June 01, 2020
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Unkindest Cut

The police establishment is in the midst of a storm over the transfer of some dutiful IPS officers

Unkindest Cut
Unkindest Cut
The Gujarat government and its police seem to be headed for a confrontation over the strangest of issues: why did senior district police officers stop rioters from running amok on the fateful days after the Godhra incident? Punishing officers for fulfilling their duties is unprecedented in the annals of police history. To further precipitate matters, the Gujarat government, in an unusual move last week, filed a caveat emptor with the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT), pre-empting the officers from doing the same, i.e. moving the court against what is being seen as blatantly partisan and politically-motivated transfer orders.

The cause for this consternation is not far to seek. The controversial transfer of police officers who stood their ground against marauding VHP and Bajrang Dal mobs—allegedly abetted by the Narendra Modi government—and did their best to control the continuing carnage in Gujarat, has triggered a wave of anger among police officers. In a force tainted by its studied inaction and partisanship in the anti-minority pogrom after Godhra, the few who swam against the tide were targeted for punishment while several Sangh parivar acolytes were rewarded in the slew of 27 transfers which shook the administration on March 24.

So blatant was the move that state director general of police A.K. Chakravarty—who was apparently not even consulted about the transfers—wrote to the additional chief secretary, Ashok Narayan, taking strong exception to four IPS officers being moved out for fulfilling their obligation to the Constitution. Chakravarty is believed to have specifically objected to the transfers of Kutch SP Vivek Srivastava, Bhavnagar SP Rahul Sharma, Banaskantha SP Himanshu Bhatt and Bharuch SP M.D. Antani. In his note to Narayan, Chakravarty had noted that he "fears that the transfer of competent officers would demoralise the police force".

Srivastava evoked Modi's ire by arresting the area's Home Guards commandant, Akshay Thakkar, a member of the VHP, local VHP leader Vasant Patel and a Shiv Sena pramukh for attacking the priest of a dargah in the area. The state home minister, Goardhan Zadaphiya, a hardcore VHP man and an appointee of Sangh strongman Praveen Togadia, called Srivastava asking him to drop the charges. This was followed by a call from the chief minister's office to the SP. But he refused to buckle under the pressure. Srivastava told Outlook: "I was just doing my job as a police officer. But my sudden transfer as DCP (prohibition and excise) has come as a surprise. Earlier, we used to at least receive hints about impending transfers but this time I had no idea at all."

Rahul Sharma's transfer just a month after he assumed charge as SP of Bhavnagar has more than raised eyebrows. He took strong action to quell rioting mobs in Bhavnagar on March 1, and even resorted to firing several rounds himself. He was also instrumental in rescuing over 400 Muslims who were attacked by a mob near a madrassa in Akuada. Sharma is known to have taken strong action against rioters, including Shiv Sena's Kishore Bhatt.

But given the way the administrative structure functions, Sharma came under pressure from local leaders to dilute the sections under which offences were registered. Says Sharma: "I am not one to run away from transfers. I take these things in my stride. There seems to be a calculated strategy to keep things simmering through small incidents. Other than controlling the riots, I did no mischief." This is the tenth time Sharma has been transferred in the last six years.

While Antani is being taken to task for taking prompt action against rioters in Bharuch, Himanshu Bhatt is another officer who withstood severe harassment from the political establishment. This SP of Banaskantha had ordered the suspension of a sub-inspector who had colluded with the violent mobs.He came under pressure from the chief minister's office to revoke the order. Also transferred is Ahmedabad Zone IV DCP, P.B. Gondhia, who had named BJP MLA Maya Kodnani and VHP leader Jaideep Patel in his FIR on the Naroda-Patiya massacre in Ahmedabad where mobs murdered more than 80 people on the day of the Gujarat bandh. He has been shunted to civil defence.

While the transfers themselves have been highly questionable, the elevation of some officials with Sangh parivar connections to key positions in the riot investigations has deepened concern about the shielding of the perpetrators. "It is highly unlikely that the inquiry will be neutral under such circumstances," says D.N. Pathak, president of the Gujarat chapter of the People's Union for Civil Liberties.

In the recent transfers, R.J. Savani, who is reportedly close to the VHP, has been appointed DCP (crime), while Sanjay Gadhvi, an intimate friend of Togadia, has replaced Gondhia as DCP (Zone IV), Ahmedabad. Already, the assistant police commissioner, P.N. Barot, who has been chosen by the government to investigate the two worst pogroms in Ahmedabad—at Naroda and Chamanpura, where 35 people including former MP Ehsan Jaffrey were killed—has gone on record questioning the veracity of the FIRs registered. Senior IPS officials warn of a "cover-up" job being performed by investigators. "In many cases, FIRs are being filed without naming a single person. Such FIRs will be no better than a piece of paper in a court of law," a senior officer told Outlook.

While the transfers have re-focused attention on gross political interference in the administration, it is clear that few officials have had the courage to withstand the will of their political masters. "The fact that some officers were bold enough to take a stand and risk transfers shows that it was not impossible to withstand political pressure and act independently," says Indira Hirway, director of the Centre for Development Alternatives, Ahmedabad.

