India’s police force is under stress – analysis
The year 2019 ended with a stressful note for the Indian police, fighting a series of agitations on the Citizenship Law (Amendment), 2019 (CAA) and the National Registry of Citizens (NRC) throughout the country. The police also had to answer a series of questions about the methods to handle the protests. Violent incidents in Uttar Pradesh (UP) led to police repression in several places, while in Delhi, police action in Jamia Millia Islamia and inaction at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) were subject to widespread criticism. In Hyderabad, the death of four rapes accused in a police meeting generated a heated debate over instant justice and a criminal justice system that suffered excessive delays. The dawn of 2020 saw the police involved again in another debate, with the transfer of the Bhima Koregaon case from the Pune police to the National Investigation Agency (NIA).
The consequences of these incidents generally indicate the nature of the impending challenges before the police in 2020. The 2019 experience will also be vital for the police to shape their responses in the future.
First, the agitations on the CAA and the NRC are different from the usual over-specific and localized problems. Second, these are in the glow of arc lights with television channels and reporters that cram the area. Third, the police are stationed not in designated places of protest. Fourth, the agitation of supporters and critics of the CAA in a politically charged environment is adding fuel to the fire and increasing animosities.
The police are in a dilemma for agitations like Shaheen Bagh’s. It is predominantly women of all ages who are leading this protest, visiting the site daily in large numbers. Since the occupied area is a public place, thousands of travelers and residents are affected, and numerous protests have been made to evict the facilities and move to one of the designated sites for such protests, with little success. Similar protests have also emerged elsewhere.
How do the police address these situations in the subways, under the constant gaze and scrutiny of the media and the public? Ideally, those who make volatile comments should be reserved and protesters should move to designated sites. This is not possible since the courts have asked whether volatile statements are inflammatory enough to cause immediate conflagration. Public sittings have become so great that any police action runs the risk of hurting unarmed protesters. Under the circumstances, the police can only watch to keep the peace.
Providing security in such a politically charged and sensitive environment is another challenge. It is difficult to evaluate people in such meetings where hundreds visit the site every day and even the organizers do not know who exactly is in the crowd. When vandalism against public property occurs with attacks against police, protesters blame outsiders. On January 30, a young pro-CAA shot at the crowd of protesters in Jamia and wounded one. The police were blamed for inaction, even complicity. The time has come to monitor these sites with drones and CCTV cameras powered by mobile vans.
Responding to university disturbances in the current circumstances is another challenge, when the debate about the entry of police to campuses continues. Delhi police were criticized for using excessive force inside Jamia after entering the campus, allegedly in pursuit of a violent mob. The same police were inactive, waiting outside the doors of JNU, while masked attackers created chaos inside the campus. The new template for action should be applied: so that the police take action within a campus on the information of a recognizable crime and do not wait for any permission.
Repairing the broken criminal justice system remains a real challenge in the future. Even after seven years, the mother of the rape victim in Delhi expects justice. Smart lawyers, helped by lengthy legal proceedings, have managed to delay the hanging so far. Other cases of heinous crimes against women continue to suffer due to poor quality investigations, poor forensic facilities, a below-average prosecution system and excessively long judicial procedures. Kangaroo justice is not an answer to this, however, there are many cases that are used.
The four rapes charged in Hyderabad were shot dead by police in a meeting when they allegedly attacked the police. The public licked it in the middle of preventive advice from jurists and courts.
Finally, the police have to prepare for many more dog fights between the Center and the states on sensitive cases like Bhima Koregaon, with serious adverse consequences. The case recorded during the Bharatiya Janata Party regime in Maharashtra by the Pune Police was ready to be charged when the new government denounced the investigations for attacking leftist activists and liberal persuasion. The transfer of the case by the Center to the ISA is a sign of what will come. The police leadership now has to make sure that it prepares a solid case that cannot be cut and later changed by other dispensations. You will also have to counter political machinations. Police autonomy seems to be the only solution to this mess, but, unfortunately, police reforms remain a chimera.
Yashovardhan Azad is a former IPS officer and central information commissioner
The opinions expressed are personal.