While a detailed analysis of the Delhi riots would be carried out to fix accountability, there’s a need to usher in the much-delayed reforms in the police and the criminal justice system
Following the recent riots in the national capital, a wholesome praise of the Delhi Police in Parliament by Home Minister Amit Shah should not lull the force into a sense of complacency. For, earlier, the Supreme Court had observed that the violence in Delhi could have been prevented had the police acted independently. The apex court Bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and KM Joseph went on to comment, “Unfortunate things have happened. The problem is the total lack of independence of police.” Very strong words as these were, though only in the nature of obiter dicta, they were widely covered by the print media, aptly reflecting the prevailing state of affairs in the Delhi Police. The Minister of State for Home informed Parliament of the steps taken by the Delhi Police to restore normalcy.
Nevertheless, after the recent appointment of SN Shrivastava as the new Delhi Police Commissioner, it was expected of the force to undertake a detailed analysis of how the riots were handled so as to rectify the weaknesses. In our criminal justice system, police happens to be the fundamental element and the very first point of interface with the public. It is from here that perceptions, right or wrong, are created about the mechanics of delivery of justice.
Earlier, the top court had refused to hear any plea pertaining to the Delhi riots as it observed that these would appear before the Delhi High Court. What transpired at the High Court made national news. The High Court judge, who initially heard the matter and passed urgent orders, was transferred midnight, an ignominy usually meant for errant district officials. On the other hand, the very next day, the Chief Justice of the High Court adjourned the matter for a few weeks. In the face of severe criticism, the Supreme Court had to step in and issue directions to the High Court to list Delhi riots cases on March 6 but again, it was delayed by a few days.
Every action/inaction on the part of the police vis-a-vis its duties towards the public is justiciable. The higher judiciary, in particular, is held in great awe and feared. It also exercises a great deal of moral authority over the system. Any question or query by them in the interest of the public not only sets the right tone and direction for the police but also acts as the guiding principle for future handling of similar situations. As such in the prevailing situation in Delhi, where it was a question of life and death besides home and hearth, the need was for intervention from any level as the police was generally found wanting.
A comparison with the situation post the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar, just a few months before the General Elections of 2014, readily comes to mind. The Supreme Court had handed over a scathing indictment to the State Government. It went on to say, “The State Government was negligent and failed to protect the fundamental rights of the people.” Also, soon after the riots, it intervened and directed the Uttar Pradesh Government to give equal compensation to the victims of all communities. Now much later, riot cases like these are in the process of being systematically withdrawn and where ever the trials are in progress, large numbers of witnesses appear to be turning hostile. Though it is not for the first time that riot cases are being withdrawn but in the matter of communal riots, setting a wrong precedent one after another does not help prevent recurrence and should invite positive judicial intervention.
The initial inaction and delay on the part of the police appears to have sent a wrong message among the rioters. This issue has been extensively debated and commented upon. This became a major factor in leading to a very high toll in the riots. There are numerous instructions and case studies on the subject of handling riots by the police. A calibrated use of force is generally recommended for the dispersal of unlawful Assemblies. However, the situation is different in respect of communal riots where the police is expected to straightaway come down with a heavy hand and bring the situation under control, without waiting for any instruction.
In Delhi, considering the availability of resources, in the normal course, it should be possible to handle a riotous situation in a matter of hours. In the instant case, this did not happen as lumpen elements continued to dominate the force, resulting in a heavy toll. It is not as if the force is unaware of the tactics. For instance, just the other day, by its very swift action and reaching out to people, the Delhi police was able to curtail the spread of rumours and was able to prevent a serious clash in West Delhi area.
It is now understood that a very large number of cases have been registered and a few thousand have been detained. This should have a salutary impact. It is, however, surprising that in spite of the public order being seriously impaired, there has been no detention so far under the National Security Act. There is no dearth of technological resources available to Delhi Police but these can never be a substitute for human intelligence. While developing assets in right places requires a lot of time and patient handling, the role of beat and field staff of the police station would continue to be most important.
The Supreme Court is held in high esteem by all of us. Being the custodian of our Constitution and all the ethical and moral values attached therewith, a responsibility is thus cast on it all the time to uphold the rule of law. Soon after he assumed office, as the Chief Justice of India, Sharad Arvind Bobde had asked various States to file affidavits by February, with suggestions for reforms in the criminal justice system as well as the police.
This matter has been pending since long and needs to be addressed most expeditiously. While the usual post-mortem of the riots would be carried out and accountability would be fixed, it has been felt that we also have an opportunity to usher in the much-delayed reforms in the police as well as the criminal justice system.
(Writer: KK Paul; Courtesy: The Pioneer)