The letter that the Bengaluru police have written to the organiser of the comedy show of Munawar Faruqui, “suggesting” him to cancel the event, is, by itself, comical. The real and ulterior motives behind such an order of the police must be obvious to anybody who has been observing the ‘biased’ behaviour of the police in India. Even if we ignore the poor language of the letter, it is a classic example of how the police in the country are abusing the law and the legal powers vested in them in their unholy attempt to please their political masters and further their divisive political agenda.
What Even is a 'Controversy'?
First, they say that ‘Munawar Faruqui is a controversial figure as he has been in controversial statements and on other religion Gods (sic).’ The word ‘controversial’ has not been defined in Indian law anywhere. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, controversy is a discussion marked especially by the expression of opposing views. It does not even remotely hint that a controversy inherently involves something obnoxious or illegal. Controversy is a societal phenomenon. Controversy can take place anywhere in society over virtually anything. Even the most respected figures of this country have been embroiled in controversies. In fact, if I start listing them, right from some characters in mythology to real characters in modern times, it would itself lead to a controversy.
Some people in the country might have criticised previous shows of Munawar Faruqui. So, technically, there might have been a controversy over them. The question is, so what? The mere fact that there was a controversy does not render something illegal. Being a ‘controversial’ man does not mean that the police or society can deprive him of his right to livelihood and freedom of speech.
Is a doctor barred from medical practice merely on the ground that a case against him might have been registered for medical negligence or unethical practice? Is a journalist barred from writing merely because some of his reports could have been found factually incorrect or even inflammatory? Is a public prosecutor barred from appearing in court even as it would have been very clear that he was not honest to his duty?
In Zahira Habibulla H. Sheikh vs State of Gujarat (2004), the Supreme Court commented that the public prosecutor appeared to have acted more as a defence counsel than one whose duty was to present the truth before the court. Yet, he was not barred from acting as public prosecutor. Is the police IO (investigating officer) barred from investigating merely because the courts might have passed severe strictures against his investigation in some case(s)?
Cases in Other States are Irrelevant
In August this year, the Supreme Court lamented that its repeated appeals to legislators to amend the law to weed out criminals amidst them had fallen on deaf ears. The Supreme Court had directed political parties to publish the criminal history – if any – of their candidates on the homepage of the parties’ websites under the caption “candidates with criminal antecedents” within 48 hours of their selection. Still, the fact remains that in the absence of a specific law to the effect, candidates with criminal antecedents cannot be barred from contesting elections.
Then, why should a poor comedian be denied his right to livelihood and freedom of speech merely on the ground that some people have maliciously lodged cases against him?
The Bengaluru police made a specific reference to the case against him in Madhya Pradesh. The point to be noted is that he has not been convicted in any of those cases. Had he been convicted and lost in appeal too, there could have been some merit in the action of the Bengaluru police. In fact, while granting him bail in the Indore case, the Supreme Court had observed that the allegations against him were vague.
From a legal point of view, the reference to case(s) in other states is, therefore, both irrelevant and illegal. As far as Bengaluru is concerned, Munawar Faruqui has not had committed any offence in their jurisdiction.
The Bengaluru police said that there is credible information that several organisations opposing the stand-up comedy show could create chaos and could disturb public peace and harmony, which may further lead to law and order problems. This is legally vacuous. They have no right to deprive somebody of his right to livelihood and freedom of speech in anticipation of trouble.
Is an Intelligence Report Enough?
In the case of Mechineni Kishan Rao vs. Commissioner of Police Hyderabad & Another (2002), while denying permission for a procession, the police had claimed that there was an intelligence report that People’s War Group cadre would infiltrate into the procession and public meeting, and, therefore, permission was denied. The Telangana High Court rejected the contention and ordered the police to make all necessary arrangements for the procession. The same argument applies here, too.
Citing an intelligence report to justify something unreasonable has been a very old trick of the police and the State. The fact is there is neither any logical nor historical reason to think that intelligence reports must be treated as infallible.
In India, given the servility of the bureaucracy to the political masters in power at a given point of time, their reports are known to suffer from a high degree of “biased subjectivity”. Elsewhere
, too, in the world, we find evidence of the “manufactured report syndrome”. The whole world was made to believe before the US-led invasion of Iraq that Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). Yet, international agencies tasked with actually carrying out inspections in Iraq found none, making it the greatest intelligence fraud in living memory.
Moreover, professional integrity demands that questions should have been asked as to whether the aforesaid intelligence report was realistic, and if so, how? Who are the people opposing the show and what is their number? What is their preparation for staging the protest? A protest can turn violent only if two groups clash. Here, we have one lone comedian as the other party. Since he cannot obviously fight with them alone, how could there be a clash? How could they disturb public peace and harmony leading to law and order problems?
Or, do they mean to suggest that the protesters would simply go on rampage as if the state did not exist? How is it that the police find themselves inadequately equipped or prepared to deal with people indulging in rioting even as they claim to have prior intelligence about it?
The Padmavat 'Controversy'
Bengaluru police cannot claim that one of their ‘agents’ or ‘moles’ had told so. To believe in agents or moles, one should be sure of their veracity and track record first. What is the ‘access’ and ‘level of access’ of the agents in the organisations or parties that were to gather people in such numbers that could overwhelm the police?
If the police argue that they would have been unable to cope with the protests, it can mean only two things – either they are so incompetent that they cannot deal with an expected law and order problem, or their intelligence is falsely created as a poor excuse. The police cannot claim that they have intelligence that there would be a problem but they have no idea of the people who would create the problem, as that would be self-contradictory. If they know the people, what prevented the police from taking action against them under Section 107 of the CrPC (security for good behaviour) or making preventive arrests?
There is no dispute that – as held in the cases of Sanjay Leela Bhansali & Ors vs State & Ors (2018) and Prakash Jha Productions vs Union of India (2011) in connection with the ‘controversy’ over the historical drama film Padmavat – it is the duty and obligation of the State to maintain law and order. However, it never meant that the police must surrender before vigilantes or hooligans
In Anand Chintamani Dighe and anr. vs State of Maharashtra and Ors. (2002), the court was emphatic that the law must not bow before popular perceptions. “Popular perceptions, however strong, cannot override values that the constitution embodies as guarantees of freedom in what was always intended to be a free society,” it said.
The police are thus duty-bound to uphold law until the maximum limit that is reasonably possible. The Bengaluru police have no evidence that had that comedy show been allowed, the protests would have turned exceedingly violent.
Clearly, the police these days have no intention of upholding constitutional values and freedom because they are overly eager to bend backwards for pleasing their political masters, helping create a larger-than-life image of their political agenda.
(Dr. N. C. Asthana is a retired IPS officer and a former DGP of Kerala. He has authored 49 books and 76 research papers. His latest work is ‘State Persecution of Minorities and Underprivileged in India’. He tweets @NcAsthana. This is an Opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)