Police is an independent police department which reports to the House Speaker and Senate President. It can and frequently does ask other Washington D.C. law enforcement agencies for extra resources. It can also ask the National Guard and federal law enforcement agencies for assistance. The National Guard is drawn from the U.S. Army and Air Force and is somewhat weighed down by the dual control of the States and the federal government. The inexplicable fact here is that despite intelligence and warnings, the Capitol Police failed to reinforce itself ahead of the January 6 attack. Was there some politics here that accounted for the apparent reluctance to beef up security? President Trump could have drawn on the National Guard, but he did not do so for obvious reasons. He was possibly abetted by a Republican-controlled Senate.

A poor track record

The charge levelled by many observers in the U.S. is that law enforcement was guilty of providing kid-glove treatment to the rioters. This, they say, was in sharp contrast to the ruthlessness displayed in countering the Black Lives Matter agitators. The huge numbers arrested during the Black Lives Matter movement are highlighted to contrast the modest figure rounded up at Capitol Hill. It is difficult to support or reject this charge of a police bias, although the U.S. police have often been accused of racism.

While discussing the happenings in Washington, some critics of our Central government allege that the track record of our own police is not any better. They cite the incidents at Jawaharlal Nehru University on January 5, 2020 and the Jamia Millia campus on December 15, 2019 to establish that the police turn a blind eye when it is politically inexpedient to haul up law breakers. The allegations made on both occasions were that several outsiders were allowed by the authorities to infiltrate into the two institutions and physically handle students who were protesting against the administration. No one has been arrested following the JNU incident. In the case of Jamia, there have been a few arrests, but allegedly selective so as to not offend those who wield influence in the institution. Official inquiries have been held into both incidents, but to little avail. In such cases, only painstaking investigation can establish that outsiders went in with the intention of causing trouble. Even an investigator with a high reputation for objectivity and political neutrality finds it difficult in such instances to find the required evidence.

Policing a democracy is a complicated exercise. An acceptable balance has to be struck between operational autonomy and the need for the political executive to retain control over the police so that the latter do not commit excesses or become politicised. Such a formula is attractive on paper but rarely works in the field.

R.K. Raghavan is a former CBI Director and a former High Commissioner of India to Cyprus