Senior IPS officials are vocal about their disappointment over Ahmedabad police commissioner P.C. Pande's passive role during the riots. An officer asks: "The officers at the top chose not to act and set the tone. Are we here to serve the Constitution or our political bosses?"

According to IPS circles, Chakravarty had called on the chief minister on the night of February 27, when the VHP's bandh call was announced to protest against the Godhra massacre. He reportedly "requested" Modi to ask his 'troops' (VHP rioters) to exercise restraint but the chief minister was not responsive. By February 28, officials say, the higher rungs of the police had been told not to take action against the rioters. A senior officer told Outlook: "During the initial days of the riot, SPs at the district level were contacted by ministers and told not to fire at Hindus." As the riots unfolded, it was not unusual for ministers to visit the districts and demand the release of arrested party workers, he adds. Just how pre-planned the riots were was evident from the fact that a number of ministers in the Gujarat cabinet were camping in their districts just when the riots were taking place.

The normal drill in riot situations is that immediate preventive arrests are made, a message sent out from the offices of the chief secretary and the dgp to all district magistrates and SPs, warning them against any untoward incidents. The timing of this message is also important because it has to be sent immediately after the outbreak of trouble and not days later. In the case of Gujarat, there is evidence to suggest that literally no precautionary measures were in place and no preventive arrests took place throughout the state on the night of February 27, although it was clear that a reprisal for the Sabarmati massacre was likely during the bandh.

The most important aspect of riot control—clamping of immediate curfew and ensuring that no crowds are allowed to assemble at any place—was not only blatantly ignored, but the VHP cadre was allowed to bring back the Godhra dead and organise public ceremonies amidst highly provocative slogans in Ahmedabad and other places, adding to a highly tense situation. In Ahmedabad, only two preventive arrests took place that night. Ironically, two Muslims were picked up at Ellis Bridge for shouting provocative slogans. The build-up of the VHP and the Bajrang Dal mobs was allowed to continue undisturbed. In contrast, the Surat police commissioner carried out a large number of preventive arrests which led to a sobering realisation that it would be unsafe to riot on the streets of Surat.

The callousness is evident from the fact that even though the state has been ablaze for more than a month, no high-level meetings have been conducted in the initial weeks between the top rungs of the police, home department and the chief minister, to survey the crisis, officials say. Under such adverse circumstances, briefings should have taken place on a daily basis, they point out.

On March 23, when the first such meeting did take place, the result was disappointing. Senior IPS officers used the opportunity to press the need for a "free hand" to control the riots, but the chief minister was not interested. Those in the know of the proceedings said that Modi was more interested in lambasting the police for "biased actions taken against the Hindu community", rather than listening to its genuine grievances.

During the first few days of the riots, politicians from the ruling BJP took control of crucial police control rooms. Not only was health minister Ashok Bhatt—an accused in a communal murder in 1985—present at the Ahmedabad city police control room, but minister I.K. Jadeja was also present at the state control room. Says an official: "They had no business being present there, but they virtually took over the control rooms and monitored the calls that were coming in." By any interpretation of law, it was a patently illegal act.

Police officials say that the pattern of recruitment and appointments followed by the BJP government over the past four years has intensified the politicisation and communalisation of the force. The BJP has entrusted its MLAs with appointing police inspectors in their constituencies. "As a result, they owe more allegiance to politicians than to the chain of command in the police. There is a tremendous erosion of authority," says an officer.

Officials also point out that top rungs of the Home Guards have been filled from among Hindutva activists in recent years. This is significant in the light of the fact that the Home Guards are a crucial supplementary force used to maintain law and order. A case in point is the Home Guards commandant of Surendranagar, Lalit Thakkar, who was found to be representing the VHP in peace committee meetings. Officials say they are also under pressure to recruit personnel from the Sangh parivar for the gram sevak dal, an ad hoc force to be used to maintain law and order in the villages.

The Gujarat incidents have once again reinforced the view that successive governments over the years have ignored the National Police Commission's recommendations. It is now common for chief ministers to call up SHOs directly, bypassing the entire chain of command. Says an insider: "You have to remember that SHOs, junior-level officials who actually control the roads, and local politicians are from the same stock, while young IPS officers are invariably outsiders. In Gujarat, an SHO can get an IG transferred, not the other way round." Former cabinet secretary Zafar Saifullah, who visited Gujarat in the aftermath of the riots, says that "the police accepts directions and instructions from the top, often bypassing the ranks.Administrators at the lower level have also played a negative role." Adds former Union home secretary N.N. Vohra: "Over the years there has been a politicisation of the police cadre in terms of communal and caste affinities. This has led to serious erosion of governmental organisations."

What is worse is that with the sword of transfers hanging on their heads, thanks to the whims of politicians, the average policeman is too afraid to move against the powers that be. In the case of Gujarat, SPs serving new districts are moved out three or four times a year, depending upon the mood of the political bosses. The National Police Commission had recommended tenurial assignments for district police chiefs, but politicians across the board opposed it tooth and nail. If the events in Gujarat are anything to go by, it is not difficult to see why they opposed it.
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