The Delhi High Court order of December 17, 2018, convicting Congress leader Sajjan Kumar in the 1984 riots has again brought into focus the urgent need to insulate police from extraneous influences, especially politicians. The riots saw an “enormous human tragedy” when 2,733 Sikhs were brutally murdered in New Delhi alone in a communal frenzy unleashed in the first week of November 1984.
The court recorded that there were concerted efforts not to register cases against the guilty, and in those which were registered, investigation was not done properly—even when investigation was undertaken, it was not carried to the logical conclusion of filing a charge-sheet. The court went on to deplore the “apathy of the Delhi Police” and observed that it did not inspire confidence among the victims. Moreover, the court also lashed at the metropolitan police for its “active connivance in the brutal murders being perpetrated”.
The Delhi HC did not mince its words. “A majority of the perpetrators of these horrific mass crimes enjoyed political patronage and were aided by an indifferent law enforcement agency”. Delhi Police could not have had a worse indictment. Not that the other agencies acquitted themselves with any glory. Even the then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, in a veiled defence of the riots, had said at the time: “When a big tree falls, the Earth does shake a little”.
There were no less than ten committees/commissions which looked into the tragedy, but the criminals managed to dodge prosecution and punishment. The Justice Ranganath Mishra Commission, which submitted its report in 1986, was a disgrace. He gave clean chit to Congress leaders and said that it was spontaneous violence resulting from anger, grief and hatred for Indira Gandhi’s assassins which gradually transformed into a riot “with participation and monitoring thereof by anti-socials”.
What is then the option before the country? Do we want to continue with the police dispensation as it is and run the risk of bearing more “crimes against humanity” or should we reform it so that it becomes an instrument of service to the people?
The Supreme Court judgment of September 22, 2006, was expected to bring about a radical change in the functioning of police in India. It was expected to transform what had hitherto been an instrument to uphold the partisan interests of the ruling class into an instrument to uphold the rule of law. Twelve years down the line, progress has been tardy notwithstanding Justice Thomas expressing in 2010 his sense of “dismay over the total indifference” of the states to police reforms and Justice Verma urging all states in 2012 to comply with the apex court’s directions “to tackle systemic problems in policing”. The executive orders passed by the state governments and the Acts legislated by seventeen states are all contrary to the letter and spirit in varying degrees of the judicial directions.
What is particularly disappointing is that the Union government, which should have given lead in the matter of police reforms, has also been dragging its feet. It has yet to pass the Model Police Act drafted as far back as 2006 by Soli Sorabjee. What is worse, it has been supporting the state governments which have filed applications for modifications in the Supreme Court’s directions.
At stake are not only the life, liberty and human rights of the citizens of the country, the democratic structure itself may collapse one day. We saw what happened during the Emergency when, as recorded by the Shah Commission, “the police was used and allowed themselves to be used for purposes some of which were, to say the least, questionable”. The increasing number of persons of criminal background in state assemblies and Parliament are already eating into the vitals of our democracy. Economic development, of which we feel so proud, is also likely to be jeopardised if the law and order machinery doesn’t get the much-needed upgrade. What happened in Haryana during the reservation agitation in 2016, where property worth Rs 20,000 crore was devastated, should not be forgotten.
If the executive does not give up its ‘zamindari’ over the police, we may, as the Delhi High Court warned, continue to see the familiar pattern of mass killings: Mumbai in 1993, Gujarat in 2002 and Muzaffarnagar in 2013. Can the country afford that?
(The writer, a retired police chief, has been campaigning for police reforms for over two decades)