Saturday, July 5, 2008

Human Rights Features

March 2002

Gujarat riots point to need for police reform
“Where the whole society has opted for a certain colour in [sic] a particular issue”, admitted Ahmedabad Police Commissioner Prashant Chandra Pande to an interviewer from a web magazine, “it’s very difficult to expect the policemen to be totally isolated and unaffected”.
Mr Pande was defending the largely sectarian response of his police force, which has been charged with the task of putting down revenge killings by Hindus in the state of Gujarat. The killings began after a Muslim mob torched a train carrying Hindu activists returning from Ayodhya – the northern Indian town where the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a Hindu right-wing group, has laid claim to a piece of land on which a mosque previously stood. The VHP and its affiliated groups destroyed the mosque in 1992 in an attempt to construct a temple at the site.
This reasoning offered by an official of the rank of Police Commissioner indicates the extent to which sectarian prejudices have seeped into the police system. The bias shown by the police was ignored, and at times even endorsed, by a chauvinistic state government that took its time deploying the police, the Army and paramilitary forces, and which refused to entertain charges of inaction.
Members of the state administration, notably Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, sought to justify the raging violence with remarkable statements such as, in view of the Muslim attack on Hindus on the train entering Gujarat, the reaction of the Hindus was “understandable”. The police force had not demonstrated bias, he claimed, adding that the state had not inhibited the police and Army from stepping in to control the violence. All in all, he concluded, the government had not erred, the rioting had been brought “under control”, and the state administration should be commended for the “fact” that it had managed to control the spread of violence within three days.
That more than 500 people have died in the rioting so far has not appeared to stir a sense of accountability. As an elected representative in the world’s second largest democracy, acceptance of responsibility was required – and not simply for when the revenge attacks began but in the first instance when the train was set on fire at Godhra railway station. By all accounts, the mob had clearly been waiting for the train and was armed. The obviously volatile situation warranted a prompt dispatch of police personnel and preparations for follow-up action. No preventive action was taken.
The state administration was also either inexcusably unprepared for or, more likely, wilfully blind to the inevitability of retribution.
As people went on a rampage, setting fire to Muslim homes and business establishments, obstructing fire engines, and refusing to offer shelter to Muslim neighbours, the police in numerous instances either took no action, or reached the spot only after the damage had been done. The Army and paramilitary forces meanwhile stood by, waiting for deployment orders that came too late. In some cases, police officials claimed they had received instructions from state government officials not to intervene.
The handling of the riots in Gujarat bears a disturbing resemblance to police and State behaviour in previous communal riots. On 31 October 1984, armed mobs fell upon Delhi’s Sikh community following Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards. The attacks began that same day. However, the Army was called out only the next evening. In its reply to an inquiry commission, the Army claimed that the government took too long to issue deployment orders. The Army affidavit also stated that it was deployed in the less affected southern and central districts of Delhi. The government, for its part, placed the onus on the Army. A (now-infamous) statement of the slain prime minister’s son encapsulated the pervasive attitude within the government. “When a banyan tree falls,” Rajiv Gandhi stated, “the earth is bound to tremble”.
The State’s abdication of its responsibility to protect minorities is demonstrated most clearly by the behaviour of its police. The sectarian bias of the Indian police as well as its politicisation is not a new phenomenon. The police force is regarded as the handmaiden of the political establishment, to be used to advance and protect the interests of the party in power.
Its sectarian approach also has a long history. As Vibhuti Narain Rai, former Inspector General (Border Security Force), now with the Uttar Pradesh state Police, noted in a 1999 article, communal overtones coloured police perceptions of citizens as well as the community’s perception of the police as far as back as the pre-Partition days. A police officer, Hindu or Muslim, adds Rai, “continued to be looked upon primarily as a protector of his own community.”
Rai undertook a study on police neutrality during communal riots, in which he found that the relationship between the police and Muslim citizens in most parts of the country was “inimical” and that “community perception of the police in situations of communal tension was that of an enemy”. In most major communal riots in the country, according to Rai’s findings, Muslims suffered the most, “both in terms of life and property”. Additionally, he found that “even in riots where the number of Muslims killed was many times more than the Hindus, it was they who were mainly arrested, most searches were conducted in their houses, and curfew imposed in a harsher manner in their localities. This observation holds good for even those riots where almost [all those] killed were Muslims” (emphasis in original).
Now, thanks to stubborn resistance to reform, the nation’s consciousness has been marred by images of helpless citizens, under siege of their fellow countrymen, imploring the police to come to their aid.
More than half a century after Independence, the Police Act of 1861 -- an instrument of British colonial rule -- still regulates the operation of the Indian police force. The current public perception of the Indian Police Service is in large part due to the structure of the 1861 Act. Attempts were made by some NGOs to expedite the process of police reforms in India. These efforts, however, met with little cooperation from the government or the police force.
Policing in India consequently remains plagued by political interference, a lack of basic training, the virtual absence of accountability and a poor public image. Brutality has become endemic in police work. The general public believes that the police are more likely to harass them than help them, and therefore rarely seek police assistance. The police force, on the other hand, must contend with low pay, poor working and living conditions and high levels of stress.
On 15 November 1977, the Government of India’s Ministry of Home Affairs appointed a National Police Commission (NPC) to examine all aspects of the Indian Police Service and to “re-define the role, duties, powers and responsibilities of the police”. From 1979 to 1981, the NPC made numerous far-reaching and promising recommendations concerning the functions, procedures and perceptions of the police force in India and the Indian system of justice in general. The NPC produced a total of eight reports; the eighth and concluding report proposed a new Police Act to replace the Police Act of 1861. Now almost 20 years after the publication of the NPC’s concluding report, the state of the Indian police remains as before. India’s state and union governments show no signs of implementing any of the recommendations.
One of the most notable efforts to promote police reform was made by former Uttar Pradesh police chief Prakash Singh. In the case of Prakash Singh vs Union of India (writ petition 310 of 1996), Singh called on the government to implement the recommendations of the NPC and the National Human Rights Commission. Four specific issues were raised in the petition: (1) creation of a State Security Commission; (2) adoption of a fixed tenure for the police chief; (3) separation of the law and order and investigative branches of the police force; and (4) introduction of a new Police Bill.
In the Prakash Singh case, the Supreme Court ordered the Government of India to establish a Sub-Committee, headed by Julio Ribeiro, to examine the main themes of NPC’s recommendations. The terms of the Sub-Committee were detailed in MHA Memo No. 11018/1/98-PMA dated 25 May 1998. Some NGOs worked with the committee to review and perfect the NPC recommendations. Four years after the formation of the Ribeiro Committee, however, no tangible results are in sight. The Supreme Court, having completed its hearings on the petition over a year-and-a-half ago, has reserved its judgement.
Hard questions need to be asked in the wake of the Gujarat tragedy: hard questions about the character – and future – of a democracy that permits the blatant and consistent disregard of the rule of law by its own law enforcement agencies. Serious consideration must be given to the NPC reports and recommendations – this is a seemingly obvious point of departure, but one that has surprisingly found no mention either in government circles or in the media. It would constitute the first step toward the reconceptualisation of the Indian police as a protective force that can be relied on and expected to provide safety to persons under threat, regardless of their religious status or political preferences. To have a citizen plead with the police to come and save his life is a disgrace to the democratic culture that Indians lay claim to.

- Human Rights Features

No comments: