Chants of “ABVP, why so creepy? Delhi Police, why so sleepy?” filled the air outside Khalsa College on 28 February, where thousands of students and teachers had gathered to protest.
The protest march was a direct response to two related events. Ramjas College’s English department had invited JNU students, Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid, to speak at a seminar, titled ‘Cultures of Protest’, on 21 February.
Following opposition from the RSS-backed ABVP, the invitation was withdrawn after the Delhi Police allegedly refused to intervene, expressing their inability to guarantee their safety.
The organisers were not allowed to proceed with the seminar – the power was cut off, students and teachers were locked indoors and the ABVP went on a rampage, pelting stones and breaking window panes.
On 22 February, some students and faculty of the Delhi University protested the previous day’s violence and police inaction. This time around, the police and ABVP supporters attacked the protesters. Journalists were also attacked that day.
Several organisations stepped forward to condemn the incident. Defending academic freedom, the Delhi Commission for Women ordered a probe against the Delhi Police for ‘manhandling’ women protesters.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued a notice to the Delhi Police over ‘allegations of police excesses’. Two Delhi University students filed a PIL before the Delhi High Court against the Delhi Police.
On its part, the Delhi Police suspended three officers for ‘high-handedness’. Official reports indicate that the matter has now been put before the Crime Branch.
Not Probed Enough
Police violence is often perceived as a corollary of the protest culture. However, the participation of the police as active facilitators and collaborators of state repression calls for a probe.
Policing of protest is historically – even by conservative standards – aimed at maintaining a delicate balance between public order and civil rights. Public order laws in most societies are vague and prone to misuse. In India however, this blends with a deadly cocktail of impunity, institutional bias and politicisation of the police force.
The Emergency in 1975-77, the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, the 1987 Hashimpura massacre, the targeted killings of Muslims in Bombay in 1992-93, the violence leading up to the Babri Masjid demolition, the 2002 Gujarat carnage, the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots and last year’s Jat agitation in Haryana have one thing in common – the politicisation of the police force.
The inherited colonial criminal justice administration, including criminal laws and the police, flourished despite the superstructural reforms initiated by the higher judiciary. These failed to make a dent in the infrastructural issues that dictated the living and working conditions of the police.
The abortive attempts at ‘reforming’ the police started when the Janata Party government instituted the National Police Commission (NPC) to inquire into the high politicisation and excesses of the Emergency period. The Emergency had instilled in the police the Nuremberg dilemma: to be professional or partisan; to remain true to government or to the law?
The NPC’s recommendations for police reforms included judicial inquiry into complaints against the police under certain circumstances, reduced police immunity from prosecution, the creation of police complaint boards, fixed tenure for police chiefs and guidelines for reducing police harassment of the public, among other things.
After returning to power in 1980, the Indira Gandhi government called the commission ‘hostile’ and refused to implement any of the recommendations. Officers censured by the Janata government for their role in Emergency were reinstated and rewarded – sending the message that political interference was here to stay.
High Levels of Politicisation
However, to borrow from David Bayley, a leading expert on Indian police, the Emergency merely represented high as opposed to low politicisation of the previous period.
This politicisation is carefully nurtured by the political order, and a ‘reform’ in police system cannot be brought about without getting rid of that political order.
A 2009 Report by the Human Rights Watch noted that the Indian police has become a ‘law unto themselves’, an observation not far from the truth. The HRW Report also scrutinised the ‘dangerous state of disrepair of the Indian police’, ‘political interference and stalled reforms’ and ‘failure to register complaints and investigate crime’.
In 2006, the Supreme Court, in the landmark Prakash Singh case, issued seven directions on police reforms – drawing from the recommendations of the NPC and urged the Central and the state governments to enact new police laws to minimise, if not eradicate political interference.
So far, 17 states have enacted laws that deliberately legitimise the status quo and circumvent the implementation of the Prakash Singh judgement. Others have passed executive orders diluting and amending the direction in the case and none have implemented the order in its spirit.
Will Police Excesses Be Curbed?
It has been duly noted that an eradication of political interference may not necessarily reduce the number of arbitrary arrests, detentions, torture and death in police custody; it may do nothing to reduce the immunity police enjoys from prosecution.
While political patronage boosts the impunity of the police system, colonial era laws are also to be held responsible. Section 197 of the CrPC, for example, provides the police general immunity from prosecution of serious misconduct.
As the long arm of the state, the police force inevitably takes the shape of that which contains it – the government, in this case.
Police ‘inaction’ in the Ramjas protest, therefore, needs to be seen in this larger framework of active collaboration. Crime and politics were inseparable in the eyes of the British Raj; political resistance and dissent were branded criminal activities, and the police acted as the eyes and the ears of the colonial state – little has changed under the patronage of the Indian state.
A ‘Dangerous Anachronism’
Thus, when most progressive societies have been steadily working on a democratic model of citizen policing, the Indian police remains a ‘dangerous anachronism’. In UK, for example, the Macpherson Committee Report (1999) delivered a damning critique of the Metropolitan Police, holding it accountable for ‘institutional racism’ after a sloppy and incompetent investigation of the murder of a black teenager Stephen Lawrence. It made 70 recommendations, 67 of which were implemented, fully or in part.
In India, institutional bias of police against Muslims is well established. To borrow from the Sachar Committee, the only place where Muslims are over-represented is in the prisons of India. The police also acknowledge a ‘trust deficit’ among Muslims, many of whom perceive the force as being “communal, biased, insensitive, ill-informed, corrupt and lacking professionalism”.
To understand this institutional bias, one only needs to look at the role of the police as mute spectators, or active collaborators during communal killings and riots in Hashimpura, Gujarat, Mumbai, to name a few.
Institutional bias against Muslims as the ‘eternal other’ spins well on an axis of the Sangh Parivar-approved nationalism (where any form of dissent/critique is anti-national).
Who represents the face of the ‘anti-national’ better than one with a Muslim name, charged last year with ‘sedition’, ‘the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen’?
The Delhi Police isn’t just sleepy; they are perhaps just as creepy as ABVP.
(The writer is an Assistant Professor at O.P. Jindal Global University. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)